Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Meet Owlchemy Labs

Hello all, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. The Indie Megabooth Mega Interview series rolls on! This week, I caught up with Alex Schwartz, one of the head honchos over at Owlchemy Labs in Boston. Already purveyors of the sublime and ridiculous, as in the binomialSmuggle Truck/Snuggle Truck, this trend is set to continue with their upcoming title, Jack Lumber. Read on to find out more.
alex head 198x300 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Owlchemy Labs
Alex Schwartz setting himself up for innuendo captions about wood.
So, who are you guys?
I am Alex Schwartz, and Owlchemy Labs is my independent, self-funded game development studio based out of Boston, MA. We create absurd yet highly polished downloadable game experiences, and are the guys behind Smuggle Truck, Snuggle Truck, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! (Force = Mass x Acceleration), and the upcoming Jack Lumber.
What inspired ‘Owlchemy Labs’?
Everything we do is based on bad wordplay or puns, so it only seemed fitting to inject our favorite animal into our company title. Of course, we also do lots of fancy science here, hence the labs.
How did you get started into game design?
I got into the game industry via the modding scene, like lots of other developers. I was deep into the Halo 1 modding scene on Xbox, which involved performing fun hacks and building new levels with primitive community-designed tools. I went to school for Computer Engineering/Game Development in Massachusetts at WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, further education fans -Ed) and jumped out of that right into the AAA game development  industry with Seven45 Studios where I stayed for just under two years, before starting my own studio.
That must have been quite a change. What was it like to go from working as a technical artist in the AAA side of the industry, to becoming the boss of your own independent developer?
When I quit my job to form my own company, it was quite the leap of faith. I had spent years thinking about the switch, talking with advisors, prepping the business end of things, and getting ready to form my own venture. When the time finally came, it felt completely natural to transition to this ‘next thing’. My business partner and I began cranking the gears on our first independent title with a solid plan and firm goals to get into the PAX Indie Showcase. We hit our mark and ended up launching Smuggle Truck / Snuggle Truck on multiple major platforms. The process wasn’t without an ungodly amount of work and insane challenges and hardships, but in the end it worked out and we’re continuing to create unique independent titles.
owlchemy team 630x418 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Owlchemy Labs
Flannel shirts: hallmark of quality independent development.
“Indies are creating the games that AAA literally cannot make”
What makes the independent scene so special?
I think there’s definitely a stigma associated with the indie gaming scene. People frequently make assumptions when they hear a title is ‘indie’. Some of those stereotypes are true, but what I feel really separates indies from the AAA industry is that indies are creating the games that AAA literally cannot make. Whether it’s because of the deep personal connection, or their offbeat nature, indies can create more unique concepts and be hyper-agile in the development process. All too often, tiny teams create great things at the expense of polish and usability, but we try to span that gap by making awesome titles that match or even exceed the polish and usability of some of the heavily funded mainstream titles out there.
That’s a bold manifesto. With such passion, is now an exciting time to be an indie developer? What sort of challenges do you face because of it?
It’s a great time to be an indie. The challenges are plain and simple. Operating with small budgets is a huge challenge, but as developers we enjoy the creative freedoms of self-publishing and have the satisfaction of seeing a concept through to completion without external meddling. With the rise of low-barrier-to-entry distribution channels, indies can forgo publishers and forge their own path, speak to the press in a human, approachable way, and connect with players on a deeper level than any large studio could ever do.
Does your history lie more in the analytical, or storytelling side of things?
My background is in problem solving and spanning the creative and engineering side of game development. As a technical artist and now project lead, it’s extremely important to be able to understand the entire game development process end-to-end and to be able to jump in on any and all stages of the production process. With our small team size, almost everyone I work with can be considered a ‘multiple hat wearer’.
What were you showing at the Indie Megabooth?
