Careers in animation took them across the country. Taking a chance on game development brought them home.
Steve Hoogendyk isn't sure what he just saw in the window well. Maybe the afternoon's first rain drops. Maybe something more.
"It looked like a toad jumping up," he says, tapping the glass.
His instincts are right: A small frog hops to attention on the sill, peering into the curious room on the other side.
From the toad's position outside the basement, you can see plain, white walls and light brown carpet. You can see the top of a sewing machine and the side of an old writing desk tucked near the window. You can't miss the plastic bins of toys, the pink kitchen play set and bags of dress-up clothes lined against the far corner. Through the window, you can see the basement of a young family.
You might not notice the other end of the basement, which tapers to hold the two elbow-shaped desks where Steve and Jessica Hoogendyk have spent most of their days for the past two years. You might not see the mismatched monitors, the idling laptops or the small whiteboard, divided down the middle to show the week's pressing deadlines.
You might not see it, but in the basement corner, with limited space and boundless ambition, the Hoogendyk family is making a game. Seated side by side now, the Hoogendyks can't get much closer. But the story of their game begins on opposites ends of the country.
An active child raised near the woods of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Steve knew he wanted to search for adventures. After watching "Raiders of the Lost Ark," he knew he wanted to live them. After playing video games, he knew he wanted to create them.
"I played Myst and The Journeyman Project: Buried In Time with my father," he says. "I remember telling him after we saw the credits at the end of The Journeyman Project, 'That's where I want to work someday.'"
Steve studied industrial design in college because he had heard it was a talent pool that Industrial Light & Magic hired from. But Steve's creative aspirations never left games. He began designing one by the time he graduated, collaborating with his brother on a first-person adventure game called Wisdom's Awakening. After two years' work on the game with no outside interest, Steve and his brother had to admit their passion wasn't enough. In his early twenties and living at his parents' house, he had to find a job.
His work on Wisdom's Awakening was enough for a demo reel. He sent VHS tapes to every studio he could think. He received no response.
Steve had one more play. To Presto Studios, developer of The Journeyman Project series, he sent a tape and a guarantee: He'd work for six months without pay. If they weren't satisfied, they could fire him. It worked.
"A friend of mine had started working at Cyan Worlds, and though he couldn't give any specific details, he said what they were working on was going to be incredible."
San Diego based Presto hired him as a texture artist for its next endeavor, a third-person action-adventure game called Beneath. The project would soon be cancelled, but what replaced it would become the catalyst Steve desperately needed.
In 1997, developer Cyan was coming off the development of Riven, the sequel to one of the best-selling computer games ever, Myst. The company, founded in 1987 by brothers Rand and Robyn Miller, had grown in the decade since, and rumor had it that Cyan was eyeing even more ambitious projects. To focus those efforts, it handed responsibility for the next Myst game to Presto.
During the development of Myst III: Exile, Steve worked as a production designer and was the principle architect of the "Amateria Age," one of the game's distinct explorable areas. The responsibility and experience were invaluable, but after finishing Exile, Steve was faced with another opportunity almost too good to be true.
"A friend of mine had started working at Cyan Worlds, and though he couldn't give any specific details, he said what they were working on was going to be incredible."
The studio was still hiring. Steve applied, and was offered a position as an environmental artist. He packed everything he owned into his Toyota and drove from San Diego to Spokane, Washington.
Aside from coworkers, Steve didn't know anyone in Spokane. He signed up for dance lessons, mostly to meet women. And it worked. When a young woman named Jessica walked in, he was enamored of her immediately.
Since everyone rotated partners, Steve knew he'd get a chance to say hello, but he wanted to see her more often than the weekly class. He asked Jessica to partner with him for the local competition. She agreed.
They took first, but their partnership didn't end on the dance floor. They started dating, finding common ground in their love of adventure games. Since her youth, Jessica had adored Myst, which led her to pursue an education in character animation in the Spokane area.
When she graduated, Steve encouraged Jessica to move to Southern California to find work while he stayed in Washington, working on Cyan's ambitious follow-up, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. Steve had now worked on multiple entries in the seminal series at his two dream jobs — consecutively. He'd done everything he thought he wanted to do in games.
But by the time he left Cyan, his desires had changed. He'd built worlds, formed characters and come up with all manner of designs for imaginative play. He had experienced putting the supportive elements in place. The next step seemed necessary. Just as Jessica was doing, he wanted to give his work life through animation.
With Jessica living in California, Steve weighed his options. He wanted to be closer, but without animation experience, the odds of landing a job were slim to none.
"Steve would see the girls for 15 minutes a day, and he was being asked to work too much overtime."
