Category Archives: OZombie

Message in a Bottle

I sometimes feel like a castaway on a deserted island. Surrounded by water, without a drop to drink. From the vantage of a passing cruise ship my situation looks idyllic, I’m a happy man in his own private tropical paradise. If only that mirrored the reality of my existence: marooned, desperate for rain and talking to seashells. A misconception wrapped in a conundrum that would drive many people mad.

My life is viewed like that island – as being a private paradise, wanting for nothing, enjoying the ease and fortune and fame that comes with “having your name on the box.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I once worked for uber-successful companies like id Software and Electronic Arts, even had brief moments of (some would say undeserved) fame.

The reality is that I’ve worked for 12 years (out of 20 in the industry) as an independent game developer, far away from the safety and certainty of a well established corporate HQ. Being independent means my income isn’t guaranteed. Neither is my development work. It’s a constant, ongoing effort to secure business for myself and my studio. These efforts have produced games, but not security. Because most of the work I’ve done as an indie has been under standard publisher-development agreements, the support only lasts until the game is delivered.

To understand the challenge of this existence, look no further than my first months living in Shanghai. I’d spent every dime of my savings to get across the Pacific and build a new life for myself. To survive while working to secure a new development deal I lived on less than $5 a day and rode on the back of someone else’s bike. I tell this not to paint a picture of woe, I genuinely enjoyed those days of humble struggle, but to illustrate for you the truth of who I am. Not wealthy, not a name on a box, not someone with a sense of entitlement or a massive ego. Just a person, like you, overcoming obstacles so that I can have a chance to do the work I love.

This is my message in a bottle, an attempt at wiping out those misconceptions that keep me trapped on this island.

Now that we’re seeking funding via Kickstarter we might have a chance at something better. Self-publishing to web, mobile and via platforms like Steam and Kongregate also helps increase our chances of actually turning a profit. These efforts cannot be successful without a broad understanding of who I am, what Spicy Horse is about as a studio and the support that comes with those things. Support from you, from fans of the “Alice” games, from supporters of independent game development , from those who would like to see the traditional publishing models disrupted so that unique ideas can have a chance.

Please, do what you can to spread the word. Tell your friends, family and seashells that Spicy Horse needs their support to get OZombie made and to continue making unique content for many years to come.

American Interview: Chris Vrenna

Continuing with a series of interviews geared towards support of our ongoing OZombie Kickstarter campaign, I’ve asked musician Chris Vrenna a couple of questions. Chris and I met back in the day, while I was at id Software and he was banging drums for Nine Inch Nails. He was instrumental (pun intended) in establishing the tone for the first “Alice” game and I’ve been a fan of his work (Tweaker and other projects) for years. To the interview!

AJM: Let’s start off by getting out of the way some of the basics… Who you are and what you’ve been up to since you made the soundtrack for the first “Alice” game over 10 years ago?

CV: I am Chris Vrenna. I scored your first “American McGee’s Alice” game over 10 years ago. I can’t believe how long it’s been! I have had a pretty amazing post-Alice decade. I released three records by my side project, tweaker. tweaker is primarily a studio collaborative project where I have been fortunate enough to work with many of my personal idols. Robert Smith, David Sylvian, Will Oldham, and Johnny Marr to name a few. I also spent an amazing year or so drumming for Gnarls Barkley. Their single “Crazy” was a massive #1 hit in almost every country in the world. I was honored to play with, and become friends with CeeLo and Dangermouse. And I spent 7 years working with Marilyn Manson. I co-produced and co-wrote the last two records and toured the world as either drummer or keyboard player numerous times. In my “free time” I take on remixing, programming, and/or mixing projects.

AJM: You’re attached to the OZombie Kickstarter campaign as a “Stretch Goal.” Have you ever been a goal of any sort or particularly stretchy? How does it feel to be a Stretch Goal on a KS campaign?

