A Game Development Love Story
Maintaining a job, a marriage and the spare-time creation of an RPG threatened to be too much for one man — until his wife decided to step in.
This is a love story. It's a tale about two people who meet, fall in love, share their lives and — through the seven-year making of a video game — find that the unique qualities which separate them as individuals are just as important as that which binds them together.
Boy meets girl
Ville meets Anne at university. He is a programmer, a man who works with code and computers. She is a psychologist, specializing in helping children with learning difficulties.
They live and study in Jyväskylä, a pleasant city in central Finland, a place of blue lakes, northern forests and open municipal spaces.
Their studies involve the creation of a software tool, called Graphogame, that helps children cope with limitations. Both have much to offer the project. They work closely together, complementing one another's skills.
Within a year, they are married.
Ville Mönkkönen is a newlywed husband with a good job making educational software. He also has this other thing he does, a side project, a hobby.
He badly wants to make a video game. Specifically, a role-playing adventure that, as he says, "makes people smile."
The game is Driftmoon, an exploration adventure, a fairy tale of discovery.
But, like a million other people with a passion to create, he finds the project going around in circles. It takes up too much of his time. It does not progress as he wishes.
Worse, although it is a big part of his life, it is not something he can fully share with his wife.
Ville: "I would sit on the computer and program the game's engine for hours on end, while Anne waited. It really felt like my little hobby was taking a lot of time away from our relationship."
He knows he should just quit making this game, spend more time with Anne. But making this game, it's something he has always wanted to do. It's a part of who he is.
Another option occurs to them both. There is the possibility that Anne can become part of the project, help him make the game, just as they had collaborated on their university project.
Ville: "I decided that either I should quit it, or turn it into something that we can work on together."
There is one snag. Anne's help on the university project was based on her knowledge of children, her interest in people. Although she has been brought up playing games, she has no experience making them.
Ville: "At first I didn't know how she could take part in it."
Anne: "For the first year when the two of us were together, the engine behind Driftmoon really was Ville's own project. I remember on many days waiting for Ville to finish up on the day's extra work, so that we could start our time together. At that time, the only way I took part in the project was by showing my interest in what he was doing, and discussing ideas together."
They talk about what she might contribute.
Ville: "I thought that maybe she could work on the sounds, and possibly photograph a few textures."
Anne is a keen photographer and especially interested in nature. She likes to walk around the forests near Jyväskylä and take pictures of the local plant life. This is how she begins, taking snaps of mushrooms and ferns that can be used to populate the world of the game.
It's a small beginning to a process that will end in her learning almost every aspect of game creation; in her contributing so much to the game that it becomes as much her creation as his.
Anne: "I think the key really is that we were in it together. Neither of us ever could have come up with the final Driftmoon, let alone completed the project by themselves."
A charming place
Driftmoon is a top-down RPG of the old-school variety. Its graphics, animations, movement and combat are simplistic and retro.
But it's a charmer. The game is full of pleasant surprises, fun characters, silly jokes, captivating dialogue.
When the game launched in February this year, reviews were positive.
Rock Paper Shotgun's John Walker is not an easy critic to please. He wrote, "I'm really impressed with Driftmoon. Not just because it's such an impressive indie project, but because it's a memorable RPG in its own right. A fun, light-hearted game, with a more serious story running beneath it."
Other reviewers spoke warmly of how the game seemed to channel the great RPGs of the 1990s. RPGWatch's David Yarwood compared Driftmoon to Sierra's classic Quest for Glory series, writing, "It's been a long time since I enjoyed a game as much as this one." PC Gamer's Tom Sykes called the game "lovely," adding, "Driftmoon is a lighthearted role-playing adventure set in a detailed and imaginative but tongue-in-cheek world."
Published by Anne and Ville's company Instant Kingdom, the game is currently seeking a Greenlight for Steam. Comments on forums have been extremely positive. The consensus is that Driftmoon is a feel-good game, a quirky, individualistic fairy tale. It achieves the thing that indie games strive to deliver: an emotional reach that stretches beyond mere mechanics, that connects the creators with the players.
This was, after all, what Anne and Ville wanted to achieve all along. Ville says they talked endlessly about making a game that helped people to feel good, "like when you open a present on Christmas Day," that exuded the sense of discovery and wonder that came with playing Ultima and Zelda games.
Anne: "When people try Driftmoon, most of them really seem to like it. I suppose that kind of sends out the signal that there are a lot of people out there who like good-hearted adventures where you find a lot of things and meet interesting personalities. You'll get a laugh or two every once in awhile."
As a young girl, Anne had enjoyed playing video games, though it was clear to her that she did not always want the same things from games as her brothers. She enjoyed games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Heroes of Might and Magic III, games with characters and stories of magical journeys.
Growing up, this distinction between different types of games, the variety of worlds and experiences they provide, was not wholly appreciated by male members of her family, but it's something that came in useful for her, later in life.
Anne: "For my 13th birthday, my father had gotten this wonderful idea from my brothers to buy me Doom II as a gift. That's the sort of game that I don't really enjoy. I wasn't thrilled to get it [laughs]. I have some good memories related to games, but also this one that I really didn't like too much."
As she began gathering photographs for Driftmoon, she also began thinking about how the games of her childhood had affected her; what it was that made those games so enjoyable at the time, and so memorable, years later.
Anne: "I developed an interest in finding the most obscure little plants, and trying to get quality photos of them, so that Ville could use them as graphics models, and turn them into plants in his game project."
She found her interest in the project growing and saw that, actually, game development need not be such a mystery. There were things she could do, and if not, there were things she could learn to do.
Anne: "I learned to put together sound effects, then something else, and his game project gradually turned into our game project. Before I knew it, I was designing the gameplay, writing the story and the mountains of dialogue alongside Ville."
Ville: "When Anne hopped in, she soon started taking a very active role, writing, scripting and designing the game. Over the years I've finally learned to trust Anne's versatility. She can do just about anything she puts her mind to."
A joint project
Anne's contribution wasn't just practical. The project became something between the couple, and this brought it a focus that hadn't been there before.
Working alone, Ville had originally begun the game aiming to create an MMO-type experience. But that hadn't worked out and so he'd begun again, writing first one script, then another, drifting through iterations that never quite came together.
Working as a couple they were able to give the game the special dynamic that comes from all good teams, affirmations of good work and rejections or improvements of bad work. Driftmoon gradually came together as a tangible, achievable thing.
Ville would dream about the game. When he woke, before the day even began, they'd talk about the dreams, discuss what ideas they might draw from them.
Ville: "The best times we've had working with Driftmoon have been when we've been planning something together, be it a new feature or a new character. I believe that's where the strength lies with couples developing games together — being able to discuss new ideas openly and intimately."
When a team clicks, projects progress, and so it proved with Driftmoon. The vision was finalized, scripts were written, assets were created and collected. Coding began in earnest. The Mönkkönens were a creative team just like any other, with divisions of labor based on skills and enthusiasms.
Of course, this team had another focus that other game teams don't generally have. They had children.
And this is one of the reasons why the game took quite a long time to finish.
Troubles and struggles
Ville had a full-time job making educational software, while Anne, on hiatus from work to raise their young children, had her hands full with a four-year-old and a two-year-old.
Anne: "Basically, we worked as much as we could, after the kids went to sleep. And when they were awake, we mostly took turns. Most of the time, anyway. And then we worked as long as we could in the evening. Of course we also took time off sometimes, but we've had to do a lot of work to make Driftmoon."
So on weeknights they'd work on the game for four hours, or for an hour, depending on the children and their own levels of exhaustion. On weekends, they'd divide themselves and their time between the children and the game, taking turns to do what needed to be done.
Anne: "Our children are very important to us, obviously. They're the most important thing for us. They're much more important than our third child called Driftmoon [laughs]. But we've also had some help from their grandparents. That's been very important. And we've made sure that we have time to go outside with the children and do things like that."
There were times along the way when they talked about quitting.
Ville: "While it's been very interesting, challenging and inspiring at times, at other times it's also been very difficult."
Anne: "It's been tough sometimes, because it's such a huge amount of work. I think what's gotten us here is that we're doing this together. It's not something that separates us. It's something that's brought us even closer together. I think it was a really good choice, that we did this together instead of just Ville by himself sitting in a corner. That wouldn't have been good."
There have been notable game development couples before. Roberta and Ken Williams, who worked on Sierra's games. Brenda Brathwaite and John Romero, who have stellar careers individually, and who married recently and have collaborated.
The list goes on. Michelle Juett and James Silva at Ska Games. Dave and Janet Gilbert at Wadjet Eye Games. Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn at Tale of Tales.
Nowadays there are countless indie game developers who rely on their partners for practical and emotional support, manifesting itself in a million ways, from helping with the accounts to designing central characters to coding.
Anne's story proves that game development has become something that anyone can do, especially if they have talent and a big idea, and are working with someone who has complementary skills.
Anne and Ville's experience represents this phenomena of gaming becoming less a model of huge teams and repetitive mechanics and more about the visions of individuals, couples, small groups of people, who bring what they can, however they can, who work hard and who pour themselves into their projects.
Anne: "Working on Driftmoon has given us the chance to share our lives and thoughts on a different kind of level. Even though we do discuss our children, and other subjects a lot as well, it's felt like a privilege to be able to use our brains together, have this big dream and huge project that we can both contribute to. Of course, it's not only been great; it's also been very challenging, and sometimes stressful, but less so because we've also been able to share all that and support one another."
What advice would she give to any other couples planning on spending seven years on making games together?
Anne: "Remember to always treat each other with respect, give your significant other as much positive feedback and support as possible, and be honest but constructive in your critique. Humor is always good, so try to keep working together fun — and remember to also do other things together, so that your big game project doesn't become your whole life.
It's also vital to keep in mind that even though your project is important to you, the people in your life should always remain higher in your list of priorities. You have to keep reminding yourself that your relationship is always much more important than the game you're making — and if you have children together, they always need to know and feel that they come in first place."
Anne is about ready to return to her work as a psychologist and doesn't see herself changing careers, but says she'll happily work on Ville's next project, when he feels ready to start working on another game.
For Ville, it's just a relief that the game is done, that it's out in the world and being enjoyed by people, just as he and Anne planned. He likes his job creating educational games, but, sure, he'd like to set up shop and focus on his own games one day.
And he thinks they've created a game that's not just a fun story, but an artifact that represents something more important.
Ville: "To me, our work together has been about learning to respect her more and more, not only as my lovely wife, but also as the very intelligent and creative person that she is.
"There's so much of us in that little game that you'll actually get to know us quite a bit just by playing it. Of course, that means opening ourselves, our personalities, even our core values to public critique — and that's a very strange feeling. I'm just glad that our digital counterpart usually leaves people smiling and happy. Actually, that's probably caused by the little part of Anne that's floating somewhere in Driftmoon — at least she always makes me smile."
Header design: Warren Schultheis
Layout: Matt Leone
Editing: Matt Leone, Russ Pitts
Images: Ville Mönkkönen, Anne Mönkkönen
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