Interview by: Steve Zachmann, contributor
Jay Margalus of Lunar Giant studios was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his evening to chat with me about gaming, Chicago, and our growing scene here. From what I gathered, there is a lot of interesting things happening here in our city, and a lot more in the hopper. I’ll let Jay explain for himself though.
First off, Cubs or Sox?
[I breathed a sigh of relief at that point.]
What’s your backstory with the gaming industry?
About 5 or 6 years ago I was on track to go into law school, and I was working at a law firm downtown and I quit my job. It was a very big firm, we served lots of big clients and we had offices all around the country. So it was a good job but I quit it because everybody there seemed to be working really long hours and they didn’t seem to be really happy. So I started my own web and software company right after that, that was my transition. I finally had a bunch of time on my hands, I wasn’t traveling downtown, I was working out of my home, and I didn’t have a ton of clients; I had a good amount, but I had time. I contacted some of my friends; there was this other movement happening now, it was just emerging back then, the hacker-space movement. Think of tinkerers, people using 3d printers and CNC machines and just making really cool shit in their garages and hacker-spaces which are places where tons of people get together and build that kind of stuff. And so, through my friends I met some other people who were interested in starting a hacker-space, and we did that. That’s called Workshop 88 and that’s in Glen Ellyn. I’m no longer deeply involved in [Workshop 88] but I co-founded it with some of my friends and I found out that they ran a game company. I’d been programming since I was thirteen. I didn’t go to college for programming, I have no formal background in it. When I found out they were making games, they had just released one, and it was going to be on Steam eventually, which is this huge online publisher, I was like, ‘Woah, count me in’, if you guys have space. Literally, five minutes later I had a contract in my mailbox to join the company, which is Lunar Giant. So I started out just doing some simple marketing and community management for them. The idea was that I’d take some of the burden off of everybody else in the company, and eventually I took over a lot of our business and accounting, as well as programming, specifically sound programming. So now I basically make sure the lights are on, and I keep everything running, and make sure that we’re expanding enough for the company to be successful.
Did all this happen before or after the release of Delve Deeper?
When I joined Delve Deeper had been released, but had not gotten a lot of attention, but was right on the cusp of getting a lot of attention. A lot of that wasn’t actually me, the guys had gotten some really big breaks right before I joined and then right after I joined I kind of enhanced that a little bit, to help snowball some of the attention that we were getting. You know, as I was new, and we were all new to making games at that time, we could have done a lot better than we did. We made a lot of mistakes, too. But you know, we’re still here, we still make games, we still kept going, so it’s all about learning from those mistakes and moving forward.
How was your experience with putting your game out there on the Steam platform?
That was simple. Valve has made it simpler and simpler, and during that time there was no such thing as Greenlight. We had initially submitted the game and said, ‘Hey, will you guys publish this’, and they said, ‘No’. And then we got featured on Rock Paper Shotgun by one of the guys who founded it. That was a huge break, and after that we got on Destructoid and after that Steam reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, we noticed you have a game, would you like to put it on our platform’, and we said, ‘Ok, absolutely, please!’. That was it basically, after that everything was just technical details. It took maybe three weeks to a month to get everything done.
Switching gears, what are your top 3 favorite games of all time?
Top three games of all time? I have been extolling the virtues of Final Fantasy VII a lot lately, and it’s one of those games that you wonder if you like it because of the nostalgia. I’m afraid to go back to that game, but yeah that would definitely be in my top three games. I’m a strategy fan, I bought the original Starcraft the day it came out, which was like my birthday or the day before my birthday, so I think was about twelve or thirteen. I love, LOVE, Starcraft. And then, it would be between Civilzation II or [Civilization] IV; I’d probably say IV because I can remember it more at this point. I’m a mix of strategy and RPG, anything Final Fantasy will kill me, or Ogre Battle. A game that’s got a good story is very important, or a game that is not completely deterministic. Like, strategy games are very fun to play because everything is based on your input and your skill. I probably could never play Starcraft at this point anymore, but when I did play it, it was interesting.
Our blog is based around the Chicago scene. How do you feel about the scene here, in general?
