They Could be Heroes: Conifer Games At the Gates
How the lead designer of Civ V plans to take over the world by going indie.
You want them to be superheroes. They're youthful, energetic and driven. They have a purpose. They seem good, both at what they do and at heart; inherently decent. Trustworthy.
Like superheroes, the men and woman of Conifer Games each have a specialty, and an origin story and an identity. Separately, they're powerful, strong and somewhat larger-than-life. Together, they seem unstoppable.
You want them to lead, so that you can follow. You want them to fight for something — and win.
Jon Shafer, Kay Fedewa and Jonathan Christ (unbelievably, his name is actually Christ) are game developers: a designer, an artist and a programer, respectively. None of them are out of spitting distance of 30, but combined, they rock more than two decades of game development experience. They've worked on AAA games, made indie games and graphic novels, built software to track the movements of trucks. Raised lizards.
Now these three have come together to build their own company and make their own games. No investors. No publisher. No rules. Their business plan: Make a game quickly, cheaply and without a lot of drama. Fund it via Kickstarter, deliver it via Steam. Do it again.
That's it. None of them are even getting paid. That comes later — if you (and a few thousand others) buy their first game. And if you don't ... doesn't matter. They'll go do something else. They already are doing something else, separately. For all but one of them, this isn't even their day job.
Tweeters is a happy bird. He has a big cage to hang in. Lots of sticks and ladders to climb on. Things to chew and eat and flap against. He's got it good, for a bird. And he's madly in love with game designer Jon Shafer.
Shafer is an indie game developer. That, in itself, could be a headline. After almost a decade in the game industry, Shafer has started a new game company, Conifer Games, and unveiled his new game, At the Gates. The Kickstarter went live today, concident with the announcement of the company. The plan took shape longer ago than that.
Shafer founded the company using the money in his savings account. He works out of the living room of his girlfriend's house. He has no paid employees. He is, in these ways, a fairly typical indie game developer. If his Kickstarter fails, At the Gates will not get made. If that happens, Conifer will likely fold and Shafer will probably go broke. Is he worried? Not so much.
"People ask me, 'What if you need more money?'" Shafer says. "I'm like, 'Well, I'll sell my house and sell my car.' They're like, 'Sell your house and your car?' 'Yeah. I don't need it. I need my computer. If I had to sell my computer, that'd be a problem. But my house is a house.' So what? I can get another house, another car. Whatever."
Shafer's blasé attitude toward business financing might seem naive but for one thing: This is not his first rodeo. Shafer was the lead designer on the best selling strategy game in recent memory; the mega-successful Civilization V. That he's only 27 years old is just a trick of the light. He started when he was 19 and by 24, he was working at Firaxis, heading the team behind Civ V alongside video game legend Sid Meier. Since then, he's consulted at Stardock on the troubled, but ambitious Fallen Enchantress and taken a good, hard look at what he wants to accomplish with the next many years of his so-far short life.
The answer: Conifer.
"A few years ago, back when I was thinking about leaving Firaxis, a couple people asked me, 'Have you ever thought about starting your own company?'" Shafer says. "I said, 'That sounds like the worst thing in the world. You have to go and find money. You have to hire all these people. You don't actually get to make the game. You're going around doing all this stuff that's not making a game.' But yeah, things are different now."
What's different is, in part, Kickstarter. Instead of traveling from publisher to publisher, hat in hand, a talented, well-known and widely admired designer like Shafer can put up a page and attract investment from practically anyone, then spend his time actually making the game instead of managing the bureaucracy. Put the game on Steam, then let the magic of the crowd sink or swim the result.
Shafer was the lead designer on the mega-successful Civilization V.
The other side of the equation is Shafer himself. He's a different person than he was a few years ago. He's more grounded. More centered. And part of that has to do with Tweeters.
Tweeters is Shafer's pet parrotlet. He lives in a cage behind Shafer's desk, looking over his master's shoulder as Shafer makes what could be the next great strategy game. Most of the time Tweeters is content to hang out in his cage and chew on things. Climb a little. Occasionally tweet (like birds do, not like Kardashians do). But when Shafer leaves the room, Tweeters loses his mind. He'll tweet like crazy. Plaintively and incessantly — until Shafer returns. Shafer is the center of Tweeters' world. And for a man who creates worlds, Tweeters is the perfect pet.
