As a freelance games reviewer, I invite indie developers to get in touch with me about their games. Darlene Barker contacted me about Stinky Snake, a game she made with her four children, and it’s a really enjoyable experience.
Stinky Snake is an imaginative platformer that is surprisingly challenging, in places. I particularly like how expansive the levels become, with a range of routes through them. You have to avoid skunks, but can collect coconuts to knock them out. The coconut cannon even fires three at a time and Snake loads the cannon onto the back of a little go-cart, which is a tiny detail that strikes me as incredibly cute.
As the game progresses, a neat story unfolds, with quests to undertake, mostly in the form of finding items. After level 5, or so, Snake’s motivation becomes clear and I was quite interested to learn what would happen next.
If I initially found the control scheme somewhat unintuitive, when moving and firing coconuts at the same time, I got used to it pretty quickly. May take a little practice, but your young gamers will likely enjoy this, if you want to consider a purchase. Stinky Snake is available on Steam.
I asked Darlene some questions about her process, as well as what it was like to make a game with the family. These are the roles that were taken on the game.
Darlene Barker, Founder & CEO, DB Attic Studios, LLC.
Isabelle Barker, QA Lead, Musician. (16 years old.)
Anabel Barker, Artistic Lead. (15 years old.)
Christian Barker, Sound Effects. (13 years old.)
Brigit Barker, Testing. (7 years old.)
Why did you decide to make a game as a family?
The game is based on a comic strip Anabel created when she was eight. Over the years, I thought about creating a game from this, to the point of me doodling pictures. I changed jobs and, in the new position, I worked remotely, with my kids being home schooled by their father. It felt like the right fit; being able to see my kids during the day, as opposed to leaving in the early morning and then seeing them in the evenings. The opportunity came for me to pursue my own development studio, full time, and the first product that I wanted to create was an app, but Stinky Snake kept nagging at me, so after the business infrastructure was created, Stinky Snake became the household obsession.
This was an opportunity for the kids to learn about game development, at every level, and they were all excited, during every step. When it came to making the game, I couldn’t think of anyone other than Anabel to create the art for the game. I actually suggested asking my sister, who is a professional artist, but Anabel stepped up. She decided she would learn whatever she needed to create the artwork. She had already taken some course work and summer camps, and shows great potential as an artist, from the perspective of one of my graduate school professors. He told me to ‘hone that talent’ and that was my underlying goal, for this project. Our first iteration of the game, and how it became our later work, shows her evolution as an artist and I love it!
In terms of honing my children’s talent, my son has an obsession with sounds and this became an opportunity for him to shine. He and I worked on collecting sounds together and until he was able to work on his own. Isabelle explored mixing Calypso with Rock to create the soundtracks, using her guitar. Above all, I wanted this project to showcase their work. Brigit wanted to playtest the first iteration in a whole day. Considering this was an iteration that was loaded with bugs, I was hesitant, but she convinced me that she should be able to do this since she is the Tester for the game. So, over the course of that day, she played the game from beginning to end, and I sat and watched her. She would let me know when there was a problem and I would fix and build if it was a ‘stopper’. And she would go back to it. I suggested she could stop, but she kept going. This was one of the most beautiful moments in the development process.
How did you organise collaboration/communication between everyone?
Considering that we are a home schooled group, we spend our days together. After breakfast, we’d hold a SCRUM-type meeting about what we were working on and anything that we may be having trouble with. It was easy to extend this to each person’s assigned work for the game. Everyone was assigned tasks, and then sometimes I worked alongside the assignee. Then, as a group, we would review new pieces every couple of days–usually we would have a build each week for testing. We tested early, and often, throughout the entire development process.
There were times where I came up with concept art that I thought was awesome and coded the new feature. This was shown to the kids the next morning and, of course, the artwork would be critiqued from the peanut gallery. I then outlined what I wanted the artwork to be and what I was trying to accomplish; this would be shared with Anabel and she would create wonderful art. Christian made the pirate ship that is at the beginning of the level. Isabelle worked on some of the non-player characters, but all these art pieces had to make it past Anabel.
What was the most challenging part of the game dev process?
The most difficult part of developing the game was telling the kids ‘no’ to a particular feature they conceived. Brigit wanted rocket launchers which shoot watermelons, and unicorns; we agreed on unicorns instead. She also wanted the ability to choose the color of the cart and to allow the player to dress up. We were already a month before release, so it was too late. These features were moved to later versions of the game. Anabel wanted the game in 3D, at around the same time. This change would have pushed the release to 6-9 months out. So, the most challenging part of the process would be finishing and releasing a game without adding new features that would slow down the process.
What did your kids take from the experience?
Christian has decided that he wants to be a Sound Engineer when he grows up but, then, his current obsession is film-making. Anabel is more sure that she will be an artist. Isabelle is also more sure that she will be a musician and make videogames. Brigit continues to be a better Tester than she was at the beginning.
We have started on a new game and the process has become much easier. More can be accomplished without as much hands-on from myself. Isabelle has started developing skills for an entry level software position. Anabel’s animation skills have evolved. Christian, with the right initial instruction, is able to complete required tasks with little or no direction. Brigit tests, and comes to get me, when something is not right.
Do you have any advice for families making games together?
There is tons of advice about making video games online, but working with your family, especially with your kids, one would really need to be able to handle the emotional toll of this business. There are times when you need to stop working and spend hours playing videogames. There will be times that you will be working on a feature and it turns into a play fest. There will be times when you will doubt your abilities as the leader and your kids will surprise you, and the other way around. There were times when the first two bad reviews came in that I felt like I had failed my babies, but then we saw others playing our game and they got what we were doing. It ignited a pride throughout the team.
So, I would say get the game out there, before other people who you don’t know, early, and not wait for the reviews after launch day. When the bad game reviews come, look at the game and see if there is some truth in what is being said. If so, fix it and move on. Do not get hung up on anything bad that may come your way. Keep making your game and making it better. So start marketing early, and getting the game in front of people who don’t know you and your kids. Another bit of advice would be to not to ‘live the game’ 24 hours of day. Make sure you make time for fun that does not involve the game or gaming.
What do you hope players experience playing Stinky Snake?
It is about siblings fighting and, in the end, making up. This game does not have multiple boss battles with different monsters; you have a single boss, Skunk, the leader of the skunks. Skunk will taunt and annoy you but, in the end, it is about family.
What’s your favourite memory, from during the development of the game?
There were many favorite moments, but the ones that really stuck with us is watching Brigit playing the first polished version of the game, and the day we worked on voice recordings. The last turned into a major giggle fest. We abandoned doing voice acting and went with a dialogue system instead. Still we kept a couple of sounds in such as Brigit’s reaction to losing a life, and Christian’s reaction for when a skunk is stomped on by the player.
I enjoy spending time with my children and making games with them is way more fun.
I really enjoyed this interview. It was personal and insightful. Thanks, Darlene, for your time.
See also – Kids are Gamers’ interview with Nicole Stark, including a handy list of resources to get you started on your family game.