Game Design

Speaking With Woodpenny’s Pat King

Untitled3Today we were lucky enough to speak with the very nice local game developer and founder of Woodpenny studios, Pat King! Pat has lived and worked in the Valley for years, first with Hitpoint Studios and now with his own Woodpenny studios!

Woodpenny makes digital and physical objects and all of them are really neat. Right now, they’re working on a great VR music-video thing. Like, basically VR is a real functional interesting thing now, and that’s neat. So what Woodpenny did is team up with excellent musician Ben Sollee and create this awesome VR sort of music video/theme park ride called “Vanishing Point”. We got to try an early version and it is both trippy as heck and a heck of a trip!

You should fund it on IndieGoGo so that it becomes a Virtual Reality and we can all see how neat it is!

James Olchowski: Hello, thanks for speaking with me.Untitled4

Pat King: Not a problem!

James Olchowski: So, what drew you to our Happy Valley?

Pat King: Short answer – the mother of my 2 little girls.  Longer answer – My wife grew up in Northampton. I’m a Kentucky boy. When I was 25, I took on a short term contract as tour manager for a chamber orchestra in Ireland. My (now) wife was getting her masters degree at the University of Limerick. We met in Ireland through mutual friends and ended up kind of liking each other. My plan after Ireland was to attend the Vancouver Film School. Her plan was to do something other than that, preferably closer to New England.

At this point, I really liked her…and you know, Vancouver is really far away and it’s more school debt and Northampton has this place called Herrell’s Ice Cream. After weighing those options, I decided to move to the area! Now I have a beautiful family and a fantastic community. [This is adorable, readers – Ed.]

JO: Is it difficult to work on game development in such a relatively small area? I’m used to hearing about development shops being set up in major cities.

PK: Tricky question, from a studio’s perspective, there are key advantages to running a studio in both the Pioneer Valley and larger cities such as Boston.

Larger cities (especially ones with an established game, tech or other creative media presence) usually generate more resources for studios. Typically there are multiple established game studios, more experienced game professionals, more money and investment opportunities, creative agencies, culture, community, etc.

That said, the Pioneer Valley does have some stunning talent, longtime industry professionals and general resources that you find in larger cities. Game Industry Studios such as HitPoint, Anzovin, and HappyGiant have been chugging along for a number of years. Additionally, we have a huge tabletop game design community as well as numerous software, hardware, graphic, web and other creative development teams. There are other tech and software communities that offer networking events and forums. There are more colleges than you can shake a stick at that offer a constant flow of new talent to the area.

So far, I’ve found living in the Pioneer Valley works well with my style of game development. I’ve been lucky to have made some great contacts along the way that allow me to work away from the larger cities. Part of that is also attending larger events in Boston and New York and building those connections.

The most difficult part of game development is just knowing where to start. You could be a killer programmer, artist or designer, but without the experience of an active studio, it’s most likely very difficult to connect all the pieces and make a full studio.

JO: Is that why you set up the Pioneer Valley Game Developers (PVGD) group? To bring together people who might be too dispersed to meet up without an excuse?

PK: Exactly. After leaving HitPoint Studios, I found that those interested in game development were pretty dispersed throughout the Pioneer Valley. While I was able to connect with tech industry leaders, there weren’t many people being proactive in the gaming community at large. John Tuttle and I had both worked at HitPoint and wanted to find other developers interested in digital game development. We formed the PVGD in order to find others with similar interests to help make games and hopefully create the community that our area had been lacking.

JO: How do you make certain PVGD is a welcoming place for new people?

PK: Our format so far has been to offer monthly networking events called MAKE TALK PLAY. We usually host them at a “barcade” called The Quarters. We have presentations by local industry leaders covering a broad range of development topics in order to appeal to the largest range of developers in the region. Then after the presentations we hang out, talk about game development and encourage people to demo their own projects.

We’re also working on a number of events other than our monthly meetup such as our game jam we hosted at TopatoCon last month. Anyone interested should join our meetup group at www.meetup.com/pioneer-valley-game-developers or visit our webpage at www.pvgd.org

JO: You left work at a local studio to found your own – Woodpenny. Why did you set out on your own?

