Pioneer Valley Games
Chris Picone - CSH Picone
Jesse Bemben - Pioneer Valley Games
Interview by Chris Picone, 13 April 2018
Jesse, long-time content creator for RPG Maker and the talent behind Pioneer Valley Games, joins me to discuss his transition from security officer to full-time content and game developer, and his first commercial RPG, Aleph. We also talk about his art, his books, his other games, and his early Kickstarter experiences.
CSH: When did you actually start working on games? What got you into it?
Jesse: I was initially inspired after seeing one of the first Kickstarter RPG games, Cthulhu Saves the World, pop up on Kickstarter and witnessing its success. I thought to myself, “why can’t I do something like that?” and so I began researching. There were very few Kickstarters back then, and very, very few video-game ones, and this was also before the big Kickstarter video games started appearing, so this was rather uncharted territory. It was also around the same time that Degica (the RPG Maker distributor) released its first graphical resource add-on for RPG Maker. I saw this and once again asked myself, “why can’t I do this?” so I reached out to them and asked if they would be interested in distributing resources that I make. I showed them some early concepts of the High Fantasy resources that would become my first release and they were excited and on board with it. So these initial successes (Kickstarter and commercial distribution of my graphics) pushed me further along the path of content development, which I’m still on to this day. I started working on games and graphics as a hobby as first, I was working at a hospital at the time.
CSH: You mention your work at the hospital several times on your website, which makes me think it may have somehow had a lasting impact on your work. What did you actually do there? And what influence did it have on your games?
Jesse: I worked in the security department of a relatively small, 200 or so bed, local hospital. I worked there for about five years, the last couple of which I had begun making a second income with selling resources through Degica, which ultimately led to me leaving that job to pursue it full time, which I do to this day.
One of my primary responsibilities at the hospital was to respond to any and all security codes, physically subdue and restrain combative patients or otherwise intervene in potentially dangerous situations. Sometimes the combative patient would be an elderly person with dementia who didn’t know where they were, other times it was a veteran with PTSD, or someone suffering from a psychotic episode, or more often than not, someone intoxicated by alcohol or drugs. Other duties included escorting and guarding patients during court hearings (these were held at the hospital for patients who are to be committed to the psychiatric ward for longer than a three-day period), and a ton of walking around and checking doors, occasionally releasing or escorting bodies to/from the morgue, and countless other minor tasks.
During the downtime on this job, which ebbed and flowed greatly as some days were back-to-back security codes, other days there would be zero codes, I worked on my laptop, creating graphics for distribution for Degica or worked on one of my various games at the time.
The game “Tough to Kill” is directly inspired by one of my co-workers, Kris Mercier. He was a big zombie fan and a lover of firearms, so naturally conversations during long and boring shifts would gravitate towards those “what if” scenarios, which felt particularly salient as we worked in a hospital and those were usually the first places to get overrun during zombie apocalypses. So, naturally, I made a game based on this!
Two other people with whom I worked with at the hospital appear multiple times through different games: Wes Talbot and Kyle Swords, both of whom appear in Aleph. Wes Talbot appears in Ashworth and Kyle Swords also appears in Unsung Heroes.
CSH: We’re talking quite a career change then! Creating a hobby game around work is one thing but transitioning from full-time security to full-time content creator is a whole other story. How did that come about?
Jesse: I started the whole graphics-making thing about two years before I left the hospital. During those two years I would work on making new graphics (and occasionally do work on games, mainly Aleph at the time) whenever I was home, and whenever I had down-time at the hospital. There came a point when I was making more money selling my graphics than I was making working full-time at the hospital, so I dropped myself down to part-time for a while to devote more time and effort to making resource packs. Once I was certain that I could support myself on the income from my graphics, I gave my notice to my boss at the hospital. It took me a couple of years to reach that point of confidence, as it was not a financial decision to make lightly. That was about five years ago now, and I still make graphics for a living. I also produce graphics for a mobile game maker based in California, but I can’t really say much more than that due to a Non-Disclosure Agreement.
CSH: Before I move on, what are your hobbies outside video gaming? Have your hobbies had any influence on your games or resources?
Jesse: Perhaps a bit ironically, I really don’t play many video games. When I was younger I used to play a lot, but the last console I had was an Xbox 360 many years ago, and even then I wasn’t that into it.
