Homestuck’s kind of a big deal. Since its beginning in April 2009, it’s had over three and a half hours of animated content, close to eight thousand individual pages, and a word count teetering on a million. When it was announced that there’d be a video game, Hiveswap, the reaction was immense. The game reached its funding goal of $700,000 in just two days, and at the time, was one of the most highly-funded video game projects to come out of that platform with a grand total of $2,485,506.
Despite starting off as a parody of early text adventure games, Homestuck deals with a number of surprisingly mature themes. From alcoholism and sexuality to what it means to be a hero, there’s very little ground the webcomic hasn’t touched. Characters who revolve around these themes, such as the high-class megalomaniac Vriska or the isolated scholar Calliope, are handled with a surprising amount of finesse despite the story’s humble beginnings. Homestuck is a story that’s multi-faceted even at its core, and this is thankfully a quality reflected in What Pumpkin Studios. With a team made up of people from all types of backgrounds, the New York-based studio is surprisingly diverse.
One key member of the development team is Veronica Nizama, user interface designer and texture artist for What Pumpkin Studios. Veronica has a wealth of experience with both mobile and mainstream game development, having worked directly on over forty projects, and has carved a name for herself on the adult comic book scene. I had the chance to sit down with her and discuss her work on Hiveswap, as well as some of her own personal experiences in the industry.
N: Even at its most detailed, Homestuck’s art is still fairly abstract. From what we’ve seen of Hiveswap, it’s far more intricate with proper textures in the scenery, lighting effects, and more complicated color schemes—but it’s still very clearly Homestuck. How did you add these details into the game while keeping Homestuck’s distinctive style?
Veronica: Our first obstacle was figuring out how to translate a simple comic, whose purpose is to look like it was drawn on MS Paint, to look like a modern video game. Although the comic uses several styles, we figured the original ‘normal/deformed/chibi’ style would be the most appealing silhouette in 3D space, and that worked best with our comical narrative. We want you to really love these characters in spite of their twisted personalities!
Deciding on color was probably the most difficult aspect to nail as Homestuck characters are known for their very basic palettes—usually black, white, grey, and one accent color depicted as a symbol on their shirts. As great as that looks in 2D, in 3D it offered some challenges, so although we do use some color, this is greatly subdued.
The environment is what really helps these characters pop though, as those textures are colorful, playful, and vibrant. We’ve ended up re-working lighting, fog, and color scripts as well as adding unique rim shaders per environment to help these unsaturated characters look just right. It took quite a bit of tweaking and late nights, but I think our team has created something unique looking but still very Homestuck.
N: Are there any other games that you look to for inspiration, particularly for your texture work?
Veronica: One series that I looked at heavily for inspiration were the Epic Mickey games. They had many similar challenges that we’ve faced, like dealing with a mostly black and white character. Their environments were vivid and bright, yet warped and gritty, about 70% toony and 30% real. It was a brilliant backdrop choice for such a simple looking character like Mickey Mouse.
N: Homestuck’s best known for its long word count and heavy narration. Is this a style that can be preserved for an episodic adventure game?
Veronica: Most definitely! As fans expect, the game will be word heavy like the comic, but in a different way. You won’t be scrolling through tons of chat logs! The game is very story driven, and with that complex (and hilarious!) story, there will be plenty of interactions, puzzles, cutscenes, and things to discover and experience in the world!
N: You specialize in UI—Hiveswap looks like it draws heavily from the classics in terms of interface and style. How have you managed to preserve that retro feeling while still bringing the genre up to modern standards?
Veronica: Not only does the comic rely on the nostalgia factor, but our game taking place in the ’90s does too. I figured having something that looked retro was expected! We’ve changed the UI drastically since our first screenshots and con-demos were released, but we’ve made sure to find a good balance between clean, navigable UI and retro looking details. For example, most of our icons (menu, inventory, etc) are all pixel art, but the HUD containing the icons are clean cut, round, and sleek.
N: Hiveswap features a number of interactive “websites” such as the social network “Prongle” and the e-commerce store “Scythian.” Can you give us some insight on the design behind these?
Veronica: I’ve spent a few years in the industry working on a lot of mobile apps and games, so creating these interfaces was almost second nature! Prongle works similarly to Facebook with a touch of Twitter and a sprinkle of Tumblr. Trolls are aliens known to live in “Hives,” so I thought a hexagon shape would be appropriate for the design. Because trolls are a more advanced race, yet still children, we figured the UI should be modern but still very busy looking. Scythian is pretty much Amazon’s horribly distasteful cousin. The design was heavily parodied off of Amazon, but the big difference between the two is that certain things are off limits or too expensive for trolls lower in the blood-caste system.
N: You’re a prolific solo comic book artist with almost a thousand unique pieces and around twenty full-color comics to your name. How does working solo compare to working in a team as large as What Pumpkin?
Veronica: It’s great having your own schedule, it’s great writing your own stories and making your own art that others go out of their way to read or buy, but it’s also an amazing experience to work on an exciting giant project that will reach a much larger audience! I don’t think I’ll ever give up my second job in comics, but I have to admit, there is no better feeling than to see everyone’s piece of the project fuse so seamlessly, just watching everything fit and work so well together! There is a level of gratification you get working on a bigger project like this that I think is harder to achieve as a solo artist.
N: You’ve worked a variety of roles in an industry that’s traditionally made up largely of white men. As a Hispanic woman, do you feel as if your time as a developer has been impacted by this?
Veronica: I don’t feel like my ethnicity has been a factor, but then again NYC is literally the most diverse place on the planet, so my experience might be unique in that sense. Being a woman in the industry has had its challenges, though. I’ve had unfortunate moments with male bosses and co-workers where I’ve received inappropriate touches and comments, moments where I was pushed to extend unpaid internships or promised raises that never came.
Luckily, What Pumpkin has been hands down the best place I’ve ever had the pleasure of working! It doesn’t hurt either that for once in my professional career, not only am I not the only woman on the team, but we make up the majority of the team! It’s pretty awesome being in an office with a bunch of girl gamers. No one ever doubts your love of games or thinks we have ulterior motives to be here. We’re all here because we really love making and playing games!
For a first project, What Pumpkin have their work cut out for them. The studio has a tough legacy to live up to; Homestuck’s popularity means that tensions are high. The author considers Homestuck to be a discussion between himself and the readers, with the audience being a significant influence—and this is part of what gives it its charm. Being a prepared product, I can’t help but worry that the game might lose a bit of that magic, but I’m excited to see if Hiveswap can keep up. Either way, if we enjoy playing Hiveswap as much as the production team enjoys making it, it really could be the beginning of something really excellent.
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