PK: HitPoint Studios was a beautiful place to grow as a developer. I was there from the beginning and it was probably one of the best work experiences of my life. I completely respect Paul Hake and Aaron St. John for all they have accomplished and the process they’ve gone through to create a successful studio in the Pioneer Valley. About four months before I left, my wife had started a full time job and we had been struggling to figure out how to balance our work and family schedule. The ultimate decision to leave wasn’t to start a studio, but to take some time off to let me wife focus on her work and be a part-time stay at home dad.

However…I’m not one to stay still. I had a couple days throughout the week to myself and started testing my skills as a woodworker recreating a game my father built when I was a child called penny basketball. This is where I came up with the name Woodpenny. Soon, I started taking on some graphic and sound design projects and then I was approached by an old friend about creating a simple mobile game for his marketing agency. I wasn’t really looking to start a game studio at the beginning, but at that point the work was just kind of finding me, so I decided to roll with it.

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JO: What has been your biggest challenge so far putting Woodpenny together?

PK: I think the hardest part so far has been trying to figure out exactly what to focus on. I really want to make wooden board games, but after about 9 months of experimenting, I realized that in order to make the boards efficiently, I would need a proper workshop. I’m currently working from my home basement, which is damp and dusty. This makes me constantly fear about inventory and my health. I have recently started looking into sharing space with established woodworking shops.

Since we also do the digital game development, I’ve been looking for opportunities that set Woodpenny apart from other studios. Lately I’ve been experimenting more with audio inspired digital media and games. I would love to build the studio with a focus on sound design and music which isn’t as prominent in the industry with the exception of a few great games, such as (but not limited to) Guitar Hero and Rock Band. I want to make games where music is what drives the game.

JO: What’s the most satisfying moment you’ve had working on building Woodpenny?

PK: Hard question because it’s all satisfying: Selling my first board, landing my first project, completing my first project, receiving my first paycheck and figuring out a team. All of this is worth a thousand years of education. Every project is satisfying in its own right.

I just love my work and the people I work with. I love learning new tools and playing with new technology and approaches. Probably the most satisfying aspect is that now I can still make cool projects and have a flexible schedule to spend time with my family. I’ve made that a priority from the start.

JO: Can you give our readers some hints about what Woodpenny is working on? I mean Digital AND Physical? Are you developing the Matrix?

PK: So after making the board for Ben Sollee, he ended up reaching out about game development and was interested in looking for ways to connect his music, merch or stage show with different approaches to gaming or interactive media.

Which brings me to my current project. I’m extremely excited about a Virtual Reality music app we’re making with Ben Sollee! Since August, we’ve been developing a Virtual Reality animated music video choreographed to new music by Ben called ‘The Vanishing Point’. We launched our IndieGoGo campaign about 2 weeks ago and deep in the crowdfunding campaign madness.

When we started, I thought developing the app would be the tough part, but it’s not! It’s the constant push of balancing social marketing, creating videos, tweaking the campaign, pestering friends and family and mainly educating people about what we’re actually making. Explaining VR is extremely difficult to people who haven’t tried it as it’s one of those things that you need to experience to “get”. It’s such a powerful medium for games, but also music and cinema. I’m really excited to see how VR (and Augmented Reality) will influence the various forms of digital media out there.

For those interested, please check out our IndieGoGo campaign! We need your help!

I am still working on the Woodpenny boards and hope to release them in a greater capacity at some point in the near future.

While we’re also just trying to get our act together, we just applied to the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator program and are looking for recommendations and support. If you’re interested in helping us succeed please click this link and support what we’re doing!

JO: We got a chance to watch people play Woodpenny at a PVGD meetup. It was interesting, and the board was super pretty! We’re now getting the impression from your Facebook page (we are snooping but it is for journalism) that each board is unique. Is this a made-to-order board game?

