XGen Studios is currently developing the adventure title The Low Road, lead by CEO Kaelyn Boyes. The Canadian indie studio won the Vancouver Full Indie Prize, giving them a chance to to participate in Indie Prize Seattle.
“XGen Studios is based in Edmonton, some members have moved to other cities but the majority of our team are still based there, therefore I have personally become accustomed to a smaller intimate video game community,” said Kaelyn. “When I initially started attending Full Indie Vancouver it was overwhelming due to its much larger size and the fact that Vancouver has some very talented video game developers and is one of Canada’s leading video game hubs. Winning the Vancouver Full Indie Prize was extremely surprising to us and also very exciting as it felt like we were doing something unique and could keep up with the larger indie community that we were newbies in.”
The Low Road has also been shown off at PAX East, and has already won awards at GDC Play and a nominations for the 2016 Bit Awards. Kaelyn said that the reception significantly built-up their confidence because of the positive feedback.
“Receiving the feedback really made us feel we were building a game that others were excited about as much as we were throughout its creation and development. We always have, and continue to, believe The Low Road has the potential of being an amazing game,” Kaelyn described. “Through its development there have been major obstacles to overcome, especially the loss of Co-Creator and XGen Studios Founder Skye Boyes; we needed a lot of extra boosts of motivation and confidence to make us feel we are making the right decision in continuing to develop the game with the loss of Skye.
“When XGen officially received the awards and attended showings, any doubt disappeared and rejuvenated the team to work harder on creating a product we can be super proud of. Our whole development team attended GDC Play in March 2016 and it was a really motivating experience as we all got to demo the game together for the first time and bond during the grieving of Skye.”
’70s Style, But Not Hippies and Tie-Dye Shirts
The Low Road thematically is about 1970’s corporate espionage. Art Director Scott Carmichael says that the inspiration came from watching a lot of classic movies and TV shows from the era.
“I personally loved the brazen and gritty style of the Mission Impossible television show especially in contrast to the slick style of James Bond, which many spy themed games seem to draw inspiration from,” said Scott. “It was incredibly inspiring to see the team dynamic of the characters in Mission Impossible and their reliance on one another’s skills, gadgets and the ability to improvise when things go wrong. We wanted to see what that group dynamic might look like in the less glamorous industry of corporate espionage.
The team of spies in The Low Road aren’t exactly heroes protecting the world from certain destruction, these are greedy professionals who lie, blackmail and emotionally manipulate their competitors all in the name of corporate greed or personal gain. These imperfect people are the perfect vessel for interesting conversation puzzles. Setting the game in a decade before Google and cell phones requires that these characters use their quick wit and a steady hand to overcome obstacles on their adventure down The Low Road.”
Complementing the ’70s setting is a musical score and visual aesthetics that’s very evocative of the era. Scott says that they wanted to create an aesthetic that was reminiscent of the 1970s, but narrowing down the right ’70s feel took some time and experimentation.
“We wanted to avoid the ‘peace signs and lava lamps’ part of the decade, but we were really inspired by the brown and orange color palettes, wood grain textures, graphic design, and fashion that defined the ’70s. Pre-production involved a pretty deep dive through Flickr’s archives of ’70s advertisements and catalogs, along with a few movie nights to watch classic Gene Hackman films like The Conversation and The French Connection,” noted Scott.
“There is an extremely rich history of art, sound and storytelling for us to draw upon,” Scott continued, “and as we worked on the game we let our own modern styles and influences shine through to prevent it from becoming a work of nostalgia. A unique blend of dark comedy in the story required some careful attention to get the right look a feel that our writer, Leif Oleson-Cormack, was going for. It took a bit of experimentation to get the right balance of grit and color to capture the mood of the dialogue. As the writing, music and production art started coming together in tandem, each of those departments naturally influenced one another to create the style that became what you see in-game today.”
Inspiration by Ralph McQuarrie and Wes Anderson
Scott says that much of his artistic inspiration for The Low Road comes from his friends and family and the conversations he has with strangers. He notes that working remotely has made him aware that he needs to get out of the house and maintain those relationships.
“Movies, board games, visits to art galleries, walks in the river valley — you never know where inspiration will strike, so I’ve found it best to step away from my desk when I can to play baseball or shoot some hoops with a friend,” said Scott. “Inspiration and ideas aren’t really the most difficult parts of working on a project for several years, the hardest part is maintaining the energy and motivation to grind it out when I’m having an off day, and those relationships are what keeps me going.”
