When people think of Tasmania, people often reference its beautiful scenery, the Tasmanian Devil, or its historical roots as a port of exile for convicts. It’s a quiet state, one without the big city hustle and bustle that can make you feel like part of the never-ending rat race. Sure it doesn’t have as much going on as Melbourne or Sydney, but that’s part of its charm, and even though I made the move to Melbourne in 2007, I am proud of my Tasmanian heritage. It’s for that reason that this month’s feature is extra special, as it’s the first time we’ve covered a studio based in the Apple Isle, even if it does mean sheathing my sword and putting aside the North versus South rivalry.
Hobart, the state’s capital, is the home of Myriad Games Studio, a development studio hard at work on their debut game Where the Snow Settles – a narrative adventure about loss, growth, and the supernatural coming to PC and Xbox One in 2021. While Where the Snow Settles is the studio’s first major release, it’s not the first game they’ve developed as a team, with the studio’s first two creations developed during game jam sessions.
Games jams are an integral part of the studio’s DNA, with Animation and QA lead Emily Stone, who’s also one of the studio’s founders, revealing that the studio formed after working together at a game jam back in 2015.
“We didn’t have much/any experience in the industry at the time, but committed as a group to learning as much as we could about game dev,” says Emily Stone, who was born and raised in Launceston but moved to Hobart to finish her degree.
Myriad Games Studio at PAX Australia 2018
The team would do this for a few months before officially forming a studio and committing to developing and releasing a game for both PC and console.
Melbourne-born Andrew Mendlik moved to Hobart in 2012 before joining the studio as a technical artist in mid-2018 to help work on Where the Snow Settles’ PAX Australia content. Like Mendlik, Luca Rocchi, the studio’s producer and marketer swapped big city living for the tranquillity of Tassie, making the move from Sydney to Deloraine with his mum in 2001 before moving to Launceston in 2003 where he met Emily and Alisha Stone.
Rocchi explains that his partner, Emily Stone, convinced him to attend a game jam when he was back in the country. “I was living and working in Canada in 2015 when my partner, Emily Stone, started telling me about this game jam she went to and how much fun making a video game was.
“I tagged along to a jam and had a blast, and after a little while we asked ourselves if we wanted to take game development a little more seriously and if we wanted to start developing our own IP outside of jams.”
Initially, the Myriad Games team was comprised of seven people, with six of those ready to take the next step. Rocchi reveals that over the following four years the team would lose a couple of people before settling on a team of five in 2018, the same quintet that makes up the studio now. Rounding out the five is Jeremiah (Jez) Walter, the studio’s lead programmer, with Adam Scott-McGuinness looking after the studio’s audio needs when required.
While the team may have limited industry experience, Alisha Stone (the studio’s now Melbourne-based creative director) explains that attending game jams has given the team experience with a range of different concepts and themes, which is usually involved with learning a new skill.
“We’ve covered a bunch of different things; a game that explores anxiety, a game about cleaning up planets in the nuclear age, a gesture-based mobile game that explores watercolour art styles, and a procedural space shooter.”
Where the Snow Settles
Game jams may be a fun way to test out ideas or concepts, but developing a game from scratch for release on multiple platforms is a whole other kettle of fish. So for a studio working on its first ‘proper’ release, how has the team’s game jam experiences helped with the development of Where the Snow Settles?
“It’s all about setting realistic expectations and keeping the scope simple,” says the game’s director Alisha Stone.
“You can learn the importance of this approach through jams in a safe, contained environment. You’ve got to understand the importance of this when working on longer-term projects – without clear expectations and realistic identifiers for completion you’ll never ship anything.”
The team hasn’t forgotten their game jam roots either, with Alisha Stone explaining that the team “like to spend the time catching up with other jammers, giving feedback, and making small things as we go.”
The studio’s first two releases were developed at game jams. Their first title was Politi-naps, a mobile game that Alisha Stone explains is about “having to pass bills through a chamber of sleepy and totally-fit-for-office cat-politicians.” It released as a free-to-play title on the Google Play Store in April 2016 and is game that Myriad Games Studio is proud of. Unfortunately it is no longer available for download.
