Game News

Inside an Indie Development Studio

With Mad Devils, I wanted to take one of my favorite settings in WWII, mash it up with a bit of supernatural, HellBoy flair and create a co-op game with unique characters and intense action sequences but also sequences where rushing in guns a blazing isn’t always the best course of action.

          -Kyle Kulyk, Founder Itzy Interactive

Kyle Kulyk is the founder of indie studio Itzy Interactive. His studio is working on a title called Mad Devils and, as I wrote about last week, they have added a veteran writer from the Diablo franchise to the project. He was kind enough to do an interview with me and give us a glimpse into what life is like when you put it all on the line to form an indie studio.

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BaconBits: You had a career in finance before you become an indie game developer. How scary was that transition for you and what made you to decide to pursue that dream?

Kyle Kulyk: It was terrifying and not a decision I made willingly.  I had been in the brokerage industry for a decade when I was laid off in early 2009 and no one in the industry was hiring as they had no idea how deep the recession would go.  Added to that pressure was my wife and I had been trying to have a child for years and it was finally going to happen.  Then I lost my job.  So at 35 I set out to switch careers and it was while taking programming courses that the opportunity to specialize in game programming presented itself.  Game development had been a dream of mine since I was 13 and I felt that I’d hate myself if I didn’t at least try.  While I was in school my wife gave birth to our son via emergency c-section two months early.  I was at school, then I’d drive directly to the NICU, then back home to sit by myself and work on my studies.  Looking back, it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.  Even five years in now, nothing is certain and it’s still scary as hell.

BB: Do you have prior experience as a dev or was founding Itzy Interactive your first foray into the business?

KK: No experience at all other than typing in games on my C-64 from Compute’s Gazette when I was a kid.  Itzy Interactive Inc. is my first company.  I was no stranger to the business world and as a Financial Management Advisor I was no stranger to business plans, contract law, etc.  I’ve always worked as part of a team but Itzy Interactive is my first experience development experience.

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BB: I’ve always wanted to ask a dev that was sort of new to the industry this question: Since you, like me and most of my readers, grew up as a lover of games did the magic and fun of playing games lose any of its charm since you began working to make them? Like knowing how the proverbial sausage is made?

KK: I worried about that going in!  I was concerned that once I started dissecting games in order to make them, the magic would be gone.  As it turns out, I enjoy games just as much as I ever did.  What happened is I developed a greater appreciation for the games I do enjoy.  For instance, I find myself stopping now mid-game and marveling at how a certain visual effect is put together.  The little details that used to sail over my head like how a menu transitions, or the sequence of events that create a unique, in-game moment jump out at me and I find I’ll be playing a game and suddenly I’ll want to take notes on something that they’ve done particularly well.

BB: Recently, Bethesda announced a pretty hefty increase in its season-pass for Fallout 4, moving the price point from $29.99 to $49.99. Do you think the increasing cost of AAA titles will eventually spark a boom in the indie segment?

KK: I think we’ve been seeing indie games come into their own for the past few years.  As Steam really started to take off, we also saw the PS3 and Xbox 360 embrace indie titles like Limbo, Bastion and Castle Crashers, for example.  The PS4, Xbox One Steam continue to be excellent platforms for indie titles.  One of the current problems facing AAA development is the increasing costs of creating AAA titles mean that less risks are taken as they need to insure they’ll be able to make up their development and ballooning marketing budgets.  When you go back and start adjusting games and systems to take inflation into account, games aren’t really any more expensive but the costs of creating these games have skyrocketed.  Indie titles are where we’re seeing the creative risks being taken.

BB: Will your upcoming game be in the 8-bit style and do you think the sort of faux-retro 8-bit movement is becoming over used?

KK: I think there’s still a market for them, but we’re not going the retro route for Mad Devils.  I played enough of those games in my youth and they don’t really appeal to me.  Except for Shovel Knight.  Shovel Knight was awesome.

BB: How did you come up with the idea for Mad Devils?

KK: While I was studying game programming, I created a top down shooter in XNA title Boneyard where a slow moving zombie shot fireballs at fast moving skeletons in a cemetery.  It had a bit of a western feel to it and I tossed around the idea of a game called “Redemption at Boot Hill” about an undead gunslinger who found a way to redeem himself in the afterlife while fighting through a western themed hellscape.  As I expanded on the idea and themes, I ditched the western theme for a WWII theme but kept the redemption angle a bit.  A squad of WWII soldiers whose actions during the war damned them find they’ve been resurrected in a WWII themed hell are able to continue contributing to the war effort from the afterlife.  What’s not to love?

