The explosion of indie gaming in the past decade has not only allowed for smaller companies to enter the gaming market, it has allowed for people from various background and unique games to have a place. One such person and game is Erin Robinson and her game, Gravity Ghost. To learn more about Gravity Ghost, Gamesauce has talked to Erin Robinson about her background and developing games.
From Researcher to Game Developer – Leaving the Academy for Games
Kelly Richard Fennig is a technical producer who’s worked at Slant Six Games, was the project director for Circa 1948 at the National Film Board of Canada, and is a founding member of Ton Up Interactive. An actor, hardware & software engineer, UX designer, project manager, and musician, his various industries gives him a unique perspective and well-rounded appreciation of what it takes to make games.We were recently able to talk to Fennig about the creation of Circa 1948, difficulties encountered during its production, and long-term goals for this project.
GS: What was the inspiration for this project? Specifically, what is so special about 1948?
Kelly Richard Fennig: The world-renowned visual artist, Stan Douglas, was the key inspiration for the project. (He proposed the project several years ago.) For those unfamiliar with his work, he’s primarily a visual storyteller and photographer, and is known for creating photograph composites that capture a moment in time.
One Stan Douglas photo can be composed of over 100 or more separate elements – each being specifically chosen and placed, then seamlessly assembled together to make a “perfect” photograph. But the true art comes from the curiosity of the audience themselves, from what subtle and nuanced details they discover in his work and, usually depending on the order in which they discover them, people will ask themselves about the significance of these details. Eventually, viewers create their own narrative to explain what happened leading up to the moment, so the audience experience is an integral part of the art, and every experience is unique to each individual.
Douglas has a fascination with history and his style is what I personally call a “dirty reality,” since many of the works I’ve seen of his look very “lived-in,” almost to the point of being run down. This makes sense to me as a storyteller: the more worn out something is, the more it has experienced to get to that state, and the more potential for stories it has to tell. As mentioned before, the devil is indeed in the details, so Douglas makes it a point to be as historically accurate and photorealistic as possible.
Being born and raised in Vancouver, he loves this city and its history, and 1948 was a time when the city was on the cusp of change. For most, there was a deep postwar depression and jobs and money were hard to come by. Soldiers back from the war were without jobs or, for some, even homes. The city was beginning its “urban renewal” and claiming its casualties. The technological innovations of the latter half of the 20th century, marking our modern age, were just around the corner. Looking back, the themes in the story Stan Douglas tells in Circa 1948 would be echoed in any city in North America at that time, and have numerous parallels with the present.
GS: On this note, why did you select the two locations?
Fennig: There are the simple answers – money, budget, and technical limitations. For an ambitious iOS app to have the visual fidelity to honor the works of Douglas, we would need to limit how much content the app could have so it could reliably run at an acceptable frame rate and not be multiple gigabytes in size.
However, there is also an artistic rationale for this decision – the duality of having two locations sets up a ‘compare and contrast’ dynamic with the themes of the story. Geographically, the city of Vancouver is divided along Main Street.
On the traditionally more affluent west-side is the site of the Hotel Vancouver. In 1948, it was weeks away from being torn down and relocated, soldiers from the war who had yet received promised support from the government have taken over the building and are squatting in this “tarnished dilapidated gem” of the city.
On the working class east-side is Hogan’s Alley. This area was a culturally diverse home to immigrant and migrant workers who turn into backyard entrepreneurs using whatever skills they have to find a buck, with some of their enterprises being less legal than others. In the middle are those who like to straddle and profit from both sides. So the divide of race, income, and “urban renewal” gets blurred at this moment in time.
And to this day, this divide still holds true.
GS: While recreating the two locations, what archives did you use? Were you able to interview anyone was alive in 1948?
Fennig: Currently, neither site exists anymore. The old Hotel Vancouver at the intersection of Georgia & Granville Street was torn down, and Hogan’s Alley was razed in 1968 to build the Georgia Viaduct. As a result of these changes, we had to rely entirely on archival documentation. Our artists combed the City of Vancouver Archives, and those of the Province and Vancouver Sun newspaper archives. Our producers also got access to the CBC radio archives to gather some radio interviews to add audio colour to the world. We even discovered some magazine articles published at the time showcasing the architecture of the city.
We were about 95 percent confirmed accurate with the geography, but where we weren’t certain, we made our best assumption of what would have been there based on our findings. In many cases, where there were gaps in accuracy, some miracle photograph would show up in the strangest of places and times. For example, two months before completion, a photo would show up and we would find a building that was completely wrong, so we went back and rebuilt it. It was uncanny – in January 2014, Canada Post celebrated Black History Month by releasing a stamp recognizing Hogan’s Alley. On it, we discovered yet another building. Our art lead Jonny Ostrem, who worked closely with Douglas for the duration of the project, would insist we respect the historic authenticity Douglas revered.
As for the characters in the app, nearly all of them are fictitious. That being said, we were able to interview many people who were alive in these communities, and they shared stories about some of the more “colorful and notable” people and events of the time. From these stories, Douglas worked with screen-writer Chris Haddock and playwright Kevin Kerr to create some original characters and situations that were amalgams of these stories.
GS: During the making of this interactive experience, what were some difficulties encountered?
Fennig: LOL! Where to begin? This project was well underway by the time I came on board – two-four years depending on who you talk to. By the time I came on:
- – The app was originally planned around the time of the iPad 2, but Douglas’ vision was too technically ambitious for even the iPad Air (four years later).
- – The project was created by a series of contractors and students, who rolled on and off at various times based on monies and availabilities. The only constants were the producers at the National Film Board of Canada’s Digital Studio (the NFB), known and celebrated for their development of HTML5 and Flash experiences. This app would be their first real-time experience.
- – The Kraken engine we used was open-source and in-development throughout production, right up to shipping
- – Douglas wanted people to not see this as a game, but as art. He wanted every asset, prop and texture to be unique. So every asset had been individually modeled/textured without reuse or instantiation. This created extra strain and challenge on the engine, memory, and computing resources.
- – The project never went through much of a pre-production stage; they just started producing assets.
- – Many of these assets were created by art students whose only experience had been school projects for animation, film & TV visual-FX, and demo reels. They had minimal to no knowledge about techniques for optimizing assets for real-time engines or mobile platforms. Many of the lead artists, and the art lead himself, were learning as they went. In the art world, this in itself is part of the “artistic experience”- to learn and grow while creating the “art”, and this “ground up” approach is integral to Douglas’ artistic methodology/”process”. I have a great deal of respect for them because their lessons from the school of “hard knocks” will stick with them forever.
- – As new evidence and archival photos arose, assets needed to be rebuilt in order to continue to be “historically accurate.”
- – It was decided that the app wouldn’t use real-time lighting – all lighting and shadows were rendered in Maya onto light and specular maps. Having numerous maps in memory instead of relying on the GPU and rendering pipeline, memory, and asset streaming would be the critical path for performance.
- – Whenever an asset had an error (texture, model or otherwise), quite often it required re-rendering the lightmap. Over the course of the project, many, many, MANY of the assets would have to be redone.
- – At the time, the engine didn’t have much of an asset import tool chain: all assets would be created in Maya and Photoshop then converted and imported into the engine manually. Any spelling mistake with any of the assets would cause errors.
- – The user experience and interface went through many iterations and was still too complex to users who were not gamers.
- -There were all these assets, but not a cohesive end-to-end experience for the user.
When I came on board they were “a couple weeks away from shipping,” but only because they had virtually used nearly the entire budget. They realized that, although this wasn’t a “game”, experience from the games industry would be able to provide the perspective they needed to complete and ship the app. This is where I came in.
So for the next six months, we had to simplify the design and create a cohesive experience for an audience who is not accustomed to any form of first-person, real-time digital experience, with an extremely limited budget. (I am eternally thankful that Loc Dao and Janine Steele at the NFB were able to procure more monies required for completion.) Even though most of the production wasn’t efficient by conventions already proven and known by the video games industry, the ship had set sail – my job was to steer it safely into port by any means necessary.
The first step was to actually take a step back and create a design document. From there, we used lean-style design iterations to quickly test out new concepts and simplify the experience for users who are not traditional gamers. Some gaming conventions were brought in, mainly to bring in a simple cause-effect teaching loop. As well, we had to develop a way to optimize the engine and assets but still maintain a high level of fidelity.
