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From Zero to Ocean’s Heart: A Conversation With Developer Max Mraz

From Zero to Ocean’s Heart: A Conversation With Developer Max Mraz

Written by Eric Hauter on 1/21/2021 for PC  
More On: Ocean's Heart

Max Mraz, the lone developer of Ocean’s Heart – a new Zelda-like today released on Steam – is something of a creative genius. Though Mraz seems to be far too nice to refer to himself in those terms, just listening to him talk, one gets the feeling that they are in the presence of a towering, almost intimidating, artistic mind.

Four years ago, Mraz stumbled across Solarus, an open-source game engine primarily designed to create Legend of Zelda fan projects. Impressed with what he saw, Mraz decided to try to make a game, despite the fact that he had no idea how to code. This game – a complete, coherent, and professional Zelda-like adventure – has made its way onto Steam. Over four years, Mraz learned to code, created all of the game’s visuals, and recorded the entire soundtrack, all by himself.

You hear stories about lone developers, riddled with anxiety, toiling away in the basement while being supported by a significant other, pursuing their great white whale with a single-minded intensity. But Max Mraz seems to be remarkably well-adjusted. He just likes making stuff.

Mraz first came into the gaming spotlight in Summer 2020, when his Bloodborne/Zelda mash-up Yarntown gained national attention. Now, on the eve of the release of his first major title on Steam, Mraz comes off as unimpressed with his own achievement. Sure, he made a game. But he also has a full-time job as a software developer, and manages to still find time to devote to family and friends, record and edit podcasts, run the AV for his church, and take long walks in the woods. For someone that is today marking a tremendous accomplishment, Mraz is calm, centered, and very, very funny.

I spent an hour speaking with Max Mraz over Discord the other night. Full disclosure – I knew Max for a month or two when he was 17 and we were both working retail. Since then, I’d completely lost track of him until a PR email for Ocean’s Heart landed in my inbox. The following is our somewhat freewheeling conversation, edited slightly for clarity. When speaking with someone like Max Mraz, it’s best to throw the script out the window and just let the conversation go where it goes.

Gaming Nexus: Leading up to our conversation, I was doing a little bit of research, and I quickly found Yarntown, your Zelda/Bloodborne mashup, which was a really big thing. I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard of it before.

Max Mraz: I was surprised it was a big thing!

GN: Was Yarntown your first crack at making a game?

MM: In early 2017, I started Ocean's Heart. I was building a retro PI emulator console. The OS had the Solarus engine on it with two Zelda fan games. And I was like, "Whoa, this is really cool. I can play these people's Zelda fan games on my TV. I kind of want to make a game to play on my TV. I'll teach myself to code." So, that's where I was starting from – like nothing.

I was working at Denny's or something. It was just like a little hobby. I worked on that for, I guess it's been four years now. When I got to a point when the game was first "done" – I’d had friends play, tested it and fixed all the bugs that I could find, and it was start to finish feature-complete. I went around pitching it to publishers and not getting a ton of bites. The publisher pitching process took probably several months. So, I made Yarntown just because I still had ideas. I wished I could have done some of these things with Ocean's Heart.

What happened was my sister convinced me to play Bloodborne, you know? And I thought, “Uhh, I want to make my game into this now, even though its just a much simpler Zelda-like.” But it was just too late to change Ocean’s Heart. The code was too married to [the type of game Ocean’s Heart] is. I was teaching myself, and it wasn't modular enough to slot out enemy behavior and put in new stuff. So I figured that I would start with a clean slate and try to do something [with similar combat to] Bloodborne. I had to get the experience.

Max Mraz

GN: So, Ocean’s Heart was done when you started Yarn Town?

MM: Yeah, basically. Yarntown came out last summer, and since then I’ve been finishing up a few loose things in Ocean’s Heart. “Oh yeah, this question needs to be tweaked or rewritten a little bit,” or, “This area needs to be restructured because it’s a little confusing.” I’ve still been doing some polish things.

GN: So, you weren’t getting any bites on Ocean’s Heart, and then Yarntown blew up? The first thing I found was a Polygon article, and the game is all over major media outlets on the internet. Was that the key to you eventually getting a publishing deal for Ocean’s Heart?

MM: I’m going to be honest. I don’t remember.

I don’t remember when exactly I started meeting with my publisher – their name is Nordcurrent, and they’re in Lithuania. I signed up for this online Eastern European developer conference thing. I heard about it somehow on the internet and was like, "I'll sign up and pitch my game around." A number of indie publishers were there. I sent it to Devolver and Chucklefish and all of those companies. I didn't actually send it to Nordcurrent. I think they saw it and they approached me. I was like, "Aren't you guys a mobile game studio? And they were like, "Yeah, but we want to start into PC games, maybe console. So they actually approached me and I worked it out with them. But I can't remember if that was before or after Yarntown.

GN: So you are the grand experiment.

MM: Apparently.

GN: That's awesome. So, I wanted to ask more about Solarus. What kinds of tools does it offer? Are there assets in there? Do you just start from scratch? How does that work?

