Two former Activision employees from Vicarious Visions, Cat Musgrove and Issam Khalil, formed their own indie game studio in 2012 called Trouble Impact. The studio focuses on creating experimental games for PC and mobile devices, and they just recently released their first mobile title, “Amelia vs The Marathon”. Cat Musgrove was nice enough to do a short interview with Dromble about the studio’s background, her experience at Activision, and her skills as an animator.
You worked as an animator at Vicarious Visions (Activision company) between 2007 through 2012. Can you talk about your experiences working there? Any good memories?
I got my start at VV and I learned a lot working there. When I started, I was surprised at the amount of creative freedom I had as an animator. Since I had also been considering working in film, where things seem pretty controlled from the top down, I was really happy that I was given a lot of room to create character personalities when they didn’t have any, or come up with animations that I thought would work. For example, designers would say “we need a quick attack and a slow attack with a lot of buildup” and then we might talk about some ideas, but I generally had a lot of room to make the motion myself. Coming in as a student, it felt like a lot of room to create (as you’ll read later, it eventually felt constraining – but at the start it was good.
Besides the work itself, it’s wonderful to work with so many smart, motivated people. I think my favorite memories are of brainstorming sessions – especially towards the start of projects when things are less defined.
You have participated in many Game Jams. Do you have any favorite games that you created for them?
I think Crush was our most interesting jam game. I had come up with the basic concept much earlier (so maybe that’s technically cheating??), but it fit perfectly with the Global Game Jam theme of the sound of a beating heart.
When I first came up with the idea, I had just ended a really long relationship, and I was experiencing a crush for the first time in a while. I was really struck by the way I seemed to physically freak out when my crush was nearby – dry mouth, pounding heart – so I had a concept based around this. Closer to the jam itself, I had started having some non-crush-related anxiety issues. Most notably I had experienced some small panic attacks, and one larger one where I had Issam drive me to the ER. When we heard the Global Game Jam theme, it seemed like it would be interesting to explore the idea of a panic attack, and we used the frame of attempting to approach a crush. I thought if we worked to break down the components of a panic attack, it might help me a little when I experienced them.
What made you decide to open your own studio called Trouble Impact?
I actually went to college to become an animator or visual effects artist for feature film – I didn’t play very many games (although my brother did, so I always paid some attention to them), and I hadn’t considered a career
in games. In my senior year of college I took a course called “Games and Society” which opened my eyes to this weird, young medium that had only just begun to figure itself out. Games just seemed so much more exciting than film in terms of unexplored potential, and perhaps a greater ability to connect with people – so I wanted to get into the industry. I enjoyed working at a big company for a couple of years, but after a while I thought about what had drawn me into the industry in the first place, and I saw indie games as the real forefront of exploration, so it just made sense to try to move in that direction.
Originally, I applied to a lot of the larger indie studios (10+ people) since my skillset was really concentrated in animation, but at the same time I was doing game jams and doing tutorials/reading textbooks to start learning C#. Throughout all of this, I had a ton of help from my friend Issam, who worked at Vicarious Visions as a programmer. Issam was also planning on leaving, and after awhile, we started talking about starting our own company.
The name Trouble Impact came from the fact that both of us had a tendency to get into trouble on occasion when we worked at VV. We’re both pretty blunt and not particularly interested in playing it safe, so we got into some heated conversations every now and then. The “impact” part just comes from us wanted to have an impact on the industry with the games that we create. It’s not just about making something fun – we want to eventually make something that helps push games forward in a different direction.
Amelia vs The Marathon was your studio’s first commercial release. Did you find creating your first game to be challenging? How many months did it take to develop “Amelia”?
Since we had made so many jam games, our plan was to make something similar in scope and polish it up and release on mobile. Neither of us had worked as designers, so we thought it would be smart to just try to do something quick and get it out there, to start to really develop that skillset.
Of course, what actually ended up happening was that Amelia was much bigger in scope than we had anticipated. The game ended up taking 8 months – but it could have done with some more time and polish in the end. It was very challenging from a motivational standpoint, because it had grown from a jam type of game to a much longer project. The more time you put in, the more pressure you feel to make something cool and different – and our original concept was very simple.
In the end, I think we were able to make something really fun. Despite the cartoony look and feel, it’s a challenging game that requires precision (probably too much precision!), and overall we’re happy with what we
You are currently working on an interesting new project called Color Thief. What can you tell us about that game?
We came up with the initial concept before making Amelia when we were exploring mobile game ideas. The idea was to make an isometric, puzzle stealth game, where you play as a chameleon who is manipulating color to sneak past guards and steal a diamond (hence the name). We made a prototype, and decided that what we’d really like to do is a much bigger, 3rd person platforming game with puzzles where you manipulated the environment, so we decided to make something smaller (Amelia) first.
In Color Thief, you can absorb color through touch, which allows you to change the color of objects and yourself. In the current version of the game, when things don’t have color, they behave like stone – they are heavier, anything with a mechanism like a door or fountain doesn’t work. The story is going to be told entirely though the environment itself (no text or cutscenes) and we want to keep the controls as simple as possible, with no real UI. There’s no combat and you can’t die (it’s surprisingly hard to design puzzles where the player can’t get stuck!). While our target audience is still people that have some background with games, we’d like the game to be as accessible as possible, to potentially draw in some new players. Right now, the idea is that you are exploring abandoned temples that are themed after different color-changing animals (octopi, frogs, etc), and learning about how the world has become so broken down and devoid of color.
We’ve been working on it since January, when we made a prototype for the OUYA Game Jam (we were finalists!), but we’re moving slow, and we’d still definitely consider the game in prototype phase. Level design is entirely new to me, and I’m thrilled that I’m getting to take my time to figure things out as I go. Also Issam has been doing contract work at the same time through most of the year, which has kept our pace slow, but given me lots of opportunities to dig into scripting.
Do you have any advice for those who are interested in becoming indie developers?
I think my main bit of advice is that you should make what you’re interested in, and don’t worry too much about what is or isn’t a “game,” or what will appeal to who. I think there’s a lot of room in games right now for exploration, and people are hungry for new experiences. If you can make something that you think is interesting, other people will probably think it’s interesting as well.
Also, if you are considering taking the leap, don’t be afraid to take your time and learn some of the skills you know you will need on the side. I started to practice design and scripting while I still had a fulltime job,and Issam was learning about business and marketing before leaving. We also both learned to live on a budget while we were receiving much bigger paychecks, so we were already used to thinking about money, which is vital when you are self-employed.