Refract is a Seattle-based studio that produces interactive art. They’re currently working on a racing video game called Distance, a sequel to the cult-classic Nitronic Rush. We caught up with co-founder Jordan Hemenway to discuss video games as art, his experience starting a design studio, and more.
Can you give us a brief background of Refract and how it came to be?
Refract was founded by three programmers (myself, Jason Nollan, and Kyle Holdwick) who graduated from DigiPen Institute of Technology in 2012. Each year DigiPen has RTIS (real-time interactive simulation) students build a game from scratch. By junior year we were impressed by what each other had been creating each year and we formed a new team with 8 other developers to make a 3D futuristic racing game (which was crazy ambitious at the time). The game projects were just one of many intensive classes, but for us it was the most interesting part of the school so we spent an enormous amount of time on them. We ended up creating a game called Nitronic Rush after 5 semesters of work (instead of the required 2). Kyle and I had been talking for quite some time about eventually doing a startup after DigiPen. After Nitronic Rush was a bit of a success we were reassured that doing another “indie” game after graduating wouldn’t be ridiculous. We asked Jason to join us on this adventure and we’ve been working together since.
Pushing those boundaries and giving something back to this creative space is the most rewarding part of development.
These days it’s fashionable for entrepreneurs to argue that skipping College is a good idea. Would you have been able to achieve the level of success without going to Digipen?
I understand the mentality behind skipping college since (especially in tech fields) everything is available online, but I don’t think Refract would have been formed without DigiPen’s environment. We were constantly surrounded by inspiring, brilliant people (both students and teachers) and we were in a space where we could easily learn about team dynamics, experiment with the different branches of game development like graphics, audio, physics, etc. I can totally see how you could find a local or online community, build relationships, and work together on projects. In our situation however it was more productive to leave our home states and jump head first into a new community. I also know DigiPen students that dropped out and had great success in the indie world, but it required a certain type of self motivation that I’ve found to be rare.
Refract’s website describes it not as a videogame studio, but as creating interactive art. How does this perspective inform your games, and what are the implications for future projects?
While video games are a relatively new art form, they’re often times narrowed into a corner by both consumers and even creators. The idea behind calling our work “interactive art” is that we’re not going to just make an alternate version of a game you’ve already played and loved. We want to expand the boundaries of interaction as much as we can. In Distance, we’re tackling a lot of new ideas in the “arcade racing” genre. Gameplay-wise we’ve added an enormous amount of control on the car to the point where it’s almost a platformer. Story-wise we had never seen a racing game pursue mystery, psychological horror, or thriller elements, so we challenged ourselves to see how deep we could go. As for future projects, I wouldn’t expect the same gameplay or even genre from us. We might be too ambitious at times, but pushing those boundaries and giving something back to this creative space is the most rewarding part of development.
Can you talk about your business model? I presume that for most small or medium sized studios, being able to release games early on Steam not only plays a big role in profitability but also game optimization.
Kickstarter and Early Access have played a huge role in Distance’s development. We used Kickstarter to present a new idea to fans of Nitronic Rush, and after saying yes with their money we were in a position with complete creative control. Instead of having a publisher hold the cards, we could take our time and get it right. After developing Distance for a couple years, early players from Kickstarter encouraged us to pursue Early Access because it opened up multiplayer and level editing to a larger audience (which benefited everyone). From core gameplay to level creation, continual player feedback has morphed Distance into a better game every week.
On the optimization end it has been impressively helpful. We’ve greatly improved performance and stability with each build, which was only possible thanks to detailed reports from dedicated players. There’s obviously a massive range of PCs out in the wild today, so every data point we receive is critical.
At the end of the day this was only possible though thanks to our passionate community. Several players have put in hundreds (or even thousands) of hours into an incomplete game, and their excitement drives us to continually innovate and create something that’s worth playing.
You raised over $150,000 through Kickstarter. What enabled you to achieve such success?
In terms of our success on Kickstarter, I’d say that it was down to perseverance and encouragement from friends and family. We started off reasonably but within a week things were looking rough. Instead of throwing in the towel, we just kept pushing right until the end. The biggest takeaway I got from what worked versus what didn’t is that content was king. The more content we released in terms of trailers, interviews, and written updates the more traction we built. A big surge in the final days encouraged people on the fence to take the plunge, and fortunately we were able to walk out in one piece.
Designing video games while running a company is an incredible challenge, and is frequently quite stressful, but I’ll never consider it a normal job.
As a developer, do you think virtual reality (VR) is a gimmick or a huge leap forward?
