Get to Know a GameDev: Jay Kidd of Wraith Games
Many people dream of starting a game development studio at a young age; but Jay Kidd actually did it. By the time this young dev had turned 18, he’d already put in the time, effort and energy to build a team and get his studio, Wraith Games off the ground.
Since then, his team has been recognized by GamePro Magazine, become Nintendo Licensed Developers, and has two significant game projects underway. They’ve also grown to include a dozen game dev and design professionals.
Eager to learn more about both his strategy, success, and interest in accessible gaming, we sat down with Wraith Games founder Jay Kidd for a chat about what it’s like to start a studio from the ground up.
Who is Wraith Games and what’s your role on the team?
The Wraith Games team consists of Jay Kidd (that’s me), Thorne Penn, Steve Dorgan, Kristy Iwema, Eric Baxter, Camille Guy, Cody Kidd, Lance T. Miller, Mark Cahalan, Natalie Wahl, Adam Brown, and Rachel Saffell.
I’m the founder, Creative Director, Lead Game Designer, Graphic and Web Designer, and Social Media Manager (as well as wearing way too many other hats to count).
That’s a lot of hats! What made you want to get into video games?
Way back when I was 9, I knew that somehow, I wanted to make games when I grew up. Of course, I didn’t really know what that meant, but I knew that I needed to find out. By the time high school rolled around, I had made some like-minded friends and we decided to just do it: we were going to make games!
So when did you start Wraith Games?
Wraith Games was founded in 2005, back when I was still in high school. Looking back on it, it was really kind of silly. We started what was basically a game making club that we treated like a “company” (called Mind’s Eye Games, but it quickly changed to Wraith Games after about a month because that’s when we all got really into D&D).
I grabbed as many books from the library as I could on game programming (I had erroneously figured that the only way to make games was to be a programmer) and I just started studying. Most of my friends just ended up getting bored and dropped off from it, but in my mind, if we had a name, there was no turning back.
What was it like to found a studio at such a young age?
I started working pretty much solo for a while, but quickly picked up some more friends willing to help out, like Thorne. Others, though too, dropped off after a while. That was pretty common, to be honest. It was high school and people had other things to think about. No one had time for this all-consuming game development stuff.
During that time, I ended up taking digital art classes, 3D modelling, web design… basically anything that had the word “computer” in the description. I even enrolled in the Butler Tech School for the Arts to see if they had anything that could help me down this path. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t obsessed.
But obsession/dedication can be a good thing. When did you make your first game(s)?
After a while, we had managed to churn out dozens of, if I’m being honest, pretty terrible little games (including a prototype of a game we would pick back up later, Collapsus). This was all before graduation, mind you.
That a big accomplishment. So when did you first feel ‘success’ as a studio?
Well, by the time I’d turned 18 and had a place of my own (and reconnected with my estranged brother Cody, who also aspired to be a game designer) and met my then girlfriend, now fiancée (and later our lead programmer) Kristy. I had begun work on the game that would become Physix. With a demo of that, we ended up getting picked up by GamePro Magazine as a part of their publishing initiative, GamePro Labs.
Sadly, GamePro went bankrupt after publishing only 2 of the 10 games they had picked up. In the end, that was more than fine, since Physix is much better for the extra time. It was also around this time that we started bringing our games to conventions.
How did the exposure impact you and Wraith Games?
During that time, we ended up meeting Eric, who came aboard as a writer. Shortly after that, we rented a small studio space downtown and put in our application to become an LLC. Next, Steven saw that we were making progress and, after working on some projects of his own, ended up finally accepting our offer to join. He was working as a graphic designer (which is what I was doing on and off, as well), but he was also doing some pretty awesome brand management stuff. When he came, that’s when we really started to step up our game!
So as the leader, what were your priorities to ‘step it up’?
This was in 2014, and we had been using the same terrible logo and various forms of the same awful website for years. It was Steve’s goal to reboot our image. All new website, logo, colour scheme… we even went all out and completely remodelled our new studio space! Painted it, got all new furniture, and even replaced the floors! During this transition, we lost a couple more people, but ended up picking up the rest of our team as it is today. We even picked up an intern for a few semesters! This was when it really stopped being a hobby; we were in business now!
It sounds like you had a plan; have you accomplished everything you’d hoped (so far)?
Since then, we’ve begun work on a handful of projects; including the now released Radarkanoid, and polished versions of Collapsus and Physix, have gone to tons of great events, including the internationally traveling Game Masters – The Exhibition, made a physical arcade cabinet of Radarkanoid (which is currently on display at the Fitton Center for the Creative Arts), and became Nintendo Licensed Developers. It’s been a really great last couple years for us!
That’s very impressive! You’re also pretty dedicated to games accessibility; is there any particular reason for that?
You know, we just really feel that someone’s physical or mental ability shouldn’t stop them from enjoying themselves or experiencing our worlds. When starting Collapsus back up a couple years ago, we were doing some testing and our friend Ryan was having a pretty tough time playing. It turns out he was colourblind! Pretty severely, too. We never even knew! That’s when we started adding shapes to our blocks. After that we started experimenting with swappable colour palettes for different types of colourblindness. It was like this whole big world that we never knew existed opened up. Little things that we never even thought of.
Shortly after is when we met the guys at AbleGamers, a charity to help bring about accessibility in games. They were able to open our eyes to accessibility even more! It was at that point that we realized that we needed to make all our games as accessible as possible. There’s really no reason for not doing it once you know the issues are there. Most of the fixes aren’t huge and most of figuring out how to accommodate differently abled gamers has been done already. So, if everything was yelling at us to do it (from a design standpoint), not making that a huge part of our design goals seemed, well, wrong.
What’s been the most rewarding/challenging part of the dev process for you?
I’d have to say the most rewarding thing would probably be just the ability to make our own games; our own worlds. We all grew up playing games. For every single one of us, it was a massive part of our lives early on. To be an adult making the kinds of games you would have fallen in love with as a child: there’s nothing more rewarding! It’s hard to think of many devs today (especially on the indie side of things) who aren’t doing this, living this lifestyle, for the exact same reason.
As for the most challenging thing? That’s easy: the dreaded feature creep! We always have so many ideas that it’s really hard to keep a simple project from ballooning into some sort of great monstrosity. With Collapsus, for instance, it basically has 40 “special modes” (20 Challenge and 20 Plus). We actually had to cut concepts to get it down to this number, if you can believe it. It would be closer to 100 if we hadn’t! Some modes probably wouldn’t have felt anything like Collapsus. We always plan to make as much content for our games as the concept will allow, but you have to set a stop on things at some point or nothing would ever ship!
What’s been your favourite project so far?
I’d actually say that my favourite past project (and the favourite of most of us around here) was that early Physix prototype we did for Labs. Heck, that’s why we’re wanting to make this new version of that concept. It’s something really special! When the project began, it started life as a first person point-and-click adventure game. Seriously! It was about this Jessica Fletcher-type solving a murder/robbery in this Edwardian manor. The only problem was that was incredibly boring (both to play AND work on)! While working on the interactive dialogue system, I ended up just messing around by throwing things. One thing led to another and we were making puzzles centered around the physics engine. It was this weird little journey, to be honest; but what came out of it was pretty awesome!
I find it hard to think of anything that tickles my fancy more than Physix. We all have these sort of “dream projects” and many of those ideas get rolled into the things we’re working on at any given point.
Can you give a quick overview of Physix and your other current projects?
The games that we’re working on that have the most progress on them right now are Collapsus and Physix.
Collapsus is a block-crunching puzzle game for Wii U, 3DS, PC, and mobile. It’s centered around a unique risk-reward resource management mechanic. It’s based off of an old prototype I made in the early days of Wraith that Kristy and one of our old programmers, Geoff, insisted we revive while we worked on Physix. It features 3 standard difficulties, 2 unlockable difficulties, 20 Challenge modes, 20 “Plus” challenges, 200 built-in single screen puzzles, a free online daily puzzle, and a puzzle creation/sharing tool. We’re even working on online multiplayer. We’re launching a Kickstarter to help finish it up at the end of the month, so be on the lookout!
Physix, on the other hand is a narrative-heavy first person puzzle game about gravity manipulation for VR. When any of us mention gravity manipulation, most people think about walking on walls and things like that. That’s not the case in Physix. It’s all about turning the gravity off from objects around you and solving environmental puzzles with that! We started Physix in 2008, during that whole GamePro Labs time. Back then (and actually very unintentionally) it was a lot like Portal. After reviving the project with Steve as the Art Director, it has a sort of clean, cel-shaded “Mirror’s Edge meets Borderlands” thing going on. It’s very slick! With the shift to VR and with a more narrative focus this time around, it really separates it from anything else out there right now.
We also have a few other games in various stages of production: the arcade shooter/platformer Jet Pack Hero, the free-runner AAAAH! A Giant Freakin’ Cave Worm… RUN!, a remade, deluxe Wii U version of our game jam title Radarkanoid, as well as a mascot platformer, a couch multiplayer fighting game, and another game that we can’t really talk about right now, but when it comes out, you’ll know which one it is (wink).
Can’t wait! Finally, as a player has any video game made an emotional impact on you?
That’s a tough one. Off the top of my head, I’d probably say Cave Story.
Not only was Cave Story the first game that was really able to show me what an indie game can really be (all while tugging firmly on my retro Nintendo nostalgia), but it also had a surprising amount of power over me. What really pushed me over the edge was the death of Curly Brace. Often, character death is a cheap tactic to force a player to become emotionally invested, but this: it was different. Now, for a lot of people, the death of Aeris in FF7 is the most heartbreaking death in gaming, but not for me. I didn’t know until my third play-through that you could save Curly, but that first time? My heart broke. Not before or since has the death of a game character affected me that much.
And when games move you that much, it’s easy to see why you’d dedicate yourself to game dev 💙 💙 💙
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- On October 25, 2016