It was an exciting six months to say the least. We were committed to a release at the TriBeCa film festival, so with all the changes required, we had an asset lock within days of submitting to Apple. This left next to no time to optimize performance and came in far too hot for my comfort. Needless to say, I expected the first couple of weeks after release would be crashy, and we would need to get user experience feedback in the real-world to address stability.
GS: How do you see this as an “Augmented Reality” experience?
Fennig: It goes beyond the obvious. Being based off of actual historic locations and being historically and geographically accurate and incredibly detailed, it goes beyond the standard fare expected from a “game.” These places actually existed and were respected and reproduced in such a way that allows the user to see how life actually was, warts and all.
In the initial release, we have an alternative input scheme we call “viewport” mode: it takes the gyroscopic positioning data from the iOS devices and uses it to control the “in-game” camera of the user. Your phone/tablet becomes a “window to the past”: point the device up, and you look up; turn around, and so does the in-world camera.
This isn’t the standard or ideal mode because, as Jesse Schell pointed out last year at Casual Connect 2013, users’ arms will eventually get tired. However, it does allow for a very natural way to look at how the world once was. The Kraken engine supports Head Rotational Transform Function (HRTF) sound so with a set of headphones, the user is fully immersed into the environment.
In future releases, there are plans to incorporate GPS and compass data so for those who are in Vancouver and at these historic locations can actually hold up their devices and see what the world was once like where they stood. See the modern world through their eyes, and the historic world through the app. i.e. ‘Where what is now a Starbucks once stood a speakeasy’. It’s a gimmick, but it does allow the user a more immersive experience into the world.
At the TriBeCa film festival in New York, we collaborated with R&D Arts and Memo Aiken’s team at Marshmallow Laser Feast to go one step further – we took the app, as seen from one frame of view, and projection-mapped the environment onto four walls, almost like a first generation of the Holodeck from Star Trek. This produced a 360º view of the world – where the app allowed the user to explore a Stan Douglas photograph, the TriBeCa interactive experience actually and literally placed the user into a Stan Douglas photograph. Using multiple Xbox Kinects and the very latest Mac Pro, we would track the movement of the user and render this “reality”. Off-axis positioning would allow the user to look up, under, and around objects, and we would use their body itself as a virtual joystick to move through this world we created in the app.
Both experiences – viewport and the interactive experience – are pretty trippy and very, very cool. Honestly, I really wish people more people could experience the installation, but it does cost a bit to transport and set up.
GS: Several of the conversations are influenced by noir films. Which noir films did you and your team turn to? How do you feel this adds to the historical authenticity?
Fennig: The primary point of visual inspiration from Douglas to the art team was the film Hammett. It’s Francis Ford Coppola, so it gets a bye for legitimacy, as he is a stickler for authenticity. Essentially, this movie is an homage to “film noir” – heightened shadows, a femme fatale, corrupt police, etc. Other films were considered, but with respect to mood and detail, why deviate from a master?
The app was originally designed to be set during midday. It wasn’t until extremely late in the project (re: two months prior to release) that we should switch to an evening setting. This worked on many levels, as the story itself inherently has a “film noir” undertone, so why not make the setting “noir”…verging on the edge of twilight/early evening, moody, with heightened shadows, etc. There is this magic that happens at twilight. Since the light levels are low, fog starts to roll in, and details are obscured.
With the technical limitations of mobile platform, we could have our cake and eat it too: it allowed us a logical and natural way to obscure the details for some of the unessential environments, but still support the photorealism Douglas was known for. Having film noir inspirations, it was a natural choice, and it was surprising we didn’t think of this sooner. This choice did mean a lot of late nights and hiring additional artists to re-render nearly almost all the light maps, but it was definitely worth it. This change was chalked up to the “artistic experience” for the artists: we had to get as far as we did to realize that a time-of-day change would most honor the project.
GS: How did you convince the Canadian government to fund this project?
Fennig: The origins of the project came from a screenplay called Helen Lawrence, a collaboration between artist Stan Douglas and the acclaimed screenwriter Chris Haddock. They originally approached the National Film Board of Canada to make the screenplay into a film, but the NFB was known for producing short animations and documentary films, not fictionalized feature films.
However, the NFB Digital Studio in Vancouver still wanted the opportunity to collaborate with Douglas, so they proposed to develop an app inspired by some of the characters and plot elements from the screenplay, but present them in a way that focuses on one of Douglas’s artistic staples – non-linear (or recombinant) storytelling. Part of the NFB’s mandate is to push the technological boundaries and innovate new ways to tell character-rich, Canadian stories, and this had potential to really try something radically new in the world of art, what the NFB calls the Circa 1948 Storyworld.
In addition to the app, they wanted to create a multi-contextual experience around it, so the Circa 1948 Storyworld is not just the app, but also a historically informative webpage, a Stan Douglas photo series, the immersive projection-map installation (as featured at TriBeCa and touring major cities), and the stage play of Helen Lawrence itself. (Although not a film as originally intended, Helen Lawrence became a ground-breaking play where stage actors were filmed against blue screen and composited and shown to the audience in real-time into the digital environments we developed for the app).
There’s so much more to say about the Storyworld project as a whole that could be said that couldn’t fit into an interview. I highly recommend people read the official press synopsis.
GS: Are there any plans to incorporate architecture that currently exist into this virtual experience?
Fennig: Since these locations don’t exist anymore, there are plans to incorporate GPS telemetry and compass information into the app. So when a person is at the physical location where a structure once stood, they can bring up the app and the tablet truly becomes a “window to the past.” The user could walk down what was once Hogan’s Alley, hold up their phone or tablet, and see what used to stand there.
As for incorporating currently existing architecture, I can’t speak of plans just yet. Some proposals are being discussed, potentially for separate but related projects, but it is too soon to disclose it.
GS: How has this technology been received by educators?
Fennig: It hasn’t really been used by educators… yet. However, historians have been comparing the app content to known historical evidence and records and applauded the sense of accuracy, detail, authenticity, and respect to the locations and the era.
Again, there are a couple of potential projects in the future that I’m not open to talk about just yet, but with “urban renewal” being a constant force for change in our city, the project has archival potential that could be quite cool, so we don’t forget the rich history from bygone generations.
GS: Overall, what are some long-term goals for this project? Is an Android version going to be created?
Fennig: Long term, there are many plans for what was accomplished. Not speaking on behalf of the NFB, I do know that the following may (or may not) happen:
- – An Android version is tentatively in the plans, but it will require rewriting much of the Objective-C used in the front end to work in OpenGL-ES and Kraken and port the Kraken engine to work for Android. This work will benefit the iOS version as well since iOS Viewports are costly when implementing UI.
- – The NFB would like to take the immersive installation on the road. It had an amazing response at TriBeCa. The challenge is finding sponsors to allow for the transport and setup of installation.
- – As mentioned earlier, the kinesthetic mode linking real-world geo-location telemetry to the app, is planned for “on-location” presentations and exploration.
- – The NFB is investigating opportunities to use the Kraken engine, the workflow improvements, and the lessons learned, to tell similar stories set in different historic locations. Since the project was developed using public tax-funding, there is great potential to open this platform up to the public for them to use and innovate (again, I’m only speculating, as the Canadian Government owns some of the technology).
Part of the NFB’s mandate is to push the technological boundaries and innovate new ways to tell character-rich Canadian stories. Based on the initial feedback the NFB feels they have accomplished this and are proud to join the small but growing movement of “interactive storytelling” – using gaming techniques and technologies to tell stories. Personally, it feels pretty cool to have Apple feature and endorse an app I’ve worked on and open the “gaming” world I love to an audience that normally wouldn’t have normally discovered it. It shrinks the gap between the “Game” and “Art” debate.
Founded in 1997, N-Fusion Interactive is a New Jersey game studio with a portfolio spanning console, PC, and mobile platforms, and across a variety of genres. Recently, N-Fusion added to its portfolio by creating Deus Ex: The Fall, an installment of the popular Deus Ex franchise designed for mobile devices.
To learn more about N-Fusion and The Fall, GameSauce interviewed the CEO of N-Fusion, Jeff Birns, about his background, the company’s history, working on a Deus Ex game, and future plans for the studio.
Starting Out – Jeff Birns’ Early Days
“There is one specific game that really inspired me, Ultima on the Apple IIe,” Jeff Birns said when reflecting on what inspired him to enter the gaming industry. Birns would play this fantasy/science-fiction, role-playing game at a friend’s house and was, in his words, “amazed” by it. At that time, Birns never imagined that he would go on to make games for his career, but his early love for videogames led to him developing an “admiration for companies such as Origin, Sierra, Lucas Arts” and many more.