MM: Solarus is a game engine. It has a lot of tools in its code base and its API to make action RPGs, like Zelda or Secret of Mana; to facilitate that kind of game specifically. In terms of all the game engines, they range in how specific they are and how general they are. This one errs more on the side of specificity towards being able to produce something that is Zelda-like. Christopho, the guy who really started Solarus, was making a Link to the Past fan game back in the early 2000s. And, to me, it seems like he just kind of went overboard and made a whole game engine.

Since then, a few other people joined. It's an open-source project. They've been building it out to be more general to make other kinds of games. The majority of the games that have been made with it so far are Zelda-like fan games. But it's got a lot of API calls that work well for more general things.

To your question about assets, Solarus doesn't offer any assets. It's just an engine. But when you download it, there's a number of asset packs that you can get for it. It comes packaged with some which are not part of the engine, but come with it in the default download, which are just like all open-source stuff. I've done some of them, like all the tiles that come with it now, a lot of them are mine. The community is really big on sharing and open source and helping each other. We want all of the code to be reusable, so everyone else can make good games.

One of my side projects now is putting together a bunch of items and enemies and stuff so that people can just download them, and sort of drag and drop. If there's someone who's not as comfortable with programming, they can say, “Okay, I’m just going to download and use Max's enemies and be able to make the games pretty quick.”

GN: So did you make all of the art assets in Ocean’s Heart from scratch?

MM: Yes. I did all of the art and all of the music. Almost all of the coding; a couple of people helped me out with some stuff. By yeah, it’s a one-man show.

GN: Ocean’s Heart is obviously inspired by Zelda. But there are clearly elements of other things tucked in there. What other games were you looking at or thinking about while you were developing it?

MM: I played The Witcher 3 not long before I started and loved it. That was definitely a big inspiration in terms of how I wanted all of the side quests to have some kind of twist. I didn't want any of those 'collect me a hundred grasshoppers' quests. I wanted them all to have at least a little bit of story in them or some kind of plot twist. I wanted people to think "I could run into some tougher enemies. I should prepare. I should collect. I should forage for plants and berries and stuff."

I had also played Bloodborne at my sister’s urging. Some of the enemies were heading more that way, while still working well within the more basic Zelda mechanics. I was giving them different attacks and patterns, where you can anticipate their attacks and dodge through them. And then my sister said, “This is the gateway. Now you must play Dark Souls.” And from those two, I was really inspired by the way they present their lore in a way that makes you want to check it out. So I took that approach in designing the lore and background story. I think it’s super fun that way, more engaging to not tell the player everything. Keep them asking questions.

GN: Well, you definitely piled a lot of secrets into Ocean’s Heart.

MM: That’s my favorite thing in games, and in real life too. When you’re just exploring around somewhere, and then you go off on a random trail. And then it just opens up into a huge unmarked thing. And you’re like “Whoa! What is this?”

That feeling is maybe the primary thing I wanted to do in Ocean’s Heart. That feeling of going off and finding something way cooler and bigger. That moment when you say, “What is this doing here? This is not part of the story.”

My little sister works for the local park system, and a few months ago she told me that her boss showed her this really cool place. It’s a secret, not on any of the maps or anything. She took me down there to show me. We had to cut through the woods and climb over hills and ravines to get there. We were walking for an hour or so, and then we eventually came out into this clearing. And there are these big cool ruins where this mansion used to be, out in the woods. It’s got all these staircases and verandas and stuff.

GN: That sounds awesome. I want to go there.

MM: Yeah! Getting that feeling into the a game was what I wanted to communicate the most.

GN: In a recent email, you mentioned that Ocean’s is a bigger game than you had planned. How long do you think it will take an average player to get through?

MM: I really don’t have a great grasp on that. Without cheating, I can play through it in maybe two to three hours. But I’ve had play testers who were not QA professionals, and they end up spending closer to 15 or 16 hours, just depending on how familiar they are with Zelda. So my best guess – and this is not a tight range – is maybe eight to 14 hours?

I was aiming for a four-hour game. A little overworld, maybe the size of Link’s Awakening, with four small dungeons in it.

GN: Yeah, I keep running into dungeons and stuff that aren’t on the map.

MM: I love that sort of thing. My wife is writing a guide for the game. I think she’ll post it a week or so after it’s been released. But I don’t know if she’ll put everything in there. I like when you hear about games that have been out for years, and people find something new. That’s so cool. And I hope that there are enough little details and hidden stuff that that can happen.

GN: I was watching an interview you did for the game. And you were down in one corner, cheerfully chatting about Ocean’s Heart, and there was a guy in another corner playing the game. And he was just dying and dying, every two seconds or so. How difficult was it for you to tune the difficulty while making the game by yourself?

MM: Oh yeah. That was Nick and Jack from The Escapist. They were a delight to talk to, but it was low-key very stressful how much Nick was just getting owned.

GN: I was laughing so hard. Because I was thinking, “Oh yeah, dude, I’m right there with you.” Like, little things keep setting me on fire.