The other big gaming cities in the country would be Boston, which is big with indies, and that’s largely because of MIT and the schools that they have out there. Then you have Seattle, and that’s largely because of the tech companies that they have out there. A lot of the indies that I’ve met out there, and this isn’t disparaging, but a lot of them have that big studio mentality because there are so many large game companies out there so they shift over to that mentality when they go out on there own. And then you’ve got, to some light extent, San Francisco, and Austin. I can’t say that I’ve met everybody from every place, but in Chicago the indie community is probably what comprises the most exciting portion of our gaming scene right now, and it is probably one of the largest, and it’s not fueled by one university, or by tax breaks like in Austin, or by this huge tech community in general, although it’s growing here. It’s fueled by openness, people’s willingness to share information, talk to each other, and to help each other succeed. Nobody is in competition with anybody here. DePaul, where I teach, is one of the top ten gaming schools in the country right now I believe, and it’s produced so many good games, like Octodad. We’re publishing a game called Tetrapulse, from DePaul. And so, Chicago is really interesting because it’s open; there are so many people trying to make it on their own now, and there are a lot of people succeeding at doing that. I think that’s largely because of the openness. And this all precipitated from EA and Midway either disintegrating completely or shifting to other companies and laying off a ton of their staff. A lot of the people from those companies went on to teach at DePaul or Columbia or Flashpoint, or start their own indie companies. So you’ve got this groundswell of people who are really knowledgeable, who are now the bedrocks of these institutions that are in Chicago, and then you have all these other people who are benefiting from that, carrying the torch, and keeping the spirit of sharing all that knowledge going.
At this point, I interjected a bit about creative commons and the spirit of openness shared by Max Temkin in this speech. Jay’s follow up:
It’s not a money making machine, and it’s not exclusive. It’s not a club. It might appear like that because a lot of times whenever there is any group of people, people have some hesitancy to try to join in. But once you go to an Indie City Games meeting, or a game jam in Chicago, or any one of the other events — game developer night, or game friends, or any of these other events that are happening — you’ll realize that nobody is interested in discouraging you, or kicking you out. What they’re interested in is what you’re working on, what you’re doing. If you have any questions, they’re not going to ask you to sign an NDA, or to worry about anything. They’re going to give you an answer. And that might have a lot to do with our mid-western, blue-collar mentality of getting shit done, and being decent people. That mid-western attitude. That may factor into it, or at least that’s a good analog as to how it does work here.
Given what you just mentioned, do you feel like there are good places for people to go to get involved in the community?
Yeah, Indie City Games meetings are monthly. They’re fantastic. Held at DePaul, typically on the 9th floor of the computer department building in the loop, which is really close for just about anybody to get to because it’s right in the heart of everything. They’re meetings are great. They usually start off with a couple people who have done something really interesting. I think the next meeting has somebody who worked on Kentucky Route Zero, and then second half is just people going around and showing off what they’re working on, and critiquing other people’s work. So that’s really interesting. There are a lot of game jams happening in Chicago. There is one that happened just recently at the Field Museum that I was a judge for. That was really fun. I’m doing another game jam with DePaul soon which is based around hacking game interfaces, building our own controllers and stuff like that, building interfaces and creating games for them. So, game jams are another great place to go. Other than that, there are some lists. I curate a list on Twitter for people involved in the Chicago game scene. That’s what I’d encourage people to do too: get out there in social media and groups and follow those people and interact with them.
Last question. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Yeah, so the conference will be something coming up that we’re working on. That will be my co-teacher at DePaul and I, for one of the classes I invented. We’re working on a conference that hasn’t quite been announced yet, but if you go to diygameconf.com — it might not be called that in the end — that’s a good place to sign up for a mailing list for that. Something else that I’ve been talking about lately is open-source hardware and how open-source hardware will change the way that we play games. That is an assertion I’ve been making long before the Steam controller came out (and is open source). The main idea behind that is that we’ve been interfacing with video games with basically the same devices for the last thirty years, and they influence, largely, how you develop games. But this is part of a much larger thing which is an idea that to make video games now, you don’t have to have a video game background. As video game developers we should be thinking about other things besides making video games, so the hardware we interface with is a good example of that — in a more broad sense, having a liberal arts approach to how you make games. I majored in political science and history and history of ideas in college, philosophy basically. I’m taking aspects of that, and continually learning. Taking aspects of literature and film and all other good forms of art, and the open-source hacker-space movement, and whatever else, and integrating that into the game that you’re making, is something you can do now more than ever. The tools are available for people who aren’t the best programmers, aren’t the best software designers to make games and bring in all these crazy ideas that they have. I think that’s what people are going to be expecting more in the next five or ten years: for good video games to bring in culture, and to contribute to culture. That’s something that I think I’ll be talking about a lot.
Thanks very much for you time Jay.
Yeah, I hope it was interesting, to some extent.