Future ICONS: Meet Ska Studios' indie gaming power couple0 Comments
Welcome to Future ICONS, a new companion series to the ICONS features that tell the stories of gaming culture and industry pioneers here at G4@Syfygames.
Where the regular edition of ICONS allows us to explore the tales and the legacy left behind by so many mavericks of our video game world, Future ICONS aims to tell the stories of people who are just now carving their legacy. This series aims to shine a spotlight on those who could very well some day be seen in the same light as the legendary figures featured in the regular series, and may prove fun or interesting to look back upon in the coming years.
We start with Ska Studios, the indie studio behind games such as The Dishwasher series, Salt and Sanctuary and I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1NIT!!!1. At the heart of this studio is the husband and wife team of James and Michelle Juett Silva. While the studio's name has become more well-known in recent years, their journey began well over a decade ago.
"Indie wasn’t a concept when I started, and it surely wasn’t a culture. It was all about Shareware, and that came from an era where all studios, big and small, began as Shareware developers," James said. "2001 was when I released my first shareware game for PC, well before 'indie games' was a thing. It was a River City Ransom clone called Zombie Smashers X, and it sold like 40 copies."
As time pressed on, so did the rise of smaller publishers, eventually turning James' passion into his profession.
"I made really bad shareware games through my college years, but it wasn’t until 2007 with The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai that this became a career," James added. "XNA on Xbox360 launched at this critical time in my life where I had learned how to not quite suck so badly at design, coding, art, and music, and a lot of the polish, standardization, and robustness of XNA helped me bring together all of that stuff together in a really tight package."
Not only did The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai spark a career for James Silva, it also brought him a spark of a more personal nature.
"Testing was arranged through Microsoft, and one of the testers happened to go by the name of VMC-MichelleJ," James recalled. "I may or may not have assumed this was a French man. There were a lot of names like that, but it just so happened that at PAX that year after the game launched, one VMC-MichelleJ introduced herself in person after a panel I was on. We stayed in touch from opposite sides of the country, and a year or later turned it into a thing."
Michelle recalls the original meeting as more than a work related encounter, citing she was a fan of James' work as well.
"We did meet because I worked as a tester on Dead Samurai, but I also think it was a fan meeting a dev," she added. "I already liked him so the next step was to get to know him, and eventually we realized we both liked each other and decided to do the long distance dating thing. I moved to New York for two years, we got married and now we are back in my home, Seattle. Living here works out so much better for both of us. I’m biased because this is my home, but James loves it because he feels so much more at home than he ever did in upstate New York. The culture, community and environment has made us very happy."
Today, James and Michelle continue to work as partners in both the professional and personal world. They both state that this experience brings them closer in both arenas.
"A work partnership is very much analogous to a marriage," Michelle said. "Both have ups and downs, challenges and victories. It can be difficult with two creative minds that both strongly want their own ideas. We butt heads sometimes, but we also create great things together. We have been married for three years and working together for five. Just like any marriage, we’re still working out how best to work together and I think we’re gradually getting better at it."
"It’s a journey," James added. "We experience every sort of high, low, challenge and victory together, and knowing that every accomplishment was the product of a shared effort makes the whole thing that much more special."
Among the Silva's adventures was landing a relationship with Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade that lasted for quite some time, and brought Ska Studios' titles to more gamers.
"Maybe I would’ve ended up where I am today without Microsoft, but I’m not convinced," James said. "I had just graduated college in 2007, following six years of making crappy PC games that never sold, and I had basically resigned myself to giving up the whole games thing and finding a 'real job.' And so I did — I got a half-decent 'real job' at a civilian military contractor doing Java coding on the Air Force’s Google Earth clone. But, two months into that, I got a call from Microsoft about this contest entry I had submitted three months ago; they wanted me to come to Redmond to watch the awards ceremony. The contest entry was The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai, which became a 2009 XBLA game — our first game as Ska Studios, and the first indication that I could actually do this for a living. We went on to publish three more games with Microsoft."
As the Xbox 360 gave way to the Xbox One, James and Michelle felt it was the right time to make a change and move over to working with Sony and the PlayStation 4. While they say it wasn't easy, the switch kept their drive alive.
"They treated us really well. It’s not a good idea to think of a business relationship as a friendship, but we did. We still have friends we met through working with Microsoft," Michelle stated. "With the new console generation, the death of XNA, and Ska Studios left off the initial announcement of indies signed up with ID@Xbox, we felt left in the dust. Sony picked us back up, and they've been great to work with. We feel important again, and maybe that sounds silly when talking about business, but it's a huge motivator."
While Ska has found success with several titles, there are some that the Silva's wish had done better in the marketplace, but they also chalk it up to part of the ride.
"Charlie Murder was the monkey’s paw game. I really wanted it to get this huge audience, but it more or less flopped on release," James said. "A year later, though, it was free for two weeks, and the leaderboards just exploded, but our financial situation had not improved. So I got my wish, sort of. A million people played our game, not because they really wanted to, but just because it was free and it was there. I could make all sorts of allusions to desperate hookups, but I feel dirty enough already. Here’s a funny career reflection: the people who played Zombie Smashers X loved the homage to River City Ransom, but 12 years later, when we released our next RCR homage and spiritual successor to ZSX, Charlie Murder, a lot of gamers wrote it off as a Castle Crashers clone."
Also challenging, according to Ska Studios' power couple, are the misconceptions and criticism that sometimes seem to be amplified toward smaller studio game titles.
"I know you’re not supposed to read comments on the Internet, but one I saw about Salt and Sanctuary that I couldn’t get out of my head was that indie games 'take two weeks to make'," Michelle said. "The greater misconception here is that because our games look more simple than AAA games, they are more simple, not just to create, but to explore, experience, and master. Despite what I said earlier about indies possessing no hidden truth, indies do have just as much ability as AAA studios do to create compelling experiences in terms of gameplay, storytelling and art — we only have to be slightly more creative about it."
As the concept of smaller studios and indie publishers continues to evolve, James Silva's experience in the field comes with some advice to those who are just getting started.
"The louder the indie, the more attention they get, and many people think that’s what indie developers are all like. And of course, it’s not true. There are a lot of us perfectly content to keep working, and not gain all our attention from shouting and making dramatic statements," James added. "Although people who work in games understand how much work and time it takes to make a game, the general gaming public does not care very much. It can be very frustrating to hear people complain that the game isn’t done yet. You’re working constantly but it’s still not good enough. The first few things you make are going to suck. That’s just how it is. You don’t get somewhere successful without a lot making a lot of bad things. The important thing is to recognize that not everything you make will be good, and to just keep making things. It’s a very good idea to keep realistic about your work. A friend told me ‘if you’re not your own worst critic of your work, there may be a problem.’"