An Interview with Chris Skaggs, Soma Games & Code-Monkeys

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Today we’re going to be taking a look at Soma Games and Code-Monkeys; one indie team working on two fronts with a singular goal of making great games and apps.

Their first title to be released through the ID@Xbox program, G Prime: Into the Rain, is set to be released on Xbox Live for the Xbox One on 6th January, 2016.

Chris Skaggs, founder of both Soma Games and Code-Monkeys managed to spare a few moments of his time to answer some questions so that we may learn more about the man behind the studios, their history and ongoing projects.

We also took the opportunity to gain an insight into how the team’s strong Christian beliefs have influenced their work and how they were received by the gaming community.

This is a colossal and insightful read so stick a hose to the water mains or pick up a drip from your local hospital and relax, you’re going to be here with us for awhile.

Chris Skaggs

What is your first childhood gaming memory?

My buddy Jim got an Atari 2600 for his birthday and a raft of the early Activision games. I remember laying on his living room floor in Running Springs and playing Stampede and Decathlon practically until blood came out of our eyes. We must have been 11 or 12 and I clearly remember how roping cattle was so much better than shoveling several feet of snow.

What is your favourite gaming memory?

For game playing it would be playing Utopia with Cappy. The Intelivision was being sold as a kind of ‘video games for smart kids’ which made us feel pretty cool and Utopia was such a different kind of game that really required planning and strategy. Deciding where and when to place a rebel on his island was a very memorable moment for me. But even more memorable was a particular summer that included a Commodore 64 running Adventure Construction Set (which I still have) and a TI-99. That was the summer that Keith and Clark and I started learning to program in BASIC and made our own text adventure games called Boot Hill.
Playing games was fantastic.
Making games was magical.
Having your friends over to play the game you made…that was transcendent!

Adventure Construction Set (Commodore 64)
“GIVES YOU THE POWER TO BUILD ADVENTURES.”

Do you have a favourite game, if so, what is it and why is it your favourite?

That’s such a difficult question to answer and isn’t the real question about our favorite game today? At the moment I’m fascinated by the titles that really blur the definition of “game” and are more accurately described as “experiences.” That Dragon Cancer is being made by some friends of ours and to make something so raw, so personal and autobiographical…it’s just staggering to think of where this medium has come from and where it’s going.

If I had to pick one all-time-favorite it would have to be Myst which was just a masterpiece. No game before or since so completely captured my imagination and no title has been so influential in my own efforts to understand this craft.

How did you get in to the industry?

Lots of people, myself included want to make video games but the event that actually got us rolling was the economic train wreck around 2008 when my day job as a web developer was drying up and we had a bunch of programming talent with no projects. “Let’s make a video game – how hard can it be?” Necessity being the mother of invention and all that.

What inspired you to create video games?

It’s a personal question and difficult to answer without sounding pretty woo-woo but ‘inspiration’ really is the right word in my case. There was a day in 2005 when this whole idea for Soma Games, the name, the games, the logo, it all just sort of downloaded into my mind all at once. It’s hard to describe how it feels to find a fully formed thought in your mind that doesn’t seem like your own but that’s what it was like for me. You might say that’s inspiration but in my circle we say that’s a “calling.” – I know…weird right?

What is your favourite console/platform of all time and why?

It’s tempting to think of my early and formative experiences with the Atari 2600 or NES and think they’re my favorite platform but that’d be inaccurate. In the end my favorite platform is still the desktop PC because of the limitless variety and flexibility. Consoles are fantastic in many ways (and I lean heavily towards the Xbox in that regard) but they are locked in time by definition. But desktops constantly evolve, constantly grow and there are many valid options there that simply can’t exist on any other platform.

Do you have any advice you’d like to share with would-be/indie developers?

Without question, the Indie scene is about persistence and commitment. Like all creative spaces there is no truer rule than unrewarded talent and unsung genius. Soma Games has a bit of the Cinderella story to it where we spent a lot of years toiling away in obscurity, honing our skills, practicing and learning. Launching on Xbox and getting selected for the ID@Xbox program is like we finally get our chance to play in the big leagues and that only happened because we kept at it year after year after year. Keep practicing, keep improving, keep building.

Code-Monkeys & Soma Games

What challenges did you face in setting up Code-Monkeys?

Honestly Code-Monkeys was easy. I started around 2000 where web was exploding and you could get a job just by spelling HTML. We were early adopters of Cold-Fusion and people just threw work at us as fast as we could code. I was self-taught so everything was code-as-you-go and I had no idea how to run a business. It was always two steps forward and one step back but we learned by trial and error and were never afraid to try something new. The experience of Code-Monkeys built a team of extremely broad and unorthodox coders which can be both blessing and curse…but overall it’s become a real strength where we’re comfortable on the bleeding edge and not afraid to do new things…or to fail trying.

You must have faced very different challenges in setting up Soma Games – was it easier having the Code-Monkey’s foundation behind you?

Absolutely! The existing Code-Monkeys business was a huge benefit to Soma Games. For one thing it provided a funding source. For many years Soma Games basically lived off of whatever surplus in time and money Code-Monkeys provided. We’d build projects for clients until there was a little something in the bank then we’d work on a Soma project as if it were another client. In the end though Code-Monkeys and Soma Games have always been two sides of the same coin.

You describe Soma Games as ‘a group of Christians making games’ but Soma Games was formed on the back of ‘God’s Nudge’. From what we can tell, Code-Monkeys was never directly influenced by your faith – was that the reason for setting up Soma Games, to give you more flexibility to create more religiously inspired stories/games?

It’s probably not accurate to say Code-Monkeys is somehow insulated from our faith. Unless you’re a total spoof, your faith – whatever that is – is a deep part of who you are as a person. So Code-Monkeys, at a business level, is just as influenced by faith as Soma Games because we’re the same people. As a result we’ve declined certain projects that we felt crossed an ethical line but to be honest that’s been exceptionally rare. But you are correct at a product level of course. Code-Monkeys builds software of all kinds and an app isn’t likely to be any more “Christian” than a sandwich or a toilet. With Soma Games, on the other hand, being upfront and candid about who we are is part of Soma’s DNA but only as a point of context. With Code-Monkeys our faith isn’t germane to our work or our customers, but with Soma it is.

In setting up Soma Games – which obviously has a very Christian-centric appearance – have you faced any difficulties with the gaming community? Has it been harder to market your games because of your faith?

You know we expected there to be issues but in reality it’s been the opposite and actually a benefit. Of course you always have a few trolls but overall our faith and our openness about it has drawn far more positive attention than negative. I think that’s partly because we try really hard to walk the line between being frank about who we are without ever crossing the line to saying ‘and you should be like us.’

There’s an old joke in the church that says, “What do Christians and non-Christians have in common? They both hate evangelists.” The reality is that nobody likes to be preached at – nobody. It’s been our plan to stay clear of that since day one. We are making mainstream games for mainstream gamers and we just happen to be Christians. Taking that line has meant there’s something unique about us – which is always good for publicity – without ever sticking us in the ‘Christian Game’ bin which as a genre has had a pretty difficult history.

In the history of both Code-Monkeys and Soma Games, was there ever a point that you almost gave in? If so, what kept you going?

Of course! That whole line about perseverance would seem pretty thin if we never had any adversity. For us, those crisis moments have come in two flavors. The first is plain ol’ economics. We’ve gone through several economic cycles since 2000 and when money gets tight and folks have to get laid off it can be soul crushing. The worst one was in 2011/12 where we were just a hair from shutting the whole thing down. Layoffs, debt, lots of hurt feelings and bruised relationships – it was dreadful. But it was also the strongest catalyst to get our heads on straight and our business practices properly oriented. Not only did we survive that one but it was the direct cause of many big-picture structural changes that included G Prime and going after Redwall.
The other kind of existential threat is just the artist’s dilemma – what if nobody likes (or buys) this thing we’ve poured our hearts into? We’ve been very encouraged by the fact that our work has consistently been critically praised for the things we really worked on like art, sound, story and music. So we’ve always known that our audience likes what we create but we’ve yet to have a real market success. So while lagging sales never really made us want to quit, it does take the wind out of your sails for a while and those moments make you vulnerable to a kind of self-sabotage.