"He keeps me company," Shafer says. "He's a cutie pie. For the most part he's content with climbing around and being there while I file paperwork and write emails and such. I bring him out every so often, but he doesn’t like to stay put, unfortunately. Put him on my shoulder and he’ll start climbing and biting my ear. Put him down [on the desk] and he’ll start trying to chew the keys off my keyboard."
Sure enough, Shafer takes Tweeters out of his cage and Tweeters is immediately causing trouble. Then the presence of a strange reporter in the house makes Tweeters nervous, and he tries to fly out the closed window. He survives, then goes back into his cage — a little dazed — for everyone's safety.
"You're a little troublemaker and you know it," Shafer says to the bird. "But you're cute, so you can get away with it.
"You're wise beyond your years."
Jon Shafer is what you would call a prodigy. His origin story begins in Colorado, where he learned to program computers at age eight. His father, a computer programmer for United Airlines, taught him how to tinker and problem-solve using the arcane programming language United used to make training programs. Shafer the elder made a few games for his own enjoyment, but never took the leap into professional game-making. A decision, his son says, he sometimes regrets.
"[My father] was programming at the ground level, back in 1981, 1982," says Shafer. "He had the option of getting into gaming right at that ground stage, starting at Microsoft or starting at Apple. He likes to tell me, 'I was there! I coulda done that!' 'Well, you should have.' 'Yeah, I know. I should have.'
"Now he gets to live vicariously through me, I guess."
Shafer's mom was a teacher and now works at a bookstore. His father is now retired, but still tinkers with computers and even though he's not much of a gamer, he tries to keep up with his son's career, vicariously, through the games Shafer helped build. He installed Civilization IV and V, although he hasn't yet played them.
"He was a busy guy," Shafer says. "Now he has all the free time in the world and he’s like, 'What do I do?' … He found a link to an article about World of Tanks somewhere. He sent it to me … along with a little bitmap art file that was a little German World War II tank that I created in Paint back when I was like nine. ... He definitely thinks it’s very cool."
In school, Shafer the younger merged his love of history with his passion for computers by making homemade scenarios and mods for the popular strategy game Civilization III. His work was good enough to get him noticed by Civilization developer Firaxis, which hired him as an intern to work on the sequel, Civilization IV. Shafer was 22.
Firaxis had a strict rule of only hiring college graduates for full-time — full-pay — development slots, so Shafer worked to finish his degree while working full time as a design intern at Firaxis, making expansions for Civ IV. He'd take his laptop to class and work on game code during lectures, literally coding Civilization IV: Warlords during Computer Science 101. He got an A. He never told his professors.
At Firaxis, Shafer rose quickly, in spite of his youth. There was some jealousy, but Shafer shrugs it off.
"There were people that were interns and finishing college that were older than me," Shafer says, laughing. "And I was in charge of the whole team. That was a little bit odd. [There was] some ribbing. 'How old are you again? Are you old enough to drink? You have to go home. Ha ha ha.' It was all in jest. It was never … I have no bitter feelings about it or anything. It’s to be expected, honestly."
Once he elbowed his way into the scrum and started calling shots, the jealousy and suspicion tapered off. He went from being the "the kid" to "the designer" at light speed, bringing Civ V home to a mountain of accolades and a river of sales. His next career move would come as a surprise to almost everyone: He left Firaxis and moved to Detroit-based Stardock.
"It was really hard," Shafer says of his decision to leave Firaxis. "The people there are awesome and very, very talented. It was a tough decision. A big part of me leaving was trying to, to use a cliché, spread my wings and try new things and expand what I was working on. Which is in large part what I'm doing with Conifer as well."
Shafer says the nature of the business at a major company like 2K-owned Firaxis makes it complicated to experiment and try new things. He wanted to focus on making the games he wanted to make, not the games that tested well with his corporate overlords.
"There were people that were interns and finishing college that were older than me, and I was in charge of the whole team. That was a little bit odd."
"With these really big, big public companies, they are kind of in this situation where every game has to be a hit, because they’re making other games that aren't hits, that aren't making money," he says. "It's kind of a self-perpetuating cycle. It's really kind of scary. I like the idea of always moving, always changing, always innovating and trying new ideas, trying to explore. That's so difficult to do at a big company that needs that security and that stability to know that they're not going to have to lay 2,000 people off because you wanted to have fun."
