The Creative Mind Behind Circus Life

Interview with Irina Vaganova, founder & CEO of Dolce Vita Games.

Irina Vaganova

Irina Vaganova

Q: What is your background and how did it help you make your first game?

A: My background is performing, specifically acting in films and TV. I have also done some modeling and singing. You might not think that would help much with making a game.


Acting in an Italian "CSI like" TV Series.

Acting in an Italian "CSI like" TV Series.

However, the one thing that was helpful in making Circus Life is that I grew up in the circus. My dad was a circus acrobat and an Olympic caliber gymnast back in the Sovjet Union days. I was born in Moscow, but have been living in Italy for the past 20 years.

My mom was a horse handler and both my sister and I started performing in the circus at a very young age. I was three when I did my first show! Later on my sister and I created a contortionist show. For many years we worked all over the world and it was an amazing experience.

Irina and her sister performing in the circus.

Irina and her sister performing in the circus.

Q: You mentioned the growing up in the circus… Is that why you made this game about characters that live in the circus?

A: Yes. It was a magical childhood. Can you imagine? All children love to go to the circus and I actually lived there! I saw incredible performances and met the most interesting people. We would travel and see all kinds of exotic places.

Most of my childhood was spent at different schools, changing every three months as we moved from city to city. I learned very quickly to blend in and was a quick study. I didn't have much time for homework because I also worked in the circus, but I have a photographic memory, so I did pretty well in school :) In the end I chose to make a game about the circus because the lives of people in the circus are fascinating.

Irina during a performance.

Irina during a performance.

Q: Some people will probably say that your lack of experience in making games is a negative. Others might say you are a breath of fresh air with new ideas and a unique approach to game creation. What do you think?

A: My lack of experience didn't prevent me from making a game that people will play. I would not have been able to create a game as complex as Final Fantasy in my first attempt, but I think I’ve created a game that people will enjoy.

In terms of fresh and new ideas, I have tons of ideas for games that I want to make. and look forward to making more games in the future. 

Circus Life logo.

Circus Life logo.

Q: Do you play games and if so, what kind of games do you like to play?

A: I like games that have amazing graphics, believable characters and deep stories. I like a sense of place when I drift into the game world. Final Fantasy 9 is my favorite game of all time. I like to be immersed in a unique and exciting world and FF7, 8 and 9 does that better than any other game in my opinion.

I’ve always been passionate about good stories that can transport you to another world. I read everything I could find when I was little. You would always see me with a book in my hands. I got so lost in the worlds of these books that I even cried when I finished some of the stories because I felt like I could no longer stay in the wonderful places I imagined. I ended up quitting some of my favorite games for the same reason. I didn't want to experience the ending, so I left the game unfinished so that I could always go back later. Weird, I know.

Q: What is your favorite book by the way?

A: I don't know. There are so many. Perhaps Master and Margarita by Bulgakov.

As for western writers, I like Tolkien, but I didn't love the Lord of the Rings movies. I actually fell asleep during the first film. I also love Ray Bradbury, who writes amazing Science Fiction books, and also Robert Sheckley.

Q: Did you get to do a deep story in Circus Life?

A: Mobile isn’t always the easiest place to create a deep story, but I tried to develop a story with interesting characters and a strong setting. The game is set in the US during the Depression and uses a silent movie / black-and-white photo album aesthetic to tell the story. Below you can see an example of the feel of the game--  this is the main villain in the game: the evil Circus Director.

The evil circus director from Circus Life. 

The evil circus director from Circus Life. 

Q: What is the story about?

A: The main character is a Lilliput. I was always so fascinated by them and their lives growing up in the circus. I felt a bit sorry for them because outside the circus they were always harassed. But inside the family of the circus they were always treated well because they were an important part of the circus tradition and experience.

So, the story is about a sad little man who lives a sad life until the circus arrives in his sad little town. He notice a circus poster and falls in love immediately -- both with the idea of becoming a big star in the circus, but he also falls in love with this beautiful Lilliput woman on the poster. Suddenly he feels like he could make his life into something magical. He will do anything to win the heart of the little woman and become a circus performer.

Circus Life Poster.

Circus Life Poster.

Q: Did Circus Life turn out the way you envisioned? If not, what was your original idea and how did you come up with it?

A: Yes, more or less. I actually dreamt the balloon gameplay one night and I kept on playing and playing it all night. I was exhausted when I woke up in the morning, but I had so much fun in my dream that I just wanted to play it on my phone and that is how it all started.

Q: What is more important for you -- a great story or great gameplay?

A: Both. You can't pick just one. Games with great mechanics but no story will eventually become boring.