BB: What is your all-time favorite game and what was your favorite game from last year?

KK: There’s certain games that just hit you at a sweet spot in your life and leave an impact.  My all-time favorite game is Grim Fandango.  The style, puzzles, story, characters, humour, it had it all.  Just a beautiful, funny game that my future wife (who was not a gamer at the time) and I really enjoyed together and bonded over.  It was just the perfect game for us at the right time.

Last year my favorite game I played was Bloodborne, hands down.  A nice break from all the Lego games and Disney Infinity I spent playing with my 5-year-old.

BB: As a marketing guy myself I am always curious, as an indie developer without the war chest for advertising that AAA studios have, what is your marketing strategy? For instance, is it primarily social media and word of mouth that you’re counting on?

KK: We certainly do try to leverage social media.  We have Facebook and Twitter accounts for both the company and for the Mad Devils project.  The trick is finding time to keep them updated and to regularly blog with so much else going on.  When the prototype is ready to go, at that stage we’ll start up a Square Enix Collective campaign and Steam Greenlight campaign to try to raise awareness before taking a crack at Kickstarter.

BB: Can indie devs compete with the big studios and do you think indie developers have any advantages over them?

KK: It’s a different market.  When you go out looking to buy a AAA game, you generally know what you’re after.  You’ve seen the ads; you’ve climbed aboard the hype train.  When people go looking for indie games they’re specifically looking for titles that are smaller, quirky, cheaper and less mainstream then the big studio titles.  There are markets for both.

BB: Some craft beer brewers will purposely limit the amount of a specific beer they brew so they can continue to market themselves as small craft guys rather than being known as a big mass producer, banking on the perception that smaller companies produce more carefully crafted product. Do you think the game industry will reach a point soon where the term “indie dev” is a badge of honor and studios will actually want to be seen that way?

KK: I think it’s already a badge of honour.  To be an indie developer, you didn’t just show up to work, collect your paycheck and go home.  You started a company, you found the time to do it, you sourced out the funding or lived off Kraft Dinner for a year or more.  Then you ultimately completed and shipped a product.  The bigger studio guys I’ve spoken to always seem impressed by what indies accomplish.  When I started off on the road of indie development, I thought I knew what I was in for but nothing can prepare you for the stress on yourself and your family when you go all in.  The fact that we’ve survived this long and are able to take our first crack at the console market is a small miracle.

BB: Do you think people should pre-order games or do you think the industry is using their willingness do to so as a crutch for releasing buggy software that gets patched down the line? In other words, are consumers encouraging bad dev behavior by doing this?

KK: Although I have pre-ordered games in the past, it’s maybe something I’ll do once every two years or so and usually just because I happened to be in the store at the time.  You never know when a finished game will deliver or not and I’ve never understood the pre-order culture with some people.  I understand why companies want you to preorder, but not why a consumer would feel it necessary.

While I’m sure there have been cases of companies rushing out a product that wasn’t ready to meet a deadline, we’ve always had that.  That’s not going to go away.  The fact that they can patch somewhere down the line is a godsend in my opinion.  I remember the days when if a game shipped broken, it was simply broken and too bad about your luck.  We really had to rely on game reviewers at that point to let us know what we were getting ourselves into when we purchased the latest title.  We don’t live in a perfect world and game are becoming more complicated.  It’s bound to happen.

It might seem that games are releasing buggier to some, but I’m not even sure that’s the reality.  With everyone on the internet, if someone has a problem with a game there’s screenshots up within minutes and 50 sites running stories about how broken the title is.  There’s an internet culture that’s always ready to go on the attack.  In reality the problems might not be widespread at all.  If I listened to all the websites screaming of games being unplayable messes over the last few years, I would have missed out on some truly fantastic gaming experiences.

BB: Are you familiar with the Gamer Gate movement and how do you feel about the trend of inserting political statements into video games?

