Charleston's indie game developers and looking beyond what's possible 


click to enlarge Tim Kaminski is art director and concept artist at Kiz Studios.

Jonathan Boncek

Tim Kaminski is art director and concept artist at Kiz Studios.

Within Charleston, there's a small but dedicated community of individuals who share the common interest of expanding the digital world. Combining art, storytelling, and design, they are all pushing to establish the Lowcountry as a place where games are not only made, but where developers can prosper. Some are just starting out. Others have years of experience under their belts. But among each and every one of them is the desire to stretch the scope of what's possible.

You can't talk about video games in Charleston without talking about Kiz Studios. With a creative office tucked away on Johns Island, the studio has carved out a solid reputation in the gaming world with releases like "Might and Mayhem" and "Wonky Ship," which was included in Apple's Best of 2015 list for the App Store. Among the talented team at Kiz is art director and concept artist Tim Kaminski. Growing up in the small town of Mio, Mich., the Savannah College of Art and Design masters graduate has worked at the studio for four years, from the time he was plucked from a job fair at his alma mater. Before that time, he had always wanted to work in games, but just hadn't discovered what role to take on. Now, he designs the environment concept art that serves as the visual basis for the studio's games.

"You have to craft a complete world, think about how the ecosystem works, the architecture, the history of the world. All of that should make sense and be somewhat believable, even if it is fantasy or science fiction. You never want the player to question the world," says Kaminski. "The art also should inspire the rest of the team. Concept art is created at the beginning of the pipeline, and is a blueprint for the team — how are they going to model and craft this world, and how might the characters fit into it, as well."

When it comes time to work on a new game at Kiz and the designers and writers have nailed down their ideas, Kaminski takes that original pitch and begins to develop rough sketches of how the world will look. After returning to the team for feedback, details are added and turnarounds are illustrated to serve as references for the studio's modelers.

These are just the early stages of the years of work that go into creating a game. But more and more these days, small groups of talented individuals are throwing themselves at the challenge and launching their own studios.

click to enlarge A screenshot from Haptic Studio's 'Halfblade,' which is in early development - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • A screenshot from Haptic Studio's 'Halfblade,' which is in early development

"Kiz has grown tremendously in the last few years. I've also found out there are more developers in the area. They might have been there before, but no one was aware of each other," says Kaminski. "It was probably about two years ago or so when the [Charleston Indie Game Developers] group started meeting. And once I found out about that, it did seem like it started to grow, and I have heard about developers popping up with teams of one or two working on their own games, and having success at it."

Among the new indie developers in Charleston is Haptic Studio, whose developers are in the early stages of creating their first game, "Halfblade." Lead game designer and studio founder Chris McGill grew up on a 500-acre farm in Iva, S.C. — just 30 minutes south of Anderson. He moved to the area in 2008 to attend Charleston Southern University and, like many others, found it difficult to leave. Working full-time at Citadel Square Baptist Church, he spends his time off working on "Halfblade." The decision to found Haptic evolved out of a conversation McGill had with his brother Patrick, who lends his writing talents. But there is a bit more behind McGill's decision to get into game development.

"I've always been drawn to the arts, dabbling in acting, music, drawing, film, etc., but never finding a discipline I felt much attachment to. I see video games as a fascinating medley of nearly every art form, so I suppose that drew me to it," he says. "Plus, it's something I've always thought would be awesome. I see a lot of people giving up on their 'I thought that would be awesome' dream as they grow older, and the real world hits. My wife and I talked about it and decided we didn't want that to be us. So here I am."

The core team developing "Halfblade" is rounded out by Bailey Aldrich, who serves as the game's composer. Together, they contribute what time they can to the game, working for no pay, and hoping something comes of it. The team is still fine-tuning the gameplay and core story for their first project, which McGill says draws on elements of survival horror and fantasy RPGs. While Haptic still has a lot of work ahead of them, they aim to release the game's first installment next August. For the studio and other new local developers, McGill hopes this is the beginning of something important.

"I think it's really big that we have Kiz Studios on Johns Island, and a couple more small- to mid-sized studios like that would really change the environment of the game dev world in Charleston," he says. "I don't know if the struggles we have as indies are any different in Charleston than anywhere else. It's an amazing city, and we're already starting to plan our next game, which just might be set in historic downtown."

But if Charleston is to have a chance in becoming an East Coast hub for game development, it'll need a steady stream of talent. That means more than just attracting professionals to the area. It requires providing local students with the training needed to compete on a national level. Students at Trident Tech can receive an associates degree in computer programming and information systems. The school has also offered certificates in computer game design.

According to Lee Burns, department head of information systems at Trident, students can get the basic foundation for programming before choosing which professional avenue they wish to pursue. Instructor Tom Brady encourages his students to engage in Charleston's IT community, whether that means connecting with local tech firms or joining up with the Indie Game Development group. Since there aren't many full-time paying positions for game developers in the area, chances are students will need to find another means of employment while pursuing their passion for gaming arts.

As professor of computer science and director of the Computing in the Arts program at the College of Charleston, Bill Manaris is pushing students to see beyond what is available to them today. With an even mix of male and female students in the program all sharing a wide range of interests, both artistic and technical, he asks that everyone recognize that the birth of a new artistic medium has taken place.

"It used to be in the 20th century, educators would speak of the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. ... In this computerized age, within the last 50 years, our society has been transformed," he says. "You have several computers in your vicinity — your phone, your car, your watch — so the three Rs have been transformed to four Rs. And the fourth R is processing, being able to create algorithms, being able to program."

Through this process, Manaris suggests that students have an unlimited potential for innovation. It requires looking past the tools currently at their disposal — beyond hammers and nails, beyond the creative applications and programs that already exist. Yes, you can master these tools, but they also limit what is possible if you choose to only operate within them. The real challenge is stepping outside of these boundaries and creating a new program, a new tool, with which to build a bigger world.

"You have to exit the box. You have to shed your skin," he says. "It's moving from a two-dimensional thing to a three-dimensional thing. You're adding a new dimension to your creativity."


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