Q: What if the story and gameplay conflict with one another, which one wins?



A: It should never happen because you create the foundation for the story first and then you build the gameplay to support it.

Q: The gameplay in Circus Life is simple to understand. However, making something simple is often quite complicated. What was your approach to making the game accessible to a wide audience?

A: Well, that was exactly what I wanted from the beginning: to make a game that everyone can play. Even my sister who hates playing games should be able to play this game. (And she can, so that was a great success!) The game ended coming out the way it did because the idea from the start was to keep it simple, and that was the basis from which I built everything.


Balloon game in Circus Life.

Balloon game in Circus Life.

Q: Circus Life has a story that is near and dear to your heart. How did you come up with the characters?

A: In some ways, the main character reminds me of myself. I like him because he is oblivious to his own limitations. His dreams are so real to him that failure is not an option. He goes to the circus, finds the Circus Director— who is a huge, mean man— and tells him that he wants to be a weight-lifting star performer. It is so sweet because any other person would try to start small and work their way up, but he really shoots for the moon right from the beginning.  

Q: You use photographs of yourself as the main character’s love interest, Lilly, in the game. Why did you choose to model one of the main characters after your own likeness?

Irina as Miss Lilli taking care of Mr. Putt.

Irina as Miss Lilli taking care of Mr. Putt.

A: I am vain and I like to be in the public eye :) I am, after all, an actress. Plus, it was a lot cheaper to do it myself. Have you seen the fudging prices of the stock photos online? It is ridiculous!

Q: What was the most surprising thing about game development for you?

A: Before starting Dolce Vita, I always thought that game development was so exciting. Let's say that I believed in fairies… and now I’ve met one in real life and figured out exactly what makes their little wings flutter. Instead of enjoying the magical experience, I now dissect each game to see how it works. I’ve found game development to be surprisingly frustrating and at times, boring. You can say that I lost my gamer innocence when I made my first game:)

Q: Now that you are getting ready to ship your first game, what kind of reception do you expect? What kind of player do you think will like your game?

A: I think—I hope!— that everybody will like it. It’s simple and yet it is has depth. The controls and gameplay are intuitive, so you don’t need to be an experienced gamer to figure it out. At the same time, it’s adaptive, meaning that it gets more and more challenging as you progress. You know, this game is like my child, my baby. Deep in my soul I hope that everyone will love the game and play it and then tell their friends about the game. I am a crazy mom who thinks her Circus Life baby is the best of the best.

Q: I understand the game is a freemium title. Why did you choose to design the game around the freemium model rather than premium? Did it change how you designed the gameplay?

A: I enjoy playing freemium games that are really well made. I don’t mind investing in a game that makes me feel good about purchasing an in-app item. Actually, I really like the idea that players have the freedom to chose to pay or not.

The gameplay in Circus Life did not really change in any significant way because of its freemium model. When designing, my focus was creating a game that I would like to play. Above all, I tried to make it challenging and entertaining and not let the freemium vs. premium element influence the gameplay.

Circus Life In-game Shop.

Circus Life In-game Shop.

Q: Some freemium games seem like they are designed to shake money out of your pocket at every turn and on the on the other hand, some freemium games almost try to hide the fact that it is even possible to buy anything in the game. Where does Circus Life fall on this spectrum?

A: I think we are somewhere in the middle. You can play the entire game from start to finish without buying anything, which is the way I often play games :) However, you can buy shortcuts in the form of unlocks in case you want to speed up your progress. I’ve also added consumables that give you an extra scoring boost.

Q: Would you pay to unlock content in Circus Life?

A: I am a really stubborn player and an obsessive completionist. So, I don't mind putting a lot of time into a title if I like the gameplay. And Circus Life is definitely extremely addictive and a lot of fun to play.

Q: You worked with a group of people spread all over world on this game. How do you make sure that your team members follow your creative and artistic vision when they are not in the same office as you are?

A: Oh my gosh! That was really, really hard. It’s often a challenge collaborating with other highly creative people because we each all have our own creative vision, and many times my team members’ visions are in conflict with mine. I love when an artist brings his or her own ideas to the table, but it is difficult to find someone who is in perfect harmony with you and your vision of the creative process, which is why it’s important to hire selectively.

Q: What are you the happiest about with Circus Life and what are you doing next?

A: Well, I love seeing how people react when they play the game. I am also excited when I’m playing the game in public and notice that people are interested in what I’m playing on my phone. Considering this was the first game I ever created, I think it came out amazing! It is a simple and easy to pick up game that can have you playing for weeks. I put my soul in it and I am proud of it. Now it’s time to think about which of my many other ideas I’m going to turn into a second game.