Reflecting on what the industry was like when he first got started, Birns noted that back then the industry “was smaller and way more specialized, or rather ‘elite.’” For example, Birns says “a lot of the code was written in assembly,” but “there was also a lot more room for creativity.” Birns thinks that while the industry may have lost some of its creativity since those early days, he does “feel that a good amount of creativity is starting to return to the industry” due to smaller teams willing to take greater chances, and the fact that the barrier to enter the industry is lower than ever.
Founding N-Fusion and its Work Culture
After working at other companies such as New Realm Entertainment, American Laser Games, and COLECO, Birns wanted to work on a different type of product. Starting off as a PC/console developer, Birns said, “When N-Fusion was created, our goal was to make the best role-playing game ever, and man did we try.” The early demos that N-Fusion produced were frequently met with publishers praising them, but then asking if they could “convert them to something else, such as a military game.”
Realizing that they couldn’t make the game they wanted to make, N-Fusion began to do work for hire in order to gain the funds needed to create their own properties. As an independent studio, N-Fusion has been able to develop and maintain a unique business culture. For instance, Birns feels that N-Fusion has “a family culture” given that most of the employees have worked together for a long time.
Being an independent studio has also allowed N-Fusion to create a work culture that is able to quickly adapt to production changes. “Being independent enables us to steer our own ship and make quick turns when we need to,” Birns said. “And this happens quite often.”
A change that N-Fusion deals with on a regular basis is the shifting requirements for each game they work on. Given that many of their games are targeted at completely different audiences, Birns said that N-Fusion generally approaches “each new franchise with a unique starting point, so that we are sure to design the title for the audience that we are looking to capture.” Starting anew means N-Fusion has to build each game’s art from the ground up, as such, the company’s art “style guides from game to game are sometimes drastically different.”
Deus Ex: The Fall and the Shift to Mobile Gaming
Beyond changing art styles, one of the biggest shifts N-Fusion has had to deal with is the move from console to mobile gaming. According to Birns, those at N-Fusion “still have a console mentality hanging around, regardless of the type and scope of the title” they are working on. Specifically, this market change has required N-Fusion “to design for touch screens and iterate quickly [while] still thinking big in terms of production quality,” according to Birns. And one project that tested N-Fusion’s ability to bring console and PC production quality to mobile games was Deus Ex: The Fall.
“This was one of the biggest design challenges we’ve ever had,” Birns said when first discussing The Fall, “There were so many different pillars and design concepts that needed to be represented, it was an amazing journey of focused creativity.” From a GUI design point of view, Birns said, “The game has so many amazing features, it meant that there needed to be a huge number of buttons on the screen and we wanted to make sure players could configure them to their liking.”
A particular design challenge was adapting Deus Ex’s console-based interface and gameplay to the mobile devices. “We weren’t fond of virtual controllers,” Birns explained, “so we created the tap-to-move option, which was my preferred way of navigation.”
In addition to adapting a console interface to mobile gameplay, N-Fusion also had the awe-inspiring opportunity of adding to Deus Ex’s expansive universe. It was a challenge that N-Fusion was excited about. “We were really excited about exploring the story of the Tyrants before they are introduced in Human Revolution.” It was their opportunity to explore the Tyrants prior to Adam Jensen’s story in Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
The story for The Fall was first developed by N-Fusion’s Lead Designer, Tyler Munden. As Birns stated, “he read Icarus Effect and basically placed our timeline right when the book ended.” In addition to James Swallow, the author of Icarus Effect (the novel based on Deus Ex franchise that Munden turned to when writing this story), helping N-Fusion on the script, Birns recalled how the process of creating the story “turned into a wonderful collaboration between N-Fusion and Eidos Montreal (Eidos Montreal being the studio behind Deus Ex: Human Revolution)”. N-Fusion also had “a brainstorm session here in NJ with Jean-Francois Dugas and Mary DeMarle, who were the original chief designer and head writer of Human Revolution” in order to keep The Fall’s story in line with the rest of the Deus Ex universe.
Android Fragmentation Mobile Adaptation
Outside of developing Deus Ex: The Fall, N-Fusion has dealt with making a wide variety of other games for mobile devices. A significant difficulty that has accompanied this move from consoles and PCs to platforms like smartphones and tablets is the lack of standardization. As Birns explained to GameSauce, the differing hardware specs for Android devices can be “a difficult technical hurdle to overcome.” To address this issue, Birns stated that N-Fusion “used Unity as our choice of engine, and this eased the process of making the title compatible on as many devices as possible.”
In addition to varying hardware specs, mobile game developers also have to deal with knee-jerk reactions that adapting an established console/PC franchise to mobile causes the property to lose some of its quality in translation. However, instead of focusing on what is lost, Birns made it clear that N-Fusion focuses instead on what can be gained. “When a franchise makes the leap to a mobile platform,” Birns explained, “there is an opportunity to reinvent and re-imagine aspects of the game.” In the end, Birns believes that expanding into mobile is beneficial because it “will widen a franchise’s audience and give players an amazing gameplay experience that they can hold in the palm of their hand.”
Reflecting on the Past and Looking to the Future
Since N-Fusion was founded, the gaming industry has gone through massive changes. “The amount of people playing games now is so much larger than when we started,” Birns stated. “Back in the old days you were a ‘nerd’ if you even played video games!” A clear benefit of the number of gamers increasing is that there are now “a wider variety of games available.” A concern that newer developers should have is that while there are a greater number of different business models present, Birns pointed out that “each one requires a different design methodology.” Meaning that people entering the industry must take the time to figure out how the finances for their project should be shaped.
Since the release of Deus Ex: The Fall, N-Fusion has recently announced that Space Noir will be getting released for iOS, Android, and PCs. As a narrative-driven space combat game, Space Noir further highlights N-Fusion’s ability to adapt to ever changing expectations of the gaming industry, while building a diverse portfolio of games.
Ryan Wiemeyer is a game designer that has been passionate about videogames since he held his first controller. After receiving a B.S. in Game Development from DePaul University and making several games on his own and participating in several game jams, he began work as a designer and associate producer at Wideload Games (later a subsidiary of Disney Interactive) where he worked on several games, including Guilty Party. He and others would conceive of a zombie-take on the classic game, The Oregon Trail, and call it Organ Trail. Its initial version proved to be so popularly that Weimeyer and his colleagues would decide to revisit the game and further develop with funds generated from a Kickstarter campaign. Wiemeyer would even quit his job to focus on Organ Trail full time. The Kickstarter generated over ten-thousand dollars more than initially asked for; allowing them to expand the game beyond what was originally planned and begin their own studio, The Men Who Wear Many Hats.
Formally released January 2013, Organ Trail: Director’s Cut has been well received by fans and was successful enough to encourage those at The Men Who Wear Many Hats to make another game. Called Max Gentlemen and another Kickstarter success, this game is an arcade-styled experience centering on stacking hats and extreme manners.
GameSauce was able to recently talk to Wiemeyer about his interests in game development, his approach to gaming, using Kickstarter, and long term goals for himself and The Men Who Wear Many Hats.
Gamesauce: Growing up, what were some of the videogames that you loved playing? Why do you think you were more interested in videogames than other forms of media?
Ryan Wiemeyer: I started gaming on the Atari and never looked back. Any time I could wrestle the TV away from my family to play a game was cherished; it didn’t even matter how bad the game was. I’ve always regarded the agency of video games to be a more enjoyable experience compared to passive media like TV, books, and movies.
I have been impacted by so many games that I feel it’s not really fair to try and mention only a few as favorites.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue videogame development as a career? On this note, did you begin to learn to program before or after you realized you could make videogame development a profession?
I’ve always been interested the making of games, but I don’t think I realized it could be more than a hobby until college. I’ve been drawing Sonic levels, designing my own broken RPGs in RPG Maker, and dreaming up all sorts of terrible crap since I was little.
I took programming in High School, and even though I always twisted the assignment into a game project, I guess I didn’t have enough understanding of the industry to realize I was taking steps to make games for a living. I guess I thought I would be some generic programmer or maybe an artist…I’ve always dabbled in art. Hell, I have a useless animation minor.
More and more people are going to college to become game designers. Looking back, what are some things you feel you did to help prepare for a career in game development? On this note, what advice do you have for people currently in college and wanting to get into the gaming industry?