PK: I make about 4 boards a year (again slow process). Each time I learn something new about the process. The game is called Woodpenny basketball. It’s based of a game my Dad made that my family had growing up. I still have and cherish the original board. The idea is simple, it’s a 2-player game where all you need is the board and a penny to play. Like basketball rules, players take turn flicking the penny toward their goal to score points (2 and 3 point shots like basketball). The first one to 21 wins.

About 6 years ago, I decided to make some as gifts for friends and family and realized just how much fun they are to make. Also, as a parent I realized how important it is to have non-digital or plastic toys and games. My goal is to make the boards attractive, durable and fun for families for years. I feel like I’m on the right path there, now just to figure out how to improve my process (and maybe take on less digital work for a few months).

JO: Wait wait you made Ben Sollee a custom game board? We just saw that. Ben Sollee is great, he’s so nice. Why did he want a custom Woodpenny board?

PK: Haha, yeah. I met Ben in March after seeing him perform at the Iron Horse. I brought one of my boards for our table to play while we waited for the show to start. After the show, Ben saw the board and we got to talking. He asked for my business card, I thought out of courtesy. Well about 3 weeks later, he reached out and asked about getting a board!

Here’s Ben’s board!

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JO: Is Woodpenny your sole project at the moment?

PK: Financially yes? I have a lot of hobbies. I have a family. I own a house. I have the Pioneer Valley Game Developers. I have a lot going on, but that seems to be the way I function best. Mainly just trying to make Woodpenny the most flexible and satisfying experience I can for myself, team and family.

JO: Do you remember what got you interested in playing games?

PK: Honestly, patterns & sequences. My brain loves searching for patterns that connect at an emotional level. Maybe it’s the rewiring of my brain that occurred playing Atari and Nintendo at a young age, and if so I’m very grateful. I know a lot of game developers / enthusiasts that like analyze the games they play. They like to pick them apart in a more academic approach to understanding the mechanics. Which is totally cool, but not how my brain works.

For me, I let the experience drive the games I play and develop. When working at HitPoint, often times our clients would request game designs that were similar to other popular games. We want Angry Birds, we want Bejeweled, we want a Hidden Object game like this, etc. So “for research” I would completely dive into these game examples that weren’t my usual cup of tea. But over the course of a week or two, I would have either completed the game or conquered the mechanics, again looking to connect to the emotional patterns in the design. After fully understanding the experience as a consumer, I felt completely comfortable designing a similar game, in our own style with subtle differences.

JO: Is there any one game you can remember that got you interested in the idea of making your own?

PK: Sam & Max Hit The Road – I’ve wanted to make a unique point and click adventure for a long time. I was blown away when I first played that title. The concept was so weird, the story and art so humorous and the puzzles at many times very frustrating, but super satisfying. I’ve wanted to recreate most of that experience since I started developing games.

JO: If someone was just getting into games, physical or digital, what would you recommend they play?

PK: I’d start them at Atari for a few years. Let them play Colecovision at their friends houses and the arcade once in a while. I’d move them up to Nintendo and run them through the standard titles. After a few years of blowing on NES cartridges I’d move them up to Sega and make them play Toe Jam & Earl and Earthworm Jim. They’d have to save up their money if they wanted the SNES also.

Then I’d sit them down and tell them not to invest their money in the Dreamcast even though it’s going to be wicked awesome. I’d move them on to the Nintendo 64 where they would play Golden Eye, Super Mario 64, Mario Kart and Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. When they were ready, I’d put them in a dark room at night and make them play Resident Evil by themselves on the Playstation while filming them poop themselves with a VHS camera when they encounter their first zombie or zombie dogs breaking through the windows in the effing hallway. After getting them into the Tony Hawk series, I feel like they’d be ready to fly on their own.

JO: Getting back to the PVGD, have there been any notable local games developed since you started meeting up?

PK: We’ve seen a lot of great projects under development and quite a few that have been released. The most prolific group putting out new games and being active in development has been from the members of the Owl & Raven. Hannah Shaffer, Evan Rowland and Joshua A.C. Newman have been cranking out so many great games among evangelizing their work.

