From Rags To Game Dev

Original Author: Josh Hughes

Hello! My name is Josh Hughes. I’m a 30 year old in Great Falls, Montana crazy enough to think my crew and I can make it in the game industry. In one form or another, I’ve been trying since my Junior year in High School. My 10 year high school reunion was Spring 2012, and the road my family walked since I graduated was a weird one, but we walked it, made it our own and through every road bump faced I’ve fallen more in love with the art form of video games!

 

For the start of the story, I guess we could go back to when I was in grade school and told my mom that my future would involve game design. Or, how (after playing Street Fighter and becoming obsessed with fighting games) in Middle School I couldn’t wait to come home so I could play Battle Arena Toshinden and write fighting game design docs on my mom’s old school word processor. Another potential start could be me (again, in Middle School) bawling my eyes out to the infamous Aerith death scene in Final Fantasy VII and falling in love with how fantasy stories can elicit real human emotion. Regardless, the real introduction to the industry came (like I mentioned before) in my Junior year of High School.

 

Dev’ing To The Choir

 

At that time, I made contact with a start up game studio. I grew up in a Christian family, and this studio was looking to mix some of the Christian belief system with game design and I was interested. I wrote the Lead Game Designer and we formed a fast friendship. I told him how I was in love with video game stories and how they grab players and make them a part of the journey, and he offered to bring me on staff so I could help write, come up with characters and learn game design. I was ecstatic!

 

Pretty much all of us at the studio were Christians, so our assumption was we should hit Christian Publishers. We were also all gamers so we wanted to make something we’d actually play of our own accord (pretty much all Christian games at the time –and even now- were comprised of taking secular games and giving them overt religious references and bright ‘family friendly’ visuals). So, we fashioned the story of an angel who gets trapped inside a suicidal teen’s mind. This allowed us to go with darker survival horror-esque themes (which I loved as a Resident Evil nut at the time).

 

We learned a lot making that first game and even got some accolades (including from a site that made fun of Christian games advising us they were canceling their plan to make a video mocking our game because it was the first one they actually had fun playing, it was great to know our art could speak past pre held bias and faith/culture barriers).

 

Unfortunately, Christian Publishers didn’t see it the same way. They told us they liked what we were doing, but the response we got every time was they were afraid of what the Christian Bookstore Market would do to them if they supported a game with our kind of imagery in it. We debated several solutions on the team, but at the same time my family’s home life was about to get flipped upside down.

 

Losing Everything

 

My brother, Trevor, is 6 years younger than me. The game I helped make came out the year I graduated High School (2002), which was also the year Trev entered 7th grade and a friend pressured him to try out for football. After failing the physical 3 times, doctors discovered what was wrong. A genetic dysfunction caused his bladder to balloon 9 times an average size and back urine up into his kidneys, which were basically poisoned to death. As of 2013, he’s had over 70 surgeries (we’ve stopped counting) and is on the transplant list as well as home dialysis (for which our Mom and I had to train a month to be assistants on).

 

When we first learned this, our father wasn’t pleased. Christmas that year he told Trev to his face he didn’t want the bills of a sick child, so he took the family van and left down south. After he left, we found out he refinanced the house several times behind Mom’s back and the debt collectors were calling. Since they couldn’t reach our father, it fell on Mom’s head. We had to go bankrupt and lost our house as well as the car Mom bought to replace the van, and we moved in with her parents. Trev’s pediatrician also told Mom that, if she wanted to save Trev’s life, she needed to quit her job of 18 years managing a group home to focus on his health and get him on government assistance to assure he can get the care he needed. She gave up her career and I took a dead end job at a call center to help make ends meet.

 

One day, while we were in the waiting room for one of Trev’s surgeries, I told Mom we had to change our tactic. Normal wasn’t working for us, we had to try crazy. Crazy meant taking back our lives and doing what we love. Crazy meant starting a game studio.

 

Taking It Back

 

I left my friend’s studio on good terms (he and I are still friends to this day) and Trev and I started Team KAIZEN (www.TeamKAIZENgames.com) under our previously founded company Add-A-Tudez Entertainment Company (AEC). Our local Small Business Development Center, The Great Falls Development Authority, found out about us through a long chain of events. They told us, if we were serious, they’d take us under their wing and train us to be investment ready entrepreneurs. Rebecca Engum of the Authority sunk herself into the industry so she could be our Jedi Master, and we owe more to the GFDA than we can possibly put into words! Rebecca helped us realize our lofty goals were achievable through hard work and helped us realize we could aim higher. Our goal wasn’t to just take back our lives anymore, it became our goal that within 5 years of receiving principle funding for our projects Great Falls and North Central Montana would become the Park City for Indie Video Game Entrepreneurship!