I could go on for 10 weeks about this… and I do. That’s why I got hired to teach at DePaul.
First off, there aren’t any jobs waiting for you when you graduate. So either you need to be the best of the best or stop thinking games are for you. I’m tired of seeing people who like to play games thinking that those skills translate to making games. The only crossover is the knowledge base and vocabulary. But the skills are worlds apart. Being a hardcore gamer is almost the opposite of having a good work ethic (because you are probably putting off being productive to consume).
I get students who are going to graduate in a few months, and they still can’t make a game because they are “idea guys” or “producers,” aka they usually have no talent. I think game design is something that only comes from MAKING games yourself. You NEVER know what will play or feel good until you iterate on it a dozen times. The idea that you can just tell someone what to make is…well, it’s the main problem with students right now.
You’ve participated in many game jams. How do you think game jams helped you develop your approach to making games?
I recommend every developer participate in Game Jams. They are such great tests of your ability. You usually fail, but you learn a lot and it’s a safe space to fail in. You learn a lot about scope and how to get enjoyment out of simplicity. These are priceless lessons that you can only learn from experience.
You started working at Wideload Games in 2009. What was your experience at Wideload like? Were there any professional skills that you developed while at Wideload?
Working at Wideload turned me from a shitty game dev student into a professional. Being immersed in a professional environment with so many talented people was life-changing. I recommend everyone get at least a few years of this kind of environment before striking out on their own. All the skills and disciplines you can’t learn in college I learned there.
You began Organ Trail while at Wideload. Why did you begin working on one game while working at another company? Is it a decision that you’d make again? On this note, what was the inspiration for Organ Trail?
I started a side thing because I was used to the 10-week turn around on games we had at DePaul. Working on the same game for 2-3 years was a little creatively stifling. We formed The Men Who Wear Many Hats very unofficially as a group that just wanted to flex our game development muscles. We wanted to make small free games. Organ Trail was just a funny idea we had, while brainstorming. We’re quite taken aback by how it’s taken off.
As Organ Trail started gaining popularity and we realized we needed to put more time into it, it started getting hard to make games and go home and keep making games. Luckily, the success of the Kickstarter let me know I was safe to quit my job. But also, Disney’s policy was that I would probably be fired if the right people found out I was making my own games anyway. That was a policy I fruitlessly tried to change on my way out.
And in regards to doing it again…I’m making side games from my own studio so I don’t think I can be stopped. I have to make games.
Organ Trail proved to be so popular that you and the others who worked on it decided to further develop the game and do a Kickstarter to fund it. What was your initial reaction to realizing that you had created a game that was so beloved by fans? Additionally, what difficulties did you encounter while doing the Kickstarter?
It’s pretty cool. Running a Kickstarter is a huge undertaking. I try to warn others that it’s at least two months of full time work from one person. So it throws a huge wrench in any schedules you might have had. The hardest part was doing all of the fulfillment ourselves. Each package was a unique combination of swag, and we hand addressed all of it. And offloading a cart full of packages at the post office was not an enjoyable six hours, either.
Since 2010, you’ve been on the board of Indie City Games. Why do you feel these types of organizations are important for game developers? Given that you live and work in Chicago, what are your thoughts about how the city can do more to encourage game development?
I’ve noticed that there is a big gap between this “student boom” of developer’s and the “old blood.” It’s really hard to get these older guys to come out and share any wisdom or help build any community. So with the fall of the Chicago IGDA chapter in the wake of EA Chicago and other major studio’s shutting down, we decided we needed something.
Since the formation of Indie City, I have been putting a lot of focus on the community. Chicago is always teetering on the edge of being a great city for developers, and I want to help push it forward. That’s why I started my co-working space and that’s why I teach. I have a lot of other plans that are starting to come to fruition… keep any eye out.
You and The Men Who Wear Many Hats are currently working the game Max Gentlemen. What was the inspiration for this game? On this note, how did the visual style come about?
Wiemeyer: We had the idea for Max Gentlemen from a spam email with a similar title. We fleshed out this bigger world with lots of “Max Gentlemen”-themed activities. But, lacking a solid 2D artist/animator at the time, we put it on a shelf. Along came the Six Pack Game Jam; a jam about spending a month on a game and putting it on an arcade cabinet.
We took one of the “activities” from that larger game and fleshed it out. We chose the hat-stacking idea because it really matched the name of the company, and we felt it was a good fit for us. The art style came about because I was eager to get my friend Sarah Denis into the game scene. So we gave her a change with the Game Jam and things worked out. Now the full fledged game is like a showcase of her art.
We learned a lot from the Organ Trail Kickstarter. I used those lessons and kind of turned them on its head and did a lot of things people said you couldn’t do.
Our Max Gentlemen Kickstarer was almost a parody of itself. We set a ridiculously low goal and barely showed the game. It was really more about the spectacle and merch. We offered a lot of goofy rewards and made up fake charts and goals for the campaign. It was mostly a marketing push for us; to get Max Gentlemen into the greater known space. But we are actually making and giving out these ridiculous rewards… like the body pillow cover. And people get really excited about them.
The ultimate lesson is that your video is the #1 most important part of a campaign. I think the video may even be better than the game, haha.
Given your experience of working for both a large and small studios, what are your thoughts on the future of the videogame industry? Do you see large studios surviving in their current form?
The middle-sized studios seem to really be on the ropes. I think the current small team space is going to slowly grow and take their place. I find a lot of people would rather buy a $20 indie game. The problem with a lot of the old middle-sized studios is that they made games for the $60 space and their game didn’t need to be that, the market just wasn’t used to the idea of paying different amounts for different kinds of games.
I honestly don’t know what’s’ next. The indie space is getting more and more popular, and while that used to be a great thing… there’s part of me that’s still worried that we are going to get lost in the flood of new games.
Beyond Max Gentlemen, what are some long term goals you have yourself and The Men Who Wear Many Hats?
I just want to make games.
Keep up with Ryan and The Men Who Wear Many Hats by following them on Twitter.
Founded in 2011, White Whale Games is an indie studio located in Austin, TX and currently comprised of George Royer and Jo Lammert. White Whale would go on to release its first game, God of Blades, in 2012. To learn more about White Whale, GameSauce recently talked to its Studio Director, Jo Lammert, about the studio’s history, creating God of Blades, and the studio’s future goals.
Finding the White Whale – The Studio’s Founding
In 2011, George Royer, Jo Lammert, and Jason Rosenstock started talking about videogames and concepts related to this medium. Eventually, the group became so passionate about the ideas that kept coming up in their discussions that they decided to found White Whale Games. As Lammert recollected, “The studio started in summer of 2011 when the three of us just started talking about games and game concepts. One thing led to another, then suddenly we were starting a video game studio.”
While Rosenstock was the only one with standard videogame industry experience, stemming from his time as an artist for BioWare, all three of them contributed to the creation of White Whale. Lammert not only had a Masters of Information Sciences from University of Texas, Austin, but she also brought a vast array of experience in the entertainment industry; including stints at Cartoon Network and the Bold and the Beautiful. Royer brought to the organization a strong sense of narrative and a love for literary classics – one of his favorite books being Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It’s from this classic that the studio would take its name from. Lammert explains, “It refers to the elusive, precious, and highly coveted white whale of the book.”
What truly helped the three of them come together was not just their complimentary skill sets, but that they shared a distinct vision for what a gaming studio could be. According to Lammert, the team wanted “to design and develop games that thoughtfully present the player with elegant, meaningful, and realized worlds.” She expanded on this point by explaining that “every project we do is deeply thoughtful about world-building, and is something really important to us. Essentially, we wanted to evoke rich stories through a game.”
Keeping it Weird in Austin – Indie Game Development in Austin, TX
Home to the world-renowned South by Southwest (SXSW) and a growing technology industry, Austin is known for a unique media culture that attracts businesses and entrepreneurs from across the world. As such, the city’s landscape has been important to White Whale’s founding and growth. Specifically, the studio has benefited from a gaming industry – both corporate and indie – that has allowed the city to become “rich with talent and good people.”
Austin is also home to Juegos Rancheros, an indie collective co-operated by Lammert with the goal of building the area’s game development community. Lammert feels that this organization played an important role in White Whale’s growth, stating that Juegos Rancheros provided “a supportive, kindhearted space, a place where you can throw out an early build of a game to other indie game friends and get very constructive feedback.” Given the wide array of people and support systems in the area, Lammert believes that “White Whale would look very different if we weren’t in Austin.”
