Getting to join Dynamighty as art director and fourth founding member was the perfect opportunity for me. I had just left Pixar, and often describe my reason for leaving as like being a long-standing member one of the world's greatest symphonies, but the time had come to where I wanted to learn new instruments and start writing and performing my own music. Dynamighty presented to me the chance to join my first garage band, and in the next three and a half exhilarating years, I had to learn how to play more instruments than I even imagined.
By the time I joined, co-founders David Nottingham and John Elliot, and founding partner, Mark Erman, squatted a tiny corner of a shared office space. They had a very simple mobile demo was running in Unity, visually hacked together from store assets, temp models and various 'borrowed' elements. There was early character concept art by their tremedously talented Lucas alumn, Dela Longfish, and a smattering of genre touchstones from James Bond to A Funeral in Berlin. Now they needed someone like me to start connecting the visual dots.
But coming straight from Pixar I was motivated both professionally and personally to dig a little deeper. Every animated film began with a significant investment of visual research and there was rearely a design that was not in some way informed by reference material. On the personal level this happened to my chance to step out from the chorus and find my own voice. I was aware that my limited games background could either a handicap or a strength. To make it as much a strength as much as possible, I began my my own deep research process, of leveraging my own goals insterests and expertise.
Off the bat I knew I wanted to make something as original as I could. I felt fairly veresed in mid-century design after my stint on The Incredibles, but did not want to retread the fantastic work of Brad Bird's design team. Nor did I simply want to put out yet one more Bond-inspired derivative cold war spy property. Yet, we were making a cold-war 60's spy game. What to do?
For me the first step was to go to the source--not the Bond franchise itself, but the surrounding material that not only informed that particular body of work, but the larger cold war spy genre. I wanted to find my own visual touchstones that came from the same DNA without being derived of it. This meant researching mid-century architecture, graphic design, scultpure, product design, color pallets, printing methods, fashions, movies television, anything that informed the world of design at that time, in both the West and the East.
Beyond just the look, David tasked me to think about how we fulfill the core player fantasy. What was it that drew people after so many decades to this particular point in history? What was it about Bond, and the decades of spy fiction that continues to this day that still resonates with audiences? What are the things that attact people to spies and espionage, and how can this fantasy best be served through a game?
From here I dug deeper into the surrounding canon of period spy fiction in popular culture. I reasearched the context of the time and place: what were the types of settings and how could they serve visual and gameplay potential? What were core types of spy actions, gadgets, props goals and hazards? If missle silos, underground military bases, catwalks and air strips were the 'nouns', then what were the 'verbs': Diffusing ticking bombs, hacking computers, picking locks and shooting guards? The goal was not to find answers at this point, but rather to seed inspiration and begin finding parameters.
While much of the early process is about finding what the game can be through asking questions and researching context, it was also about asserting what the game was not. One of our favorite touchstones was Kevin Dart's fanstastic retro-fiction, Suki-7. But Kevin was so successful at this that we didn't wanted to compete with or copy his work. I still didn't want to derive too much from Bond, and we knew wanted the game to be a playful, modernistic take on the cold war, but we didn't want to make fun of our subject matter. We needed humor to lighten the seriousness of the subject matter for our action mid-core gaming audience, we we still wanted to respect the subject matter. We wanted humor without camp or parody.
Finding the tone, theme and personality of our game was probably one of the hardest tasks, which of course only revealed itself through the process of making the game. Having two creative minds on the task would seem to have made it easier, but in fact it porbably made the process harder as David and I had to find ways to constantly combine our unique voices and creative approaches into a cohesive whole. Fortunately, with the guidance of writer & story advisor extraordinare, Susan O'Connor, and inspiration from a little black and white film by director Stanley Kubrick, we eventually found our tone and theme.
From a creative standpoint this was a major breakthrough. I believe it is crucial to a healthy creative process to go from an expanding place of open exploration to a defined area of decision-making guided by parameters, not absolutes. Theme and tone, by extension, are great boundary markers that help inform design decisions. For us we really wanted Dynamighty's games to have some kind of depth, heart and point of view to them. We weren't interested in just churning out mindless games.
For Counterspy, David and I kept coming back to the idea of just how insane the level of fear and paranoia was that fueld the cold war. Here were two ideallogically-oposed sides each so afraid of the threat the other posed to the world that they build up between them a nuclear aresnal capable of destroying the word many times over. It was this irony, the escalation of arms to keep the world safe despite the greater threat it posed, that we wanted to express. But since this was a game for younger audiences and not a history lesson, it needed to be light, fun and focused around simple action mechanics and environmental storytelling.
The ernest, dry satrirical tone of Dr. Strangelove greatly inspired the tone and voice of Counterspy, and once we settled in on the idea of distilling the US and Soviet arms race into a charicaturization of two ironically opposed, yet identidcal militaristic forces, we had the thematic parameters around which we could begin making informed choices about the visual design.