 

Around that time, a group called Fortitude Entertainment Group also found out about us. They reached out and told us they were looking for artists who were Christian but not looking to develop for the Christian Bookstore Market. After my experiences at my friend’s studio, this sounded like a dream. Fortitude signed a Strategic Alliance Agreement with us (we had paralegals look over it and they said it was a dream contract with no hidden strings) and said they wanted to fund development of our first IP, Shattered Soul. Shattered Soul is the fighting game concept Trev and I came up with as a way to resurrect the crazy 3D fighters  the 90’s like Toshinden and Bloody Roar.

 

Of course, that dream contract didn’t look so dreamy 3 years down the road when we didn’t have any funding yet or even a countersigned copy of the contract for our records (despite asking several times). Finally I decided to go to Fortitude’s site and see hat projects they were involved with or if there was any news. The site wasn’t there. A quick Google search uncovered that Fortitude had gone under, and I found out they had taken one of our animators behind my back to do their own projects (he thought I was aware of it) before they tanked.

 

I was blown away. We weren’t even the worst case of what Fortitude had done to people (one prominent rock musician they were working with lost millions). Regardless, it was time for us to jump back into the driver’s seat!

 

Finally Getting Traction

 

We developed a pitch for Shattered Soul and ended up pitching to a major publisher. Reps from this publisher spent about 90 minutes with us on the phone going page by page, telling us what they did and didn’t like. At the end, they asked us to make a tech demo and repitch. After some pitfalls here and there, our team is now working on a 2 fighter 1 arena demo in Unity and we’re currently in animation stage.

 

Around the same time, Sony announced on the PlayStation Blog that they teamed up with a crew named HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory www.hastac.org) for a contest. To enter, people just had to make a LittleBigPlanet level that could teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). I’m a HUGE ride/roller coaster fanatic, so I was already building rides in LBP and had a few I hadn’t published yet. So, I put them in a straight line with ride attendants that explained the different forces and engineering concepts in play.

 

I thought I bombed out, but I didn’t care because I had fun making it. A few weeks passed and I got notification I was a finalist, cool! Then, 2 weeks later, I got the shock of my life: I was a grand prize winner, Best in Show for Physics, and Trev and I needed to be in New York so HASTAC could announce at the Games 4 Change Festival that we were being given a $40,000.00 grant to extrapolate my 1 level into an entire free to play LBP pack! I hit the floor!

 

Going out to New York, I thought our experiences in the Secular game industry would translate pretty easy. I thought edu-games were just normal games with academia mixed in, boy was I wrong…

 

HASTAC pulled the winners into a separate room so we could discuss what the grant program detailed and expected. Those of us with a traditional gamer background were wondering about confidentiality and what we could/couldn’t show during the development of the levels. So, we asked HASTAC if we could invite outside people to beta test our levels. They started rushing around in a controlled panic trying to figure out how to get us certification for human experimentation! (As it turns out, you can beta test levels without this. However, if you test whether or not people are learning from your content, you cross the line into human experimentation and need an IRB board to monitor the ethics and such.)

 

It was at this point we realized this was the meeting of 2 worlds, 2 worlds with very different terminology and rhythms. HASTAC introduced us to a whole new experience that was directly adjacent to the game industry, but with subtle differences we had to learn!

 

LittleBigPlanet 2 released during our work with HASTAC, so we did our pack in that (LBP.me link: ).

 

Secondly, we also teamed up with our local school system (which had some representatives in the audience at our talk) to create a test program we call LittleBigPlanet Club. In LBP Club, we have kids learn game design in LBP then create levels/mini games infused with STEM or History. The first year had 8 kids (4 boys/4 girls grades 4-6). Year 2 had almost 60 kids split across 3 schools. Now, we’re doing it as a camp format with a local art museum as well as working with VisionNet to develop a teleconferencing version to reach out to rural and distant schools.

 

We love this program because it allows us to spread the passion for game design, and we’ve seen it work wonders on the participants. It resonates with many kinds of students, but most especially with ones disenfranchised by normal school life. There is entire leagues of kids who aren’t sports stars or are the top of the academic pile, yet these students found their voice in game design. Through game design, they had something they were good at , something to be proud of! We have had several instances of students who had trouble communicating with adults/peers at the beginning of the year finding their feet and proudly giving news interviews by the end of the year. We’re continuing to refine our curriculum and are even taking some of our star pupils and making them ‘Win-terns’, where we teach them more about the industry through hands on experience at the camps. To see some of the kids’ work, check out