Dabe Alan

The family that’s making a game, and the 16 year-old artist who may never get “good enough”

The family that’s making a game, and the 16 year-old artist who may never get “good enough”

The Stark family made an impression at PAX Australia. Jason Stark has 13 years experience as an art director, his wife Nicole has similar experience as an animator, and they’re working with their daughter, Raven, who is 16 years old. The three of them are doing the bulk of the work on the upcoming title Ninja Pizza Girl. How in the heck do you decide to turn your family into a development studio?

“It’s easy, you just have the local industry completely collapse, and reduce your options,” Jason told me.

Picking up the pieces

The Australian game industry was mostly based on the creation of licensed properties and outsourced work from international studios; the American dollar went far in Australia, making it cost effective for the studios there to create these games. When the currencies reached parity, it was a blood bath. Studios closed down, people lost their jobs, and suddenly everyone had to find their own work.

The indie section of PAX Australia was made up of an industry trying to pick up its own pieces and find a national identity.

“It was a morbid two years, but if we knew what was on the other side of it, we wouldn’t be so sad,” Jason said. “I think it’s great, that collapse is going to drive creativity. We’re seeing new ideas emerge.”

As a side note, you'll have to forgive my familiar use of first names. They're all Starks. It gets confusing in print.

The Stark family has four daughters, and the oldest used to both practice martial arts, and deliver pizza. The title of Ninja Pizza Girl came from the playful nickname the family had given her.

“The most inspirational thing I saw was Papo & Yo, the story of a child dealing with his alcoholic father,” Jason said. “That’s what we want to do, we want to make games about different people and their experiences. So our game is about a 15 year-old teenage girl going through her adolescence. Self-esteem, her struggles with her peers, her family, trying to get a genuine emotional response in there.”

The character art for the game is being created by Raven, the family’s 16 year-old daughter. “I’ve always liked art, and it was cheaper than hiring any other type of artist,” Raven told me. “It was just kind of…”

“It sounds awful to say,” Jason broke in, laughing, “But it’s perfectly true.”

Raven grew up in a house of artists, with both parents working in the game industry. It’s no wonder that she picked up a few skills, and a desire to make games herself. As for the pay issue?

It may seem like exploitation to ask your daughter to create the art for your game while you work on other aspects of the design, but it’s not like many people draw a salary working on indie games anyway. If anything, this is good practice for future projects with small teams; everyone invests with their time, and you hope the game sells enough to reap the rewards. You have to pick up skills as you go in the indie world, Jason explained. He's since become the game's coder.

“I don't let him do art anymore,” Nicole said with a smile. It also doesn't sound like they had to talk Raven into participating.

“I wanted so badly to get into the gaming industry, this was a great opportunity to learn what the pro world was like,” Raven said. “The first time I did it I sucked and cried a bit, the second time I felt like it was good, and then I still cried a bit. It was great.”

“She’s a proper artist,” Jason said. “I always told her growing up, she said that when she’s good, she’s going to feel good about herself, and I said that no, you’ll never really feel good about yourself.”

“The artists that feel good about themselves? They’re awful, don’t trust them,” he continued with a laugh. 

It’s a harsh truth about creation, but it’s also accurate. Many artists never feel like they’ve “made it,” there is always the sense that past projects could have been done better, and insecurity about future projects. Growth is an ongoing process, and it’s often uncomfortable. A 16-year-old may think there is some magic switch that’s flipped when you’ve gotten “good enough,” but that moment never comes.

This realization ties into the theme of the game: What it’s like for girls growing up and trying to hang onto some form of sanity. Teenager girls can be, and usually are, nasty, mean, and judgmental; there is no guidebook for navigating those waters. Ninja Pizza Girl is a game about a family’s struggles as a small pizza company against larger corporations, and also the girl’s struggle with her peers. There is no health, but self-esteem. You don’t die when you run out; you give up.

The game plays much like the iPad version of Mirror's Edge, as you swipe your finger over the screen to make the character jump, dodge, or slide across the environment to deliver the pizzas. I was able to play for a few minutes, and it's great fun, although it's clearly designed for a more casual audience. They're testing the game with five year-old girls as well  as 50-year-old women to make sure that anyone can pick it up and play.

While playing Ninja Pizza Girl, I ran into a situation where the man on the other side of the door wasn't… well, fully dressed. In the game, the character throws the pizza away and tells him the following rule: No pants? No pizza. This was based on a real story told by their pizza delivering daughter. It's also something of a do-over, since in reality, she just gave the man his pizza.

“She didn’t throw the pizza, and she didn’t say 'no pants, no pizza,' but she always says she wished she did,” Jason explained. “This isn’t a male power fantasy, it’s kind of a teenage girl power fantasy. It’s kind of a joke in the game, but that’s something girls have to deal with; establishing boundaries with other people and telling them when it’s not cool. That’s a very hard thing to do.”

On a very large stage

I stayed to chat for a bit, because I was fascinated by Raven. She's going through the same insecurities and challenges that every writer struggles with, although she's doing so at a much younger age, on a much larger scale. She also seems to think that these feelings of struggle, and the sense of being in over your head, are something that she may grow out of, as if that's just a stage.

I told her that after writing about the industry for ten years, I'm still scared people are going to find out that I don't know what I'm doing. I said that I've known artists and animators who have worked for even longer who still struggle with making their work better. Jason and Nicole nod during this conversation, but it's still a hard lesson, and you never stop learning it. Anyone who does anything creative struggles with these feelings, and it always feels like you're struggling alone.

The family forwards me a collection of Raven's work after the show, and it's good work for anyone's first game, much less a teenager.

Ninja Pizza Girl is a growing process for Jason and Nicole as well. While they have decades of experience between them, it was in shipping licensed games, working with much larger teams. This is a game that they created, as a family, with characters and designs that they own. “It's something we've always wanted to do,” Nicole said. The rest of the family nodded.

The game is around a year away from being finished, but it's already enjoyable, and the art an animation look wonderful. I do say one thing on my way out of the booth though: At 16, Raven is definitely in the industry now.