Get to Know a GameDev: Mark Laframboise
Some video games are inspired by real life experiences and life changing events; for Mark Laframboise, lead game designer at Lightning Rod Games, this rings especially true. Since being introduced to programming at just 8 years old, Mark has spent the last 20 some years working towards the goal of making his own computer games. Having founded his own independent studio and now working on a game based on his own long distance relationship, Mark’s path has been uniquely paved with struggle, opportunity and success.
Since everyone loves a good story (and GameDevCafe is the ‘sister site’ of LRG), we’ve been eager to interview Mark. In our interview below, he explains his experience in the game industry and how he broke away from mainstream studios to co-found his own at Lightning Rod Games.
What would be your official and unofficial title, if you were describing your role in gaming?
I tend to wear a LOT of different hats at Lightning Rod Games. On our game projects, I take on the roles of game design and project management, and I also handle our business development and day-to-day administration.
In any given week, it’s not uncommon for me be working on some combination of developing new game designs, writing a game pitch, creating slides for a presentation, balancing our accounting books, and interviewing candidates for a new position at the company. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun to always have different varieties of tasks to work on.
Is it what you wanted to be when you were a kid?
I was pretty fortunate to have been part of the first generation that grew up with a computer since a young age (sounds funny now, but this is actually pretty rare for people who are over thirty!). When I was eight, my parents enrolled me in a basic programming course, where we had to make this little turtle draw a picture by giving it a bunch of commands (I think the program was called Logo). So, you’d input a list of text commands (“move forward 4 spaces”, “turn left 90 degrees”, etc.) and the turtle would execute them in sequence once you ran the program.
The experience of being able to make a machine follow a list of commands I wrote myself was a bit of a revelation for me, and I pretty much decided then and there that I was going to make my own computer games. I’ve pretty much worked steadily towards that goal for 20+ years at this point and I’m still just as excited about what I do now as I did when I was that wide-eyed eight year old.
Have you ever pursued another career?
I’ve been in the games industry ever since I graduated university, so the only pre-industry experiences I’ve had were as a grocery store cashier in high school and some non-game programming co-op positions while in university. Yawn.
So how did you break into the game industry?
My very first job in the games industry was similar to many others: quality assurance. Thankfully, as far as QA jobs goes, mine was fairly cushy in that we were internal and well-integrated into the scrum teams. Unfortunately, that job also introduced me to another harsh reality of the industry — cancelled projects. After my contract was cut short (but still paid out in full), I decided to use some of that extra cash cushion to really further my goal of becoming a game designer.
I eventually managed to get a non-paying game design position at a small indie company, which I eventually leveraged into another paying design position somewhere else (where they also had layoffs), then finally into a full-time game design gig at Disney Interactive. So after one year, four companies and three cancelled projects later, I was pretty much living the dream!
How did you come to be the co-founder of an indie studio?
The decision to start a studio was really born during my time at the University of Waterloo where I met my co-founder, Steven. We had both decided to pursue an education in computer science with the specific goal of working in the games industry, and that shared interest (and complementary senses of humour) really helped establish the foundation of our friendship. While we briefly considered starting a studio directly after graduating, we ultimately decided to gain more practical work experience in the industry first. We kept in touch throughout that entire time and eventually decided to move back to Ontario and start the studio at the beginning of 2013.
Did this ‘path’ create any personal challenges?
Yes! The entire time I was at Disney Interactive in California, my wife, Robyn, was still living here in Ontario. Living such a long distance apart was one of the hardest times in our entire relationship. There was a lot of emotional ups and downs, and we really had to work hard to make everything work out for the best. Thankfully, things all worked out in the end — we’ve been back together in Ontario for three years now and will be celebrating tens year together this June!
What would be your advice to someone experiencing a similar long distance relationship?
The most important part of living apart from someone you love is definitely communication! My wife and I would talk regularly, whether it be by phone, Skype, or just text messages throughout the day. Being able to share your highs and lows with someone, even if they’re on the other side of the continent, helps make that distance feel less ominous. What you lack in physical comfort, you need to more than make up for in emotional support.
You can listen to Mark and Robyn discuss their relationship in more detail here:
What are your current game-related projects?
Our current project, A Fold Apart, is directly inspired by my long-distance relationship with my wife. It’s a life experience that really isn’t touched on very much in games (or even other media for that matter!) and I thought it would be a unique theme to explore in a video game. However, I didn’t want to just write a narrative about a long-distance relationship; I wanted the gameplay to also reflect it.
After some brainstorming with Steven after GDC one year, we realized that folding paper is actually a great way to illustrate a long-distance relationship. Characters living on opposite sides of a piece of paper are infinitely apart — there isn’t any way for them to reach one another. However, if you fold that paper, you are able to merge their two worlds together and allow them to reunite. It’s a perfect metaphor for your desire to be in two places at once while you’re living apart.
We took this basic idea of characters living on a piece of paper and expanded on it for our current title. A Fold Apart is a side-scrolling puzzle game about a couple living in a long-distance relationship — in a world made of paper! The two characters are separated across a desk and must flip, fold and manipulate the papers separating them to create pathways and reach one another.
Is there anything weird about your job that most people wouldn’t know about?
A Fold Apart is a bit unique in this regard, but I spend a non-trivial amount of my design time working on paper instead of on a computer. Paper prototyping is something I always rely on for all my design projects, but that’s especially true in a game where the world itself is made from paper! Not only is it faster to iterate and test ideas when they’re just drawn on paper, but it can also save a TON of developer time, which is really important in a small studio like ours.
Do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?
My motto and the advice I give to anyone starting out in the industry is to just keep experimenting and don’t be afraid of failing. If you’re not failing regularly, it means you probably aren’t trying to do anything truly interesting.
“Keep iterating on those failures and eventually you’ll arrive at a solution that doesn’t suck. That’s when you know you’re on the path to something really great.”
Do you have any heroes/role models in terms of your work?
I draw inspiration from all over the industry, but I’d say probably some of the biggest inspirations for me are Tim Schafer (Double Fine) for his world-building abilities and the incredibly talented systems designers who have worked at Blizzard at one time or another (Tom Chilton, Rob Pardo, Jeff Kaplan, Greg Street, Ion Hazzikostas, Chadd Nervig, and many, many more).
Has any game made a significant emotional impact on you?
I don’t think I’ve ever cried more playing a game than I did at the end of To the Moon. It’s such a bittersweet, heartwarming tale of two people in love and every time I play it (or listen to its theme music) I have a hard time keeping it together. I’m actually getting a little choked up now just thinking about it!
That’s a pretty good endorsement! Finally, what’s changed the most in games since you first started playing?
The sheer amount of choice that exists in the marketplace today as a consumer is probably the biggest difference from when I was growing up. Back then there would be maybe two or three games a year that you’d really want to play, but it’s not unusual nowadays to see two or three interesting games a month! There really is a game market for almost anything now, and I think it’s great for the industry and for consumers on the whole, even though it does make it a lot harder for any one individual studio to be continually successful.
For Mark’s studio Lightning Rod Games, the focus is on upcoming puzzle platformer, A Fold Apart due in 2018. You can follow their tumblr for updates and we look forward to speaking with more of their team.
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- On March 25, 2017