Speaking With Pioneer Valley Games Founder Jesse Bemben

We’re lucky enough to have some talented, interesting people in our happy valley, and the Valley Nerd Watch wants to introduce you to as many of them as possible.

That’s starting today, with an interview of local video-game developer and artist Jesse Bemben of Pioneer Valley Games!

James Olchowski: So first of all, why start your own studio instead of getting into the industry?

Jesse Bemben: That’s mostly because… even if I were offered to work with EA or Blizzard or something I wouldn’t do it. I spend a lot of time watching online lectures and stuff, I recently finished a lecture series by Warren Spector, and he had a bunch of people come in and talk for hours at a time, Richard Garriot and a bunch of others.

Hearing people talk about it just completely turns me off of working in the industry. The reason I’m working independently is because I want to make my story. It’s selfish but I think most people want to tell their story. If you work for a company, you’re never going to make your story. You’re always going to be working on someone else’s idea. And some people might like that but… I just am not interested. It’s also an extremely tumultuous industry.

JO: So do you do this for a day job?

JB: I actually do graphics, I’m working for a guy who does mobile games. So I put a contracted amount of hours into that each week based on my own schedule. I wake up whenever I want and work the hours that work for me. Everything else is just working on my own projects.

JO: Is there a reason you chose to make your company Pioneer Valley Games? Why you chose to specifically highlight the area?

JB: No, I mean I’m from the area and I love the area and it started in the area… so it seemed natural to me.

JO: The Valley has really built up a community of craft and artisans, have you found that it’s a good community for something digital?

JB: I haven’t had a huge amount of interaction with artists in the community. I only know a few to be honest, many of them in this building [Eastworks] itself, and one of the people I worked with was an artist, but that’s pretty much the extent of it. I think I found it more inspirational when I was a writer, actually.

You could go up to the mountain and sit down and write and it was awesome. Digital work is a bit different, I spend a lot of time hanging out at my house with my dog, I’m not connected to many people face-to-face.

JO: Interesting. Part of the reason I started the Nerd Watch, and something I’ve found as I’ve spoken to people, is that if people in the same area are doing something similar and it’s amenable to the internet you just don’t meet each other.

JB: Yeah, I’d say this area has a lot of… real artists I guess. Sculptors, painters, and they’re great and there’s just a difference between the physical and the digital mediums and how they interact.

JO: So did you get this position in part or in whole because of the Pioneer Valley Games work that you’ve been doing, and the RPG Maker assets you have for sale on Steam?

JB: Yeah, he saw that I had some stuff for sale on Steam and got in touch with me.

JO: Have you had a lot of success selling asset packs on Steam?

JB: Enough success that I don’t need a job so *laughs*, yeah.

JO: Do you think that the 3D-rendered models you’ve made [link] have something to do with your success? They don’t look much like other RPG Maker stuff.

JB: Yeah, when I started doing this about two and a half years ago there was only one additional pack that you could buy. RPG Maker came with a base set of very cartoony looking graphics. Then, they released another completely different set that was just graphics, from someone just in the community, not on staff. When I saw that I figured well if this person can do it why can’t other people do it?

So I sent a message to one of their staff asking if they’d be interested in selling something if I made something. The 3D rendering stuff I had was the fastest to work with at the time, and I was into experimenting with it so that’s where I wound up making most of the assets. And for whatever reason, no one else has been really making RPG Maker stuff in that style.

JO: So are you the only person not on RPG Maker’s staff making assets currently?

JB: No, no, there are a bunch of people now making other assets, music, code you can buy. But I was one of the first people that wasn’t staff making things for use with it.

JO: So do you have any idea how many people are using the resources that you’ve created? Or what those projects are?

JB: I know the sales, but the only projects I really know are using my stuff are people who contact me or people who I stumble upon. I know at least one game that’s being sold on Steam is using my stuff, and I know a handful of others that don’t even use the RPG Maker engine are using some of my stuff.