Myriad’s second game was developed in just 48 hours during a weekend game jam. Titled Interstellar Smackdown 3, the game features local co-op and focuses on the theme of destruction, tasking players with destroying a colonising mothership by flinging planets at it. Interstellar Smackdown 3 released in September 2017 and is available for free on itch.io.
The studio’s website states that it was born out of a love for powerful narratives, with Alisha Stone referencing games such as The Last of Us, Dragon Age, as well as smaller titles like Florence and Mutazione. Hearing this it’s not surprising that the studio wanted to craft its own touching narrative experience. When it came to the pitch for Where the Snow Settles, Emily Stone says that instead of choosing between a number of ideas, the team chose to “hook onto a core feeling and evolve the core concept from there.”
“Even considering from where it is now to where it began, just this game itself has gone through some dramatic transformations along the way,” continues her sister Alisha. “We have played with the idea of more characters, scenes, and incorporating voice acting – but in an effort to keep things within our skillset and scope we have had to focus on chopping a lot of ideas.”
We love the idea of engaging with different perspectives and unique stories, and we are all inspired by the people in our lives that we cross paths with along the way
– Alisha Stone, Creative Director
Despite still being in its infancy, Myriad Games has showcased a desire to experiment with a range of ideas and themes, and it’s something that resonates with the studio’s name, which derives from all the different experiences that make up who we are according to Alisha Stone.
“We love the idea of engaging with different perspectives and unique stories, and we are all inspired by the people in our lives that we cross paths with along the way,” she says.
“When you think about the different experiences that make up who we are it is mind-boggling how many little stories and interactions contribute to our sense of self. This is where the term ‘myriad’ comes in – we are all full of small experiences and we want to start exploring those where we can.”
From the outside, you’d assume that Myriad Games Studio is like any other indie studio, and while that’s true in a lot of ways such as their passion for video games, the studio’s scope is much smaller given it is only a part-time venture.
That’s not to say that the studio is any less important to the Australian gaming landscape, but it helps people temper their expectations for Where the Snow Settles. I’ll admit, when I first played the title at PAX Aus 2018 I wasn’t aware that the team was only part-time, so I went into my recent hands-on preview expecting a little more than what I got, only to discover after that the team was part-time, which meant I had to re-evaluate my expectations somewhat.
“Making a game is a long difficult process, made even longer by part-time development,” says Rocchi.
The team has considered going full-time, but operating on a part-time basis is the perfect balance between game development and other activities or employment for some the members of Myriad Games Studio, while for others it’s the unfortunate reality of a lack in financial resources.
“I used to like the idea of working full-time in game development,” says Emily Stone, who goes on to say that two days is more than enough for her. “After doing this briefly for six months a couple of years ago I realised it wasn’t for me – game development is HARD and emotionally exhausting!”
“I love my full-time work as a Digital Producer,” says Alisha Stone, who says that working part-time allows her to enjoy both the games and agency worlds without worrying about financial obligations.
“As the web industry is typically more stable, I can pay my bills with that but still maintain the luxury of making things I want to make – without being at the behest of a publisher or larger company. We can take more risks that way.”
Mendlik says he would love for his position to be full-time, but admits that as an indie studio getting to the stage where they could afford to go full-time is difficult.
This backbench would probably be more effective than the one we have meow
With the studio only working on projects part-time, time is a valuable commodity. The team get together every second Wednesday to catch up and track progress, but outside of that everyone has their own schedule they work to.
Both Emily Stone and Mendlik allocate Friday and Saturday to work on the project, with Emily Stone saying she will do they odd weeknight here and there when she is feeling motivated. Alisha Stone puts in a full day shift on the weekend and like her namesake she will do work on a weeknight when possible. Rocchi works every Sunday, but the nature of his role means that he is often responding to emails and taking calls during traditional business hours.
So when they’re not working for Myriad Games Studio how do the team members earn a crust?
Alisha Stone departed Tasmania earlier this year to experience a new culture in Melbourne and explore new career opportunities as a digital producer, a job she thoroughly enjoys.
“I love the fast-paced agency life,” she says. “My day-to-day involves consulting on digital strategy, extracting and refining ideas, and delivering a range of engaging digital solutions along the way.” Whereas Alisha’s sister Emily is a project manager four days a week, with Myriad Games allowing her a change of pace and a creative outlet.