Conifer is Shafer's third (and latest) big career move. He's shouldering the lion's share of responsibility: designing the game, filing the paperwork, building the website and the Kickstarter. Fedewa, an artist at nearby Stardock, is helping out, moonlighting making art for At the Gates. Her roommate Jonathan Christ helps out with the programming. Neither Fedewa or Christ (nor Shafer for that matter) is getting paid. If the game sells, they'll be a company. If it fails, they'll be just another in a long list of indies who couldn't make it happen, and a lot of the blame will be Shafer's.
"When you’re in a position of leadership, that is a big part of the job, and rightfully so," Shafer says. "That's why you're in charge. Theoretically, or hopefully, not because you’re just excellent at performing, but because you're excellent at managing and bringing the performances of multiple people into one project.
"But I do like being hands-on."
Shafer's desire to be hands-on is what drove him to depart Stardock after a little more than a year. The company had promised him a chance to start his own new game, which he was eager to do after the long and — at times — stifling process of building the next evolution of Sid Meier's massive strategy franchise. But even at smaller Stardock, there were limits on what Shafer could achieve on his own.
His first project was helping overhaul the ambitious fantasy-meets-strategy game Elemental: War of Magic. Stardock released the game in 2010 to generally abysmal reviews and made the unheard-of decision to revamp the game and re-release it for free to those who purchased the original.
Shafer stops shy of taking credit for the game's revamp, but admits he had a hand in steering Elemental: Fallen Enchantress in a new, more player-friendly direction. He would send Lead Designer Derek Paxton notes on user interface elements ("I would say, 'Hey, Derek, the enter button is the same size and the same shape as all the other buttons on this part of the screen and it’s right next to this other thing you click all the time. We should probably not do that. We could make it bigger and move it away so you can't click on it.'") and basic game mechanics ("One of the big things I was pushing on with Fallen Enchantress was trying to move away a little bit from the almost Dungeons & Dragons stat system."). He was also helping to design the campaign, in which players build an empire of magic-wielding fantasy soldiers and search for a lost artifact that will unleash an armada of dragons, allowing players to rule the world.
The redesign took most of two years and, with Shafer's help, Stardock released Elemental: Fallen Enchantress in October of 2012. Reviews were positive this time around, putting the game's Metacritic average at 77 as of this writing. Which brings us to Shafer's own project, the game he was promised and was starting to develop when he decided, amazingly, that it was time to move on again.
On Civ V, Fallen Enchantress and even his new, unnamed project (which is now being developed by another designer at Stardock), Shafer found himself in the extraordinary position of having a massive amount of impact on very large projects, with his decisions and philosophies directing the work of dozens of developers and programmers. But this power came at a cost: Shafer was bored. Instead of spending his time actually making a game, he found he was spending it managing and troubleshooting.
"As is often the case with strategy games, and games in general … you try something … you try something else … you add the thing and it doesn't work out … you change this, you change that," says Shafer. "You get feedback from someone who says this other very core thing that you hadn't even thought about is broken. It snowballs into this big chain of pain. You're trying to end up with something good, and it's hard."
Shafer says he knows that Stardock would have allowed him the freedom to get his hands dirty on his own game if he'd asked, but then he'd be lead designer and lead programer and still responsible for management and troubleshooting.
"It’s just too much," he says. "Too much for one person. The next best alternative was to go off and do my own thing."
Kay Fedewa has a rule. It's called the "two week rule."
The "two week rule" goes like this: If Fedewa decides she wants to buy a new pet (for example, a quail) she must wait two weeks. If, after two weeks, Fedewa still thinks buying a new pet is a good idea, then she will buy it. (Usually she doesn't.)
"I was going to get a bat a couple of weeks ago," says Fedewa. She's huddled deep in her living room sofa, bundled in a scarf and fidgeting. "The thing has like a three-foot wingspan. [Shafer] was like, 'This is one you should think about for a week.' And I did, and then I was like, 'You know what? You’re right. I shouldn't get a bat.'"
Fedewa is Conifer's artist. She is currently responsible for replacing Shafer's collection of random, stand-in images pulled from Google with permanent pieces of 2D pixel art. Looking at the game as it currently exists (very, very early in development), you can still see bits of Google flotsam peeking out from under her paint-on-canvas-inspired design. A blocky farmhouse here. A blunt, blue river there.
As Shafer shows off the game, he points out the way the dark spaces on the map, denoted by a dark "fog of war," seem to fade in and out, brushstroke by brushtsroke. It's a random effect created by the brushy texture of the land tiles overlapping the similar, but different texture of the fog. The two combined complement each other in a way that's downright beautiful — a testament to Fedewa's creative vision.
