Eight Questions: Interview With Kevin Maxon

Kevin Maxon and Zoe VartanianEditor’s Note: As I said when I started the Eight Question series, I wanted to interview artists of all types — including writers, illustrators, musicians, and others whose work I find inspiring. I’m thrilled to feature our first video game designer, Ice Water Games Founder Kevin Maxon.

I found Eidolon after reading a piece on indie game development from the game’s designer, Kevin Maxon. At the time, he’d been sharing the financials behind the game (though he’s since taken that post down down — which you can read about below). I love how he approached the game, and decided to buy it. I immediately fell in love with the Eidolon’s atmosphere, art design, the story it was telling, and the soundtrack and ambient noises.

Maxon’s interview isn’t all sunshine and roses, though. In addition to talking about his creative process, he talks about some of the stress he’s felt since launching the game, dealing with internet critics, and some of the hardships that go with the indie game scene, making for an honest, and inspiring, interview. (picture: Kevin Maxon and IceWater Games graphic designer Zoe Vartanian)

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What is your typical daily work/creative routine like?

As of writing, my daily work schedule is a mess. I’m working on Eidolon’s one and only content patch (updating with ~60 new documents, adding the Kitsap peninsula) and have lost a lot of the enthusiasm I used to have about the game. I’ve been working afternoons and sometimes evenings. I’m really excited to put this out and be able to move on to the next game—I can’t wait to be in a place where I’m excited to wake up in the morning again.

While working on Eidolon proper, I would wake up every morning at ~6:45, see my girlfriend off to work, and then work through the day until she got back ~6pm, with one break to walk the dog and eat lunch. I’d generally have a weeklong task list of related items that I’d work through, crossing things off along the way (e.g. animate all of the animals, cut into sub-tasks for bear run, bear walk, etc).

Early in the development of Eidolon, I was a full-time student, and my work on the game would usually take place sitting on a couch with my roommates in the evenings, with Supernatural or the The X-Files, or some other pulpy show on in the background.

What are some of the must-have devices and apps that make up your creative toolbox?

20141030_115440Actually necessary (more or less) tools: Photoshop (textures), Blender (models, animations), UDK (game engine) (transitioning to Unity for the next game), Flash (UI).

Team communication tools: Google Docs, Dropbox, Trello (a new one I’m trying out, but so far so great), and private Wikis for lore-building.

Creative toolbox / generalist tools: sketchbook and drawing implement, for planning maps, making notes and micro-lists, sketching out ideas, etc.

 

How did you come up with Eidolon? Also, how did it grow to include other writers?

The most basic answer is that Eidolon was the product of a narrative design theory (which I’ve talked about here) and the suddenly somewhat prevalent idea of the distant, beautiful apocalypse / the inevitability of nature. I feel like I tapped into a cultural thread with the post-post-apocalypse, which is now something like a sub-genre. Anyway, these were the basic ideas that gave rise to the game, the setting being heavily dictated by the narrative structure’s need of having no living characters, but a rich history.

The actual final product of the fiction was largely crafted by other authors who were brought on at various times in development. I reached out to a few of them right when we started work programming, and that core of us began meeting weekly, writing exploratory fiction and ironing out timelines, brainstorming characters, and constructing a lore wiki. Over time we began to work further and further apart, supported by the early structural work. In the last several months, there were very few group communications other than finished documents being sent to me to be implemented. Along the way, more and more people approached me and committed their time to the project. It was a very loose structure, and people just worked however much they pleased. The goal was to have a diverse cast of characters written by a diverse group of authors, and I think we succeeded there.

How did you decide on the spare, yet beautiful, art direction? 

Well, it definitely didn’t start out this way! But the focus of Eidolon has always been on the fiction, and I wasn’t interested in spending any unnecessary time on art production, so through iterations the style kept getting more and more reductive. While attempting to implement a toon-shader, I stumbled on flat-shading, and loved the cleanliness and simplicity of the look. And so it stuck. Apart from saving me time on textures, it also saved us from certain code complexities that would have slowed the game down further, like dynamic shadows. Plus, I’ve always been a big fan of color-focused abstraction, and so it felt in some way true to me.

