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Interview #012: Jay Kidd - Wraith Games

For anyone who's ever had a dream, this is THE interview for you. I had the absolute pleasure and joy in talking with Jay Kidd, founder of Wraith Games. With Collapsus currently in development for the Switch along with working to strengthen the video game community as a whole, what are you waiting for? Start reading 😉

Thank you Jay for speaking with me today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Hi JP! It’s good to be here! So, my name is Jay Kidd, I’m the founder, Creative Director, and Lead Designer for Wraith Games. I’ve been making games since around 2005, and I’ve been running the same weekly D&D game since around that time as well. I also teach game design and development at a high-school level, part time and am a collector of retro games and arcade cabinets.

Formally I’m an artist by trade, coming from the Butler Tech School for the Arts, though my primary focus was in theatre with a secondary focus on digital art. My wife Kristy (one of Wraith’s programmers) and I live in an artist-exclusive apartment complex, Artspace Hamilton Lofts, just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio with our husky, Milo.

What was the first console/game you remember playing?

That’s always an interesting question because, while I have an answer for it, I’m not really sure it’s the “right” one. As far as console is concerned, that would probably be the SNES and Super Mario World (a game I’m still competing for the world-record speed-run on to this day as I am currently at the #2 spot), but Jill of the Jungle on Windows 3.1 may have beaten it out. There is also Tetris for the arcade. They all came into my life around the same time, but I can’t really tell you which was “first”.

Who knows? They may have been beaten out by another game I just can’t remember. All I know is that they all really touched me in such a profound way that made me want to make games.

What is your fondest childhood video game memory?

My fondest gaming memory, hmm? That was probably Christmas when I was 9 years old, unwrapping my Super Nintendo, then later hooking it up and spending most of the night playing Super Mario World. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It was those times shortly after that made me want to be a game developer. Heck, every time I pop in a new Mario game, I’m back in that moment. That’s something you never forget.

Growing up, did you always want to work in the video game industry?

Actually, yeah! When I was really young I wanted to be a firefighter or an astronaut (and, of course, Batman), but when I was about 9, playing some of my first games, that I decided I wanted to make games for a living. Most of the adults in my life at the time tried to tell me that it “wasn’t really a career”, but I was a pretty stubborn kid.

Through middle school I would make board games, really small game mods, and design documents for my own games. However, high school really took me down the final path that brought me into the hobbyist space of “real” game development.

Let's talk about Wraith Games, a studio you founded back in 2005. What inspired you to do so?

It was me and a group of friends who just decided to try our hand at making games. It was as simple as that. None of us knew what we were really doing at first. It was basically just a club back then. We thought it would be easy; we were wrong about that, but we did learn. Well, eventually.

For a few months we called ourselves “Mind’s Eye Games” and had a little GeoCities site going. We ran through that name very quickly, naming ourselves “Wraith Games” after a cool monster in the 3rd Edition D&D Monster Manual.

After about a year, I was the only original member left, but soon picked up more. That’s when I met my best friend Thorne Penn, who is now our Business Director, and Steve Dorgan, who was a far more talented hobbyist gamedev. He only joined in about a decade later, though, as our 3D Art Director and Brand Manager.

During this time, we made what would later be called the “50 Terrible Prototypes”. Basically student game jam-style (and quality) projects. One after another. It did give us the prototype for Collapsus, though. During this time we really learned a lot about game design and development.

Since 2005, you and your team have been hard at work on developing a number of innovative titles that really take the genre on its head. First came Radarkanoid in 2016, which also saw a release as an arcade cabinet! For those who may not yet have experienced the game, could you briefly explain it as well as how an arcade cabinet came into the picture?

Technically FlyGuy was the first in 2011, but we really like to forget about that one, too.

As for Radarkanoid, it started out as a game idea back in 2006 as a design sketch. See, some time a couple years earlier, I’d played Andrzej Kapolka’s web game Radial Pong on Albino Black Sheep. That game had a circle with 2 paddles that orbited around the outside of the playfield, with them bouncing a ball much like the original Pong.

Since one of my early forays into modding was making custom levels for a DOS clone of Breakout, and Breakout was originally conceived as a single-player follow up to Pong, I wanted to work on a version of Breakout that would function like Kapolka’s Radial Pong, but with hexagonal blocks in the middle, rather than an opponent to “fight”.

Much later, when the Kentucky Fried Pixels game jam and indie bundle came up, I revisited the idea with my wife Kristy programming, and Wraith’s chiptune artist Glenntai doing the music. Since the whole thing was a big throwback to the history of video games, we took inspiration graphically from 1958’s Tennis for Two, the second “video game” ever made, which would later inspire Ralph Baer’s Brown Box, which inspired Nolan Bushnell’s Pong. Since that game was played on an oscilloscope, we did sort of a skeuomorphic take on that style AND since the game played more like Breakout’s spiritual successor Arkanoid, mixed with Radial Pong (and since the whole thing looked like a radar when it was finished), that did it: Radarkanoid!

As for being an arcade cab, I’d always wanted to do one, being a collector. Since it was a big ‘ol retro throwback at this point, it seemed fitting that this be the point where I finally cut my teeth on that process. Having the finished product featured in the Hindsight art exhibit afterward was really fitting.

Your current title, Collapsus, is unlike any game I've seen before. While some may be quick to think it's a Tetris clone, it's anything but! Please tell us how you came up with Collapsus and where it is in development (release date?).

Collapsus started as one of those aforementioned “50 Terrible Prototypes”. The year was 2006, and one of my moms was really into puzzle games at the time. Being that I was starting to experiment around with different types of games, I decided to make her one. Now, I was familiar with the idea of Bejeweled, insomuch as I knew that it existed, that it was popular, and you were matching pieces on a board. At the time, I wanted to make something like that. All I had to go off of was screenshots; this was in the early, early days of YouTube (before Google bought them).

Being a huge Tetris fan, my prototype ended up being sort of “Bejeweled through the lens of Tetris”. There were no block-swaps, but instead a resource-management mechanic (and matches of 4 or more, rather than 3); and where Tetris was additive (adding pieces to an empty board), Collapsus was subtractive.

I thought it was a pretty good effort, but she hated it! In her words, it “hurt her eyes”. Looking back on it, the whole thing was a mess of a game. When I met my future wife, Kristy, two years later though, the project took on new life. I was trying to impress her, with her being a pretty avid gamer and all, by letting her know that I myself make video games. Though at the time, the least awful of those “50 Terrible Prototypes” was Collapsus; so it was all I could show her. She fell in love. We often joke now that she fell in love with the game before she fell in love with me.

Jump to 2011, shortly after GamePro Labs (yes, as in GamePro Magazine), the publisher of our first-person puzzle game Physix, went bankrupt before the game was even close to being done. A bunch of the team and I were sitting in my living room, desperately trying to think of what to do next, since we couldn’t continue such a huge project without a publisher. That’s when Kristy suggested we resurrect the Collapsus concept (much to my chagrin). After messing around with it for awhile, our programmer at the time, Geoff, said that he really liked the basic concept, but we’d have to tear it down to the drawing board to make it a “real” game.

So that’s what we did. We added a bunch of new modes and features (25 Challenge modes, 25 Plus modes, 300 single-screen puzzles, even online puzzle creation tools). This was also around the time, maybe 2014 or so, that we added in the rotation mechanic. That was inspired by Rubik’s Cubes, since the game at the time had a more flat aesthetic (an aesthetic that we changed in a greater push for accessibility). We’d thought about putting in the rotation mechanic as a Challenge mode during the 2011-2012 prototyping meetings, but at the time we were aiming for Wii, DS, and PC only; so it really wasn’t in the cards. It was after we picked up our Wii U dev kit as well as thinking about how it might work on mobile that cemented that mechanic.

As of right now, we’re finishing up the up-to-8-player local and online Battle Mode, as well as some more network code, additional accessibility options, and other minor tweaks. We thought we’d be out by October, but that passed us by (and before that we even thought we would have released last winter); but at this rate, we’re just trying to get it done before the end of the year. It’s a surprisingly hefty game. Luckily, during its development process, we’ve managed to take the early-access build of the game to about 15 events a year, showing it off to over 100,000 people, and garnered a handful of awards for it; so even though it’s taking a while, it’s been a pretty successful buildup, despite it all.

Where do you plan on releasing Collapsus?

So Collapsus is slated for release on Switch, Wii U (yes, still), 3DS, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, Mac, Linux, PC (we were Steam Greenlit back when that was still a thing), iOS, Android, Fire OS, Windows Phone, and there’s even builds for web, and a limited-run physical arcade cabinet release. All of this in 10 different languages worldwide on the same day!

There have even been some very serious talks about porting to some retro consoles, though I can’t talk much about that at current. There are also plans for a distribution on the Winnitron Arcade Network and AirConsole.

Our colleagues often make jokes that pretty soon they’ll even be able to play Collapsus on their fridges; but our publisher, Ratalaika Games, is doing the porting for about half the consoles, and translating to half the languages, so it’s really not that crazy. We just want everyone playing Collapsus, you know?

As a Nintendo Switch physical game collector, I always have to ask. Any plans to release a physical version of Collapsus?

Very much so! This is something we’ve been talking about quite a lot. We’ve been going back and forth with one physical distributor, but that may have dried up, as we’ve not heard back from them for a while; though they did seem very positive during our talks! Since Collapsus already has a bunch of content in the main game, and that almost doubles with the free content updates, we realized to appeal to the physical collectors’ market, we’d want to double that content again for a physical release -- a Collapsus DX, as we’re calling it internally. We’ve already started work on some of those features.

It’s just hard, you know, to get people to take a puzzle game IP seriously. They think it’s all Candy Crush. It’s the people who get Collapsus in their hands that really “get” it. We would absolutely love to have face-to-face meetings with these physical distributors; but getting that initial bite when you have a puzzle game -- that can prove difficult.

Could you talk about the current status of Burst Lancer, Cave Worm, and Physix?

Cave Worm is probably going to be the first of the three to be released. We have more lead time on it, for one. Its designs are all finalized, and our 3D Art Director, Steve Dorgan, has already started doing model work on it. We’re hoping that it will be out sometime next year.

Burst Lancer is a lot more complicated. It’s an 8-player fighting game centered around invincibility frames and pain states. One-hit kills. That’s a lot to iron out. We keep going in and revising the design document, as well as making changes to concept art. That’s where we are right now; we’re designing enemy characters for the story mode and making sure that the mechanics are all internally consistent. It will definitely be out post-Cave Worm, but what that means is up in the air. We want 2019, but making a good game takes time, and while we are on the larger end of indie teams (there are 12 of us), time is still a big factor.

Oh boy… Physix! That is a very good question. Here at the studio we have what’s called the “Phone Book”. It’s basically a list of concepts that we then turn into design documents that we have pitch meetings about to see if they become the next project we work on. People who are interested get together in little… “pods”, as I like to call them, and then start working on fleshing out the design document, doing concept art, working on prototypes for it, etc. Since we’ve put Physix down, while we have picked it back up on occasion, we have maybe 5 or 6 other projects probably on the table before it. Physix is just a big game; and if we start working on Physix, we’re ONLY working on Physix. We already do contract work for other game-related projects, outside of our IP. We wouldn’t even have the resources to do that, if we picked Physix back up full-force.

For those of your readers who don’t know, Physix is a primarily VR first-person puzzle game centered around antigravity. We’re talking full 3D, fully voiced, orchestral music, and very story-driven. To put it into perspective, until early 2017, we had two very talented writers working for us. Thanks to Physix, we now have one very talented writer working for us. The project cost us a programmer, as well. Physix is… involved. Yeah. “Involved” is a good word for it. We will be hopping back to it eventually. We just don’t know when.

Cave Worm Design

Are there any future projects you're able to tease today?

There are, actually. Now, keep in mind, these are all “Phone Book” games, so very basic design documents, very little/rough concept art, and only the most bare-bones of story outlines; but we’re pretty sure that they will be what’s next post-Burst Lancer. No promises, though.