Fedewa grew up playing video games and tinkering with Photoshop, went to U of M, became vice president of the Wolverine Soft student organization, graduated, got a graphic design gig, lost her graphic design gig, met a developer at Stardock at a party and called in a favor from a former roommate to get a job there. Now she makes video games for a living. And in her spare time, she makes video games. And creates graphic novels, populates a DeviantArt account, paints, writes stories, tends a garden of plants (both inside and outside) and raises a menagerie of animals (both inside and outside).
The "two week rule" was Shafer's idea. There are currently more than two dozen animals living in Fedewa's house, including the lizards she raises to sell, but not including the 24 quail eggs incubating on the kitchen counter. The quail eggs did not fall under the "two week rule."
"I was just done reading Angie Gallant," says Fedewa, referring to the popular "Let's Play" writer. "She posted an LP of this game called Hatoful Boyfriend. It’s a pigeon dating simulator. One of those Japanese dating sims. But this guy goes through and makes everybody a pigeon. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen! … So I bought it. It was only like five dollars. I bought it because I wanted to support his crazy vision. One of the characters is a quail. I was like, 'I wonder if you can get quail?' So I went to eBay. You can get quail eggs on eBay. I bought them."
Fedewa isn't sure what she will do with the quail when or if they hatch. She'd like to try to tame one and keep it as a pet. If she can't, she'll sell them. There are people, she tells me, who will buy or sell anything.
"Dude," Fedewa says, "if there is an animal, there is a lady for it."
And Fedewa should know. In addition to the lizards and the nascent quail, her menagerie includes a very large rabbit who lives under the dining room table (and currently sports a purple food-coloring mohawk), and a rare Siberian fox named Anya who lives under the back yard deck.
If, as Fedewa says, there's a lady for everything, then Fedewa herself would be the fox lady.
"I have sweet-ass ideas."
"[Anya] doesn't really like hanging out inside," Fedewa says. "She likes to be a fox. I don't let her be a fox inside, because her urine smells terrible. Like skunk. She's litter-trained but she likes to mark. If she likes my purse, she'll be like, 'Oh, that's mine!' and pee on it."
Shafer's bird Tweeters was one of Fedewa's finds. She met a parrotlet lady at a local expo and traded her the bird for a gecko.
"[Shafer] said to me like 10 times, 'I like birds,'" says Fedewa. "When he was in Maryland … working on Civ. He didn’t really do anything other than work on Civ and then work out. When he worked out in the morning he watched the birds out his window. Then I noticed that whenever he vacations, he would have these pictures of birds. He just takes pictures of the birds."
She figured if Shafer were going to be home all day, he'd like to have a pet to work with. And if there were one pet Shafer would enjoy, it'd be a bird.
"We brought [Tweeters] home, and immediately he starts tweeting and I'm like, 'Oh my God. Jon's going to hate this. He's going to be making sounds all the time.' [Tweeters] turned out to be pretty good, but he's still a baby."
Shafer and Fedewa met, as you might expect, at Stardock. Shafer had just hired on and was the talk of the office. Fedewa decided to see for herself what all the talk was about.
"I looked in the lunchroom one day and there was this new boy sitting there," Fedewa says. "He had all of his hair buzzed at that point. I liked the shape of his head. I remember thinking he had a nice-shaped head. I was like, 'That boy's pretty cute.'"
Fedewa asked Shafer out for a drink, and Shafer, taking a cue from his hazing at Firaxis, decided to turn the tables.
"He said, 'Are you even old enough to drink?' Which was his way of saying 'No.' He was the first boy who ever turned me down. Challenge accepted."
Eventually a relationship formed over pizza and Mario Kart (Shafer is an unrepentant "snaker" — he weaves and slides his way through tracks, picking up extra speed through maneuvering) and, eventually, drinks. When Shafer decided to leave his job at Stardock and start his own thing, Fedewa just naturally fell into helping him out.
"If you're dating somebody, and you're serious about it, you're probably going to help them out," she says. "I feel like it makes sense to do it. As my partner, if he succeeds with this and makes a lot of money, that benefits me. [She laughs.] Right?
"It seems good. It seems smart. I trust him. I trust that he understands the demographic, the niche, that plays these kinds of games, and understands the demand there, and has experience designing this kind of game. If he says he thinks it's going to do well, I believe him."
She hopes that At the Gates does succeed and that Conifer can move on to making games more up her alley. She has her own game ideas to explore, and, according to her deal with Shafer, the next game (or the one after that) is going to be hers.
"I have sweet-ass ideas," she says. One of which is called "Space Coons."
"Space Coons is sweet. The story is that humanity … we start moving to Mars. We colonize Mars. But when we do that … you know, the raccoons have been living off our trash. They need our trash to survive. When we leave the cities and all go to Mars, the raccoons start starving. 'There's no trash!' They hear that all the trash is on Mars now, and Mars is this new trash utopia, so they hitch a ride on one of the shuttles and they make it to Mars. But it turns out that on Mars, they did things differently … [the humans] actually make a trash star. They’re using a space elevator to put all their trash in a big satellite made of trash. Then, once you’re on Mars, you find a way to get to the trash star.
"That's the story. That tells you nothing about the gameplay. But I can't tell you [the gameplay] because then you'll be like, 'That's such a great idea!'"
"Dude, if there's an animal, there's a lady for it."
In addition to making beautiful art and stockpiling "sweet-ass" ideas, Fedewa sees her role as helping normalize Shafer, who, by his own admission, can be a little uptight. He helps her make rational decisions; she helps him be more spontaneous. They are, in this way, a perfect fit.
She asks Shafer if, when he decided to leave Stardock to start Conifer, he considered it first; employing his own "two-week rule."
Shafer pauses, considers for a half-second, emitting a measured "Um," — as if filing through his mental archives for the topic "leaving Stardock" — then launches into a seemingly perfectly prepared statement on the subject. The gist of which is: "Yes, I thought about it."
"A lot of times, when I’ll make big decisions, to other people it'll seem kind of impulsive," Shafer says. "But it's always something that's been rattling around in my head for a while. For example, when I bought a house, I was like … 'I want to buy a house. I'll buy that house.' Whoa! But it's the sort of thing where I've been considering, at least, the framework of the decision for a while. I've either figured out the specifics of what I want or decided they were irrelevant. Like with a house. Some people are like, they want things in a very particular way, a certain layout, the bathrooms have to be organized a certain way. I'm like, 'No.' Area seems good. The guy who's selling it I know. He's moving. That guy is OCD. I know he takes good care of his house. Sure.
"Or in the case of leaving and starting my own company, it was something that I'd been thinking of for a while, even if the actual, 'Hey! Guess what I'm gonna go do!' was sort of, 'Whoa! You never mentioned that.' 'Oh. Sorry. I've been thinking about it for like five months.'"
"It's a good policy," he adds, speaking of the "two week rule." "Unless it's like lunch. 'What should I have for lunch? I'd better wait two weeks before I eat anything.' Not a good policy."
It's late on a weekday afternoon at Conifer HQ, and Shafer is showing off the rivers.
"We went ahead and built the map elevation system," Shafer says, sipping a mocha. "What it does is there's two passes. One starts at the mountains and another starts at the coast. It builds its way in, figuring out how close to the coast or the mountains it is. Those things are added together to determine how high it is. The closer to the coast it is, the lower it is. The closer it is to the mountains, the higher it is. Those two things combine and make a number that roughly simulates how high up it is."
He demonstrates how the calculations combine to create a realistic world map, with mountains, a coastline and rivers winding from one to the other. The elevation algorithm ensures that the rivers flow the way they should: toward the sea.
"I've been messing with this all day and last night trying to get it to work. I just finished it right now."
Seasons change in At the Gates, flooding rivers in spring and freezing them in winter.
At the Gates is what's called a "4X" strategy game (for explore, expand, exploit and exterminate). When you play it, you will be the leader of a tribe of barbarians around the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. Your job, in fact, will be to hasten that fall. You will earn "glory" points for accomplishing objectives and you will create and maneuver barbarian units across a world map in which seasons change, supplies run out and rivers freeze over in winter and flood in the spring.
The rivers, therefore, are key. While there is a subset of military strategy games that have employed changeable terrain and season effects, this is a largely unexplored mechanic. And it's one that Shafer believes could be a lot of fun, forcing players to consider the strategic implications of starting a war too late in the fall, or too early in the spring. At the moment, however, he's just trying to get the rivers to work at all.
Rivers will be placed randomly on a map, but in order to make them realistic, they have to flow downward from mountains, into and around lakes and other rivers and eventually end up in the sea. The lakes have been the headache. As deep holes in the ground, they have negative elevation, and so the rivers have been attracted to them, creating spider webs of nasty-looking rivers clumping around lakes, instead of natural-looking lines of rivers flowing into the sea.