There’s a lot of them, but I don’t have solid numbers. I can say that a lot of these people are also not necessarily from the US. Actually people from the Phillipines make up the bulk of the Pinoneer Valley Games Facebook page, just generally a lot of people from Southeast Asia.

JO: Interesting! Do you have any insight into why that might be?

JB: Well, RPG Maker is very popular out there, and just in general they’re really serious about gaming. It’s a huge market, and we just tend not to hear about it around here.

JO: I generally do think of the indie culture in the US focusing on local events and local notice, rarely does anyone think about breaking into the Chinese market.

JB: *laughs* Yeah, it’s not something you can really go after! I don’t really know why, but they basically came to me.

JO: So part of the reason people know about Pioneer Valley Games really is because of the RPG Maker content you made, content that’s enabled other people to do their own thing.

JB: Yeah! That’s kind of been a goal. Some of my newer stuff is more modular, allows people to do more with the assets to make them their own. It’s always been something I’ve liked, helping people make their own stuff work well.

I was a writing tutor in college, and I think I’ll always enjoy knowing that I can make other people have an easier time producing their own work.

JO: So you got started making content for RPG Maker after you’d been using it for a while, is there a reason you were using RPG Maker as a development tool?

JB: Because I can’t code! I have a little bit of ability to do some simple things, but I just can’t wrap my mind around the math needed to code effectively. I’m an artist. So I needed tools that I could work with if I wanted to make my own game.

I also didn’t have any funds to hire anyone, so I couldn’t hire anyone to do it. Now I have the money to hire someone who just codes, so I can work on other projects but at first I was kind of hamstrung.

JO: RPG Maker isn’t the only thing you’ve used to create content, though. I saw you mentioned Construct 2…

JB: Yeah, Construct 2 is a piece of software that I really enjoy. It’s a lot more flexible than, for instance, RPG Maker. RPG Maker is a lot more limited in scope unless you’ve got a solid understanding of Ruby, which I really don’t have.

But Construct 2 is a bit more math heavy, which is a trade-off for someone who was an English major in college.

JO: Do you think that being an English major influenced your pursuit of game development? I know a lot of CS majors with a game design concept in their back pocket, fewer English majors.

JB: Yeah, it’s kind of odd actually. I went to college originally for nursing, but found that I really enjoyed writing a lot more. I spent a lot of time writing stuff, wrote a gigantic book of stories. But I kind of felt that some of the stories I wanted to tell were more suited to games, more suited to gameplay.

JO: Expand upon that a little. What is it about having gameplay that you feel is suited to the stories you want to tell? I think of classic RPGs as being long cutscenes interspersed with pretty separate tactical gameplay. Why does that format appeal to you as a storyteller specifically?

JB: Well, the game I was doing then… I think a lot of it was the inclusion of the visual aspect. You can see the characters, but you marry that with written dialog. And I think the tools themselves were just really fun to work with, to experiment with.

JO: So there’s been recently a flowering of specifically story-based games, short stories like Telltale’s stripped-down adventures, and various smaller Twine games that are basically text stories more than text adventures. Does that format of storytelling appeal to you?

JB: At this point, not really. Over the past few years… I kind of started with no real design philosophy because I was just screwing around as a hobbyist. But I’ve developed my own philosophy about what games should be.

I don’t really play a ton of games nowadays, because they feel kind of restrictive. I want to make the player the center of the story, I don’t want to make the story take precedence over the player.

JO: I did see that you’ve said Ultima is a major influence on the sort of games you want to design. Is there anything more modern that you feel is living up to that tradition?

JB: That’s hard to say. I’ve got a lot of games on Steam, but I’ve probably played about 10% of them. I’ve basically got a lot of Humble Bundle and sale games that I just haven’t touched.

I’d say probably the best game I’ve played recently is actually Civilization 5. That’s something that gives me complete control of what’s going on, and it’s something me and my fiance can play together.

