Vagabond Dogs’ Justin Amirkhani and Jake Reardon are madcap nonsense incarnate. Come and meet them in this candid, warts-and-all conversation we had a few weeks back.
So, Always Sometimes Monsters – Prime was your first outing for the game, right?
Jake Reardon: It was really the first time we had shown it to anyone outside of a close circle of friends who would tell us it was decent no matter what. PAX Prime was really the first time we were able to show it to the world.
With that in mind, how did it feel for you both to have such an exceptional
reception to it?
Justin Amirkhani: It was kind of unbelievable. I’m still convinced it was part of a big hallucination.
Jake Reardon: I’m still waiting to be unplugged from the matrix and realize it was all some sort of dream…
Justin Amirkhani: Exactly.
Jake Reardon: What it really gave us though, was a chance to talk to our audience. Talk to people who really dug the game. It was so cool to engage like that for 4 days.
Justin Amirkhani: It’s just like… It’s such a god damned weird game, we really had no clue if people would dig it at all. We had some idea obviously (we did decide to make this our lives for the time being) but it shocked us both to see just how many people came and said they loved it.
Yet, despite that reception, you maintained some pretty ridiculous pull-out quotes on your booth wall...
Jake Reardon: Those were all 100% real…
Justin Amirkhani: Mitch Dyer still hasn’t played the game…
Jake Reardon: Also, we spent all of our marketing budget on a fancy tall banner.
Justin Amirkhani: Plus, that’s Vagabond, yo.
Right, but why opt for those instead of all the ‘Drool awards’, and whatnot?
Justin Amirkhani: We got our drool award! IT’S STILL ON MY WALL!
Jake Reardon: Oh, yea, that wen’t under the TV.
Justin Amirkhani: Really though? I think we didn’t expect it to be a deal at all, never mind a medium-to-big deal… Are we even a medium-to-big deal? I dunno.
Jake Reardon: We thought we would have four empty chairs all weekend. We even ordered the two extra just in case.
Justin Amirkhani: The thing about the cardboard though is that each of those quotes are real. Something someone felt about the game and decided to say and that means a lot to us, knowing that people are willing to put their name up there, on the line, for our game, based on a demo.
Jake Reardon: The demo was just a small taste, so it does add a bit of pressure to make the game as good as possible.
Justin Amirkhani: Especially when you’ve got all these people suggesting it to other folks. There’s nothing worse in the world than being the guy who over-hypes an interesting movie that turns out to be terrible.
Justin Amirkhani: Hahahaha
Jake Reardon: That person was clearly inebriated. One thing that was fantastic is just how friendly and inviting all of these Indie teams were. There is no competition, only friendship. We really felt welcome and like part of something special. I think everyone won PAX.
Justin Amirkhani: You can’t win PAX. That’s like… Winning a circle. You can’t. It doesn’t make sense. Why did people like the game though? Why did they come back over and over to play it again?
Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Jake Reardon: I guess I should pay that guy the 10 dollars I promised him to say that…
Why do you think it clicked so well on a show floor otherwise full of games and flashing lights?
Justin Amirkhani: I think it’s because it’s remarkably unalienating. I don’t mean that just in the sense of you being able to play as a character that at least sorta fits your racial/sexual/gender profile, but rather that it’s a simple game that deals with stuff we all understand.
Jake Reardon: The demo, if you sat and played it all the way through, took some people over half an hour. I guess they could just zone out, stare at a wall full of cardboard quotes, and enjoy a story.
Justin Amirkhani: There’s no mechanics to learn, there’s no backstory to study.
Justin Amirkhani: I think the way our demo was crafted really helped it out. If players were just plunked into the middle of a more open world build it would be far too confusing for a demo.
Jake Reardon: Right, our actual game is confusing. But Justin is right, in the main game, you can just walk around and it takes time to discover things. One thing I like to mention is that once you are past the intro in that demo, all of the content we showed is actually optional.
Justin Amirkhani: Yeah, if you played it at PAX you might never see any of that stuff ever again depending on the choices you make.
Speaking of which, how did you wind up at PAX, and the IMB specifically?
Justin Amirkhani: Rental car, then an airplane, then another airplane, then a taxi, and then we walked the rest of the way.
Jake Reardon: Oh ya, and we walked the long way too…
Justin Amirkhani: We have long legs though, so it’s not a big deal. Jake spends a lot of time walking his dogs and I spent a lot of time walking down highways so we’re pretty good at that now.
Jake Reardon: I also play a lot of ice hockey. But, Justin… How *did* we get to PAX?
Justin Amirkhani: Law of attraction? I dunno. Visualize, materialize yo. It’s all in your head! For real? I sent in an application, sent in a demo and followed the instructions? Isn’t that how everyone does it?
I guess I’m interested in the path that took you here. The game is still relatively young, right?
