St. Chicken is one of those games that looks and plays nothing like you imagine it to. But where you were hoping for game in which you play as a saintly fowl, blessing others with serene clucks (just us?) the reality of St. Chicken is somehow even better: a custody game in which you guide fish babies through a perilous ocean. No really.
Hookshot Inc. sat down with the game’s creator Marc Wilhelm to find out more about the project, which launched last month for PC, and the currents that brought about its creation.
What’s your story?
I worked in the mainstream game industry for 10 years as an artist and designer. I started out in AAA game development, which I was really into it for a while. But after hearing a GDC presentation by Raph Koster, I realized that developing projects that were more dynamic, and don’t require such long development cycles would help me grow faster as a game designer. Also, I felt that working on smaller, more intimate projects would be more personally rewarding. So I moved back to Colorado and founded my own independent studio Fresh Aces Videogames (freshaces.com), which for the foreseeable future will be just me. I also started a local game dev group – the Colorado independent Game Developers Association (tinyurl.com/cigda-meetup).
Describe St. Chicken in 15 words or fewer.
Swimming-puzzle-platformer where players spawn and protect offspring while reuniting with lost aquarium relics.
What made you think: I have to make this game?
I developed the mechanic by accident while learning a development tool. I started out following along a step by step tutorial to learn the dev tool by creating a Pac-Man clone from scratch. I couldn’t help myself, after like the third or fourth step once I got mildly comfortable with the tool, I abandoned the tutorial and just iterated and iterated relying on the glossary and online forums until I had made something ridiculous but unique. Once I decided to make the player character grow each time they ate a pellet, it went from there.
I asked my self “So, you eat a pellet and grow a little bit, and then you eat more and grow, then what?” I made some super simple AI behavior and gave these dumb little offspring hunger states and nursing behaviors and the foundation for what would become St. Chicken was born.
Um. ‘Nursing behaviours’ is a term that manages to be somehow both repellent and titillating at the same time. Sorry. Carry on.
Um. OK. The video for the evolution of the game can be seen here: vimeo.com/41660292. The oldest gameplay capture I have is when I was experimenting with having the character as a bouncing ball that consumes pellets and spawns offspring, it’s funny to watch now. I made this game because it is unique, has a memorable character and has simple, accessible gameplay that’s still a challenge to master.
Are you reading bulletpoints from the back of the game’s virtual box now?
When I was trying to figure out the “theme” for the game, I considered cell reproduction and things like amoeba, tadpoles or strange Spore-like evolutionary swimming creatures. But someone pointed out that female guppies give live birth and can be fertilized by one or more males and then give birth to many many babies for up to a year depending on how much nutrients she can find. So that sort of stuck with me and I designed the main character to be a little black guppy with an “ugly-cute” quality like a pug and offspring that is bright orange to easily differentiate them.
How long did you work on St. Chicken?
I started developing St. Chicken in January and released it in June – so it was six months. But really if I had JUST been working on St. Chicken and not learning two development tools AND running the Colorado independent Game Developers Association, it probably could have been done in three.
During production I changed my development platform and started over again midstream, which was a speed-bump, but turned out to be for the best because I like the new tool a lot more than the original and it has greater flexibility. Production was also severely disrupted by a Kickstarter campaign that only reached 19% of its $5000 goal. A lot of my attention for 4 weeks went to that which held back my ability to work on the game. All these things contributed to how the game became St. Chicken and I don’t believe in failures as long as you learn from every outcome.
That’s an admirable way to look at things. And congratulations on persisting after the Kickstarter thing fell through. So, where did the name come from?
St. Chicken got its name because I have a friend who had a goldfish named Chicken and I just think that’s a hilarious name for a pet fish. So the fiction of the game became that the player character started out as a domesticated pet fish named Chicken and it got accidentally dumped into the wild.
To explain the mechanic involving the healing of the offspring upon touching Chicken was I thought it would be cool if it had supernatural healing powers. I also had this vision of a fish with a halo, I have no idea where it came from, but it did. St. Chicken is kind of a sad story. It takes place in the mind of the child owner that lost it. The things that it knows as home have been scattered about and the lost guppy is comforted by visiting these relics of its past.
Oh gosh. That is a freaking emotive back-story. I wish you were writing Halo 4. So, I once had a goldfish named ‘Boris’, named after the ginger German tennis player Boris Becker.
St. Chicken is a much better name though. As you’re so good at naming stuff why don’t you name one way in which being an indie developer is better than your previous job, and one way in which it’s worse.
As an independent developer I am way more free as a creator. I can make whatever I think is best for whatever reason I want. If I want to make a game that is ridiculous and weird like St. Chicken I can. I could even release weirder stuff if I want to. Being an indie is worse because I have to do more than just make games. I have to run my website, promote my games and struggle to get any kind of notice. But that’s kind of a fun challenge.
What is your favourite moment in St. Chicken?
When people play the game they often talk to the offspring while trying to herd them around corners and stuff, which I think is awesome. It’s like when people talk to robots or their pets. There’s a funny pleasure I get from watching people interact with my creation as though it is a living thing.
What’s the dream? Where are you headed next?
I want to just keep making video-games for the rest of my life. I am a rather content person, I am grateful for everyday in which I am free to be creative. If I can sustain a living making games that’s enough for me. I don’t need to get rich from it. In fact if I were rich, like I won the lottery or something, I’d still work on games 10+ hours a day 6 or 7 days a week because I love doing it. Making games the way I do I get the privilege of making the art, music, everything. It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done as a creative.
Good on you. So, what two pieces of advice would you give to someone wanting to get into independent game dev, so they can experience similar things to you?
First of all, make games that are unique by making games that you personally would want to play. If you believe that what you are doing is honest, personal and true to yourself, then the inevitable criticisms can’t strip you of your creativity and prevent you from generating more work.
Second, make sure you grow as a creator – do this by experiencing other games and art-forms and understanding the feedback you get from people.
So in short, make games that you like and keep growing by staying honest, listening to feedback, but keeping focused.
Thanks so much. And best of luck with your future endeavors.