WWW FEATURE: Gwen Frey
Womenize! Wednesday Weekly is our weekly series featuring inspirational women from games and tech. For this edition we talked to Gwen Frey, Founder and Primary Developer at Chump Squad. Read more about Gwen in this interview:
Hi Gwen! You are the Founder and Primary Developer at Chump Squad. Before creating your own studio, you’ve already worked on games like Bioshock Infinite and The Flame in the Flood. What made you decide to start developing games on your own?
My very first job was working at a startup in San Francisco. From the moment I took that job I knew I wanted to run a company. Some of this was hubris, but I looked around at all of the tech companies in Silicon Valley and starting a company just seemed so easy and fun! I was watching venture capitalists give millions to either highly disorganized “idea” people or to men in suits from Harvard, and neither one of those was working out for these investors. The startup I worked at shut down 6 months after I took the job, and I spent the next 6 years working in online games, and then in AAA, but I never forgot about my time in San Francisco. I always knew I’d start my own company one day.
My first opportunity came after Irrational Games closed. I was suddenly jobless again, but this time I had experience making successful games. I also had a large number of talented developers that had lost their jobs at the same time. I banded together with 5 other people and co-founded The Molasses Flood. In under 3 years we founded the studio, lined up some funding, and shipped The Flame in The Flood. This was not easy and there were a lot of ups and down, but I am insanely proud that we pulled this off. The Flame in The Flood is on every console and has been played by millions of people around the world. I love The Molasses Flood and honestly had no intention of ever leaving… but then I did.
After The Flame in The Flood launched I had started a game at home in my free time, and I absolutely fell in love with it. Unfortunately, the game I was making was a narrative puzzle game. I adore single player games, puzzle games, and rpgs, but what I was making was is in a genre that tends to lose money. Financially successful indie games are usually highly-systemic, roguelikes, or multiplayer games. Publishers and business people generally aren’t interested in puzzle games, and even now I have difficulty getting certain deals because of the genre. “Is the game replayable” is the first thing someone asks when I email them about the game. Back when I had started development on this game we were looking to grow The Molasses Flood, and we could not take the risk of investing in a puzzle game. It was especially risky because the person that wanted to design the game was me, and I’ve never been involved in game design before. I was always focused on the art, or on the business of game development. There was just no way to make this game at the company I co-founded.
But I strongly felt that I needed to make this game, so slowly over the course of a year I wound down my role at The Molasses Flood and I formed my own studio, Chump Squad. This way I could take on the risk, and have fun making exactly what I wanted to make. It was difficult to do this, but I’m extremely happy that I decided to go it alone. I’m proud to say that I completed and launched that narrative puzzle game, Kine, in October last year. You can play it on the Epic Game Store, any console, and on Google Stadia. Please check it out!
You began your games career as a technical artist and technical animator. Where are the differences compared to “usual” artists and animators, and why did you specify in these areas?
Everyone in my family is a programmer. I wanted to be an animator, but I never thought I would pull it off. I actually went to the school of Film and Animation at RIT (a programming school.) I always assumed that I would give up on art, switch my major to programming, and then go get a real job. Halfway through college I met a group of aspiring game developers and we made games together in our free time. I loved doing this. In fact I spent so much time making games at college I couldn’t keep up with my animation classes. In order to make my workload more manageable I convinced my professors to let me focus on character rigging. I would rig characters for other students so that they could focus on animation and I could focus on just rigging. I really enjoyed setting up characters, and knew I could do this significantly faster than the other students because I had written a bunch of tools in Python to automate the process. This worked out extremely well, and led to my first job being a “tech art” job rigging characters in video games. As soon as I got that job I spent a lot of time writing tools to automate the art processes at that studio… and this pattern just sort of continued throughout my career. I tend to get to a place, find there is something that no one is doing that should really get done, and then I do that thing. Sometimes it is a system that people know they need (someone has to figure out how real time cloth works in UE3) sometimes it is a tool that people don’t realize they badly need, and sometimes I just make art. I love having a very undefined job, it gives me a lot of freedom.
Chump Squad’s first title, Kine, was released last year. What is some useful advice you would like to share with people who are also interested in developing games on their own?
This is a very difficult question. Different people need completely different advice, and giving the wrong advice is often dangerous. For example, if someone says they can’t seem to focus on their work then that could mean they haven’t formed solid work habits and they need to set a time to start and stop working each day. On the other hand it could also mean that this person is burned out and they need to step away from work for a while. If you don’t know that person you could give them the wrong advice, and the wrong advice could hurt them. This effect is amplified because as humans we often seek out the wrong advice! We look for advice that confirms what we want to believe rather than what we need to hear.
Going further, business advice is often regional (going to GDC is easy if you are American, and harder/pointless if you are South African), and design advice is only useful if it plays into your specific advantages and disadvantages as a designer. I’m not kidding when I say this: There is no universally “useful” advice. I wish there was, it would make questions like this easier 🙂
Thank you for your time Gwen!
Gwen’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/direGoldfish
Kine’s Website: https://www.kinegame.com/
The Dialog Box’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/dialogBoxCast
WWW Feature by Anne Zarnecke