Well hello there, and welcome to the next installment in your indie gaming education. Today’s class features Pat Kemp, a game designer working at Spry Fox in Seattle. Pat has had a varied and fascinating career in the games industry, having worked for numerous indies, as well as two very well-known corporations, both of which are notorious for their own particular reasons. So if he worked for these big-leaguers, why isn’t he riding the gravy train of shareholder’s meetings and corporate pressure? Because he’s an indie, and you can read on to find out all about it.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Pat Kemp, and I’m a game designer at Spry Fox. I’ve been with the company about ten months now, just less than a year, and before that I was working as a video game artist, so design is a recent professional transition for me.
I’ve been working as an artist for five or six years, and trying to make the lateral move into game design, insofar as the rules and structure of a game. I’ve been designing games for years on my own, but this is my first professional design gig.
Right now I’m focusing on a single project, but at times my day might be comprised of writing a tutorial for three hours for one project, a couple of hours doing a UI mock-up for something else. Lots of jumping around and doing odd bits design and UI work for the various projects. Steam Birds 2 is taking up most of my time these days.
How many are on the Spry Fox team?
We have nine full-time members. Counting all of the external teams and contractors that we’re co-developing with, there are probably about 25 people. Daniel Cook and David Edery are the Chief Creative Officer and CEO respectively, I’m a designer so I help Daniel. We’ve got three or four developers, a full-time artist, a full-time QA, and a full time producer/admin.
How did you get into videogames development?
I’ve always been interested in making games. When I was a kid, I made my own board games and things, and in high school, instead of paying attention in math class, I programmed games on my graphic calculator. I never considered it a real career opportunity until college, where I was going to school for Digital Media at Drexel University in Philadelphia. My plan was to become a 3D graphic animator, working at somewhere like Pixar.
Halfway through my bachelor’s, they added some game development courses to the curriculum, and I instantly fell in love with making games. As soon as I graduated, then, I moved out to Seattle because I understood it was one of the biggest places in the US for game development. Soon after, I got a contracting gig working at Microsoft for three years, working on the Forza racing franchise. Since then, I’ve jumped around various companies, most often within the social gaming space, such as Playdom and Zynga. Most recently I’ve made the jump to Spry Fox. Throughout the whole time, I’ve been developing personal Flash games in my own spare time, using my limited programming capabilities.
What led to you departing Microsoft?
As a contractor for Microsoft, they have a system whereby you work for them for around nine months to a year on a contract, and then they kind of essentially lay you off for around three months. It’s a legal thing. Anyhow, you get into this pattern of working, and leaving, and working, and leaving. I was doing the Art QA. On Forza, a lot of the vehicles are outsourced to external vendors. My team would check the assets when they came in, to confirm they were up to technical specifications to work in the game, and that they resembled the real-world cars, and occasionally we’d do a little modeling and texturing, but it was primarily QA with a dash of art.
I really liked my team, and I was at a stage in my career where I was sort of ‘paying my dues’ – I was fresh out of school and had to do a bunch of grunt work to get some experience. The particular work I was doing wasn’t too fulfilling, and wasn’t really the direction that I wanted to go, so I quit Microsoft with the idea of striking out on my own as a one-man independent game studio, and I cranked on a heist game for about five months, before my aforementioned limited programming ability caused the game to sort of implode on itself and I decided ‘Okay, I’m not ready for the one-man studio thing just yet!’ That heist game is one of the hundreds of games languishing on my hard drive right now, never to see the public eye.
Can you go into some detail about your time at Zynga? It’s getting a bit of a colored history these days.
Yeah, definitely. So I was working at Gasworks Games, which was a startup in Bellevue, Washington, and we were all hired up, as a team, by Zynga to help kickstart the development at Zynga Seattle, down at the office in Pioneer Square. It was a trip! [Laughs] It was really exciting for a while, but to be honest, but a lot of the corporate culture and the public image of Zynga didn’t really suit my indie game developer lifestyle. The team I was working with were all great, and I loved working with them. Day to day, it was a lot of fun. However, when Daniel Cook contacted me about doing design work for Spry Fox, it was a pretty easy decision to jump ship.
