Building and sustaining a healthy relationship has its share of ups and downs, and mixing that with game development can be an even greater feat. Although the term “don’t mix business with pleasure” suggests relationships and work should remain sepa- rate, some couples in the games industry believe otherwise. From Perception’s developer duo running a studio from home while taking care of four kids, to the family trauma that drove That Dragon, Cancer’s creators to build an emotional game, it’s clear that for some, making games is best accomplished when it’s a two-way street.
This feature article originally appeared in issue #291 of Game Informer magazine.
Two Is Better Than One
Putting aside differences is one thing, but for Amanda and Bill Gardner, the creators of horror game Perception, differing backgrounds ended up in influencing their work in positive ways. By combining their diverse talents and applying them toward the game, they found innovation through each other’s strengths.
Perception’s concept, which puts you in the shoes of a blind woman who uses echolocation to navigate a haunted house, is something Bill came up with in grad school after a creative exercise. Following the closure of Irrational Games, his prior employer, he switched over to the indie scene and began collaborating with his wife to make Perception.
With Amanda’s background in English and Bill being a games industry veteran, the two come from significantly different areas. Learning the ropes happens on both sides, with Bill better understanding the ins and outs of literary references, and Amanda rethinking how a story can be told for an interactive medium.
“If you’re a couple working together, it’s very important to take a step back and constantly evaluate where you’re at and how things are working,” Bill says. “Because I’ve collaborated with Amanda for so long, it’s easy for me to forget that she doesn’t know every last little inside-baseball term we have in games.”
They may have different backgrounds, but their love of games is mutually strong. Video games are a family affair, and often they play with their four kids. Even their infant daughter, Rinoa, is named after the Final Fantasy VIII character. Despite different career paths, their similar interests in movies, shows, and more has made collaboration easier.
“We’ve been together for 17 years,” Amanda says. “I can reference a scene or thing and know we’ve seen it together. It definitely cuts the time down because you don’t have to explain it.”
Amanda and Bill aren’t the only couple that see collaborating on video game development as a positive experience. James and Michelle Silva, who have been married for five years, developed action/RPG Salt & Sanctuary together.
The two are so passionate about their work that even during their honeymoon they would spend evenings working on their game. “I mean, what are you supposed to do after dark on your honeymoon, but code tools?” jokes James.
Working under the same roof, and often in the same room, James and Michelle are careful to not push each other’s buttons. They describe themselves as “emotional sponges of each other,” often sharing similar highs and lows. But this doesn’t mean working together is always smooth sailing.
Working closely with a significant other can be tough, with emotions stronger than they would be with an average coworker. Communication and openness are key to success, but sometimes other factors come into play.
Before Michelle came into his life, James always worked solo. As both programmer and creative lead of Ska Studios, James sees his work largely as his brainchild. Sometimes this balance of control leads to minor conflicts.
“We try really hard to work together and have a shared vision,” James says. “But the problem is I’m the coder and I attach everything together. Subconsciously or otherwise, I tend to just do it my way.”
Despite these difficulties, James and Michelle don’t recall ever having a significant fight that affected their work. Comparatively, Perception’s Amanda and Bill had qualms about working together, but also managed to push through.
“That was something I was personally a little bit apprehensive about going in,” Bill says. “We had collaborated for years and years on everything. I knew her perspective, I knew her style, and all of that. But you know, when you’re actually working in the trenches together, you never know how it’s going to go.”
This uncertainty can be a deal-breaker for some, and certain couples that work on games together face problems that can become unsolvable. This is what happened to Jessica Curry, who stepped down from working alongside her husband Dan Pinchbeck at Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture developer The Chinese Room in 2015. In a lengthy blog post, she noted how working alongside her husband caused issues. Whether it was the press giving all the credit to her husband, or even Dan himself discrediting her, she felt it was wise and healthy to step away from working alongside him.
“On a personal level I look back at my huge contribution to the games that we’ve made and I have had to watch Dan get the credit time and time again,” Curry wrote in the post. “I’ve realized that the only way I’m going to get credit for the work that I do is if I take a step away from Dan.”
This decision, while difficult, helped the couple move past this problem. As for Amy and Ryan Green, a couple from Colorado, they turned to game development to cope with trauma and heartbreak.