There’s a photo that has been in Nick Waanders’ family for over three decades now.
In it, a three-year-old Waanders sits across the kitchen table from his father, the pair of them disassembling Polaroid cameras. In side profile, his dad looks a little bit like a hybrid of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ younger and older selves. Waanders himself, on the other hand, looks like a kid on Christmas morning, and not only because of the hand-knit pullover.
Kneeling on his chair the way three-year-olds are wont to do when they’re so excited they can’t sit still, Waanders is wearing a look of pure amazement. He’s a perfect foil to the focused, determined man sitting across from him — distracted wonderment incarnate, sitting beneath a mop full of blonde hair. More than capturing a moment between Waanders and his father, the picture seems to trap in time the beginning of a young boy’s love affair with technology.
This is a story about that photo.
Well, kind of.
I’m gently rocking side to side in a swivel chair at Slick Entertainment’s compact office space in downtown Vancouver, recording equipment placed on a makeshift table comprised of a short filing cabinet and whiteboard at the centre of the room. The three-man studio, founded by Waanders in 2007, occupies roughly 400 square feet on the second floor of the city’s historic Credit Foncier Building. Concept art and promotional posters line the walls, while tables packed end to end with computer monitors and drawing tablets do little to hide the nests of cables and cords on the floor below. All of it betrays the austere, Edwardian facade passers-by see as they mill along on the street below — a mad scientist’s lab hiding in a bank.
Arguably, I’m here to talk with the team about Slick’s current project, Viking Squad. Before I can do that, however, there’s still that matter of a particularly precocious three-year-old and his camera.
“I’d just take the whole thing apart and go, ‘all right: I’m done!'” recalls Waanders, laughing, of his unguided boyhood obsession with hardware and its inner workings. As an employee of the once-monolithic Polaroid, his dad frequently traveled from the family’s home in Eibergen, Netherlands to work at the company’s headquarters in the United States. In addition to spare cameras, many of them beyond repair, Waanders’ father also brought back enthusiast magazines covering the newly emerging personal computer and home gaming scenes.
With titles like Compute! (with an exclamation mark, naturally), they often contained detailed instructions on how to write your own code. As Waanders got older, they became precious, magical texts; he often spent hours just poring over pages filled with dense, multi-column commands, looking for meaning in impenetrable jargon. Impenetrable, that is, until his family purchased their very own programmable Commodore 64 gaming computer. Suddenly, Compute! wasn’t just a magazine: it was the Rosetta Stone.
“In the back of these magazines, they had computer code that you could type in [to your Commodore 64 directly] … Simon’s Basic I think it was called,” says Waanders, sighing slightly as if preparing for the ridiculousness of what comes next. “And I just typed them all in, line by line – there was like 400 lines – and [of course] it said ‘Syntax Error’ and I had no idea why. And so all of a sudden, it was like immersing myself in this whole other language, where eventually, you start figuring out what it all means.”
Hungry to understand what he had done wrong, he searched for books dedicated solely to the study of Simon’s Basic, his sponge-like kid-brain quickly absorbing anything he could get his hands on. When his dad brought home a PC a couple of years later, he was ready. At the ripe old age of 10, Waanders began making his very own games, playable in glorious green and black monochrome. If reading about code had sparked his imagination, then it suffices to say that successfully writing it – seeing it come to life, however primitively – set his synapses ablaze. The adolescent years that followed are remembered by Waanders largely as a series of upgrades to newer and faster PCs. By the time he was in high school, there was no doubt in his mind: computers were his future.
Unless, of course, they weren’t.
“In the year before [I graduated from high school], I had checked out…different studies that you could do,” explains Waanders. “So I [only] looked at computer science basically, [but] at the time [that] was really, uh…” he pauses, chuckling to himself, considering for a moment how best to put his teenage disappointment into words.
“Think of IBM…I mean IBM, of course, is a huge company that did lots of awesome stuff, but…[at] the open day that they had [for students], I went there and they were talking at length about how cool it was to program…” another pause, before the other shoe drops: “copying machines.” Dismayed at the prospect of going from tinkering to tedium, Waanders set about looking for a discipline where he might feel at home. If nothing else, he knew for certain he wanted to be steeped in technology, to explore how it worked and why. He settled on mechanical engineering.
Then, during the three-month break after high school, when Waanders was at home spelunking through the guts of old computers, destiny came knocking on his door.
Perhaps the best way to describe Jesse Turner is that he’s fast.
The kind of fast where I had to slow down his audio to 0.6 times its original speed while transcribing. The kind of fast where he’d often laugh good-naturedly both before and after a joke, the first time because he’d already arrived at the funny bit in his head. The kind of fast where — ironically, I think I might be getting ahead of myself.
