Rose City Games—Innovator Docs

In this episode of Innovator Docs we follow Rose City Games, a gaming studio located in Portland Oregon founded by Intel® Software Innovators Will Lewis and Corey Warning.

Back in 2015, two indie game developers and Intel® Software Innovators, Will Lewis and Corey Warning, founded Rose City Games. Based in Portland, Oregon, the studio has remained small with only six on their core team. Through collaboration with local game developers and a keen eye for a good story, Rose City Games has proven themselves in the gaming industry. They have found the secrets of creating sustainably and invited us to come along to see just how they do it. This is Innovator Docks.

Game development's hard. I think, in general, a lot of challenges that usually come up are things always taking longer than we expect that they're going to.

Communicating and putting yourself out there and being open to others' ideas and working with other people as much as you possibly can is a really, really big deal. And not a lot of people do it.

When Will and I started this company, we talked a lot about how big we wanted it to get. I don't think we're ever going to turn into a company of 100 employees or anything like that. I think one of the strengths of our studio is that we are really small and that we try to make games that fit the size of that team. Will and I tend to run like a team A and team B. So we're both generally in team lead positions. And then we have Christian, who's our game designer, Nick is our programmer, Jenny is our community developer, and Marlowe is our artist animator.

We've been working with Marlowe for a number of years now. She contracted with us on a bunch of small projects. And then we finally got a chance to hire her full time. She has been usually doing technical art and animation to help get games out the door when we need to catch up on stuff that we're a little bit behind on.

As the artist here, I do a lot of different jobs day to day depending on what game we're working on or what tasks within those games need to be done. There's a lot of different styles being infused into games that are new and pretty exciting. And it's cool to be a part of it.

She's going to be the lead artist animator on a project that I can't talk about just yet. But we're really excited to take her really awesome art style and make that the focus of one of our new games.

My name is Jenny Windom. And I am the community developer for Rose City Games. As the community dev, I do a lot of different things, but you'll see me most often in anything that faces the community. So whether it's our Discord*, newsletter, social media, I'm the person driving that or behind all of that. So if you're talking to someone, it's probably me.

Knowing that somebody is watching out over all the forums and our Discord and social media and catching all of that feedback and bug reports that are coming in is extremely, extremely helpful. For us, we generally try to make games that we can finish in about two years. We like to stick to that range and development because it really lets us keep multiple projects going at once and make games that are scalable for a team of our size.

Keeping the studio small is really nice because we're able to very, very clearly fit in with what exactly the needs of a project are and identify our roles very, very clearly, even though we might be wearing multiple hats.

These days, it's not uncommon for studios to put out one game and then shut down immediately after that. So the fact that we were able to put out a game and keep going has been really, really cool. Rose City Games was co-founded by myself and Will Lewis. We met through Pig Squad* events.
I'm also the president and founder of the Portland Indie Game Squad. We are a community platform helping people make games together.

I had heard that there was a game making community in Portland. And I just moved here a few years ago at that point. And I wanted to go out and check it out. And I figured it was going to be five or 10 people hanging out. And I think there was 50, 60 people. So I went up to Will and said, hey, these events are great. I'm going to come out to every single one after this. I think he was like, oh, OK, whatever. And I showed up to every single event after that. And we got to know each other a little bit better.

He started coming to a lot of events, really wanted to volunteer, help out, make things happen here. So it was really cool to see that initiative and work with him and get stuff done.

So fast forward to a couple of years after me and Will had been hanging out and working on these events together, he approached me with a gig for doing a Cartoon Network* game jam. I went up to him and said, hey, I can't handle this alone. And I've been actually working together for a while.

It was great timing for me. I had a new baby that was on the way. And I thought why not just quit my job and jump into this thing? And that's how Rose City Games started. Pig Squad has been almost a little bit of a talent pool for us when we were starting out the studios. When we needed to hire a game designer, I said, oh, hey, this is a guy that I jammed with a while ago, was pretty fun to work with. We should try him. That's pretty much how it's gone with almost everybody that's on our crew now.

We've been going for almost five years now, and it's been super fun. Especially from our first game, we've learned a ton on just how to prioritize a lot of different stuff and how to communicate with each other. And it gets just a little bit easier every time we do it. You're combining every discipline of entertainment. You've got art and animation and music and story. And you have to combine all these things and not only get all the work done, but it has to be fun, too.

We have two games released now. We have The World Next Door, which came out on Switch* and Steam* in March of this year. Cat Lady just released a week ago in early access. Garden Story is still in production. And we have another project that's unannounced that's stalled production right now, too.

You hear a lot of stories about game developers starting with the concept and getting funding, but not knowing where it's going or attempting to throw out a date, but more so guessing than anything. And that can be dangerous, especially now. Making independent works and selling them on a very saturated marketplace is super rough. And it's always going to get rougher because tools are becoming more available, and more and more people are making games. So keeping tight dev scopes can really help us respond to making sure trends are on track and our dev cycles are on track and everything like that.

For us to remain sustainable, we always have to be in biz dev mode. So once we get one project kicked off, there's never really a short window between when we're looking for more work.

When a project is finished up or wrapping up or something is getting ramped in, Corey and I will typically trade roles, making sure that one of us is doing business development so that we're reaching out to more people and seeing where we can sell this concept.

Start talking to publishers and partners and that type of thing to figure out how it's going to get paid for and just keep the ball rolling.

Being multidisciplinary is really important. And making sure that you can communicate well and understand tech well and understand trends well all really mesh into making it more likely that you are actually going to see your game through.

We generally start production with a short concept phase where we're spitball balling a lot of different ideas. Usually someone is the vision holder for one concept or another. But it's been really cool to say, OK, I have this idea for these characters, and figure out, OK, what kind of mechanics would work with this?

We'll also really focused a lot on just outlining theming and narrative beats, even if a game does not have too much of a story. And that will usually take us to a period where we can either pitch it and get it funded, or if we're already funded, we'll just go right into making a prototype.

Generally, once we have a solid concept, our next phase is to prototype something. We want to get something playable as quickly as possible.

A prototype is something that we throw together as quickly as possible just to get our hands on it and make sure that it feels fun. That might be a lot of placeholder art or just totally gray boxing the whole thing. That will usually come back and reflect on the concept. And we'll answer a couple more questions for ourself about what this game is actually about or what this game could actually be about.

For a vertical slice, we spend a little bit more time polishing it, making sure that the art style is really, really clear. For a vertical slice, we're usually taking that either to an expo to show off for the first time. Or if it's a new game that we're pitching to publishers or something like that, we really want to make sure that somebody who is not us who has read all the design docs and spent time fleshing out the story and all that kind of stuff, somebody can pick it up for 20 minutes, play through it, and understand everything that is going to happen in the game. We like to try to go to as many expos or community events as possible and bring out our games, even when they're in a really early state, so that we can get as much player feedback as possible.

The Portland Retro Gaming Expo was really cool this year because we were there as Rose City Games with three different games on display. And then we also had a booth side by side with Pig Squad. So the expo is always so cool and so rewarding to partner with.

It's different bringing your game out to an event like that where you can get someone who's maybe not your best friend or your partner or your parents or somebody like that to play the game and give you unbiased feedback. A lot of times, your friends want to be really supportive and nice and that type of thing. But watching a 12-year-old kid play your game and say, I hate this is sometimes way more helpful. So we like to bring our games out and have people play as much as possible and see what breaks and see what's making sense and figure out how we need to improve the game. Once we have that settled in, we work up towards alpha, which is a feature complete state of the game; and then move on to beta, which is content complete; and then work towards GMC, or gold master candidate, which is our version 1.0 that we're ready to ship out and let people buy.

I think that our studio is starting to develop a reputation for making cute games and wholesome content, which I'm really into. There seems to be a nice trend for games like that and definitely a market for these cute, wholesome games that are OK to play with the whole family.

I think we'll continue working with cuteness in games and fantastical elements and everything like that.

I don't know that that'll necessarily be the only thing that we ever do. We've had tons of ideas from horror games to beat them ups and that type of thing. So that may not always be true for this studio. I think for the most part, the idea that we're making games that are leaning into the cuteness is something that we're excited about right now.

More than anything, our focus will really be on lo-fi and keeping a tight production schedule and being able to tell impactful stories and have impactful gameplay moments in those kinds of games.

We're still really young, so we still have a ton to learn about this kind of stuff. But I think that everybody on the team is pretty united around that idea that that's something that we're shooting for. And hopefully by our fourth and fifth game, we have that just really, really dialed in.

Of course, the dream is to continue working on games that you have all of the creative say in. And we're kind of slotted to be able to continue doing that right now. We have a couple of things in the works that I think are going to be really, really cool. Some of them are totally confirmed, so that feels really good. And we'll see where that takes us.