So, we’re currently working on a title for Android and iOS platforms about a supernatural lumberjack. Naturally. The game is called Jack Lumber, and should see release some time this summer. A tree killed your grandma and you’re out to get revenge on the forest. With your supernatural powers, you chop logs in bullet time in the sky. It’s quite an absurd game, but gamers seem to be loving it!
jack lumber skunk screen Sunday Sidebar: Meet Owlchemy Labs
Few games feature skunks as a mechanic. Jack Lumber is delighted to be the exception.
It sounds absurd indeed! Jack Lumber is your second original game since Snuggle Truck, but they don’t seem too closely related. What inspired such a change? Did someone tragically lose a grandmother in evergreen circumstances?
[Laughs] Well, it was inspired by our love for nature and our disdain for trees, particularly after an unspeakable, tree-related close call involving our artist. Our prime goal is to create absurd gaming experiences. Snuggle Truck was our first go at it, which was followed up by our work on the Steam sequel to AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, and then with the iOS version soon after. Now Jack Lumber is our next big thing.
Finally, what is your most prized geek possession?
That’s a tough one. Let’s see… I have an awesome one-of-a-kind Spiderman sculpture cut from a tree and painted by a local artist. I had a bit of a comic collection as a teenager, which I began selling off later, but that one piece has stuck with me ever since.
Thanks for stopping by, Alex!
Thank you!
jack lumber 630x472 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Owlchemy Labs
The titular Jack Lumber in the flesh.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Meet Gaijin Games

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. At PAX East 2012, I was quite simply gobmacked by the teamwork behind the Indie Megabooth. It represented everything that the independent gaming scene should be about: innovation, imagination, and emancipation from their big-league counterparts. That many of the games on display at the booth drew so much attention and praise was even greater to see. Inspired by this, I have set myself the task to return to the expositional origins of the Sunday Sidebar, and to endeavor to successfully get to know each of the teams behind the Indie Megabooth – sixteen in all. This week, ladies and gentlemen, Gaijin Games!
alex neuse 300x200 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Gaijin Games
Alex Neuse is 100% just a regular guy. Honest.
Who are you guys?
I am Alex Neuse, co-founder of Gaijin Games, who are the totally awesome development studio behind the BIT.TRIPseries of video games, and we’re most recently hard at work on BIT.TRIP Presents: Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien!
That is quite the title! I’m intrigued by the name of your company name, too. Why ‘Gaijin Games’?
We chose the Gaijin name because we have admired and loved Japanese games ever since we were short. We aspire to make games that are as high quality as the Japanese games we grew up with, but we are definitely on the outside as Americans.  We are, as it turns out, a bunch of Gaijin. [Editor's note: "Gaijin" is the Japanese word for "foreigner"]
How did you get into game design, and when?
We all come from various backgrounds in the industry. Some of us started in QA and worked our way into our current positions while others entered the industry right out of college. Several of us have worked for more mainstream video game studios, and all of us had worked in the independent scene before establishing the team we have now. Our industry history goes back to 1997, and if you combine all of our years of experience across all team members, we’ve been working in this industry for 80 years.
Eighty years?! Holy moly. So when you look at how things have changed since then, how does it make you feel?
Well, as we age, we get smarter, make fewer mistakes, and are able to make decisions better; so we have definitely learned a few things along the way, which feels nice for sure. Also, having gone totally independent, we’re able to pursue any wacky ideas that come to mind, and that’s not something you can do in the AAA studios. It’s liberating to be doing what we’re doing. And back when we all started out, there really was no such thing as an independent video game scene. The industry seems to have matured. It’s great.
 ”Being independent means freedom. We can take more risks.”
Do you believe that the perception of ‘indie’ vs ‘mainstream’ gaming is the same in this industry as that of others, such music or film? What makes it different, if anything?
I suppose it is. By definition, being “independent” means that we are able to think and act for ourselves. I think that’s largely the same in the film and music industry as well. Once a big studio/label signs on, they’ve got their own corporate agendas, which is fine, but that means that they are only able to take the risks that THEY want to take. And if you want to do something other than their vision, they will not allow it. It’s the same in the game industry. Being independent means freedom. We can take more risks.
Does that risk factor make it an exciting time to be an indie developer? What sort of challenges do you face because of it?
I think any time would be an exciting time to be an indie developer. Lots of the challenges that indies face revolve around the ability (or inability) to make games of a larger scope. Since most indies don’t have grillions of dollars like the big boys do, we have to be more creative in how we spin our yarns. Yes this is a challenge, but it’s also exciting. Humans can do so much with so little, so long as they’re willing to try.
The BIT.TRIP games have been celebrated for their unique approach to musical interplay. What was it that inspired you?
There are a lot of things that inspired us as we made the BIT.TRIP series. We have been big fans of rhythm/music games over the ages, and we’d always appreciated the emotional impact that music can have on human beings. So telling a story that is about one human’s life, from beginning to end, didn’t seem right to do without having it be incredibly musically charged.
mike gaijin 224x300 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Gaijin Games
Co-Founder Mike Roush looking every inch the Gaijin gangster.
Do your backgrounds lie more in programming, or the storytelling side of things?
Mike Roush and I, the two founders of Gaijin Games, have backgrounds in art and design, but each of us would definitely say that we are storytellers – especially when forced to choose between programming and storytelling. Creating games with a legitimate emotional impact is one of the things that we strive to do, and doing that requires a certain amount of storytelling, whether it be through art, design, gameplay programming, or musical compositions.
What are your team’s most prized geek possessions?
Jason Cirillo’s is his AdventureVision game console.
Mike Gonzales’ is his Valve shirt that the Portal team gave to him once. It’s got someone being killed by a toilet on it.
Andrew Hynek’s is his copy of the first game he ever worked on.
Danny Johnson has a copy of Portal 2 for the Xbox 360 that’s signed by the development team.
Chris Meyer loves his Bionic Commando lunchbox.
Erin Pearce-Zuazua’s is a secret.
Mike Roush’s is probably his 1st Edition Redline Club Hot Wheels car with the 1/5000 Red Stripe Camero.
As for mine? I think mine might be my Galaxy Explorer LEGO set or – wait – my E.T. prototype Atari 2600 cartridge!
Finally, can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
Right now, we’re hard at work on BIT.TRIP Presents: Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien, or simply Runner2 for sanity’s sake. You can keep up to date with the development at where we’re trying to have an incredibly open development process for our fans, enthusiasts about game development, or just curious bystanders. Please visit and leave a comment or two!
runner2 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Gaijin Games
Runner2 marks a huge leap in the visual style of BIT.TIP series

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Booth Babes – Where do you draw the line?

Last weekend’s PAX East was a rip-roaring success. For the majority of attendees, the three day expo saw them thoroughly gamed and entertained. However, alongside the panels, indie megabooths, and tabletop tournaments, there were a couple of events that generated an unexpected backlash toward the event’s organizers, Penny Arcade.
keith apicary 300x200 Sunday Sidebar: Booth Babes   Where do you draw the line?
A post-expulsion Keith Apicary surrounded by supporters
The first of these events was the ejection of gamer-comedian Keith Apicary from the convention. He was escorted following his inability to adhere to pre-agreed contractual guidelines. Apicary’s schtick is not something with which I am terribly familiar, so I cannot comment further than what I have read of the events, which suggest that he was asked to leave after breaking the terms under which he had been allowed to attend. Namely: remaining dressed.
Which brings us to the second, and perhaps more contentious, event. Jessica Nigri being told to cover up her body on the show floor. Jessica had been working with Grasshopper Manufacture to promote their upcoming game Lollipop Chainsaw. The game features a teenage girl fending off a zombie horde with a – you guessed right – huge chainsaw. Being a Suda51 joint, the title is prone to rather a spot of over-sexualization, and as such, Jessica’s role was to be dressed up in all manner of too-short tops and skirts. After changing into her pink costume (pictured below), Jessica was asked by Mike Krahulik to either remain within their promotional school bus, or to change her outfit.

