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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Interview: Ragtag Studio's Chris Cobb: Determined to Ray's the Dead

Interview by Jedediah H.

Chris Cobb probably wouldn't identify himself as a man of risk, but his actions speak confidently for his character: Currently an indie game designer with a CV that includes major companies Ion Storm (Thief and Hitman series) and Wideload Games (Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without a Pulse), Chris, over two years ago, took a chance and departed from Wideload so he could reacquaint with his dream - to take ownership over the games he creates.

As the Project Director and Co-founder at indie outfit Ragtag Studio, Chris' upcoming title, Ray's the Dead, thanks mainly to the support of his wife, team-mates, and the nearly 1,500 backers of the project, is the gaming embodiment of that dream.

Having had the chance to invite Chris within the epicentre of my palatial virtual throne room for an exchange of thought bubbles, I wanted to hurl so many questions at his head (like, "What's it like to be a real man?" and "Can you teach me how to punch properly?"), but because Ray's the Dead appears to be such a fascinating project pulsing with intriguing circumstances, I thought it better to inquire about Ragtag Studio's ideas, influences, and developmental concerns as they pertain to its new zombie manipulating adventure.

Ragtag Studio: From left to right - Matt Carter, Shawn Halwes, and Chris Cobb

Digitally Downloaded: With Ray's the Dead's Kickstarter campaign winding down near the end of September, what are your priorities from now until the end of the year?
Chris Cobb (CC): We recently put a schedule in place that will have us at alpha by the end of the year. Since everyone seems to have a different definition of alpha, I'll tell you ours: It means that all of the content that will be in the game is 100 per cent decided upon and implemented to some degree. It means it's far from perfect or final, but it exists, and you'll be able to 'play' the game from beginning to end, even if most of it won't be much fun yet!

DD: You formerly exercised your skills for environmental art and level design at a major studio, Ion Storm, and now you're living the ultimate indie dream developing Ray's the Dead. Are there any ideas that you've implemented into Ray's the Dead that you don't believe a major studio would be comfortable taking a chance with?
CC: I think just about everything we've done with Ray's the Dead would have been shot down entirely or, at the very least, watered down to the point where it's no longer recognisable. The very fact that there are only three of us making the decisions means that ideas remain relatively pure. The more people you have to please, the more generic an idea becomes. 

Which isn't to say all of our ideas are perfect. But they are our ideas and, damnit, we will do our best to make them awesome!

DD: Having been a part of the development for Stubbs the Zombie: Rebel Without a Pulse, you probably have the urge to metaphorically drop-kick a grounded zombie whenever questions of comparison between it and Ray's the Dead inevitably come up. That being said: Even though Ray's the dead is in no way related to Stubbs' universe, how influential has Stubbs been on Ray's development?
CC: Actually, I'm quite happy when people are either already aware of or notice the similarities between Ray's the Dead and Stubbs. Stubbs will always hold a place in my heart, so I'm happy to talk about it whenever the chance arises. And let's face it, Stubbs wasn't a huge hit, so it doesn't come up as often as you might think!

Several of the ideas that have made their way into Ray's the Dead were either formed during the development of Stubbs, or came later while reflecting on Stubbs. As much as I loved Stubbs, there were things that I thought could have been better, or at least more prominent, in the game. In Ray's the Dead, we've taken the concept of raising and using your own zombies and brought it to the forefront of the game. 

DD: Because of the game's dual narrative structure, the player will shift from present to past, from addled zombie to possibly prototypical human dude, to answer the question of how Ray ended up in his decaying predicament. How much of the game will comprise of these flashbacks, and will we be able to explore the world in Ray's human form? 
CC: We don't have exact numbers yet, but the players will be surprised how much time they spend exploring Ray's past via flashbacks; it's a really important part of the game. And yes, you'll absolutely play the game as Ray the human. We want to keep the player in control of the action as much as possible, so even scenarios which would typically be non-interactive cut scenes in other games will have some element of interactivity in Ray's the Dead.

