I’ve got a real treat for you this week, folks, because today is a very special edition of Indie Spotlight. I’ve spoken with small development teams in the past, but never a team quite like Disparity Games. What makes them so special, you ask? Well, they’ve taken the phrase, “keeping development in-house” to a whole new level.
Disparity Games was founded in 2011 by Jason and Nicole Stark, a husband-and-wife duo with well over twenty years of combined industry experience. Such previous experience most recently includes a laundry list of shipped titles such as Viva Piñata: Party Animals, Jimmy Neutron: Jet Fusion, and the Ty the Tasmanian Tiger series. Now, as Disparity Games, the three-person team has one game already under their belt with another currently in development. Hmm? I said three-person team? Indeed I did, as there is one final member on the developer’s roster: Their sixteen-year-old daughter Raven. While Jason and Nicole handled production tasks such as project management, design, modeling and animation, and creative writing, Raven provides character concept art, and even draws the comic book-style cutscenes featured in their games. In fact, Jason and Nicole have four daughters: Alia, Raven, Yukari, and Violet, who each help out a bit with the development process in their own way.
The first title Disparity Games released as a family studio, Run Fatty Run, is now available on Android and iOS devices. A touch screen-masher infused with humor, RFR is a silly look at one potential way for government’s to deal with the obesity epidemic. (Note: There is very little chance any government would actually endorse the method. Probably. Hopefully.) Recently, in anticipation of their upcoming game, Ninja Pizza Girl, I had the opportunity to talk to the Stark family about what it’s like trying to make a game while keeping everybody from driving each other crazy at the same time. But first, check out the trailer for Ninja Pizza Girl.
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IGX Pro: Jason, both you and Nicole have been a part of the industry for a long time now. With one finished game already under your belt, do you feel like you‘re finally settling in as a family studio?
Jason Stark: I do think that after 18 months of doing this we are finally getting our heads in the right space. And most importantly we’re making a lot of friends in the indie community. An indie without friends is a lonely and unsuccessful indie!
Nicole Stark: I’m not sure feeling settled and indie game development go hand in hand. But yeah, we’ve ironed out the wrinkles in our workflows. We have marketing plans. We know how to work together and stay married (that one wasn’t easy) and most importantly, we know what kind of games we want to make and who we want to make them for.
IGX: Having been a part of both mainstream and now indie game development, what are some of the benefits and challenges to making the switch?
Jason: Benefits – genuine creative control! No marketing departments to answer to! Flexible working hours! Live where you want! Make original games! Actually make the games rather than manage a team who does all the fun stuff!
Challenges – separating work life and family life, keeping stress under control, not driving your wife / business partner crazy, learning five new skills a week.
After experiencing the ups and downs first hand, my advice to game devs is: Get some industry experience, then quit your big studio job and become an indie. Do it! Do it now! My only regret with becoming an indie game developer is not doing it ten years sooner.
Nicole: Making indie games is just the awesomest. It’s like re-capturing Christmas when you’re a little kid. It’s fun, it’s passionate, there’s a whole community of people who are just as excited as you are. But I don’t want to downplay the challenges: It’s a gamble. The only way to make it work is throw all in and just go for it. We think the odds are in our favor, but we could lose everything. If the game is no good, if we can’t get press or find an audience that is prepared to pay for the game… Then we’re screwed. We’ll have to get real jobs 🙂
IGX: I personally feel that, with indie games, what they may lack in spectacle they make up for with creativity and heart. Still, is there anything you miss about working on those “bigger” console titles?
Jason: A regular paycheck! Apart from that, no.
Nicole: No. There really isn’t. The creativity and the heart more than make up for cutting-edge graphics and the regular paycheck. The paycheck was nice though…
IGX: Raven, you’re a bit of an anomaly in this industry; being an active part of the development process at such a young age. What is that experience of indie game development like for you? What’s a day in the life of a 16-year-old game artist?
Raven Stark: I pretty much draw all the time, all that changes is what I’m drawing… Three days a week I forget that I work with my parents as an indie game artist and go to Art School, where I learn various traditional art mediums and sculpting. Once I get home I switch back to digital art and draw for fun. Two days a week, I remember I’m an indie game artist, search the internet to learn about the world, look at other peoples’ art and draw. Those three things are not always done in that particular order.
