Game with Your Brain content producer Rachel Presser sat down with Jay Kidd, founder of Hamilton, Ohio based development team Wraith Games, at GDEX in Columbus this year. Wraith’s early work and what it was like to be an indie developer pre-Steam and Twitch, labor practices in the games industry, Wraith’s current game in progress Collapsus and more were discussed in this thorough interview.
Rachel Presser: Tell me about Wraith Games’ backstory. You guys have been around since 2005, when the industry was more or less going through its “awkward teenage years”. What was it like getting started in that era compared to going into indie games now?
Jay Kidd: When Wraith Games first started out, for a few months we were calling ourselves Mind’s Eye Games. At the time, we were just a group of hobbyists. We were all still in high school, we had no clue what we were doing, and so at that point all we were really trying to do was make games. Whatever it took, whatever came to our minds—we just wanted to get it out there. That’s when we made what we call “The 50 Terrible Prototypes”.
(Laughs) And they were! They were absolutely awful. That was pre-Xbox Live Arcade, so not quite pre-Steam but that was before it was a place for indie devs, before Unity was a thing...actually, a year before YouTube became good.
R: Yeah, YouTube and Steam were still a wild yonder pretty much. I don’t exactly recall the year indie devs really started taking off, but in those days it wasn’t part of our lexicon like it is now.
J: I remember, and this is the case for a lot of Wraith’s team members too, that I was nine years old when I decided I wanted to make games and everyone told that wasn’t even a career one could do. Especially not something one could do with a small team or as an individual. And in 2005, not much had changed on that front.
There was game making software, but all we really knew was “We have to learn how to program it, have to learn how to do art...” So with these 50 Terrible Prototypes we were just throwing in whatever would stick to the wall. And one of those is our current project, Collapsus, which started as a prototype in 2006. At least from what I could tell, there wasn’t much of an indie developer scene. Obviously, independent development can trace its roots all the way back to the 70s when people create stuff on really old IBMs, ZX Spectrums, Apples, and things like that. You’d take your floppies and put them up on hobby boards in the shops—
R: Shareware was a big part of my childhood.
J: Absolutely. So the scene could trace itself back then. But in the 90s, or rather the 2000s, the best way to get your game out there was a games portal. Because you had these Flash portals and things like that.
R: Like Newgrounds?
J: Yes, Newgrounds and others. We were desperately trying to get something on the web that WASN’T Flash. Steve Dorgan, our 3D art director and also our brand manager, got his start on Newgrounds. But he wouldn’t join the team until later, and I didn’t know him in high school as well. He was a Flash guy but we were working with Java. That did not work. Newgrounds wouldn’t even take Java even though it would run in-applet, it was crazy.
R: I remember some short-lived Java games from that time, like Brain Hotel?
J: I don’t think I’m familiar with Brain Hotel.
R: I love all the super obscure stuff. My punk and hardcore roots always show themselves whenever I’m discussing indie games, and shareware and whatnot. I think that was actually the precursor that got me into that scene. Because I would talk about this stuff and no one outside of the punk and hardcore scene would have any idea what the hell I was talking about. See, I’m an adventure game junkie so I was always looking for point and click adventures. Games just went through this awkward period in the early 2000s when all the studios figured 3D action games and FPS were where all the money is, so they said “Screw the adventure games, who cares about narratives?”
So with all that said, I was going crazy looking for new adventure games and came across Brain Hotel and it was so welcome to see a Java game with a point and click interface and quirky setting and story...it’s a weird quirky adventure game, definitely check it out.
J: I love point and click adventure games, so I definitely will! Monkey Island, King’s Quest, Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle...that’s my jam!
R: Awesome! Same here.
So yeah, the Java games. Is there anything particularly memorable from the 50 Terrible Prototypes that have been lost to time?
J: Off the top of my head, we had Chicken Crossing 1, 2, and 3 which is a Frogger style game where you play as a chicken instead of a frog. Because you know, why did the chicken cross the road? Yeah, we were original. Totally.
So there was the first one and two sequels. Then we had Burn Rubber which was a game that was like a precursor to infinite runners we have today where you keep going and you just dodge stuff, like you’re just dodging parked cars. So the idea was to simulate racing but we didn’t want to code AI for the other cars. So you just pass 300 cars in a straight line and try not to blow yourself up. We had the original and two sequels.
Then we had Operation: Roswell which was basically Space Invaders, but awful? That’s probably the tagline. “Space Invaders but you don’t want to play it.”
R: So how bad WAS it, in terms of controls and whatnot?
J: So there were two of them. And in the first one, I did not yet understand why Space Invaders was good. So we just had all these random ships just running around, randomly. And you just move around and it was variable speed like Space Invaders, where the more you destroyed the faster it got. But it was impossible. There were boss fights and the bosses were easier than the actual gameplay. Then the second one was a proper Space Invaders clone. Like it actually controlled space invaders! And I was so proud of it. But looking back on it today I just think it’s the worst!
Then there was The Adventures of Stickman.
R: Oh, like X-Gen Studios’ Stick RPG?
J: Not quite, but I remember Stick RPG!
R: Hey, don’t knock stick men. X-Gen is now extremely successful and I believe they also got their start on Newgrounds. I remember playing the original Stick RPG then I saw they have a full-blown studio with all these other games out, including many more with stick men.
You never know what exactly will take off.
J: So I really liked this game but no one else did. It was a combination of the original Donkey Kong and Elevator Action. All of the combat was button combos, Street Fighter style almost, where it was a beat-em-up but vertical. You had to try to get to the top of this skyscraper to rescue your girlfriend and I had not yet understood just how problematic that entire narrative was.
R: Yeah, the Andromeda trope. That’s what it is. The whole having to rescue the princess thing. To shamelessly plug my magnum opus essay on Leisure Suit Larry, I got into that trope a little bit and how ubiquitous it was in early video games. The trope of Andromeda has been portrayed in various art forms for centuries, where you’re rescuing the princess from the dragon, but it was used very problematically in early games and other types of media.
J: That’s why we actually have this rule at Wraith: we don’t do those games. Like if we were in a writers’ meeting and someone actually suggested something like this, that would be a flat out NO. The closest we’ve come is this game we’re working on that’s in pre-production, Milo’s Big Adventure where you have a sibling of indeterminate gender who loses a scarf. So your mission is just “get the scarf back”. And that is as close to that kind of narrative as we will literally come.
So the gameplay for Adventures of Stick Man was fun. You had to use stairs and elevators and try not to get hit by stick man ninjas and stuff as you’re learning new button combos and kung-fu moves, and it would letterbox itself to do cheesy kung-fu stuff...and it was awful! But it was the most work I’d ever put into a game until the prototype for Collapsus. Because we were otherwise doing game jam style games where it was one after another after another, we were all in high school just experimenting around and were fast and loose with everything.
Then we had Fly Guy. We remade Fly Guy as a commercial ad-based release and it didn’t do well. But it was basically just Burn Rubber on its side and you played as a fly.
All these games just sound just, the worst! And they were! They were the 50 Terrible Prototypes. We even did a first person shooter called Uber Match where there was a Nazi supersoldier experiment--
R: Oh, god. You were ahead of your time.
J: It’s bad, but as not as bad as you think. You play as a Nazi supersoldier who breaks out. You’re in this secret lab and you just start murdering Nazis like you’re an unstoppable war machine, what are you going to do? There are people around you, they’re shooting at you, so you kill them.
R: This is unfortunately kind of on the nose for 2018.
J: Yeah, you’re right.
R: Just thinking about some of the people we’d kick out of hardcore shows and shit...now it just blows my mind that antifa and Nazis are part of our everyday conversation now. I remember rarely ever talking about this stuff outside of the punk and hardcore scene! Only the miscreants who go to hardcore shows had to deal with this.
J: So my mom was a hippie and when I was in high school I managed a metal band, so I went to lots of shows. I was always the mosh pit projectile!
But yeah, it was always a given that Nazis are the bad guys. Not something misunderstood.
R: The world is burning. We’re never going to go back to the way things were. It’s time to be more political, Nazis in games or not.
J: Art is inherently political, that includes games.
R: On political matters not concerning Nazis, labor discourse in games is both personal and political. And you proudly feature a 24-hour work week on the Wraith website along with more democratic flat management.
Has Wraith always operated this way? And would you consider yourselves full-time devs, or using the way American labor laws consider it, part-time?
J: As far as the 24-hour work week is concerned, we are absolutely full-time. Mostly because this is our passion and let’s be real, most of us are pulling more than 24 hours because we love it. But I’m not going to mandate my employees to put in those exact hours.
