When Conrad Kreyling took a job in game development, he didn't realize it would mean biking into a federal disaster area to rescue a computer.
On October 29, 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit New York City.
It brought a storm surge, causing the East River to overflow into lower Manhattan, flooding seven subway tunnels and cutting off power to the area for days. At the southern tip of Manhattan in Battery Park, the surge was almost 14 feet high.
At the time, Kreyling worked at Muse Games, located next to Battery Park. On the morning of October 29, Muse had just launched its latest game, Guns of Icarus Online. But for reasons having nothing to do with Hurricane Sandy, Guns of Icarus Online needed a patch. And the only computer that could make updates was trapped in the office in Manhattan, in the path of a 14-foot storm surge.
Kreyling took it on himself to brave the storm, reach the computer and issue the patch. Manhattan had been declared a federal disaster area, and the flooded roads had halted road traffic. Trains weren't running. So Kreyling biked his way onto the island, pedaling against the tide. Once at the office, he convinced building security to let him in, grabbed the computer, left his bike behind and hitched a ride on one of the few remaining evacuation buses.
Hours later, at his boss's apartment on the Upper East Side, Kreyling and his boss finished the update and shipped the patch. Guns of Icarus Online was saved. And Kreyling started to realize he was spending too much time on work, and needed a creative outlet of his own.
Less than a year later, he would create his own game engine, start his own studio and make his own game. And he would do it all to help others.
The origin of htmlVN
Kreyling has always fit between the lines.
In 2010, he moved from Maryland to New York City to take the job at Muse Games. It was his first job in the industry. While his background was in programming, he found himself doing a lot more than that.
"I would just come in and just fix stuff," Kreyling says. "Like whatever needed to get done."
This was especially true when it came to the development of Guns of Icarus Online, the game that eventually led him to the disaster area. One week the user interface would need improvement and redesign; then another server administration would need better tools; then another voice chat would need to be integrated.
This sort of thing isn't uncommon at a small studio, but Kreyling took on so much that his friends and roommates became increasingly concerned with his work habits — and with the toll they were taking on him.
"[H]e was pretty stressed out," says Ananth Panagariya, one of Kreyling's roommates at the time. "He was juggling a whole bunch of things at the same time ... And one of the things was that he was the guy on call if Guns of Icarus ever got brought down."
To keep his sanity, Kreyling took on small programming projects on the side. Things that mattered to him, and had nothing to do with the day-to-day grind at Muse. And following Hurricane Sandy, he focused in on one in particular: a game engine for visual novels.
Kreyling was creating an interface for narrative-focused video games — games with static characters over static backgrounds that often give players dialogue choices. Fans love the genre because it lets them play roles in these stories and affect the outcomes — a Choose Your Own Adventure for the modern era, often filled with more nuanced characters than other game stories.
Kreyling became interested in the genre after a friend recommended he play writer and developer Christine Love's don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story. In it, players take the role of a high school teacher in a near-future Canada where — unknown to the students — the teachers are able to read the private messages students send to each other. The game's story ends up addressing issues of privacy, sexuality and relationships that exist both online and in the real world.
"I played that game and I fell in love," Kreyling says. "I was bowled [over]. I love everything [Christine Love] does, but for whatever reason that one hit me really hard and stuck with me. So I decided I wanted to make a visual novel."
He wanted his to not only be playable on a computer, but also easy to port to iOS and Android. But he couldn't find an engine that fit the bill. He also couldn't find a visual novel engine that would run in a web browser, which he would likely need for the game he wanted to make.
Kreyling knew what he wanted his first visual novel to be, an adaptation of a friend's webcomic called Starfighter. The comic was sexually explicit, so he knew that trying to sell it on any well known digital game store would be difficult if not impossible.
"You can't take that to the [iOS] App Store," Kreyling says. "You can't take ... I don't even know if you could take that to Google Play. I don't know if you could take that to Steam. Right, so we looked at Starfighter and we looked at this really sexually explicit property and I kind of threw up my hands and was like, 'Well we could ship it binary or we can make people go to a website.'"
