A Band of Our Own
By Nicole Pacampara
On a searing hot day in July, I trekked over to the Junction, a neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end, to find Axon Interactive. Started in 2010 by Tabby and Jeff Rose, the studio is housed in an unassuming red-bricked building once home to a rubber factory. Intrigued by the “brick-and-beam” vibe of the place, the loft-styled office has been the studio’s home since 2014. In the midst of developing their first game, Quench, I spent the afternoon chatting with Tabby and Jeff about the meandering path that led them to the game.
For the both of them, the path to Quench was an unlikely one. First meeting as undergraduate students at the University of Guelph, making videogames was far from their minds. Tabby was pursuing a biomedical science degree in hopes of going to medical school while Jeff was in an engineering program that was “somewhere in between electrical, computer, and software engineering.”
As Tabby neared the end of her studies, she suffered a setback. “I wasn’t good enough for med school,” she recalls in dismay. Uncertain of her future, she was faced with a major decision: keep going or shift to something else. She took the plunge and shifted gears, taking another year (and a minor) in Fine Arts. That fruitful decision would eventually land her in a Masters program in Biomedical Illustration at the University of Toronto. It was here where she got pulled into the world of new media and educational games. While art had always been a mainstay in her life (though she never practised professionally), her studies showed her the potential of information visualization: more specifically using art as a teaching tool.
While Jeff worked as a software test engineer on (seemingly) exciting projects like fighter jets and subway signalling systems, Tabby became more and more involved in new media projects. After graduating in 2010, she started working as an application developer at the Toronto General Hospital creating applications like the Virtual Interactive Case System, a virtual patient simulator designed to teach medical students of critical reasoning skills.
With this burgeoning interest, the early seeds of Axon Interactive (then known as Axon Digital Arts) started to take its root. Freelance work grew as Tabby took on web development and e-learning projects for clients mainly in the healthcare and educational industry (something Axon Interactive still does to this day).
At around the same time, Jeff recalls becoming disillusioned working at big companies. He yearned to “work on smaller things, where [he could have] more of an impact, and see the value of [his] work at the end of the day.” When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, jobs became unstable which made the idea of working full-time on their own studio more palatable. “I knew I wanted to start my own studio with Jeff. Anything new media,” says Tabby of that time. “I wanted my own company and knew that was a good long-term goal.”
The idea for Quench was born on a rainy day. On a walk home with Jeff, Tabby noticed water streaming down a sidewalk. Entranced, an idea for a water management game seeped into her mind: “I remember seeing the water and thinking I would really like to make a game where the puzzles [involve] switching the flow of the water.”
When TOJam (an annual Toronto-based game jam) rolled around in 2012, the water management idea resurfaced. Working as part of a five-person team, Tabby and Jeff tried to bring the idea to life. Admittedly though, having never done a proper game nor having any experience in game jams, the game turned into a “complete failure.”
“We made it in Flash. It was top-down and 2D. We still had hexspaces, weather powers, animals, and all that. It was roughly the same concept [as the current game now] but it was broken, terrible, and ugly,” recalls Tabby with a laugh.
At that time, Tabby and Jeff had started to immerse themselves within the game development scene in Toronto, volunteering and attending game-related events like TOJam and Gamercamp (a now defunct Toronto-based showcase featuring independent games). A year before in 2011, Jeff also took the plunge and went back to school for a three-year Diploma in Game Programming. All this was done to meet potential collaborators, industry contacts, and set foundations they could build on later.
As their studio matured with enough client work for them to “conceivably do things full-time,” games entered the picture. “That was always the plan to do it 50/50,” says Tabby of balancing client work with making games. As such, when the time came for Jeff’s capstone project (a final project required for his diploma), he didn’t want to do just a portfolio piece but rather a tangible and viable project their studio could continue making. That project would circle back to Quench, the failed game from TOJam.
“It was probably the idea that was the most fully formed,” explains Jeff of the decision to make Quench his capstone project. Since their TOJam prototype, they had playtested ideas on where they could go including fleshing out the setting, the universe, and the story.
“It seemed like a shoe-in,” says Jeff. “[I thought that] I can either sit down and come up with a new concept that hasn’t really been tested or we can try do something with [Quench] which has this cool, non-violent angle that a lot of games [don’t have].”
As Quench was remade and the technical side saw great progress, the (now) distinct visual style was yet to be seen. “We had a tech demo with some little circles that moved around,” recalls Jeff. “If you looked at it, you’d think, ‘What is this, a game about cells?’”
Aiming to have Quench appear on Level Up (an annual showcase featuring student games in Ontario), it gave the team the necessary push to find the game’s distinct style. “The beginning of Quench’s real true art happened in about a one-month period towards the end of that capstone project,” says Jeff.