The Soma Games logo is accompanied by the text “Terribiliter Magnificasti Me Mirabilia” which appears to be an extract from a Latin psalm which translates to “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made”. Could you tell us a little about its significance and the ultimate decision to add it to the Soma Games logo?

Wow – good eye. There are several things going on in the company name and the logo but I’ll try to keep it brief. At the most practical level the statement reflects our internal commitment to the craft and construction of our work. I hate to say it but too many Christians feel justified to put out shoddy work as if their “good intentions” make up for slapdashery. We’re not perfect, our games have bugs (just like all games) but we’re committed to mastering our craft and making a quality product. At a more philosophical level it’s a statement about essential human dignity. I think we can sometimes think too much about original sin and too little about original glory…but I reckon that’s a bit off topic.

What are you working next?

We still have some polishing to do on G Prime, mostly for PC users, a handful of features we couldn’t squeeze into the Jan 6 Xbox launch, plus some work on the nascent ARG aspect of the game and its sequels but really we’ll be putting the pedal down on Redwall: The Warrior Reborn. Redwall has been in the critical pre-production mode for a good long time but it’s the right season now to really dive in and start chugging out regular updates.

What features will be absent from the Xbox version at launch – any plans to implement them at a later date?

The feature we’ve seen the most requests for is a camera view that allows the player to see the level from a distance to better orient themselves in flight. We’re playing with both a camera position toggle like you see in racing games or possibly a screen-in-screen mini-map implementation. That’s the only significant “feature” that is on the immediate drawing board. Other to-do items would fall under content, like a whole bunch of additional VO for accent and commentary. And we’ll be jumping on those updates right away.

The gaming industry has a fractious history with mainstream media – sometimes being accused of going too far or being too violent – as a gamer and a Christian of strong faith, has the gaming industry ever challenged that faith? If so, is that part of why you create video games – to change that in your own way?

I think the mainstream media, especially TV, generally live and breathe drama and controversy. As a result, they manufacture that stuff with “did you hear what he said about your mom” types of questions. They’re designed to make people react defensively and start fights. I think it’s exactly that penchant for provocation and titillation that has cost them so much credibility in the last few decades. That said, while we’ve had the occasional troll trying to get us to make some doctrinal statement that will be taken out of context and paint us as Bible-thumping bigots or hayseed Hillbillies we’ve just generally ignored them.
As for changing the industry, if we were ever able to do that it would be in this way: to give people permission and inspiration to make and play games that they really love. We’ve had a lot of folks come to us and say something like “I am so glad that Soma Games exists. Just the fact that you did this, that you’re still doing it, makes me feel like I can do it too.” I don’t mind saying that this isn’t the effect we expected to have, but it’s definitely the way things have played out and at the end of the day that would feel like time well spent and a worthwhile contribution.

When can we expect the next chapter in The Soma Story?

That’s a great question and honestly I hadn’t thought about it. But you know, this Xbox launch feels like a chapter break for us, so I suppose it’s about time…

G Prime: Into The Rain & Arc

Thinking specifically about the puzzle aspect of the game and the Victorian/steampunk theme – where did the concept originally come from for G Prime: Into the Rain?