O.R.C.A. – Psychic Frog and White Whale’s Experiment Projects
White Whale’s founders wanted to have a means to experiment with games that may not have meshed with their company’s brand. “Examples of this,” according to Lammert, “would be quick game jams, bizarre non-commercially viable games, etc.” To do this, they created O.R.C.A. They settled on an acronym so that when asked what the letters meant, they “could be coy and mysterious,” says Lammert.
The only game that has been released under the O.R.C.A. label is Psychic Frog. Created during a four-day contest, the goal of which “was to create a fun game with innovative gameplay,” Psychic Frog is a Flash-based game in which the player helps a psychic frog breakout of a secret location. However, while they are happy with the Psychic Frog and do plan on continuing to make experimental games, Lammert did express that they will “probably stop calling them O.R.C.A. projects and just make them White Whale.”
God of Blades – White Whale’s Breakout Game
Released in 2012 (and most recently updated in 2013), God of Blades was White Whale’s first videogame. The studio wanted to pay tribute to the pulp fantasy stories that have impacted mass entertainment since Conan the Barbarian was first published in 1932, however, they wanted it to be more than just a violent game centered on a muscular hero. As the game’s homepage states, “God of Blades asks players to think about memory, culture, and loss in terms of stories, books, and the communities that love them.” The game even goes as far to reward players with unique swords if they visit actual libraries.
Early in the game’s development, they found that look for the God of Blades’ protagonist, the Nameless King, wasn’t what they wanted. The team would turn to their collective interests in David Bowie and other Glam Rock musicians, and redesigned the Nameless King so that he was more of a mix of Ziggy Stardust, Elric, and a Ringwraith. In addition to the commitment of getting the visuals of this game to their liking, White Whale also wanted this game to have an expansive story. Though much of this game’s narrative background couldn’t be layered into the game play, Lammert told GameSauce that Royer “literally created a bible about that universe and all the mythology. It may not be written out in the game, but you can see these tales through the environments.”
Like many of the startups in the Austin area, the production of the game began with little financial backing. As Lammert said, “we were pretty broke in early development, and bootstrapped the entire project.” As such, the game’s initial development was a difficult and stressful period. Similar to many other entrepreneurs, Lammert believes that those financial limitations “helped us make a really beautiful project.”
And Lammert is not alone in her opinion of the game’s quality. God of Blades received widespread positive news coverage, and won awards from Pocket Gamer, Touch Arcade, and was the Pocket Tactics’ Action Game of the Year. Given the popularity of the game and that its narrative framed around a fictitious fantasy book series, White Whale was approached to by an e-publisher and decided to release a series of books based on the God of Blades universe – the first one being written by Greg Moller and titled God of Blades: Hand of the Sable King. Beyond this, Lammert told GameSauce that it’s a “wrap for God of Blades franchise stuff!”
With God of Blades behind them, White Whale’s current goal is to continue to build things that make people happy,” according to Lammert. While she is unable to currently discuss what these plans are, she did make it clear that studio is planning on expanding outside of the realm of videogames.
Created by two brothers, Forest and Aaron San Filippo, FlippFly is an indie games company that was founded in 2010 when they quit their jobs to pursue their love of videogames. Wanting their studio to stand out, they crafted four main goals for FlippFly; these being to produce games that are always conceptually new to the brothers, fun, honest, and family friendly. Since the studio’s inception, the San Filippo Brothers made Monkey Drum, a music-production game that allows animal avatars to play the tunes you make, and Race the Sun, a racing game in which you pilot a solar-powered glider through an obstacle-filled landscape that has infinite variation and its own world creator. GameSauce recently had the opportunity to interview Forest and Aaron San Filippo about their backgrounds, Flippfly’s origin, their games, and surviving in the indie market.
Prior to founding FlippFly, Aaron and Forest were on career paths that not only differed from their current studio, but also from one another. For instance, while Aaron was working on AAA games such as Singularity and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Forest was running a sign shop that he owned. Both brothers found success in these fields, but also found that that something was missing. As Forest told GameSauce, “Owning a small business was a huge education in customer service, time management, and finances. That experience has really served us well as we navigate the business end of game development. The experience also showed me how stifling it can be to always take orders from customers and try to realize their creative vision instead of my own.”
Similarly, Aaron realized that though he enjoyed being around his colleagues, he wanted more from his work; stating, “My goal in game development was to be able to stretch my creative muscles, to make new and interesting games, and to have a sense of ownership in the work that I created.” Sadly, Aaron found that “AAA studio work in general is getting to the point where you’re mostly just a cog in a machine.”
The brothers’ desire to pursue endeavors that allowed them to explore their creativity pushed them to start their own gaming studio. It was a decision compounded by Aaron’s belief that “it’s never been a better time to become an indie developer” and by Forest’s attraction to the creative freedom that would come from starting a studio. As Forest recollected, “the opportunity to start our own studio and have the freedom to create as I pleased was an attractive idea and it has proven to be incredibly liberating.”
Like most indie game developers, Forest and Aaron wanted to indulge their creative impulses. However, the brothers also wanted their studio to have a unique philosophy towards game development. One of the founding principles that resonated most with Forest is the company’s aim to always create games that they’ve never seen before. “There are tons of great games out there and we can’t risk creating something that isn’t (at-least in some ways) new,” says Forest. “We realize that we stand on the shoulders of other game designers and that our work will always be inspired by other games, but we have to be innovative.” As such, the goal of innovating new types of games is more than just the core of the studio’s identity, it is also, as Forest stated, their “best chance of success.”
Making Music with Monkey Drum and Learning Their Business
FlippFly’s first game would truly stem from the brothers’ goals to create something they have never seen before and that was family friendly; especially Aaron. After years of working on action games, Aaron wanted to work in a completely different genre. Given that both Aaron and Forest are amateur musicians and wanted to share their love of music with their children, the brothers began to think of a new type of music game for young kids. This brain-storming would evolve into Monkey Drum.
Looking back at the creation of this app, Forest explained that “the idea of making an app that could let a very young child experience the joy of making music was really intriguing. It seems likely that many of our games will have tools built-in to let players be creative. Encouraging the artistic nature is something that is close to our hearts.” As an app, Monkey Drum allows players to accessorize their characters, as well as feed, spin, and bop them. More importantly, the player can give characters access to realistic instruments and can be made to play real music.
The process of making Monkey Drum allowed the brothers to indulge in their love of music and their goals to share it with their children. However, making Monkey Drum forced Aaron and Forest to grapple with the day to day grind of developing their game. One challenge that they encountered was time management, according to Forest. “We are both pretty good at working hard and getting things done, but game development is an excruciatingly slow process,” says Forest. “[We] learned a lot about how long things will actually take with a two-man team. To be completely honest, we are still learning that lesson.”
Released on May 25, 2012, Monkey Drum was more than just another app. For Aaron and Forest, it was proof that they could produce a consumer product. As Aaron expressed, completing this game “showed us that ‘yes, we can make a complete product.’” Its completion and consumer feedback gave them the confidence needed to go forward.
Race the Sun and Turning to Kickstarter
The next game that FlippFly developed merged the genres of intensive racing games and open sandbox worlds with infinite variability. According to Forest, this game began when Aaron showed him an image he created with Sketchup (a 3D art program that was at the time owned by Google, but now owned by Trimble Navigation) while asking “Wouldn’t it be awesome to race through this world at super high speeds?” It was a question that would be answered by creating Race the Sun.
This idea excited their imaginations and they immediately created a prototype to begin experimenting with. Much of the game’s development was less FlippFly following a clear direction and more about adding mechanics they thought would work and taking out what they felt didn’t add to the game. “The end result feels pretty intentional, but it was really a long process of trial and error,” says Forest. “We’ve found that letting the game ‘tell us’ how it should be designed is a great way to work.”
Designing this game brought about several new challenges. According to Aaron, one of the hardest parts of Race the Sun’s development was probably the server back-end. As he explained, “it wasn’t an area we had a ton of expertise in, and we didn’t have the benefit of a social layer like Steam’s when we built it. So we had to put together a system for player logins, leader boards, user world hosting (and downloading), etc.” Another challenge the brothers encountered when they were creating Race the Sun was just how demanding a Kickstarter campaign could be.
