This is the first interview I've ever done for What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse..., and it's with an old friend from my days in Japan, Tanya Short. She is the creative director of a new video game design company, Kitfox Games, and their new game Shattered Planet, a sci-fi Rogue-like, is now available for free download for your smart phone or tablet.
Tanya and I met about ten years ago, and we played together in a Trinity campaign run by her S.O. Brent. Later, Brent and Tanya played in a short Classic D&D game that I ran just as I was getting back into old school games and away from the d20 system, before they left Japan.
I'm happy to help her spread the word about her new game – and I'm a bit envious of all of you who can download it and start playing it today. It's not yet available for East Asian markets, and I'm way too lazy to figure out how to root my smart phone in order to download it now. :D Anyway, on to the interview.
Interview with Tanya Short of Kitfox Games
Tanya X. Short is a professional game designer who worked on MMOs such as Age of Conan and The Secret World before making the leap to indie. She founded Kitfox Games (http://www.kitfoxgames.com) with 3 other devs in Montreal, Canada, acting as their Creative Director. She’s lived in four countries and has a cat that sits at the breakfast table.
LG: What is your gaming background?
TS: There was a huge age gap between my brothers and I, so most of my gaming was done solo. My first love was Bubble Bobble on the NES, or on road trips, Link’s Awakening. As a teen, living in an extremely rural area, I got really into online games as part of my social life – I literally spent 12 hours at a time role-playing in MUDs (textual virtual worlds). Although EverQuest was available by then, I preferred the imaginativeness of text, and even spent a year or two after college volunteering as a community manager for a commercial MUD. From there, I guess it was natural I’d get into designing MMOs!
LG: How did you get into game development?
TS: I am one of the few who went to school for it! I went to an extremely practical master’s degree program called the Guildhall, which is a satellite campus of Southern Methodist University in Texas. It’s staffed by industry veterans and has (or had, at the time) an extremely high hiring rate, because they really focus on what you need to get hired – a good portfolio, team experience, and finished projects. My first offers to join the industry were from ArenaNet, Big Huge Games, and Funcom, in Norway. I accepted the Funcom position because… well, who turns down a job in Norway? Not me!
LG: What sort of work were you doing for the big MMO companies like Age of Conan and The Secret World?
TS: I started out as an A.I. Designer, which is their word for ‘scripter’ – creating enemy behaviours, boss fights and such using their light-weight, high-level programming tools. But I was so enthusiastic and opinionated about social features and guild structures, I ended up creating a whole feature from scratch, which is pretty unusual after a game’s launch! I pitched and lead the strike team developing the Guild Renown feature, which is basically guild levelling (before World of Warcraft did theirs!). On The Secret World, I did various design stuff basically, working mostly independently… various missions, puzzles, improvements to the hub cities, etc. I was the designer who pulled together the “Dreaming One” levels, which are these surreal experiences in ice caves, in a dreamscape. It wasn’t my vision (that was all Ragnar Tornquist), but I filled in all of the detail and gameplay. I also made the Albion Theatre, and all the vendors in the cities – my favorite, of course, being the taco vendor ghoul in London.
LG: How has your table-top gaming experience shaped or influenced your computer game designs?
TS: I have a serious love of the political. Keeping secrets is a unique pleasure that most video games don’t incorporate, but which I highly value. Most of my favorite tabletop characters had a Big Secret they were keeping from the party. They never ended up getting found out, but it still added layers of meaning and drama to every moment of play! And although it’s not quite a tabletop game, Werewolf remains one of my favorites, despite its deep flaws – nothing can replace the joy of innocently lying to your friends.
LG: Tell us about one of your most memorable tabletop RPG characters. Who was she (he) and what game system was it? What were his/her goals? What made that PC so memorable?
TS: My favorite character was probably Kaena. She was a fun-loving bard on the surface! But she secretly ran a spy network, working for a cult that was trying to revive an old, dead god. So every time the party found any treasure, she’d refuse to sell it (making up just about any excuse) until she had done a complete lore check on it and/or checked with her secret contacts. The rest of the party thought she was just a hoarder or a collector of some kind… and they never learned differently since the game ended before her true intentions were revealed! I’ll just always remember having five secret notes queued up to give the GM every time we went back to town!
LG: How did Kitfox Games form?
TS: Here in Montreal, there’s an incubator/accelerator program called Execution Labs, where indie teams can come and get training in business development and marketing, plus they’ll pay you while you make whatever game you want! So when I heard about an opening there, I looked around and put together a team with other local indies!
