Why one dev gave up the rock star life for a Kickstarter project

A musician's journey from stardom to indie game design

Guitar-playing teens often dream of growing up to become rock stars — of touring the world, selling out arenas, fighting to hear their own instrument over the screams of an adoring crowd.

That's exactly the life that Australian musician Johnny Galvatron led for years as the frontman of his own band and a touring member of groups as diverse as The Police, Kiss and Tame Impala.

And it's exactly the life that Galvatron€ (his stage name) has given up in favor of becoming a game designer. He's abandoned a life on the road after nearly 10 years, choosing instead to settle down in Melbourne and work on a new creative endeavor: The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti, a surreal adventure game that's now looking for backers on Kickstarter.

That might seem like a fairly dramatic career change for the musician. But Galvatron, who was known as the most flamboyant member of his synth rock band, The Galvatrons, sees it differently.

"I got a record deal around a week after I graduated [college] and hardly made it home for a few years," he says, going back to the start of his music career in 2007. With the Galvatrons, the designer won acclaim in his home country; the group toured Australia and the U.K. extensively, opening for bigger names like Cheap Trick. The band — characterized in an interview as the sonic equivalent of the Transformers cartoon meets Van Halen and Back to the Future — even got a mention in Rolling Stone, he said.

But Galvatron dabbled in other artistic ventures between gigs. He had studied film and computer animation in college, and those interests stayed with him. He'd write articles for gaming publications while en route to shows; he'd occasionally make what he called "abstract sample games" on the band's laptop, too.

While the band was accomplishing things many aspiring musicians hope for, Galvatron grew restless. More than that, he was tired. His myriad other artistic interests, including writing, film and, of course, game design, were calling to him, he says. On top of that, the constant touring was wearing on him.

He doesn't say that that's what led to the band's breakup, though. As Galvatron puts it, his rock group called it quits, "as bands do." With more free time, though, he's been able to get serious about game development.

"Gaming reminds me of garage music"

The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti is the debut project from Beethoven and Dinosaur, the studio Galvatron formed with composer Josh Abrahams (whose credits include Moulin Rouge!), and programmers Justin Blackwell and Sean Slevin. A recipient of an Unreal Dev Grant in 2015, the project spent time on Steam Greenlight before moving over to Kickstarter earlier this month. It's a surreal adventure game whose campaign page promises "alchemists, wanderers, naked Space Gods, hallucinogens, horizonless wonder and incredible danger."

Music is integral to the game, of course; its lead character plays the guitar himself, but can also record the sounds of enemies to play back, creating new music that can alter environments and open up new areas. Jamming with these extraterrestrial monsters and creatures is also a core gameplay mechanic; these are accompanied by branching dialogue options and platforming elements.

artful escape of francis vendetti

The Kickstarter campaign is seeking just over $35,000 to fund the Mac and Windows PC game, which Galvatron is hoping to launch in 2017. Turning to Kickstarter despite his success on a major label might surprise some who might conflate rock stardom with riches and comfort.

But Galvatron sees it differently. "[I] was a musician on a major record deal with a large management, lawyer and booking team," he said. "Very little money gets through to the artist, and sync royalties eventually dwindle away."

Kickstarter, he said, is also a good platform for games that fall on the other side of "conventional." The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti's defining feature is its unusual, whimsical art style; it looks like something out of one of those childhood fantasies that Galvatron himself lived out. The images shown off on its campaign page are colorful and busy — artful, as the game's name suggests.

It's Wes Anderson meets David Bowie meets Stanley Kubrick

But it also pays direct lip service to Galvatron's roots. The eponymous player character is a teen musician trying to cut his ties with his deceased folk singer uncle. To do this, he not only has to abandon his home, but become someone else entirely. The story that unfolds is complex and complicated, if not altogether confusing; it's the gaming equivalent to Galvatron's musical background, in that sense.

The artist himself boils it down to "David Bowie traveling off from London on an interstellar trip to create Ziggy Stardust." That's seen in the art released thus far, which is filled with characters in brightly colored costumes wielding guitars and traveling across multiverses. He also cites the works of Stanley Kubrick, Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg as inspirations for the artwork, along with progressive rock and even his math textbook, "which was filled [with] alien sketching of outlandish color and questionable physics."

artful escape of francis vendetti

Gathering influences from a variety of genres is something the designer's been doing since before his career change. Galvatron has spent years darting from one art form to another, mashing up musical genres and artistic interests. His familiarity with a variety of media has a meaningful effect on The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti, he says.

"One of the most enjoyable aspects of development is drawing on all of your knowledge of gaming, of cinema, of music, of narrative to choose the right tool to tell your story or alter the rhythm of the game," he says. "Whether you use a camera movement for the next beat, or a droplet of music, or furious player input, I think that's where a lot of the art lies."

Despite his multitudinous passions, Galvatron seems firmly entrenched in the gaming sphere as of now. While he feels constantly pulled in different directions, he sounds committed to this latest career change.

"[Gaming] seems, from all artistic disciplines, a boundless medium," he says. "It reminds me of garage music. A generation of kids crafting their ideas in studies or bedrooms, with a piece of equipment many homes already have. Their work may not always be as polished or as vast as their AAA contemporaries, but there's an urgency in their work, a rawness."

That rawness comes through in Francis Vendetti's stylish screenshots and ambitious-sounding gameplay. The crowdfunding period ends March 31, although Galvatron hinted that development will continue even if the Kickstarter doesn't meet its goal. Fans of his past work — or intriguing future — can visit the campaign page for audio clips, character bios and more from the unique project.