When Soma Games consisted of nothing but ideas on paper we had a game idea called ARC. It’s a fast-paced, multi-player game where a big ship has to be piloted through treacherous space. Think about a B-17 where somebody is flying, another is navigating, others are fighting off the attacking fighter planes. You all have to do your job or nobody gets home. We still intend to make that game but it was way too big for a first time effort so we thought up this series of three prequels that got increasingly complex. The gravity simulation underneath G Prime was a way to tackle the bigger systems one bit at a time. I was also inspired by a little Flash game called Spaced Penguin that is really the closest ancestor of G Prime in both core mechanic and gameplay.
As for the art style, we really wanted to make a visual distinction between the pretty but dirty creations of mankind and the sweeping natural lustre of the scenery. It’s a deliberate contrast between the effortless beauty of creation and the flawed attempts at beauty from us. The steampunk look really fit that for the interior spaces but we hope folks don’t focus too much there and miss the bigger picture we’re painting.

Was it always the plan for the story to take heavy inspiration from ‘Noah’s Ark’ or did it happen organically?

I think the key word is ‘heavily.’ At first it was just a jumping off spot that included a convenient and familiar background story. ARC was, of course, a play on ‘Ark’ but at first it didn’t go much deeper than that. But as we started digging in, we found so much rich material to work with and as a writer I just couldn’t help myself. Two pages of dialogue became ten and the current script is almost 50…all for a little puzzle game. So the answer to your question was that it was very organic, almost accidental, and it just keeps on going. I think the sweetest spot for any artists is when they get into a space where it doesn’t feel like creating, it feels like discovery.

In the videos where you talk about G Prime, you hint at being able to make your own decisions about who you’re working for – how are those choices made? Is there a dialogue system for example?

In G Prime you decide what corporation to work for right up front. It’s largely about what buff best matches your play style and each company offers you something a little different in terms of equipment and rewards. So it’s not unlike choosing Human/Elf/Dwarf in an RPG game or a weapon load-out in a shooter. The choice is fairly straightforward and comes with little context.
Earlier, I mentioned a nascent ARG aspect to the game which is where corporate affiliation will start to be more meaningful as we go forward. In G Prime, as we start to collect play data, the game will change the ‘signing bonus’ offered to new players. Corps that are underpopulated start to offer more to join their ranks while the overstaffed ones start to offer less. On the other hand, the corps who collect the highest scoring players are offering better level bonuses. All of this feeds into your career pay which at first is just a way to keep score, but in the sequels, this is the money that you’ll use to buy upgrades and better ships and hire better crew. We will also start to reveal the various motives and personalities inside each corporation with opportunities for corporate espionage, headhunting, and special mini-missions.
So in G Prime – who you work for is largely just a preference choice, but as we progress it gets much more interesting and important.

What challenges did you face in developing and marketing G Prime: Into the Rain?

Almost all of our previous experience was on mobile games so the biggest challenge for G Prime was just the scale of the thing. There were some technical challenges, a lot of new Unity tricks had to be learned, but none of those were terribly daunting. It was really just having so many moving parts, so many assets, so many details to manage.
As for marketing, the truth is, this is the first time we’ve ever really put any effort at all into marketing any of our titles. That sounds so lame to say out loud but it’s the truth. In the past we’ve launched a game and left it to fend for itself like a Spartan child. If it survived and thrived – great! If not…we were already off to the next project. This is the first time we’ve tried to actually sell a game – I’ll have to get back to you to tell you if it worked.

How much changed thanks to the initial ‘soft launch’ of G Prime: Into the Rain?

Surprising little…to me anyway. While we were able to find and fix a few bugs and make a few feature adjustments, the game stood up quite well and feedback was strongly positive. I really owe a debt to Alex Kain (Armello, Space Miner, Dust, Adera…) who gave (and continues to give) us by far the most thoughtful and useful feedback on both design issues and bugs. We met Alex as part of our work on Redwall and his input has been invaluable.

Something else you mentioned in interview videos is how G Prime: Into the Rain will be more of an ‘introduction’ to the story. Does each story stand alone or will players need to buy in to, the comic, for example as well to experience the entire story?

Each story is like a short-story from an anthology – self-contained, set up and complete. So anybody can pick up anywhere along the way. But of course we’ll be rolling out content on a variety of channels and mediums like the comic, mobile companion apps and other places as well. So for the player who wants to get the ‘whole’ story…we expect there will be a lot to collect which is just part of the fun.

F: The Storm Riders

When can we expect ‘F’, the next entry in the series?

Hopefully not as long as we waited between G and G Prime! To be honest a lot of F’s core loop has already been built so we’re not starting from scratch. But with all eyes on Redwall I expect F will need to take a back seat for a while…at least until the fat checks start rolling in and we can hire a bigger crew.

Will ‘F’ be a similar sort of game or will there be different mechanics in play?

F builds on what we started in G. Where “G” stands for gravity, the primary game mechanic, “F” stands for force. Gravity still plays a role but now you add a totally new and often contradictory mechanic to the game. Playing F is a little like playing a 3D version of billiards with a BSG Viper as your cue.

Redwall: The Warrior Reborn

If you’re in a position to, could you tell us more about Redwall? What type of game will it be, for example?

Allow me to remain coy on the specifics here. We’ve described the game as a ‘progressive adventure’ but admittedly that doesn’t tell you much. The matter at hand is really about managing expectations. Until we’re really certain that the game we deliver is both technically solid and actually fun then we want to keep our options open in case we need to pivot. I’d hate to make some promise about some feature only to have to walk it back later when something didn’t work out.
In the same vein, we’ve been trying to let folks know what it will not be. Specifically it will not be Skyrim for mice.

Are you confident that long-term fans of Redwall will be happy with your adaptation?

That’s an excellent question and one we’ve put a lot of research and thought into. What we discovered in talking to lots and lots of fans was that the things they loved about Redwall were really very distinct from what they loved about gaming. There are RPG gamers, shooters, collectors, RTS monsters – everybody’s first answer was something like “[my favorite game] with mice and otters!” But when we’d follow up with a ‘Really?” fans would almost universally say, “…no. Now that you mention it that really wouldn’t work.”
And it’s an exceptionally relevant question because the author was widely quoted as saying there would never be a Redwall video game on account of his feelings about what the medium was capable of and how he felt it was incompatible with the ethic of his work. What’s not widely known was how he changed his mind on that question as video games matured as a medium and things previously impossible started to become tangible realties.
In the end, we decided that it was the spirit and feel of the Redwall books that must remain intact and that was the minimum viable product for the fans. From there, every other game play decision must defer to that notion which took several things off the table. For instance adventure and puzzle mechanics fit the spirit of the books – an FPS did not.
All of that is to say we’ve made a lot of effort to find out what the fans were really looking for in a Redwall game and we discovered that more than anything else they wanted to live there – not just to fight there but to experience the rhythms and heartbeats of the place…so they really felt as if Redwall Abbey was something worth fighting for.
With any luck, and a lot of grace, we’ll be able to deliver that and the fans will tip a pint.

Lastly I would like to give you the opportunity say something or go over anything that I might have missed during the interview?

Only that this launch for us would truly have never happened without the support and engagement of our fans. It can sound almost cliche to say that kind of thing but it’s the rock-bottom truth. The people who have taken the risk and the time to write or call or even visit are the points in time where the insulated heads-down life of writing code suddenly pops up into the sun and we’re made aware that there really are people watching and rooting for us. It’s incredibly refreshing and we can go six months on a single thoughtful compliment. Thank you!

I’d just like to say thank you for your time, it’s been a real pleasure getting to know more about you and your studio. We wish you the best of luck and hope to hear more from you in the future. Keep us posted.

It’s been my honor and may the folks at Soma Games wish you success and glory as 10lb Gamer continues to do what you do.

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David Widdows

Birth Weight: 10lbs

Dave is somewhat of a reclusive creature who predominantly resides in what has come to be known as 'The Man Cave'. Self-proclaimed nemesis to the Sun and its warm embrace, he relies heavily on background radiation and tea for sustenance to fuel his insatiable lust for gaming.

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