Turner was born around the same time that Nick Waanders was learning how to code, some 7500 kilometers away in the tiny rural town of Salmon Arm, British Columbia (“If you’re taking the Trans-Canada highway, you’re going to blink and you’re going to miss it,” he chides). In a town driven by primary industries like forestry and manufacturing, he was inversely pulled towards the arts, glomming on to drawing from the age of two and whipping up quick doodles that were often mistaken for pictures created by kids much older than he.
Growing up the child of divorced parents, he spent weekends with his dad. Time together only convinced him that he and his father – a mechanically-minded cattle farmer who would spend his days “fixing stuff and building stuff” – couldn’t be any less alike.
“I’m the…worst son,” deadpans Turner self-deprecatingly, followed quickly by a trademark laugh. “My sister got into that. Like, she hunts bears and she has acreage…[but] I was…a city boy born in the country I think.” It’s no wonder, then, that his favorite time of the week was when his mom would hand him a few quarters and let him go down to the arcade.
“I grew up in a couple of small trailer park-like things. I wasn’t the richest kid. So consoles and PCs and the cutting-edge stuff wasn’t really in my field,” reflects Turner. “But, you could go to the arcades with your money. And my mom always said, ‘well you’ve got to make this last!’ That was the…big thing, so she’d give me quarters for the games. And that, to me, was a big deal, because I [thought], ‘I’ve got to get good at these things, because I don’t want to blow through all my money.'” As a child of the 90s, his quarters went to games like Mortal Kombat, X-Men, Golden Axe, and, of course, its sequel Golden Axe II: Revenge of Death Adder.
“It was always big, dumb, monsters and big, dumb moves. [Anything] big and colourful and loud. I definitely was more drawn to that stuff,” says Turner. He never stopped doodling, either, spilling the neon-drenched contents of his head onto paper. All the while, he found himself looking for a way to get the hell out of Dodge. With film school, he found it.
Having taken an interest in getting behind the camera in a few high school film classes, he applied to the now-defunct Victoria Motion Picture School on a lark as graduation loomed. What followed was a tiring 12 months spent navigating the frustrations of Victoria’s independent film scene.
“[It was] really exhausting and you work a lot and it’s not really that rewarding,” remembers Turner. No punchline. “I remember being on sets and…it was very difficult for me. Especially when you’re sitting around a set and there’s, like, 200 people there, and there’s one person doing something, and there’s 199 doing nothing. It just…[drove] me crazy! It just [made] me go insane.” During particularly long days on set, he’d often retreat into his head — back to the arcade.
“Every day I came back home, I’d just be drawing my monsters and my dumb, goofy shit…I became really infatuated with it because of how dull storyboarding for movies was. It was like, ‘talking head, talking head, headshot, headshot.'” He stops for a second and smiles a big, warm smile.
“[Then] I’d go home and draw a T-Rex with lazer arms.”
For Nick Waanders, destiny had a name: Robert Jan Broer.
Broer had just moved to Eibergen as Waanders was finishing high school, and heard there might be another guy who liked messing around with PCs just as much as he did. Being the outgoing type that he was, he did what came naturally to him: he went to Waanders’ house. Together, he thought, they could rally other technophiles in town and start a demo group.
For the uninitiated, being a demo coder is like being the PC equivalent of a Harlem Globetrotter. Often in groups, demo coders compete to show off their programming, art, and music prowess, jamming together to eke the maximum possible wow-factor out of the available technology. To the unwashed masses, a great demo might seem like an odd music video, but to those on the inside? It’s a mind-blowing look at things nobody else has done before.
For Waanders, it was about the furthest thing imaginable from working on copying machines. He was in.
By day, he was the model student, slogging through hyper-specific mechanical engineering fundamentals en route to a Master’s Degree. Outside of class, however, it was a different story: experimenting on pet projects with Broer, and participating in massive “demo parties” that sometimes lasted as long as three days. Galvanized by the release of id Software’s revolutionary followup to Doom, entitled Quake, Waanders even dove deep into cutting edge 3D programming.
At one particular demo party, Broer introduced Waanders to Arnout van der Kamp, a close friend who had started his own small game studio, Digital Infinity. For Waanders’ studies, that was the beginning of the end.
“[Arnout] had this work every once in a while that I’d do for…two weeks during vacation, and he’d pay me for that. And I was like, ‘oh this is great! I can actually make some games and make money with it, and meanwhile I can try and finish my [Master’s Degree] studies,'” says Waanders, clearly referring to some sort of fantasy world. “[But my] grades started dropping because I was programming too much…and I was liking [it] way better as well.”