“Our approach to marketing evolved as the Kickstarter progressed,” says Forest. The goal of the Kickstarter project was to raise at least twenty-thousand dollars. But at the launch of the campaign, all they had was what Forest describes as “a solid alpha of the game.” Though this demo was well designed, it didn’t show potential donors what FlippFly wanted Race the Sun to be. “[What] Kickstarter taught us is that we really needed to show our full vision to potential players,” says Forest. “We could talk all we wanted, but putting those ideas into video and concept art were game-changers. Very few ideas are compelling enough to sell themselves without something visual to back them up.”
Luckily, Aaron and Forest were able to quickly adapt to the demands of Kickstarter’s community because their project was a success. Earning over twenty-one thousand dollars, FlippFly would be able to complete Race the Sun and release it December 9, 2013 on Steam for PC and Mac systems.
Indie Developer Lessons Learned and Looking Forward
Though FlippFly has only been around for a few years, Forest and Aaron have learned valuable lessons about succeeding in the indie-game market. In addition to gaining a better sense of how quickly a game could be developed by two people and how to properly use Kickstarter to raise funds, they also realized the importance of critical feedback. As Forest says, “It is possible that there are people who are geniuses and will make a masterpiece on their first attempt – but that is highly unlikely!”
Properly handling feedback is so important that, according to Forest, “one huge thing that we try to communicate to aspiring indies is the need to accept critical feedback.” Forest further elaborated on this point by stating, “When you spend hundreds of hours on something, it is very easy to lose objectivity. Learning how to accept (and even seek out) criticism is essential if you plan on making and selling games.”
Just as important as the experiences they have gained are the plans Aaron and Forest have for FlippFly’s future. For instance, their immediate focus will be updating Race the Sun, and following that, they will begin work on porting the game. As Forest explained, “we feel like we are only reaching a tiny portion of our audience and we want to remedy that.”
Beyond further follow up work on Race the Sun, they will also continue to honor one of the core reasons why the founded FlippFly – to innovate. Given their desire to create games that they have never played before, it should come as no surprise that Forest describes FlippFly’s future goals as what follows: “Longer term, we will be making prototypes and trying to discover something fun and new! We have tons of ideas to experiment with, and we hope a few of them are worth sharing with the world.”
Founded in 2008 and located in New London, Connecticut, Killer Minnow is a studio specializing in conceptual design, game design, motion graphics, animation, visual effects, and transmedia production. The studio has done work for the University of Connecticut, Hasbro, Goodnight Films, LEGO’s Monster Fighters and Star Wars lines, and more. In 2013, Killer Minnow expanded into the world of mobile gaming by creating Rocket Runner. Inspired by old arcade games, Rocket Runner is about an alien named Jarma Queed that, after escaping to the moon of his home world, discovers a fleet of ships approaching and decides to save his planet from this threat. To learn more about Killer Minnow’s unique history and its expansion into the gaming market with Rocket Runner, GameSauce recently interviewed the company’s Co-Founder and Executive Producer, Steve Lettieri.
A Killer Minnow in Training – Steve Lettieri’s Background
After majoring in History at the University of Miami, Lettieri earned a J.D. from The University of Connecticut School of Law. According to Lettieri, he went on to “practice law for a few years and found it wasn’t for me.” Not happy with a career in law, Lettieri turned to marketing and communications. It was a transition that allowed him to begin doing more creative work, such as animation and video production. Due to this career shift, Lettieri would later meet the men that would become his partners at Killer Minnow – Rob King (Creative Director) and Chris Conway (Animation/VFX Supervisor).
Gone Fishing – The Founding of Killer Minnow
At some point in the late 2000s, Lettieri, King, and Conway were becoming less and less satisfied with their jobs and wanted to do something more. “We all found ourselves itching to do something on our own, so the timing was right to start a company together,” says Lettieri. Specifically, they wanted to explore their love of creating new characters and telling stories. To achieve this goal, they decided to create Killer Minnow in 2008.
When they were first establishing the studio’s reputation, they wanted to focus on creating original web content. “We produced a sci-fi comedy web series called Zerks Log and started the indie sci-fi website SciFinal,” says Lettieri. Part of their initial plan was to extend these properties into multiple forms of media – such as comics, toys, and games. Unfortunately, the recession caused by the Subprime Mortgage Crisis of 2008 hit soon after Zerks Log was launched. In order to sustain the company in that difficult economy, Killer Minnow “pivoted into doing more client-focused creative work,” according to Lettieri.
Despite having to put their desire to create original content on the back-burner, Killer Minnow has still been able to survive a tumultuous economy by excelling at the projects their clients presented to the studio. Some of the clients that Killer Minnow was able to get were LEGO, Hasbro, Nickelodeon, and Scholastic. A particular highlight for the studio during this time, according to Lettieri, was “developing LEGO’s first original Star Wars character, Jek-14.” As a result of their success and goals, Lettieri feels that Killer Minnow has set itself apart from its competition because of the studio’s “ability to create fun, compelling characters and being able to produce all the pieces to bring them to life.”
Getting into Gaming – Creating Rocket Runner
While working for LEGO, Hasbro, and Nickelodeon allowed the studio to continue growing, these projects weren’t fulfilling the initial aims of Killer Minnow. “Doing work like that just reminded us that we should get back to our plan of creating original content,” comments Lettieri. As Killer Minnow became increasingly more involved in app and game development for its clients, Lettieri noted how he and his colleagues “thought that the game space had a better business upside than other original content areas, like online video.” Lettieri also revealed that they loved playing games. Their passion for games and this burgeoning market inspired the studio to create their own games.
Killer Minnow was originally planning to expand on Zerks Log to create a videogame, but this project didn’t come to fruition. According to Lettieri, Killer Minnow keeps “a library of characters and ideas that we revisit frequently.” And a concept that they kept revisiting was Rocket Runner. Like many of the projects at Killer Minnow, Rocket Runner started as “a character sketch on a napkin.” First doodled by Rob King several years ago, King was, according to Lettieri, “excited about the concept of a character that could wear his own spaceship and transform into it as needed.”
Rocket Runner centers on an alien named Jarma Queed. On Queed’s planet Delusia, most of the beings are lazy and frequently celebrate. As a result, 85 percent of Delusia is uncharted. Queed is unlike the majority of his species and decides to explore his home world. Queed would even receive help from the planet’s princess, Zasha, who is a scientific genius and would build all of his weapons and technology. Unfortunately, the ruler of the planet, King Zooja, is angered by Queed’s adventures. Using metallic automatons, the ruler locks up his daughter and chases Queed off of the planet and to Delusia’s moon. It is while he is on the moon that Queed observes an enemy fleet approaching, an observation that leads to the start of the game.
Though Killer Minnow passionately dove into the world of indie gaming, this decision did force the studio to push itself to its limits. “Because we’re mainly a creative studio, we don’t have certain technical abilities, like game developers in house,” says Lettieri. As such, Killer Minnow has partnered with a developer based in Boston. Additionally, the studio lacked anyone in house that was experienced with game design. Instead of contracting outside of the studio, the need for a game designer became an opportunity for an intern to earn a full-time job with the company. Lettieri says, “Luckily, our longtime intern, Nick Zak, was studying film in college. So he quickly shifted gears and started working on the game with us even before he finished school. And once he graduated, he jumped on the game full-time as his first employee project.”
Future Projects – Lessons Learned and Long Term Goals
While Rocket Runner has only been around for a short time, the game has benefited from Killer Minnow’s experience creating other forms of content. “You have to put in just as much time and effort to marketing your game as you do developing it,” says Lettieri. In many ways, the need to invest so much in promotion is becoming one of the biggest challenges for studios.
As of now, Killer Minnow is planning on building upon Rocket Runner with upcoming updates (such as additional levels, new weapons, more enemies, etc.) and launching a web comic that will provide Jarma Queed’s full background. Additionally, to help build interest in the game during the holiday season, Killer Minnow is allowing Rocket Runner to be downloaded for free from Apple’s AppStore and will be releasing a holiday-themed suit for Jarma Queed. Outside of Rocket Runner, there are also plans to create animated webisodes. Though Lettieri can’t fully discuss other projects that Killer Minnow is in the beginning stages of developing, he did reveal that these projects “will, of course, involve characters, games, as well as some new technology pieces.” Lettieri went on to say, “we’re pretty psyched about them.” It’s an excitement that shows that the passion that inspired Lettieri, King, and Conway to form Killer Minnow is still present.
