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RoKabium Games on Building a Game from the Ground Up

Looking at the credits for a AAA title can give an idea about how many people it takes to make a video game. With that in mind, it’s easy to think video games require a huge staff and budget to get produced. However, indie games often prove it can take only one or two people to create amazing games.
Rob Donovan and Kat Langwagen are two such people. They founded RoKabium Games and began their project, Something Ate My Alien, simply because they wanted to create it.

“We wanted something to call our own,” Donovan said. “I worked most of my career at huge international companies. When we felt we broke away from that contracting market and had a pause we thought we should try doing something ourselves.”

Kat Langwagen (left) and Rob Donovan (right). The duo dev team and founders of RoKabium Games. (Photo: Courtesy of RoKabium Games)

Something Ate My Alien is RoKabium Games’ first project. Donovan says he had little experience designing games besides a level he made for Portal, but he has been coding his entire career.

Kat Langwagen went to school for a teaching degree but says she was always drawn to artistic projects. First she became interested in digital art after reading about it in 2005.

“I was absolutely blown away with what you could do with art on a computer,” she says. “From that point on I knew I wanted to focus on digital art.”

After she felt confident enough in her abilities as a digital artist, Langwagen began working on videogame assets.

“From there on it just went forward,” she said. “I started picking up more and more work on games and getting a bigger and bigger interest in it. I really enjoyed it.”

After brainstorming some other ideas—including a much larger, 3D sci-fi mmo—RoKabium Games settled on creating Something Ate My Alien, a digging game inspired by games such as Terraria and Spelunky.


Digging up the Dirt on a Digging Game

Along with the more contemporary titles, Something Ate My Alien was also inspired by the retro Boulder Dash series. Langwagen said the decision was largely based on the style of games she liked playing.

Langwagen said she wanted the gameplay of digging for treasure and fighting monsters of the retro game but done in a modern style.  

“For me, digging and finding stuff as you fought through enemies is something I haven’t seen a lot of since Boulder Dash,” she said. “There are a few, and when we found Terraria, I really loved that style. It reminded me of those retro games.”

A look at one of the later levels. Complete with particle and lighting effects. (Photo: Courtesy of RoKabium Games)

The simple execution but super fun gameplay of the digging game is what Langwagen said she really likes.

“It has something to do with the gathering in a 2D-fashion,” she said. “You don’t need anything complicated. The simplicity, I think, is what really attracted us to this style of games.”

Donovan said he thinks he spent about one-thousand hours playing Terraria, which may be the reason he likes digging games.


The Duo on Game Design

Other than a few sound and visual effects, Something Ate My Alien is 100 percent developed by Donovan and Langwagen. “Because he can code and she can do the artwork and assets,” Donovan said.

“We started the project without realizing we could manage to do everything,” he said. “Of course, it would be way easier with more people, but there are other problems with bigger team.”

Donovan described the workload as about 50/50 and Langwagen agreed.

“I think we compliment each other well,” she said. “We have the two major parts of the game sorted. It’s worked really well with just the two of us.”

Something Ate My Alien is developed with the Unity engine. Donovan said they chose it because it was free, downloadable and user friendly.

“[Unity] is probably the reason we’re able to produce the game,” he said. “Although I would like to build my own engine, that would probably add another three or four years to making a game.”

A game engine is the software framework a video game is built around. The engine renders graphics and make the game’s AI work.


Doing All the Art Solo

Coding a game can be complex, and art and asset design is a tough task as well. Langwagen said she loves making art and designing things for the game, but it’s a lot of work.

“I think the most difficult thing about making the art is the scope of it,” she said. “There are so much art and assets in a game.”

Langwagen has worked with a larger studio before. On a team, she said, you get divided into groups and you work on a smaller part. However, doing all the artwork solo for a game from start to finish is a massive challenge.

“It’s not just the tiles in the game,” she said. “It’s also the enemy designs, the logos and promotional stuff. It’s everything that’s seen. There’s such a wide variety of artwork.”

Langwagen said her folder of art and assets has over 6,000 different files.

Even after an asset is created, getting it into the game is also a challenge. Donovan said lighting effects often change the colors and he needs to tweak it to get things looking right.

“The lighting is one of the hardest areas,” he said. “It can be quite frustrating at times getting the lighting exactly right to get the art how Kat wanted the actual colors to be in the game.”

Donovan and Langwagen also spent a lot of time getting the HUD and GUI looking and working well.

The HUD menu in Something Ate My Alien. Designing these things is harder than it seems. (Photo: Courtesy of RoKabium Games)

Art is Langwagen’s passion. She loves painting and drawing and says if you love what you do, it hardly feels like work.

“Doing [this] everyday—no matter what it is—it’s fun,” she said. “I have fun everyday at work. If you’re going to pull off a project like this, you have to have fun.”


The Duo on Being a Two-Person Team

Bigger games have bigger teams so they can be released within a certain time frame—usually under a publisher’s deadline. On the other hand, indie games are worked on at the developer’s discretion.

RoKabium Games and other small indie teams show the secret to creating a great game is the time and dedication put into it.

Something Ate My Alien is a lot more work than Donovan and Langwagen were expecting.

“We were working easily seven days a week,” Donovan said. “From nine in the morning to 11 at night. It’s been a continuous slog for two-and-a-half years.”

Even devoting so much time into the game, it’s a lot of work for just two people to do.

“If you’re going to do a project like this with so few people, you have to be able to work well with each other,” Langwagen said.

The work is divided fairly evenly between the two. Since Donovan does the coding and Langwagen does the artwork, the two stay somewhat segmented and, according to Donovan, the system works well.

“It’s good we don’t interject too much on each other’s side,” he said. “We don’t have too many disagreements because we’re each our own department.”

The two developers said time management is one of the most important things needed to make a video game. With all the time and effort need to create Something Ate My Alien, the thing that drives them forward is seeing people enjoy what they made.

Sometimes, things aren’t going to go well. Langwagen said using social media and promoting the game can be like a roller coaster. They don’t always get the reaction they were hoping for.

“You get days when you get very little feedback and you feel down,” she said. “Then you get very good days and it evens all that out. But we know, as long as we keep doing the work, we will get there.”

Steven Large studied journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He learned to read and write using video games and has been playing them ever since. He loves visual storytelling and talking to people about themselves. Contact him on twitter @steverlarge.

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