In Holland, unlike in North America, post-secondary doesn’t appear to be as much of a series of increasingly difficult hoops you have to jump. Rather, students can complete either a Master’s or Bachelor’s degree in the same four year period, with the only difference being the intensity of the material during that time. For Waanders, enamored as he was with programming, the solution was clear.
“I basically stepped back and finished my Bachelor’s degree [instead], which was a little easier and also meant that I had some more spare time to work. [I] actually [did] my graduation project…[with] Digital Infinity. And…eventually once my graduation project was done, I actually moved to other side of Holland and worked there.” During his time at the studio’s headquarters in Haarlem (not to be mistaken for Harlem), Waanders witnessed the team explode from three to fifteen, rising to the rank of lead programmer on an ambitious, fully 3D platformer for Sony’s PlayStation 2 called Knights. Unfortunately, while their university systems may be wildly different, Holland and North America’s game industries have something very much in common: cannibalism.
“There was another company in Haarlem..called Orange Games…and then there was another company [elsewhere] in Amsterdam called Formula Games,” begins Waanders, carefully weaving the twisted web that follows. “Somehow over the years all these three companies merged and became Lost Boys Games…[and] because there [were] three companies that merged together, there were also three game projects.” I’m ever the optimist, but I’ve spoken to enough game developers to know where Waanders was going at this point in his story.
“Some proved more marketable than others, so they basically decided at one point, ‘you know what? We’re going to just do one game, because we can work on three games and never finish [them], or work or one game and finish it.’ And so they cancelled two projects, and mine was one of them.” Lost Boys offered Waanders the chance to stay on and work on the surviving project, but the whole thing felt too Darwinian for him. Half his team had just been laid off, and amidst all the bureaucracy, he was growing restless for a more electric environment. The problem, of course, was that the meat from Holland’s independent game scene had been picked clean from its bones. There wasn’t anywhere else to go.
“I started applying [anywhere else]…I sent [my résumé] out to 20 or 30 companies and I heard back from none…except one.” That company was Relic Entertainment, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. In what amounted to a dream come true, Relic flew him out to tour their offices and take a peek at the project they wanted him for: Homeworld II — the sequel to their massively popular real-time strategy space battle game. The original had been the first of its kind in 3D, and a massive inspiration to Waanders, who immediately agreed to come on board.
Relocating to Canada, the next five years proved to be some of the most important of his life. He became a permanent resident, met his longtime girlfriend Julie, and found himself surrounded with some of the most talented developers, designers, and artists the world over. One of those talents was Jamie Cheng, a programmer who left Relic part way through Waanders time there to start the studio that would become Vancouver indie powerhouse Klei Entertainment. Parting ways, Waanders ruminated on his desire to maybe start his own thing some day, thinking little of it at the time.
Until, in 2007, Cheng gave him a call.
“Hey! How’s it going?”
“Good — you know I’m working away, it’s… it’s good. Being a lead programmer, there’s ups and downs all the time.”
“You’ve worked on an Xbox 360 project, right?”
“Well, I need to find a programmer who can basically make this game for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve got this contract coming in, [and] some people in Toronto are looking for a programmer to help them make this game; didn’t you want to start your own company doing that?”
“Uh…let me think about that!”
The game, as it turns out, was N+, from Toronto studio Metanet Software. It was a souped-up version of their appropriately titled N, a wildly popular platforming game playable in your internet browser, in which you’d guide an adorable ninja sprite around increasingly complex levels grabbing coins and power-ups. It was a hard, focus-intensive project full of nuanced physics. Waanders couldn’t pass it up.
“I thought about it for a little bit, and I was like, ‘yeah, I gotta do this. This is the best chance I have.'” That year, he leveraged the modest savings he had set aside and tendered his resignation with Relic to start his own studio. Batting around ideas for a name, Cheng suggested a tried and true screen name Waanders had used when gaming around the office, dating all the way back to his days in the demo scene.
“Hm,” thought Waanders. “SlickNick?”
Jesse Turner had his Aha! moment when he was fishing in Alaska. Okay, not Alaska. The northern-most part of BC. He just thinks it’s easier to say Alaska since most people don’t know that much about British Columbia.
A year on autopilot in the film scene had been just about as much as Turner could take, so he spent the next year just sort of wandering around, first as a waiter and then casting a line up north with a buddy. For all his attempts to find himself, his biggest revelation was the eventual acceptance that he had known what he wanted to do all along.
“I [thought], ‘you know what? The easiest way to get into games is probably just to go to school,'” says Turner, finishing his recounting of his less-than-Kerouac-quality time on the road. I gotta be honest: a little anticlimactic. But then, everything seems so much clearer looking in from the outside.
Enrolling in a one-year diploma at the Art Institute of Vancouver in 2005, he quickly found that the state of game design education was something of a mess. Though, I like the way he says it much better.
“[It] was this big clusterfuck, and I honestly don’t think you [needed] credentials for that school at all.” The net result was a place still finding its footing, where a ton of passionate, probably unqualified people went to make video games…hopefully. For someone like Turner, who’s essentially just a ball of kinetic energy in a human suit, that was more than acceptable. Conducive, even.
“[For our student project], we made a game and called it Dry Town, and I guess I was like, the…creative force for that game?” says Turner, and hearing him speak, I genuinely believe it’s a question. Honest-to-god interrogative bemusement that anyone would let his uncaged brain take the lead. He continues.
“[So] it was a planet, and “NAZA” crashes, but they were ‘N-A-Z A’ because they’re, like, NASA but Nazi-er.” For a moment I’m tempted to leap across the central table to see if he’s really just three six-year-olds stacked on top of each other. “And so they crashed on this planet, and it’s ‘Old West,’ but they’re all bug people. And you’re this Old West gunslinger, and you’ve got to get rid of all these NAZA dudes, because–” my interviewer senses can’t even predict what’s coming next “–they’re stealing all your liquor to power their ship.” Phew. For a second I thought it wouldn’t make any sense.
And yet, Dry Town was equal parts cacophony and catharsis for Turner. Seeing his self-described “1990s action cartoon” style energize a whole team, he became more committed than ever to embracing it. Almost daily, he started uploading rapid-fire drawings to popular art forum Polycount, filling out a digital sketchbook of concepts — including customized backstories for each character, of course. While praise from his peers was plentiful, though, the industry climate hadn’t quite caught up to Jesse Turner.
“I drew zany goofy cartoony stuff and the industry was not having that. And the ‘indie scene’ was…non existent really, especially in Vancouver. So my first job [out of school] was at Threewave…[and] I’d always just draw during lunch, and then I’d draw at home, and then I’d work on a bench. I wasn’t very good at that, I was just very fast at it…and that’s kind of my approach to everything.” For just a split second, I look confused, and I think Waanders catches it. He steps in.
“When you say working on a bench, you mean 3D modelling a bench?” He’s playing Jesse-to-English translator, helping retroactively form the connective story strands for Turner, who smacks himself on the head, laughing long and hard.
“Yeah! Exactly. That would be so bad. My woodworking teacher kept all my shit to show people what not to do. I was awful.”
It seems Threewave’s speciality was…well, that’s actually kind of hard to pin down. When Turner started, their focus seemed to be aiding big brands in creating outsourced art content for big-name video games. To that end, he was mostly assigned an array of grunt work — as-needed modelling of basic pieces of a game’s environment in order to help the title ship to stores on time. As time went on, however, Threewave seemed to set its sights on becoming a turnkey solution for the multiplayer component of first-person shooter games, pitching companies on the idea of designing their game maps and much more. That didn’t end well.
By 2009, “it just kind of petered out,” with the studio gradually shutting down operations and completing work on a few last projects, its employees quickly making a break for safer waters. Those who knew how to swim, that is.
“It was going down, and I wasn’t really actively looking for other work. I was trying, but no one really wants a mediocre 3D guy who draws dinosaurs with lazers…so it goes down, I can’t find work, and I’m like, ‘well shit. I guess I’ll try this freelance thing,’ which [was] basically snack or famine for about year.” By Turner’s own estimates, he made between ten and eleven thousand dollars in the year after Threewave closed, all while searching in vain for other job possibilities. Then, in October of 2010, a friend approached him with a bizarre opportunity called Anomaly.
Part educational workshop, part eccentric party, Anomaly is the brainchild of local Vancouver art collective CGMovement, whose goal is to build community among the city’s computer graphic artists and enthusiasts. That year, it was being held at the Vancouver Aquarium, where featured artists would live-draw anything that came to mind as attendees mingled and asked questions, all before a series of featured speakers took the stage. Looking back, Turners calls it “artsy” while making exaggerated jazz hands, but at the time? It was a gig.
“I was like, ‘yeah I’ll go, I’ll draw for people, it’ll be fun.’ [Besides], the reason why everyone was going there was because of Craig Mullins,” he says, mentioning the famous digital painter whose video game credits include worldwide phenomenons like the Assassin’s Creed and Halo series. “This guy lives in a loft in Hawaii and he doesn’t wake for anything less than million dollar contracts. He’s an amazing guy. They finally got him to show up, he was going to come and do a talk and it was going to be amazing, so that’s why they [were] having this event, [with] a bunch of little dudes like me around drawing for people.
