Mokus' Maksym Hryniv
Mokus' Maksym Hryniv
The genius behind Contre Jour speaks his mind. Don't miss this great interview with a rising star.

Contre Jour. The surprise number-one App Store hit has amassed a rabid following of smart, sophisticated players who adore great art, respect great music, and love great gameplay. It’s a game that we here at Chillingo have loved internally for many, many, many months, and we’re thrilled that the public does, too. We took some time out to have a brief chat with Maksym Hryniv, the creator of the game, to hear his thoughts on games, success, and… breakdancing?

Maksym Hryniv
The man, the myth, the breakdancing legend.

Chillingo: Before we get into the game, can you give us a brief overview of what type of game-related work you were doing before you started Mokus?

Maksym Hryniv: I’ve been a programmer for about five years, and worked on a wide variety of projects including antivirus software, video streaming systems, and other random projects. It’s not really game-related work, but from a programming perspective, it was a great experience.

Once I created my first game, though, there was no going back. Making games is so much more challenging, interesting, and inspiring than anything I’ve ever done.

Chillingo: You used to also breakdance as well, right?

MH: Absolutely, and it’s still a big part of my life today. I don’t actively participate in dance battles anymore, but I help train others four to five times a week. I can still spin on my head and hop on one hand over 50 times, though.

Chillingo: What was the catalyst for Contre Jour’s concept?

MH: You know, a long time ago a friend and I had an idea about making a game where you need to manipulate the environment. That was maybe two years ago. I had no idea how to approach it from a programming standpoint or how to make the gameplay work.

For a while after that, I was working on another game — a 2D multiplayer shooter — and one random day I had an epiphany. It suddenly became clear to me how to approach such a project and how to make it all work conceptually.

I immediately stop working on everything else and made a prototype in just one day. This was just under a year ago. Even in that early state, the results were promising so I put my other projects on hiatus indefinitely and started work on what eventually became Contre Jour. So to get back to the question, you could say it was just a quick and unintentional flash of inspiration.

Contre Jour gameplay trailer.

Chillingo: The game has evolved immensely since we very first saw the game. Can you talk a little bit about how and why it changed over the months?

MH: There were a couple of very important milestones that directly influenced how the game evolved over the last year. First was getting in touch with all of you over at Chillingo and the eventual partnership we formed. You all helped me truly believe in myself and in the game.

That may sound trivial, but I feel that it’s of paramount importance to have someone really believe in you and your work, and Chillingo really supported me in that way and gave me valuable advice. Because of Chillingo, I reworked the game’s graphics, made the different visual themes in the various chapters, and spent more and more time perfecting the gameplay.

…it’s of paramount importance to have someone really believe in you and your work…

The next milestone was this year’s E3. When you told me you’d be showing Contre Jour there, it lit a fire in me and I worked incredibly hard to make the build as good as it could be. This led to me reworking about half of the levels in the game.

Then I heard about the E3 Game Critics Award nomination and that inspired me to rework the other half of the levels, add in new gameplay mechanics, and work on fine-tuning the visuals even more.

Honestly, I never thought I’d spend the amount of time and effort I did on Contre Jour, but all of the hard work, and feedback and support from you guys helped me create a game that I never knew I was capable of.

Chillingo: What do you think was the most important feedback you received during the development of Contre Jour?

MH: There was one sentence that ultimately changed the fate of the game. Tom, the producer from Chillingo, told me, “Max, Contre Jour can be one of the best games on the App Store.” That sentence alone was enough to make me realize that there are people that genuinely believed in me, so I felt a personal responsibility to do my best.

Chillingo: David Ari Leon’s music plays a huge part in creating the unmistakable tone and vibe found in the game. How did he end up contributing music to the game?

MH: First I just want to say that David’s work is nothing short of magical. He’s an incredible talent and just as great a human being.

As to how he ended up writing the music for Contre Jour, [Chillingo Co-Director] Chris Byatte had been playing a very early build of the game. He later emailed me and said, “I know a composer that can create music that would be perfect for your game.”

I was totally open to it and Chris made the introduction. After receiving the first track from David, there was no question in my mind that this was the guy who was destined to write the music for the game.

Chillingo: Most people don¹t know, but Mokus is a one-man developer studio. What was good and/or bad about working on the game solo?

MH: Just to be clear, I didn’t do everything by myself. A lot of great, talented people helped me along the way. For instance, I’m a terrible artist so I worked with someone I know for about one and a half months to draw all of the static elements and backgrounds in the game.

But yes, about 70% of the time I worked alone. The great thing about that is there’s no friction or politics to deal with. There’s no one to explain things to, so if something needed to be done, I just did it.

It’s also incredibly cheap. As long as I had food to eat and a roof over my head, I was able to continue working. I couldn’t ever run out of budget because I never had a budget to lose.

The worst part about working alone is repetition. Day after day you see the same thing over and over again, and after a few months, it’s easy to lose objectivity. Is this level fun? Are these graphics good? I needed someone with fresh and honest eyes to help guide me in the right direction during the months of development, and thankfully that’s where you guys were invaluable.

Contre Jour concept art

Early concept art for Contre Jour.

Chillingo: Back at E3 2011, Contre Jour became the first and only mobile game to be nominated for an official E3 Game Critics Award. If I remember correctly, it was up against a couple of Nintendo games and Uncharted on Vita, among others. That will be looked at as a seminal moment for mobile games, don’t you think?

MH: It’s no secret that the gap between mobile games and traditional console games is closing, especially from a technology point of view. In a few generations, there may be no meaningful difference. Even now, you can have great gaming experiences on any device or console. It’s just a different kind of experience.

In the end, I think gaming isn’t about the best 3D graphics, the most powerful processors, or anything like that. If a game is fun and made by passionate people, that is enough. Big budget, no budget — it’s all irrelevant, though I know that many people have yet to see mobile as a legitimate gaming platform.

Chillingo: Contre Jour had an incredible launch, becoming iPad Game of the Week on the App Store and also the number-one paid app in less than two days. How did that make you feel?

MH: You know, I could say that I felt proud and happy. And I did. But more than anything else, I felt responsible. What I mean is that it’s a big responsibility to have a game with a lot of dedicated fans. One guy is even getting a tattoo of Petit!

I have to do my best from now on to not disappoint them. Every update that I make has to be, at worst, at least as good as what is in the game now. Similarly, every new game I make in the future, I will have my fans in mind and do anything and everything that I can to make them happy.

I couldn’t ever run out of budget because I never had a budget to lose.

Chillingo: In some of our earlier conversations, we talked about how we were a little worried that some people might find the game a little too “artsy” so to speak, but it seems to be resonating well with gamers of all types. Do you think there’s room to push boundaries even farther in terms of what mainstream gamers will accept?

MH: After the first real financial successes happened on the App Store, tons of developers rushed to create clones of those games, mimicking the graphics, the sounds, and the gameplay. It seemed like a pretty safe bet. Back then, even I might’ve done the same. But now I see that that path leads to nowhere.

We need to give people more credit. There are people with good taste. There are people who can really appreciate great atmosphere and beautifully orchestrated music. There are people who want deeper gaming experiences.

But really, it all comes down to the gameplay. If it’s not good, no one will play the game. If you can make a fun game prototype just using simple shapes as graphics, then people will respond to it no matter what the graphics look like or what the music sounds like. So yes, I think as long as there is a good foundation for the gameplay, we can push the artistic and creative direction much, much farther than anyone thinks.

Chillingo: In closing, can you sum up the last six months of your life in one sentence?

MH: I feel like I’m the hero in an incredible RPG game with the most amazing 3D graphics and surround sound… and I just leveled up.