Kevin Cancienne makes games. He loves dogs. Though he thinks it‘s not a good habit, Kevin is a big fan of something he calls napstorming. And now he answers our questions!
1. How long have you been making games?
I’ve been making games for about 15 years now, depending on when you want to start counting.
Back in 1999, my friend Peter Ginsberg and I made a mod for Half-Life called Science & Industry, and I usually think of that as the point when I started getting serious about making games. Up to that point, I guess it had never occurred to me that making a game was a thing I could actually get away with doing. That feeling has never gone away, really, but I guess it’s improved over the years.
For a lot of my career making games, I had to make games in my spare time and in these strange margins where you might not expect to see games. It’s only in the past few years, with the emergence of the indie scene, that I’ve been starting to think: “Hey, maybe making games that people might play is what I do.”
2. Where do you find ideas for your games? Tell us something about your creative process.
This has been a big question for me over the past couple of years. Before striking out on my own, I worked with an amazing team of people at an independent studio in New York called Area/Code (our most popular game was an iPhone game called Drop7). It was an intensely creative environment, but also one that often approached game design as a form of problem solving. We did lots of work for hire, and clients would come to us with projects and we’d think of some crazy ideas for them, and it was great.
Now that I’m on my own, I’ve had to relearn a lot of how I make games. I don’t have a bunch of smart people to bounce ideas off of. I don’t have a client helpfully breathing down my neck, saying I need to get something done by the deadline. So I’ve frankly struggled a bit trying to find that motivation and that creative energy inside me. I’m still not sure I really have it, and I feel like a failure and a fraud on a regular basis. But I guess that’s part of my creative process.
Long pauses, procrastination, and the corresponding bad feelings about them are also a big part of my creative process, I guess. I’m a big fan of something I call napstorming. A napstorm is just what it sounds like — half napping, half brainstorming. I solve a lot of problems by doing that, but it’s dangerous, because if you do it too much, it’s just a bad habit. You’re just sleeping all the time.
3. Plus Gun is an interesting score-based first-person shooter in which players have to decide whether to generate points or purchase new and better guns. Where did its idea come from? Game is in alpha right now. Any feature you want to add to the game?
Plus Gun is an experimental game I made for the 7DFPS game jam in 2012. It’s the first game I released after striking out on my own, and I thought the 7-day game jam would be a good format to teach myself some new stuff. It’s basically a pretty silly and largely broken idea. It pulls together a few things I find pretty interesting — randomness, trying to do multiple things at once, the arbitrary nature of scores, and first person shooting.
I like first person shooters a lot, but I kind of hate what they’re about — so much glorification of militarization and hyper masculinity and elite carbon fiber and headshots and stuff. So I wanted to make a game about shooting stuff that wasn’t full of explicit violence, and is also kind of about not getting carried away with shooting stuff.
Plus Gun is a game where you earn resources by shooting enemies, who spawn continuously all around you, and then spending those resources to improve your guns, OR spending those resources to improve your score (like you said). So you can play the game for half an hour and blow up all kinds of stuff, but if you forgot to pull our your Point Gun and generate some points, you wind up with a score of 0 points, when you finally die. So next time you play and you do generate some points, but you maybe go overboard and don’t have enough resources to buy some better guns when more enemies show up, so you die really quickly.
I just kind of thought that was a funny idea. I like game mechanics that pull players in two directions at once. Of course in Plus Gun I also asked players to do all of that in real time; there’s no pause button so you’re opening menus and buying guns and trying to remember to generate some points all while tons of goofy polygonal enemies are closing in all around you and… it’s really too much and it’s definitely not for everyone, but it was a fun experiment.
And that’s where I think I’m going to leave it. Plus Gun will be in alpha forever, with all my silly broken ideas just where I left them.
4. You’ve described Dog Park as a fighting game without the fighting, a local multiplayer dog’em up. Just wow. Where did its idea come from? Do you like simulators? Which ones are your favourites?
I was lucky enough to get a commission for this year’s No Quarter show at NYU. It’s an amazing yearly event that presents new games in a gallery setting and has been a really great place to see new local multiplayer games. So I knew I had to make _something_, and I also kind of knew it should be a multiplayer game.
I had actually just seen this article about why game developers love cats and I thought — “Hey, what about dogs?” I’d had this idea for a game about a dog for a while, but I didn’t think it was going to work. Suddenly it all came together and I knew I had to make a multiplayer dog wrestling game for No Quarter.
I’ve spent a lot of time watching dogs playing and it’s been a source of fascination and happiness for years. So the subject matter felt really natural to me. But as a game designer, I find the dynamics of how dogs play together really interesting. Dogs are expert players. Dog play is made of all these ritualized moments of violence and dominance, but when it’s healthy play, it doesn’t cross the line into real violence. Dogs are really good at regulating their play. Playing and playing well is this really deep instinct for dogs, and I thought it would be interesting to try to pull some of that into a game for humans. Healthy dog play isn’t about defeating a bunch of opponents — it’s about having fun above all, while simulating all these really dark and dangerous real-life situations and working out social relationships.