Justin Amirkhani: Jake… Have we been working on this for a year? It’s the end of September…
Jake Reardon: Yup, once we decided to do this things just started to fall into place. For some reason we decided we could do this all in about a year.
When did Devolver get involved?
Justin Amirkhani: I first met Nigel in August last year.
Jake Reardon: Shortly after we met with them at GDC and gave them their last demo of the week on a balcony that wasn’t even on the show floor.
Justin Amirkhani: We sat cross legged and played.
Jake Reardon: Thankfully, we were able to sneak onto the floor for a few hours and knew we wanted to keep doing this. Maybe next year we can even be attendees.
“I really can’t say enough good things about the entire Devolver team.”
Why did you want to get Devolver on board? Besides financial support, I mean.
Justin Amirkhani: Fork has a really nice summer home that he doesn’t really use that often and I’ve been looking for a place to vacation.
Jake Reardon: Working with Devolver has been a fantastic experience. They just get us and get what we are trying to do. They don’t limit us creatively, and exist to make everything better. They also allowed us to hire a kick ass musician, some kick ass artists, and make the game we always wanted to make. I really can’t say enough good things about the entire Devolver team.
Justin Amirkhani: Yeah. Not to mention the fact that they were the first people (aside from our friends/family) to actually believe in the game.
Jake Reardon: Oh, and Fork Parker lost a bet and had to hide some extra money before the FBI came knocking. I don’t really know anymore details than that.
Justin Amirkhani: Jake… Don’t break the NDA.
Haha. Justin, did you meet Nigel during your North American pilgrimage?
Justin Amirkhani: Yeah, we met at this dirty little dive bar the day after I almost got shot (long story). We had some drinks and even then I had the idea for the game in my head. When I rough-pitched it to Nigel he kinda shrugged his shoulders and said “eh, sounds alright.” That was enough motivation to make it a thing. It grew from a bar babble into a prototype, then a demo, and hopefully an actual game one day.
How much of the game is influenced by that trip, and how much comes you also, Jake?
Jake Reardon: I’ve always made games… But never finished making them. Always little side projects and other experiments. Once Justin and I started talking about his idea, I just said, lets just go make it. I made a prototype in XNA and it was completely horrible. I maintain Justin’s crazy, add actually funny stuff to the game, and make sure shit doesn’t break.
Justin Amirkhani: More than influencing the story or the gameplay of Always Sometimes Monsters, the trip kinda changed my life. It gave me a completely new outlook on life that’s then fed into my creative process.
Jake Reardon: My life remained unchanged, although I did donate to Justin’s journey and read his blog.
Justin Amirkhani: You learn a lot about people and hardship and what we’re all really made of when you do something like that. Feeling real fear for your life, seeing yourself become something you never thought you could be, realizing you can be this monstrous deformation of what you formerly were and then being able to grow from there with a completely fresh outlook. It’s all in the game, I guess… But yeah… Jake makes most of the jokes.
Jake Reardon: And I make systems. I love buiilding systems that actually work. You won’t find any
infinite loops on my watch, no sir.
Justin Amirkhani: We have remarkably different design styles… They clash at times. The left/right brain divide, I guess.
Is there a time you can recount where that has caused a real problem?
Jake Reardon: To be honest… Not really. We are a good team because no idea is stupid. We know something we build today will be better than something we built yesterday.
Justin Amirkhani: Problem, no. Disagreement, yes.
Hit me with it.
Justin Amirkhani: Most of the disagreements or misunderstandings usually come from me going to Tim Hortons late at night, staying up for like 14 hours and churning out some crazy stuff that works but only if you don’t fall into one of the dead ends I didn’t finish. When Jake gets those builds he starts playing it and because he’s not literally in my head, he inevitably finds those dead ends and the whole thing falls apart. From there it usually takes a while for me to show him exactly what my intent was, how I designed things, and then he’ll slap his forehead and say “You could have just done this…” Then we start working on a new version of that prototype with him taking the charge while keeping my original design principles in place. Invariably the scenes come out much better because of this process.
Jake Reardon: 100% true.
So there’s a push-pull dynamic at play here?
Justin Amirkhani: More like a hot potato. You hold on to the idea too long without passing it to your partner and you’re
gonna get burned.
Nice! Closing notes: Do you think you’ll do a Megabooth again?
Jake Reardon: I would love to. If we can somehow trick them into accepting us again. It really is a fantastic opportunity and experience. I would recommend it to everyone.
Justin Amirkhani: Every opportunity we have to be part of a Megabooth, I think we will. It’s now
our #1 reason for making games…
Jake Reardon: We may rename our game to Always Sometimes Megabooths.
Ha! We live in hope.
Justin Amirkhani: Thanks for having us, thanks to everyone who made our PAX so gorram amazing,
and thanks to all the lovely people who wasted their precious time reading our nonsense!
Cheers guys, have a great evening.
Jake Reardon: Thanks Christopher.
Justin Amirkhani: Yeah, that was weird and fun. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.