After attacking the problem for a full day (12 hours, give or take) Shafer thinks he's sorted it, although he laughs at the suggestion he's creating a river simulator — he's not. He's just trying to fake it well enough to pass a "smell test."
"In a lot of cases, to get something realistic, you don't actually want to apply realism," Shafer says. "The more realistic you try to make something in terms of the bits and pieces, oftentimes the less realistic it actually seems on the whole. I guess that's part of the magic of game design and art. Simulating anything. If you try to depict it one for one, perfectly, a lot of times it doesn't work, because it's not whatever you're depicting. It's a simulation that's not perfect. Sometimes you have to fudge things."
The result, while not good enough for the U.S. Geological Survey, nevertheless looks real. At the Gates now has rivers.
Shafer shows off the result to Christ, who has just arrived home from work to start in on his second job as programmer for Conifer.
"We have three different rivers," Shafer says proudly. "They actually look river-like now."
Christ wants to know how the rivers are drawn, how the elevation codes are compiled and — most importantly — how many times the software has to run the calculations to get a result. He's concerned about what programmers call "elegance," which basically means trying to solve a problem in one step instead of three.
"In a lot of cases, to get something realistic, you don’t actually want to apply realism."
"Why are there five different layers?" Christ asks.
"A pass to go from the coast in," Shafer says, "a pass from the mountains out, a pass for the rivers, a pass for the lakes and a pass for ..."
"But that's passes. That's not layers necessarily."
"Well, I store them all as separate layers and then I combine them at the end."
"OK," says Christ. "As long as you combine them." Christ seems mollified, but he'll know later how worried he needs to be. He acknowledges that Shafer is probably the best programmer he's worked with (on games, anyway), but as lead programmer on At the Gates it's still his job to make sure everything Shafer creates works well with everything Christ himself creates. If Shafer cuts corners or fudges (he doesn't, but you never know) things could get ugly, quickly.
Christ has been programming since high school. He wanted to make video games, so he did some internet searches, bought a book and began teaching himself the C++ programming language. And just like that, the code wizard was born.
"Programming is definitely one of my strong traits," Christ says, in that way almost all programmers speak when speaking of themselves: shyly, but boastfully. As if talking about themselves is the very last thing they want to do, but so long as it's about how great they are at programming, then, well, why not go for it?
"Part [of] programming is just having the ability to logically understand and organize things in your head," Christ says. "I'm pretty good at logically understanding and organizing things in my head. I think that's why I'm usually pretty successful in programming. As far as the knowledge side goes, part of it is how much you already know, and then part of it is how well you can pick up on other things, even if you know where to go to find them. That sort of thing.
"As far as what I already know … compared to most people I probably know a fair amount. But sometimes you don't know what you don't know."
One thing Christ knows he knows is that making games is hard, and finding good people to make them with is even harder.
"For a long time now I've been looking for a good team of people to work on games," Christ says. "I've been part of a lot of projects that … you find that if it's not your actual job that you go to every day, then people will tend to stop doing it."
Christ describes his efforts in the field of game design as plagued by associating with people who aren't as serious about it as he is. Or else easily distracted and not very motivated. These are problems Jon Shafer does not have.
"Jon is extremely motivated," says Christ. "I've met other people who are extremely motivated as well, but sometimes they're extremely motivated to do things that aren't really productive. I was working with someone else before who was acting as a game designer. That was his position. He was extremely motivated to make connections in the industry and go do legal paperwork and stuff, but when it came to actually designing a game … there was no progress on this front."
Christ works as a programmer for an automotive industry data company by day. By night, he's Conifer's code wizard. He's never had an interest in relocating from his native Detroit to Los Angeles or San Francisco or any of the other more active centers of the game industry. He likes where he lives, and, perhaps more importantly, he likes making more money than game designers typically make. So instead of settling for a job at one of the few local area game development studios, he decided to work extra hours, on top of his "civilian" job, and help make a game that he could call his own.
After a few false starts and disappointments, Christ met his roommate's new boyfriend, got roped into joining the Conifer team and the rest is soon to be history.
"I'd like to make a game and just put it out there and be happy with what I created," Christ says. "That's at least what I'm thinking is something that will happen. I can at least create a game, put it out there, and be happy with what I've created. But the best-case scenario would be that the game actually does well and that it's something I can continue to do as a more full-time thing."
Christ believes At the Gates could be the key that unlocks that door.
