Published on October 5th, 2015 | by Patrick Garde0
Interview with Rob Lemon of Gilded Skull Games
We had a chance to chat with Rob Lemon, Founder of Gilded Skull Games. We named their game, Galactic Keep, as one of the best mobile games in August 2015, hence, we wanted to get to know the developer more. We talked about their history, game inspirations, difference in making games for well-known brand and original titles, why they focused only on the iOS platform and what’s in store for this developer based in New Jersey.
Could you tell us a little bit about Gilded Skull Games?
Gilded Skull has been around for almost seven years. Our core is composed of two people. I create all the artwork, while also designing and writing the games. Chris Sokol programs them and helps to solidify the design.
How did you come up with the name?
We were looking for a name that was reflective of how we wanted to make our games. Gilding an object transforms it into an artifact of value. We wanted to gild our games by iterating, obsessing over the art and code until we were happy with how all the pieces synchronized.
Skulls are a loaded symbol, meaning too many things, but for me a detached skull is a very ‘human relatable’, albeit dark, object. So, putting those together, the gilded skull is an object that relates to basic human existence that’s been obsessively transformed, made an oddity that is also something special.
When did you decide that you want to get into game development?
I worked as a game producer at Nickelodeon before starting Gilded Skull and while working with some great developers on a wide variety of projects, I learned about how the various rough component of a game were made into a clean, finished product. At some point, I began to take a very hands-on role in producing: writing, developing the gameplay on a microscopic level and creating the game art in some cases.
I come from a fine art background and the interactive projects I’ve created in the past pulled various disciplines together (sculpture, writing, drawing, music, animation), so, creating a game seemed to be the next logical step. I know very little about programming, but I was going to attempt to wrangle most of everything else and get help from experts on the things that I couldn’t manage.
I met Chris, who now handles all our game programing, while working on another game. He’s a programming genius. We worked on several projects together and while making them, started to develop Galactic Keep.
What are the games that inspired you to continue in this industry?
My dad ran a coin-op vending business (he took it over from my grandfather) when I was a kid. He owned various pinballs, jukeboxes and later arcade games. The games would cycle through our garage as he repaired them and I’d play them for hours before they, inevitably, left. That was my first exposure to video games. Asteroids Deluxe was a cabinet that stayed in our garage for a long time, I played it a lot.
After college, I started collecting games. I currently own thousands of them along with the consoles and handhelds to play them on. If I were to single out a particular, influential, game it would be Shadow of the Colossus. It really changed the way I thought about video games. It has a similar freedom of exploration to that found in tabletop roleplaying games I had played. Half of the fun for me was kicking around the map looking for secrets before you actually stumbled into another colossus. Actually, I’d spend a lot of time actively avoiding the colossus, riding around the map and then savoring each battle event. Hopefully there’s something of that in Galactic Keep.
I was very taken by the evocative mood in Shadow of the Colossus, the feeling of emptiness. Also, here and there in Galactic Keep, there is a hint of sadness at being tasked to enter a wonderfully alien setting only to kill the creatures around you…
You’ve made a couple of SpongeBob games. Are there any differences in developing games for a well-known brand as compared to an original title?
It’s a completely different experience working under the umbrella of license. Having worked for Nickelodeon, I knew a lot about SpongeBob so that made following the brand easier, I got a lot less flack about writing the game and making the art as I was well versed in following (and stretching) the brand rules. That said, every single asset and line of dialog in the SpongeBob games was vetted and approved by Nickelodeon.
It was incredibly liberating to work on an original title and to be able to ‘self approve’ everything in it. The down side is that every mistake you make is on your shoulders. The up side is that we know that the game is totally and completely our own creation.
Galactic Keep is your fourth game. What have you learned from your previous titles that you’ve incorporated in your latest game?
Conceptually, Galactic Keep is so utterly different from any of the other projects that we have worked on, there is not a lot in the final version of the game that was influenced by our previous developments! On the contrary, a lot that we were learning while developing Galactic Keep went into helping us solve problems in our other projects.
We wanted to build something ‘meatier’ than we had made in our past games, something with more body, mood and atmosphere.
How did the idea for Galactic Keep come about?
I’m a huge fan of tabletop games, another thing I collect. I love science fiction and I’m constantly drawing creatures. I wanted to create a game that involved all three of those things in a robust way that could be used as a framework to tell unusual stories. That’s where the idea came from.
Galactic Keep has an 88/100 metascore rating on Metacritic and we’ve named it as one of the best iPhone and iPad games of August 2015. Did you expect to receive this kind of positive response from critics?
Honestly, we didn’t know what to expect. When we finally got the game to a point where we could play it to a conclusion and decided that the game was ready to show to outside testers, we were terrified that people would play it and hate it, or worse, that they would be ambivalent about it.
Chris and I were the only two people who played the game, so, we had absolutely no idea how anyone else would react to it. Luckily, the initial testers loved it. There was certainly feedback but they loved the core of the game and that inspired us to dig into development with even more vigor.
With critics, it could go either way. Again, we had no idea! Reviews are so personal. We are very happy that people liked it and that they could see our dedication and genuine love for the project in the game itself.
Why did you decide to focus only on the iOS platform?
We set out to make iOS games because the App Store was a burgeoning marketplace with a low barrier to entry. Also, the concept was formed around the ‘new’ touch-screen interface and the ability to shake your device to roll dice. Those novelties fell away from the game as the platform aged, but, even so, the core game design was built for mobile. It’s made to enable players to pick it up, play for a few minutes, make some progress and put it away. That said, we often test the game on a desktop computer and know that it will work well on PC too.
Galactic Keep is priced at $3.99. How did you arrive at that price?
It took some back and forth to get to that price. As a premium game that took us six years to make, we didn’t want to sell ourselves short and price it too low. On the other hand, pricing any game high in the iOS marketplace, even a premium game with hours of content, is dangerous. We settled on something that we considered would place it as a premium game within the iOS ecosystem while still being low enough to be considered an impulse buy for most gamers.
What are your plans for Galactic Keep in the near future?
In the short term, we’re going to fix anything that seems broken…and then fix the fixes. There were several ‘large ticket’ items that we’ve always wanted in the game that didn’t make it in at launch, things like being able to zoom out on the map, being able to swap characters easily and a universal inventory (a chest where items are accessible to all characters). We’re currently working on those. Next would be new content, new modules, characters and items.
What’s next for Gilded Skull Games?
We’re going to continue to update and build on Galactic Keep, that has been our plan all along. There may be other things in store but, for now, that’s our focus. We don’t want to divide resources if we can help it.
Thank you, Rob, for taking time to answer our questions.