Brian T. Kindregan discusses “Cognation” and forming BAD Works

"...the inspiration for this game was a group of people who wanted to work with each other, and who wanted to do something that was our own, outside of work, where being able to say 'Let’s do this because it’s fun,' is enough to justify doing it...."

B.A.D. Works, LLC is collective of game industry geniuses who have come together – while working at other studios – to make different games that are uniquely fun. The team is comprised of Andy Bond, Anessa Silzer, Diandra Lasrado (@MesaanaSedai), and Brian. T. Kindregan. The first game from B.A.D. is Cognation – a tilt game inspired by a fusion of Steampunk, crrent economics, and science fiction. Wanting to learn more about B.A.D. and Cognation, I was able to talk to Kindregan (with a guest appearance by Silzer).

You can learn more about this game by checking it out at the App Store, and you can learn more about Kindregan by visiting his homepage and following him on twitter @BrianKindregan.

Nicholas Yanes: Last time I formally interviewed you, you were working on Diabolo III. How has life been for you since then?

Brian T. Kindregan: Life has been great! After many years at Blizzard, working on awesome projects, I felt like I was getting stale. Blizzard is an enormously dynamic and supportive environment, but as a creative you must always be careful not to get too comfortable. So I looked around and talked to a lot of people. Ultimately, I went to Epic Games, creator of the Unreal engine, as they were exploring the possibility of bringing more narrative to their games.

Yanes: Are you ever going to legally change your last name so that “dragon” appears in it?

Kindregan: Most people read it that way anyway! So I’m content with that. Of course, those that don’t read it “Kin-Dragon,” read it as “Kindergarten.” That’s less good.

Yanes: You are part of B.A.D. Works. What was the inspiration for this group coming together? Who else is part of it?

Kindregan: B.A.D. Works is a limited-liability-corporation with four members: Andy Bond, a lead programmer at Blizzard who I met while working on StarCraft; Anessa Silzer, an artist now at Riot, who I met while working on Diablo; and Diandra Lasrado (@MesaanaSedai), Managing Editor at Aniplex. I met her long ago playing City of Heroes, and she has the misfortune of being my wife. Oh, and me.

Although Blizzard was the common thread for three of us, Anessa and I moved to other studios, so now all of us work for different organizations. But we’ve all been united in our determination to keep going on Cognation.

The inspiration was really Blizzard’s side projects program. This initiative allowed Blizzard employees to work on their own games outside of work, so long as certain terms were met. It is a very generous program, and most game developers have some desire to do their own thing at night and on weekends. (Most of us have no lives.)

Andy, Diandra, and I started talking about doing something together, and it made sense to form an LLC. We would be creating several different kinds of intellectual property – who would own what, and what does ownership mean in that context? This is something I touched on in my “How to get into game writing” blog: when you work on a project with friends, either you get paid, or you get equity. So in this case, we created B.A.D. Works to formalize all of that. It’s not a question of distrusting your friends – all of us at B.A.D. Works trust each other implicitly. It just makes sense to have a ruleset for all the possible future interactions, including the great unknowns.

Later when Anessa came on board, we were going to pay her for the artwork she was creating – but she started kicking so much butt artistically and creatively that Andy, Diandra, and I wanted to offer her a share in B.A.D. Works, which she accepted.

Yanes: The first game to be made by B.A.D. Works is Cognation. What was the inspiration for this game?

Kindregan: When Blizzard initiated the side projects program that I mentioned earlier, Andy, Diandra and I started kicking around ideas right away. We discussed several ideas, focusing mainly on what we’d enjoy making and playing. Since this was going to be a nights-and-weekends kind of thing, we obviously also talked about mundane matters such as scope timing.

After several different ideas came and went, Andy had the idea of using the tilt mechanic, and everyone agreed that was a great direction – simple enough to let us focus on lots of gameplay, engaging enough to keep us going for many levels.

From there, we tossed around ideas for the narrative/thematic wrapper, which would in turn give us more ideas for gameplay mechanics. We pretty quickly arrived at a spaceship navigating a hallowed out asteroid/mine. This let us have silly stuff like giant fans, smashers, and radioactive terrain. Plus we all are all science fiction nerds.

The big question left at that point was the “why.” Navigating an abandoned mine could be motivated in lots of ways – you could just be a treasure hunter or explorer. But I knew we’d have very little room for narrative in the game, so I wanted to make it compelling.

We thought about rescuing a significant other, but that started to get tied up into questions of identity. Who is this person? What do they mean to you? And for that matter – who are you? Instead, family is clear and simple – most people love their family and would want to rescue them. We could tell that story without having to identify who you, the pilot of the ship, are. That way the player can choose their own identity, or just not worry about it at all. You’ll notice that the letters from your family never specify anything about you other than that you are a child/sibling.

That may have been a more granular answer than you were hoping for, but the tl;dr is that the inspiration for this game was a group of people who wanted to work with each other, and who wanted to do something that was our own, outside of work, where being able to say “Let’s do this because it’s fun,” is enough to justify doing it.

Yanes: Cognation has a fun, retro look to it. How were the visuals for this game developed? Were there any classic games that influenced this game’s appearance?

Kindregan: The theme of steampunk was loosely in the works from the beginning, since it was set in space but had the concept of debtor’s prison. (Which, sadly is still with us in modern times, but is most closely associated with the Victorian era.)

That steampunk theme came a bit more into focus when Jeremy Bond and Dave Berggren did some early artwork, which was amazingly helpful.

But it all really came together when Anessa Silzer, Cognation’s art director, came on board. She made the textures for the maps, the UI, the main menu screen, the buttons, the portraits… she visually realized the entire game through sheer volume and skill.

It’s a steampunk aesthetic, but the particulars are really Anessa’s style – fun, unpredictable, and just incredibly appealing.

Anessa Silzer: When I was working on the art I was going for a rough hand drawn look. One of the main goals was to make the art simple and readable for small screen sizes. It’s kind of funny to have steam punk tech in space, yet I think the fantasy works with the dark comedy in the letters. The rough textures also match the miner/prisoner theme of having to dig your way through tunnels to rescue the family.

Yanes: The story bridges science fiction with the issue of crushing financial debt. What was the inspiration for this story?

Kindregan: The basic inspiration for the story was more practical than anything, but the use of debt as a motivating force is definitely from the zeitgeist.

Much of science fiction is aspirational – we all want to see the future as better than the present. Even when it’s dystopic, there is still a certain appeal to it – as if all the complication and nuance of the present has been burned away, and now your only job is to find food and fend off the murderous crazies. But all science fiction is also a product of its time, and is almost always dealing with the issues of the day. For Cognation, that’s debt.

Most game industry professionals I know – indeed, most professionals I know – spend the first decade(s) of their career laboring under the weight of student loans, and it is a sort of prison – even bankruptcy offers no protection against this kind of debt. So it’s very much on everyone’s mind, and it made sense for it to be a part of Cognation.

In the game, you can find letters from your family, in which they casually describe the brutal conditions of their imprisonment. It’s treated lightly, with the stiff-upper-lip ethos of the Victorian era (“I sleep soundly until the morning beatings!”). But even so, that dark side of our story is meant to speak to the psychological damage that living under crushing debt can do; particularly, the fact that the family’s sentence keeps getting extended as punishment for things beyond their control. Anyone who has lived in debt knows this feeling – that goal of getting out of debt and living “free” just seems to get farther and farther away every day. You’re always one car accident or injury from total ruin, and checking your mailbox is accompanied by a feeling of dread.

I guess we all really want a child/sibling with a little spaceship to come rescue us, and hopefully we can try to be that little spaceship captain for others.

Yanes: What were some development challenges you encountered with Cognation that you learned from you? How do you feel making this game has helped you become a better game creator overall?

Kindregan: Oh goodness, there were a lot! I think the biggest challenge we faced was that 5 people (the four principals of B.A.D. Works, plus the talented Llana Barron who did our music and sound design,) who all have other jobs will have very scattered, difficult to sync schedules. Sometimes Andy would get incredibly busy for three or four months, or I would. For the most part we were able to mitigate this by having everyone’s task be pretty well defined, so that someone could put the game down for a few months without blocking others.

The overall effect of these periodic delays was that development took quite a long time – years. And that’s the real danger, because there were times where the game didn’t seem to be moving, and I’m sure there were times when each of us wondered if it would ever materialize – I know that I did. So the biggest lesson was certainly just to never give up.

Beyond that, I’ve re-learned a lesson that Blizzard taught me: even if you think the game is too easy, your opinion is deeply skewed by your role as a creator, and it’s imperative that the game be tested by a wide range of players. Finally, the biggest lesson was one I touched on earlier – find a simple concept in terms of gameplay/theme and build everything around that.

The entire experience has made me a better developer in a holistic sense. I’ve done level design and systems design, I’ve thought about things in new areas, made mistakes, and fixed them in areas that I’d never gotten to work in before. Even telling such a tiny story in the manner that we did stretched my legs as a writer.

Yanes: When people finish playing Cognation, what feeling do you hope they take away from it?

Kindregan: I hope they had a lot of fun, feel good about rescuing their family, and that they feel there are some levels they could get a better time with now that they have all these upgrades, so they want to go back and try some of the more complicated levels just… one… more… time!

Yanes: Are there any plans from B.A.D. Works on developing a sequel to Cognation and creating other games?

Kindregan: At the moment I think we’re all just super happy to have the game out to the world and are enjoying that feeling. We all enjoyed working with each other and I know we’d love to do another project – the timing just has to be right.

Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are working on that people can look forward to?

Kindregan: Unfortunately, I can’t talk about any of the projects I’m working on right now. But I should be able to share some news fairly soon – so stay tuned!

Remember, you can learn more about this game by checking it out at the App Store, and you can learn more about Kindregan by visiting his homepage and following him on twitter @BrianKindregan.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow ScifiPulse on twitter @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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