Oh and at lunch time I play LoL or Street Fighter with Dad.
IGX: Having read Kotaku’s piece prior to the release of Run Fatty Run, you mentioned that your daughter Alia came up with that idea. So, who gets credit for Ninja Pizza Girl? How did the project come about?
Nicole: It was one of those ideas that grows organically. Alia was 17, working as a pizza delivery girl, and learning kung fu. It just kind of evolved from there.
Jason: Ninja Pizza Girl seems like a crazy, off-the-wall idea but it’s really just about our daughters growing up. We saw how hard a time it was for them and tried to put everything they went through into a video game. Alia delivered pizzas for a while and she did Kung-fu. She was a Ninja Pizza Girl! The ‘No Pants, No Pizza’ comic cutscene is based on something that really happened to her at the time.
I don’t really have to make things up, I just wait for my kids to do something awesome and then make a video game about it.
IGX: You guys recently made the trip to PAX Aus, with a booth and everything. How was that experience for you?
Jason: Traveling with our PAX booth as plane luggage was EPIC! We got a lot of stares at the airport. The person at check-in had no idea what to make of us.
Meeting all the great people at PAX and seeing them play our game was incredible. Up to then we had no idea how our crazy game would be received. It’s hard to describe exactly how big a boost it is to see someone smiling as they play your game and laughing out loud during the cutscenes. We’re still buzzing from the show and are already planning another trip down next year.
I am so glad we made the decision to take all our kids during our PAX ‘business trip.’ Kids of indie devs don’t get a lot of holidays, so showing them a magical world filled with wonderful weird people was very special. And seeing Nicole dancing on the Just Dance stage with my two youngest daughters made all the hassle well and truly worth it.
Nicole: It was wonderful madness. Flying with the booth and the kids was not easy. But we got there, we didn’t forget or lose anything, or anyone… And being part of the first PAX Aus, that was just gold. Our 7 year old daughter kept saying to us, ‘I feel so at home here.’ What an experience to have at 7! She’ll grow up knowing that there’s enough people like her, who love the stuff she loves, to fill the Melbourne showgrounds. That’s got to help.
IGX: Action platformers often adhere to a tried-and-true formula, but Ninja Pizza Girl comes off as a bit more fast-paced thanks to an element of momentum-based Parkour. Was there anything in particular that influenced this decision?
Nicole: We wanted the game to be inclusive and fun. It’s a challenge to get through the levels quickly, but if you’re slower for whatever reason, it’s still fun. Kind of like the original Sonic, the first game I really fell in love with. You’re not just motivated by gold stars, there’s a delight in the experience.
Jason: First and foremost we felt that playing Ninja Pizza Girl should be an enjoyable experience. We wanted to capture the freedom and thrill of jumping over rooftops and crazy acrobatics. Ninja Pizza Girl isn’t a skill-testing brutal game for the hardcore pixel-perfect jumping gamer – it’s an fun experience for everyone.
IGX: Some of the features mentioned on Ninja Pizza Girl’s info page include a self-esteem monitoring ‘health’ system and ‘upgradeable ninja skills’. Do you have any updates or details about that? Are you still in the process of adding new features, or refining what’s already in place?
Jason: Replacing health with self-esteem leads naturally into some interesting gameplay effects. First and foremost, it really puts the player into the main character’s shoes and instantly gets them more emotionally invested. Screwing up a jump or falling too far will hurt your self esteem a little, but if there are people watching you when you screw up, it will hurt your self-esteem a LOT. Instead of finding bonus health packs scattered around a level, you’ll run past friendly people who wave and say something nice to you. And power-ups can consist of a new outfit or hairstyle that makes Gemma feel good about herself, even if that feeling is temporary.
Basically it’s a mechanic that draws you closer into the world, rather than jarring you out of it.
Nicole: The self-esteem system is something we really feel strongly about. I read a great interview with the Art Director of Tomb Raider [Brian Horton] about the gruesome death scenes, how they wanted the player to really feel it when Lara gets hurt. And maybe that works, the first couple of times, but then you get used to seeing her with a spike through her neck. You never get used to someone saying you suck.
IGX: So, NPG takes place in a city where pizza mega-corporations are taking over the business world. MegaCo, in particular, has even gone so far as to recruit teenagers and train them as ninjas to patrol the city. Overpriced pizza and delinquent teenage ninjas? I’m pretty sure this is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ worst nightmare. Is Ninja Pizza Girl secretly a dystopian TMNT game in disguise?
Jason: I’m a pretty big fan of the original TMNT comics so I’ll welcome any comparison! We also get compared to Snow Crash a bit which wasn’t intentional but hey, so long as people keep comparing NPG to cool things I’m not complaining.
Nicole: I love a good dystopian cyberpunk near future… A lot people say, ‘Ninja Pizza Girl looks just like Snow Crash.’ And I’m thinking, ‘I made something that looks like Snow Crash, by myself… that’s awesome!’ Mostly though, I was thinking of Shadowrun; we played a lot of Shadowrun back in the day.
IGX: Raven mentioned she and Jason play League of Legends and Street Fighter together. Do you guys have a regular family game night? If so, what games do you enjoy playing?
Nicole: We don’t have a regular gaming night, we just play a lot of games. Street Fighter and Smash Bros. are great, because everyone can play, but there’s also a lot of LoL. Raven and Alia and I are big Bioware fans. Yukari and I love Just Dance. Raven and Alia (and a group of their friends) play a regular D&D game, and we play a bunch of card and tabletop and indie games.
Jason: We don’t plan gaming in our house. It just happens. Firing up Street Fighter or Smash Bros. or Just Dance will see family members naturally make their way to the living room. And the kids have iPads, and Raven and I often play League of Legends and Nicole loves indie games on the PC… Gaming’s just a part of the family life.
Raven: Gaming happens when it wants to, why try to make it happen? We stick with League of Legends and Street Fighter, but there were other games in the past we played together ([Warhammer:] Dawn of War II and Super Smash Bros.) and there are various games we play just on our own (I play Dragon Age: Origins and Shadowrun Returns).
IGX: What‘s the ultimate goal for Ninja Pizza Girl in terms of platforms and availability?
Nicole: All the platforms…
Jason: Our intitial plan is to do a simultaneous release on PC, Mac, iOS and Android. If all goes well the PC release will be on Steam (fingers crossed). We’re currently considering Linux, the Ouya and Windows Phone. If things go really well we’d like to release on PS4 and WiiU as well. We pretty much want everyone to be able to play Ninja Pizza Girl on whatever platform they want.
IGX: Aside from checking out the Disparity Games website, where else can folks go for updates about Ninja Pizza Girl and any other future projects?
Jason: Liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter is the best way to keep in touch with us. And if fans have feedback on the game or things they’d like to see included we’re always happy to listen and reply.
Nicole: It would be great if people were to follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook; that sort of stuff really helps. Soon we’ll be doing a Greenlight campaign, so if folks see Ninja Pizza Girl on Steam, please upvote us!
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I’m told that Nicole is considered by most to be cooler than Jason (his words, not mine), so you can also follow her personal Twitter @ColeStark if you want some silly antics to go with your game updates. As Nicole mentioned, Ninja Pizza Girl is gearing up for a Steam Greenlight campaign. After spending some hands-on time with NPG, I can safely say it’s definitely worth checking out when it does become available; so be on the lookout and make sure to vote for it in support of a release on Steam. While the additional features mentioned in the interview, such as the self-esteem mechanic and upgradeable abilities, had yet to be implemented in the early build I played, the game stands as an enjoyable experience even as a basic platformer with an emphasis on momentum and acrobatics. Once those extras are added on top, I’ll have higher expectations I believe Ninja Pizza Girl will have little trouble exceeding.
Be sure to tune in next week to see which indie developer gets the spotlight. Until then, what do you think about Ninja Pizza Girl? What platform do you prefer to play indie games on? And finally, which developer would you like to see featured in an upcoming segment? Let us know in the comments section, and don’t forget to like IGXPro on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or give us the ‘ol +1 on Google+. If you can’t get enough of my shenanigans, (who could blame you?) you can check me out @GamingsNirvana, or add +VinnyParisi to your circles.