It’s quite impressive to see. I’ve seen a number of great titles from other members mid-development, but am really hoping more people will start showcasing projects where we can start helping each other out whether it’s feedback, testing or collaboration. We have some great talent in the Pioneer Valley.

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JO: Are there any local creators you think more people should be paying attention to (besides yourself, obviously)?

PK: Same answer with the above group members from the Owl & Raven, I would love to see more support for what they’re doing. There’s also a few new experimental studios starting up in the area. One to keep an eye on is led by Isaiah Mann. He’s organizing a student run game studio to start in the Fall of 2016 that will be located at Hampshire College. They’ll be presenting at the next MAKE TALK PLAY on November 1st. People should definitely come out and see what that’s all about.

JO: Have you seen any collaborations develop between people who met at a PVGD event?

PK: I’ve seen some collaboration and heard discussions about people wanting to do more. For Woodpenny, we met Jess Winter who runs misclabs at one of our meet-ups early in the year. He’s the lead programmer for the VR project we’re working on. He’s been absolutely fantastic to work with and a complete surprise for finding a local game dev in the area who has been a vital part of this project. We’re working towards fostering more connections and opportunities to encourage collaboration throughout this next year.

JO: Do you have any advice for someone interested in creating games?

PK: Just do it. Use the tools available to you whether it’s Scratch, Unity, Unreal engine or just an analog prototype. Just start with a game mechanic that you would enjoy playing, give yourself some rules and just start exploring. Start talking to people. Ask as many questions as possible. Start thinking about why you like the games you play. Just start. If you want to do this, you have to be able to learn through experience and make great connections along the way. It’s Woodpenny’s philosophy and the Pioneer Valley Game Developers are here to help!

JO: Thank you for your time!

PK: Thank you James!

Remember, support Woodpenny’s IndieGoGo campaign and their entry into the Valley Venture Mentors program! They’re a nice local studio and we can never have too many of those. And be sure to make it out to a MAKE TALK PLAY event! They’re always good times, and there are a ton of intelligent people to talk to at each. You’ll laugh, you’ll learn, you’ll make fast friends. It will be distressingly delightful.

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Speaking With Evan Rowland of Small Fly Games

MainMenuBG-3-31-15Today, we’re speaking with local game designer Evan Rowland, both about his life as a designer and about his newest work: Goblin Diplomat. Goblin Diplomat is a unique conversation-based roguelike about trying not to be murdered by xenophobic humans.

James Olchowski: Did you grow up in the Valley?

Evan Rowland: I grew up on the northern coast of Massachusetts. My hometown was similar to Northampton, except with more emphasis on fish. I came out here for Hampshire College, and have generally been here since.

JO: Is there anything about working in the Valley that you don’t think you could find elsewhere?

ER: I’m working at the Owl and Raven co-working space, and I doubt I could find a place more cozy, social, and filled with game designers. There’s a surprising concentration of game designers in the Valley, and if I hadn’t collided with them, I’d be living a different life.

JO: How long have you been designing games?

ER: The earliest games I can remember designing were custom maps for Starcraft. That’s maybe 16 years ago? It took me a long time to think of myself as a game designer, though. My hope of making a living with games is about 4 years old.

JO: Has becoming a game designer been a lifelong dream, or is this something new for you?

ER: My lifelong dream was to be an astronaut. Before turning 20, I decided to be a mathematician, then an editor for PC Gamer magazine, then an animator, then back to mathematics, then a teacher. I wish somebody had told me, “make games!” because it seems very obvious to me now. It combines my interests in math, art, communication, drama… But making independent games just didn’t occur to me until later in life.

JO: Where do your own gaming interests lie? Is there anything you’re playing right now that you love?

ER: The board game, Go, is my lifelong gaming love. But there are so many games, roleplaying, board, and video, that I’ve loved. I could talk about them forever. I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM lately, the modern remake of one of my childhood favorites.

JO: What’s one game you think more people need to play?

ER: Let me break it down by the medium.