The term "conifer" refers to a large family of trees and shrubs found primarily in the cooler, mountainous regions of North and South America. That tree you slog home strapped to the top of your sedan at Christmas time: it's a conifer. So are the Juniper shrub in your neighbor's yard and the hemlock plant that killed Socrates. The larch, the spruce, the cedar and the magnificent redwoods — all conifers.
Conifers are "evergreen," can bear fruit and are capable of surviving — even thriving — in conditions where other plants fail. And where they grow, they dominate. Not a bad name for a game company trying to scratch out an existence from basically nothing.
"On the more boring side of picking a name for something, I wanted something that was short, easy to remember and easy to spell," says Shafer, "The last two places I worked, I would tell people where I worked, and they would say, 'What?' Then I would tell them again and they would say, 'How do you spell that?' Both places. 'Firaxis? What does that mean?'"
Conifer. Three syllables, familiar and easy to spell. And all they had to do was look out the window.
The Conifer HQ in suburban Detroit looks like a mountain cabin, complete with scenery, dropped into the middle of a landscape carpeted with subdivisions and shopping malls. Designed by a local architect, it's planted on a hill, separated from the surrounding tract house neighborhoods by a large swath of protected wetlands. Once you turn off the main road leading to the house and trundle up the long, snow-covered driveway, you could be almost anywhere. Once you're inside, all you see out the generous windows is nature. Specifically: conifers.
When the search for a name for their fledgling company turned to nature-related terms, the choice got simple, quickly. The task of creating a logo: less so.
"I'm just upset about the logo," Fedewa declares over lunch at a nearby Indian street food joint. "I'm trying to do something artistic with it and [Shafer] says, 'No, that's weird.'"
"That's the thing about design versus art; sometimes something may be cool, but it doesn't hit the design goal."
"I didn't say it looked weird. I said it was off-putting," says Shafer.
"But what does that mean? It doesn't mean anything."
They've just finished talking about how their personal relationship shouldn't affect their business relationship, and as much as it's obvious that they mean it, it's hard not to wonder. They are, after all, young, driven and passionate.
Fedewa declares that if the two broke up, it wouldn't hit either of them too particularly hard. She'd kick him out of her house, and he'd "do this thing somewhere else."
"I already have my own company anyway," she says. "But we're both self-sufficient. If we broke up or something we'd be fine."
This begins a tussle over whose company is better, hers or his. His has just gotten started, while hers has been around for 10 years and has more fans.
"You may have more fans," Shafer says, "but they're all insane teenage girls."
"Yeah," Fedewa admits. "They are."
"My fans are old men with money," Shafer says, laughing. "In history that's usually worked out well."
A few minutes later, the talk turns to marriage. Fedewa suggests the couple "needs" to get married. Shafer admits that this is a possibility. When (if) the big day comes, it will be a backyard thing, because Fedewa hates churches and the pair agrees that a wedding is supposed to be a party, not "an event."
"It does seem like a lot of people try to go out of their way to make weddings actually not fun," Shafer says. "For anyone."
"I still don't really understand the importance of marriage," Fedewa admits. "But ... We should probably do it, [she laughs] for tax purposes."
Back to the logo argument, Fedewa, becoming anxious, says she doesn't understand what it is Shafer wants her to create. She made something cool, but he doesn't want cool, he wants functional. Which, to Fedewa, is the opposite of making art.
"Well, that's the thing about design versus art," Shafer says, patiently. "Art and being cool is perfect. Design is, you have a goal and you’re trying to achieve that goal. Sometimes something may be cool, but it doesn't hit that goal."
The debate continues. Shafer recreates the argument, word for word, using a grating, squeaky voice to mimic Fedewa in the grip of her frustration.
"You don't have to use that voice," Fedewa says. "You make it sound off."
"That was the voice," Shafer says. "Don't even lie. Don't even lie. You were being a little Sasquatch."
Fedewa concedes she'd had a bad day, and was frustrated and taking it out on Shafer. She says she does that, from time to time.
"Well, you had it plain, before I added the art. Just leave it plain," she says. "You love plain things. You're so plain. You're so boring ..."
"Plain girls, plain food ..."
"Plain games. I'm all about plain."
And then the conversation turns back to rivers and game designs. It's a telling moment, and a charming one. For all of the creative passion on display, the argument is a farcical one, the "plain girls" comment the obvious tell.