Emily Stone reveals that she worked with the Hobart-based The Machine QA in 2017–18. It was her first paid gig in the industry, and while she admits she learnt a lot about the day-to-day workings of a studio, ultimately she reverted back to her current job for financial stability.
The Stone sisters aren’t the only ones whose primary occupations lie outside of video games with Rocchi working as a site engineer for Hutchinson Builders while dabbling in project management and contracts administration. However, since 2019 the former Delorainian has been the chair of the Tasmanian Game Markers community, where he helps “guide our community into the faces of the national, and international, game development communities.”
Mendlik is the only member who spreads his workload across two studios, also plying his trade at another local studio, Giant Margarita, where he has done contract work on their 2019 Nintendo Switch release Squidgies Takeover and is now assisting on Party Poppers, the latest game in their Party franchise.
On three say Tas Game Makers!
As part-time developers, one of the biggest hurdles that Myriad Games has faced is funding. Over the past few years the studio has received ongoing support from Screen Tasmania, which has allowed the team to hire talent when it needs to fill a void, make the journey across the Bass Strait to attend PAX Australia and more.
Alisha Stone tells me that the team are incredibly grateful for Screen Tasmania’s support, which has not only been financial.
“They have been amazingly perceptive and responsive to our feedback, as well as the feedback from the Tasmanian game making community,” she says. “Without their support, we would likely not be able to consider releasing a game like this to the market.”
PAX Australia 2018 was a landmark event for Myriad Games Studio, with the team showing off Where the Snow Settles for the first time, which is where yours truly first discovered the game and the studio. But not only did it expose the studio and its game to a…myriad…of gamers, it also helped them ink a deal with Xbox to bring Where the Snow Settles to the platform.
“That year, Xbox was making a push to get indie developers onto their platform, so we were able to open up conversations with Xbox representatives easily and seamlessly,” says Alisha Stone. “Having a booth at the PAX Aus indie area helped us to put ourselves out there and catch the eyes of the right people.”
One positive that has come from being a part-time studio is that the impacts of COVID-19 have been almost non-existent, which is also a testament to Tasmania’s response to the pandemic.
“We’ve got some Xbox dev equipment that we did have set up in our office at Enterprize that a couple of us have had to take home,” says Mendlik.
“I made a move to Melbourne just as the lockdowns hit, so I guess I would have been communicating via video calls regardless over the past few months,” Alisha Stone continues. “We do miss having regular catch-ups with coffee and cake though!”
Creative Director Alisha Stone chatting with the punters of PAX Australia 2018
Having left Tasmania in 2007 long before writing about games was on the cards, my knowledge of the Tasmanian dev scene is limited. However, the Stone sisters inform me that the scene is “alive and growing,” with a community known as Tasmanian Game Makers carrying the torch for the dev scene in Tasmania, alongside studios such as Giant Margarita, Secret Labs, Smash Attack Studios and Salty Studios.
Tasmania may have a strong community that rallies around and supports one another in the form of Tasmanian Game Makers, and organisations like Screen Tasmania provide studios with resources where he can, however, it’s not lost on members on Myriad Games that the games industry needs more support at a federal level.
“Providing funding to small studios like ours allows us to release games into the market that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” says Alisha Stone, a sentiment that Mendlik shares.
“For the size of the industry, especially how much it’s worth globally, it’s pretty amazing how little support it gets,” he says. “Things seem to be moving in the right direction though with more and more states offering increasing levels of funding, and we’re starting to see things like tax breaks for game studios appearing, which is very heartening.”
While the team’s core is made up of five members, the number of people who have contributed to the studio in some capacity or Where the Snow Settles means that the game has a very long credits list.
“Fingerprints still exist of our early studio members who helped us through the studio’s first few years,” says Rocchi. The studio has worked with several consultants who have helped in many areas whether it be the game’s narrative or the business side of running a studio. Thanks also extend to family and friends who have helped with testing and feedback for Where the Snow Settles, as well as running booths.
