Canberra Spotlight

Developer Spotlight: Morgan Little from Cardboard Keep

Happy Saturday everyone! We’re doing something a little different for this week’s Canberra Spotlight with our interview with Morgan Little, writer and narrative designer of Canberra game developer Cardboard Keep. If you don’t have plans for the weekend (and even if you do) be sure to head to warden-game.com to pick up Warden: Melody of the Undergrowth, their first game release. We’ve been playing it all week over at GAMMA.PLAYS, and it is a beyond awesome game!

GAMMA.CON: Hey Morgan, thanks for sitting down with us again after our Warden play through!
Morgan: Hey guys, great to see you again so soon.

G: What was the inspiration for you to want to get into video game production?
M: Wow, that’s a big one to unpack – and it’s definitely going to be a different answer for each of us in the studio.

In my case, I’ve loved games for as long as I can remember. Early titles on the N64, or Croc: Legend of the Gobbos on PC really got me hooked. As I grew up, I started to think more about how the games I was playing were designed about what made them so great.

And then I guess in the midst of creating work in theatrical, film and written mediums, I also wanted to try my hand at writing for games? Enter Cardboard Keep.

G: Where did you guy start getting into game development? Were you always trying to write code and do art or was going to AIE your first step into that world?
M: I’ve been writing for a very, very long time (something my parents and primary school teachers can attest to) and used to experiment with map-makers in games like Far Cry, or Halo’s Forge workshop. But I’m the anomaly here!

The others studied programming (Calum), art (Tim) and animation (Rob) at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment. They’d all tinkered with games beforehand, but formalised training definitely kicked things into gear.

G: How did you guys meet? How did you put together the core team for Cardboard Keep?
M: Short answer: I knew Cal growing up, and met the others through him. Better answer: Tim, Calum and Rob all met while studying together at AIE. After completing a few group projects together and discovering they were actually pretty good as a team, they decided to form Cardboard Keep while in the AIE’s Incubator program. This program is offered to students by the Academy, to help them establish an independent studio, offering both logistical and educational support.

G: Speaking of, what is the story behind the name Cardboard Keep?
M: I’m gonna hand this one to Cal, since this happened before I came onboard! Calum?

Calum (lead programmer): We wrestled for a long time over a name; if it wasn’t something we couldn’t all decide on, it was something that was already taken. We eventually settled on a reference to childlike playfulness, a reminder to stay loyal to our roots of creating experiences that are as fun and imaginative as games were to us the first time we played them. It started with things like Pillow Fort and Card Castle, and finally, exhaustively, we found something that didn’t already show similar results in a Google search. Cardboard Keep was born.

G: What was the spark or idea behind what would become Warden?
M: The original idea was taking elements of Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time, and combining that with the creatures of Shadow of Colossus and combat of Dark Souls. This has changed a lot over the course of development, as we’ve refined ideas, polished the game, and improved our own skill sets.

G: When did work officially start on Warden?
M: The original game prototype was created in October 2013. That prototype was created in a day, as part of a rapid-fire brainstorming week in the studio.

That was two and a half years ago. What a journey!

G: What sort of hours do you work making your own game?
M: Calum, Tim and Rob work full-time on the game, and have done so for the full development time. I work part-time, to compliment a full-time job and other creative endeavours.

This all changes around crunch time though! Whenever we approach an expo, or a public showing of the game, this ramps up into many more hours. Doubly so in this week leading up to launch. I’m working close to full-time hours on the game, as well as my full-time job, and festival producing. Sleep is for the weak!

G: Describe your indie game office?
M: Our work space is covered in posters from games we love; Ezio Auditore looks down on us, quotes from Cave Johnson, maps of Skyrim and Chernobyl adorn the walls. The space is open, we can all see each other, and we have a large and eclectic music playlist running all day long. When we do take a break, it’s to watch eSports or a movie, or play couch co-op or competitive games in the communal lounge

G: What have been your favourite moments while building the game over the last few years?
M: Hmmm, where do we start? We’ve had days where we raced through the latest build of the game, to see who could reach the end of it first. Days where we’ve made important design decisions over pizza, or sat on the floor and listened to the music that’s in the game over and over and over.

Going to expos has always been super exciting too. You get to show the game to and meet tonnes of people, share ideas with indie developers from across the world, and meet some of your inspirational figures!

G: What goes on in a typical day being an indie developer?
M: So many things, it can all depend on the day! Because we’re a small team, everyone has to be quite flexible in how they work and what they work on. So we’ll have days where we review mechanics or levels, and refine their design as a team. That can involve playing one little bit of the game an inordinate number of times, trying to pinpoint what we can do to improve it! Other days, we’ll review music, new art, watch cut scenes, read dialogue.

Individually, we all have our own workflows, but we keep track of tasks with a web-based project management platform called Trello. And then at the top of each week, we review what everyone’s been working on, what needs to get done in the next week, and go from there. It’s a highly adaptive, open and collaborative working environment.

G: What conventions have you taken warden to? Which were most fun/rewarding?
M: We’ve been showing the game off in some form or another for around two years now. In 2014, we took early builds to GAMMA.CON and iFest in Canberra, and PAX Australia in Melbourne. In 2015, we returned to the much larger iterations of GAMMA.CON and PAX Australia.

All these expos are great for different reasons. PAX Australia is a great way to get your game in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of people very quickly. And in the Indie Pavilion there, you’re exposed to the most creative and ambitious games and minds in Australian game development. Which is simultaneously exciting and terrifying.

GAMMA.CON is an invaluable way for us to connect with the local Canberra scene too. We can show the game to so many people who can’t travel to the bigger expos. And to our friends and family, who don’t often get to see what it is we’re working on!

G: Would you like to get a job in a big game studio or would you rather continue working on smaller projects like Warden with your own, tight team?
M: All across my arts practice, I’m feeling more and more inclined to stay indie. The same is absolutely true of game development. Small, dedicated and talented teams can produce and iterate on new or quirky ideas so much quicker than a large studio. I’ve also worked for two and a half years with these people, and I want to keep working with them, on new projects where we can leap off with the skill sets we’ve honed through making Warden.

G: What is next for Cardboard keep, is there a Warden 2 in the pipeline?
M: After the PC/Mac/Linux release of Warden, it’s right into console optimisation and certification. We’ve not even begun to think about the next project!

G: What advice do you have for anyone else wanting to get into game development?
M: It’s the same advice for all art forms. You have to get out there and try it. Experiment and create something. Play it. Figure out what works about it, what doesn’t. Show it to your friends. Watch how they play your game. Go back to the drawing board. Things will go wrong, that’s all part of it. Above all, keep at it!

If you want to learn to code, there are tonnes of free online resources – Codeacademy, to name one. If you want to tinker around in a game engine, many are free now and have extensive communities that will guide you through learning how to use them. Unity is the engine we use, and it has a terrific community to learn from.

If you want to experiment with making games without all that, you should too. Websites like inklewriter let you craft choose-your-own-adventure stories, or computer programs like Game Maker, or Microsoft’s Project Spark, which let you play with a simplified game editor.

G: We’re looking forward to playing the full version of Warden and also attending the launch party at Reload on Saturday (9th of April) night.
M: Awesome, hope to see you guys there!

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