Medieval barbarians. Astonishing conspiracies. Thrilling space exploration. These are just a few of the items in the portfolio of game designer Tanya X. Short. Very few people can claim to be involved with projects that cover such a diverse range of themes and content, and yet even in those contexts, she has brought elements to each game she has worked on that expand the experiences significantly. After working on both of Funcom’s high-profile MMOs, Tanya has gathered together a small team of comrades to form Montreal-based Kitfox Games. Their first project, Shattered Planet, is nearing completion, and from what I have seen so far, it is definitely a game I am quite excited for. I reached out to Tanya to see if she would answer a few questions regarding Kitfox, Montreal, and the game, and she gladly agreed. Warning: Crablets ahead!
Greg Fisher: A bit of background: I know you did some work on Age of Conan and The Secret World, the latter of which I play quite a bit off-and-on. What would you say you’re the most proud of, out of the things you worked on there?
Tanya X. Short: Hey, great! I always love meeting fellow fans of Conan and The Secret World! They’re both great games that are pretty under-appreciated. I worked on those games for about 4 years, so it’s hard to pick any one thing. In Conan, I’m probably most proud of the Guild Renown system, which included all kinds of crazy things like guild city decorations and exploration quests and weird pets and stuff. In The Secret World, I’m probably most likely to brag about the Albion Theatre. I know it’s not the most popular feature, but those few players who go to the Albion and put on their own plays or poetry readings or job interviews – I did it for you!
GF: You are also one of the coordinators of Pixelles in Montreal, right? Would you mind giving a brief overview of that, for those of us who aren’t from Montreal?
TXS: Right! Well, Pixelles is a grass-roots initiative to get more women making games. We run a six-week workshop series to help 10 women make their first game – all kinds of women! We think EVERYONE should make games, because it’s an art form like any other. Everyone writes poems and draws pictures in school, but they don’t make games yet, so it’s seen as this weird thing only programmers do, but there’s so many approachable tools out there, there’s no reason for that perception to persist. Also, anyone else who wants to Follow Along to the workshop from home (because they’re abroad or identify as male, or whatever) can do so! We also have a completely separate mentorship program for women who might want to join the game industry, to meet up with developers in their dream job. That’s also open to the public, but we prioritize pairing Montreal-based women.
GF: Was there any central motivation for wanting to do something with a smaller team of people around you?
TXS: I’d worked on big MMOs for five years and I looked around Montreal and saw so many awesome, talented folks. The real kicker was when I heard about Execution Labs, which was providing a small paycheck to development teams of 4-5 people, so that they could afford to go full-time. I saw that and thought, “Well, that opportunity doesn’t come around every day.” So I had to try for it! Luckily, those other talented folks were willing to jump into the fire with me.
GF: Even with the small team, though, it seems like there is a really great network of developers in Montreal (and Toronto, as well). Is that accurate?
TXS: YES! There are a few towns across the world blowing up with literally thousands of experienced, visionary game developers! You have designers, programmers, artists, sound designers, all collaborating and cheering each other on, and I don’t think there’s been anything quite like it in history. The first time I attended a meeting of MRGS, I thought it must feel the way it felt to go to one of those English coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries. People are really exchanging ideas in a unique way, and empowering one another with their different passions and obsessions. I just hope everyone stays warm and welcoming and collaborative; I don’t need to wage war on AAA to prove I’m indie!
GF: I know there has been a bit of backlash on the term ‘indie’ itself and what ‘qualifies’. Have you had any of that?
TXS: Yes, there has been a bit of qualification problems, unfortunately. We’re four people and for various reasons, we can’t afford to work for free or “sweat equity”, as start-ups call it. The fact that we are taking a (very small) paycheck from Execution Labs means that we didn’t qualify to apply to enter the PAX East indie showcase, for example, which hurt our feelings quite a bit. In a strange reversal, we’re not “indie enough” simply because we couldn’t afford to be.
If we had been rich, or all had significant others/parents to pay rent for us, of course we would have preferred to go it on our own with absolutely no strings. That’s the ideal situation. Even a founder of Execution Labs, Jason Della Rocca, himself always starts out his investment advice with: “the best time to take someone else’s money is never!”
Of course, seeing some folks count TellTale as “indies” also burns a little bit since I worry our games will be compared to games from a 50-person team, so I suppose nobody will ever be really happy until we have labels for every development team size!
GF: So, as a lead-in to the game itself, I’m sure you’ve read Lars Doucet’s skewering of the term ‘roguelike’. Would you describe your game primarily as the suggested alternative (procedural death labyrinth)?
TXS: Well, all of the arguments I used to loudly denounce the use of the term ‘roguelike’ in official marketing messages inspired Lars’ article, but remain valid. I honestly think his replacement has many of the same problems – he’s trying to do too much with one term, which is why he’s suggesting replacing a 2-syllable word with 8 syllables.
Bottom line: if someone knows what a roguelike is, great! Yes, Shattered Planet is a roguelike!
But if someone doesn’t know what a roguelike is, it’s a sci-fi improvisation game with mysterious rules and on-the-fly strategies.
GF: On a scale of, say, Dark Souls on one end of the spectrum and Mass Effect on the other, how much in-game lore/backstory is there versus what is implied or inferred by the player?
TXS: Definitely closer to Dark Souls. We have one character that talks quite a bit, but isn’t that interested in dialogue, and items each have their own descriptions. Other than that… strange things happen, and it’s up to you to figure out what happened and what it means.
GF: What would a typical day in the life of a Shattered Planet explorer look like?
TXS: The Shattered Planet is extremely dangerous! If you don’t have a spare 1,000 clones, I would definitely not accept an away mission there! I think the average explorer sets out, picks a flower, admires the breeze, sees a cool-looking alien, runs up to say hi, and is promptly clawed to death.
GF: Would said explorer be expected to last more than a day, typically?
TXS: Lifespans are probably in the 5 to 20 minute range.
GF: What would you say that your notable influences are? I can kind of pick up a partial Star Trek feel from what I’ve seen so far.
TXS: We walk a delicate line between Star Trek and Star Wars, with every goofy other science fiction trope you can think of. It’s so easy to put in references, we have to exercise a bit of self-discipline to make sure that we spend time building up our own universe instead of just making jokes about everyone else’s! So hopefully if you pay attention you’ll learn about the Galactic Union and Gekkian-human history, in addition to chuckling over nerdy puns here and there.
GF: So, I’ll admit I’m a huge fan of the Crablet. Tell us how it came to be?
TXS: Our artist, Xin Ran Liu, made a few enemies, and the first couple were a blue-green color and looked a bit amphibious. So for the next enemy design, he tried something different, to give variety. So a red color and a hard shell later, we have the adorable Crablet! We immediately also recognised it was more expressive and potentially hilarious, which is surprising, since it’s less anthropomorphic than the hatchling, for example. But as soon as it was clawing and hopping about, we knew the Crablet was going to stay our favorite.
GF: What are the unique mechanics that you feel that Shattered Planet is bringing to the table?
TXS: In many ways Shattered Planet is a very classic roguelike for fans of that genre, but there’s a few key changes that make it unique and fresh, namely: setting up your ‘deck’ of items before you start adventuring, the isometric (ok, technically orthogonal) perspective & graphics, and of course the tablet version’s touch controls and free-to-play systems are completely new to the genre.
We’re also experimenting with different game modes. Right now, there’s the classic Mission mode (which has something to do with an Amulet of Yendor, cough cough), but there’s also a Survival mode, which offers quicker rewards but no ‘win’ condition, almost like an arcade mode. We’re keeping our minds open to more modes, especially seeing how fun the Daily Challenge was in Spelunky. I feel like there’s a lot of room left to try out new game designs, while using the moment-to-moment of roguelike gameplay as a foundation.
GF: Is there much that will need to change for the PC release versus the tablet one that would be noticeable to the player?
TXS: There will be a few major changes, yes. The tablet version is free-to-play, whereas we think a premium version is better for PC. So in addition to all the usual HD improvements to the PC version’s graphics and audio, we’ll be taking out in-app purchases and smoothing the experience to suit that gameplay style accordingly.
GF: What games have been capturing your interest lately, and what has really stood out to you about them?
TXS: I’m super-intrigued by Everquest Next and its potential to finally answer the question of what a AAA studio would do in response to the dream of Minecraft! I also really liked Gone Home’s storytelling and am currently in the middle of playing the lovely, charming Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD.
GF: Care to leave us with something you’ve learned along the way?
TXS: Always be ready to learn and change and grow as a developer. Always always, for the rest of your life. I don’t care if you’re a rockstar or a professor or an expert or a best-seller – if you’re not ready to learn, you will quickly be irrelevant. I hope in my heart of hearts I can always stay open-minded and humble as new technologies and innovations change the world.
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As the captain of the good ship Kitfox, Tanya X. Short discovers new game designs ‘through karate chops AND diplomacy’. In addition to her development work, Tanya has several essays published on Gamasutra and has hosted several game design workshops, both in Montreal and at The Guildhall at SMU. A full listing of her projects, as well as a short bio, can be found on her personal website.