NEPA native finds success designing video games
Oct 15, 2012 (The Citizens' Voice - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Playing a video game on a phone, maybe for a few minutes while waiting for a bus, is recreation, but designing the game takes work.
"I think I made over 1,000 pieces of art in the last year for the game. It's really hard to think about," said Hazleton native Jason Rosenstock.
Rosenstock, 34, and two partners formed White Whale Games in Austin, Texas, 18 months ago. They put in long hours, even by the standards of an industry that draws Type A personalities.
"We regularly worked 16-hour days. We were so passionate. We wanted to make as big a splash as possible," Rosenstock said.
Their first game, "God of Blades," was released Sept. 27 and sells for $2.99 through the Apple Store for iPhone and iPad. PC and Mac versions are expected by the end of the year.
On a basic level, "God of Blades" is an action game.
A ghost king runs across the screen through a sci-fi landscape while smashing his sword against creatures in his path. Players don't control the running of the king, but they swing the sword that the king holds. Because of physics built into the game, sword fights differ.
"Swords can lock up in this dramatic, clinching moment. You can break your sword with their sword and pieces go flying. You don't get the same experience every time," Rosenstock said.
He understands sword fighting. In his jobs after graduating from Dickinson College as a theater major, he worked as a fight choreographer for repertory companies in New York and Little Rock, Ark.
Rosenstock, though, wanted his life to be about more than theater.
He decided to enroll at New York University, where he earned a master's degree in art education and specialized in using games as educational tools.
Rosenstock wanted people to have something to think about as they played "God of Blades." He hopes they gain insight by playing the role of the king, who returns as a ghost with imperfect memories of his world.
As the king remembers historic swords of different designs, they materialize. Each sword has different properties and heft. The king wields them against creatures that steal memories.
"The enemy is essentially the void -- forgetfulness and emptiness, the force that comes in and erases your memories of your world," Rosenstock said. "We want people to think about memory and loss."
The king fights to keep alive stories of his world.
Likewise, Rosenstock and his co-creators fight to keep alive stories that computers, e-readers and even the video games they make suppress in another way -- by supplanting books.
The game symbolizes "the whole idea of books being lost and physical media being lost as we move into the digital age," Rosenstock said.
He and the group at White Whale pay tribute to books.
The company's name comes from a teacher's challenge that Rosenstock accepted at Hazleton Area High School to read all of "Moby-Dick."
People who play "God of Blades" inside a library gain an advantage by obtaining swords available no other way. The game uses the app Foursquare to recognize when they're in a library.
"We tried to sneak it in like a Trojan horse so people would go to a library without thinking," Rosenstock said. "It got librarians and schools on our side. We're making a game, but we still care about books."
"God of Blades" is based on a series of science fantasy novels written by Lee Palmer.
Gamers who research Palmer and his books, however, will learn they don't exist.
The game-makers at White Whale concocted them to develop a back-story for their game. They went so far as to fabricate a fan website for Palmer.
"People completely think it's real," Rosenstock said.
Now the game might inspire a real book. An author agreed to start writing the first book in the made-up series.
That would be fine with Rosenstock, a fan of science fantasy paperbacks from the 1940s to the 1970s. Those books that he read while growing up are going out of print and becoming harder to find. He hopes people browsing through libraries will find examples and send him photos of the covers.
When making art for the game, he reviewed hundreds of sci-fi book covers, graphic novels and comics by artists that he admired, starting with the late Frank Frazetta.
In each he noted colors, creatures and lettering styles that helped him envision the surreal world in which "God of Blades" plays out.
It isn't the first time he helped create a world through art.
Eight years ago with a team of artists, including some friends from high school, Rosenstock contributed illustrations of monsters and landscapes to books about a fictional world, Avadnu, that players of "Dungeons and Dragons" and other role-playing games consulted.
An editor on the book, Alex Freed, later became a lead writer at BioWare, a video-game company. He found a job for Rosenstock as an illustrator with the company in Austin.
When Rosenstock's contract ended with BioWare, he planned to develop a project on his own.
That's when friends in the Information Technology School at the University of Texas convinced him to start a company with them.
The ensemble at White Whale started with George Royer, a doctoral student, who wrote much of the game's script.
"George loves pulp stories more than anyone I ever met. He nailed the writing. It reads like something written long ago," Rosenstock said.
Jo Lammert, who recently earned her master's degree, manages the studio and marketing. She fed news of the development of "God of Blades" to bloggers who report on the game industry. By the unveiling, publications from Indie Game Magazine to the Guardian newspaper in Britain wrote about "God of Blades."
Four months into the development of the game, the partners decided they needed a computer programmer. At the university, they found undergraduate Adrian Lopez-Mobilia.
"He was building robots to play soccer. His head was in the right place for doing really innovative stuff," Rosenstock said.
To stretch their dollars, they raised money on Kickstarter, an Internet site for creative startup companies. In return for donations as small as $10, they offered copies of the game. White Whale T-shirts and other incentives helped them raise $4,851.
Now that "God of Blades" is done, the team will make a sequel if there's interest.
They've also dreamed up settings for new games from a mythological American frontier to mining colonies in space.
For whatever backdrop he paints, Rosenstock borrows from the vistas he has seen like the bare plains and peaks of Iceland.
He spent a month camping in Iceland a few years ago and describes the scenery as "volcanic -- bleak, but really pretty landscapes."
Iceland influenced his art more than any place, except his hometown.
"When you're up there it feels a lot like being in a strip mine in Hazleton," he said.
firstname.lastname@example.org, 570-455-3636To watch a trailer for "God of Blades" go to whitewhalegames.com/godofblades.html
Read a fan website about Lee Palmer, the writer who is as fictional as the "God of Blades" series of novels that he supposedly wrote, at gobshrine.com/aboutleepalmer.html
On Twitter, learn hints for playing "God of Blades" and see fan art @WhiteWhaleGames
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