Rather than limit the reach of Starfighter as a visual novel, Kreyling decided to break down the wall himself. He wanted the game to run in a browser so it would be easier to sell, but there was no off-the-shelf solution. What he envisioned had never been done before. So he decided to do it himself.
In his spare time, he dug in on the project, a visual novel engine that would run in a browser. He called it htmlVN.
"That one hit me really hard and stuck with me. So I decided I wanted to make a visual novel."
For a brief moment, everything seemed to be going well. His friend and Starfighter writer Michelle Palumbo was on board and starting work on the game's story. And Kreyling made early progress on his engine. It was all going according to plan.
And then a friend of Kreyling's got in touch to discuss an opportunity, throwing a life-changing-sized wrench into that plan.
The friend's employer, a company called What Pumpkin, was in discussions with publisher Namco Bandai to make a visual novel about classic Namco characters who all were in high school together, like the ship from Galaga and Lolo from Klonoa.
The friend remembered that Kreyling had been working on a visual novel engine and was looking for him to help make the game. What Pumpkin was offering Kreyling was a job.
The job was almost too good to be true. It would allow Kreyling to leave his exhausting job at Muse Games and fund development on htmlVN. But it would also mean that the Starfighter visual novel would be put on hold. Kreyling was worried, but hoped the deal would allow him to finish the engine and give Palumbo more time to write her script.
In July 2013, Namco Bandai — under its ShiftyLook subsidiary — announced the game as Namco High, a comedic visual novel in which the player could date Namco characters.
Now free to spend all day working only on Namco High, Kreyling started his own company, Date Nighto, and brought some of his friends on board the project. Panagariya became the game's head writer. Another roomate, Yuko Ota, then came on as an artist. They worked on the 20+ person content team at What Pumpkin, while Kreyling handled all the programming himself. He did his best not to let that restrict the team.
"Mostly, [Kreyling's] whole MO is 'I shouldn't be setting the limitations on you,'" says Panagariya. "'You should be forcing me to try to explore new areas of development.' And I think that does come from a place of being surrounded by creative people or people in different fields, because you get that sense that he's trying to help people push their boundaries a little bit."
But as they got further into the game's development, and assets from the artist and text from the writers started to come in, it became apparent that integrating them into the game was going to be a full job in and of itself.
"There's like a huge middle area of developing the game that was just scene direction, where we were placing characters or objects on canvas and moving them around," Panagariya says. They needed help.
And so again Kreyling found himself looking to his friends for someone who might be able to take on the job. Ideally, he needed someone who knew how a visual novel scene should be constructed, and that is exactly what he found in his former roommate Lindsay Woods.
Woods was the art director of a small independent animation studio in Manhattan at the time. She was also someone Kreyling had frequently gone to for ideas and advice on htmlVN since she was well versed in Japanese visual novels. And luckily for Kreyling, she was looking to change jobs after completing work on an animated feature film.
So Woods became Date Nighto's first employee, besides Kreyling. She added nuance to the characters, pulling from her animation background, and helped tie the game together for its release in late 2013.
While the game went over well amongst fans initially, Namco High wouldn't be around for long. On March 10, 2014 Namco announced that ShiftyLook would be closing, saying that the division had done its job of bringing back classic Namco characters and that job was no longer needed. And because Namco High requires servers to run, it too would be shut down.
Despite that, Kreyling saw the game as a creative success for Date Nighto. htmlVN had worked like it was supposed to, both for the team making the game and the players enjoying it.
So, for the first time since before Hurricane Sandy, Kreyling took a break — but it was a short break. Because he had big plans for Date Nighto in 2014.
The job was almost too good to be true. It would allow Kreyling to leave his exhausting job at Muse Games and fund development on htmlVN.