CV: I have never been a goal, “stretch” or otherwise, on a KS campaign. And I am SO excited to once again team up with you (American) to score OZombie. I am the opposite of having any “stretchy” abilities, except maybe time-stretching samples! (Insert rimshot sound effect here.)

AJM: It’s a little early for final thoughts on many things related to the project, but have you had any early thoughts on directions you might take with the music for OZombie? We promise not to hold you too severely to any ideas you might express here.

CV: Wow! It is definitely a little early to talk specifics. But, I am SO inspired by all the early concept art I’ve seen. Like with all your games, the design is so vivid it instantly gets my brain spinning with ideas for both sound palettes and melodies.

AJM: You had a chance to visit Spicy Horse Games in Shanghai back in 2009 (is that right?). Can you share some of the impressions you took away about Shanghai?

CV: I believe it was 2009. It was my first, and still to this day, my only visit to China. I found Shanghai so fascinating and was surprised by how varied the city is culturally and architecturally. The ancient city, the European riverfront, and the incredibly futuristic business district just show the long history of Shanghai.

AJM: What do you do when you’re not creating music? Any hobbies or past-times you’d like to share? Any links between those hobbies and the inspiration you find to make music?

CV: My passion is art. I buy and collect as much art as I can. There is such a connection when a piece of art (whether painting, sculpture, photography, etc) grabs you and draws you to it. It becomes so personal and that’s when you know you just have to buy it so you can feel that connection forever.

AJM: Lastly, do you have a favorite character from the Oz books or films? If so, why?

CV: I have a few favorites. First has to be the flying monkeys. They were the most terrifying creatures as a child. And, at 46 years old, I STILL find them scary. And I have always had a soft spot for the Cowardly Lion. Can’t really put it into words, but I always empathized with him. maybe because I was picked on in school.

American Interview: inXile’s Brian Fargo

While we’re running a Kickstarter campaign for OZombie I’ll be interviewing others who have had experience on the platform. Today, I’m starting with Brian Fargo, leader of inXile, the developers behind Wasteland 2 and Torment: Tides of Numenera.

AJM: You’ve had a long and amazing career in the industry, made awesome games, built companies and managed great teams. Can you give me your “Top 2” lessons learned – and a little detail on the mistakes or trials that lead to understanding those lessons?

BF: It is difficult to boil my thoughts on building teams and games into THE top 2 lessons but I will take a stab at two very important ones for sure. I find that people spend a lot of time designing a game but not much time designing the company itself and ultimately it is great people that make the games and having the proper dynamic in a team or company is paramount. I get plenty of credit for my role in these games but we all know that these larger products are always about a team of people pitching in ideas and talent, no one person can take credit for it all. Every game I have worked on has become bigger than any one human can do so that leaves it to me to make sure I create the right environment for this kind of magic to flourish. The personalities and talents and morale of the group all need to work if you want to make something special. My mistake in this regard was to spend too many hours trying to get an individual to buy off on the vision when it just wasn’t going to happen. It’s important to get that dynamic in place as soon as possible and protect it fiercely.

And I guess the second part of building a great game is to make sure everyone clearly understands the goals and sensibilities you are trying to achieve. This part is along the same lines as the point above except is more product focused and makes it so that the healthy group you have established can soar. When everyone on the team understands the sensibilities it gives more energy to the production and it allows for more of the team to contribute towards it. And defining things in a set of ideals allows for maximum creativity without getting too attached to a narrow set of ideas. Most often I have seen games go sideways because of a contractually tight payment structure that doesn’t allow for enough of a constant tinkering or if there isn’t enough time in the back end of development for the iteration. I really don’t have a true feel of a game until it is well along and playable and only then can I start to address pacing, balance, sign posting, satisfying effects, areas of boredom and excitement etc.

AJM: “DRM-free” is committed to with both your Kickstarter campaigns. Can you talk a bit about the math behind this commitment? Is there any chance the games will generate meaningful revenue after release (outside of the money raised via Kickstarter)? Do they need to in order for you to be “successful” with them? And what’s the definition of success in this context?

