A Chat With: Sandra Molina Juan
| John Kemp | Interview
A Chat With is a series where I talk with developers, streamers, journalists, and other people in the gaming community about the practicalities of what they do.
In this installment of A Chat With I talk to Sandra Molina Juan, a game developer with a variety of roles under their belt who is currently working on a rather long running personal project.
Hi Sandra, can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
Hey there! I’m Sandra Molina Juan, and I’m a 23-year-old Spanish non-binary… game dev? I suppose that’s a broad enough term. I used to introduce myself saying I was a colorist at Blizzard and DC comics, but having lost my job a few months back, that’d be kind of a lie at this point.
I’ve worked as a 2D artist, voice director, writer, editor, translator, and basically whatever would bring money home. Most recently, that honor goes to the Patreon account for The Hayseed Knight—my current project, for which I’m the sole dev and bank—which is always something to be thankful for, but hardly enough to both finance the game and pay my bills, haha.
On that tangent, The Hayseed Knight is mostly an attempt at using this ragtag bunch of skills I’ve gathered over my years as a go-getter to make a VN I would enjoy, and to see if I would be able to complete a project working all on my own as I’d always dreamed of.
So far so good, I think!
You’ve fulfilled a lot of different roles over your career, including for some major companies. Are you looking to return to that in the future or are you planning to stick to the independent life for a while?
Sometimes it’s not all that different, to be honest. I’ve been a freelancer for both AAA and indie studios, and the only thing that changes in the end—other than the paid sums, generally—is the way they make you feel.
Working for major companies, I always felt like just another cog in the pipeline, like I had no importance. Both my mistakes and my great moments generally went unnoticed, so I felt no pressure to be anything but average within the quality they expected of me.
In the indie scene, I always feel like everything I do has a lot more impact, despite having a lot less reach. I really like working with people who aren’t running all the time, so I’d like to stay indie for the time being if my funds allow it.
As you mentioned, your main project currently is The Hayseed Knight, a visual novel starring anthropomorphic animals with a deer as the main character. I think it’s safe to say that this has been a fairly long-running project. I understand that to date you’ve changed the art style four times. What were the reasons driving those changes?
It’s been in development since 2016, so quite a while now, indeed! As for the changes, I think they revolve around two main reasons: on one hand, this story sits really, really close to my heart, and I want the characters to look exactly like I imagine them; on the other, I’ve always treated this visual novel as a sort of portfolio—I want it to reflect precisely my current level of skill, be it writing, art or voice direction.
Given that I (luckily? Sadly?) lack any person to hold me accountable, I’m free to indulge on remaking things over and over instead of spending my time more productively… But hey, if nothing else, I’m proud of how pretty it looks!
You mentioned using the game to showcase your current level of skill in various areas. How large are the changes between the early iterations and the current one? Is there anything in particular that you’re proud of the progression of or embarrassed at how it looked, sounded, or played early on?
They’re huuuuge. From designs, to UI, and even the voice acting for the main character are all new!
I really like the current designs, because I had a chance to apply a lot of cool things I learned from animators, like recognisable silhouettes, more readable expressions, fun poses, etc. A specific sect of horny, angry, internet people came at me when I redesigned the main character (used to be a muscular “bara” character, merely because those were my tastes at the time, but it didn’t fit the story at all) and some readers said that they liked the painterly style better rather than a more cartoonish one, but I’m really happy with it and wouldn’t change it for anything!
As for embarrassed—one of the characters used to show quite a bit more skin before I figured out exactly what look I was going for. I look back and cringe at that every time, haha.
[The image above shows some of that extra skin that Sandra mentioned.]
The VN is fully voiced and you have a policy of always paying your voice actors, even though the VN is offered for free. This is an admirable policy, but I can see that it might cause problems for you. How has this affected the development process?
Well, it shapes development per se. It dictates everything, from how much dialogue I can write, to how long each chapter will be. The price tag drones on and on in the back of my mind with every word I write, and I’m lucky voice acting is my only consistent expense as I can take care of nearly everything else on my own!
Part of the reason why I can take so long doing and redoing meaningless stuff, in fact, is because often I need to stand by and wait for Patreon to provide enough to meet the budget needed to pay the VAs. Sometimes—back when I had a job and there was an even greater abundance of good will from my patrons—I’ve been able to hire musicians too and even afford to pay my rent with a portion of the earnings… but that was quite a while ago.
For now, I’ve moved back to my parents' house as I wait for my funds to grow like some sort of idle development tycoon.
Looking at the Itch.io page for The Hayseed Knight it seems there is still plenty of development still to do. What are the big hurdles that you see coming?
The exponential growth of the chapters is definitely a huge obstacle. Chapter 1 was 40 minutes. Chapter 2, an hour. Chapter 3 will be around two hours. If the earnings don’t keep up, I will be completely unable to afford voice acting anymore.
A problem closer to actual development would be branching. The thought of providing player agency while still telling the story I want to tell while keeping the story manageable enough is something that terrifies me every time, haha.
The increasing chapter length and the branching of the story don’t sound like something I would expect you to have planned at the outset. Has it been an unexpected consequence of how you’ve had to approach development with your changing circumstances? Would you consider placing tighter constraints on the chapter length and story options?
I actually had it planned from the beginning, but I lacked the experience to budget it properly as this was my first project. Constraints have been happening since the very first chapter, with a brief monetary respite in chapter 2 that allowed it to meander a bit more… but chapter 3 is the most linear of all so far, as it far far outgrew my scope for it and made it impossible to afford any sort of branching at the moment. I’ll probably revisit it in a few months and spice things up a little!
Regardless, if there’s one thing I’m glad I’ve learned in this time, it’s how much smoke and mirrors narrative and game design in general is. I’ve felt a lot less bad about how much I’ve been forced to narrow the story since, haha.
The Itch.io page very specifically states that the VN is, and will remain, PG-13. Is there a prevailing assumption that VNs staring anthropomorphic animals will be more explicit? Have you had people trying to push you to make The Hayseed Knight more explicit?
Yes, absolutely. It’s a huge aggregate of niche-specific prejudices, in this case: VNs tend to get the fame of being dating sims and nothing else, often with NSFW content; furries, absolutely, positively, get dismissed as being nothing but explicit content too. Mix both and you get me answering questions every day about what kind of age rating it has.
There have always been quite a lot of people insisting that I add NSFW content, claiming that that’d be the only way they support me. But I just personally don’t want anything to do with that as far as this particular story is concerned—again, it’s too close to home, so it feels like an invasion of sorts.
That certainly sounds like it could be an awkward situation. As a final question, can you tell us about any interesting projects or activities we should look out for that you have coming up in the future?
I’m always publishing casting calls for several clients and I love working with new people, so I encourage all voice actors to keep an eye on my feed!
For now, THK is my sole obsession, and no other project can quite make its way into my heart, as much as I’ve tried. In the future, however, I would like to steer away from VNs and focus on more traditional point and click adventure games, a la Monkey Island!
I hope you found this chat interesting. You can find Sandra on Twitter at @SandraMJdev and if you’re interested in checking out The Hayseed Knight then you can find more information on the website and the Itch.io store page.