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Rampant Games

Talking with local video game designer Jay Barnson


Some of the best video games coming out these days aren't found in gaming shops for $60, they're available online for free or at super cheap prices. Many of these titles are made by independent creators who are looking to make the games they wish they had, or designs too abstract to fit the mold of major companies, and in turn are gaining mass appeal as an alternative to the "console wars" we all have to live in as gamers. This new found appreciation for indie gaming over the years has given many local programmers a chance to make an impact in the industry and become successful, much like the case with Rampant Games out of SLC, who have found great attention from their game Frayed Knights: The Skull Of S'makh-Daon. Today we chat with the founder, Jay Barnson, about his career in game making and launching his own company. (All pictures courtesy of Rampant Games.)

Jay Barnson

Gavin: Hello Jay! First thing, tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a transplant to Utah, originally from the East Coast, but by this point I’ve lived here more than half my life. I came out here to go to school at BYU, and I stayed, getting my first job (in the video games biz) in Salt Lake City. I’m a father of two girls. And as a gamer, I’m something of an old fart these days, hailing from the era of the arcades and games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.


Gavin: What first got you interested in gaming, and what were some early titles that you loved playing?

The game that first got me really excited was an arcade game called Star Fire (by Exidy). It was an early 3D first-person space shooter where you shot down enemy fighters that bore a curious resemblance to TIE Fighters from Star Wars. I guess LucasFilm’s lawyers weren’t paying attention to video games back in those days. But I think the game that had the biggest impact on me was the text adventure, Colossal Cave. I saw a friend’s printout of his session playing the game, and I was enthralled. Axe-throwing dwarves! Mazes of twisty little passages! A green dragons sprawled out on a Persian rug! It was the Persian rug that got me - the fact that it was Persian, I think. I was in elementary school, and it hit me at my young age that there could be entire worlds inside these computers that you could explore. I was hooked!

Gavin: How did your interest turn toward programming and creating your own games come about?

Pretty much directly from there. I taught myself programming specifically to make games. I’d go to the arcades with whatever allowance I had, and I’d watch and play the most interesting games. Then I’d come home, and try to recreate the games on my computer. I never quite succeeded, but I learned a lot in the effort.


Gavin: Did you seek out any education or training, or were you primarily self-taught?

I went to school originally to do electrical engineering, to make really cool systems. But then I realized that the hardware was the boring part. The software engineers were the ones who made the hardware do all the cool stuff. So I switched over to computer science and got a degree in that. During that time, I still made games on my own and played games as I could—but I never imagined that I’d be able to actually make a living making games. That seemed like a pipe dream.

Gavin: What was it like for you breaking into the industry and landing a gig at SingleTrac?

Like I said, it seemed like a dream. Getting paid to make games? Unbelievable! And working for a place like SingleTrac was really almost as good as it got. A lot of the people there were refugees from the simulation industry. They were sharp, professional, and really good at what they did. They understood 3D graphics at a time the games industry was beginning its transition in that direction. And the console we were making it for was the Sony Playstation. It was the first console really built from the ground up for 3D graphics. So here I was, in my first job out of college, living the dream. I was making games, surrounded by smart, well-educated, highly motivated professionals who depended on me to be something of an expert gamer. We were working on a brand-new console that was destined to become a major success. And we came out with some moderate hits on our first try—which sort of deluded us into thinking that this wasn’t so hard. Anyway, it would be hard to top that as a first job.


Gavin: How was your time working for them and what games did you help develop?

Our first titles were Twisted Metal and Warhawk. I was lucky enough to be on both teams—in fact, we shared a common code-base for a while. Early on you could fly around the first Twisted Metal arena in the Peregrine, that was what we called the ship in Warhawk, and shoot at the cars. Both games received pretty good reviews and were moderate hits. I also worked on Jet Moto, which also became a successful franchise. I also worked on Outwars for Microsoft, Snowmobile RacingSnowmobile Championship 2000 and Animorphs: Shattered Reality. Things changed a lot after the first year. We discovered some hard lessons - like, a few hit games didn’t make us rich or even keep the company from having to worry about tough times a couple of years down the road. As we became more independent of Sony, we had some real struggles recreating our earlier success. And while stories of pulling the crazy hours and all-nighters sound kinda cool and motivating in retrospect, and might make for an exciting “hard work” montage in a movie, that gets pretty old pretty fast. While it was better than a couple other game companies where I’ve worked in my career, it was hard on my family, and even got to the point where I became physically ill from exhaustion. So while I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, it was long hours and hard work making other people’s games. Making games is very little like playing games.

Gavin: Over the years, what specifically made you want to create RPGs?

I discovered Dungeons & Dragons around the same time I discovered video games, so in my mind the two were always intertwined. Ever since seeing my friend’s printout of his adventure in the Colossal Cave, I have loved big, virtual worlds with lots of exploration. Role-playing games always seemed the perfect match. There was a small contingent of us at SingleTrac that were always pushing for an opportunity to work on a role-playing game, but we were told that our “core competency” was in doing 3D action games, and later our parent company (Infogrammes, now Atari) told us that they they thought the market for RPGs was dead. Of course, they said this just as RPGs were enjoying a huge resurgence in the market, so within a couple of years they’d completely changed their tune, but by this time I was already gone, as was SingleTrac.


Gavin: How did the idea come about to start your own game company and why Rampant for the name?