“So I was basically drawing, and I was just kind of warming up. And this guy comes up to me and he’s like, ‘wow, that’s really good.’ And I turn and I’m like, ‘you’re Craig Mullins!’ And he actually just stopped and watched me.
“I was like, ‘holy shit!’ [and] I…basically said ‘general appreciation of your work statement’ and he kind of sat down and he talked with me…and he [said], ‘man I love what you’re doing, it’s just creative, it’s just energy, it’s just, I really like your energy, I really like how it’s all set. It’s really good stuff, I really like it.’
“And so we had a talk, and I basically talked with him for 40 minutes, which was amazing, and at the end [of it all], he [said], ‘we do okay, right?’ And I’m just nodding…I’m not eating right, I have no money left, I had to borrow money to get out to this thing, and I kind of nodded and said…” he pauses for a second, shrugging in remembrance.
In May of 2010, a couple of Vancouver indie game developers by the names of Alex Vostrov and Jake Birkett started a monthly meetup for other indies, for the purpose of talking shop and uniting a burgeoning community. It became so popular so quickly that they soon branded the event formally as Full Indie, with a yearly summit added into the mix. When Nick Waanders attended the final gathering of the year in December of 2011, however, he was feeling anything but united.
Since having founded Slick almost five years ago, Waanders had successfully shipped N+ for Metanet Software with the help of a contractor, and even brought on a former colleague from Lost Boys Games – Kees Rijnen – to create the art for the studio’s first original title, Scrap Metal. Based on the top-down perspective racers of their youth like Supercars and Death Rally, the game had released in March of 2010 and broken even financially, but had done little else to make a name or cement a future for the company. In fact, Rijnen left seeking other opportunities shortly afterward, leaving Waanders – once again – Slick’s sole employee.
Having just returned from a road trip across the United States with his girlfriend, Waanders had a renewed determination to make the company’s funds last a little longer before closing up shop and resigning to the more solid footing of big studio development. The only problem? He was without an artist. It was then, aimlessly strolling the crowd of other indies, that he saw Jesse Turner furiously doodling a gun-toting cartoon turtle in a Moleskine notebook.
At the time, Turner was working for Nerd Corps Entertainment, doing 2D concept art for locally animated TV series like Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5 and Max Steel — a job he had ironically acquired from a chance meeting he had the very same night he had chatted with Craig Mullins. Even still, bringing someone else’s characters to life felt like a far cry from concocting his own. Lucky, then, that he was just so damn fast.
“I met Jesse at a Full Indie, I think,” says Waanders, reminiscing with Turner. “[And] you were drawing something, and I [thought], ‘hey! This guy can draw [quickly]!’ You were drawing a turtle I think…I think you were drawing a turtle with guns on his back or something! And I [said], ‘hey, we should do something with this!'” Naturally, Turner’s version of the events are a little more colourful.
“I drew it in a Moleskine or something, and we went out for some beers at Steamworks, yeah! And it sounded like a great idea, [but] by the end of the night we were like, ‘this is the greatest idea ever.'” So great was it, in fact, that Turner left Nerd Corps the very next month – in January, 2012 – and became Lead Artist at Slick Entertainment.
If the industry still wasn’t ready for dinosaurs with lasers, then perhaps it could handle turtles with guns attached to their shells.
Building from Turner’s initial sketch, he and Waanders set to work crafting a mobile game called Shellrazer.
Styled as a “tower offense,” the game would task players with — you know what, I think I’ll let Turner take it from here.
“I think [of it as] a big throwback to my childhood, because it’s like an action-figure…it’s like a toy. The way that it looks is that it’s big and it’s loud. The way we came up with it was, I [said], ‘how bout you touch the Turtle’s butt and it runs faster, and you touch its head and it slows down, and you touch the gun on its back and it shoots a bullet!'” Yup. That about falls in line with a Jesse Turner original.
In actuality, players would be able to upgrade the titular turtle with a massive array of weaponry, stack it together, and use it simultaneously to blast down enemies across a swath of levels. Eventually, the game would prove to be a critical darling, seen by review sites as an inventive, original concept that cleverly utilized the ability for Apple devices to accept multiple touches at once during gameplay. Of course, for Slick to break out of its sophomore slump, the thing actually had to make a chunk of change, too. For that, Waanders brought in a ringer.
At the suggestion of the studio’s audio expert and former Relic colleague Jen Lewis, the team brought on local developer Shane Neville to carefully engineer Shellrazer’s levels and upgrades to make players feel challenged and satisfied, while also paying special attention to a premium in-game currency system that was fair while still being potentially lucrative. Despite adding another cook to the kitchen however, the process was positively paradisaical.
“It was kind of a great dynamic because it was literally like: [Shane] would put a bunch of levels together, and then we [said], ‘hey, we kind of need some flying enemies or something?’ And…you’d be on the Skytrain, get the message…” Like a teammate receiving a pass, Turner picks the story up from Waanders.
“Shane [said], ‘we need things that deal with aerial enemies, we need counter-air stuff,’ and I caught it, I think, on the train, and I drew something on my phone, and I e-mailed it. Right after I got the e-mail from Shane, I e-mailed that out to the guys, and Nick had already mechanically built it and put it in the game so it worked, and I sat down and drew it, and it was basically done in no time at all.” The same, in fact, can be said of the game itself. Some eight months after Turner came on board with Slick, Shellrazer launched on Apple’s App Store. The company had found its hit.
Featured by the notoriously picky company as a “New and Noteworthy” selection, the game broke even in just eight days, and showed no signs of slowing from there.
“[In the] first 8 days we broke even. But what’s funny is that I didn’t understand,” says Turner, revving up with a preemptive belly laugh. “Nick kept all the information about how well it was doing, and [shared it with] everybody, right? [But] I didn’t know how to read it properly, so I thought we were doing really poorly. So I get to work and I was super bummed, and Nick’s like, ‘so…what do you think!?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know man…we only made like 11-grand, that’s not enough!’ And he’s like… ‘that’s per day!’ And it just clicked and I’m like ‘…oh!'”
To date, Shellrazer has made approximately $451,000.
With the game out the door, however, Neville – who had worked remotely for the studio – shifted gears back towards his duties as a new dad, at a time when it had become clearer than ever to the team that they needed a full time designer. At first, the duo of Turner and Waanders managed to skate by, filling the next year by building out the Android version of Shellrazer and concocting a few prototypes for future projects. Without the proper input, however, nothing jumped out at them, and they soon began to split the week between studio work and individual freelancing to keep the coffers filled.
By the end of 2013, the guys were itching – both creatively and financially – to get another idea off the ground. Before they could, though, they both agreed that Slick Entertainment needed a full-time designer: someone who could represent the interests of the studio for more than one project at a time.
And wouldn’t you know it, Jesse Turner thought he might have just the guy.
Caley Charchuk got his first video game studio hiring package when he was about 10 years old.
Born in Edmonton, Alberta in 1986, Charchuk moved to White Rock, British Columbia with his family when he was four. He came up at a time when the Commodore 64 and Atari had started to be supplanted in people’s minds by Nintendo’s NES, and later, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES). Gone was the era of primitively drawn basic shapes on a screen, and in its place? Titles like Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros., which oozed character with every pixel.
“I think the characters started really coming out of the games and people started really latching on to them, and I don’t know, I was just kind of caught up in that wave.” Charchuk was sick the day I visited the studio with Turner and Waanders, so he and I are meeting a few days later in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district at Starbucks, just steps away from the city’s famous authentic steam clock — one of the few to still exist. Reviewing the audio transcription later, I’ll find myself blown away by how much he sounds, on tape, like Jesse Eisenberg’s version of Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network.
“I did watch a lot of TV, like Ninja Turtles, and Transformers, I was really into that stuff, but – I don’t know – the game characters grabbed me in a way that the TV characters just didn’t. Probably because I experienced running through Brinstar with Samus [from Super Metroid] instead of just watching it and eating cereal. As a kid that’s a pretty powerful thing, right?”
With an oil painter for a father and a hairstylist for a mother, Charchuk’s fascination with games was embraced from the get-go. He’d often sit for hours constructing “goofy little maps” full of spikes and traps through which a Mario-style character might run. His big break came when he was 10, however, courtesy of a particularly compelling idea for a much-desired sequel.
“I actually have…a document that I wrote when I was younger…it was about what I would do if I were to make Super Mario RPG 2, basically,” begins Charchuk. “So I made this, and…my parents were like, ‘well, EA is a local company,’ so I wrote that up and my parents just thought it was kind of silly, or thought it was fun.
“So I mailed it — letter-mailed to EA back at the time…and they actually got back to me…[and] they sent me a whole hiring package.” Styled as a trip through a fantasy land similar to Wizard of Oz, EA’s animated welcome booklet walked a young Charchuk through the exciting world that awaited him in game development. Perhaps most exciting for him at the time, though? A rare enclosed golden copy of the studio’s FIFA ’97 soccer game.
In any case, the hours probably would have conflicted with his recess breaks at school.
From paper to processors, Charchuk’s love of design grew up with him as he entered high school. No longer confined to using a pencil, he began “modding” games for the PC — using software tools to create modified content from established game worlds that players could access together.