The first is Jetpack Jiver. It was formerly Jet Pack [two words] Hero. It’s a single-screen platformer/shooter, in the vein of the original arcade Mario Bros., Super Crate Box, or Joust. You play as a guy named “Jetpack Steve”, going from level to level, shooting crazy enemies while riding a jetpack. Pretty straightforward, but like our other games, the sheer content is going to be the big deal. Hundreds of levels, costumes, guns and enemies. A big overworld map with alternate paths. We’re also going for a sort of Castle Crashers or No Time to Explain style of humor.

Next would be a game called Meelo (working title). It’s about a cute little bunny-cat who has to retrieve its sibling’s scarf from the evil lion “Ookie-Kabuki”. It’s a mascot-style platformer. Lots of running and jumping, charming locations and enemies, a very Yoshi’s Island aesthetic. Meelo uses his long floppy ears like hands: lifting boxes, swimming, stunning enemies, doing monkey bars, things like that. We’re even working on a flying mechanic, similar to Mario World’s cape, or Ray the Flying Squirrel from Sonic Mania. In many ways, it’s a love letter to Sonic and Mario, but also Kirby, Starfy, Ristar, Klonoa, even the Mickey Mouse Magical Quest games. It stands on its own, but there are little inspirations here and there; things to tickle at your childhood.

Then there’s Bullet Hellions. It’s a top-down shmup with roguelike elements. Despite the name, it’s not completely a bullet hell game, but there is a lot of bullet hell-DNA in there. We just wanted to present ideas for many different flavors of shmup as well. You know, keep it fresh. Its big draw is going to be its ship builder. You can buy weapons and parts, upgrading your ship. In a traditional shmup, you have “extra ships” [lives], so when your ship blows up, you just have the next ship, but really it’s the same… “ship”. In Bullet Hellions, each ship is unique. You started out with a frame and built those ships with scrap parts. So when your ship blows up, that was a real ship. It’s gone forever now, and the next ship [a completely different ship], takes its place. We’re wanting the ability to turn on scan lines, CRT bulge, and screen flicker as well. Give it that classic feel. The whole thing, character design-wise, is a 1980’s anime look. We want it brimming with over-the-top, “bad” voice acting, complete with fake “translation errors”. We’re going for a Zero Wing sort of vibe.

Other than that, there are plans for a SNES Zelda-style game involving steampunk cowboys, a Radarkanoid sequel/remaster, and even a VR horror game that I’m not really allowed to talk about. There are a few more, even, but I could go on and on, so I won’t. Let’s just say we’re not hurting for projects anytime soon. I know I'm running you through the gauntlet, but as I read up on your company, there's just so much I want to touch upon. Besides creating video games, you also provide additional services to the video game industry. These include design commission, gamification consulting, and educational services. Would you like to briefly provide a little more detail into each one as I think it's great that you're giving back to those in all aspects of the industry and even outside of it.

Certainly! As far as design commissions, we do contract work for mostly tabletop game companies that want either digital companion apps to their games, or digital versions of their games. We recently just finished up work on the companion app for the anime-inspired card game, Galatune. It was a real blast!

We also can help designers who want to make a game but don’t have a team, companies who want their IP turned into a game, or small teams who need extra help. With so many tabletop games wanting to break into the digital space, and so many people who want to make their own games, but just don’t have the resources, it made logical sense for us to help fill that niche, and keep the lights on at the same time.

We do occasionally take on videography, graphic design, web design, and Kickstarter/small business consulting, but even still, we try to keep it to within the games industry. With games being so time-consuming, we needed to find a way to earn some extra income for the studio while our bigger projects were being worked on that didn’t really distract from them. We’ve seen too many small studios take up contract work outside of the industry, and that becomes what the whole studio is about. They end up no longer making games, and then the studio folds because it’s not what anyone signed up for. It’s sad to see that happen, but it’s a common mistake.

As far as gamification consulting, it was actually something that was encouraged by our small business advisor when we started out. Lots of companies and schools want gamified incentives for their workers and students; and who better to bring on board than actual game designers? We don’t do this a whole lot, but it’s always a fun time when we do. These clients usually have no clue about games at all, but know that gamification can be a great incentive. Creating a gamification structure is far more like writing a tabletop RPG than it is video game design, but luckily several of our team members have experience in that field.