After a number of rejected applications, and six months spent teaching himself how to animate, Steve decided to take the plunge and move to Southern California. He left Spokane for Los Angeles. If he couldn't make a career of animation there, at least he'd be closer to Jessica.
Steve and Jessica married soon after, and Steve got a job offer from developer Luxoflux. A few years later, he landed at visual effect company Rhythm & Hues.
As a young couple, Steve and Jessica embraced the unpredictable cycle of film animation, which often had them relocating with assignments. For a time, there didn't seem to be limits to where the work they loved could take them. They lived in Europe for a year, moved back to California afterward and eventually found themselves settled in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Despite the pleasure of the work, it wasn't sustainable. On their own, the demands had been manageable, even adventurous. They chased projects they thought they'd enjoy most. After the births of their two daughters, they began to look forward to a less nomadic life. The work had suited them as individuals, and even as a couple, but it wasn't the life they wanted for their daughters.
"The movie industry wasn't working out for us as a family," says Jessica. "Steve would see the girls for 15 minutes a day, and he was being asked to work too much overtime. It wasn't healthy for us anymore."
When Steve's studio in Albuquerque closed, they took stock. If Steve took another film job, they risked putting the family through the same rigors. If he didn't, the future was less certain. For the sake of their daughters, they chose to walk away.
In Albuquerque, Jessica had snapped a photo of their older daughter wearing swim goggles. When he saw it, Steve knew what kind of game he had to make.
The Hoogendyks moved back to the Kalamazoo area and rented a house near Steve's parents. They needed a place where they could figure things out, and where the girls could grow and play and know their grandparents.
Steve wanted to take another chance, but not on being a part of someone else's creation. After years of re-imagining the games that inspired him, he needed to make something that was his and Jessica's
He started designing a point-and-click adventure game inspired by his time spent playing and exploring outside with his daughters — as well as their wonder and enthusiasm. He wanted something that would exemplify the natural world's beauty and could distill a child's capacity to see magic in it the way his girls did.
With a two-person operation, Steve needed to determine what was feasible. If they were going to make a game, it had to reflect something they knew and loved.
What they both knew was animation. They couldn't make a game on Cyan's level. But Steve knew they could make one with what they'd been doing all along. If they couldn't match the breadth of a high-budget adventure, they'd make one with twice the life.
They turned to Kickstarter, budgeting $18,000 as the lowest amount needed for the hires.
Working from the picture of his daughter, Steve came up with a curious young girl named Lilly. On her journey, she'd use a pair of extraordinary goggles to solve puzzles and see things she couldn't before. In Lilly Looking Through, Steve wanted to capture the innocence of exploration and the beauty of movement. Everything would take place in natural environments. Instead of performing arbitrary actions, the player would be Lilly's companion, experiencing the world alongside her.
With the game's design laid out from beginning to end, Steve was feeling optimistic. Neither of them had programming experience, but it was all in front of them. They were determined to make it real.
The idea was to do it together, piece by piece, shot by shot, side by side. But after a year's work on a demo, only two areas were ready. They feared that the limitations they had set would make Lilly just another unfinished project. They needed help.
When Jessica posted an ad looking for designers, they were contacted by Garrett Taylor, a sketch artist living in California and employed by day at Pixar. Taylor's art style meshed with Steve's vision for Lilly's environments, and the collaboration seemed fated. But on a strict budget, the Hoogendyks couldn't afford him.
Soon after, Mark DeForest, a programmer colleague of Steve's employed at Cyan since 1995, got in touch. Steve knew DeForest would be another invaluable addition. If he could find a way to pay them, Lilly could get the help it needed.
They turned to Kickstarter, budgeting $18,000 as the lowest amount needed for the hires. But even after the campaign raised nearly double that minimum, the Hoogendyks could hardly rest comfortably. All leftover funds went toward paying their new employees. They were still self-funding the game and living off savings.
Steve admits they probably should've doubled the game's two-year cost as a precaution. To some degree, he says, they fooled themselves into believing the original budget was possible.
"Which I don't think is a bad thing."
When she needs to, Jessica can reach over and hit Ctrl Z for Steve.
"Now that's love," says Daran Chapman, a college friend of Steve's and technical artist on Lilly. "That's love, when you can undo together."
To reach this point, the Hoogendyks have done a lot of undoing. They gave up their jobs — their careers — to move their family to a small townhouse across the country. Instead of studio-quality machines and resources, they're putting a game together on a shoestring budget, juggling roles daily and using modest hardware in a basement.
"I always tell people we bet the ranch on this project," says Steve. "We sold our house, one of our cars, and all our stock."
By establishing themselves as Geeta Games — inspired by a happy noise their younger daughter used to make — and developing Lilly, the Hoogendyks gave up the pay and perks of working at established studios, including elbow room. They don't even know if Lilly will reach fruition, let alone allow them to break even.
"People don't get how small potatoes we are," Jessica says. "They'll email us and say, 'Do you have any internships available?' It's like, do you want to come work in our basement?"
"I wanted to be able to tell my son and daughter, 'See? Daddy got to do what he always wanted to do.'"
"I don't know where Daran would sit, then," says Steve. "Daran's by the sewing machine!"
Chapman, who joined Geeta after their Kickstarter, is delighted that his experience as a programmer and graphic designer can benefit the project. Like Steve, he grew up wanting to make games, but never found a chance.
"I wanted to be able to tell my son and daughter, 'See? Daddy got to do what he always wanted to do,'" Chapman says.
Right now, he's working to fix bugs as the Hoogendyks prepare Lilly for release in late fall. They've already moved it back once and can't afford to let it slip further.
"When you just have money going out of your bank account," Steve says, "it helps keep you focused on time and what you're doing with the time you have."
Limited by what they can put into Lilly, the Hoogendyks decided to make motion a principal feature. They've built custom animations for everything Lilly sees and does — many inspired by their daughters — that play over hand-painted backgrounds like an animated film.
With Steve heading project coordination, Jessica took lead on animation, something she left for nearly three years while raising their daughters. The work is extensive — they've produced over an hour of animation for Lilly's model alone — and demanding. Jessica cites May as a particularly trying time.
"I was so close to wrapping up animation. And I just broke down at my computer and started crying," she says. "Emotional stress was high, and I put a lot of stress on myself to make my animation sessions productive."
Still, the Hoogendyks try to keep work on Lilly flexible around their lives at home.
"I might have two hours to work while my daughter is at preschool," Jessica says, "then another two hours if she takes a nap that day, then another couple hours after the kids have gone to bed."
The pressure they put on themselves is all in the name of making Lilly into something that resonates, despite its limitations.
"Our approach is to make it an experience without a lot of fluff," Chapman says. "You know how you can go to a grocery store and buy one of those two-gallon buckets of ice cream? You're probably not going to be all that happy with it, overall. But take something that is densely sweet, a more concentrated experience, and you'll see it can be far more satisfying and memorable."
"I don't know why, but this chair's comfortable to me."
Steve is on the other side of the basement now, sitting — so low he's almost crouching — on a plastic chair from the girls' toy table set. Removed from the office corner, he's just Dad now, looking contemplative. After some time, he poses his question.
"You have a magic camera. And the camera can shoot three exposures. They're still images, but of almost infinite resolution. You can shoot any three images from the past, present or future. What pictures do you shoot?"
It's a puzzling question, but one he's asked before. People have suggested tomorrow's winning lottery ticket or a view of deep space.
"Or, 'I'd like a picture of me in my workplace,'" he says. "How can you tell if you're content? How can you tell if you're happy? How can you tell if your life is fulfilled?
"It's interesting because after you get through the first set of ideas, it tells you a little about what's important to you and where and what you value. It's sort of like dreaming about the future or interest in the past. And a lot of times it relates to family.
"To be honest, I don't know that right now we are maintaining normalcy. At times, I get really terrified and stressed out."
"I think of my grandfather. He's the guy who brought us to America, so he left a legacy. And not everybody does that. I think we all have that in us, where we'd like to leave something behind."
The Hoogendyks view Lilly as parents would a child: beautiful, unique. They're hoping that when they introduce it to the world, other people will see it as they do. Still, the effort of raising it can be overwhelming.
"To be honest, I don't know that right now we are maintaining normalcy," Steve says. "At times, I get really terrified and stressed out."
The project's intimacy doesn't always help. There are days when the last thing they want is to go back down.
They'd appreciate success, but not just by conventional measures. For Steve, players having fun and losing themselves in Lilly's world would be enough.
"I don't think there's a finish line for success," Chapman offers. "It isn't quite so black and white. I think devotion, the kind of care or heart you put into a project, pushes it into territory beyond that. Our limitation is that it must be something special."
Both Steve and Jessica say they would do it all again, and maybe they can. They've lived in Kalamazoo the longest of any location so far, and they'd like to stay there for a while longer. It's a welcome change.
Through it all, they've tried to maintain childlike excitement toward the wondrous things that may seem to be out of reach. It's an attitude Steve still loves.
"Our girls would look at the moon and go, 'Almost got it.' And they would jump up."
Images: Geeta Games, Christian Piccolo, Garrett Taylor
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan