Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Sidebar: Meet Ska Studios

Since posting last week’s invitation for content, I have learned two things: 1) Some people would actually enjoy hearing me talk about Magic The Gathering, and 2) People did not like the 2011 Video Game Awards on Spike TV. I wish I could be saying that I found some novel way to unite these two into a powerful, Voltron-esque article, but rather, I took inspiration from the latter issue foremost. It pertains to an issue that has bothered me for some time, with regards to the video game industry. Disclaimer: I am not about to lament everything in the VGAs.

What was most apparent to me about the VGAs is that the music and movie industries have one powerful thing that the gaming industry does not. Something so lacking, and of which it is in such need, that the VGAs endeavored to transplant this missing organ from movies and music. It is a simple thing, but rather awkwardly also something for which most games players probably do not care much, but if our industry is ever to be taken as seriously as its two bigger brothers, we’re going to need it. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you: The Mainstream Celebrity.

No no no no no. Stop this.
I don’t particularly like the Black-Eyed Peas, but I can tell you without hesitation that their main guy is called Will.I.Am. Similarly, I have never seen even a single High School Musical, but I’m well aware that Zac Efron is the guy that pre-teen (or creepy) girls love. I don’t know the lyrics to any Chris Brown or Rihanna songs, and yet I heard that there was some serious domestic abuse scandal that happened between them. Conversely, I’m not aware of a single game developer who had an affair this year. The most gossip-worthy item that I can recall of recent is that some people think Shigeru Miyamoto might retire soon, but we’re not really sure. Shigsy (as only his close friends call him, maybe) is perhaps the most famous game developer in the world, and even he is a bit of an enigma. Do we love him for his mystery? Not really, it’s just that no-one particularly cares. I know that he enjoys cycling to work, because I read about it one time. However, it didn’t make the cover of People.

Much of the lamenting about the VGAs was because it seemed to be trying to appeal to a few demographics that just do not tesselate: mainstream viewers, core gamers, and fans of teabagging. We had a host from a television show, we had Will.I.Am desperately wanting us to believe that he cared about games, and Deadmau5 showed up to do some music at some point. Meanwhile, the always-lovely Felicia Day ate cupcakes off a conveyor belt, and a developer from Modern Warfare got teabagged. That’s enough about teabagging, but I think I’ve made my point. Too much time is spent making fun of our own industry, while it claws onto others to validate it. We’re painfully self-deprecating and yet desperate for approval. Sound like you? Welcome to video games, kid.

In light of all this, I am going to try my best to turn this around. This is just one site on the Internet, but if we stand for anything, it’s the legitimization of our craft. I am going to introduce you to the people behind the things that you love, and show you that next time you need a sweet romance story, you can eschew Twilight, and instead read about this week’s guests: James Silva and Michelle Juett from Ska Studios. Based in upstate New York (that’s the part that isn’t New York City, fact-fans), Ska Studios are famous for their delirious, mysterious, and hyper-violent The Dishwasher series, among other things. I took some time this week to talk to them, and they are excellent people. Read on, McDuff!

Meet James and Michelle from Ska Studios
So, why ‘Ska Studios’?

James: I was really big on ska and punk (and even ska punk!) in high school, I was all about bands like Operation Ivy and Suicide Machines (their first album, anyway).  I feel like after its big mainstream break in the late 90s, ska has more or less returned to something between obscurity and a joke, so nabbing the word for our company name works as something of an homage for a totally crazy if slightly embarrassing time.  And hopefully–at some level–our games can capture the organized chaos of a Catch 22 show.

How did you both get into games design?

J: Ever since I was 12 or so I’ve wanted to make games. Like a lot of people, I started out by sketching out levels for a Nintendo platformer (“Mom, how can I get them to make this into a game?”) and, like a lot of people, I carried that obsession into my teen and college years, eventually getting a Computer Science degree and, at some point, getting half-decent at the game-making part.

Michelle: James, I don’t think that’s what a lot of people do… Anyway, I’ve always been drawing and always playing games. I went to university for my BA in Fine Arts but I didn’t figure out that I could combine the art with games until my junior year of college when I had a roommate who wanted to get into concept art for video games. A giant, figurative light bulb turned on and I decided to make art in games my career goal. However, I didn’t get to jump into art in games right away. I first had to do my time by working in quality assurance (QA) for four years and creating art on the side. Now that I’m at Ska Studios I still do a bit of QA, do a bit of business end work such as organizing PAX and acting as Ska’s PR agent and community manager but I also get to do art as much as I want!

When you look back at when you started out, compared to how things are now, how does it make you feel?

J: I’m really proud, yet humble about the future. I made lots of obscure games before The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai that no one really cared much for, and it’s hard to forget where I came from. Dead Samurai, Vampire Smile, and weird hit I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT all took off like crazy, and I couldn’t be happier.  I get to make a living doing what I love, and it’s basically the greatest job ever.

M: I really wish I had been here at the start of it all but I only first knew about James because he started to get famous with The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai and when I was a tester for Microsoft, working on said game all the way over in Redmond, Washington. I’d say him winning Dream Build Play was the best thing to happen to the both of us. We probably wouldn’t have met if not for that contest and Dead Samurai getting an XBLA contract.

“When an indie film or videogame gives you an experience that you can’t find in a big budget production, indie art wins.”
Charlie Murder is River City Ransom,
 as viewed through a Vaseline lens of blood.
Do you believe that the perception of ‘indie’ vs ‘mainstream’ gaming is the same in this industry as that of others, such as music or film? What makes it different, if anything?

J: I think you can do a lot more with an indie game than you can with an indie film.  You can make a captivating and visually attractive indie game in a few weeks with a few hundred dollars for ramen and rent, but if you apply the same budget to the film medium, you end up with student film that requires… patience.  That being said, both mediums really let innovation and creativity shine when the big funds just aren’t there: when an indie film or videogame gives you an experience that you can’t find in a big budget production, indie art wins.

Do you think it is any less difficult to be an indie developer at the minute, on account of indie games becoming ever-more de rigeur?

J: I think it will always be extremely difficult to be a successful indie developer.  I was trying unsuccessfully for a decade or so, give or take, before my XBLA big break, and even then, The Dishwasher could have tanked like so many other indie newcomers.  In fact, The Dishwasher got its XBLA contract about two months after I had buried the dream: I had just found full-time employment after graduating college, and, though game development worked well as a part time endeavor for a full-time student, working 40 hours a week simply left me with no extra time for game development.

M: Basically what James said. It’s relatively easy to be an indie developer. You need some free time and programming skills. It’s very hard to be a successful indie dev and it’s way easier to just apply to a big company provided you have what they’re looking for. That’s exactly what I was doing until I was lucky enough to fall in love with a successful indie game developer and lucky enough he wanted me to make games with him. Turns out he thinks I’m a pretty awesome artist. Win-win.

On the subject of art, your artwork is noteworthy for a distinct, hand-drawn, almost (such as in The Dishwasher: VS) water-colour style. From whom or where do you draw your design inspiration?

M: Since Dishwasher is all James’ child, I’ll let him cover this one.

J: I get asked this a lot; sometimes I lie and say Jhonen Vasquez because that’s what people expect (still haven’t read a single Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, thank you), but I think my style is basically what happens when you grow up watching trying to draw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and making flipbooks of Mortal Kombat fatalities and just keep at it. In terms of people, I’d choose Ryûhei Kitamura and Tim Burton.

Guitars that shoot fire? Sold.
Are your backgrounds more in programming, or storytelling?

M: Definitely not programming for me but I have always been writing stories. Ever since I was a kid, when others were bumming around the mall or whatever it is kids do, I was in my room drawing and writing. Such a childhood has contributed equally to both my storytelling talents and crippling social anxiety!

J: Interestingly, my first programming experience was in writing text-based adventures in BASIC when I was twelve or so, so the answer is, um, “yes.”

Excellent answer! What is your most prized geek possession? Is there anything that you’re still holding onto from way back when?

M: I was a tester on the XBLA version of Portal some years back and Valve sent us posters with a bunch of dev signatures. I framed it and it always goes up on the wall wherever I live. I also have a photo with Stan Lee I got at Emerald City Comic Con. <3

J: A 6″ figurine of The Dishwasher that Michelle made for me when she was living in Seattle. It is actually the most amazing thing ever.

By combining a bar, a clothes store, and physical violence,
Charlie Murder achieves the much sought-after gaming trifecta
of appeal: men, women, and psychopaths.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?

J: Yes! We’re making Charlie Murder, a 4 player punk rock beat-em-up.  Charlie Murder’s gameplay is easiest to describe as Battletoads meets Borderlands, but the flavor is decidedly Ska Studios.  The first real game I made was basically a River City Ransom (best game ever) clone called Zombie Smashers X (the gimmick was that blood stayed on the ground forever!), so Charlie Murder’s sort of about taking everything I’ve learned over the last ten years and bringing it back to my roots.  It’s about a 4-piece punk band that rose to stardom, fell to obscurity, and is staging the most amazing comeback ever against rival death metal band Gore Quaffer at the Battle of the Bands.  Laugh if you want, but it’s actually a bit personal.

M: It’s all true. Mostly. You decide.

Ska Studios are currently working on Charlie Murder for XBLA. You can read our review of The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile here. And if you happened to read the Penny Arcade article that I linked above, watch this to get all gooey.

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