Dragon Fantasy's unlikely hero

How a colorful world of dragons, knights and magic was born from a father's dream for his son.

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It was a bad day for Adam Rippon. Five months earlier, his father Tom had died of cancer. Today would have been Tom Rippon's birthday.

Adam Rippon was having a rough time coming to terms with the fact that one of the most important people in his life was gone for good, and today felt even tougher than usual. It was about to get even worse. He went out with his wife to sell a laptop. Too deflated and distracted to pay attention to his surroundings, he was robbed at gunpoint.

On a day when he really just needed a hug and some beer, he had a loaded gun pointed at him instead. Neither he nor his wife was harmed, but neither slept that night, either.

"We went home and my mom was there, and we basically sat there shivering," Rippon remembers.

By 11 p.m., he was overcome with a different kind of distraction. Whether it was the result of the shock from the robbery or the dark cloud of his father's death finally lifting, he felt compelled to do something. His brain was buzzing. A programmer by trade, he hopped on his computer and channeled this sudden burst of energy into finishing a job he had been pecking away at. He was working on a user interface system, making tables and graphs that would be used for other people's games. But the adrenaline-pumped Rippon didn't stop there. He started creating tiles and sprites and laying them out on a grid.

That night, Rippon created a very basic game world with his father's sprite walking around, talking to people and fighting a monstrous bunny rabbit.

It had been a bad day for Adam Rippon. But things were about to get a whole lot better.

Just another guy

Tom Rippon was an artist and a professor of fine arts at the University of Montana. He made colorful, playful sculptures that were bright and surreal — sculptures that made people smile. His art was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at the Yellowstone Art Museum. He was a creative who loved to make things that were his own, and he encouraged this in both his sons.

As a kid, Adam Rippon wanted to be a mad scientist. His dad made incredible, surreal sculptures, so he planned to one-up that by inventing time travel. When he realized he couldn't invent time travel, he decided to make video games instead.

He wanted to make a role-playing game. He loved games like Final Fantasy 2. He loved to tell stories. When he was 14, he started plotting an RPG called Talisman with his friend Bryan Sawler. They came up with a detailed plan to make a game so big that it had multiple books and chapters, taking a colorful cast of characters from unforgiving deserts to punishing, blizzard-ravaged mountains.

The teenagers taught each other to code over internet chatrooms, and were eventually able to scrape together a very basic version of the game playable on Game Boy Color. Off the back of this very rough RPG, both got jobs in the game industry, where they would spend the next few years working on licensed handheld games.

On Rippon's first day as a professional game developer, his father dropped him off at work. "But he didn't linger, because that would have been weird," Rippon says. "Dad always loved video games. So he went back home and picked up my Game Boy Color and started playing The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening."

Two days into his job, Rippon got a call at work on his landline.

"It was Dad," Rippon says. "He had called to ask: 'What do I do to get past this part of Zelda?' He really got into Zelda. He played all of them. I actually inherited his Nintendo DS and his unfinished save game for Spirit Tracks. One of these days I'm going to finish it for him."

"Ever since, I've just had a Regular Joe job in the game industry."

Both Sawler and Rippon spent several years working at medium-sized studios, mostly making handheld licensed games. Sawler later formed the indie studio Muteki Corp., and Rippon signed on to be its creative director.

"We didn't touch Talisman for years," Rippon says. "After leaving my first job, I spent six months trying to bring it back, but just gave up. Ever since, I've just had a Regular Joe job in the game industry. I'm a good programmer, but I'm just another guy."

For a long time, Rippon thought he was content. After all, he'd always wanted to be a game developer (except for when he wanted to be a mad scientist), and now he had a job in the game industry.

When his father died of cancer in December 2010 after a 25-month battle with the disease, it dawned on Rippon that, unlike his father, he hadn't made anything of his own. He'd spent the past 11 years making other people's games. He'd written thousands of lines of code to bring other people's ideas to life, but his own stories — his own Final Fantasy 2 — remained in a bunch of notes he'd written when he was 14. He was just another guy. This was not what his father had taught him to be.