Rich Vreeland, more commonly known as Disasterpeace, has always had a passion for music. After playing the guitar throughout childhood and his teenage years, Vreeland pursued his interest in music by going to Berklee College of Music. After college, Vreeland interned at the Singapore-MIT Game Lab where he worked on the puzzle games Waker and Woosh. This experience would not only further solidify his love for music and gaming, he would use this experience to build a career designing sound and music for videogames.
GameSauce was recently able to interview Disasterpeace about his background, his experience at MIT Game Lab, working on Bomberman, developing January, crafting the soundtrack for Fez, and his general thoughts on music in gaming.
Beginning of Disasterpeace
Rich Vreeland always had a love for music. As a teenager, he was into “Nu Metal and pretty much anything that was guitar heavy and riff oriented,” with two of his favorite bands at the time being Tool and Rage Against the Machine. It was around this time that Vreeland became interested in videogame music. One of the first projects to truly get Vreeland’s attention was Metroid Metal – a website dedicated to the soundtrack of the Metroid videogame franchise.
It was also during his teenage years that Vreeland created the name that many know him by: Disasterpeace. Coined in 2004, Vreeland says, “Disasterpeace came out of ‘masterpiece’, and I changed piece to peace to give it an additional meaning, in the sense that disaster and peace are sort of diametrically opposed to one another.” It is a name that Vreeland not only feels accurately represents his approach to music and sound, it is the name that Vreeland would take with him through college and into his professional career.
Vreeland began his college career in 2006 at Berklee College of Music and graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor’s of Music in Music Synthesis. Due to Berklee being located in Boston, Massachusetts, and his interest in videogame music, Vreeland eventually learned of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Game Lab and its internship opportunities. Vreeland was able to earn an audio intern at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab.
Getting into Gaming – MIT’s Game Lab
Taking place from June 2009 to August 2009, Vreeland’s internship at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab involved him being placed into a team that, as he told GameSauce, “worked together to create games that solved specific educational problems.” One game that his team created “attempted to help teach math concepts like acceleration and velocity.” Moreover, he continued, they “created two versions as a side effort to determine if narrative had any impact on the success of such an experience.”
Vreeland’s experience at MIT’s Game Lab also made it clear to him that music is his skill. “Music is what I do best…, so it’s been a relatively easy choice for me to keep music as my primary focus.” It was a realization that confirmed his passion and cemented his desire to pursue a career in game music and sound design. His experience also taught him the importance of exploring areas outside of his comfort zone while keeping in mind his strengths. “I don’t have any qualms exploring areas that I’m not comfortable or the best in,” says Vreeland, “But I think it’s important to recognize your strengths and to interface with the world around you and react to what they seem to want/need from you.”
This internship proved to be more than just a line on his resume, but rather an experience that would help him throughout his career. “Above and beyond anything else, I think I learned a lot about working with others in a creative environment,” he says.
Approach to Sounds, Music, and Franchise Games
After his internship, Vreeland went on to write music for games such as Bomberman Live: Battlefest and Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter. During this time, he learned how a work environment could affect his creativity. “As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that smaller teams tend to allow you more creative freedom to do the kind of work you want to do, and to do it in the way that you want,” says Vreeland. “Large teams tend to have layers of abstraction which make it difficult to communicate with others at times, and to get the right piece of information from the right person.”
In regards to his work on Bomberman Live, a franchise that has been around since the 1980s, Vreeland remembers how he and his colleague aimed to honor “the aesthetic style of the more recent games by creating music that was high fidelity but had lots of ‘gamey’ charm and energy.” He does admit, however, that he “would have liked to have paid more tribute to the older games,” but was more focused on meeting the required standards.
Vreeland learned during this time that his approach to sound design had to differ from job to job. “Developers want you to handle most of the conceptual legwork yourself, which is great fun, but other times, they want to work more closely with you,” he explains. Overall, he feels that a significant aspect of designing a game’s sound is letting the person with the “strongest vision for the work” lead you through the design. An example of this was his next project: designing sound for Fez.
Released in April 2012, Fez is a puzzle/platform game created by Phil Fish and developed by Fish and his company, Polytron. First announced in July 2007, the highly anticipated game took much longer than expected to be built. Upon the game’s release, Fez was not only met with critical and commercial success, its soundtrack was also well-received. It was so well-received that the soundtrack could be purchased, and an official remix version has been released.
Though Fez became known for its long development time, Vreeland only joined the project after the game’s visuals were established. “When I joined the project, the game’s visuals were largely set in place,” he says. “All that was left was figuring out how the levels worked together, some mechanical adjustments and lots of tweaking, as far as I can tell.” As such, Vreeland and Fish instead focused on how to develop a soundtrack that complimented the game’s unique mechanics.
Originally, he and Fish discussed using music that “tapped into the mechanics”. “It turned out to not really make much sense, so we ended up taking a more traditional approach,” Vreeland says. However, Vreeland pointed out that “one area in which the music takes advantage of the structure of the game is in the fact that the game is highly modular, and in some places, the music is as well.” Vreeland described this aspect as “layers com[ing] in and out and the music shifts as you move through various levels that are similar, but different.”
Snowflakes and Music – Developing January
Prior to working on Fez, Vreeland had been playing with ideas for games that would allow him to strengthen his programming skills. After finding a tutorial in Flixel on how to make Space Invaders in Actionscript 3, Vreeland felt that it would be the perfect opportunity to make a game about falling snow. This game concept eventually evolved into January.
Centering on a person outside while it’s snowing, the player moves the character in order to lick the falling snowflakes – with each snowflake touching the character’s tongue creating a musical note. “In the beginning, I didn’t even know it was going to be a strictly music-related experience, but that is sort of how it evolved as I got deeper and deeper into the code and trying to see what I could do with it.” As such, it is a game that uniquely displays how gameplay can be utilized to create original music.
The Shift to Mobile
Being involved in games, Vreeland noticed the significant change in consumer habits that is affecting all aspects of the gaming industry: the shift from consoles to mobile devices. Though this reallocation of consumers has impacted those that code and design games, Vreeland feels that “the difference between these two is still tantamount. In the beginning, I was writing music for cell phone games as MIDI files to be delivered, so in that regard, things have converged a bit.”
However, he doesn’t view mobile devices as having the hardware needed to a sound experience comparable to consoles.“Cell phones still have terrible speakers, and oftentimes, you have to adjust your sound and how it’s mixed accordingly so that it doesn’t get washed out by low frequency content that it simply cannot handle.”
Looking Back – Lessons Learned and Future Goals
During his time as a videogame music producer, Vreeland’s understanding of the industry grew just as much as his understanding and passion for music has. “I think seeing people experiment and create music that has so many nonlinear possibilities has given me a lot of perspective about music that I didn’t have before,” Vreeland reflected. “When paired with other media, it can really take you places you wouldn’t even think to go, and that’s one of the things that I think is so great about games and music in games.” Though he is amazed by the near limitless potential of games and music, Vreeland pointed out that “there are a lot of times at the end of the day that I still just want to listen to a good record. It’s funny that way.”
Vreeland is currently working on other several projects, with the next game to be released featuring his music being Cannon Brawl. In addition to making games, Vreeland wants to continue to develop his potential as a musician. “I really want to explore some different spaces, work my way into areas that are not all necessarily game related,” says Vreeland. “I really want to make some traditional albums, because it’s something I’ve been flirting with for years but have never done.” He has also become interested in scoring, an interest he describes as “refreshing and requires an entirely different set of parameters to accomplish.” Overall, though Vreeand doesn’t know exactly where his love of music will take him, he does know what he wants: “to be doing music-related things for a long, long time.”
A graduate of Tomsk State University, Sergey Burkatovskiy is currently the VP of Game Design at Wargaming.net. Founded in 1998, Wargaming.net is a strategy game developer that has created games such as Massive Assault and Order of War. It is currently producing the MMO World of Tanks and related games, World of Warplanes and World of Warships. Gamesauce was able to recently ask Burkatovskiy about Wargaming.net’s history, evolution, and future goals.
GS: Wargaming.net was founded in 1998. What do you think was missing from the gaming market that Wargaming.net was hoping to fill? Specifically, does Wargaming.net have an approach to game development that separates itself from other studios?
Sergey Burkatovskiy: Wargaming was created by Victor Kislyi and his friends in a dormitory during their college years. The initial thought was to switch from playing games to developing them. Our market focus has undergone several major transformations since then; we’ve tried different settings, genres, and formats. The studio began with porting the turn-based table-top strategy game De Bellis Antiquitatis to PC. Next, we shipped a series of turn-based computer wargames under the Massive Assault franchise, and then we turned to real-time strategy projects that included Operation: Bagration and Order of War. Now we focus on MMO games.
Although the company has experienced several different changes, its core aspect has remained the same—Wargaming continues to create, produce, and deliver fun and high-quality game experiences.
Our service-driven concept and the dedication we put into our projects is what separates Wargaming from other publishers. We are passionate about what we do; we genuinely care for our customers and try to ensure that their needs and wishes are listened to instead of trying to squeeze money out of them. That commitment has helped us build a following of millions of loyal players.
Wargaming.net launched its first game, DBA Online, in 1998. While there was widespread usage of the Internet at this time, it was still relatively slow. What were some of the ways Wargaming.net tried to maximize the available bandwidth?
The DBA Online game setup allowed us to bypass slow connection issues. The game only required short periods of internet connection (10-20 seconds) to send and receive turns. Each turn could be made off-line, and players weren’t required to stay online while they considered their next move.
As Wargaming.net has continued to produce more online games, are there aspects of game development that the studio has become better at or is each new game almost like starting from scratch?
Each project has taught us important lessons. Massive Assault, for example, was our first step in developing three-dimensional graphics (DBA Online battles occurred on 2D battlefields), and it’s easy to see how the graphics component has evolved over the series. Our early turn-based projects taught us a lot about games marketing. We learned that being too niche or appealing to only one hardcore audience can bring little or no profit. The more accessible you make your games, the wider appeal they will have.
We learned a lot from World of Tanks that helped us in the development for World of Warplanes. We now have a clear idea of what does and doesn’t work in terms of technology implementation and tools, which solidifies our planning and helps us avoid certain pitfalls. We’ve brought all the key game design elements that worked well in World of Tanks (simplified controls, game mechanics, business model, upgrade and damage systems) and applied them to World of Warplanes.
2007 is when Wargaming.net switched from turn-based gaming to real-time strategy. What were some of the reasons for this switch? Was it that the technology needed was available, or was this just a response to shifts in the market?
I would say both. Having shipped five turn-based strategy games in the Massive Assault series, we felt that we had studied the genre completely. We learned a lot from making TBS games, but the time comes when you want to spread your wings as a developer and reach a wider audience. That was what we really wanted. Real-time strategies had the bulk of the games’ market at that time, so we opted for them.
Another major event that contributed to the genre choice was Wargaming’s acquisition of the Arise development studio. They had a strong team of programmers and visual artists with rich expertise in real-time strategies to contribute to our games, so it felt like the logical choice.
Similarly, Wargaming.net moved into the free-to-play MMO market in 2010 with World of Tanks. How did this move to free-to-play change Wargaming.net’s approach to game development?
Switching from turn-based strategy games to MMO projects was a huge leap for us. We have been working extra hours to ensure that game servers run smoothly and have the capacity to sustain large number of players. We never expected such a large number of players would play the game, and we had to drastically increase our server capacity after the open beta launch. We built new data centers and perfected the server-side technology. A major milestone here was the introduction of multicluster technology; it allowed us to add several clusters to each server group and maintain server stability. In terms of game design, a lot of critical thinking went into devising PvP battle sessions, tweaking the matchmaking system and vehicle balance.
What was the inspiration behind creating World of Tanks?
The Wargaming team has always been fans of military history. Most of us come from Belarus or Russia and were raised in the post-World War II era in a society that cherished its heroic past. When the concept for World of Tanks came to be, the company had already developed several military titles (Order of War and Order of War: Challenge), we had the experience, and using our favorite topic as an IP for a new project was considered a good idea.
World of Tanks was initially aimed at military enthusiasts and history buffs, but found a global audience. Why do you think World of Tanks became so popular?
It’s original IP, accessibility, balance, and variety allowed World of Tanks to become such a great success.
There was a lull in the MMO world back in 2010. Most titles were set in a fantasy realm and audiences began to grow tired of elves and orcs. So not surprisingly, World of Tanks and its new IP was a breath of fresh air for a lot of people.
The game has a lot of longevity. Unlike most MMO titles, where there is a five minute wait time to load and get in game, World of Tanks players can start the battle with just a few clicks. The game plays and has controls like most first-person shooter titles, and is easy to get into.
Along with the ease of controls, World of Tanks has variables that create great replay value. It features five different classes of vehicles each with unique characteristics. Players learn tactics, progress through the tech trees, research better modules and consumables, and improve their machines. It’s not an endless sequence of scripted events—each battle unfurls in a unique way. It’s always dynamic and always different. That’s why after working on it for so long; we still enjoy playing it so much internally (at Wargaming).
World of Tanks has become so popular that Wargaming.net is developing World of Warships and World of Warplanes. Why was it decided to develop these games separately instead of making them an expansion of World of Tanks?
We thought about integrating warplanes and warships into World of Tanks, but the concept proved to be technically impossible due to the gameplay differences.
The three warfare types have completely different levels of vulnerability. If all three were within one map, the tankmen would get shot down by virtual pilots in no time, provided planes didn’t get dismantled by the naval monsters even faster, which was very likely. Another point is that each type calls for a particular map size (1 x 1 km2 for World of Tanks, 15 x 15 km2 for World of Warplanes, and no less than 30 x 30 km2 for World of Warships). So, we decided to make three standalone projects, and draw them together with one economy and Clan Wars support.
While many people play your games just to have fun, there are probably many people who want some level of historical accuracy in your games. How much effort does Wargaming.net put into researching planes, ships, and tanks to make them historically accurate?
Each warfare model takes several months to bring to life. Game design begins by gathering authentic references, then historic consultants hand what they’ve put together to programmers who go on to develop a 3D model. Artists prep authentic textures and core customization items (camouflage, coloring schemes, etc.), and the balance team tweaks the primary combat setting. Consultants guide them throughout the process, double-checking every element to ensure it falls in line with real-life designs.
With the success of World of Tanks and Wargaming.net’s other games, Wargaming.net has purchased and opened studios all over the world. What are the benefits of having a physical global presence instead of just concentrating your financial resources in one area?
At Wargaming, we pursue the global approach with local flexibility. Having offices all other the world allows us to deliver superior quality and timely customer service to its player base, adjust offerings to regional market, and establish relationships with local communities.
Since 1998, Wargaming.net has grown from a small group of employees to over 1500. What do you think were some of the major shifts to take place since 1998?
Wargaming has built strong relationships over-time with die-hard strategy fans and casual gamers alike. The company has been very agile from the start, pivoting from a small studio that focused on turn-based strategy games, to an international company that excelled at service-driven MMO projects.
In 2012, Victor Kislyi and his business partners decided it was the right time for the company to expand, and acquired the Australian middleware developer BigWorld. Since then, the company has solidified its cross-platform team by purchasing the Chicago-based Day 1 Studios and welcoming the legendary Chris Taylor and Gas Powered Games to the team. We no longer direct all of our recourses to PC games development, and we are prepping for another major step-up.
Women are becoming a larger percentage of the gaming market every year and military games have a reputation of appealing to mainly men. Does Wargaming.net keep track of the gender of its players? How do you feel Wargaming.net is hoping to appeal to women?
Military-themed games naturally appeal more to male audience. However, there is one thing I can assure you of without running research and analyzing in-game stats. We have a large number of hardcore female tank commanders at Wargaming and they often outperform their male adversaries. In 2011, one of our female World of Tanks players participated in the Russian Miss Gamer beauty contest, and we sent an entire team to support her.
Most media companies are striving to adapt their intellectual properties across multiple mediums. Are there any plans to adapt your games into movies, comic book, or other platforms?
We have a lot of interests, and we would like to create new projects in different genres and on different platforms. We’ve published several books built around World of Tanks universe while our players are actively working on cartoons and comics dedicated to the game. As for the movies, we never say no…
What are some of Wargaming.net’s upcoming projects?
We have three big MMO’s in production: World of Tanks, World of Warplanes, and World of Warships. Apart from them, a mobile version of World of Tanks called World of Tanks Blitz and browser-based World of Tanks Generals are in development, as well as the recently announced World of Tanks Xbox Edition. As for the upcoming projects, I can tease you a bit by saying that Chris Taylor’s team is working on a big free-to-play MMO, though there’re not any details about the setting of the game that I can share with you at the moment.