Return to Starfighter
With Namco High finished, Kreyling's friends started to notice a bit of a change in him. He didn't seem as stressed out and burned out as he had in his days at Muse Games.
"I think it was like a self-help, healthy thing for him to say, 'I have this month to chill out, take things at a slightly slower pace,'" says Panagariya. "You know, it wasn't even a month. It's February now. It was like two weeks, maybe a week. But I mean he took his time, he relaxed a little bit and then he got back on the horse."
While the development of Namco High had been stressful, working to help his friends create the game they envisioned seemed to be motivating for Kreyling. That made him eager to return to the Starfighter visual novel, now called Starfighter: Eclipse to show that it would be different from the Starfighter webcomic and not just a retelling of the comic's story.
Kreyling had continued to touch base with Starfighter writer Palumbo from time to time while he worked on Namco High; she used the time to get much of the preproduction done so that, once Kreyling was able to return, they could hit the ground running with game development.
Kreyling had his production-ready game engine, as well as a technical artist in Woods who had proven so invaluable that he not only hired her full time, but he made her a "co-founder" of Date Nighto.
But unlike with Namco High, they would need to find funding for the game's production. Date Nighto turned to Kickstarter.
"My intention is to go into it with complete [earnestness]," he says shortly before setting the campaign live. "I'm like, hey, this is a beautiful space sci-fi drama in which boys kiss and fuck. Like, that's my whole pitch, and I want that to be there ... [T]his is an explicit title you can play anywhere."
As of this story going live, the Kickstarter campaign is close to meeting its goal — and if that happens, it will keep Kreyling and Woods busy for the next year.
But the pair isn't limiting themselves or htmlVN to only one new project. With Woods now on board at Date Nighto, she's working to develop her own ideas for visual novels she wants to make.
First on that list: Hustle Cat.
It started as a joke concept between Woods and her roommate about a dating sim in which players are new employees at a Japanese cat cafe, and as they learn to work, they can try to romance their co-workers.
The more Woods and her roommate discussed it with each other and Kreyling, the more it became a real pitch for a visual novel. Eventually, Kreyling signed off on it, and Woods and her roommate outlined the story and created concept art.
"[A]nd as so often happens, the joke got too real," Woods says.
But while the team is enthusiastic to get started on their first original IP game in Hustle Cat, work on it isn't slated to truly begin until Starfighter: Eclipse ships in 2015. And Kreyling now finds himself right where he wants to be: doing exactly what he wants, with his friends.
"The reason I did any of this was so we could put independent creators' work front and center," Kreyling says. "And so, realizing that, I couldn't be more excited."
The future of htmlVN
Kreyling has been surrounded by artists, writers and animators since graduating college, and he recognizes that it's thanks to that that he is in the position he is in today.
"You could throw a stone and hit a really talented programmer at this point," he says. "They're everywhere, but what I had, what gave me an advantage, was that I already had these personal and professional relationships with creators ..."
The creative people in his life not only help Kreyling with his work, but they have also influenced how he approaches the work he does. He likes to help them be more creative, whether that's saving them time by creating the website for a comic so that it's easy to manage, or making htmlVN's editor easier to use while also more robust for whatever ideas someone might have for it.
But he wants to help more people than just his friends be creative, which is why he sees the future of his htmlVN game engine as being more than just something for Date Nighto's exclusive use.
"We do have a long-term goal to make authoring a visual novel easy, accessible, fun. We want anybody to be able to get in there and do this," Kreyling says. "[I]f you're an independent creator and you got a writer, you got an artist, you absolutely should be able to make a visual novel, and you should absolutely be able to get it everywhere, regardless of content. It should be on iPhone. It should be on Android. It should be on everywhere."
But more than just getting it into the hands of other creators, he wants to be able to make it something that is easy to use for people who aren't technically inclined. Because, in the end, what Kreyling wants is to provide the tools for his creative friends — and people like them — to make the games he wants to play.
"I would like to see creators just run away with it."