*insert horrible vulgar joke about how Monday’s suck ass but at least Behind the Mask comes out every Monday*
Man have I got a treat for you guys this week. My friends and I have been playing this game called Ultimate Chicken Horse for the better part of a year now, and it’s a fucking blast. This week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Richard Atlas, the CEO, and co-founder of Clever Endeavor Games, the team behind Ultimate Chicken Horse. These guys are awesome, and I can’t wait to show you a look into their beginnings, their early struggles, and how they broke through in the gaming industry. As always:
This is me.
This is Richard.
This is Indiana Jones running from a kitten riding on a boulder…of Patrick Stewart…who makes this shit?
Alright Richard, thank you so much for your time today! We start every interview with the same question: how did you get into gaming? What was your first game/console?
My first game console was a Nintendo (NES), though I believe it was in the house before I was born. The console I played the most as a young kid was the Super Nintendo, and while I played a bunch of games on it I think the one that I remember best and am still the most competitive at was NHL ’94. My brother and I still play it when I go to his place.
Dude, we have the exact same background in gaming. Gotta love the classics. So what originally caused you to decide to start a career in game development?
My path into the games industry was a little odd. I actually started out studying music, then switched into sciences, and ended up studying mechanical engineering in university. I had an “opportunity” come up when my job told me I could go on vacation for 3 weeks, but then there was no job for me when I got home. The idea of making games had been in my mind for a little while, and I had written some game design document stuff and pitches for game ideas. This “opportunity” allowed me to focus fully on games and try to gather a team for an accelerator/incubator here in Montreal called Execution Labs which was open to submissions. Kyler, Alex, and I did a game jam to see if we could work well together under high stress, and the first version of Ultimate Chicken Horse was born!
I love the combination of tech and art that is seen in video games. I also love the idea that the player is the character and has the freedom to explore the story you’re trying to tell. I know Ultimate Chicken Horse isn’t very narrative, but as a medium, video games allow the player to move around and explore the world you’ve created rather than see it only from the perspective you want to present. In other media such as books, television, or film, the experience of the person engaging with the media is very clear, and differs very little from person to person. The example I like to use is that even the nicest landscape painting in the world can only be seen from the artist’s perspective, while a landscape in games can be explored in thousands of ways.
What a phenomenal answer. I agree 100%. I also studied mechanical engineering in college. It’s a lot less interesting than it sounds lol.
So tell me about those early years. What life like as an early developer without a stable career path? How’d you decide to take the “indie” route?
I was very fortunate to be living at home, with no car or kids or major expenses to pay. I was able to try starting a company knowing that if I had to survive a few months without a salary, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. In fact, all three of us were in pretty fortunate situations and it allowed us to take that leap. Personally, I simply didn’t have the skills to try to get work in the games field, so I figured I would be the “everything else guy”, which I believe I still am.
So when did you feel like your studio “made it”? Or do you still not think you’ve “made it” yet?
I would say that simply surviving counts as “making it” in the games industry. Most companies—in general, not only in games—fail within the first year of starting up. So in that way, we’ve definitely made it as we’ve seen some great success with Ultimate Chicken Horse. Beyond survival, we’re happy that we can provide a work environment with good salaries, work-life balance, creative freedom, and opportunities to learn. To me, running a company that can provide these things is “making it”.
And I think that’s exactly how a CEO for a company should measure his success. Love it, and happy for you and your team.
So how the hell did Ultimate Chicken Horse come to be? Why did you choose a chicken and horse haha? Seems so random. Give me a brief overview of your development path. How long did it take from concept to release?
UCH was the game jam game that Kyler, Alex and I made (along with another friend named Hamish, who left the project for other things shortly after). It’s an interesting question to answer; where the game idea came from, and how it became what it was. I think Kyler and Alex might give you different stories from mine, and I’m honestly not sure how much is accurate and how much is remembering things out of order.
Either way, we did the game for a game jam which had three themes: Modular, Phrase, and The Ultimate ____. Initially, the modular aspect was going to be this idea of typing words which became items, kind of like Scribblenauts, but where the letters themselves morphed into objects. Then somehow that led to creating a level that allowed a player to progress through it. There was some idea of making a dungeon crawler where you create the dungeon and enemies and the AI is the hero, but that was way too massive for a game jam so we decided to control the character ourselves. Oh, and make it 2D. Alex and I had both played Super Meat Boy a bunch so that was an inspiration for the controls, and then the idea of words becoming platforms was dropped in favor of placing them outright. The theme “phrase” was the one that inspired the letters but we ended up dropping that. And, of course, The Ultimate ____ became chicken horse because we had drawn up these cute chicken and horse characters. Initially, the way scoring was done was that you received a letter if you failed, in the way that people play H-O-R-S-E in basketball or S-K-A-T-E with skateboarding. It’s meant to be the ultimate game of horse, but also the ultimate game of chicken (where people tend to do stupid and dangerous things until someone gets hurt).