That night in his house, after the robbery, adrenaline pumping, brain buzzing, he finished coding a user interface system that could be used for other people's games. When he was done, he just had to test it. In order to test it, he put together some virtual tiles and made a little video game map. He then decided to see if he could get an animated person to walk around on this map. He drew a tiny sprite of his father. He then drew more people and put them in a town so that his dad would have someone to talk to.

The little maps and sprites he created would form the basis of Dragon Fantasy Book 1 — a reinvention of the abandoned Talisman. Instead of having a cast of Final Fantasy-inspired characters with afros of cotton-candy hair, the lead character would be his father — a man with no hair.

Tom Rippon


It's time

Dragon Fantasy: Book 1

"At Muteki, we have a long-running policy of no RPGs allowed," Rippon says. "They take too long, they're too resource-intensive and they don't make financial sense for a small indie studio."

But Rippon couldn't let go of Dragon Fantasy — not this time. Over the next two weeks he programmed doors and treasure chests into the game and implemented a crude battle system that involved the options "fight" and "defend." The "defend" option was scrapped when it became clear that the battle system was so crude that no defending was actually happening.

"When I got the doors and treasure chests working, I figured I would show Bryan," Rippon says. "I said, 'Bryan, don't get mad. I made Talisman.' And he was like, 'What?', and I showed him the character walking around and talking to people. The character was able to buy stuff from another character, and it was all made with our own engine and [user interface]."

There was no way the studio could work on the game full-time. It relied on contract work to pay the bills, and Muteki already had a full plate making game engines and user interfaces for companies like Electronic Arts and Disney. It was even commissioned to make a poll app for the U.S. election. To the studio, time spent not working on contract projects was time spent not making money. And here they were, Muteki's co-founder and creative director, looking at an RPG that was unlikely to make them any money at all.

"He looked at it; I looked at it," Rippon says. "Then Bryan said, 'We're going to do this. We have to. It's time.'"

Sony comes calling

Dragon Fantasy: Book 1 is about a 46-year-old knight who, when he was 16, was the hero from all role-playing games. He slayed all the dragons, rescued the princess, saved the world and, when the princess became the queen, was made captain of her royal guard where he spent the next 30 years doing absolutely nothing.

The 46-year-old, Ogden, is based on Tom Rippon. In Book 1, the character is forced back into action when he is called upon to save the world again. For Rippon, this reflects his own creative journey; he's a writer finally telling stories again after a long hiatus. The game plays out through three chapters, which introduce new characters and take Ogden on travels through colorful environments full of history and lore.

"I've had this story in my head for a billion years now," Rippon says. "I love stories. I like getting to know characters. I think a lot of American RPGs — and a lot of games in general, with a few exceptions — don't give you a sense that these seven or eight other characters are your friends and you're banding together. There's very little character development.

"We never called them because we had the feeling that Sony couldn't possibly be interested in talking to indies seriously."

"Japanese RPGs are, to me, one of the few genres where there's really serious character development in almost every game. Unfortunately, a lot of them these days have a lot of serious development of characters who are completely one-dimensional tropes brought out again for the millionth time. So as a writer, I really try to explore all elements of their character — bald 46-year-olds and princes who I imply are drunks."

Muteki worked on the game only during weekends and evenings, continuing with its contract work to pay the bills. After two years of working on Dragon Fantasy in these little pockets of spare time, the company finally released it on mobile devices and PC.

The game was a critical success, garnering comparisons to classic RPGs like Dragon's Quest, Final Fantasy, Lufia and Earthbound. It performed modestly in terms of sales, but Rippon was just relieved it sold at all. Muteki took Dragon Fantasy to the Minecraft convention Minecon and, after some encouragement from fellow developers, showed it at PAX East in Boston.

On both occasions, Rippon and Sawler were approached by representatives from Sony Computer Entertainment, but they didn't think anything of it.