That’s the thing too. I’m not really the boss. I’m a founder, the creative director, but not really the boss.
We’re almost like a workers’ collective more than we are a company.
We’re an LLC but because we’re flat management, we’re basically a workers’ collective. It’s awesome!
R: So many people think you can’t have a workers’ collective and be successful! It’s crazy!
J: I don’t know if we’re consider ourselves successful?
R: If you’ve got 12 people and been at it this long? That counts as something when there’s so many people who struggle as solo devs and teams of 2-3 people and even they think this whole model of bleeding your workers dry is just how it’s supposed to be.
Look at TellTale. They had twenty times the workforce, all this investor money, and they still ran into the ground after making their workers sacrifice their health and free time!
J: We don’t have any investor money. We are fully self-funded, although we’ve had friends and family help out. I’ve given talks about seeking funding for a game studio and it’s an open secret that Wraith hasn’t really needed to do that.
We’re currently doing a funding round from The Brandery in Cincinnati, an incubator program where they’re just “Take $50,000 with this program if you’re eligible!”
R: So funding has been mostly project-based or random bursts like this incubator? What about publishers?
J: We have a publisher, Ratalaika Games, they haven’t given us any money and we haven’t asked for any. They port to consoles we can’t port to and translate the games, and give advertising and distribution. They’re a really good promoter!
R: Yeah, localization gets time-consuming and expensive.
J: No joke, Collapsus is coming out in ten languages. We did half of them ourselves, the Russian translation is being done by a friend of the team. So we’ve been pretty self-sufficient with everyone pitching in where they’ve needed to. We do have a board, the board mostly pays the rent and we help with the studio’s remodeling.
So the 24-hour work week came from the Swedish and French models for full-time work which I further looked at. I also looked at Silicon Valley, which is an awful model to follow. However, I did notice some of their trends and some company’s philosophies basically said “If someone has more time to spend with their friends and family, they have more time to sleep and more free time to enjoy the benefits they’re getting from the company so they’ll be more productive.”
J: Statistically speaking, most people spend their first few hours of the work day *not* working and the last few hours of work also just not working. By cutting that down, you can come in and just work when you’re available.
R: You look at the results, not the hours worked. This whole obsession with the number of hours worked is why American culture is so fucked.
J: It’s a “work for work’s sake” thing. It’s a Puritanical belief.
R: Yeah, fuck the Puritans! They’re all for like, no enjoyment of anything.
J: They believe idle hands are the devil’s plaything and you have to work if you want to stay out of trouble.
R: Screw that. I didn’t go through all this trouble to become fully self-employed and built this batshit crazy media career if it meant I’d be unable to enjoy things like cooking and going out for good food, hanging out with my friends, getting to travel and go to all these events...
J: You have to enjoy your life! What’s the point of working otherwise? It’s not just a means to an end, to get enough money to live.
What is life without entertainment? Without friends? Without food? What’s the point? And we make VIDEO GAMES. We of all people should know how important it is to enjoy oneself!
R: How can you expect people to be inspired if they’re just going to be locked in an office all week?
J: Absolutely. I believe that someone can maximize profit in the long term by being a decent human being.
I can very clearly make the argument that some of these decisions mean we lose some money upfront but they pay off in the long run, like the boost to our image that makes people want to support our games and use our services. Being a good person is better for maximizing profit than short-term gains that could potentially damage the reputation of a brand.
R: Not even just reputation but if you’re screwing over the people who work for you, why would other people want to work for you if they had to fight about getting paid and were stuck working all these unpaid hours?
I just think it’s awesome and inspirational you’ve got this successful indie studio who’s been at it for a while: you don’t have to exploit anyone to do this! Yet people think it HAS to be this way or you can’t possibly be successful.
J: We don’t measure success in money mostly because if one of us doesn’t get paid, none of us get paid, and we only get paid when we sell a game!
R: So 24-hour work weeks aside, would you consider Wraith your primary focus or a part-time side hustle?
J: I teach game development part-time in high schools not so much for the money but because I love to teach. Steve does freelance graphic art and Mark was a student professor at EKU, also in game development. Lance also still makes Bicycle playing cards under his own brand. These are just the things we do because they’re awesome. Wraith’s dev team members do a lot of work in education, but it’s not like it’s a full-time day job or that Wraith is available as a full-time educator. We’ve gone to schools and helped them develop game dev programs and done talks on the topic, but we don’t do that full-time as a team.
But going back to the 24-hour work week, that came from the math of France’s minus Sweden’s week. It’s 10-4 four days a week but 10-4 is in air quotes because there’s unlimited PTO and the idea is, why do you need a sick note to not get fired? Why would I want my employee to sit in a doctor’s office and get coughed on and get even sicker?
R: And what if that person has something really embarrassing like chronic diarrhea or an STD?
J: A lot of people don’t seem to get that their employees’ health isn’t their business but that it’s a fact of life. I have friends with normal office jobs who have to lie to their bosses and say they have the flu when they have disabilities or mental health issues like clinical depression but can’t risk their jobs. They don’t have the flu, they just need to be alone or else they will feel suicidal.
I would never put any of my team in a position where they’re dealing with something, especially a disability, and have to be put on the spot like that. Take that time off.
That’s another thing too--maternity leave, paternity leave, adoption leave, child doctor’s leave, spousal doctor’s leave, even pets’ visits-- we do not ask. Take a day off. All we ask is that you meet your deadlines and if you can’t meet your deadlines, let us know as soon as possible and we’ll adjust your deadlines accordingly. We allow people to work off-site, set their own hours so long as they meet their deadlines, and be flexible. We’re officially a 24-hour week, but--
R: That’s just the facetime really.
J: Team members are really making their own hours. Why is it our business to know how people are spending their time, so long as their work is getting done?
R: Exactly. Too many of these jobs don’t treat people like adults.
J: That’s the phrase I use!
If you treat your team like adults, then they’ll get things done AND love their jobs.
R: It’s more important to focus on getting meaningful stuff done than log a certain number of hours at your desk. But I think Americans are just brainwashed to believe a 40-hour work week is this be-all end-all.
J: And that was created for the efficiency of production lines. First off, video games aren’t a production line. Then last I checked, America doesn’t really have those anymore. So...let’s do a different model, please?
We are approaching the point we’re a crunch-less studio. That’s difficult, but come on. Don’t kill yourself, we’re just making video games! We’re trying, but it seems like all of our crunch is self-imposed crunch but we remind each other to get some sleep. But with really good project management and setting reasonable deadlines, and knowing where your stretches are, that you can definitely do it crunch-lessly.
Whereas TellTale was in endless crunch. All the time. How many deadlines do you have that you’re always crunching?
R: It was also cruel to just not tell anyone what was happening. Like people moved across the country and only worked at the studio four days before the rug was pulled out. It’s exactly what I feared when I was younger and why I didn’t go into games then. Like you, I wanted to get into games ever since I was a kid but didn’t pursue it until my mid-twenties. We didn’t have game design programs in schools yet when I was college age. And I didn’t even know narrative design was an actual paid profession in the industry!
J: We’ll be hiring a few more people soon and our end goal is to get everyone to at least $75K/year. We’ll still be keeping things small in our 2,000 square foot studio and we don’t need people crammed in there like cattle, so we’re probably not growing to more than 15 employees. This way we can keep the flat management structure and all of our projects are chosen democratically in pitch meetings.
We make the types of games that we want to play. If the rest of the dev team is as excited about the idea, chances are people outside the company will be too. Collapsus has won quite a few awards now and we’re trying to win more so we’ve done something right! I’m not totally sure how to measure success, but awards are a good way!
R: So, what was your inspiration for this award-winning game? You got the concept for Collapsus from the 50 Terrible Prototypes but where did the idea come from?
J: Back in 2006, I was trying to make a game for my mom, Melody. She really liked puzzle games at the time and I tried to make one. Remember, this before YouTube was good and before literally any video game footage was on the site at all so I couldn’t see other games but I’d heard Bejeweled was really good. I worked with the few screenshots I found and thought, “How is this a game? How does it play?” I had played a lot of Tetris, that was my first arcade game.
So I made a game where you’re breaking blocks and making lines with a resource management mechanic. I gave it to my mom and she liked it, but said it hurt her eyes. I ended up tweaking it for a while, then I met my girlfriend who’d later become my wife at an anime convention and she fell in love with Collapsus after she asked “So you make games?” and I said “Sure I do! Nothing good!”
A couple years later, Wraith had made Physix which was picked up by GamePro Labs. That was the publishing arm of GamePro magazine. Out of 100,000 game projects that were submitted, they chose 10 and Physix was one of them and it was a first-person puzzle game. They ended up going bankrupt after only releasing two of the games.
So my wife Kristy is a computer science major and her dad used to be an Apple II indie dev programmer before that was really a thing, he did it for fun. She joined the team when we were dating and we were trying to figure out what to do next and she said “What about Collapsus?” and the rest of the team didn’t know what we were talking about. I showed it to Jeff, our programmer at the time, and he figured we could turn it into an actual game. So we started taking more inspiration from an actual Rubik’s Cube with the whole idea of tilting, twisting, and turning. A lot of people assumed we were making Collapsus for phones since it lends well to mobile devices but we were actually working on it for Wii and the DS. We didn’t become licensed Nintendo developers until the Wii U came out and mobile was still an afterthought.
So it’s kind of Bejeweled, kind of Tetris, and kind of a Rubik’s Cube then we later took inspiration from the Puzzle League franchise. I was also playing a lot of Lumines that had a frenetic sort of feel so that’s why we brought on chiptune artist Glenntai to provide an adaptive soundtrack. There’s placeholder music in there now but the final version will have music that changes the better you do, and add sound layers that depend on which power-ups you have for a Lumines feel.
J: We also took a lot of inspiration from Puyo Puyo and Puzzle Fighter when we were doing our 8-player online and local multiplayer.
R: What would you say were some of the most important lessons and takeaways you’ve had all the way from the 50 Terrible Prototypes to your present-day success with Physix and Collapsus?
J: First, that games take a very, very long time and feature creep is definitely real. Collapsus has so much content and it’s taken us so long to get it out.
Also, sometimes you think you have a game that’s done but you’re actually probably about 30% done.
Promotion is also really, really important. You have to go to shows, meet and talk to people, put yourself out there and talk to the press. We ended up being on Fox, ABC, and NPR a few times along with the Cincinnati Enquirer and Dayton Daily News. We just said “We should probably get some bigger press!” and I said, “Well, let’s ask!”
R: Usually I don’t hear game devs talk about getting mainstream coverage like this.
J: Getting on NPR was rather nice because we talked a lot about game accessibility. The second time I was on NPR, I was on a panel with a gentleman who made 3D-printed prosthetics for children. The idea was that children would outgrow prosthetics so you need something cheap and replaceable but also durable. The other guy on the panel was making apps for people with Parkinson’s and tremors. After the show, I was all, “Wow, I’m with people who are doing actual good.” They agreed that game accessibility measures were really important, and that was ultimately what got these media appearances.
But it doesn’t hurt to just reach out to your local TV network. Just call up Fox because you never know when someone will say, “Oh, there’s someone in the area making video games? Let’s talk about it!” The Fox interview was so weird, the anchor said “It’s a dream to play video games for a living!” and I said “Yeah Susan, it’s difficult to make video games for a living!”
R: There’s still so much stigma attached to it and people think you just play games all day and do not know about both the amount and the depth of eyesocket-grinding labor that goes into making a game. Most people would run away screaming if they knew what making games actually entailed!
J: I know developers who have carpal tunnel from making games. I think Kristy got tennis elbow from it too. These are serious occupational hazards, it’s terrible!
When we were in the Cincinnati Enquirer, the newspaper, it was a 4-hour interview with two other team members. The end result was a full-page spread that mostly talked about my problems with caffeine. The interviewer barely talked about video games in this article, just mostly talked about a story I requested to be off the record where I threw up on a church lawn once because I had too much Mountain Dew and made me out to be this caffeine addict. He even mentions when I open a Monster at the beginning of the interview and then four hours later I opened another one because it was a long interview. The way he frames it in the article is that I just pounded Monsters throughout the interview, the church story, and that time my friend had fifty Red Bulls.
It paints a picture of the most juvenile aspects of game development. Meantime we were talking about running a green studio, workers’ rights, LGBTQ representation, interactive fiction and games as art-- we’re talking about all this over four hours and he devotes a full newspaper page to “Haha, nerds drink a bunch of caffeine, amirite?”
R: That is pretty infuriating, to be reduced to a caricature like that.
J: But among my game developer friends, it’s become the best inside joke though.
R: Anything else you’d like to leave us with?