I’m not sure of the math but putting DRM on a game ends up pissing off the legitimate users of the game for an impossible battle against pirating. What’s the point? In general I believe that people who were going to buy your game will most likely do so if you get it in front of them somehow. During my days at Interplay we used to do a fair amount of business with the hardware manufacturers bundling our games with a hard drive or a PC in which they paid us only a few dollars for our games and then they could advertise “Comes with $150 of free games.” Well they would sell hundreds of thousands of units with our games and no matter how much volume they did our retail sales never dipped. There are just audiences of people who are buyers and others that won’t pay or weren’t going to buy it anyway. And beyond that we have been pre-paid to make this game so it would be doubly outrageous to then add DRM to the very people who made it possible. I’m not entirely certain what is possible from a sales perspective outside our backers but I feel pretty strongly that when we deliver the
epic, moody and reactive game that we promised that its sales will match that of other games of scope, scale and excellence.

AJM: What non-gaming topic has you most intrigued these days and why? Just curious if there’s something you’re following in the news that you’d like to share your thoughts on.

I’ve been in the gaming business for 30 years and when I speak to folks outside the field there are generally very few follow up questions when I tell them what I do. But now with crowd funding I have more interest in my business activities and ideas than ever before which further cements how important and powerful this new concept is. I’ve always felt that money in the hands of individuals has a greater chance of doing good and being used to help others over what corporations do with it. Removing the gatekeepers will allow more profit and rights to be held by people who are not beholden to shareholders or feel the need to crush all competition. I like to do my part in helping progress this movement which has come in the form of Kicking it Forward, tweeting about interesting projects, supporting projects financially and giving advice to my crowd funded “competitors” where I can. We need to help make it so more of the money goes into the hands of the people who are actually doing the creation and I know most every creative industry feels the same way.

OZombie Kickstarter Launch

After several months of planning, negotiating and teasing we’ve announced our next Kickstarter campaign and it’s OZombie. The campaign page describes the game concept as:

OZombie is a narrative-driven action-adventure game set within an alternate version of the Oz universe created by L. Frank Baum. The game’s themes and characters are inspired by Baum’s deeply imaginative books (all 14 of them!) then filtered through the story and art treatment you’ve seen applied to our other games like Alice: Madness Returns and Akaneiro: Demon Hunters.

We’ve set our target at $950kUSD and a campaign length of 42 days. Why 42? Because that’s the number of Oz books in the official canon – plus it’s the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything. Anyway, it seemed like a good number.

I’m obviously pretty excited about the campaign and the prospect of returning to the Land of Oz. Years ago I made an attempt at developing a game based on Oz only to have it canceled half-way through by Atari. They claimed to be running out of money, something they seem to do every couple of years. The rights to that project have been tied up ever since – which meant that this new Oz needed to be as different from the old one as possible. Pretty sure with the inclusion of “zombies” in the title we’ve made the difference insanely clear.

Yeah, I know there are too many zombie games in the world today. Couldn’t agree more! Just keep in mind that when we talk about “zombies” in the world of Oz we’re referring not to the traditional brain-hungry zombies made so famous by the Romero films, but of conformist zombies… the ones like you and me that occupy a world controlled by powerful people who manipulate us through fear and deception. That’s the thematic core I’m planning to explore with the game – and one that featured heavily in the original Baum books.

So far the reaction to the announcement in the game media has been positive. Though it’s difficult to say the same about the comments from core gamers on those sites. Seriously guys, if you can’t come up with anything better than “he sucks, he made Bad Day LA” then I don’t think I’m the one you should be calling unoriginal.

On a more positive note, for those of you interested in this new take on Oz, we’ve put together some really awesome backer rewards including hand-made steampunk goggles, printed art, physical toys and a wide variety of digital items. All the details can be found on the official Kickstarter page. A page for PayPal backers is being created and should be live soon as well.