I have to start this one with an editors note. This interview is all Kimberly but I was really looking forward to it because I’ve actually lived some of this. I used to manage an arcade 🙂 For 3 years I ran a Namco Cybertainment arcade in Salt Lake City, UT. It was 3 of the most fun years of my life! My favorite part? Repairing and maintaining pinball machines! The way they work when tuned up is so great. The fine balance of getting the rubber to just the right point of bouncy and sticky, how hard a bumper kicked to either put your ball close to the gutter or close to the ramp. Good times, good times! I even organized tournaments, got prizes from sponsors and had radio broadcasting live from the arcade! I remember one of the prizes that was vigorously competed over was a pair of Doc Martens. I think in this game I’m Naomi 🙂 OK, Brian out.
Arcade Spirits will bring you back to a time when neon was the “it” color. You met your friends at the mall for pizza and you spent every hard earned quarter from your babysitting/lawn mowing money at the arcade.
I never quite learned the button combinations for jabbing, kicking, and flipping but found myself quite the master at delivering the K.O. just by enthusiastically slamming on controls.
Arcade Spirits not only makes me nostalgic for playing these games; the dynamic of working at the arcade brings me back to that job I had when babysitting money stopped cutting it. Remember how much fun it was making minimum wage cleaning up after booger sodden little kids? Remember navigating relationships with co-workers for the first time? Dealing with the regulars? And that eccentric boss?
Read on to hear Stefan Gagne’s and Aenne Schumann’s own recollections of those experiences as well as Behind the Scenes info on how Arcade Spirits was made.
What is Arcade Spirits about?
Stefan: Arcade Spirits is a romantic comedy narrative game, set in the distant future year 20XX — an alternate timeline where the arcade industry never crashed in the eighties and continues to this day. You play as a down-on-their-luck twentysomething, recently hired by a little mom ‘n pop arcade, trying to find your way through life… and maybe finding romance along the way.
How does the player score points?
Stefan: There’s two kind of points we track. First there’s your personality, measured whenever you choose a response that’s Quirky, Steady, Kindly, Gutsy, or Basically. Some characters prefer one personality trait over another, and will respond accordingly… because you also earn relationship points with them, which tracks how close you are to each of your friends in the arcade.
Aenne: There is also a numerative high score that the game keeps track of, that you can see as you play and progress. It’s a fun element we wanted to add to Arcade Spirits and, besides, what arcade game doesn’t have a high score? 😉
The game seems to reward you for acts of kindness you show. Was that a life lesson you wanted to get across to players or is it just a happy side effect?
Stefan: Happy side effect, I’d say. What we do is throw situations at the player that they need to resolve… whether they do it through kindness, boldness, logic and reason, or any combination of the above… we leave that up to the player. There’s no “evil” path through the game, unlike other morality systems, but there are a few hidden endings if you choose to abandon your friends in favor of selfish gains.
Aenne: True to life, there are many ways to overcome problems, and depending on how you do that people will react to you differently. And I think that’s the greatest life lesson you can learn, your choices affect not only yourself but those surrounding you.
Players can identify themselves as he, she, or they. Your inclusiveness should be applauded. What prompted you to include it?
Stefan: Two simple words: “Why not?” It’s a trivial add, one that costs next to nothing in terms of game development resources, so why not be inclusive? Why not allow the player to be whoever they want to be? We love freedom of expression through roleplaying and we want players to feel empowered. We’re trying to be as inclusive as possible across a wide spectrum, because our game is meant to offer you as much of that freedom as possible.
Aenne: As someone who is often underrepresented in gaming, finding a game that I feel represented in makes my heart so warm and happy. I wanted to share that feeling with as many people as possible. Plus, like Stefan mention being inclusive is so important to us.
Part of the game focuses on building dating relationships, will certain choices allow for homosexual relationships as well?
Stefan: Yes! Like the pronoun decision, we decided… why not let the player date whoever they want to date? Or date nobody at all. It actually takes MORE work from a game development standpoint to restrict the player from dating specific people based on their identity, so we simply don’t. No matter who you’re interested in, you’ll be able to enter into a relationship with them… provided they like you, of course. If you haven’t become the kind of person at heart that they want to share themselves with, well, that’s on you!
Aenne: I never like when a game restricts you from a romance based on the character you create, and we wanted to make sure everyone could romance anyone they wanted! It’s always a bummer when you can’t romance “sexy elf boy” because you choose to be a dwarf. We want people to enjoy and foster that relationship and feel held back by anything.
Can you explain why you denote years in the timeline with double x’s?
Stefan: It’s a retro video game joke. MegaMan takes place “in the year 20XX.” We didn’t want to specifically date our game as taking place in 2018 or anything like that, so we keep the dates vague with this callback joke.
What elements of the eighties did you employ to give it a sense of nostalgia? And why did you choose to give the game that retro feel?
Stefan: We’re hugely influenced by synthwave and vaporwave, musical styles that originate in 80s and 90s nostalgia. Our aesthetic is a neon-soaked explosion of color, light, and sound. Arcades were hottest back in the 80s, and we want that feel carried forward into the modern day — something that evokes the past while being rooted in the present.
Aenne: Neon, so much neon. Also saying radical a ton. 😉
How many hours did you spend in the arcade growing up?
Stefan: Myself? Quite a few. And not enough. It’s never enough, really, you always want more — and when your parents drag you away because they’re bored and ready to move on, that’s a bummer. But I spent enough hours in those arcades for them to leave an imprint on us forever.
Aenne: Oh gosh, I don’t know if I can count that high. Although I might have not spent as many as Stefan, some of my fondest memories was getting a roll of quarters from my grandparents and being left to play in the arcade for hours. And since going to arcades at a young age, it followed me into teenage years and adulthood. Never not arcades!
What was your favorite arcade Game?
Stefan: Hands down, it’s Q*Bert. Colorful and strange, playfully weird… that isometric pyramid confused the heck out of l’il kiddie Stefan. I had to really work to wrap my head around how it conveyed 3-D in a 2-D space. Honorable mention goes to Roadblasters, because I was too short to work the pedals — I’d sit in my father’s lap while I played, and he pushed down the gas. My dad passed away in recent years, and that’s one of my fondest memories I have of him.
Aenne: Ya’know, people keep asking me this, and it always changes on my mood (much like with any console games too). But I always go back to these three: Sunset Riders (BURY ME WITH MY MONEY), DDR (those 10-foot songs), and Samurai Shodown (started my intense love of fighting games).
Was your dream job ever running an arcade?
Stefan: Honestly? Nah. My dream was to go work for Sierra On-Line or Lucasarts and tell amazing stories through games. It’s taken a few decades… but now I’m doing exactly that, and on my own terms.
Aenne: Never even crossed my mind honestly. I always wanted to work in veterinary medicine (which I currently do), and it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I wanted to do narrative writing for games (which I do now too). Follow your dreams, work hard, it’ll happen.
Does the game title “Fist of Discomfort” refer to how your hands feel after jamming the joysticks and buttons to deliver a K.O.?
Stefan: Nah, it’s meant to be a vaguely dirty joke, because I am 12 at heart.
Aenne: Gross. 😉 Also I have the maturity of a 10 year old boy.
The first dilemma the player encounters is a child’s birthday party. Was that scene inspired by any real life experience working in customer service?
Stefan: I’ve never personally worked customer service, but we’ve run that scene by quite a few people who have. Many of which had horrible flashbacks, confirming everything we did was pretty accurate. I did however put some personal experience into that scene — when debating the finer points of Skeeball vs. Color Cyclone. I earned 1,800 tickets in a single summer way back when, and while I loved Skeeball dearly, sadly that dang cyclone machine paid out way better.
Aenne: Oh boy. The child’s birthday party was basically inspired by my real life encounters, but from the child’s perspective. One scene you can can choose is to help a boy who is getting yelled at by a woman. The adult woman is berated a small boy and accusing him of stealing her son’s tokens. I was that boy. That happened to me when I was six years old and it I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life.
There is another choice to help a girl who had her tickets stolen. That also happened to me at Chuck E. Cheese at my own birthday, I was devastated because I had spent my whole party winning all these tickets to have someone snatch them all away in mere seconds! Heartbroken.
Basically when Stefan and I were storyboarding and needed conflicts for a birthday party I was like “Well, I got a whole bunch of horrible things that happened to me in arcades when I was a kid, how will these do?” So it all worked out.
Please tell us about the different characters in the arcade.
Stefan: We’ve covered a wide range of roles and types of gamers. If you’re into the arcade scene, you’ll undoubtedly find someone you identify with…
Naomi Fairchild is our resident techie. She’s cute as a button and obsessively protective of her babies, all these beautiful old games from the eighties. Although she has some social anxiety, she’s very friendly to people she’s grown to trust… and has a fiery temper when pushed.
Gavin Cooper is the accountant, the one who effectively runs the show. He’s trying to protect everyone’s dreams, but has to worry about the bottom line as well. He’s absolutely sincere, sometimes to the point of blunt honesty.
Ashley Wolf is our cosplayer, who wears the Pinky the Funplex Flamingo mascot outfit and keeps the kiddies happy. She’s a bit of a prankster, but able to get serious when the situation calls for it.
For the gamers, we start with QueenBee, our eSports competitive pro Twitch streamer. She specializes in Fist of Discomfort, a MOBA beat-’em-up, and flies the team colors of L7 Gaming. She’s got pride and knows how to hustle.
Percy represents the retro competitive scorechasing community, the ones trying to hit world records on old games. He plays Mr. Moopy’s Magic Maze, day in, day out. He’s a quiet one… but he has deeply personal reasons for his never-ending quest for the record.
Teo, our dance game expert, manages a small crew of dance aficionados. He’s flirty, he’s friendly, but generally tries to stay out of the spotlight… to the point of refusing any glory offered him.
We all know people like these characters in real life, which of them has your favorite narrative?
Stefan: For me, it’s Percy. At first glance he’s just soft-spoken and kind, perhaps a bit withdrawn from the others. He just stands there all day clearing mazes. But once you dig in, once you learn of his family’s history and the troubles he faces… well, it’s a powerful story.
Aenne: Nuuu, you’re making me choose!? I love them all honestly, but if I have to choose one, Ashley. I put a lot of heart and soul into her and I hope she can inspire others and help others to not feel alone.
How long have you been working on this project?
Stefan: I’d been pondering doing a game like this for years. It was after PAX East 2016, seeing the great offerings in a visual novel reading room booth, that I decided it was time. We’ve been plugging away at it ever since.
Aenne: So just over a year. 🙂
What would you say is the most interesting aspect of your game?
Stefan: I love how much choice it offers you. Many visual novels go for an hour or more before offering you any choice whatsoever… and then it’s only a vague choice, one which will shuffle you down one path or another, without any hint as to where you’re going. We’re trying to offer tons of little roleplaying moments rather than huge branches, letting the player decide how to respond to the world around them. We also want to make it clear what the consequences will be of your choices, rather than demanding they go read a “route guide” or FAQ or something. The end result is something unlike any other visual novel I’ve ever played, and I love it.
Aenne: Character creation for me. I’ve been playing visual novels for a while and there is one thing I’ve always wanted and that’s to put myself in the main role. So many VN lack that aspect, and we wanted people to be able to make the character they want, whether it’s yourself or someone completely different. We’re so happy we are able to implement this into our game.
Tell us about the team of people working on your game.
Stefan: I’m an independent author with a dozen books on my shelf, as well as a developer of modules for Neverwinter Nights. This isn’t actually my first stand-alone game, though… I made a silly parody called Pong Kombat back in the 90s.
Our artists include: Molly Nemecek, a terrific character artist. Taylor Rose, a Portland Indie Game Squad based background artist. Greg Mirles, a synthwave musician. And Justin Baldwin of Sleep Ninja Games, who did our pixel art.
Aenne: I am a licensed veterinary technician/hospital manager by day, game designer/streamer/cosplayer by night. I have done some contract writing on a couple other games in development but Arcade Spirits is my first baby. Best baby. Radical baby.
How do you hold each other accountable for work getting done?
Stefan: Milestones, milestones, milestones. We have a Patreon, and we try to get one half of a chapter of writing out to them every month. We’ve slipped a few times because game development is wacky, but it has helped us keep a steady pace towards the finish. With a little scheduling with built-in flexibility, we’re going to get it all done without any crunch.
Aenne: Also just having another partner in crime who you look up to and want them to be proud of you is great inspiration for getting work done. I don’t want to let my team down so I work hard.
How do you settle disputes over what a character should say, or what an individual art aspect should look like?
Stefan: Knife fights. But seriously, we haven’t had too many huge blow-ups or disagreements; my attitude is that adding other perspectives into the mix can only be a good thing. If someone has an idea they feel passionate about, I’m willing to hear them out. In the end, the work is improved by having everyone contributing, balancing between compromise and going in unexpected directions.
Aenne: Woah, did I miss all the knife fights? I want in on the next one! 😉
We all see things differently and it’s about listening to the other person, and coming to an agreement and what’s going to be best for the game. Both of us are adults and respect each other, and poor Stefan knows I can be quite stubborn. But I, too, agree that we’ve been on the same page for most things and haven’t really had that many disagreements.
Stefan has been a joy to work with and is the first person I’ve worked with that I think really listens to me and my input. And that feels damn good.
Did you go to school for what you’re doing and/or how did you learn to do what you do?
Stefan: I took a few creative writing classes in high school and college, but they were pretty useless. The sort of places where a critique consisted of “I liked it, but I’d change this and this and this and this and make it completely different.” I’m mostly self-taught for writing… but my training as a webmaster has given me the basic skills to develop branding, user interfaces, things like that.
Aenne: Nope. I think I took like one or two creative writing classes in school, but those amounted to nothing. I went to college for veterinary medicine. 🙂
I have always always loved writing and telling stories. There isn’t a time I remember not writing, from making stories in Storybook Weaver on my old MAC as a child, to writing incredulous amounts of mary-sue fanfiction for my friends and myself in high school, to world building form Dungeon & Dragons campaigns as an adult. If I’m not writing, I’m not me.
So, I guess just always practicing, always reading, always being inspired by the things around you.
What have been the steps you’ve taken to get to where you are in your career?
Stefan: Write a bunch of anime fanfic, then a few original novels, then poke around in game mods, then a bunch more novels maybe two dozen people have read, then this. It’s been a weird and wandering path.
Aenne: For me, it started with a little website called Press2Reset. My friends and I wanted the chance to go to PAX for free so we started an indie news and review gaming site. We all worked really hard and eventually earned our press passes. When I went to my first couple PAX’s my eyes opened to a world I couldn’t even imagine. It inspired me to go from writing reviews and fun creative editorials to thinking I could legit write narrative for games.
Through meeting new people, making friends, being in the industry, I was able to eventually apply for some contract writing gigs and get hired. And one of those people was Stefan and I’m so glad to have gotten to know him.
It’s taken years of laying a foundation and building upon it with each new thing I do and experience, but it’ll all been worth it.
What has been the biggest challenge in developing your game so far? How have you dealt with it?
Stefan: Being intimidated by the scope of the thing. This is my first ultra-professional project, one where I have to worry about matters of contracts, taxes, publisher arrangements, booth construction, travel, all the trimmings. And of course there’s the scale of the game itself, since we chose not to aim small for our first outing. It’s a lot. And I have no specific solution beyond DO THE THING.
Aenne: Time, time, time. There is never enough time. I work 40-50 hours a week at a veterinary hospital, go to the gym 5-6 times a week, stream on twitch 4-6 hours a week (honestly I make myself stream so I actually have time to play games), and then I spend almost all my free time working on Arcade Spirits, whether it’s actual writing or biz dev stuff.
How do I deal with it? Less sleep and less of a social life.
What methods are you using to evaluate progress during the development phases of your game?
Stefan: Feedback, feedback, feedback. We distribute beta versions to our Patreon backers, and they tell us what they think, what’s broken, what doesn’t ring true. It’s the same process I followed with my novels, releasing them a little bit at a time to backers, and tuning up before releasing to the public.
What kind of feedback have you received and how have you applied it?
Stefan: One player was uncomfortable with seeing flirty options during your first day on the job, feeling it was inappropriate. A simple enough fix; before you start the day, you get the option to focus on the job and not flirt with anyone. Another wasn’t comfortable with a scene later on where you potentially end up crossdressing, and we realized that railroading the player into that scenario went against our “player freedom” pillar — so we wrote an alternate version of the scene for players who wanted to refuse. Lastly, and this was a big one, we shuffled around the kids in the birthday party to avoid an accidentally racially charged scene with a woman screaming at a kid saying he’ll grow up to be a criminal. That wasn’t our intention with the scene, we just wanted her to be unreasonably angry and that alone, so we changed things around by swapping the kids around into different scenes. That way, we didn’t lose any representation. We’re always listening to feedback, always adjusting where we feel we need to adjust things.
Aenne: Couldn’t agree more. We are always here to listen and make our game better.
When and on which platforms will your game be released?
Stefan: PC, Mac, and Linux. We’d love to eventually be on the Switch, but that will depend on our engine being ported to it.
What Dev to Dev advice do you have for other indie game developers?
Stefan: Have a day job. Seriously. Yes, it’ll cut into your development time, but you need some means of funding this thing while also putting calories into your body. Don’t sacrifice your life for your game. If your game takes off with the wings of an eagle and gets to the point where it can replace your day job, okay, but until then don’t feel ashamed to be a worker drone by day, and game development Batman by night.
Aenne: Take a break! Enjoy life! Don’t feel bad about removing yourself from your project for a few days. Self care is important and taking time to recharge is important too. You can work hard, but also play hard. Your projects will be so much better if you have the time to step away and reflect.
Is there any Behind the Scenes information we missed that you’d like to add?
Stefan: I think we’ve covered it all! Thanks so much for this opportunity. It was fun talking with you!
Aenne: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us!
You can find Arcade Spirits at their website:
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