Making graphics was mostly my hobby that I happened to turn into my job, so my job is my hobby and my hobby is my job. But, when I get tired of staring at my computer screen, I enjoy working out, doing power-lifting (something I got into while working security at the hospital), and running (my fiancée wants to do a 5k). I have a dog that I love and I play with him a lot, take him for walks.
I recently (well, about 6 months ago) moved to Nebraska where my fiancée got her surgical fellowship, so there really isn’t anything else for me to do around here. When I was living in Massachusetts, I would run occasional board game nights with my friends and family, which I miss a lot.
CSH: Moving on, then. Of all the game engines and development programs available on the market today, why did you choose RPG Maker?
Jesse: When I started doing this years ago, RPG Maker was one of the only game-making software available, and the only one large enough to start distributing its own line of DLC graphic resource packs. I signed a contract with them to give them exclusive distribution and I don’t regret that decision as Degica has made some wise choices, such as getting their software and resource packs onto Steam, getting involved with Humble Bundle, hosting yearly game-making competitions, and more. I have yet to see any other game-making software company reach the level of commercialism that Degica and RPG Maker have.
CSH: I somehow only discovered RPG Maker VX Ace during the 2014 Steam Christmas sale. I jumped all over it – bought a bunch of resources (including some of yours), pumped a few hundred hours into making a game, and then WHAM. Only a few months later, RPG Maker brought out MV and all my hard work and resources were suddenly obsolete. How did the change affect you?
Jesse: The change from RPG Maker VX Ace to RPG Maker MV mostly impacted just one of my resource packs. Before we (content creators who’ve made multiple contributions to RPG Maker over the years) were informed of the coming of RPG Maker MV, I was hard at work on a set of Sci-Fi themed graphical resources, which I used for my game “Sector 12”.
My plan was to make a full set of interiors and ship tiles, along with a couple of different alien worlds, and make a bunch of alien creatures and characters to go along with the pack. I had made the interior/ship tiles and a small handful of humans and began initial work on some alien environment tiles when I was informed about the upcoming RPG Maker MV, and that it would be using different-sized and formatted graphical assets.
So there I was with essentially a half-finished pack, not wanting to miss the opportunity to have some new resources to release at the launch of RPG Maker MV, which would certainly generate a lot of excitement. I made the choice to start producing something new for RPG Maker MV, the Medieval line of resources. I very quickly wrapped up what I had for the Sci-Fi resource pack (the environments I touched up a little later on and had them as a free update to the Sci-Fi pack) and sent it off to Degica. They released it after RPG Maker MV was announced, so naturally interest in a pack suited for VX Ace was very low as all of the excitement was for the new MV coming out.
So, that snafu aside, the shift to RPG Maker MV has been positive – my resources have gained a lot of quality, a big part of that being the support for higher resolution.
CSH: Of the games you’ve made so far, one is a medieval fantasy RPG, one is in the style of HP Lovecraft, one is a Sci-Fi resource management game, and one is a zombie shoot-em-up. You also offer resources for each of those genres, as well as steam punk and some other bits and pieces. Do you have a favourite genre? Where do you get your inspiration?
Jesse: Medieval and fantasy are definitely my favourite go-to genres. I grew up with RPGs and other games that focused mostly on those worlds – Final Fantasy (pre-7), the Ultima series, Baldur’s Gate, Diablo, Dragon Quest, and so many others. I am also a huge fan of Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and other Medieval and Fantasy books and movies.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other genres, too. Being a huge Star Trek fan, I love Sci-Fi, which is why it saddened me greatly when I had to partially scrap my initial Sci-Fi resource pack for RPG Maker VX Ace. I also love H.P. Lovecraft (got all of his works on my bookshelf, along with a biography about him) and the whole Cthulhu Mythos, and that is probably my second-favourite genre of resources to create (and will be the next genre for MV that I work on).
CSH: On your website, you mentioned that you wrote and published several books. Tell us about those?
Jesse: They’re horrible, don’t read them.
When I first started college, I was originally going to pursue nursing. I didn’t want to pursue nursing out of any sense of duty or love for the profession, but because I pretty much randomly selected it since I had zero clue what I wanted to do with my life.
Let me back up a little bit, first.
I dropped out of high-school. Yes, I am a high-school drop-out. I got my GED right away and worked a string of really shitty retail jobs. My first job was at a K-Mart, which I got on my 18th birthday. Following that I worked at an Army-Navy store, Media Play, the Christmas Loft, and even Target for 7 over-night shifts before I just stopped going because it was so soul-crushing.
So, after this string of very uninspiring jobs over a few years, my step-mother, bless her, badgered me into enrolling at a community college. This is when I randomly selected nursing as my major.
I quickly learned that I did not care that much about anatomy and physiology (though I did draw some really awesome organs on my flashcards and got A’s in all of the classes), but I did love writing. Writing essays and creative writing allowed me to tap into my imagination in a very structured way to produce at least semi-coherent arguments. It was great. During my second semester at the community college, I got a job as a writing tutor in the writing centre. It was during this time and the next couple of years I wrote a bunch of short stories which I assembled into rather lengthy self-published books. Many of these stories drew on my experiences with working in retail and growing up on a farm. After I got my two-year degree from that community college, I was accepted into the University of Massachusetts, where I pursued an English degree and graduated Magna Cum Laude. I am not convinced that the extra hassle to get that Latin suffix was worth it, as I had to write an 80-page dissertation about the Caribbean (literally all the other honours thesis courses were full!)
Looking back on the stories and self-published books, I do realize how awful most of those stories were. They were the product of a more naïve person lacking real-world experience.
At this point, I have far more life experience than I did back then (having over a decade more time on this planet now) and could produce better-written stories, but it is no longer a passion of mine. I learned that, although I did enjoy writing a lot, what I really was finding to be the most profoundly rewarding in that act was the creation of something from my imagination. At this point in my life, I am more aptly able to satisfy that by producing visual art.
CSH: In that case, tell me about your visual art?
Jesse: It sucks, don’t look at it.
In all seriousness, I’m not really sure what to say about it. Sometimes I get the urge to make something, so I make it, and that is pretty much it. I don’t think about it, and I certainly don’t sit there thinking of motifs and themes and whatnot. I took only one art class in college to fill some extra credit hours, and it was full of people who overthink their own art and I found the whole experience rather pretentious.
I leave the real art to people like my friend Wes Talbot. We met while working at the hospital together. He is an art major at the University of Massachusetts, and just finished studying abroad in Germany. He produces actual, real art, the kind that you find in art studios and at showings. To me, he is a real artist. I just dabble with the digital medium.
CSH: You’re a very talented individual. You’re being modest about it, but you have an impressive art portfolio and are obviously capable of creating your own visual resources, you’ve written your own books so you must be adept at writing story and dialogue, and you’ve clearly got enough coding skill to make games since you have four of them. So, what’s it like being a one-man studio?
Jesse: I will make a correction to the above statement: I can’t code worth a damn. I’ve only ever used RPG Maker or Construct 2 to make games, which means very little to no coding on my part. Whenever I needed a game mechanic or feature, I would hire someone who can code to implement it for me. Also, never underestimate the talented help of a good composer and musician! The quality of the rest of my work is subjective, some people love it, others not so much!
CSH: Two of your games have been created in less than a month for the Indie Game Development Competition. Tell me about the competition, and why it appeals to you? Tell me about your experiences? What’s involved in creating such extensive projects in such short time frames, and what do you get out of the experience as a developer?
Jesse: I did a third game in less than a month, I just don’t think I have it up on my website yet. You can find it here, hosted on itch.io: https://pvgames.itch.io/unsung-heroes
These competitions are fantastic. Having a set deadline (especially one that is not that far away) really motivates you to push forward with your work. It also forces you to make critical decisions about the game you are making: do you spend an extra few days implementing a new mechanic, or do you spend that time polishing the graphics? Do you spend a week writing the story, or do you only spend a day? You have to budget your time, your resources, your assets and it fosters a certain way of thinking. You have to make a decision and commit to it, no looking back.
CSH: I’ve written stories in similar competitive conditions, but I can’t imagine trying to complete a whole game in a month. You’ve got a few games to your name now, care to give us a bit of an elevator spiel for each of them?
Jesse: Tough to Kill – This was a fun game to work on, and a very different type of game than the RPGs I’ve made. This is more of a schmup (shoot-em-up), and was made with Construct 2. I actually have a sequel to it that I have been tinkering with for some months now. The characters are all animated, the gun handling is a lot cleaner, ammo management is important (in the first game, you have infinite ammo), reloading is important. Ultimately, I would love to have the game being a schmup set in a fully-destructible environment that lends itself to dynamic gameplay.