“For The Low Road I was very inspired by the work of Ralph McQuarrie who worked on the concept art for the original Star Wars movies,” Scott added. “The way he composed his images was incredibly immersive yet there is a simplicity to the way he painted in gouache which I wanted to come through in my digital paintings of the environments for The Low Road. I also really enjoy the set designs in Wes Anderson films and his use of large scale dioramas for some of the environments in his movies. Your eye is able to wander around the scenes spotting unique details as if they were in an illustrated picture book. The environments almost become a character themselves. Since we are working under the constraints of using limited camera movement (due to the use of 2D art), I thought that if I could fill the environments with interesting things to look at or click on it would have a similar feel to Wes Anderson’s dioramas – like in the movie The Life Aquatic.”
Puzzles Without a Gimmick
The gameplay for The Low Road is a combination of first-person puzzle sequences and dialog choices. Scott indicates that they wanted to create an experience with a natural flow between puzzles and a steady pace throughout the entire story, where the player would experience new challenges during their playthrough.
“We wanted to make sure the player felt rewarded by offering these first-person puzzles as a very clear sense of progression and accomplishment, without feeling like a gimmick,” said Scott. “We use these often in combination with conversation puzzles, requiring the player to sift through documents and piece together information from the hints in the documents that will help the player grift their target effectively.”
“The top-down perspective adds variety to the straight-on camera of the environment scenes, and positions the player inside the character’s head to help them empathize with the character they are playing,” he added. “Also — we just like minigames,”
A Growing Word Count
Testing The Low Road got started with testing throughout the development of the game, usually on a weekly basis. They have been demoing the game since March 2016 at various events around North America.
“Events like GDC, GDX (Edmonton), Full Indie Summit Vancouver, Playcrafting New York & PAX West helped us get feedback and reactions to the game,” describes Kaelyn. “We use the feedback we receive and adjust things accordingly. Demoing the game in advance has helped us be able to understand what areas require more attention in clarity and polish, or need to be more fully developed.”
“It has always been exciting when we play test any of the XGen games, we are often recognized for our other games, such as some of our old flash games, and people are willing to test our new games and provide feedback,” she added. “We love when people share with us personal anecdotes from playing our games. Playtesting The Low Road is a bit of challenge because of the genre itself being a more focused and personal gameplay experience and not a casual jump-in style game so we have had a few playtest demo experiences where the player will get lost in the gameplay and plays for over an hour.”
Of course, testing does not always bear out happy news. “During the development of The Low Road we did not fully understand how long it would take to adequately develop the narrative story line so we were surprised by the constantly growing word count and it has been a challenge to our schedule getting all the characters’ lines voice-acted in timely fashion,” Kaelyn detailed. “We were able to relocate and acquire some additional personnel to assist with this challenge but we have had to delay the launch of the game.”
Having Fun While Working
Kaelyn is happy to continue growing and building on the history of XGen Studios. She describes the studio as the ideal atmosphere to be innovative and create and bring original video games to market, due to how the industry is ever-evolving.
“Our studio grew organically as Skye’s flash games began to take off in the early days and he needed additional personnel to meet the market demand and growing success of his games,” said Kaelyn. “XGen has always placed a high value on creative freedom and developing games we wish existed so remaining an independent studio is how we are capable of doing this.”
“We hope to bring the gaming community new experiences and stories that haven’t been told before and we hope that our passion for this medium shows through in their interaction with the games we make,” added Scott. “Ideally we want to contribute to the pool of inspiration that we drew from to make our own games, and we hope that our creations give some creator or game developer out there the confidence and inspiration to start on a project of their own.”
Kaelyn says XGen started its own projects back in 2001 with everyone working remotely from their homes. “In 2008-2014 we acquired office space and had an official office location in downtown Edmonton. In 2015 to present, due to some of the team members relocating such as myself and Skye moving to Vancouver and Eric Cheng (audio) moving to Los Angeles we have returned to working remotely and virtually. That being said, the team often all returns to their hometown of Edmonton for holidays or throughout the year and we will do various in-person work sessions together.”