[There is a pause in the interview as James recommends taking a look at Endless Legend if you like Civilization V. James is also pausing this transcript of the interview to recommend that you, humble reader, take a look at Endless Legend. It is super good.]

JO: So the thing you find yourself going back to doesn’t really resemble the content that you’re trying to produce?

JB: Yeah, the vision of what I’m trying to produce has altered since I began. Much more of an influence now comes from the Ultima series. As I learn more about what went on behind the scenes making those games I realize that those games were the result of some really good decisions.

JO: So you mentioned that when you started you didn’t have a real design philosophy. One insteresting thing about your work is that you started very early with Kickstarter. What drew you to Kickstarter when you had no real guiding philosophy at hand?

JB: It’s kind of the same thing that happened when I started working on RPG Maker graphics. I saw someone else do it, and I figured why can’t I do that?

JO: Did you have any real guidance about how to make an effective Kickstarter pitch? Did you have any guidance about how much to ask for, or what to offer?

JB: *laughs* No, not really! There weren’t really that many games on Kickstarter early on, and only one actually successful RPG, Cthulu Saves the World. And there were several unsuccessful ones. So no one had really written anything about how to actually proceed with a Kickstarter.

It was very much a learning experience. There is… no way it would succeed today. But then again, if I had the knowledge I have now I’d have done it entirely different.

JO: So speaking of your Kickstarter, you’ve been working on the game you Kickstarted, Aleph, for about four and change years now. Have you found it difficult to keep up with your Kickstarter backers? Did you find that the Kickstarter gave you the ability to do what you needed with this game full-time?

JB: What Kickstarter gave me was more than the money, though that was about 400% what I asked for, it gave me an opportunity. Instead of just putting all of that into the game, hiring an artist or coder immediately, it allowed me to roll it into a business that provided more opportunities to create a better product for people.

I actually updated the game last night, and backers are still excited.

JO: I definitely feel like for the projects I’ve backed, persistent updates over a long period tend to make me feel more comfortable.

JB: Yeah, I actually have backed a couple projects too. I actually backed Code Hero, which was supposed to teach you to code in Unity with a game, and they kind of squandered their money. And now they update very infrequently, once every six months or so to say they’re still trying.

JO: So how do you make it clear to people that you’re still working hard on this project?

JB: I definitely need to include images. I need to show people that this is what it looks like now, here’s the visible improvement. The last thing I did was make some menu updates, add a neat little scroll graphic that wasn’t there before.

I need to let people see that this is evolving and progressing, not just write about it. I’m also trying to get the backer demo version for them playable as soon as I can, but I’m waiting for some of the code to be ready for that.

JO: So you mentioned you’ve had a dedicated coder for a while now, how has that changed your process?

JB: Yeah, about six months now. What it’s really done is allow two things to happen at the same time. I don’t have to hunt down bugs now, he can handle that. Now I can focus on adding art and content to the game with him cleaning up behind it.

It definitely speeds up development. It’s also added some things that I didn’t even expect. Like recently, the coder has added this HTTP processing system that will allow us to pull and push data to my website server from the game.

So I can make leaderboards or something, just a fun little way for players to see how they stack up. Who did the best against this boss, who finished the game with the most money, any metric you can think of I can make a leaderboard and it’s stored on my server. It’s a cool little thing that was really his pet side project, that he didn’t specifically work on because I asked him, but that I can access now. And if I have any problems, he can handle them

JO: Going back to when you began Aleph, you talk on your website about being into big elaborate RPGs, and doing a little coding in BASIC as a kid. Then you seem to jump into an incredibly deep end with Aleph. What made you feel like you could develop the next Ultima?

JB: Well, first of all it wasn’t my first project. I’d made a couple of games before that. They weren’t released or anything, but they were reasonably long, 10-20 hours. They were basic RPGs, with some cutscenes and combat. But I had a little experience. Then I think the rest was just being naive… overreaching and not understanding what it takes.

I think everyone in the beginning is going to overreach a bit. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily, I think you need to overreach a bit. It’s just that you also need to be disciplined if you’re doing a gigantic project like that. Your initial inspiration is only going to take you so far, and after that it’s a slog and a grind that you need to just force yourself to do. Otherwise you’re just going to leave the project behind eventually.

JO: So post-Kickstarter, you changed and updated a lot about Aleph. Are you doing it in an iterative manner, with the bulk of the content set up and you’re just polishing, or are you just slowly chipping away at the content?

JB: It’s a combination. The core concept hasn’t changed in the past four years, and I’ve built upon it a bit, made it a bit more expansive. The various systems that the player interacts with have evolved over time. So in that sense, I’m iterating on things that already exist. Different iterations of it get a little better over time. At the same time there are aspects of it that are just chipping away at over time.

For instance, building the game maps I just had to chip away at… twice, actually. I built them for the original engine… and then I had to rebuild them for the new engine. It allowed me to have a much better-looking game, but it did require me to re-do a lot of stuff. I’d never want to do that again. There are so many maps, several hundred of them, and they’re all huge. And they connect into a giant world… it took months and months.

JO: So until recently you held down a day job while working on this project. Did  you figure out a workflow that you felt was effective?

JB: You sort of go through phases, your mindset isn’t the same all four years. There were times when I felt so motivated that I’d just spend the entire waking day working on it, but I made sure that at the very least I’ll tell myself I’m going to do at least this much today, every single day.

When I was doing the mapping, even though I was working, I’d say I’m going to do at least two maps today. Even if I’m working, I have to get at least this done today, at this this much progress.

JO: Have you spent any time with games from another local studio, Hitpoint Games out of Springfield?

JB: Not really. I actually don’t really find I enjoy most mobile games. Even though I help make mobile games! Part of what’s so annoying about developing for mobile is how close you need to cut all your content, there’s so little space to do anything interesting. All the artwork has to be cut way down just to fit.

JO: Ha, yeah. That’s something you see people leveraging about modern PCs pretty often, is just luxuriating in gigantic uncompressed HD textures.

JB: Yep, just because they know they can and it’s easy. When you’re mobile everything has to be tiny, and you need to make sure that the images are in compatible shapes, like if you do 1024×200, it’s going to count as a 1024×1024 image and that’s a waste of RAM.

We had to resize so many sheets… it’s really annoying. And the mobile market itself is kind of getting a glut of games that are really similar.

JO: Have you guys dealt with derivative games?

JB: Well, not yet. But he also hasn’t released the game yet *laughs*. But the whole reason I’m working for him, too, is that the game that he pitched seems like a really solid idea for mobile.

It seems different from almost every mobile game you can find, and I can’t talk a lot about it because it’s his project, but it’s a project that I really believe in. And the guy I’m working with seems like the sort of person who’s really willing to follow through and go the distance on a project like this.

And he paid me up front *laughs*

JO: Yeah that tends to help people get involved. So Pillars of Eternity releases this week. It’s an extremely classically styled Computer RPG. There have been re-releases of Baldur’s Gate, there’s Torment: Tides of Numenara coming out soon, Shadowrun Returns just game out, Dragon Age just had a major release… when you got started this wasn’t really on the horizon. What do you think has started this wave of classically styled RPGs?

JB: That’s a really tough question to answer. I’m not really an expert, or much of a marketer, but if I was to give my personal opinion I think people are just kind of sick of terrible games. Call of Duty has about 500 titles that are exactly the same, and I think back to the sort of games that I enjoyed as a kid and I can see where people would want to re-capture that.

There’s nothing wrong with making games that are more of the same of what a lot of people loved, either. There was a time where people kind of tried to innovate with every single game, and over time that kind of made us drift away from games that a lot of people really loved. We’re rediscovering our roots, with elements that are refined and better looking but with the same games that used to work so well at the core.

JO: Well, I think we’re at the end of what I wanted to talk to you about, thank you for talking to the Valley Nerd Watch!

JB: Not a problem! Thanks for reaching out to me!

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