"I ran into one of them in an elevator and they said we should talk and gave me their card," Rippon says. "We never called them because we had the feeling that Sony couldn't possibly be interested in talking to indies seriously. We really felt like nobody would be interested in this game other than kids."

At PAX East, Sony insisted that Muteki email. At that point, Rippon had started working on a sequel to Dragon Fantasy, which would tell the stories that were left untold in Book 1. He'd thought of introducing a character based on his mother. Maybe Ogden would meet her. Maybe it would be cute. Or maybe it would be too weird.

"Sony invited us to their office in Foster City, Calif., to show them what we were working on, and as we were driving down there in Bryan's car, we kept saying there's no way anything's going to come out of this. There's maybe a 1 percent chance."

Shane Bettenhausen, an account support manager for Sony's developer relations team, was the one who saw Dragon Fantasy at PAX East two years earlier. He'd recently joined the company and was tasked with looking for games that would work well with PlayStation's devices.

"There's a deeper level to this game that, on the surface, you might not see."

"I'd heard of Dragon Fantasy on iOS and, personally, I'm a big fan of traditional role-playing games, and whenever I see something that looks like a game of my childhood I'm just drawn to it," Bettenhausen says. "When we met with Muteki, we could tell they were a little nervous. They actually had a relationship with my boss Adam Boyes — I believe that in the past he had worked with the Muteki guys on a Spy Kids game for Game Boy Color, and maybe it wasn't the greatest game ever. So maybe they were worried that we were going to remember the Spy Kids game and never hire them.

"We did remember them from that, but we saw their new pitch and it was so much better."

Muteki showed the nascent levels of Dragon Fantasy: Book 2 to Sony's developer relations team, and talked about its plans for multiplayer. In Dragon Fantasy: Book 1, the art has an 8-bit aesthetic that deliberately mimics games made for the Nintendo Entertainment System. In Book 2, the game "advances" to the 16-bit era of the Super Nintendo.

Sony was interested. A week later, Sony offered to pub-fund and publish Dragon Fantasy: Book 2 for PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita. The game launched on September 10, 2013.

According to Bettenhausen, part of the reason Sony had confidence in Muteki was because it had made games before and shown that it had an understanding of meeting deadlines. The team members also clearly knew their RPGs, despite the studio's long-standing rule of not making them.

"And the other part that drew me to Dragon Fantasy was the personal side of the story," Bettenhausen says. "The fact that the game was partially inspired by the lives of the guys who made it and they put a bit of themselves into this product — it's real, it's from an emotional point of view and I think that resonates with a lot of players — and with me.

"There's a deeper level to this game that, on the surface, you might not see, and I think that's what's really, really compelling about Book 1 and Book 2. I think the reason why this franchise will keep going is because, ultimately, Muteki actually has something to say with this game."

Ogden's adventure continues

Muteki is still in the same office it was in when it was scraping together its first RPG, but things are now a bit different.

"All of us feel a lot more hopeful about the future. It's not to say we don't enjoy doing games for other people, but having that feeling of being in charge of our own destiny is tremendous," Rippon says. "The fact that we feel like we've got something that really is our thing is huge, too. We feel like a real company now. We have our name on the door. We didn't have our name on the door before."

"I know if he was alive today — heck, even if he had cancer and was still alive — he'd be doing the art in this game."

Through the doors of its Oakland, Calif.-based office, Muteki's shelves are lined with plush toy rock monsters from Dragon Fantasy, and its walls proudly display posters of its bald-headed hero.

"God, I wish he could see it," Rippon says of his father. "I really feel like he's kind of here with me sometimes, working on it. I've got a crappy doodle of him over on the whiteboard just staring down at me all the time, like he's watching our office.

"I know he would have been proud. I know he would have been so excited. I know if he was alive today — heck, even if he had cancer and was still alive — he'd be doing the art in this game. He'd be working on it with me. And I like to think he is anyway." Babykayak

Images: Adam Rippon
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone

Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan