Siblings Taylor and Becca Bair have been working towards making games since they were kids. What began as simple childhood interest eventually turned into careers. Over the years they have been developing their respective skills in writing, art, and game design through a variety of freelance and personal projects. In April the duo will explore new ground when they release the Kickstarter campaign for their newest tactical RPG, Arcadian Atlas. We sat down with the pair of developers to pick their brains about the industry, freelance work, and what it is like working together as family.
Jesse Tannous: How did you both become interested in game development? Were games, or playing games together a big part of your childhood?
Taylor Bair: We grew up with video games. Rural Texas was our stomping ground, and most things kids grow up with in the city we didn’t really have. A local video rental place kept us supplied with Genesis and SNES games, and we would spend hours after school sinking into the golden era of Mario, Final Fantasy, and Mortal Kombat games.
Much like young people playing Minecraft who move on to make mods for Minecraft today, we just naturally started creating our own games. We would draw concept art, research game creation engines online, and use our sluggish dial-up modem to join online communities of game developers.
In time we developed specialties and learned what we loved in games. Becca was the graphic artist, and I was the storywriter – we felt comfortable there, and while developing games means you wear many hats, that’s what we always came back to.
JT: When and why did you decide to collaborate on Arcadian Atlas? Will you continue to collaborate on projects?
Taylor Bair: Hahaha, I believe it went something like, “Hey Tay, I want to make a game.” That’s all I needed. But in all honesty, Becca and I have worked together since we were kids. Everything from little throwaway game projects, games we entered into competitions, and even drawing. We did just about everything together as children.
We still argue and have differences of opinion of course, but we’ve gotten better at deferring to each other’s strengths the older we’ve gotten as our lives have altered and led us to different places. And I’ve worked with a lot of teams, so I know firsthand how essential it is to learn to let go sometimes. So yes, I think it highly likely we’ll collaborate in the future. We’re family, and what is family if not a sort of collaboration.
Becca Bair: Yep, haha! That’s pretty much how it went down. I knew I wanted to make a game but I also knew I was terrible at a large portion of the game development tasks. When we were younger, Taylor stepped up and started working on my RPG project Genesis when I had left it for dead. He brought life back into Genesis and inspired me to continue working on the game. With him as my game partner we were able to make HUGE strides on the game. We’re talking hours and hours of new content and story added only after Taylor joined me. So it just made sense to team up with him – we knew we worked well together and he had already shown he was a competent game developer.
JT: What has your experience been like as a Freelance 2D and Pixel artist? Do you consider this your full-time career?
Becca: It’s been full of ups & downs – definitely a wild ride. It started as something I did for extra cash in the evenings but after a year of that I had built up enough of a safety net to leave my day job & become a fulltime artist. Starting out I struggled some – it’s more difficult in the indie world to find large art jobs that’ll keep a freelancer in business for several months at a time. Once you get your footing though, it’s a fun and satisfying job to have. I get to make art all day in my home studio. Who could complain?
JT: What are some of your main artistic and game design inspirations?
Becca: I always loved the Chrono Trigger sprite work – large characters full of personality and capable of many actions. Suikoden II’s art also is really charming to me. Tales of Phantasia (the PSX version) has some really nice pixel art. For Arcadian Atlas specifically I was inspired by the Art Nouveau artist Mucha & children’s storybooks to create the watercolor text portrait style.
About a million titles come to mind when thinking up new Arcadian Atlas content: Tactics Ogre, Breath of Fire 3, Star Ocean 2nd Story, Chrono Trigger (of course), Final Fantasy VI & VII, Lunar SSS… I could go on.
JT: How does writing for a video game differ from other types of writing you’ve done in the past?
Taylor: The biggest difference: Writing in video games is only about 25% written. The majority of it is about weaving a story and connecting players to the world they inhabit. It’s counter-intuitive, but the core difference between the interactive games medium and traditional writing is psychological. When you take on the role of a character in a game, something fires in your brain and links you to that character. You take on a piece of them and learn to identify yourself with their situation.
That means to illicit the same emotions that come from a novel, you have to get creative. If you want the player to feel like they’ve lost something valuable, you almost have to handicap them in the game. Your writing reveals something dark in their past the player didn’t realize, or you take away an advantage they had while introducing obstacles that temporarily burden them.
Conversely, if you want the player to like a certain character, you must first make them feel like that character is of benefit to the player – whether they be comic relief, advantageous in a fight, or endearing in some capacity (preferably all three).
You know you’ve done well when the player has a personal dialogue (outside the game, I mean) with the character. Actually talks to the screen, or frets openly about the other character – that’s the goal, as sadistic as it may sound. It isn’t sadistic of course; it’s just honest. We form attachments with characters, and that’s not bad. Our job as video game writers is to deepen those attachments and create believable, honest-to-life characters.
JT: You also write a blog focused on the business of indie game development. What are most common misconceptions you encounter in regards to this subject? What would be your biggest piece of advice for developers interested in breaking into the industry?
Taylor: I think the most common misconception is that it’s the sort of industry you break into, to be honest. Video games, from a business perspective, have no real barrier to entry. You don’t see most indie game developers plunking down massive wads of cash for development tools, and if you ask most developers working on large AAA titles, they didn’t just get discovered out of the blue.
It’s easier to think of the video game industry as one you slowly slither into. Personally, I worked on games for fun as a kid, then got distracted by other things, and stumbled back into game development because I had already developed the skills that matched the line of work.
So my advice would be: if you want to be an artist, make art. If you want to be a writer, write. Try to get a job, even if it isn’t in the games industry which is adjacent to those things. If you can’t, then do them on the side anyway.
I’ve always been a firm believer that if you love something, you’re going to be doing it anyway, even if you aren’t getting paid for it right now. So take the time to develop your skills and distinguish your style. Stay connected to the games industry, even if just through Twitter or on the web. And trust me, the doors will eventually open.
Arcadian Atlas is currently scheduled to hit Kickstarter in early April, with additional details and updates to be announced on the official website.