Boston Local Spotlight: An Interview with Gwen Frey
Gwen Frey is the Boston-local founder of indie studio Chump Squad and co-founder of The Molasses Flood. Her work as a technical artist includes credits on Bioshock Infinite, Marvel Heroes Online, and the recently-released Kine.
The following is reprinted from the original interview at Boston Post Mortem
You’ve had a pretty storied history as a technical animator in a variety of different environments. How has your role in game development changed over the course of your career?
Oh, yeah, it’s changed a ton. When I first started out, I was out in San Francisco and I was working for a venture capital-backed educational MMO company started by John Romero. And from there, I moved on to working on a game called Marvel Heroes Online, also a venture capital-backed startup run by Dave Brevik. He was the president of Blizzard North back in the day, and was famous for a game called Diablo.
I did that for a few years, and then I moved from being a rigger working at those startup companies to working for a very established AAA company out here in Boston, called Irrational Games. That was where I worked on Bioshock infinite, and on the DLC. It was before I had been promoted into a senior role, but I had a lot more creative freedom over a much larger product – a game that was being launched on multiple platforms, on consoles, and so forth.
After Irrational shut down, I co-founded my own company. We kind of bootstrapped it with our own money, called The Molasses Flood – I founded that with Forrest Dowling and four other people, so six of us total. We made a game called The Flame in the Flood that took us, I believe, just over two years. After we wrapped up on production on that, I started pitching different things. Soon I had a prototype I fell in love with, so I decided to leave that company and founded a new one that’s just mine, called Chump Squad. It took me a while to transition off of the Molasses Flood and into Chump Squad, but I officially did that just over a year ago. And now I’m launching Kine, my first title as part of Chump Squad, on October 17.
And were you always a technical animator? Or did the kind of work you were doing change as well?
It changed a lot. Initially, I was a technical animator in my first two roles, but I always took on whatever needed to be done. Sometimes I did tools programming, as well as a lot of other tech art tasks. On Bioshock infinite, I was primarily a technical animator – but you have to keep in mind, that’s a role that encompasses a lot of things. I didn’t do any rigging. I wasn’t working in Maya so much when I was at Irrational; it was mostly in the engine, working in blueprint scripting.
At The Molasses Flood, I was the CFO, and I was only one of six developers. I also did all the animation and tech animation for the game, and a lot of effects. So the rule changes; I generally do whatever I have to do. For Kine, I’m a solo developer, right? Like, I do literally all of it. I’ve programmed it, I designed it, and I’ve founded the company around the business.
For two games in a row now, you’ve had an influential role in founding your studios. And that, of course, gives you a lot of creative direction over the kinds of games that you make. How do you think your background has influenced the types of games that you want to make?
I definitely appreciate well-done animation. When I first started Kine, I was still working at the Molasses Flood, and so I was doing a lot of animation for my day job. In a way it actually pushed me to reach outside of animation. You don’t want to have a day job doing one thing, and then go home and do the same thing. That’s really exhausting.
I think that’s why Kine actually has very little animation, and the characters are cubes, and so forth, so that I didn’t have to get bogged down in animation. In a way, it’s almost the opposite. The fact that I started as an animator made me make a game with very little animation in the end. But I think it’s hard. I think when you’re an artist (or for a lot of roles) especially in AAA, the games you make and the games you play are not necessarily the same.
For instance, there’s loads of artists working on shooters who hate guns, and don’t play shooters. But because for most of the jobs, the industry’s working on first person shooters, you just kind of fall into that role. And you can get really excited about your job within that role, you know – especially at a AAA studio – you can get really excited about hard surface modeling, even if you personally don’t play the games that have a lot of that stuff in it. That’s true for art, and it’s true for a lot of things like programming.
But I find if you’re a designer, and you’re designing a game, you have to design something that you really do play, that you enjoy, and that you understand very thoroughly. At least, that’s how I feel about it. When I started with something like Kine, I’m now in this position where I’m designing a game. I had to start working on strategic games (Kine is a puzzle game), because those tend to be more the games I play.