LG: Introduce your compatriots at Kitfox Games – Who are they and how did you all meet?
Xin Ran Liu is a traditional concept artist with amazing digital painting skills, but who also makes his own little game projects on the side in GameMaker. He does just about everything art-related in our games.
Mike Ditchburn is our lead programmer. He makes TONS of game prototypes, like just about every day, and owns over 300 board games.
Jongwoo Kim is our gameplay programmer, and he actually was trained as a game designer, so he has good intuitions on that side, too.
We all met at a local indie meet-up group here in Montreal, but we didn’t really know each other very well until we started working together. We weren’t even sure it was all going to work out until we did the Indie Speed Run game jam together last October… but the results were pretty cool, and we were finalists! You can play the results here: kitfoxgames.com/Jams/Sculptorgeist.html Now we’re like siblings. :)
LG: What has been the biggest challenge for Kitfox Games as a small start up?
TS: Getting our name out there is a huge challenge! We’re nobodies! We are planning on having a crowdfunding campaign for Moon Hunters (our next game) this summer, but it’s terrifying because, you know, we’re not Chris Avellone or Tim Schafer. We’re just 4 devs trying to make awesome games, and we have to convince people not only to try our games, but trust that we’re worth giving money to! So we’re working hard trying to earn that trust, which is why we decided to make the mobile version of Shattered Planet free to play – to get more people to try the game.
LG: Tell us about Shattered Planet - what are its selling points?
TS: As a clone of a space captain, it’s your job to explore a deadly alien planet that’s different every time. It’s a solid little game – easy to pick up, but with surprising amounts of strategy, once you start trying to optimise. Over and over, the reviews we get from critics and players compliment our artist Xin’s hand-painted art style, as well as the quirky writing (by yours truly). I don’t mean to brag! It’s just that between your snarky alien assistant, over a hundred items, and dozens of little choose-your-own adventure type events, there’s plenty of room for sci-fi jokes, references, and general silliness.
|From the Kitfox Games website|
LG: Why did you decide to make it as a Rogue-like instead of another style of game?
TS: It was an accident! We actually initially set out to make a game about exploring. We were trying to recapture that feeling of endless potential from the early turns of Sid Meier’s Civilisation. So we made a few different prototypes, and our favorite ended up being styled as an RPG… and we realised a few weeks later that we had accidentally re-invented the rogue-like.
LG: Most Rogue-likes are fantasy themed. Was it hard to implement the game style with a sci fi setting?
TS: Not at all! It took a bit of courage, since we looked at the market and competitors and didn’t see anything like it, but once you make the mental shift, it’s easy. There’s a reason sci-fi and fantasy go together so well – they are both really about humans embarking on grand adventures, sometimes with monsters in the way.
LG: What is the number one reason I should download and play Shattered Planet right now?
TS: Well, for one, it’s free! You can go download it and try for yourself! And if you enjoy it but wish it were a premium purchase… well, look for it on Steam in late June!
|Also from the Kitfox Games website|
LG: What's in store for Kitfox Games in the future?
Well, we’re probably always going to create infinite procedural games, and with the amazing talent of our artist Xin (http://www.xinranliu.com), each game should be more gorgeous than the last. We already have more plans on the back-burner, with hopes to release Moon Hunters (http://www.moonhuntersgame.com/) to Steam Early Access by Christmas. If you want to keep track of what we’re up to, you can join our mailing list: http://eepurl.com/EbbjT
LG: Many of my readers are part of the DIY centered Old School Renaissance, creating and self-publishing tabletop RPG material. Do you have an advice for readers who might be thinking of getting into computer/video game design?
TS: It’s both easier and harder than you think! Start small – as small as humanly possible -- but plan on everything taking quite a bit longer to complete than you first think. But there are literally DOZENS of free tools out there that are surprisingly powerful. Those of you who are writerly should definitely check out Twine, which is a free choose-your-own-adventure type tool that you can pick up and figure out in 10 minutes or so!
And this is more of a psychological trick than a game development technique, but remember not to tell anyone what you’re working on until after you’ve completed what you want to tell them! If you “pre-brag”, excitedly telling someone what you will do, you’re less likely to go through with it than if you wait until after you actually have something to brag about!
LG: Finally, on a personal note, any idea when Shattered Planet will release in South Korea? ;)
TS: Haha! Well, we were looking out for potential Asian partners for proper localisation and publishing, but … we might give up on that and release sometime this summer! Thanks for the poke!
LG: Thanks for your time, Tanya! I'm really looking forward to playing Shattered Planet. Hopefully some of my readers will enjoy it as well.