jessica nigri Sunday Sidebar: Booth Babes   Where do you draw the line?
Jessica was asked to change back into cheerleader from... whatever this pink outfit was
Stranger still is that professionally, nothing happened. Jessica said it was A-OK. She understood that her clothing might be pushing the boundaries of acceptable attire, and one quick wardrobe change later, everything was fine. That is, until certain people started to speak out. Some were angry that anything she was wearing was considered appropriate, while others were indignant at Mike’s alleged disgust at the female form, enforcing a ‘patriarchy’ attitude, stifling creativity, etc etc. It sparked a lot of reaction that invites discourse. Just where do we draw the PR line?
One of the founding principles of the Penny Arcade Expo was that there would not be booth babes. Their use as promotional implements was seen to serve only to lower outward opinion of the industry, and the sleazy use of titillation to sell was considered to be juvenile, and unwelcome at an event that would serve not only a male audience, but females and children, also. With this principle in mind, I think we can agree that Mike Krahulik was well within his rights, as the show’s owner, to ask Ms Nigri to change. It reminded me immediately of a similarly negative reaction, though against booth babes, at last year’s PAX East, with regards to the Duke Nukem Forever booth.
duke nukem pax east booth Sunday Sidebar: Booth Babes   Where do you draw the line?
Attendees were invited to have their photographs taken sitting on Duke's throne.
Whilst queuing up to try Duke Nukem Forever, my (female) companion and I got talking to one of the women working at the booth, and I was surprised to find out that she was an avidQuake player, and had been playing PC games since that series began way back in 1996. When I asked her what she thought of the costumes, etc, she said that it seemed like a good bit of fun, and that it hadn’t caused any problems so far. Of course, this was two hours into the first day of the convention, and shortly afterward, people could be heard speaking on both sides of whether or not Gearbox should be using such tactics to promote their release. One of the more hotly-debated aspects was whether or not it was ‘ironic’, and then whether not that made it acceptable. Contemporary reactions at DNF‘s release were that it felt wholly unironic, and in fact mostly embarassing. One review I remember compared the protagonist to an inappropriate uncle at a family gathering. Interestingly, though, this was juxtaposed at the time with Shadows of the Damned, Grasshopper Manufacture’s biggest title before Lollipop Chainsaw, which was praised for its handling of lascivious humor in a way that made the jokes land rather than fall flat. And so the circle is complete.
Dear reader, I ask of your opinion: Is PAX right to outlaw booth babes? Is it unacceptable for a woman to dress sexually in a family setting? Or is it unacceptable to tell someone what they can or cannot wear? I don’t believe that there is a right answer, but I’m curious as to where the majority lies.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Temporary Service Disruption

Hey everybody, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. Due to a double-whammy of both PAX East and Easter (PAX Easter?), this week’s Sunday Sidebar is on a week’s vacation. There shall be, without a doubt, plenty upon which to reminisce following the news and big reveals of Boston’s premier annual gaming convention next week. Until then…
mario eggs Sunday Sidebar: Temporary Service Disruption
How I'll be spending my Easter weekend.
So for now, whether you are spending the weekend, and particularly today, with close family, or perhaps knee-deep in a winner-takes-all GoldenEye tournament in the Classic Console Freeplay, I trust you’ll be having a wonderful time. Have a great weekend, folks.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Corporations are people, my friend

The past few months have been up and down in terms of games news and reviews.’We’ve had games that have been proclaimed the final word in ‘games as art’, and we’ve had sacred franchises tossed in the air, then hated and loved and campaigned for and campaigned against and so on and so forth until the last syllable of recorded time.