MM: That quest [in the demo] was originally built as a side quest for later in the game. But I also thought “Oh, this would make a good demo.” The demo shares a structure with a quest in Breath of the Wild [that takes place] on Eventide Isle – you start out with a lot of items, and then you lose them and you have to find them back. I was trying to emulate that a little bit, because its like [a microcosm of] the whole game – you see the progression. “I have this new item, and now I can unlock this area.” That sort of Metroidvania aspect.

But it’s later in the game, and your literacy with the mechanics are probably a lot more developed by that point. So just dropping someone into that with nothing, if they aren’t familiar…I guess there are a lot of things I’ve internalized having played Zelda since I was 10. That is not universal. So, yeah, really tough to balance in that way.

My strategy was to err on the side of what I found pretty easy. I can get through this pretty reliably, but I also wanted some parts to encourage players to engage with some of the other mechanics – like crafting potions, or buying more bombs. So there was a lot of back and forth. But in the end, as a team of one, there’s definitely some level of “And now I’m putting it out. And I hope it works.”

GN: I actually came across a dungeon that makes the enemies tougher. What was the thinking there?

MM: Watching Nick from The Escapist, just getting murdered over and over, I was like “Oh my God, the game is so hard.” But I got equally as much feedback from people who were more experienced with the genre telling me “This game is pitifully easy. I’m so overpowered. Nothing ever hurts me.” They are not rewarded because the game is too easy for them. So the compromise I came up with was to do a hard mode kind of thing.

This being my first game, I didn’t really build in a good way to switch the game to “Hard.” So I built this curse temple, where you ring this bell and take on a curse from a dead god, who will make it harder for you. There are four little statues with torches, and you can toggle on and off the flames, which toggle different aspects of the hard mode. One controls whether healing items work, one allows enemies to do more damage, and so on. It’s actually possible to turn on the hard mode, and then turn off all of the effects of it.

GN: I wanted to discuss the music a bit. How long did you work on the music for Ocean’s Heart?

MM: No idea. It wasn’t, “All right. Now I’m going to sit down and write the music.” Throughout the development of Ocean’s Heart, I was also doing a Dungeons & Dragons-style podcast. I was editing every episode and doing all the music too. So once a week, I was already writing music for this podcast.

I’m not a big fan of podcasts that are like three or four dudes making inside jokes on a microphone. This podcast [Monday Night Monsters – it’s great, you should totally check it out – ed.] was much more story and character driven. I wanted a higher production level; music does so much for movies, and even more for podcasts. I was like, “I want to incorporate different light motifs, and if this is a battle, but it means a lot to this character, then I’ve already written that character’s theme…” So anyway, I was spending six to 12 hours a week editing a podcast and writing music. So then I would just pull up those instruments and write [music for Ocean’s Heart]. It’s just part of my normal routine to write music.

GN: I noticed some vocals in the music. Are those you?

MM: Okay. So, I have this erhu that I don’t know how to play. Avatar the Last Airbender has some really cool erhu playing in some of the tracks. I wanted to emulate that, so I bought an erhu from wish.com for 20 bucks. And I thought, “I’ll figure out how to play it.” I did not. I was recording for a few hours, just trying to get a decent slide from this note to this other note. I thought that if I could get it decent, then I could just layer that in. And I just could not get it. So eventually, I was like, “I’m just going to mimic the sound with my voice,” and that’s where that comes from. I was low-key hoping nobody would notice that it was me.

GN: Beyond games, you seem to make a lot of stuff. What other secret projects are you working on?

MM: Games are taking up a lot of it. Because if you are going to make a whole video game, you’re doing all of the projects. You’ve got to do music, you’ve got to do design, and world-building, and lore, and writing stories. Because everything is in there, they’re a lot of fun.

I’ve been sort of planning the idea of making Yarntown into full game. Don’t want to commit to it yet, but that might be my next big project.

 

Gaming Nexus would like to thank Max Mraz and Nordcurrent for their participation in this interview. You can find Yarntown at itch.io here. Ocean’s Heart is now available on Steam.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Howdy.  My name is Eric Hauter, and I am a dad with a ton of kids.  During my non-existent spare time, I like to play a wide variety of games, including JRPGs, strategy and action games (with the occasional trip into the black hole of MMOs). I am intrigued by the prospect of cloud gaming, and am often found poking around the cloud various platforms looking for fun and interesting stories.  I was an early adopter of PSVR (I had one delivered on release day), and I’ve enjoyed trying out the variety of games that have released since day one. I've since added an Oculus Quest 2 to my headset collection.  I’m intrigued by the possibilities presented by VR multi-player, and I try almost every multi-player game that gets released.

My first system was a Commodore 64, and I’ve owned countless systems since then.  I was a manager at a toy store for the release of PS1, PS2, N64 and Dreamcast, so my nostalgia that era of gaming runs pretty deep.  Currently, I play on Stadia, PS5, PS4, PSVR, Quest 2, Switch, Luna, GeForce Now, and a janky PC.  While I lean towards Sony products, I don’t have any brand loyalty, and am perfectly willing to play game on other systems.

When I’m not playing games or wrangling my gaggle of children, I enjoy watching horror movies and doing all the other geeky activities one might expect.

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