Creative Corner: Lyle Cox and Evan Munro from Mount Olympus Games.
By Kristine Hassell, GeekGirlCon Social Media Manager
Lyle Cox and Evan Munro
Ahoy hoy fellow gamers! As a biracial gamer, it is often frustrating to find a video game character that resonates with me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Faith from Mirror’s Edge…
…Jade from Beyond Good and Evil…
…and Alexandra from Eternal Darkness.
As I’ve matured as a gamer, it can be difficult to enumerate female protagonists in games that don’t immediately fall into tired gender tropes. So when I came across Together: Amna & Saif, it’s an understatement to say that my interest was piqued. Here was a mother and son cooperative team as the game’s protagonists, AND they were persons of color too?
I wanted to know more about the project and the folks behind it. Lyle Cox (programmer, game designer, and owner) and Evan Munro (game developer and art director) took some time from his busy schedule to answer some questions for our GeekGirlCon blog!
Hi Lyle! Hi Evan! Last February, Lyle quit his day job and took a leap into the world of indie game development. Were you always a gamer, Lyle?
LC: Yes, I have always enjoyed games, especially co-op games. I grew up making games too, just not video games. My friends and I would pretend there were Metroid-type unlocks around the neighborhood and the grass was lava. In the back of my grandparents’ house there was a bunch of broken glass which we used as currency for another game. The game ended shortly after inflation introduced from broken root beer bottles acquired from the nearby gas station. I was the oldest in my family so I was frequently making up new things for us to do.
How about you, Evan?
EM: Besides the occasional hiatus, I’ve been gaming since I was 6 or 7. My grandma had a scary basement with a black-and-white TV and an NES. My sister and I braved many a trip down there just to get a few hours of quality Mario time.
As I’ve gotten older, spending days playing a title has become harder to schedule. In fact, scheduling might be the order of the day if co-op play is required with other friends. Thankfully in Seattle, geeks are thick on the ground. There are a plethora of video game companies in the area, not to mention board game and RPG developers. Has it been harder for geeks to connect in a city like Salt Lake City?
LC: While we don’t have as many game developers as San Francisco or Seattle, it is pretty easy to connect with other developers; we have bimonthly indie game nights where 30-50 people show up. The game design program at the University of Utah was ranked #1 in the country as well. Utah also has a strong board game community, and over 70,000 people attended Salt Lake Comic Con last year, so there are plenty of geeks here.
Wow. I had no idea that Salt Lake Comic Con was the largest first year Comic Con in North American history and the largest convention EVER to take place in Utah. Impressive!
LC: There are a lot of us here that are doing things to build the game dev community in Utah. Hopefully we can make it one of the best places to be an indie developer.
What have been some of the challenges as an indie developer?
LC: Constantly playtesting and finding new people to test the game in a situation where I can observe is a challenge. We have local meetups where I can do some of that, but when I can’t find anyone I have gone to local universities and asked people to play my game while they are there eating their lunch. It isn’t ideal, and you get turned down a few times before you find someone who wants to and has the time, but the game will be better for it in the end.
Maintaining work-life balance, a schedule, and productivity can be a challenge for anyone that works independently. I sometimes overwork myself, which ends up being a net loss because I get burnt out and my body/mind won’t let me work anymore. I am getting better at not doing that.
EM: For me, the hardest part has been making enough money with side jobs to survive, while still having time to devote to development. As I’ve gained experience, paid opportunities have arisen, and it’s been getting gradually easier. But even so, the market is a fickle beast, and the lack of stability is always daunting.
How did Mount Olympus Games get its name?
LC: I like mythology, and the domain http://mountolymp.us was available. I thought it would be fun to have customer support and such come from Zeus at mountolymp.us or Apollo at mountolymp.us etc. So I bought the domain and Mount Olympus Games became the name of the studio.
Nice! I also like Greek mythology and knowing that Apollo was the patron god of music and poetry makes for a nice tie-in with video games, in my humble opinion.
Let’s talk about the video game you’ve been working on. Together: Amna & Saif seems like a fantastic way to spend an evening. How many hours of game play will Together have?
LC: I want two people to be able to play the game in one sitting. So I plan for the main campaign to take about 2.5 hours, which is close to the upper limit for most people to get in the same room together without interruption. There will be a good amount of additional levels and secrets that will probably double or triple that time. There is a stretch goal on the Kickstarter that will add New Game Plus, where you can play through the game again with more difficulty as well. I will redesign/tweak the levels to make them all more difficult.
The New Game Plus level – will that be available after you’ve completed the game initially?
LC: Yes. After you have beaten the game, you can play through the game again with harder levels. The exact implementation will be refined and decided later, but in the end there will be a lot more levels to enjoy if we reach that stretch goal.
Two-and-a-half hours seems like the perfect amount to complete a story mode. Were you inspired by any other video games that took about that long?
LC: Yes, I listened to a talk about how Journey kept the game length intentionally short so two people could play through in one sitting.
I mentioned earlier that I was intrigued by the decision to make the protagonists persons of color. What inspired that choice?
LC: There were some talks at GDCthis year that opened my eyes to the fact that there is a large amount of [people underrepresented] in games. At the same time Evan Munro, the art director on Together: Amna & Saif, asked me about trying out different races for the characters. I was passionate about it so I told him to go for it. All credit goes to him for the result.
As a POC, I am glad that you and Evan chose diversity for your game characters. Do you find that once you’re aware of the underrepresentation, you can’t turn it off?
LC: There are people far more qualified to talk about this than I am. But it is a cultural thing and not isolated to games. What we feed our minds affects us whether we admit it or not; that includes racial stereotypes. The world would be a better place if we consumed media with humanized characters rather than caricatures of stereotypes.
EM: For me as a white male, there are thousands upon thousands of lead characters designed to appeal to me. But for a POC not so much, and the characters that do exist are often based on offensive stereotypes. And even in the indie games scene, there are still overwhelmingly more white characters to choose from than non-white. So when designing Amna and Saif, I decided that if this were my only chance to have total control over a character design, I’d want to take that opportunity and do something unique with them.
Having POC characters also fits into the overall concept and theme of Together as well. As Lyle has mentioned, we want Together to bring newcomers into gaming, and designing POC characters instantly appeals to new audiences.
Were you inspired by any specific titles?
EM: I was inspired by Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana for a lot of the character proportions and color schemes. Other than that I used references outside of gaming. I researched into people from Iran and Pakistan.
Congratulations on reaching your funding goal on Kickstarter! Was its success a surprise?
LC: Thank you. We are taking a lot of risks with Together, so I was prepared for the game to flop, but hoping it would do what it is doing now. I am very grateful and happy that people have seen what makes Together unique and are supporting us. Thank you to all of our backers, and those who have told others about Together.
EM: This being my third Kickstarter project, in general I knew what to expect and what to plan for. So I had hoped that my preparation would at least get us funded. But yeah, it’s always a risk and I’m still amazed by people willing to proactively support indie game development. And we’re definitely elated with the response we’ve gotten.
I can see why. Checking out the game, I really look forward to playing through the game with my partner. He and I have played through many story modes together but this one seems like it might be more compelling because everything requires two players, working together.
So, what you do when you’re not wearing your indie game dev hat?
LC: I spend time with my wife Rachel, who has been very supportive of the development of Together. I like to read, mostly non-fiction, but I mix in some fantasy and sci-fi as well. And of course I play games.
Does Rachel play video games also?
She plays some, but not a lot. She likes the genesis era Sonic games and she was hooked on Flappy Bird and Threes for a little bit. We played through Portal 2 and some other games together, and she helps me playtest Together: Amna & Saif as well.
How about you, Evan?
Well, I always try to keep drawing and filling up sketchbooks. I also enjoy watching horror movies and anime with my girlfriend. And of course playing games!
Awesome! Can you share what we can look forward to for the rest of 2014 for Mount Olympus Games?
Mostly we will continue development of Together: Amna & Saif. We will have a number of beta releases that go to the beta backers on kickstarter. We will be showing the game at SLC Comic Con in September, and if the Indie Megabooth [at Penny Arcade Expo] and/or IndieCade want us, we will be there as well.
I wish you luck at Salt Lake Comic Con, and hope folks respond well to your game!
We here at GeekGirlCon, love sharing our geekdoms. What have you been geeking over lately?
LC: For Books: I am a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. The Manderlys make excellent pies you know. I have The Hound’s Helm from the HBO show sitting on my desk. It is my favorite decoration in my office space.
EM: I recently found an amazing anime film called Fusé: Memoirs of a Huntress. Fusé has great animation, really interesting story, and the main character is kinda badass. I’m also a big fan of synth music. I’m in the market for a korg or something to mess around on.
Any final words of advice would you have for anyone who wanted to follow your lead?
LC: Get out of debt, and study as much as you can. Debt weighs you down and limits your opportunities. Knowledge increases your opportunities. Start creating now–it doesn’t have to look pretty and it doesn’t have to make money. Only make games if it rewards you intrinsically, not extrinsically.
EM: On the art end of things, I’d say, focus on the basics 100%: color, anatomy and composition. Employers are impressed by traditional abilities more so than your handling of a specific program (though they also are good to know). Also if you can afford it, I had a very good experience at art school. I was able to seek out professors that taught me a lot about different mediums and visual communication. Additionally, for game development, all of the connections that have allowed me to work in game development came from my involvement at my university.
Thank you to Evan and Lyle for speaking with me today. I’ve really enjoyed their insights on Together: Amna & Saif, and hopefully you have too. I highly recommend this game whether you’re an old school gamer looking for something fresh or if you’re a neophyte to the whole gaming thing. It’s worth noting that the creators have also taken steps to make the game very accessible. You can play this game with one hand, and they’ve crafted the game’s color palette for people with color blindness.
Watch this space for more awesome content highlighting diversity and stories you might not find elsewhere. Support indie games!