Before founding Smarter Games, Kennedy Rose was a web developer. The transition to creating videogames was almost entirely by accident. He started creating web applications and teaching assistant tools. He was even making word search games for teachers, with menus, objectives and special effects. At some point Kennedy realized he had all the abilities necessary to create games. So why not? After realizing that it was actually pretty fulfilling, he started Smarter Games. Fox & Flock is the first Smarter Games game as well as Kennedy’s first storyline-driven game, and it’s this story that he tells.
Fox & Flock is based on an actual board game called Fox & Geese. The problem with Fox & Geese is that it’s about 600 years old and very difficult to buy without having a woodcarver make you a board and pieces by hand. That’s a pretty tough sell for someone who might just be slightly interested in the concept. After playing a few matches with my fiance on piece of cardboard with flat marbles, we were hooked. It didn’t feel right living in a world where this game wasn’t readily available. Having just founded Smarter Games, this was an easy thing to fix.
The Characters and Setting: Victorian and Edwardian style
I wanted to start with the art style before I even touched the code. After a quick Wikipedia search, I found out that the game was a favorite of Queen Victoria. I started looking up signage and fashion from that era. After flipping around different eras, I settled on a combination of Edwardian and Victorian art styles.
In my research I came across some remarkable bizarre illustrations from the 1600’s by an Italian physician named Fortunio Liceti. The source of the illustrations was a book he wrote about deformities. Some of the illustrations were of stout men and women with animal heads. While these illustrations were far more graphic than anything I wanted for Fox & Flock, I did like the idea of having some degree of menace to the overall feel of the game.
I eventually settled on a darker “children’s story” style. I sketched out a man’s body with a fox’s head in an Edwardian suit soaked in blood. The rest of the characters and setting just sort of fell into place once I knew what it was going to look like. I liked the idea of the player not being sure if the animals were supposed to look like they belonged in a fairytale or a gothic horror novel.
At that point, I knew I wanted a plot. The game was quickly growing beyond my original idea of just making a quick mobile game for my family and myself. I stopped illustrating for a day to write a poem that would serve for the game’s cinematic breaks between levels.
Once the poem was finished, you could read it start to finish and understand the plot of the game perfectly. You didn’t actually need to see the characters or read the in-game dialog to fully understand the plot. This was a concept that I held throughout the rest of the development. I made sure that the art style could hold together on its own without being dependent on the music or any of the other elements of the game. You can also play through the game and skip every poem cutscene and still understand the plot.
Recorded music is better than computer-made
I spent the entire budget (or lack of one) on a fantastic voice actor named Dick Terhune. I wasn’t sure I even wanted voice acting, but I figured I’d try out a few people. Dick read the entire poem and nailed every stanza. Without spoiling the ending of the game, Dick had the range necessary to get the job done. I pretty much let him do it how he felt it should be done. I personally feel that you should just hire the right people for the job, then back off and let them do what they do best. If you don’t trust them enough to stay out of their hair, that’s a good sign that you hired the wrong person.
With no more money I was willing to spend on a game of this size, I struggled with the music. I played live classical guitar in the past, but didn’t feel I had the chops to score an entire game. Also, it’s not likely that you would hear a solo guitarist at a ball. I took to searching public domain sources. Just when I felt I was running out of luck, I found the Advent Chamber Orchestra. Their license was flexible enough for me to use recordings of their sessions in the game with attribution in the credits. The live recorded music helped the vibe of the game considerably and is something often overlooked in a lot of games. Some people can’t tell the difference between a true orchestra and one created on a computer. But for the people who can tell, it’s a bummer. Don’t use sampled instruments if you can avoid it.
After the release I learned a valuable lesson about quality assurance. Not the most ideal time to learn that lesson. The game had acquired a publisher. Which was great, but they wanted to release the game in time for the Steam summer sale. I wanted to as well, and the game was technically done. But I hadn’t done as much testing as I would have liked. So I planned on doing a soft launch without any major bugs and just hid some of the lesser ones which I would fix on the day after release.
There was a particular bug that would only happen under a very specific set of conditions which were almost impossible to trigger. Well, someone managed to trigger it… and he was a YouTube “let’s play-er” doing a recorded play of the game. So even if it’s a one-in-a-million chance that someone will find that bug, fix it. No exceptions.
The game I made and Enjoy Playing
Fox & Flock is the first game I have ever made that I personally enjoy playing. I would get lost in the game when I was playtesting and forget that I was supposed to be taking notes about my experience. I really loved creating a tiny little world in my head and seeing it evolve on the screen. Even if the game had failed commercially, I still would have been completely satisfied with it. For better or worse, the game is exactly what I wanted at the start of development.
Most importantly, I learned quite a bit about what to do and what not to do. Trial by fire has always been my preferred way of learning. It may feel harsh to learn with real-world consequences to your mistakes, but it ensures you will never forget them.
Kennedy Rose is currently finishing work on a beta build of AUDL, a free music streaming application with the largest library of music in the world. Check out Smarter Games’ website to stay updated on their next game. As for Fox & Flock, it is currently available for all desktop platforms on Steam.