With a decade of experience in the gaming industry, Gwen Frey has worked for major gaming companies such as Gazillion and Irrational Games. This work has allowed her work on games such as Bioshock Infinite and Marvel Heroes Online. After years of working for Triple A studios Frey has taken the time to develop and launch her own indie game. Titled Kine, this game combines 3D puzzle mechanics with music in a uniquely beautiful way. Wanting to learn more about her career and Kine, I was able to interview Frey for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some video games you loved playing? Are there any from your youth you still enjoy revisiting?
Gwen Frey: I think the first game I truly adored was Final Fantasy 7. I played games before that, but that was the game that I stayed up all night playing and that was probably the game that made me a gamer. I was pretty young at the time and FF7 had such a great story and a compelling art style – I was immediately hooked into it! At the time I was also playing Starcraft, and all growing up I was obsessed with various tactics games. I was a massive fan of Nippon Ichi and I think Disgaea was probably my favorite game from my youth. To this day if I hear the Disgaea soundtrack I can’t help but smile.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in game dev? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Frey: Honestly it took a long time for me to realize it. I loved video games, and I almost dropped out of college because I was playing so much WoW, but it never occurred to me that making video games was a job that a person could have. I didn’t know anyone working in any creative field and I didn’t get game developer magazines when I was young. I knew people were animators because I saw the animators at Disney World. So when I was choosing a career I went to college for 3D animation. I dreamed of working at Pixar on a film one day. Then halfway through college a programmer asked me to help make art for a game he was making with some friends and after I had a taste of game dev I could never go back.
Yanes: Like many in the gaming industry, you have been part of a few gaming studios that have shut down. Did you ever consider leaving the video game industry all together?
Frey: There were times in the past when I would have left if I felt like I could. However, I am a generalist in the games industry (my background is as a tech artist) and I didn’t think I could get a job working in any other industry. I powered through the harder moments because I didn’t think I had a choice. But I am so glad I did. I really, really love making games!
Yanes: You co-founded The Molasses Flood. Did co-founding a studio make you reconsider what you thought of previous managers you’ve had? Specifically, are there management practices you didn’t like until you became a founder yourself?
Frey: Not managers, but oddly enough I’ve gained an understanding of our publishers. It is common when you work at a studio to hate your publisher (devs at Irrational would grumble at some of 2Ks decisions, for instance.) When you are a developer in AAA you worry about how well your game sells – but you worry about it in an abstract way. When a publisher forces a studio to include multi-player so that people don’t sell back the game immediately after launch, or forces you to include some weird middleware into the game. Those decisions are not arbitrary, there is data backing them up and doing certain things will make the difference between the game being profitable or not. You can say that doesn’t matter, but AAA salaries cannot be maintained on unprofitable games. I don’t agree with every decision publishers make, or the way they treat their studios sometimes, but I understand the pressures that they are facing much, much more now.
Yanes: A few years ago you began work on your latest game, Kine. What was the inspiration behind this game?
Frey: There were a lot of inspirations for Kine, but by far the biggest was the film La La Land. This was a movie that followed a jazz musician and an actress as they struggled to get noticed. It was about the difficulties of having artistic ambitions while coping with life’s responsibilities. The film was colorful and vibrant, and the music in the film wasn’t there to accentuate the film – it was part of the story. I loved that. I wanted to make a game that captured the same feeling. And when I designed the puzzles I wanted the puzzles to be more than just difficult things to solve – I wanted them to be part of the story as well.
Yanes; One of the many reasons Kine stood out to me was its distinctive visuals. How did you go about deciding how the game would look?
Frey: When I was developing the look of Kine I wanted to find an art style that was easy to craft, was bright and vibrant, and also serviced the design of the game. I wanted to use a sketchy art style so that lines could overhang ledges somewhat and help the player see the grid. It is very important to message the height and where a player is on the grid, otherwise the puzzles are unsolvable. The sketchy style is a result of needing to message that effectively.
Yanes: Were there other games you turned to for inspiration while developing Kine?
Frey: I was very much inspired by Stephen’s Sausage Roll when it came to the puzzle design. I learned a lot from playing that game and applied some of those lessons to Kine. I also highly recommend Pipe Push Paradise – a delightful and very difficult game that also tackles 3D spatial puzzling.
Yanes: Reflecting on building and marketing Kine, how do you think you’ve improved as a game dev while making this game?
Frey: Ha! Well I’ve definitely become an expert at making the puzzles for Kine specifically! It was incredibly tempting to burn the whole thing down and re-start the world from scratch. It is very frustrating how much better you understand your own game at the end of development.
I’ve gained a deep appreciation for how puzzles are crafted and I appreciate other puzzle games a lot more now. I also understand why certain games resonate with me more than others and I think I understand the sorts of games and experiences I would like to craft going forwards. My next projects will be far more deliberate in their execution as a result.
Yanes: When people finish playing Kine, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Frey: I hope they are happy. I hope that they were stuck a few times, but managed to figure things out, and that they feel good about winning the game. I don’t want to make games that make you cry; I want to make games that make you feel good.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Frey: At the moment I’m working on a beer belly and my extensive game backlog. I have a lot of playing to catch up on 😊