DD: I've heard that you and Matt Carter (Head of Imagination) have an affinity for 80's films, ranging from good to so-bad-it's-awesome, like The Goonies and Red Dawn. What films, games, or literary works have affected Ray's 80's inspired setting?
CC: As you mentioned, The Goonies is a huge inspiration for how I think about Ray's the Dead. It's all about a group of friends setting out on an unforgettable adventure and the triumphs and touching moments they have along the way. Stand by Me is another film that has similar qualities. Interestingly, it's a film that takes place entirely in another era but still has that distinctly 80's feel. Big Trouble in Little China is inspiring for its unapologetic, over-the-top action and adventure that somehow just works. I'm embarrassed to say I hadn't seen that film until a few years ago! It's so good.  
I think that what really keeps the 80's alive in my heart is the music from that decade. Something special about the songs you know and love. So many of them are filled with a ridiculousness and soulfulness and sense of drama. "Everybody Wants to Rule The World," a clichéd favourite, but still a favourite of mine, is a great example. I just let myself sink into those songs and allow myself to be taken away to another place and time, one that lives in the collective imagination of those of us who love the 80's!

DD: Being a glutton for and appreciator of video game soundtracks, I noticed how effortlessly the music and visuals interplay, one complimenting the other as though birthed from a hive mind, which leads me to ask: What's it like to work with and breathe the same air as (assuming you two have ever met up) musical mega-mind Jake Kaufman?
CC: I hope to breathe the same air as Jake one of these days, but alas, we've yet to meet up in person. To describe working with Jake, I'll borrow a word you just used. That word would be 'effortless.'  

Jake is amazingly intuitive. At least, he has been with us. We minimally describe what we're looking for and he just nails it. Often, Matt and Jake will speak about the soundtrack in film reference terms: 'Remember how you felt during the volleyball scene in Top Gun? Yeah, like that!' It's really an awesomely refreshing process that has yielded great results so far. We are super excited about our soundtrack!  

DD: From what could be gathered from the recent live stream, the Pikmin-like crowd control mechanic appeared to require a good amount of forethought and strategy to overcome the uniformed opposition. Shawn Halwes (Engineer of Dreams), who was showcasing one of the game's more recent builds, perished a good number of times. What's the level of game-play difficulty or accessibility that you're aiming for? 
CC: Hah, yeah, Shawn needs to work on his skills!

Seriously though, we do want the game to provide a good challenge. We don't want it to be hard per se, but we do want to require that people pay attention to what they are doing, and think about their actions. Ray's the Dead won't be like so many button masher games where you'll do fine hitting the X button as fast as you can, even if you aren't paying attention. 

We hesitate to call it a strategy game, as that can give the wrong impression. But there is certainly a strategic element there, but it's wrapped up in a fast-paced action wrapper. 

DD: Ray's the Dead is your baby. You quit your job to put everything you had into it. Could you talk about that, your experience the first year of taking a chance on something you felt needed to be made? 
CC: We've actually been working on the game, without pay, for 2.5 years already. And it's both incredibly rewarding and incredibly scary. 

It's rewarding in that we are getting to do what we want to do, on our own terms. 

It's scary for a million reasons! First is the position we have put our families in. Our wives are supporting us as the sole breadwinners. This puts a lot of additional pressure on us, each and every day that we wake up. We don't want to let anyone down.

Second is that because everything is on our own terms, the successes are ours, but this is also true of the failures. As part of a larger team or company, it's always easy to point the blame elsewhere, but with a team of three, the success or failure of the project sits squarely on our shoulders. 

This is particularly difficult because there is so much involved in running our own company that we have no experience with, particularly the business side of things. 

DD: Once the game is released, what plans do you have for Ragtag Studio? 
CC: Honestly, that is something we aren't thinking much about at this point. It will have everything to do with how the game does. If it's a huge success, we'll relocate to a nice city and buy houses and get a nice office and make another game. If it's a huge failure, the company could very well go away.

In the (likely) event that it lands somewhere in the middle, we will have a lot of decisions to make. But I hope things work out to where we can keep doing what we're doing, with at least a little bit of pay. Can't work without pay for much longer! 

DD: What games are you and the team currently playing? (I'm currently playing Bound by Flame, and despite its mostly negative critical reputation, I can't seem to extinguish its entertaining blaze.)
Chris: Cool! I've heard a bit about that one. I suspect it will end up in the same 'cult classic' category as Stubbs did.

I'm actually a big RPG nerd, so I'm playing Shin Megami Tensei IV on my DS, and Ni No Kuni on my PS3, and I'm enjoying both of them very much!  

In addition to video games, we all love to get social and play some board games. None of that Monopoly or Clue stuff. I'm talking the real deal.

- Jedediah H. 
News Editor
Breathe the same air as me at: 
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Interview: Ragtag Studio's Chris Cobb: Determined to Ray's the Dead
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