Education is always something really important, regardless of field. I remember when I was growing up, being told by teachers that game design just wasn’t a thing I could do, let alone something they could teach. Most of us on the team have had similar encounters growing up. Besides the fact that I do high school game design teaching on the side, unrelated to Wraith, that our programmer, Mark Cahalan, taught game design at Eastern Kentucky University, and that our 2D art director, Lance T. Miller, has had several roles in arts education over the years, Wraith itself does a lot of work for many schools and other programs.

For starters, our studio frequently takes on interns for their academic benefit, but we’ve also given many talks at colleges and K-12 schools about game development, whether it be the business end, accessibility, art, design, or even games literacy. We’ve also helped a number of high schools create curricula for their very own game development programs. Heck, we’ve also helped out with “Future Awesome Camp”, an art and STEM summer camp, where we taught game development.

Currently, we’re still doing things like that, but are also planning on creating an annual games festival here in downtown Hamilton to benefit the “AbleGamers Charity” and “Extra Life” charity, where students get in for free. We’re working with several partners (who I can’t name at the moment) to bring not just a place where people can demo indie games, but also watch and participate in eSports, and take classes, workshops, and panels on various game development, eSports, and streaming topics. If these events work out, our plan is to open up our studio at some point to include a game development incubator for indie teams, complete with the aforementioned classes, workshops, and panels (on a more regular basis); as well as work space, equipment, and professional industry services (legal advice, translation, advertising, sound studio, QA, etc.). That’s not until down the line, though. We’re hoping to see the start of the event some time next year, with this incubator stemming off of that, maybe 5-10 years down the road.

Aside from your own, what game(s) are you currently playing and looking forward to?

So, being a full-time game dev, and also teaching game design, recently I’ve not had a lot of time to play games for fun. While my wife and I do have a very large retro collection, and roughly 2000 Steam games, I don’t always get to play them. That’s why we started a podcast called “Two Devs and a Dude”, which is myself, Grant McClure from the “Game Over Game On” podcast, and Cajun Coder from the “IndieView” podcast, as well as some industry guests. While we usually talk about gaming news, every other episode is us playing and discussing an indie game (this was partly to force me to actually play more). We just finished up Minit, and we’re about to start Beastmancer.

As far as games I’m looking forward to, I’m going to sound like a broken record for anyone who’s heard me do any other interviews in the past year, but those would be Wavecrash by Flyover Games, and Skelattack by Ukuza Games. Full disclosure: these are friends of mine, but that all started because I had just thought they were devs with really cool projects, so I went out of my way to make friends. Here's a fun one for you! If you could choose any game (past or present) to be on the Nintendo Switch, which one would it be?

Ooh! That’s a hard one! I think I’m gonna go and say the new Soulcalibur VI. I’m a huge fan of the series, and seeing it be left out of the Switch party makes me very sad. I was pretty upset about the exclusion of Dragon Ball FighterZ, but they ended up rectifying that. I hope that means good things for Soulcalibur. Finally, is there anything else you'd like to share today?

Yeah, there is. I just want to say to all of the aspiring developers out there who don’t think that they can turn their dream into reality, to stick with it. Take that leap. I grew up on Nintendo games, and it was always my dream to be on a Nintendo console. When we had planned Collapsus for the Wii, we honestly didn’t expect to make it there; but by the time the Wii U rolled around, they had accepted us as licensed developers. I’m not saying that being an indie dev is easy. I’m not saying that everyone who sticks to it is going to be a success; at the end of the day, I’m not even sure that my team is going to be successful (though some would argue that we already are).

What I’m saying is that anything worth doing is worth sticking with and a dream you don’t pursue will always be just that. There are so many resources out there nowadays; and other indie devs are so accessible with social media. Reach out. Ask questions. Oh, and don’t just try to be an “idea guy”. Learn some programming and/or some art, and definitely some design. Get out there and make the type of games you want to see. You may just surprise yourself!

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