A lot of the time in the games biz you are working on someone else’s game. And during my first six years in the games industry, I saw budgets skyrocket and the publishers consequently become more and more risk-averse. Independent studios were largely “guns for hire.” I longed for the old days when a few like-minded people could get together and crank out a game in a year or so on a reasonable budget, and then get it to market one way or another. By that time, even the small shareware studios that had enjoyed some success with small teams in the old days (like id Software, the makers of Doom) had morphed into these big, bloated studios. With the growing success of direct distribution via the Internet, it looked like there was finally a hope to bypass the big publisher model (which was deliberately trying to emulate the Hollywood and recording industry studio model) and make and sell games directly to your audience. I had no clue what I was doing. Nowadays, I only have a little bit of a clue. It seems the more I learn, the more I discover I need to learn. As far as the company name - well, on the one hand, all my other company name ideas had already been taken. But I had this idea of all these little indie studios producing tons and tons of games directly for their audience - video games running rampant, basically—which was where the name came from. A few years later, the whole indie gaming phenomenon and advent of mobile gaming would make my wildest dreams look tame by comparison!

Gavin: What was the progress like putting everything you needed together and forming a team?

Slow. Very slow. Especially running on a shoestring budget, using a day-job to finance development, it can be tough to recruit or keep people. You can get some undiscovered talent pretty cheaply once… but once they get discovered (sometimes though what they did on your game!), they quickly grow out of your price range. That’s totally fair, of course, but it’s hard. With tiny budgets it can become more of a labor of love for all involved… but it becomes a lower priority than the other projects or jobs that put food on the table, and that slows down progress even more, and it becomes difficult to keep motivated on something as big as a role-playing game.


Gavin: What were some of the first games you produced and what was the public reaction to them?

My first title was Void War, which was a 3D space-combat game with Newtonian physics inside of an arena, with obstacles and special weapons and pick-ups and everything. It was a lot of fun multiplayer, but never did very well. Trying to figure out 3D motion in space from a first-person perspective isn’t easy on players. For me, It was a great learning experience. After that, we had a couple of canceled projects and some small, non-commercial projects. I finally decided the time had come to make that role-playing game I’d always promised myself I’d make.

Gavin: The big title, you're currently featuring, is Frayed Knights: The Skull Of S'makh-Daon. How did the concept for the game come about?

When I first launched the project, nobody was making the party-based first-person perspective role-playing games anymore, in the style of the old classics like Wizardry, The Bard’s Tale, Might & Magic and so forth. Those were the kinds of role-playing games that inspired me in the old days, and so I wanted to do something like that. So that was the germ of it. While it might not have been the best decision—nobody was making really hardcore RPGs anymore. They were all designed for people unfamiliar with the genre. The old-school fans, those of us still around, weren’t really being served anymore. So I wanted to make a game for those people. People like me. Interestingly enough, a whole bunch of us had the same idea. Because it took so long to develop, by the time Frayed Knights was released, it was part of a wave of similar games. Suddenly this underserved niche has become very busy and exciting. The gamer in me is delighted.


Gavin: What made you go for the turn-based combat system compared to simulation or instant combat?

Because the mainstream publishers (and many indies) were already making those kinds of games. I don’t want to make just another Diablo clone or whatever. If I had something really cool to contribute to that style of game, something that would set the game apart or really have something interesting to say, then sure, I’d do it. But I wanted to go back and explore a different style of gameplay and thought I had something interesting to say there. Also, it is very difficult to control an entire party of characters in a real-time action game. Not without losing a lot of the focus on individual actions. A more thoughtful pace made sense.

Gavin: For the story, what made you decide to go more of a humorous route?

That was one of the first ideas I had. I was thinking about the old style of game where you guided a group of adventurers on their quest in first-person, and one of the problems with that style of game is that the characters seemed to be more of a collection of statistics and roles than actual characters in a story. That was the area I wanted to explore. So I came up with the idea of these characters talking to each other, bantering back and forth, or offering commentary on the adventure as they went. This made me think of one of my favorite TV shows from the '90s, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K). Once this thought hit me, it was all over. These characters gained a life of their own and were offering snarky comments about the world and the adventure. And since the movies in MST3K were almost always cheesy, low-budget features, it all worked. So comedy it was. But even though some of the game is a little silly, with spells like “Power Word: Defenestrate” (which conjures a giant window behind an enemy and then shoves them through it) and some parody of common fantasy game tropes, I still wanted it to be a serious, enjoyable game underneath it all that veteran players could enjoy. And like any good comedy, I wanted some serious, dramatic moments to level things out and provide some texture. But the core of it is somewhere between MST3K and a sitcom.


Gavin: What do you think of the success the game has had so far? And do you plan to build on that game with more stories or sequels?

The game has landed somewhere between my modest expectations and my far more lofty hopes, which is a pretty good place. It’s still not enough to allow us to work on it full-time or to give us a huge budget for the sequels, but at least I’m no longer having to dip into my kids’ education to pay for my game development habit. It was enough to make the planned sequel a no-brainer. We won awards and some critical acclaim, especially among the sites really representing our target audience. This was really gratifying. But even so, like every other project I’ve worked on, it’s been a learning experience, and in hindsight, I’ve seen a lot of things I wish I’d done better. But that’s what sequels are for! I hadn’t anticipated starting over so much from scratch with the sequel. We’re using a new engine, a new programming language, and pretty much everything has had to be re-written from the ground up. Fortunately, that’s given us an opportunity to apply the lessons we’ve learned with the first game.

Gavin: Without giving too much away, what new games are in the works right now?

Not much to give away. For the immediate future, we’re working on the two sequels to Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon. The second game is entitled: Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath. We’ve still got a lot to do to finish it up, but it already a big improvement in technology, gameplay and story over the first game. Beyond that - one of the joys of being a small indie studio is that we can be flexible. Role-playing games will remain a focus, though. There is still a lot I’d like to explore in the genre, and the toughest choice will be what to work on first.


Gavin: What do you have in store for Rampant Games over the new year?

Finishing Frayed Knights 2 and all the launch-related activities will pretty keep us pretty maxed out this year. It’s going to be a very exciting, busy year.