Games like Doom and Duke Nukem 3D were his gateway. In particular, he and his friends often played together on customized maps created for the purpose of free-for-all deathmatches. Entire levels made of secret grates that self-destructed upon use forced the group to battle frenetically until they all fell through the limits of the map, and validated the promise long locked away in games like Super Metroid: you, too, can be a part of these worlds.
From tiny spaces to outer space, Charchuk graduated to designing entire maps in games like Blizzard’s wildly popular galactic strategy title Starcraft, posting them on specialized message boards to minor fanfare. More than just customized layouts, his designs were infused with a real sense of place, allowing players to recruit customized artificial intelligence.
Yet for the most part, he considered his tinkering to be “dinking around,” and hadn’t really considered seriously pursuing game design. In fact, he and a close friend with whom he rode dirt bikes were set on becoming electricians, and had even enrolled in British Columbia Institute for Technology ahead of graduation. That’s when tragedy struck.
“We were just dirt biking like we always had and he had a two-stroke, 1986 Honda dirt bike,” retells Charchuk deliberately, as if a careful enough retelling might undo the events themselves. Every phrase, and word within it is coming more hesitantly now. “It had a really mean power band on it, where basically, if you pull the throttle too fast, the bike just kicks…it goes into a wheelie. So we were actually doing jumps, and he kind of just pulled the throttle a little too much, but I guess he hadn’t put the helmet on right. So he was going at this jump and he kind of…wrong-angled it, and the bike kind of landed on him, and it just…didn’t end well.”
Losing his friend sent Charchuk reeling, and had him seriously reconsidering what he wanted to do with his life. Falling back on the things that brought him comfort, he decided to more seriously pursue game design, enrolling in one of the few local schools that had a program at the time: The Art Institute of Vancouver.
You could argue that the seeds for Charchuk’s hiring at Slick were sewn by a bunch of drunk alien bugs.
Enrolled in the same semester as Jesse Turner, Charchuk took on the role of designer for the group’s student project Dry Town, and a fast friendship soon formed between he and Turner. One day, thought Charchuk, it’d be phenomenal to work together again to bring more absurd characters to life.
Where Turner’s soul-searching had occurred before enrollment, however, Charchuk’s began after graduation. Breaking out on his own, he started a one-man IT outfit, catering mainly to the elderly population in White Rock, fixing “goofy computer” problems for extra cash. Soon enough, being a one-man competitor to Best Buy’s Geek Squad started to show its cracks. With his friend Jesse having just started at Threewave Software – known to Charchuk for their hugely influential modding of Quake with a Capture The Flag mode – he decided to see man about a horse. And a job.
Starting out in the studio’s Quality Assurance and Testing department, Charchuk quickly proved more than adept, snagging a promotion to designer, and steeping himself in code throughout his two-and-a-half years at the company. Where Turner sees Threewave’s demise as a flaccid fizzling out due to bizarre management decisions, Charchuk looks back on the transition more fondly.
“I thought…we could keep struggling or people could just move on. And it’s always difficult for people to move on, you know?” In the background of our chatter, the clock lets loose a half-hourly chime, tourists snapping photos hoping to capture the steam as it wafts upward. “They kind of gave us a little bit of [a] heads up for that. We were kind of just fixing bugs as they came in, but we were also…helping each other find other work.” On that score, Charchuk has been exceptionally fortunate.
Over the last five years, he has spent his time awash in Vancouver’s often-unstable AAA development scene, working for larger companies like Ubisoft, Slant Six, and, most recently, Microsoft subsidiary Black Tusk Studios. In the process, he’s designed everything from missions in Driver: San Francisco to storylines in Capcom’s spin-off title Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City. Having seen so much, I couldn’t help but ask about the pratfalls of making games in the big leagues. Ever judicious – and looking to avoid lawsuits no doubt – Charchuk demurs.
“It was a very great learning experience,” he summarizes, for example, after reflecting on an experience at Slant Six where publisher Capcom sent the entire team back to the drawing board to cram a ham-fisted story into a nearly complete version of Operation Raccoon City. Adding this anecdote to the pile of others I’ve heard both on and off the record from people who’ve been through big-budget development, it’s not hard to see why Charchuk later describes the experience as feeling sometimes like “a square peg, round hole kind of thing.”
Ultimately, it began feeling harder and harder for him to shake that lingering feeling of being a cog in an inflexible machine. It reached a fever pitch at Black Tusk Studios, as the team shelved the originally planed new property on which they were working – for which Charchuk was a designer – to take on Microsoft cash cow Gears of War.
