Tuesday, April 16, 2013

SPC Interviews: Ben Triola (Happy Badger Studio)

We haven't had an interview in a while at SuperPhillip Central, but this next one is something special. I, SuperPhillip, am the head of this site, but my main job is being a college student here in St. Louis. It's my goal to specialize in game design as a fulltime job. Throughout my college career I've met some interesting people, but Ben Triola is one of the more intriguing characters I've met. He is a member of Happy Badger Studio, conveniently located just outside the St. Louis city limits. Now, I don't know about you, but I was relieved that this group was made up of happy badgers, as the only badgers I've known in the past were really mean drunks.

In all seriousness, I chat with Ben about how Happy Badger Studio came to be, we talk about the studio's Kickstarter and game, we converse about how easy (or hard) the game acceptance process for Apple platforms is, and advice for those who wish to enter the industry. It's a revealing look at an indie studio homegrown in SuperPhillip Central's hometown. I hope you enjoy reading about Happy Badger Studio, Something Fragile (their Kickstarter game), and simply seeing how savvy Ben is.

SuperPhillip (SP): Could you introduce yourself to our readers? What are your favorite games, if you can
name any off hand? What is your background? What made you want to enter the industry?

Ben Triola (BT): I’m an interactive designer / problem solver at Rampant Interactive, as well as a game designer at Happy Badger Studio. Favorite games...really hard question. To name a few: LoZ: Link’s Awakening, Utopia (Intellivision), Reactor (Arcade), Toe Jam & Earl, Mario Kart DS, Bastion.

I started collecting games as a teenager, and began playing a lot of the games I missed out on as a child. It was somewhere around that point that I started getting interested in game design.

SP: Was there ever one game that you made go, “Okay. I HAVE to be in this industry now”?

BT: I don’t really think it was one specific game. I think it was more that as I started to collect, I got a glimpse of games and how they changed and influenced each other over time. That and reading about the early history of game design - I had this feeling of wanting to be a part of it. Obviously it’s too late for me to be a part of the Atari 2600 design team, but I feel like there’s still a lot of unexplored territory in games.

SP: Not only do you design games with Happy Badger, but you also teach at Webster University here in St. Louis. What made you want to go into the teaching side of things?

BT: I don’t know - I like trying new things, and I’m passionate about game history, so I guess it just made sense. I think it’s really important for gamers to have an understanding of where things came from. I’m also one of only a few people in the area to have all these systems and I enjoy sharing those experiences with students.

SP: Speaking of Happy Badger Studio, how did it come to be?

BT: We encouraged some friends of ours to start a game studio, and Rampant Interactive would partner with them to produce and market the games. We completed one game all together, and started on some others - but ultimately their group got busy with other things, and we wanted to keep moving forward at a faster piece. They ended up selling Happy Badger Studio to us and now Rampant Interactive and Happy Badger Studio are under one roof.

SP: What games or people within the industry have inspired your studio, staff, and games, if any?

BT: I think we take inspiration from a lot of different places. We’re really into games that are explorative and experimental. We take inspiration from Atari games, because many of them didn’t build on existing genres, but staked out new ground. We take inspiration from indie games too, like Sword and Sworcery, Bastion, and others. I’ve been to GDC twice now, and that’s a big inspiration as well - I really like the experimental games session, and hearing from developers like Die Gute Fabrik.

SP: What is a typical day at Happy Badger like?

BT: I don’t know if there is a ‘typical’ game - our time is split between Rampant and Happy Badgers, so it can get a little crazy. We try to reserve Mon-Wed for client work and Thur-Friday for games, but inevitably they bleed over and we’re submitting games to Apple on Monday and fixing client problems on Thursday. And there are a lot of times that we use weekends or evening to work on games too. We really like the “Jamming” model of making games, so sometimes we’ll just see how much of a game we can complete in a Saturday.

SP: What programs do you use to make your games?

BT: We use a lot of middleware, like Stencyl, Game Salad, and Corona. We’re also looking into Unity, and UDK, as well as native development for iOS.

SP: How complicated/simple is the process of getting your games accepted by Apple? Are there many hoops to jump through? Is it worth the time and effort?

BT: I think the process is intentionally maddening. There’s a number of different certificates and profiles you have to generate before you can even start - and submitting the game is always a challenge that always seems to take several hours. So yes, there are a lot of hoops, but it’s worth it, and it probably helps cut down on the crap games in the store. It’s worth it to have thousands of people play your games. As far as financially worth it? TBD.

SP: A lot of indie developers have found success on home consoles. Has Happy Badger thought about developing downloadable games for such platforms like the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and so on?

BT: Yes, I think its just a natural progression. Despite Apple’s process, iOS is a really good entry level platform. We’ll build our brand on these games, and move into home consoles in the next year or two. We’re really excited about consoles like Game Stick and Ouya

SP: There has been criticism of smartphone and tablet gaming. Some view the majority of content on places such as Apple’s marketplace as shallow experiences. What is your opinion on that? Do more complicated and involved games like the ones seen on dedicated gaming systems have a place on smartphones and tablets?

BT: I think they do - Sworcery and Bastion both have a good deal of depth and are great tablet experiences. But I also don’t think mobile games need depth. Sometimes its fine to have a game that doesn’t require hours of dedication. I welcome lite gaming, and I think mobile is the perfect platform for it. Take Canabalt or Tiny Wings. These games are simple, but they’re a hell of a lot of fun.

SP: Can you tell us about your Happy Badger’s current Kickstarter? What is the game you want to make? What is the cash goal you’re trying to reach, and how close are you guys to reaching that goal?

BT: With 8 days left we’re at about $7,000 of our $18,000 goal. We really want to make Something Fragile - it’s something we started at the Global Game Jam, and after the response it got we feel like we need to finish it. It’s a poetic game that deals with love and loss - you’re a character that’s carrying a heart; you have to protect it, but sometimes you have to set it down or put it in harm’s way to move forward. I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to. The game also has a striking visual style - all the art is cut out of fabric and stop motion animated.

A level concept from Something Fragile
SP: What are your thoughts on Kickstarters? How has that changed the indie game development scene, if at all?

BT: It’s definitely been an experience - and whether or not we get funded, I’m glad that we decided to do it. I think it’s great for indie games - it’s helped some games get not just funding but an audience as well. I think there’s still room to grow, and it could have a better discovery system, but I think its been positive so far.

SP: This is a purely hypothetical question. If you and your colleagues at Happy Badger had an unlimited budget to make whatever sort of game you wanted for any platform, what type of game would it be and what platform would it be on?

BT: Wow, I think there’s so much that we would do - I definitely want to make some console games - but one concept that I’m really excited about is shared world games on mobile. I really want to explore this area. Shared world is different than MMO in that everyone is still playing what is basically a 1 player game - but the world is shared amongst all the players, and there are global events, and ways players can affect the game world for everyone.

SP: What advice do you have for people interested in entering the game development side of the video game industry?

BT: The biggest advice I can give - if you want to make games, start making them now. Just start doing it. The tools and resources are out there. Programs like Game Maker and Game Salad make creating games incredibly accessible. The only way to become good at it is to start doing it.

SP: Is there anything else you would like to say to the readers of SuperPhillip Central?

BT: I’ve probably talked enough. I would just say to people, keep playing games. And try something that maybe you wouldn’t normally try - first-person shooters can only entertain us for so long - it’s worth seeing what else is out there.

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Our huge thanks to Ben Triola for his time. If you wish to put some money into Something Fragile and back the game, you can do so at this link. The link also shows a video about the game and possesses lots of cool information. Remember that your money is only spent if the Kickstarter reaches its goal. Otherwise you will be refunded how ever much you put in. The game will be made regardless, but if the Kickstarter succeeds, then Happy Badger can make Something Fragile their main focus and push it hard.

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