When sourcing contractors, the studio tries to work with creatives based in Tassie according to Alisha Stone, who says that the studio doesn’t limit themselves to the game industry. Instead, they will attempt to work with other industries such as film, animation, and digital start-ups to try and learn from different perspectives. Working with consultants and other creatives has not only enhanced the team’s skillset, but Alisha Stone says that the team has made some lifelong friends from along the way.
But where does the team’s passion for games stem from?
Growing up in the 90s, the Stone sisters were huge fans of Nintendo, which they thank their older brother for. Alisha Stone reveals that most of her childhood memories involve sitting down with her sister soaking up new adventures, with Emily Stone saying the sisters shared a mutual love for Nintendo 64 classics such as Mario Kart, Goldeneye, Mario Party, and so on.
For Mendlik, games were a prominent part of his youth, with the technical artist stating that he can’t remember a time where there wasn’t a gaming system in his house.
“I can remember playing Maniac Mansion with my brother on the Commodore 2600, Hero and Pitfall on the Atari 2600.” However, despite being a lifelong fan of video games, at 37, Mendlik is a relatively latecomer to the scene, only making the leap to game development in the past few years.
The amount of work and coordination that goes into making any game is impressive and I’ll always have a great amount of respect for game makers
– Emily Stone, Animation and QA
“At one point while living in Hobart I decided to see what computing-related options there were at the University of Tasmania,” says Mendlik. “I saw they had an Information and Communication Technology degree where you could major in Games and Creative Development. I did a bit of research and with the support of my partner decided to give it a go. I haven’t looked back since.”
Now that they’re on the other side of the screen, what is it about games that they love?
“For me it’s all about storytelling and escapism,” says Alisha Stone. “Nowadays it’s a unique art style or an atmospheric soundtrack that will draw me in, or something where I can build or explore.”
Mendlik says as a player he enjoys “achievable and defined challenges,” that give little feelings of satisfaction and have no real-world consequences to failure. From the development side, it’s the ability to create something from nothing and keep building on it.
“You can have an idea for a game mechanic, or some in-game event, or a visual element, and you go and think about how that might be achieved and look into different ways it could work. It’s very satisfying to see things come together that didn’t exist before.”
Although Myriad Games Studio has yet to ship a major release, the developers have learnt a ton of lessons that will hold them in good stead as they look into the future.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt is that you need to be prepared to say one thing in multiple different ways to ensure that everyone has the same understanding,” says Emily Stone. “People will always bring their unique points of view to their work and we need to be considerate of that.”
“Games are incredibly complex,” adds Alisha Stone. “There are so many different bits and pieces that you must all get working, and then sync them up together just right to create the experience that you’re working towards.
“This takes time – and even more time when you’re making them on the side. This always involves constant re-evaluation; do we want to extend the timeline to do this thing? Or should we cut this idea and streamline it in some way? What are the core elements of this experience that we want to communicate, and what do we have to compromise as a result?”
“It amazes me that any game ships,” continues Emily Stone. “The amount of work and coordination that goes into making any game is impressive and I’ll always have a great amount of respect for game makers.”
Mendlik, on the other hand, has had to learn to accept that sometimes things just take time.
“Occasionally something turns out to be quicker or easier than you expect, but 90% of the time something that sounds relatively simple turns out to be much harder than you thought and therefore takes longer.”
Where the decisions are settled
For all of its stresses, game design can be a massively rewarding endeavour, with teams forming tight-knit bonds that extend well beyond the office. The members of Myriad Games Studio, much like many indie studios, have grown accustomed to working and sharing things, such as coffee or food hangouts. But above all, it’s seeing their work come together that is most exciting.
After several years in development, Where the Snow Settles is on the home straight and is set to release sometime in 2021, meaning it’s all hands on deck for the quintet of Myriad Games Studio. While the studio is looking forward to shipping their first major release, there’s also a welcoming sense of relief, with many of the team excited to put their feet up and enjoy a well-earned break.
No matter how big or small, developing a game from start to finish is an amazing achievement. Myriad Games Studio may only be a small contributor to the games industry at large, but it’s studios like Myriad Games that craft shorter and more powerful experiences that often leave a lasting impact much longer than their runtime, and when Where the Snow Settles launches next year, the team can hold their head high knowing they’ve done little old Tasmania proud.