So the pretentious idea at the heart of Dog Park is to make a game that has all kinds awesome “fighting” in it that’s not about defeating your enemies. It’s about how we work together, by pretending to fight each other, by competing with each other, to create enjoyment for each other. In other words, it’s about trying to turn my players into dogs, for a few minutes at a time.
I haven’t played Goat Simulator or any of the other “be an animal” kind of games that have come out recently. It’s interesting that there does seem to be this trend emerging. I hope that Dog Park can carve out its own unique spot within there.
5. Art direction in Dog Park is really great (low poly and amazingly fluid animations? Sign me in!) Do you recognise any influence from other artists? Which artists working on games do you like the most?
I’m glad you like it! Producing art is not something that comes very naturally for me. For most of my career as a game developer, I’ve been more of the programmer-guy, or the game-design-programmer-guy. As I was describing above, I’ve kind of been on this journey for self-sufficiency. When I started working by myself a couple of years ago, I was committed to figuring out how I could create games without any outside help. So I had to teach myself a bunch of new skills, and art and animation were part of that. The low poly style is something that appeals to me visually and is in the sweet spot of where my visual art skills and what looks good to me kind of overlap.
I think just about everyone working in a low poly style today owes a certain debt to Timothy Reynolds, who created a bunch of really beautiful and really influential low poly 3D illustrations a couple years ago. And going back quite a way, the style developed by the folks at NetBabyWorld was really far ahead of its time. And Devine Lu Linvega‘s cel shaded, low poly, frenetic spider tank third person shooter Waiting For Horus was also a big inspiration when I was trying to figure out an art style I could work in.
6. Dog Park got lots of attention from players and press around the world. I remember seeing those amazing vines everywhere. Why Vine? Any favourite dev to follow on Vine?
I’m afraid my use of Vine is completely pragmatic and self-serving. I was making slow but steady progress on my game, and as I started to see these little moments come together, I wanted to share them. At the time, getting animated gifs to embed and display nicely on Twitter seemed kind of hard, but Vine worked just fine. So I started pulling out my phone and shooting little animated bits right off my screen. I’m glad some people liked them, but I’m not a big Vine user otherwise, and I don’t really follow anybody on there.
7. Kill Screen Daily, Business Insider, Daily Mail… and the list goes on and on. How are you coping with all the hype Dog Park is generating? But more important, when can we play the game? (We have lots of chasing and running in our to-do list!)
I’ve been incredibly lucky and I’m happy so many people seem to like what I’m working on. It’s a strange time to be a person who makes video game things. Individuals and small teams don’t have the huge piles of money that it would take to buy tv commercials and put up billboards and things to get people to hear about their stuff. But for whatever reason, at this point in history, we have this huge hype machine ready to pick up stories and spread them around the internet for us. Most of the time that works out pretty well, and it’s a nice symbiotic relationship. I guess hype scares me a little bit, so I’m trying not to take any of it too seriously.
The first time anyone in the world will be able to play Dog Park is at No Quarter in New York City on September 19, 2014. After that, I’m going to try to take it to some other festivals and events, because I’m really designing it as a party game that’s best played in person with a bunch of other people around. Dog Park is actually only one piece of a larger, dog-related project, however, and when I’m done with this piece I’m going to start figuring out how to get all of it out to people who can’t come out to these events.
8. If you have to choose three and only three game developers to follow their work closely, which ones would you choose and why?
This is just an impossible question for me to answer. I’m lucky enough to live in New York City and be surrounded by many, many brilliant, talented game developers. I just can’t pick only three, even if I stuck only to people within a 10 mile radius, because I’d be sure to leave someone out, and then I’d have no one to drink beers with.
9. Are you a heavy gamer? What games are you playing now?
I guess this is finally my chance to give the answer you always see game devs give to this question: When I’m working hard on a project I have trouble keeping up with new games. In general, though, I guess I tend to “go deep” on games and spend a lot of time playing the same game, trying (and usually failing) to get good at it. In the past, that’s typically been some kind of multiplayer first person shooter — until recently, I played lots and lots of TF2, and then I briefly got back into Counter-Strike a little while ago.
There are two games I currently play on a daily basis: Ascension for iOS and Vlambeer‘s Nuclear Throne. They’re both games that make me incredibly angry and I love them completely. Ascension gives me my multiplayer fix. I usually have a few games going with some other game dev types. My friend Noah Sasso, who made Bara Bari Ball, is my biggest rival. My wife will tell you that I regularly scream in anger about getting “Sasso’ed” again.
Steam tells me that I currently have 148 hours in Nuclear Throne. I use Nuclear Throne like some people use cigarettes. I play Nuclear Throne when I’m stressed out and need to relax. I play Nuclear Throne when I’m bored and need to feel excited. I very, very often play Nuclear Throne when I’m stuck on a hard problem with my work and need to shut my brain off for a little while. And then I play some more Nuclear Throne later as a reward for finishing a chunk of work.
10. One last random question. If you could have anything you like attached to your chin, what would it be and why?
This was a hard question, and the answer actually came to me during one of my napstorms, as described above. I was lying on my bed at an awkward angle and my chin kind of hurt and my mind was drifting and I was thinking about this ridiculous question. And it occurred to me that, since napstorming is such a big part of how I work, it would be nice to have a small, self-inflating pillow attached to my chin so that I could nap comfortably anywhere, at any time.