“The work culture at XGen Studios is informal and feels like a group of friends working together; essentially we are friends originally and acquired XGen jobs through personal connections and/or friend recommendations,” she added. “Scott Carmichael, on behalf of the XGen team, described in his memorial speech for Skye that the biggest thing we learned from him is the importance of having fun while we work, and this is a deep-rooted principle that continues to remain at XGen Studios.”
The New Workplace Online
XGen Studios, being a small team, has always been structured to depend on the collaboration of the team. The Low Road was no different, it required a highly collaborative effort which Kaelyn was able to facilitate with her leadership.
“We are sort of learning how the creative process works for this style of game, especially as we began working on things remotely we’ve almost had to relearn how to communicate with each other,” said Scott. “The loss of those moments of serendipity when you’re talking to someone over lunch about an idea or a problem you’ve encountered means that you have to intentionally create those moments online. And that can be tough, but with the help of Google Hangouts and Slack we’re able to keep that process alive.
“Throughout the development the creative team would meet weekly to discuss ideas. Often we would screenshare while video conferencing and watch one team member play through a section of the game. From there we’re able to brainstorm ideas that could improve these sections or we’d notice things that other team members were working on that we could amplify using our own expertise.”
Kaelyn notes that writer Leif Oleson-Cormack has done much to embed The Low Road with his quirky wit. “I especially like his approach to the voice acting for Thornton which he completed. I also really enjoy the friend/enemy dynamic that evolves throughout the game between Noomi and Turn,” describes Kaelyn. “I think the combination of the dialogue, the character illustrations and the voice acting has embodied the characters very well, making the player like or dislike certain characters.”
Going Where the Opportunities Are
When it comes to platform development, Kaelyn says that XGen Studios don’t specifically focus on a singular platform or genre. She says that the studio focuses on what offers the best opportunities at the time.
“XGen has launched on various platforms including a Nintendo WiiWare launch title in 2008 with Defend Your Castle and also a launch title with the PlayStation 4 in 2013 with Super Motherload,” said Kaelyn. “The beginning of The Low Road came from Skye’s desire to make a game that would complement XGen’s team skills offered at the time. Skye wanted a game that allowed Scott to develop a unique artistic style that could be combined well with Eric Cheng’s psychedelic rock’n’roll inspired score; when award-winning playwright Leif Oleson-Cormack’s joined as the Narrative Designer it felt like an incredible team was in place. That being said, I have only mentioned a few of the team members and would like to emphasize that The Low Road would not exist without the entirety of the rest of the team: Programmer Jed Lange, Robyn Dubuc with Animation & Technical Art, Logan Foster with Animation, Jordan Dubuc with Operations and David Pankratz with Quality Assurance.”
When it come to monetization methods, XGen Studios is similarly agnostic. “XGen Studios today monetizes primarily through one-time purchases of software products via direct download, as well as through software marketplaces such as Steam, the PSN Store and the App Store,” describes Jordan Dubuc, XGen Studios Head of Operations. “Legacy XGen products are monetized via advertisements including traditional web banners and video interstitial, in addition to virtual item sales and micro transactions, subscriptions and affiliate programs.
Believe in Your Product
Kaelyn indicates that the development process is not standardized at XGen. Each game has a slightly different process, which itself evolves over time.
“The Low Road is a recent product that we fully developed from scratch based on ideas developed by Skye and Scott; as the development has continued on we broke the game into chapter sections allowing the art, animation and audio to be created as Leif was writing the narrative,” said Kaelyn. “We used Unity for the development Engine, Chat Mapper for dialogue branching and other various creative tools for development of art such as Photoshop and Puppet 2D. For development operation tools we use slack for communication needs and Basecamp for project management.”
When it comes to reaching a level of success, Kaelyn noted developing a game is both challenging and exciting, but “believing in your product, your own skills and your team members is crucial. The development process goes through phases of excitement, extreme pressure and feelings of exhaustion; however, hanging in there and knowing it will all be worth it in the end helps everyone stay motivated. Additionally, always being able to reach out to your team members helps a lot since they understanding the most of what you are likely feeling, or have felt the same way at some point, and can really help you get out of a fog and build or enjoy being excited with you at the same time.”
Even if given far more resources, Kaelyn says she’d probably make another point-and-click adventure game. “I think our team has learned so much about this genre of game design and we still have a lot of unique and interesting ideas that I think could make another great game,” she notes.
David Radd is a staff writer for GameSauce.biz. David loves playing video games about as much as he enjoys writing about them, martial arts and composing his own novels.