Ashworth – My first Indie Game Maker Competition entry. I based this game after the real-life story of Rose Marie Kennedy (sister to JFK), who had various mental disabilities and was the subject of one of the first prefrontal lobotomies when she was in her 20’s. She was institutionalized after that and pretty much ignored by most of her family for the rest of her life. The horrors that fill Ashworth, especially the Grinning Gentleman, are more of a symbolic nature, making this game perhaps a bit more Silent Hill than Resident Evil. I am proud of the fact that some people thought the game was too scary to play all the way through. The game definitely could have been better, but only 30 days is not really enough time to make a fully realized, bug-free game. My friend Wes Talbot helped me greatly with developing the story for this.
Sector 12 – My second Indie Game Maker Competition entry (the following year after Ashworth). I wanted to make a game that simulated the environment of a spaceship and give control to the player. I think I mostly succeeded in this, though all of my development efforts went into making the mechanics work and not enough time into explaining to the player how to properly utilize them for successful completion of their tasks. Still, I am immensely proud that I was able to make every single room in the ship have its own temperature, air pressure, oxygen levels, plasma levels, power current, other atmospherics and more. All of these can be monitored and interacted with through various computer interfaces throughout the ship. You can turn off air scrubbers to allow plasma to build up. A fire in that room will ignite the plasma and cause a hull breach. Assigning crew to various parts of the ship will give different bonuses and allow you to give orders and manipulate the controls remotely through the ship’s Bridge. Making this game involved so much math, and I hate math. Still, one of my favourite game-making experiences.
Unsung-Heroes – My third Indie Game Maker Competition entry. I had less than 30 days for this one because I didn’t decide to join until a bit later into the competition. My main focus was to make a gripping beginning and to use my graphical resources to make nice-looking parallax maps. I also wanted the main gameplay mechanic to revolve around combat in a unique way, mostly relying on the use of status effects, buffs, and debuffs. I think I went a bit too heavy with the story and writing for what the game is, but eh… I see it as the beginning of a potentially much bigger and better game. The game is also not super forgiving for people who don’t like reading their skill descriptions for combat; this is something I would address if I revisit this title by truncating them and adding icons where prudent.
CSH: You hired a musician for Aleph, and Sector 12 includes a surprising list of credits. What areas did you need help with, and how did you meet all your helpers? Are there regulars or do you have different helpers for each game?
Jesse: Some of the people are from the RPG Maker community. That is how I “met” Aakash Rao, who did the music for Aleph, Ashworth, and Tough to Kill. He has moved on to bigger things in his life, doing larger compositions for bigger game titles, which is awesome! You can learn more about him and hear more of his music here: http://www.notebynotestudios.com/
Now that I think about it, the rest of my help similarly comes through the RPG Maker community. There are a lot of talented individuals out there, many of which are happy to lend their experience and talent to a project.
CSH: So far, we’ve only really talked about your hobby games. What can you tell us about your commercial game, Aleph?
Jesse: Aleph was an overly ambitious project from someone with zero experience. Well, not zero experience as I had made a bunch of small games before, but it was definitely a project that was far larger than I anticipated. I absolutely forced myself to finish the game, and it took a lot longer than expected, especially since I changed graphics multiple times.
The original (or proof-of-concept) graphics were just standard RPG Maker fare. After the success of the Kickstarter campaign, I hired an artist to do the graphics for it (this was before I made any of my own graphics, or even knew how to). The third change was after I taught myself how to make the graphics I wanted. Although it could be argued that this was a bad use of some of the Aleph funding, paying an artist for work that I did not ultimately use, this ultimately is what led to me being able to have all of the graphics I wanted for Aleph and for every single game afterward and make a living, so a pretty good trade-off in the end I think. It is like the old adage: give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.
In hindsight though, I would not do another Kickstarter campaign ever again. The landscape for Kickstarter has changed so much from back then, and it is not a good feeling to be beholden to so many people who are financially invested in your project. It is too much stress and it saps a lot of the fun of creation and development from the project.
CSH: I ask this all the time in interviews, but I think it’s important so I’ll ask it again: Making something as lengthy and in-depth as a role-playing game is a process of learning as much as creation. What mistakes have you made? What will you do differently next time, knowing what you know now?