Sitting at a table in a crowded Indian restaurant in suburban Detroit, there is no other woman in sight quite like Fedewa. With feathers in her green-streaked hair and elfin eyes over a crooked smile, she is anything but plain, and she knows it. And so does Shafer. And in spite of disagreeing over logos, clashing over whether or not "snaking" is an exploit or a skill and being opposites in just about every observable way, they are perfect for each other.
The moment of tension passes, if it was ever really there in the first place. Later this same day, the two will collaborate and finish the Conifer logo. The result will be plain and cool.
"I remember reading that the average amount of time that a game developers spends in the business is five years," Shafer says. "To compare that with other industries, it's just crazy. Five years is nothing. If I quit when I was five years in I would have been 24 at the time. You think about other industries, it's obviously nothing even close to that. Part of that is how rapidly the business as a whole moves.
"In five years, companies can appear, grow humongous and completely collapse. There aren't many other fields that are quite as volatile. It's impossible to really predict where things are going to go. … Which is a little bit scary."
The Conifer plan is simple: announce the Kickstarter, hopefully collect enough money to finish the game, hopefully sell enough copies to make another one and then do it all again. Simple, but anything but certain.
Shafer isn't nervous, but he is anxious to get the game announced and then gauge the response. At this point, Conifer has been underground for almost a year, and although the game has been in development for just as long or longer, no one has seen it or heard anything about it. The Kickstarter will be the first big announcement of what he's been up to since leaving Stardock. And, in fact, his first major announcement as a lead designer since finishing Civ V. His plan is to make it a big one.
"My goal is to be extremely transparent with everything," Shafer says. "Some Kickstarter campaigns, they close things off to everybody except who's donated. They send out private updates. It just seems like a terrible idea. Don't you want people to know about your cool game that they should be excited about? You build this gated community and it's not going to do you any good. It's people trying to find ways of rewarding people that give them money, but there are probably better ways to do that."
Shafer's way: The total ask for the Kickstarter will be $40,000, and he's announcing the game for release in 2014. There will be an "alpha" game test starting later this year, which funders will be invited to, and for a certain dollar amount, funders will get access Shafer's own design documents via Google, where they can watch the game change, on paper, in real time.
"Everything is going to be out there," he says. "When you're making these types of games, you live and die by your community and people trusting you and believing in what you're doing. Any time you make anything, somebody's not going to like it. That’s just the way it is. But you always want people to have as much information as they can."
There isn't a lot of ambivalence, among the Conifer team, about whether or not their Kickstarter will succeed. Christ jokes that, of the $40,000 they are asking for, they'll only get $12,000. But it's hard to tell if he's serious. Shafer's confidence has infected all of them, and in Christ's mind, there is no doubt that the game will be funded and finished.
"I think for sure we'll be able to complete the game," Christ says. "The best-case scenario can get as crazy as you want it to get. Maybe we have so much money to throw around we can … I don't know. But the best-case scenario would be that at least we could go and do this, the three of us, full time. Then just put out an even better game after that."
Whatever happens, Shafer hopes to keep the company small. He's worked with large teams, and he's done with that.
Fedewa agrees. Her "best case" is Conifer takes off, At the Gates leads to the next game, then the next, then the next, and at some point one of those "nexts" is one of hers (maybe Space Coons). Then a backyard wedding and who-the-hell-knows. Life, unfolding at speed. Look out, world.
Whatever happens, Shafer hopes to keep the company small. He's been on the other side. He's worked with large teams. And, for now, he's done with that.
"We probably won't ever get an office," Shafer says, surrounded by plants and animals and various friends of Fedewa's coming and going, borrowing tools and tracking mud on the floor. Tweeters, behind him, begins rustling his feathers. He wants to get out and spread his wings.
"If you're going to have people that are salaried employees who exist in a place and then go home and check out and don't talk to each other and then come back in the morning and do that again, an office makes sense," Shafer says. "But that's not really how this team is structured. If I didn't have Kay and Jonathan … I don't know … that's what Conifer is. That's the three of us plus people helping out and making something cool."
You want them to be superheroes. The prodigy, the artist and the programmer. You want them to be bigger than the odds. You want them to unite and do bigger, better things than they could have on their own.
You want them to be superheroes, but they're not; they're something more precious. These three people of Conifer are dreamers. They're not setting out to save the world, rather to make a living doing something they love. And although they're just three people against difficult odds, it's a sign of the wild state of this industry that their scheme, however preposterous, might just work.
[Photography: Jakob Skogheim]
[Design: Russ Pitts, Warren Schultheis]
[Images: Conifer Games]
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