Board game: Go. It’s a beautiful game, heart-breakingly unknown in the west. I’ve run a number of Go clubs, and taught at least a hundred people to play. It’s a very philosophical game, it can reshape your perspective on life!

Roleplaying game: Vast and Starlit, by Epidiah Ravachol. It’s a space adventure saga, with rules that literally fit onto a business card. It expresses the power of the roleplaying genre – with only a few rules, you can tap the massive creative potential that every player contains.

Video game: Beyond Good and Evil, from 2003, is a thoughtful, heartfelt, and well-designed game that commercially flopped. If it had been a success, maybe we’d see more worldbuilding, great female protagonists, and non-traditional fantasy in mainstream videogames.

WWM_Cover_Feb2015final_nologoJO: Is game design your only creative outlet?

ER: I make art and animation, which aren’t always for games! I also play the piano, and I wish I played well enough to make my own music for games!

JO: What is daily life like as a designer?

ER: Start off by getting to the co-working space, hopefully with lunch in tow. Make a to-do list for the day, including whatever is left over from yesterday, and decide what’s reasonable for the day, and what needs to be put off.

Every day, I try to make at least one drawing, to take care of any communication, and to consult the overall timeline for my games. I’m juggling several different game projects, so there’s usually a meeting or two with different collaborators.

At this point, most of the work looks like carefully editing rules text and drawing goblins. There are always, always more goblins to draw.

JO: I know you worked with Hannah Shaffer on Questlandia, was that primarily as an artist or were you involved with designing the game itself?

ER: I was part of the game design as well! Hannah was the lead designer, but we worked together on every aspect of the rules, the editing, and the book’s layout.

JO: What made you decide to strike out on your own?

ER: I’m still working with Hannah on several game projects, including 14 Days, a game about chronic pain that will be launching a Kickstarter this month. She’s also been an invaluable help in the project management of Goblin Diplomat. No plans to strike out from our collaboration anytime soon!

JO: Why design a computer game rather than something pen-and-paper?

ER: I’m still designing pen-and-paper games! Besides 14 Days, I’ve been working on a hack of the Numenera system, and have a couple other potential projects in the works.

But Goblin Diplomat is designed for the computer. It demands quick thinking and reflexes, and has a complicated set of visuals that I think are best suited to a computer game. It’s fun – there are some very different design decisions in making a computer game. Thinking about user interface, visual animation, sound effects and music, with every aspect interlocked – it’s a great challenge.

JO: Your current game, Goblin Diplomat, is about attempting to navigate conversations. Is there a specific reason you chose that theme?

ER: Just to briefly introduce Goblin Diplomat, it’s a game where you play a goblin tasked with reaching the human king and negotiating a peace between humans and goblins. However, the humans you meet along the way will be suspicious and violent. With only a shaky grasp of the human language, you’ll have to defuse these situations and make friends out of enemies.

As for why the game is all about conversations – it’s a personal decision. Navigating conversations has been something difficult for me since childhood. I think the struggle of communicating clearly, of making a connection with somebody – that’s a familiar subject for me. I can put my heart into the theme of navigating hostility through language, rather than violence or avoidance. I think, when making a game, you have to have a personal investment in it, something that can drive you through the crazy amounts of work it takes to finish the project.

JO: Why did you choose Goblins and medieval fantasy as a setting?gd-gameplay-03ER: Goblins are are known as small, petty, weak, simpering, violent, savage. That’s how you’ll be perceived by the humans in the game. Using goblins means I don’t have to spell all that out. I can just start from that perspective, and show how it looks from the other side – seeing these massive humans, that fear and hate you. It means that every conversation has to start by bridging a terrible prejudice.

JO: Why did you decide to make a roguelike?

ER: Originally, I wanted to make a very traditional roguelike, a dungeon-crawl on a grid. But I wanted one of the classes to be a diplomat, using words to navigate the dungeon. I found I was spending all my time designing that class – it was the only one that really interested me. So the game started morphing around the idea of diplomacy in a hostile setting, eventually becoming what it is now.