The game jam was made, and we showed it off at a local meetup. We got great feedback and then worked a bit more on it before showing it at Montreal Demo Night, in front of a crowd of roughly 400 people. They loved it too, and from there we did a Kickstarter, then some shows, and then launched the game about one year and a half after the initial game jam. At each step along the way, we considered the option that if nobody liked the game, we would simply polish it up and sell it for cheap. We kept getting feedback that people loved it, and so with that proof of concept, we kept building on top of it.
So how does your team go about making a game now? Brainstorming sessions? And how do you narrow down what you think is the best idea?
This is a great question! The answer is I’m not sure. We’re currently working on a few different prototypes and we’ll see where they go. How exactly we evaluate those prototypes is yet to be seen. So far, those prototypes have each been led by someone on the team, so they haven’t come about from game-jam-style brainstorming. Whether or not that’s the best method, we have no idea. The important thing is that we stay open and communicative and that we don’t fall so in love with any one specific project that we’ll defend it to the death if it’s not worth making (for whatever reason the team decides). Different studios have very different approaches to this, and often studios have one creative lead who calls the shots. That’s not the case for us, so collaboration will have to do.
Well, if you ever want a set of fresh eyes to look at any ideas you have in the works I’d love to do it. I’d sign an NDA or something too if you wanted. I’m just excited to see more from Clever Endeavor Games. Speaking of which, wanna give us a hint as to what you’re working on now?
I’ll keep that in mind, but I can’t give any hints! The real reason for this is that if we showed a screenshot of even the earliest prototype, people would hold us to it and we’d have to somehow defend ourselves when we kill the project and people wonder why. We’re very happy to show off early versions of a game we’re making, but first, we actually have to decide which game we’re making before we lead people on. Better safe than sorry. Plus, we’ve recently been working on a new update for Ultimate Chicken Horse so that’s taken a lot of our time.
Oooooo new update…I’m hyped now. Haha alright man, thanks so much for the opportunity to interview you today! You got time for some rapid-fire questions?
Ok, let’s do it. Favorite game of all time?
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64).
All-time classic. How bout favorite game this year?
I really enjoyed Katana Zero.
SAME. I think it’s the best indie I’ve played this year. Most underrated game of all-time?
Theme Hospital (on… um… DOS?) But actually maybe it’s not underrated, it’s just old. Another great one is 140 (Steam).
Haven’t heard of either but I’ll check them out! Most overrated game of all-time?
No idea, I don’t know what people like!
Haha don’t sell yourself too short. You clearly made a game that thousands of people like! Do you have a game that you refuse to play (for whatever reason)?
Almost all free to play mobile games, because I don’t tend to like mobile games and I don’t want to have to fight against monetization schemes.
Yea “ad flooding” has kinda destroyed the mobile game market IMO. Give me a fact about Clever Endeavor (or Ultimate Chicken Horse) that no one else knows.
When Kyler was away on paternity leave, the cactus on his desk died (even though I swear we were taking care of it… maybe it was lonely). Anyway, we replaced it before he came back, and wanted to see how long it took him to notice it was a vastly different looking cactus. Random fun fact behind the scenes!
Oh my god I’m praying that he still hasn’t noticed and this article is the thing that tips him off hahaha. Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo?
I feel like we’re legally obliged not to answer that. I know the majority of our team has Switchs, but personally, I only have a PC and an N64.
Understandable. Ok last question, do you think that Fortnite is a good game?
I’ve played about 12 minutes of it, to be honest. I think it’s a cool concept and I think it’s a well-designed game, so I’ll say yes. Is it a game I enjoy? Not enough to play it when I could be playing Rocket League and random indie games, but hey, it seems like the world disagrees with me.
You and me both. Thanks for your time Richard! Can’t wait to see what’s next for Clever Endeavor Games!
Alright guys, I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did. You can find more about Clever Endeavor Games and Ultimate Chicken Horse on their website here, and don’t forget to follow them on Twitter here for updates on future projects from this awesome game dev team!