“I had a ton of fun working on the previous project, and I love Gears to death, but I didn’t want to keep working on sequels…I didn’t want to just keep taking other IPs [intellectual properties] that I [had] never really known, and…trying to [stretch] them out to make money.” Having stayed in touch with Turner for all these years, Charchuk got around to chatting with both he and Waanders at – where else – Full Indie, in December of 2013 — a couple of years, almost exactly to the date, that Waanders stumbled upon Turner frantically drawing his weaponized turtle.
Once it was clear the duo was serious about adding a permanent designer to the team, two quickly became three. On January 6th, 2014, Charchuk joined Slick Entertainment as Lead Designer. Despite its creative peaks and valleys, I can’t help but wonder: did he balk at giving up the stability of the AAA paycheque? Suddenly, he’s back at school with Jesse.
“Just bringing life to some of Jesse’s characters would be worth it. I remember when I started, I was just like, ‘Jesse all we need to do is get your characters on screen, and then put a world around them, and we’ll make something pretty cool, I think.'”
In the background, the steam clock whistles yet again.
I’d be lying if I tried to remain impartial: Charchuk was right on the money. Viking Squad is most definitely something pretty cool.
It went into development almost as soon as Charchuk hit the ground, based largely around the team’s love of the quarter-sucking brawlers from Turner’s childhood. I’d be remiss if I didn’t let him explain it you.
“Viking Squad is like, a big brawler; it harkens back to Castle Crashers or Golden Axe. And you’re under the rule of this tyrannical Jarl, who sends you out because he’s super greedy, so you have to keep on going out and getting treasures and bringing them back in. And [by] getting all these treasures, you also unlock different gear and weapons that you can use to customize your viking, and you can also level them up!” Seems like a sound enough premise. Go out, beat things up, bring back gold, rinse, repeat. With their brawler, however, Slick is looking to right some nostalgic wrongs. Turner continues.
“The biggest change we’ve [made] from the [original] brawler….is that with brawlers, I would always argue that they [were] lovable but they [were] shitty…they [were] shitty [because of] the fact that they [were] sloppy…” Again, Waanders engages his Jesse Translator.
“You think you’re hitting somebody but you’re not.”
“So what we did is that we cut it all up into lanes like Excitebike,” continues Turner, “so when you’re moving up and down you’re snapping to a lane; it’s very clear when something is being launched at you. So you’re trying to shuck up and down lanes, [and] there’s big attacks that go off [in] all lanes, [and] you can kind of tell where they’re coming from so you can dodge around them.” I’ve been pressing the team for details on their latest game, and it only just then dawns on me that I’m sitting feet away from live development kit hardware that can probably boot up the latest version to play. I turn off my microphone for the first time in two hours.
“Can we play some Viking Squad?” Their faces light up.
The next hour lasts minutes. Playing as a green-clad, female, hammer-wielding viking alongside Jesse’s burly, axe-toting brute, I slowly learn the ropes, clumsily moving up and down lanes and often blocking Jesse as I attempt to get a feel for the combat. Even still, he showers me with encouragement as I gradually begin to land well-timed blows, and get the hang of my character’s special moves.
Slowly, steadily, I start to become a skilled shucker (shucksman? shucksmith?), darting more effortlessly up and down lanes to bat back spear-wielding baddies from reaching Jesse, protecting our glittering haul in the process. Congratulations are coming more frequently, feeling more well-earned. Eventually, Jesse and I opt to throw caution to the wind, flouting the game’s perma-death system to fight two giant enemy crabs in a room full of golden bounty. Losing here means our entire run will have been for nothing.
Dodging underneath sweeping claw strikes, nimbly weaving in and out of the path of full-lane ripple attacks, and barraging both creepy crustaceans from what seems like all sides, there’s no doubt in my mind that we have this in the bag. Suddenly, however, both hard-shelled fiends seem to adjust their movements, doubling up in one lane and launching the kind of dense attacks neither of us can avoid. Attempting to slide underneath the grasp of one brings us face to face with the other, and our health is rapidly depleting. Deft design feels like it has outsmarted us. We’ve overextended! Gotten greedy. A minute later, we’re staring at the Game Over screen. Next time, I promise myself. Next time.
Laughing off the loss with Jesse, I turn around to see Nick staring at the screen wistfully, filled with a sense of pride that seems to go far beyond this particular play session, or even Viking Squad itself. He’s assembling a TV mount for the studio’s upcoming trip to Seattle’s Penny Arcade Expo.
I think for a moment about the three-year-old boy who loved nothing more than taking apart cameras with his father.
I think of the man sitting on the floor who’s grown to love putting things together. Video games. TV stands. Companies.
If only in my head, I take a photo.