PAX West 2018 was filled with developers from all walks of life, and unfortunately, I only had time to interview a few of them. Those that I did interview, however, absolutely blew me away with the diversity of their experience and the quality of their art.

Paweł “Panstasz” Koźmiński

The first developer I had a chance to talk to was Paweł “Panstasz” Koźmiński, the developer of World of Horror—which at the time, Ysbryd Games planned to release in 2019. World of Horror rides a fine line between point-and-click adventure and turn-based RPG. Its aesthetic at once reminded me of playing on the family computer after my parents went to bed, finding rusty scissors in the back of the silverware drawer, and unexpectedly catching your leg on a piece of seaweed during a night swim. That is to say: both compelling and dreadful in equal measures.

World of Horror has been Panstasz’s from the beginning. In his words, “It’s a one-man project. I’m doing everything. From art, to music, to graphics… I took a break from my job, with the help of Ysbryd games… World of Horror started as a… board/card game. But I was getting too tired to actually create everything and test it. So I thought to myself, well, why don’t I just make a [video] game.”

A screenshot of World of Horror, showing a telescope in the center of a magical circle. Text reads, "The Mad God favors astronomers and magicians, granting them its gift of power that unknowingly brings ATH-VOLAZSTH's bloated body closer and closer to Earth."

Full disclosure, I did break the game by doing exactly what Panstasz told me not to, but he was super chill about it regardless.

Panstasz, a dentist by trade, fit work on World of Horror into the breaks of his full-time job and many late nights. After a successful demo release, he partnered with Ysbryd Games. Work-life balance improved as a result. He said, “I’m working at home, so I’ve got time to do anything I want. Contact with my friends is much better. I’m not doing 12-hour shifts at work.”

I hope he sticks with game development even after World of Horror’s release because his aesthetic keeps me excited like a call from the void.

Ska Studios

The second group of developers I met with was the “two-person, two-cat team” Ska Studios. Unfortunately, the feline staff wasn’t available for interview, but human duo Michelle and James Sylva were fantastic to talk to all the same. When I spoke to them at PAX, they had just finished the Nintendo Switch port of Salt and Sanctuary and were preparing for its physical release.

Michelle and James split developmental responsibilities, with James focusing on programming, art, and animation and Michelle working on art, production, and publication.

A screenshot of Salt and Sanctuary, showing a large, dark beast holding the protagonist threateningly.

Salt and Sanctuary is a 2D action platformer with a focus on precise controls and dramatic moments.

I asked the two about their workload leading up to the release, and Michelle said “We get up in the morning, drink coffee, start slow, but we pretty much get right into work for the day. Our workday’s pretty long.” According to James it usually ends up between nine and ten hours a day, with crunch periods leading up to release dates and important deadlines.

To find reprieve Michelle said, “We try to make sure that we get a little bit of exercise during the day, because we are sitting at home on our computers all day long,” and that they start playing online games as their friends get home.

It was clear to me that the act of making games was a labor of love. When Michelle was describing the feeling of seeing her game on a physical shelf for the first time, I couldn’t help but want to go out and buy it myself. When I asked the two what their dream job was, James simply said, “I’m doing it.”

Question Games

Next I talked to Question Games, the team behind The Magic Circle and the upcoming The Blackout Club (a game about kids sneaking around their labyrinthine and cultish town). Question is a squad of six former AAA developers who decided to bring their polish and focus to their own projects. When I spoke with Steven Alexander, “the art guy,” about The Blackout Club, he described the game in-depth and allowed me to demo both the co-op and single-player gameplay.

A screenshot of The Blackout Club, showing a yellow silhouette of a humanoid figure against a swirling red background.

Alexander was most proud of his work on The Shape, one of the game’s antagonists.

Work on The Blackout Club started after Question finished The Magic Circle, which Alexander described as a palate cleanser after AAA development. The Magic Circle follows a glitch in a game trapped in development hell. The glitch finishes the ideas of a once-famous developer crushed by the pressure of his fan base. It’s easy to see how that could be a cathartic experience for newly minted indie developers.

With The Blackout Club, Alexander said “we knew we wanted to make something that we were into but the rest of the world would be into too.” With team members credited with games like BioShock, Dishonored, Eldritch, and Thief: Deadly Shadows, it’s clear that their past experience fed into their current project. The Blackout Club was polished in a way that felt like a big-budget title. Familiar mechanics behaved exactly as I expected them to, which let me really focus on some of the terrifying innovations the team snuck in.

Chumpette Visual

The last team I got to talk to was Chumpette Visual, a group of five students at the Academy of Interactive Entertainment. The game they were showcasing, Love.exe, packed a hell of a lot of heart into its small package.

A screenshot of Love.exe, showing a white-haired character looking frustrated and leaning against a seat. A character named Yuuki says, "What are you doing at my table?"

I spoke with Randall Hines and Ava Beyers, both of whom were excited to put what they’ve been learning into practice. Together, they outlined the difficulties their team faced coordinating and producing their first game.

Beyers said that from the beginning, “we wanted to make sure that everybody was on the same page, that everybody had the same idea and concept.” That’s no small task on the best of terms, but Chumpette Visual somehow fit Love.exe’s creation—engine and all—between class projects, jobs, and their individual lives.

I hope they find the time to produce further projects so that I can watch them hone their craft.

The one thing that every one of these studios had in common was a love for what they were doing. Making games is a passion—one often taken advantage of to create projects of a gargantuan scale. These days I rarely have time to play the newest 100-hour epic, so I’m glad to see smaller teams are producing work every bit as good.