How was the Indie Megabooth for you?
It was the first show that Spry Fox had ever exhibited at, and for a lot of us it was our first time working a booth at a trade show. I think it caught us all off guard, the sheer amount of work and time that goes into something like that.
I think we were a bit cavalier going into it, thinking ‘Oh yeah, we’ll work a couple of hours here and there’, but it really dominated all of our weekends and we were totally exhausted. It was a surprising amount of work, but personally I found it really rewarding – having a lot of face-to-face interaction with fans of our games, lots of Triple Town players would come up, and we were selling little plush Triple Town bears, and they sold out in no time at all. On the other side, we were exposing a lot of people to our games for the first time, and we could sit down with them, and show them through a tutorial. It was a really gratifying experience. As an attendee at PAX, I’ve always been drawn to the indie game areas of the expo, and it was great to be able to take part in that.
We learned a lot in terms of time management, especially when it comes to preparation, which will help us make some smarter decisions for subsequent years. At the time, we were showing Leap Day and Steam Birds 2, and we got some great feedback on both of those games. There’s nothing more valuable than just watching someone play your game in terms of totally unfiltered user feedback: seeing when they’re getting frustrated, and when they’re having fun.
We had Triple Town on display, too, which is long finished and released, so that was more of a question of generating publicity for it, whereas for Leap Day and Steam Birds 2 it was definitely looking for points of interest and confusion for players. For those two it was more of a weekend-long play test. We learned a lot about Steam Birds 2 in particular. It was the least finished of the two, and it was arguably a little early to have it on display, but we got to notice a few issues that have been worked on since then.
The Megabooth was incredibly helpful, in terms of having this incredible pool of resources, and for having this spot in the expo that was concentrated indie games. It was a destination, rather than one small booth tucked between mammoth triple-A title booths. It was this area where people think, ‘There’s a bunch of quirky, small indie games here! Let’s walk around and talk to people.’ The attendees I spoke to talked about it as a nice break from the rest of the expo, to walk around and have conversations with actual developers, and to spend time with their games. I think it was immensely helpful to be in that area with a different set of expectations to the rest of the show floor.
I walked around the booths myself, and spent some time talking to Andy Moore from Radial Games, and at the Klei booth, who were showing Don’t Starve. It was great to do a couple of runs, checking out a few choice games that I’d wanted to test out.
The original Steam Birds was developed with Andy. Has he been involved at all with the development of the sequel?
A while ago, Spry Fox purchased the rights for Steam Birds from Andy, and we went our separate ways from there. Steam Birds 2 is currently being co-developed with the guys at Backbeat, who are down in San Francisco. I’m spearheading the design side at this point, which is the role I assumed when I came on board. Occasionally, David Edery and our full-time artist will contribute as well.
The big change with Steam Birds 2 is that it’s going to have online multiplayer. Steam Birds and Steam Birds: Survival were single-player experiences, and so we’re bringing simultaneous, turn-based dogfighting gameplay into an online environment. We have co-op and free-for-all modes where you’re playing with friends or strangers against waves of AI planes, or else free-for-all dogfighting against other players.
It’ll be in-browser first, and then we’ll probably go to a few portals, and then in usual Spry Fox style, once we’ve got and the kinks ironed out, we’ll start looking at mobile and other platforms.
You’re co-developing Steam Birds 2 with Backbeat. How is that collaboration working out?
All of Spry Fox is remote development, we’re located all over the world. So it’s lots of Skype communication, that sort of thing. For Steam Birds 2, we have two guys at Backbeat doing the engineering and programming, while I’m doing the day-to-day design work. From there, we tap the pool of the nine core employees here, whether we need QA attention, or some new art assets or whatever comes around.
What was the inspiration behind Leap Day?
It draws a lot of inspiration from old Tycoon games, like Railroad Tycoon, which you can sort of tell just by looking at it, with all the tracks. There’s management of transportation of goods from A to B, and then selling them. It’s an online multiplayer town-building game, and you start in this procedurally-generated wilderness, surrounded by resources like trees, berries and water. You build paths that lead out to these resources, and you have these royal servants who collect these resources and bring them back to either sell to the palace or craft them into more refined goods, which you can then sell for even more. The game is then broken up into ‘leap days’, which is about 90 seconds of real-world time. So you have this cycle of day and night, and because it’s a persistent online world, your town never stops going. So you can log out tonight and log in tomorrow, and your town will have collected a couple of hundred thousand gold, and you can then spend that on new items to expand your town.
The other cool thing is that it’s co-operative. You have this patch of land in this icy tundra, and you’re melting back the ice to expand your town, and you’re on this map with eight other players. So eventually, you’ll melt the ice between you and another player, so the two of you can join your towns up and trade resources. The maps are set up so that one player might have one certain set of resources, while another will have a different set, so you can exchange resources to craft even better-refined goods than you could do alone. The game will have online matchmaking, and if you have friends playing, it will try to match you with them, but we’re also trying to encourage friendship between strangers, to have a co-operative environment that actually encourages spontaneous friendships like that. So hopefully you’ll get to know people by building a town with them. Like Steam Birds 2, it’s going to be browser-based, too.
Both Steam Birds 2 and Leap Day are in early stages. How’s development going?
They’re both coming on well. They’re both imminent for closed beta, and after a while that will expand into open beta. At the moment, Leap Day is farther along than Steam Birds 2, so it’s likely to launch earlier. However, we don’t have any dates set in stone quite yet. Soon, though!
What is the most difficult aspect of being an independent developer?
At Spry Fox, the hardest part is the fact that we work remotely. It’s nice to work from home and everything, but it’s a business strategy to remain lean and mean, and to be able to hire people when we need them without having to put relocation pressures on them. I do kind of miss the daily face-to-face interaction, of having co-workers sitting next to me. We’ll meet up from time to time for lunch, and we’re constantly on Skype, but for me at Spry Fox that’s probably the most difficult part.
I put a lot of stake into having creative input with the projects I’m working on. Working at large companies, I had little to no creative input. It’s hard for me to look at a game I launched at those larger companies and say ‘That was my game’, or to take a strong sense of ownership over it. At smaller companies, and particularly here at Spry Fox, that just isn’t the case. When I design an update or a feature for a game, I get an immense feeling of ownership, and my creative vision is realized. When a game comes out, I can point at it and say ‘Yeah, that was my idea, right there.’ It varies a lot between different types of developers, but for me, personally, that’s a huge requirement for feeling creatively satisfied.
The scope of the projects for indie games is generally much smaller, which makes for a healthier and appealing development cycle. Working on the same game for several years, you can get disheartened and feel like there’s no end in sight. Releasing on a much faster basis, over maybe six months to a year, and then moving onto a whole new game with a whole new set of creative challenges, that offers so much more variety. Releasing several games every year feels great, getting them out to people just feels so good.
It’s funny to think that your work is focused on social games and you miss social interaction. Finally, what’s your most prized gaming possession?
I am not at all a collector. I tend to periodically purge my collections over and over. When consoles become obsolete, I give away all my games. I turn anything digital that I can. The only things that survive are things from tabletop role-playing games. I played DnD for decades, and I know I’ve got one set of polyhedral dice from at least fifteen years ago. Those are never going to be obsolete, they still roll random numbers, and they still work like they used to. They’re inherently physical, tactile things. I can’t get online versions of them and get the same appeal of rolling them around in my hands. I think my most prized gaming possession is that set of dice.
Thanks very much for your time, Pat.
Absolutely, thanks to you too.
Leap Day and Steam Birds 2 are currently in development, with plans to launch private beta testing soon. You can learn all about Spry Fox and their wares at SpryFox.com.