KK: I don’t feel that political statements in video games are a trend at all.  They’ve always been there and will always be there.  Just like movies, music, television, books and videogames…all have been used to convey political or social statements and there isn’t a thing wrong with that.  SimCity was based on an economic model favoured by supply side economists and conservatives.  Civilization made huge generalizations with regard to the most favourable types of political systems.  Contra and Bad Dudes were perfect examples of pro-US, cold war propaganda and Metal Gear was filled with themes related to Japan’s anti-nuclear paranoia at the time.  Recently GTA, Bioshock, Mass Effect..all these titles have political and social messages.  Churches put out videogames, the Army puts out games, PETA puts out games.  There’s nothing new about any of this.

I’m all for people using videogames as a social platform if they so choose.  There will always be games with social and political messages just as there will always be games that are complete fluff.  Just like movies, just like television, etc.  It’s this variety that I love about the medium of video games.

As far as Gamergate, I’ve followed the Gamergate movement since before it was called Gamergate.  I prefer not to comment.

BB: What is the hardest part of being an indie studio?

KK: For sure it’s the lack of visibility.  There are so many indie developers out there, standing out from the crowd seems next to impossible sometimes.  Our last game was a mobile title called Vex Puzzles which one review site called “the perfect mobile game” and which won us the “Best in Digital Entertainment” award at the Digital Alberta Awards.  Problem is, with next to zero marketing dollars and being completely unknown it’s very difficult to make people aware of your work.  When you’re competing against 500 games day being released on iOS alone if you don’t already have a following or an advertising budget you might as well be invisible.

BB:I  plan to play and hopefully review your game as soon as possible. I’m sure our readers would like to know, when is it going to be available and is the plan still for PC, Xbox and PS4 availability?

KK: We’ve some ways to go yet.  Our prototype is scheduled for completion by the end of May of this year.  With the prototype in hand we then need to seek production funding and if we’re able to secure what we need, then we most likely have another year of production before launch.  We’re looking at a late spring 2017 on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.

BB: Are you already looking past Mad Devils at your next project or is all of the studios focus on getting that released?

KK: We’re all in with Mad Devils.  After nearly 5 years of mobile development we were ready to close the doors until we were able to secure a loan to produce the Mad Devils prototype with the help of the Canadian Media Fund.  If we’re able to complete production of Mad Devils, I’d love to start working immediately on a sequel or DLC to the project.  There were a number of aspects and stories we pitched for Mad Devils and different places we wanted to take the game that were shelved simply due to the time and resources required to pull them off.

BB: Mad Devils is described as a WW2 style arcade shooter. Is that inspired in anyway by the games you grew up playing?

KK: Absolutely!  Back in my Commodore 64 days I played the hell out of 2d Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein.  There was something about the stealth aspect of the game that I found appealing versus a game like Commando (which I also loved) were it was simply a shoot em up style game.  Rushing into a room with guns blazing in Castle Wolfenstein wasn’t the best strategy.  Years later I was playing games like Loaded and Reloaded on the PSOne and loving the couch co-op.  Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath were action RPG’s, but the couch co-op was also there.  And then these types of games simply slowed to a trickle as couch co-op faded in favor of online multiplayer.

With Mad Devils, I wanted to take one of my favorite settings in WWII, mash it up with a bit of supernatural, HellBoy flair and create a co-op game with unique characters and intense action sequences but also sequences where rushing in guns a blazing isn’t always the best course of action.

BB: You recently hired a veteran writer whose credits include the Diablo franchise. Has bringing an established veteran into your studio changed the culture or your approach to development at all?

KK: Not really.  As an indie studio, we all work from our home offices so as much as we’d like to have a central workspace where it’s easier to collaborate we’re a bit isolated from each other.  As the creative lead, I’m lucky enough to work directly with everyone so I’m excited to develop a rapport with the individual team members.  It’s crucial to find people who are talented but also easily on the same page.  One of my first conversations with our artist, David Murdoch had me describing the project and he quickly noted “Like Loaded on the PSOne” and I knew he not only had a similar play experience but he immediately “got” where we were going.

Our lead programmer, Will Iftody and I have been friends for something like twenty years.  When talking to our Level Designer, John Winski, he’s quick to note similarities to games he worked on like Baldur’s Gate with Bioware and share his experiences while bringing some of those types of moments to Mad Devils.  Right off the bat with Clay I felt he had nailed the tone and followed what we were doing with the game.  Making sure that everyone is coming at this project the same way means that in the interactions we do have with each other that everyone is clear on the ultimate vision and that just makes working with everyone that much more rewarding.