One aspect of roguelikes that has been preserved is the idea that when you die, you have to go all the way back to the beginning. That aspect makes death feel actually scary to the player, not something you can just undo. I want you as the player to feel as similar as possible to the goblin you’re playing. So when a farmer pulls out his pitchfork, I want you to actually feel worried!

JO: Why is the focus on avoiding conflict? Most roguelikes are expressly about getting into trouble.

ER: Goblin Diplomat isn’t about avoiding conflict – otherwise you’d never go talk to the humans. It is about avoiding violence, which is the most common strategy in gaming for dealing with conflict. This game is about a different strategy – not fight, not flight, but befriending your enemies, and unraveling the prejudices that made you enemies in the first place.

JO: Have you experienced any significant challenges putting together the game?

ER: Endless challenges! In a game about conversations, you immediately run up against this central problem: Computers aren’t good at making conversation. The go-to strategy in conversation games is to use dialogue trees. In a dialogue tree, you, the player, are given a set of possible things to say, and the game has pre-written responses to each. It’s a very old style of computer-game conversation, and hasn’t really evolved much. Modern games will sometimes have a countdown timer to add a little tension.

That style doesn’t work well with Goblin Diplomat. For one, in a game you’re going to be replaying quite a bit, pre-written dialogue gets old very quickly. Once humans start repeating themselves, it draws you out of the setting immediately.

In addition to that, dialogue trees, even with a timer, don’t express the panic of being in a near-death situation, and are limited in how they can express unfamiliarity with the language. So making the game has involved coming up with a new system for conversation.

There’s also been struggles with programming, with the user interface, with the art direction – nothing has been easy! Except, maybe, the name. That was pretty straightforward.

JO: Has anything about making the game surprised you, or gone in a very different direction than you were initially planning?

2015-04-24-gameplay-05ER: So, I’ve called Goblin Diplomat a conversation-based game a bunch already, but that isn’t really true. That was the initial plan. But in trying to create a system that expressed panicked communication in an unknown language, the game ended up leaving conversations behind entirely.

The game instead focuses on the first moments of each encounter with a human, where the human is deciding whether to call the guards, or kill you themselves. In those moments, you’re wracking your brain, trying to remember the bits of language you’ve learned that might convince this human to do something other than kill you. It’s a frantic search through associated words and memories – maybe if you call yourself a farmer, the human will calm down? But what’s the word for “farmer”? And how is it pronounced?

I thought initially that finding the right word would be a small part of the gameplay, but it’s become the central mechanic of the game.

JO: If you were forced to describe Goblin Diplomat in terms of other games people may have played, how would you describe it?

ER: In one sense, it’s a fast-paced puzzle game like Tetris – you’ll be making quick second-to-second decisions about how to navigate your problems.

In another sense, it’s a challenging roguelike like FTL – you’ll have a series of difficult encounters, any one of which could kill you and force you to try again from the beginning.

In yet another sense, it’s a game about using language in the face of violence – a little like the Insult Sword-Fighting sections of the Monkey Island series.

JO: Of all the games you’ve played, which would you say has created the best conversation system?

ER: Deus Ex: Human Revolution put in a solid effort. It is still using dialogue trees, but gives you the ability to investigate the person beforehand and try to put together what verbal strategy to employ. Alpha Protocol had a similar system.

I’m sure there are better answers, I’m sure there are some games that are trying to revolutionize the conversation system standards, but none are springing to mind.

JO: When is Goblin Diplomat going to be released to an eager public?

ER: It’s scheduled to be Kickstarted this September, with a public demo released simultaneously. The outcome of that fundraising campaign will impact how quickly we can finish the game from there!

JO: What methods are you using to release the game? Will it appear on any services, or will it be available directly from your website?

ER: The goal is to have the game available on a number of online retailers, including Steam, Humble Bundle, and GoG. After the computer release, we’re hoping to get the game onto phones and tablets as well. There are different hoops to jump through for different platforms, but at the very least, the game will be available directly from our website!

JO: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, Goblin Diplomat sounds like something extremely interesting!

ER: Thanks for the great questions!