I’ve always been obsessed with immersion and atmosphere in art, so anything that explores that has me hooked. In terms of VR being either a “gimmick” or a “huge leap forward”, at the moment it’s somewhere in between. We’ve gotten a taste of this virtual future and I think it looks very bright, but we’ve also been presented with some of the greatest challenges we’ve ever seen. On technical, art, and design levels VR forces us to rethink a lot of what we’ve come to understand in the space of video games. From that angle it’s a bit disappointing that perfect virtual experiences won’t be here this year, the next, or the next, but I think it’ll be worth the struggle. Some the smartest creative minds on the planet are currently powering through these enormous challenges, and I think it’s fun to be a part of that discussion and experimentation. Distance supports VR as a seated experience from inside the cockpit. Even with this straightforward implementation it’s been a fun experiment. It’s also been amazing to demo at conferences and be many people’s first ever VR experience.
When I was a kid, I used to love playing racing games like Mario Kart or Rush. All of these games had four-player local multiplayer, even though the systems powering them (N64 and Dreamcast) were laughable by today’s standards. Yet, there are essentially no console racing games with 4-player split screen capability in this generation. Why is it so hard to pull off even though systems are much more powerful today? Will Distance on PS4 support 4 player local?
As a player it has been sad to see split-screen quickly die off. I grew up on PS1 split-screen with games like Crash Team Racing so I understand the pain. While I’m far from an expert on the matter I have a couple thoughts. One simple one is that split-screen was your entire multiplayer experience back in the day (at least on consoles). No online support, just local play at best. As online multiplayer grew, demand for split-screen went down, and developers were already at capacity attempting to implement advanced online features. Testing split-screen is also quite time consuming, so if developers can cut it out without a huge backlash it probably seemed quite appealing. It’s also apparent today that single player gaming has gotten significantly more advanced, and emulating that in split-screen without a large quality loss is actually quite challenging. Not only do the graphics need to be reduced significantly, but physics, AI, and other expensive operations need to be reduced.
Our team grew up with arcade racing split-screen modes so it seemed obvious to include it. While I can’t guarantee how many players will make the cut on PS4 since it’s not entirely up to me, I can say we are pushing for as many as possible.
Many people dream of designing videogames. You are actually living that dream—does it live up to the reality, or is it just like a normal job?
Designing video games while running a company is an incredible challenge, and is frequently quite stressful, but I’ll never consider it a normal job. I actually avoid calling it “work” since it just isn’t for me. For better or worse it’s a lifestyle, and one I can’t imagine without. I get to craft a narrative, shape the core gameplay, design levels, create the soundscape, build a company from scratch, and frequently engage with a passionate player community. I can’t imagine living life any other way, so for me the hard “work” is always worth it.
DigiPen was interesting from this angle since for many it was a make or break type situation. A lot of people find out quickly that this is way more challenging that they anticipated and leave to pursue another field. Those that remained to the end clearly had passion for some part of development.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a studio or get into the game development business?
It’s a classic line, but just make something. Whether you go to school and they have you make something, or you do it from home with Unity3D, Unreal, Lumberyard, etc. making something is always better than talking about it. The tools are there, now more than ever. Otherwise, continually ask questions and get good at learning.
What specific resources do you recommend for beginners?
Haha, DigiPen is fantastic place for programmers in my opinion. As for general learning, there are websites like Pixel Prospector which have very been helpful. The GDC Vault also has some more specialized talks, and I’ve gotten a lot out of local groups like the Washington Interactive Network and they panels/talks they’ve hosted. I eventually spoke on a couple panels myself. Otherwise, making friends with others online or locally that are near your skill level can be really helpful. You can encourage each other and it’s a blast to see those colleagues succeed over time.
Any thoughts on what is now being called the PS4K?
I don’t have any insight other than speculation. I love the idea that the PS4 would eventually support 4K blu-rays, but anyone expecting 4K gaming on a console in the short term will be disappointed. Distance looks amazing on our 4K TV when running it from a super powerful PC, but seeing how much power it took to run it smoothly reminded me how far we are from 4K gaming being the norm.
You got me interested, and after looking up some articles I can imagine how 4K upscaling could exist in consoles in the short term. I still think proper native 4K rendering is ways off, but I’ve been surprised before.
You are not only a designer and coder, but also the composer behind the soundtrack for Distance and Nitronic Rush. How have your different creative passions influenced each other, and do you think that pursing multiple creative activities has strengthened your work?
I think one of the coolest parts of working with a small team is that individual passion clearly shines through. Since I’m involved with creative direction and gameplay as well as the music, I’m frequently able to guide how the two intersect. I’m incredibly passionate about crafting a certain mood or feeling, and music is just a piece of the puzzle. I do think, for me, pursuing multiple creative activities has strengthened the final product. You do get pulled in a lot of different directions all at once, but in the end the player will experience something that reflects an individual’s creativity.