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.

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