Could you walk us through a day in the life developing Kine?
So Kine was, for the most part, a solo project. I do it from my office, my home. I have a computer at home, and I just sit down and I make it. I got funded earlier this year, and I used that to hire up some contractors that work remotely for me.
For the most part, I’ve hired freelancers to help out with very specific tasks. I hired Surface Digital to help me approach the environment. About once a week, I had between three to six artists at any given time over the course of six months or so. But that was the only time when I had people directly working for me recently, because Kine is coming out on Google Stadia, as well as all the consoles, and I’m not a programmer.
I did contract Steve Elmore’s company, here locally. So he’s working for me as a contractor to do some of the porting for me. But again, it’s not so much that I have a team that’s working remotely. It’s more that I work from my home on my game, and I hire contractors to help me do the things that I can’t do, or don’t have time to do.
And how did you choose the people you hired?
So the first person I hired as a contractor is named Mitchel Wong. And at the time, I knew I was making a game about these little robots that want to be musicians. It was heavily inspired by La La Land, and I loved the idea of working with an aspiring musician. Mitchel had just graduated – they were first seat trombone in college – and they were really, really into jazz music, and it just felt like fate.
That was the first contract, and later I did the other ones. Surface Digital is a freelance art company out in the U.K. that I’ve worked with in the past, and they have a really good reputation. I hired them to help with up-rezzing the environment art and the UI art. And as far as bringing on Steve Elmore, the two of us have known each other forever (we worked together here in Boston), and I knew he could do the job.
You’ve talked at GDC, and written online, about how to grow an indie studio from scratch. What were some of the lessons that you took away from your work at Molasses Flood when you were founding Chump Squad? And would you change anything for next time?
I don’t know what comes next. I think a lot of it depends on the game you’re making. I think there’s different ways you can approach game development. Some people want to form a studio and then make games that make sense with that studio, and some people prefer what I did for Chump squad, in which I already had a game in mind, and I had exactly what I needed to make that game. I think depending what your motivation is, these strategies can be very different for how you grow your studio. I don’t know exactly what I want to do next, but I like the idea of taking some time to breathe, figuring out what I want to do, and then figuring out a way to plan it, budget it, and bring on a team specifically to make it.
At this moment, that’s the kind of strategy and thinking that would work best. Personally, I strongly believe in hiring freelancers, not necessarily piecemeal; I think a problem with the world today is the gig economy, and hiring up individual contractors who don’t have an office that they can go to for work benefits. I don’t like contributing to that.
But what I do like is hiring up companies that have a collection of freelancers. For instance, I hired one company of effects artists out in Seattle, and they have an office, and they can all go to lunch together, have 401Ks, and health benefits, and so forth. It’s really nice to go to them say, “hey, I need an effects artist for two weeks, can you make that happen?” and they will.
I prefer hiring people out of staffing companies like this for very niche, important jobs, because I feel like that’s a much more sustainable way for this industry to grow and to continue. I do feel like a lot of how game development works is that you have a small team that comes up with the initial idea for a game, and probably that same team is going to be there to close it out.
But you need to almost double or triple in size for the middle part of the game. You need to bring people on, and I dislike the idea of hiring and firing people, obviously. So I had all these thoughts in mind when I started Kine, and I initially intended to make it entirely solo. But once I had money, the first thing I did was I looked for contract houses, and I stepped up through people who are working for me temporarily, but who have full time jobs for their companies. Because I like that the people I work with have benefits, and 401Ks, and things like that. That’s important to me.
What are you playing currently?
Well, I’m finally going back and playing through my backlog. Lately, I’ve gotten really into tactics games, so I went back and I’ve been playing Valkyria Chronicles 4. I’ve always loved Valkyria Chronicles. But other than that, I’ve been really into a bunch of smaller games. I really adored Dicey Dungeons. These kind of smaller, really focused indie games are something that I love. I hope that they succeed, because I think that might be the kind of thing I want to make next.