Eidolon screenshot

How did you balance the game’s narrative drip feed of world building back story with rules-based game mechanics? And how challenging was it to present the back story given that you have no idea where the player will head when the game begins? 

“Balance” is probably the wrong word here. We more or less added content right up until the end, almost never removing anything. I made sure to disregard skeptics and set our scope big right off the bat, and so we spent a lot of energy trying to fulfill the set-out size of the world.

Several playtests were done, and making sure the player ran into a document early on became something of a priority. There are only a few directions you can head from the start point, and each of them has a focal point that players are hopefully funneled towards, with a document placed there with appropriate mystery and hooks to be a good introduction to the world. There were always players that intentionally walked away from our cues, but we decided that those players didn’t want us trying to control them anyway, so we more or less let them be. We introduced watchtowers to the game in response to these players, who just wanted us to get out of the way. They’d enjoy climbing high and scoping out their own paths, trying to find nooks and crannies we’d forgotten about or perhaps hidden away from them intentionally.

What were some of the toughest hurdles in getting this game completed, and now that it’s out?

In getting it completed: Firstly, just doing the work every day for X months, and not giving up when there is often not an end in sight. Secondly, forcing the team to stop working and call it done. Almost everyone was surprised when I demanded we release by August. But if you don’t stop, you’re never done, and it’s never going to be perfect. At a certain point, it’s time to let what you made out into the world and move on to the next thing. Eidolon isn’t some Masterwork Magnum Opus. For everyone on the team, it’s our first commercial game.

Now that it’s out: Customer Support is awful and emotionally draining, as is the constant stream of thoughtless, derisive comments in places like Steam, Youtube, etc. People occasionally take the time to send me a direct, private, anonymous message reading something like “this looks dumb.” It’s little, but it just sorta throws you off after long enough.

Who are some of your strongest influences?

I really don’t know. Probably not the people I’d think of. The folks on the Idle Thumbs podcast. Leigh Alexander. Kazuo Ishiguro. Eric Zimmerman. Damon Albarn.

You wrote a great post at Gamasutra regarding the finances of your game and really laid it all out there for the world to see. What sort of feedback are you getting? Would you consider other funding methods, such as Kickstarter, for future games? 

RE Gamasutra: I’ve since deleted the post, since it attracted mostly very negative sentiment, some of which hit me quite hard. There’s nothing like trying to open up and help the game development community with additional data only to be piled on and called a failure! The experience definitely helped solidify my feelings of separateness from the rest of the development community. I’m less and less interested in trying to become involved in the development scene, and more interested in just making games quietly on the sidelines. Gamergate has done similar things. I’m not sure I want to have much of anything to do with the greater gaming culture. Thanks for the support, though!

I wouldn’t be surprised if we consider Kickstarter in the future, though I might be hesitant. I’ve mostly avoided Kickstarter because I believe there’s an implicit promise that you’re only coming there because you really *need* the money to make the game, and because I know that even if a Kickstarter failed, I’d be likely to want to finish the project with personal funds or part-time work. However, as Ice Water Games transitions into being a more stable company, we’ll need to be able to support steadier incomes, and we might not always be able to wait for the pay-off that comes with finally releasing a game. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we put out a Kickstarter when we’re getting ready to gear up on our next project.

How important is the blend of ambient noises and the great soundtrack? And how did you come to partner with Michael Bell?

Both are important, but the soundtrack is absolutely core to what Eidolon is to many people, I think. We probably get as many emails complimenting the music as the rest of the game.

Michael Bell was my professor and advisor during the early production of Eidolon. He noted our lack of sound, and I shrugged, admitting that music has always been my biggest oversight in game production. He said he was a hobbyist musician and would be happy to help out, so I went along with it. What I didn’t know was that Michael is actually an incredible and devoted musician, who probably has as much money invested in electric guitars and fuzz boxes and loop pedals as everything else put together. We had to push back against his natural desire for heavy dark fuzz and distortion, but I could not be more amazed with what the soundtrack has become. I hope to keep working with him in the future.

If you could create a game in any other existing game world, which would you choose and why? 

My impulse is to answer with those worlds that I have the most nostalgia for, but I know that I’d just make a goddamn mess out of them.

What’s next for Ice Water Games? Any plans to bring Eidolon to mobile or console platforms? 

Eidolon screenshotNo consoles for Eidolon. It wasn’t programmed to be ported, and it’s been a mess even just trying to get it running on Mac

Right now I’m learning Unity and starting work on a prototype for a turn-based strategy game a la Final Fantasy Tactics. I want to make a game that’s on surface more lighthearted than Eidolon, but that occasionally hits on heavyweight underlying threads. I’m interested in the question of what makes a person a person. I’m also interested in earth-bending. We’ll see how it goes. I really just want to work on something that I can feel excited to come to every day. There are more than a few ways to make a painting but here are a few: You can work from thumbnails to rough sketches to pencilwork to well-planned paint, or you can just put paint on a canvas until you decide you’re done. I don’t have the energy for the first method right now.

What is the best creative advice you’ve every received? 

I don’t remember who told it to me first or who they claimed to be quoting, but there’s a quote along the lines of, “A painting is never finished, it simply stops in interesting places,” and that has stuck with me. A quick google search suggests the supposedly Da Vinci quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” which seems just as apt.

What do you want your legacy to be? 

I’m not interested in having a legacy. My mom always says that there would be nothing more wonderful than to leave no trace after you’re gone. I just want to have a good time.

CHECK OUT MORE INTERVIEWS WITH ARTISTS IN OUR 8 QUESTIONS ARCHIVE.

About David Wright

Dave is the co-founder of Collective Inkwell, in which he and Sean Platt re-invented serial fiction. Hailing from the quaint town of [REDACTED], Dave's renown for putting children in jeopardy (in his fiction, anyway) has made him world famous.

Comments

  1. Jason Fuhrman says:

    Great interview. I’m glad to see ones branching out from just writing. Looking forward to picking up this game, too!

  2. That game looks really cool!

    So does the dog. :)

  3. Beautiful artwork. I’m not really into games, other than small casual ones, but I do enjoy the artwork from a wide varity of games.

    What stood out to me in this interview, was the talk about negative feedback.

    I’ll never learn to understand how people work. Why some people have a need to comment with their useless negativity towards someone who’s opening up and sharing their art, the thoughts behind their art or their process. If you don’t like it, move on. If you have something helpful to say, then say it. If you have suggestions or questions, fine. But if you have nothing but hurtful comments, then move on.

    I’ll bet that these people have never created anything in their lives, and probably never will. And it makes me a bit sad, that they have the power to make a creator like Kevin back out of a community, that could benefit from his learning process.

    But this was a great interview, and very insightful too. I wish Kevin and his team the best of luck with their future endavours.

  4. Great interview. Mostly I had to comment, though, because you addressed the Gamasutra post: I had the exact same reaction that Kevin did! Delighted to see such an open post about the realities of small (in many cases part-time) game development, and then horrified by the resultant comment thread. (Still infuriated when I think about it.) I’d love to see more transparent writeups like the lost Gamasutra piece, but I suspect that they, too, will simply accrete vitriol. (The mobile designer of A Dark Room has kept a very honest journal of development and selling. I don’t believe there’s a comment thread there, which is probably wise.)

    I suspect it’s part of a larger discussion going on about devaluing creative output overall in this and other industries. And, like other instances of that discussion, it missed the point about consent and individuals being able to choose where and when they want to contribute even given uncertain financial rewards. Because, as Kevin hinted above, the measure of the success of Eidolon wasn’t merely financial success. It’s a lovely game on many levels, and the whole team *should* be proud of it.

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