Jesse: One mistake I tend to make in my games, particularly the ones made within 30 days for competitions, is not properly explaining the rules or showing the mechanics of the game to the player, which can leave them feeling confused or frustrated.
To me, since I made the game, I already know how the mechanics work and know what to do, so it is easy for me to accidentally overlook the fact that other people have zero clue as it is a brand-new experience for them. That is something I endeavour to do better with moving forward.
If I were to give advice to someone thinking about making a lengthy game, RPG or otherwise, I would suggest limiting the scope of your game. You should be able to build the entire skeleton of your game within a month or two tops, and if you can’t do that, then the game is too big for you to handle alone. Either get help (hire people) or cut out some “stuff” from the game so that it becomes actually manageable.
CSH: You kickstarted Aleph and Tough to Kill. Tell me about those experiences?
Jesse: Kickstarter, back then, was a different animal than it is today. I don’t think that my Kickstarter campaigns, if ran the exact same way as I ran them then, would work now. They would probably fail quite dismally!
When I ran my Kickstarters, there were very few video games on that platform, and only a very small handful that were successful. It was basically the wild-west of crowdfunding at the time. I can’t speak as to why so many have failed, but I think, at least in part of what made mine successful, was that I tried reaching out to a lot of people in different forums and message boards and social media. One person even shared a link on Reddit which resulted in the biggest day for the Aleph campaign (I had never even heard of Reddit at that time).
There were also a lot of opponents to it. Many people saw Kickstarter simply as a way to grab cash and run (and many people still see it this way). Many people simply don’t like the projects they see and will be very vocal about it. Other people will attack you just because you are on the internet. You have to have thick skin of you are going to expose yourself so publicly and ask for money. This isn’t really that different than producing the graphical resource packs that I do now. There are tons of people who love them (approaching 100k people on Facebook alone), but there are people who are vocally opposed to them as well for a variety of reasons.
The main negatives of going the Kickstarter route, which is why I wouldn’t bother with it again, is that you become financially beholden to a lot of people. For larger game companies that use Kickstarter now, it is not as big of a deal because they have teams of people that can work on the game while other people manage the company’s social presence and update the backers. I did not have that; it was just me trying to talk to a lot of people. When the project took longer than expected, it was just me against a lot of angry people who were losing patience, and I couldn’t blame them for that. They had put their trust and money into a project so it is only reasonable that they receive their money’s worth in a timely fashion. Overall, it left me feeling rather lousy. I did finish Aleph and release it to them, but by the time I did it was a fair bit late and I am sure most of them had moved on with life and didn’t much care about the project.
CSH: I wouldn’t be so hard on yourself. I’m a proliferate Kickstarter backer, and while I’m sure there are undoubtedly a few on there that think the place is some kind of lay-by shopping network, I honestly I think most of us understand.
You’ve made three short games since Aleph, for the Indie Game Developer competitions. You’ve also mentioned ways you could improve on those games. Do you plan on revisiting them down the track?
Jesse: If I lived in a world where days were 50 hours long instead of 24, I would love to revisit these games and flesh them out and expand them into full-fledged games. I think all three of them have great bones, and almost all of their shortcomings are a direct result of cramming the entirety of the game-making experience into a mere 30 days, which is nothing considering most singular titles often take several years to produce by teams of people. The main one I would revisit at present is Unsung Heroes. With some writing revision and polish and some tweaks to make the interface and gameplay a bit more user-friendly, it could be a great game!
CSH: What are you working on now? Do you have plans for another commercial project?
Jesse: I recently finished Unsung Heroes for the latest Indie Game Maker Competition and I have been picking away slowly at Tough to Kill 2. I have no games otherwise on my docket at the moment. Right now I am purely focusing on producing graphic resource packs for Degica and RPG Maker.
Well Jesse, thanks for taking some time out of what must be an outrageously full schedule, it’s been great talking to you. I’m sure I’ll eventually bite the bullet and upgrade to MV, and will no doubt be raiding your website for resources. In the meantime, I’ve just downloaded Unsung Heroes, and look forward to tackling it after work.
If you’re interested, you can check out Jesse’s games and RPG Maker resources here: http://www.pioneervalleygames.com/index.html
And his latest game here: