Once Upon a Coma: Interview with Thomas
Thomas Brush (Atmos Games) is a rare breed of indie developer. A veritable powerhouse capable of not only designing beautiful and engaging games, but also programming them, scoring them, and animating them. Brush's most recent game, Pinstripe, was met with critical acclaim from players and reviewers alike, and his brand new project Once Upon a Coma knocked its Kickstarter campaign out of the park, reaching the initial $28,000 goal within the first 24 hours. You may be familiar with his work already as he's certainly no stranger to this site. If not, I would highly recommend checking out his free to play games, Coma (a prequel to his current project) and Skinny, to say nothing of Pinstripe which is also so very worth your time and money.
Not since Undertale's Toby Fox have I found myself so utterly impressed with a singular designer and I am very pleased to be able to share this interview with you that Thomas so graciously took the time to take part in.
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Let's begin by talking a little bit about Kickstarter. Your last project, Pinstripe, did incredibly well with its campaign. You asked for $28,000 and it succeeded within the first two days, ultimately raising over $100,000 by the end of the crowdfunding project. At the time of this interview you've already reached your first stretch goal for Once Upon a Coma with 25 days left to go in the campaign. Were you confident that the indie gaming community and the fanbase you've built would pull through again to the same extent they did with Pinstripe?
I was not confident about this campaign. You never fully know whether your base for the first Kickstarter campaign was satisfied so you'll get a lot of positive feedback but it's maybe one 20th of your total backers that respond so you never really know what the remaining majority of your backers think. Additionally, some people told me that launching another campaign might come across as strange because 'shouldn't the first campaign have raised enough money to start your company and not require more crowdfunding?' I understood that but the truth is is that the Pinstripe campaign raised enough money for the Pinstripe game and funds from Pinstripe's sales have been great but they're not enough to do another game. I think I need more games in my studio to be able to have a steady stream of revenue to continue to make games without crowdfunding.
One of your stretch goals is porting the game (Windows/Mac/Linux) to Nintendo Switch, which seems to be the console of choice for most indie developers at the moment. Are you considering an eventual release on other consoles also if crowdfunding continues to go so well? Yes! Nintendo Switch is a priority for obvious reasons. If you look at the amount of indie games on the Switch versus the Playstation or Xbox, it just seems like a goldmine because you're not competing with so many games. So, Nintendo Switch is absolutely the priority here but if we hit the $60,000 Switch stretch goal, Xbox and Playstation are certainly going to be considered.
For those that may not have visited your Kickstarter, could you tell us a little bit about Once Upon a Coma's story without revealing any spoilers? For the millions of players who loved the original Coma, Once Upon a Coma is a sequel, but for anyone else who loves a strange and uncanny adventure, Once Upon a Coma is a standalone game. The story basically revolves around this little boy, Pete, who wakes up from a coma and discovers that it's the last day of summer and his childhood buddies are ruling his hometown. Things are in chaos and apparently the grownups started disappearing at the beginning of the summer so there's no grownups at all. Some of the kids are freaking out, some of the kids are loving it and Pete's sister took it upon herself to go find the grownups so she's missing and it's up to Pete to find his little sister. A lot of Once Upon a Coma is thematic, meaning there's a lot of focus on themes about childhood and rediscovering your identity. For me, the Kickstarter campaign is about this. It's about rediscovering why I loved playing games and why I loved making games when I was younger. The older you get, you focus more on the money, numbers, and business side of game development and I'm rediscovering the passion for game development right now, similar to when I was a kid, and that's very much what Once Upon a Coma is about.
The original Coma has always been a favorite of mine and it's very exciting to see a sequel in the works. Playing the demo for Once Upon a Coma was a treasure trove of memories, and I'm sure other longtime fans of yours felt the same way, because old characters, locations, and gameplay elements were present in new and fresh ways. Is it hard to return to old source material after a long absence or have you actually found it to be easier to use your first game as a stepping stone for this project? I think both are true. It is difficult to come back and take old ideas that you may not be married to anymore and use them again, but once you accept it emotionally and maybe spend 20 minutes thinking of ways you can make those original ideas more interesting and more fun, then using it as a stepping stone actually makes it a lot easier to make a game. For me, the beginning of Once Upon a Coma is very similar to the beginning of Coma (kind of like a Zelda game- every Zelda game is a sequel but they all start sort of the same) and it's really cool to be able to use that as a stepping stone.
Taking an original idea, for example when the fat, inflatable, hypoinflazatory guy gets stuck in the well in the original game, I took that idea and said what else can we do here? And so now, the next level, which we've already programmed and built, involves rolling the fat kid around kind of like a ball and using him to bounce to higher surfaces. Basically I'm taking old elements and turning them into gameplay elements if that makes sense, and it's a lot of fun!
You've stated that Once Upon a Coma draws inspiration heavily from the Zelda franchise, Ocarina of Time (a 3D game) in particular. Are there any 2D games, new or old, that really resonate with you? And while we're on that subject, are you interested at all in making the jump to 3D game development sometime in the future?
Not a lot of 2D games, honestly. N64 certainly summed up my childhood. I think I rediscovered some 2D games that I really liked a couple years ago. I really like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, mainly because of the music and the mood but that's about all I can think of. Obviously, I love Inside and Ori and the Blind Forest but I haven't really played them extensively.
I'm not interested in 3D game development, no. I think maybe for VR purposes, if it gets so big that it becomes a really bad idea not to enter that market, but I'm not really interested in it. I'd rather jump to making films than doing 3D game development.
Are you self-taught across the board when it comes to game development, animation, and composition? It's pretty rare for one person to have so many skills on both the technical and artistic side of things!
After years of working more or less entirely on your own, you're teaming up with a programmer (Erik Coburn) from Serenity Forge. That seems to have been a big help for you, allowing you to work more heavily on the art, animation, and musical aspects of the game. Do you see yourself collaborating with others on future projects, maybe even building a team, or do you prefer the freedom that comes with working solo?
I've been thinking about this. The only thing I could think of wanting a team for is to save money I guess, which sounds bad but if I can hire a team or one other team member that does a lot of work and is passionate about the projects then I don't have to spend so much time on my end doing things that I'd much rather have someone else do.
That said, I really enjoy the auteur aspect of game development and telling stories. It sounds selfish, but I think I always want to make 'Thomas Brush' games and 'Thomas Brush' projects. I certainly enjoy being noticed in this aspect, but I also enjoy building that brand and I think people enjoy it as well. If I do have a smaller team, I definitely don't want to build a big video game company that's making commercial AAA games just for the sake of building businesses and making money. I don't think it's wrong, but it's definitely not something I want to do.
It's a pretty exciting time right now for indie game studios, but it can be a real challenge to break into the industry. What do you think the future holds for small studios and are there any you particularly admire at the moment?
I admire DoubleFine and Serenity Forge. They're publishers but also studios cause they make their own games as well. I admire them because they seem to be focused on quality of games and uniqueness of games rather than making something commercial or buying up something that's commercial. They certainly take risks and those risks can be profitable and they can also be not profitable which is why a lot of the game studios that take risks and focus on making adventure games or narrative games sometimes have seasons where they struggle. And I admire that they keep doing it because it's obvious that they have something deep down that pushes them to pursue narrative and adventure games even if it means that they might not recoup their investment.
You've said that following the release of Pinstripe, you went through a period of real burnout and self doubt regarding your role as a game designer. I've experienced this as a composer and many people I know, artists and content creators of all sorts, have gone through this at some point or another. Do you have any advice for dealing with those feelings of uncertainty or exhaustion? The only thing that I can think of is to take a break and then seek out a second wind. Taking a break is kind of obvious, so what I did was take a couple weeks off, which doesn't sound like a lot because I planned on taking like the summer off and just chilling but I couldn't really do that because money and I have a family to take care of. I took a couple weeks off and just watched let's plays of Breath of the Wild because I didn't have a Nintendo Switch. I spent time meditating and thinking and sleeping. I tried to stay away from the computer just to refocus on what was important, because frankly as cool as it sounds and as important as I make it sound, and as important as many indie game developers make it sound, making games isn't that important. It's just a job and it's nothing eternally special. It's just a little project that maybe changes someone a little bit on the inside but it's not profoundly important and it's funny how things become profoundly important when you obsess over them. So it's certainly good to take a break.
The second thing is seeking out a second wind. I'd say seeking out a second wind should be made a priority if you're burnt out. If you don't catch that second wind, you're just going to run on fumes even if you take a break. I mean things like getting a good review for a game or project that you've made, getting your project into a festival and getting people to look at it, and listen, and enjoy it and praise it. For me, this Kickstarter campaign is certainly a second wind because what it tells me is that people still enjoy my work and are willing to put money into it. That certainly is a big ego boost and it's also something that energizes me. I'm ready now more than ever to make video games and I didn't really feel that way before the Kickstarter launched. I felt better because I took a break, but I didn't feel super energized. I've spent a good amount of time this week planning and cleaning the office and connecting and getting things ready to go for my next big project. That's a really special feeling and it's only because of that second wind.
Finally, do you have any further words for your fans and supporters?
I'll just say, if there's any game developers reading this, to not make too much of game development or a career. Careers are really fun and it's cool to have people support you and care about your work. Being an artist is really fun and special but especially after having a daughter in January of this year, game development is just a job. It's wonderful, and beautiful, and special, but there's no eternal importance to game development. Sometimes people talk about how being an artist sort of immortalizes you, but it really doesn't cause the sun is going to explode, right? At some point even its a million years from now or 10 billion years from now, your work will go away. Nothing is eternal and I think that we need to remember that when we're obsessing over game development. It's not eternal.
Thank you so much Thomas for this Interview. Our JiG readers will appreciate it and can check the kickstarter
Thank you to you too!
Note from Jayisgames: We did this interview because we love the game and we know our audience like the creations from Thomas. We do not get any revenue (and we won't never get) when we publish an interview.