Before finding the game’s style though, they knew early on (even during the days of TOJam) that they wanted Quench to be hex-based. They also wanted a “low-poly” and “cave-wall aesthetic.” With this in mind, they were thinking about creating a level editor allowing non-programmers to sculpt the in-game terrain and create basic interactions without the need for programming. While planning to build the tool, they stumbled upon Hexels, an existing art tool allowing you to paint in shapes like triangles and hexagons. With Hexels, they realized the style fit what they wanted. This aesthetic was ultimately adapted throughout the whole Quench universe: from character art, cinematic, to the in-game action itself.
Teaming up with the Hexels team, Jeff and another Quench programmer James Zinger ended up creating an importer for Unity (the engine they were using to make the game). Armed with the importer, the team could now create all their maps within Hexels, import them to Unity, and then seeing those maps deconstructed into 3D meshes. “That one-month crunch [including finding that style] transformed the game,” admits Jeff. “It was something that established the direction of where we are right now.”
When you soar high in the skies, rain shall stretch out behind you. When your feet touch the earth, the ground will yawn beneath you. When you beat your wings, great gales will whip past you. And when you cry out, lightning shall strike all around you. — Shaman
This is Quench. You play as the Shepard, guiding a band of animals in their journey to restoring the world. As an avatar of nature, you control the natural elements (from rain, quakes, wind, and lightning), helping ease passage through the lands. Though wielding great power within the world, the game is not about choosing sides nor about good versus evil. Rather, it’s about community, our differences, and ultimately showing understanding.
“The idea behind the story of Quench…it’s not as simple as “love conquers all” but [that] in order to solve really big problems, you need communities to come together,” explains Tabby. In the game, different tribes of animals (with varying strengths and weaknesses) fight over each other. As the Shepard, you are tasked to gather them and find ways to enable them to work together past their differences.
“[The game] is about compassion,” says Tabby pensively, “it’s about forgiveness, and this idea of togetherness in the face of struggle.”
For the team, this message of understanding (heavily influenced by works like Princess Mononoke) even extends to the game’s “villains”. “I really like the idea of a series of people, none of whom are really the villains. They all have motivations that make sense in the context of their own moral code,” says Tabby. “Nobody’s just evil for the sake of it. They’re all trying to protect something or trying to build something. I kind of like that ambiguity to it.”
As a result, they tried to subvert the typical “villain” trope. In the game, while there are enemy-like creatures called “smokebeasts”, the team tried not to project or introduce these creatures as enemies. Wanting to play with player expectations, Jeff explains how they tried to push and provide negative consequences against the immediate prejudice some have against these “ominous”-looking creatures where players may tend to take “potentially violent actions against them.”
“There are better ways for you to deal with your problems than simply slapping them away, even if you have the power to do so,” says Jeff. Tabby adds this choice is the point of the game. As the Shepard, you have “quite a lot of power” and the challenge is choosing how you want to play.
As my conversation with Tabby and Jeff winds down, we shift topics to their own lives as independent game developers. When we play games, all we see is what is in front of us. Yet, hidden underneath the sweeping vistas of these digital worlds lies the very real stories of crippling self-doubts, anxieties, and the difficult choices game makers face on the path to making their games. As an independent studio still dependent on client work, grants, or crowdfunding, Axon Interactive is no different.
“I’m not sure how the game will do when it comes out, I hope it does well. I’m still in a place though where I don’t want to hope too much. [I] plan for it to do well but also plan for it to really not do well because that’s the likelihood,” says Tabby honestly. Grounded in their expectations, Jeff adds that this is just the reality of almost any entertainment product: “You release to a market entirely dependent on what people are interested in, what people like, what’s cool right now, and so many of those other things. If you hit it wrong and nobody notices, well, tough luck.”
The up-and-down nature of this industry is one of the reasons why Tabby and Jeff sought to make Quench together as well as with other collaborators (like their programmer James Zinger and their designer Kristina Neuman among others). “Trying to do this all as an individual, I simply can’t imagine,” says Jeff. “Never mind just the sheer amount of work but [also] the emotional burden of handling the project by yourself would just be so much.”
Around 2012, as Tabby and Jeff were becoming more embedded within the independent game development scene, they saw mental health becoming a pressing issue for the community. Seeing films like Indie Game: The Movie and hearing talks like Alexander Bruce’s own talk on the harrowing experience of making the game Antichamber, they knew these were very real issues that could surface in the “depths of development and after launch.”
“I felt like it was really important for us to [work] with other people [on Quench] so that we’d be able to protect ourselves a little bit from the depression and anxiety that comes from the act of creation,” says Tabby. “I don’t know if it entirely worked, but it is helping.”
Despite the challenges though, the team chugs on because of the positives. One of these include popping up in places they could not have imagined (like showcasing in game festivals such as IndieCade East to PAX). “I had this realization recently about how similar indie [development] is to being in a rock band. You’re touring [a lot to show your game],” says Tabby gleefully. “I dreamt about it but I didn’t expect to be doing it. And…I’m loving it.”