This all started with a simple question: What does Sukeban mean? I had no idea and moreover, I had no clue as to why a group of Venezuelan guys would name their video game development studio after it. Two seconds of research on Wikipedia’s gave me an answer that did not disappoint:
Sukeban (スケバン/女番/スケ番) means delinquent girl or boss girl in Japanese, equivalent to the male banchō. A dictionary of Japanese slang says that sukeban only refers to the leader of a girl gang, not any member of the girl gang. The common signifiers of sukeban (described by the Japanese police in 1980s pamphlets as “omens of downfall”) include brightly dyed or permed hair, and modifications of the school uniform such as wearing coloured socks, rolling up the sleeves and lengthening the skirt. Sukeban are reported to engage in activities such as stimulant use, shoplifting, theft, and violence.
Badass right? Sukeban Games chose a fitting name for their game development studio; this is especially true if you consider that their flagship game is a cyberpunk, pixel-art, bartending simulator full of fantastic female characters (and a dog). To truly understand Sukeban Games, it’s perhaps best to just show you their trailer for the popular indie game, VA-11 HALL-A:
The trailer you just saw is what Sukeban Games exhibited this year at the Game Developer Conference (GDC). Feedback was positive and CF is very happy to bring you a brief interview with their team. Take a look below to see what Sukeban has to say about their process, ideas, and execution when it comes to making awesome games.
First, tell us a little about yourself: when did you realize you wanted to become a game developer? Was it something you and your team always knew you wanted to do?
Fernando: I know that for a long time it felt like one of those “Silly kid dreams”, but at some point down the line I just wanted to give shape to these stories inside my head so I tried comics, novels or even oil painting. In college I met Chris right about the time curiosity took the best of me and I tried to find out if there was a way to make games for free, in this case: Visual Novels. I found out about Ren’Py, I found out about Digital: A Love Story on the page front, that made me realize there was a thing called “Indie Games” and that just… started a chain reaction that’s still bursting today.
Michael: Not exactly. At least, I wasn’t aware of it until later. Ever since I was a kid, my greatest passions were videogames and music. Especially videogame and anime music! It actually wasn’t until I was around the age of 22 that I heard the soundtrack for Digital Devil Saga and thought, “What if I could do that?” that I began to practice and write music.
Christopher: Like Fernando and Michael I was not aware of it back when I was a kid making tabletop games. It was really funny, I just sorta made a lot of games so I could enjoy with friends or family but I always thought it was just a fun hobby, nothing serious. During high school I made tons of tabletop RPG’s and even then I wasn’t clear about what I wanted to do in life, then in college I made game for a college event with Fernando and I loved the feel, that’s when I realized this was my dream job.
I will start off by admitting that I know absolutely nothing about the game development scene in Venezuela. Can you tell me what it’s like to work as a game developer there?
Christopher: I’m not surprised you know nothing about the scene around here since we still don’t have a flagship game that truly represents us, and whenever someone appears to take that spot it suddenly disappears. I can think of one studio who managed to get some exposure but nothing followed. Anyway, being a game developer in Venezuela is a strange thing. For a number of years it was mostly programmers in very enclosed communities and never actively trying to have a proper scene, and most programmers around the country always thought they were alone, that they were the only people trying to make games. This changed quite a few years ago thanks to the efforts of very cool people organizing local Game Jams and gatherings. I can say It’s also very friendly and inclusive too, since they’re focusing on non-violence most of the time.
We don’t really feel part of our local scene though, and for a good number of reasons! but I’ll just say we always felt alone in our venture, they were never really there for us since our styles of game development is radically different from each other. They tend to be more conservative and don’t take too many risks, but that is mostly due to difficulties to get a business rolling in Venezuela whilst having a tight currency control and a resistance to embrace popular tools like Game Maker and Unity at a hobbyist level. This is changing everyday, but most developers here feel they have to build their own engines to get anything done, which is ridiculous. I honestly don’t know why is this, maybe they’re cocky? My theory is that because 80% of games people here are usually computer engineers they tend to have a very pragmatic way to approach game development, while here at Sukeban is more of an artistic affair and we are also open to use whatever tool that makes our lives easier. In short, I can say it’s a very healthy community overall, but sometimes too uptight. Can you make a living out of it? Hardly, we don’t have a domestic market for video games and most developers doing it for a living sell their services to people abroad or focus their efforts on doing advertisement games for local companies. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it kills creativity most of the time.
Does your work take any cues from your culture? What is the intersection between Venezuelan culture, anime, and video games?
Christopher: It’s not so much about taking cues from our culture but rather our lifestyle. This is a hard place to live, there’s always a roadblock to achieve your dreams and I think there’s this pattern in our characters and stories in which they’re always in trouble, but they try to keep a smile and go on. VA-11 HALL-A is about a bartender helping people to overcome their problems in a Cyberpunk dystopia, Sales Pitch is about what is suffering today turns into a funny story for the future. There’s a very simple game I did for Ludum Dare called OSHAN, where you are a girl in a quest to find what made humanity happy before the end of the world, and so on. That’s how I see Venezuela’s influence in our games.
I was introduced to your games when I came across Sales Pitch (I loved it). I immediately noticed a very distinct style that was a nostalgic cross between anime and old video games. Is this your trademark style so to speak?
Chris: Yeah you could say that. We grew up watching anime and playing Japanese games in the Playstation and Super Famicom days, they have a very special place in our hearts and we want to make players feel what we felt when playing our favourite titles back then, without having to copy their mechanics or concepts. Our games are all about interaction with characters, we like to build worlds where the player is not there to save it, but to become a part of of it.
Besides your aesthetics, are there any common themes between your various games? Are there particular types of stories that your team likes to tell?
Fernando: We like dramedies, we like to fuse a good dose of drama and comedy in everything we do because we feel it’s something the games industry lacks. You have super serious games, you have super funny games, but nothing is ever in the middle. I can think of very few titles like Metal Gear Solid or Dark Souls that do this, but we go the extra mile and we make a style out of it. You can always expect a laughter in the middle of despair… Which can sum up our experience of living in Venezuela.
It’s pretty clear that female-forward games are integral to your development. Are there ever any negative reactions to having female-only protagonists?
Chris: Maybe it’s because our games don’t have mainstream appeal, or because our average fan is also a fan of Japanese games and animation, but we have seen nothing but praise. Anime fans are especially cool because they’re used to see female characters in central roles all the time, so they feel naturally attracted to our aesthetic and concepts. I rather keep things this way, I always felt that the bigger your audience is the more creative troubles you have. Too many opinions and it’s hard to see one that will truly help your creative process.
Is your team open to collaboration with other, equally sized indie game studios? Or do you prefer to keep game development among yourselves?
Chris: We are open to collaborations and we are actually preparing some really cool crossovers in our upcoming game VA-11 HALL-A, so look forward to it. As for keeping gamedev among ourselves, yeah, I mean, we only seek for guidance when there’s a REALLY messed up problem or when we need feedback. The smaller the team the better we work, it’s less heads to take care of and limitations only allow us to be more creative.
Are there any games currently in development that you can tell us about?
Chris: There’s two projects right now I can talk about, one is obviously Cyberpunk Bartender Action VA-11 HALL-A which has gotten quite a bit of attention! and will soon be available for PC, Linux, Mac, iPad and PS Vita. The other one is Devil’s Journal, a murder mystery adventure game we actually started back when we were in college, but got stupidly big and decided to focus on smaller games because of that. I can’t show you much about it because what’s available now around the internet is terribly outdated. We plan to finish it this year with the help of a secret ally, or at least I hope so! There’s always another games in the pipeline and I think you will really like an upcoming game announcement we’ll probably make around April.
Can you take us through your game development process from start to finish? How do you come up with fresh ideas? How do you sketch them and later bring them to life as a finished piece?
Chris: This is a completely random process, there’s no brainstorming of any kind, I quite literally go to the restroom, take a dump while staring at the roof and let my mind go wild. I guess that’s where the 51 in my handle comes from.
After I get a rough idea of what I want to play, I gather the guys and start pitching my concept, if it sounds exciting for all three then we’ll go along with it. If we’re really really excited about it and the concept is within our current scope and size, we’ll prototype it as fast as we can. If it’s fun, it stays, if it sucks, then we don’t keep working on it. I have a bunch of failed prototypes in my hard drive I should share some time.
About how long do your games normally take to develop? What software do you use to make your games?
Chris: We normally prototype something very fast, if it’s fun or has potential we’ll consider it for a commercial version, and this commercial version has to be done in three to six months, if it takes more than six months we’ll scrap it and start something else or do a quick Game Jam to recharge our batteries. That way we can avoid getting tired of a game, which is the worse thing that can happen in a field like this.
As for software, we use what’s easier for the genre we’ll work with. We focus on story-heavy games, so tools like Ren’Py are the best for us, but with VA-11 that has a bunch of crazy effects and has to export to more platforms we decided to use Game Maker Studio. There’s a project in the works using Unity, and so on. It really depends what engine is the easiest way to prototype within a genre.
Finally – do you have any advice for people who want to get into indie game development?
The best advice I can give is… Finish your video games, if you have an idea go right now, open whatever engine you’re using and just do it, even if it’s just squares moving around. Enter Game Jams so you can know the feel of finishing something, it will become an addiction and soon you’ll be making games all the time, and if you’re serious about this and want to make a living out of it then don’t stop making games. Experience is your most important asset and the sooner you start the better. Another advice I can give is try to stay away from whatever current trend, I’m tired of roguelikes, voxels, first person shooters… be different!
More about Sukeban Games:
- Christopher Ortiz: Artist, Designer
- Michael Kelly: Composer
- Fernando Damas: Writer, Programmer