Throughout all of this excitement though, there have been a number of serious and unfortunate revelations concerning developers and core companies in the industry. It’s easy to hear of a company sinking into bankruptcy and feel perhaps disappointed that a franchise you grew up with are falling by the wayside, what is of most concern is the sheer number that seem to be suffering.
game store 300x225 Sunday Sidebar: Corporations are people, my friend
Another possible nail in the brick-and-mortar retail coffin.
This week in the United Kingdom, GAME, arguably the most well-known brick and mortar videogames retailer in the country, closed 277 (almost half) of its stores in one fell swoop as it went into administration, a process of cutting down assets in an effort to form a sellable business package and find a buyer. Among ‘core’ players, GAME is likely not a high consumer priority, but it is almost definitely where they will have first begun to nurture their hobby, whether by acquiring their first consoles, or using their limited funds to trade old games for new releases. GAME has, as of today, been bought by an equity firm, though not in its entirety, and the purchase is no guarantee of continuing success. The death of a big box retailer might not seem so terrible, but the loss of a key gaming business in the public eye is undoubtedly an undesirable loss.
skies of arcadia 300x225 Sunday Sidebar: Corporations are people, my friend
Despite impressive visuals, the Dreamcast failed
Sega is preparing to post a loss of just over 7 billion yen next week, citing “the challenging economic climate and significant changes in the home video game software market environment in the U.S. and Europe.” Sega have been suffering for a long time, almost ever since the Dreamcast failed to garner the financial success it (I believe) sorely deserved. Their decision to move away from hardware production in order to focus solely on games has without a doubt led to their reputation waning within the industry. The announcement of financial loss is going to be accompanied by plans to ‘streamline’ the company for ‘sustained profitability’. Streamlining is such a positive-sounding word for such a negative reality.

thq vigil day out 300x258 Sunday Sidebar: Corporations are people, my friend
There is every chance that one or more of these Vigil employees are no longer with the company.
THQ is the company perhaps most in spotlight for financial disaster of recent. GiantBomb’s Alex Navarro put it bestwhen he said, “It’s not that we enjoy talking about THQ’s miseries, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so, given the general volume of rather lousy news we’ve reported on the publisher in the last several months… but we swear, we hate reporting on this. It’s just that this stuff keeps happening.”
This week’s THQ tragedy concerned their Warhammer MMO, Dark Alliance, being downsized to a single-player focus from its MMO origins. Alongside the gameplay adjustment, 118 further layoffs hit their company, between Vigil Games and Relic Entertainment. I hold fond memories of THQ for their early 2000s wrestling titles on the N64, and it’s sad to see them die what looks to be a slow and agonizing death over the last year.
Finally, I want to return to a company I was celebrating last week: OMGPop. No overnight success story would be complete without a fall from grace, and OMGPop’s came this weekend with a massive backlash against CEO Dan Porter, who took to Twitter to badmouth Shay Pierce, the only (now ex-)employee to have refused the move to Zynga, choosing instead to return to his indie gaming roots. Pierce wrote an article explaining his motivations this week in Gamasutra, if you’re interested. Choosing to badmouth ex-employees is one thing, but the backlash has extended further, highlighting a number of offensive and embarassing comments made by OMGPop’s CEO. Perhaps the most offensive tweet follows:
“Games are fun. But they can be socially relevant too. Please share this. At Draw Something, by OMGPOP & Zynga, we just added the word HOODIE”
I’m not really sure what to say about that. Is it supposed to be a failed attempt at satire? It’s in bad taste. While it might blow over, we may just see something develop out of this over the course of the week. Needless to say, I’m put off at the prospect of playing Draw Something now.
Each of these stories concerns hard workers receiving poor treatment, whether it has been willing or unwilling. It’s a sorry picture for the industry, and our thoughts go out to each and every one of the families who’ll be dealing with the ill effects of this news in weeks to come. Corporations are people, my friend, but their employees even more so.