COLONIE — Jen Oneal wants Vicarious Visions’ games to be more than just a source of entertainment.
Oneal, studio head at the local video game developer, never forgot the first time she realized a game could be more than just fun. As a kid, she found a new world in “The Legend of Zelda,” her first story-focused video game, after years of growing up on “crappy” Atari games.
And it changed the trajectory of her life.
“It was the fact that there was storytelling in a game and it was more than just fighting and doing something skillful,” Oneal said. “That just really opened my mind and eyes as to what games could be.”
For the last 12 years, Oneal has been watching over an entire studio of storytellers and seeing them give that same opportunity to new generations of children and gamers. Vicarious Visions has been telling stories since its first big game in 1996, and has developed for platforms ranging from Nintendo 64 to Xbox One. And a recent move from Menands to Colonie gave the company a workspace designed with its creatives in mind.
Its accolades are clear just by walking through the building’s front doors. The studio moved in October, but the building looks as if it has been the developer’s home for years. The building’s lobby shows a company proud of its history, with “Spongebob,” “Spider-Man” and “Shrek” titles in a display case to the left of the front desk. Another display case shows “Crash Bandicoot,” “Guitar Hero” and “Marvel: Ultimate Alliance” titles, sitting proudly next to a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award.
But the company didn’t start with massive titles under its belt.
Brothers Karthik and Guha Bala started VV in 1990 when they were in high school. Their first few games, Oneal said, were Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance ports of home console titles. The company found success with these ports, as it started to work itself up to larger titles like “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2” and selections from the Crash Bandicoot series. Publisher Activision acquired the company in 2005 and since then, VV expanded into massive titles like “Destiny” and “Skylanders.”
These titles can be seen on a spiral staircase that starts on the building’s first floor and works its way to the second. On the staircase wall, ingrained in wood, are the names of just about every game the company has created.
But these games don’t just appear out of nowhere. The process of putting them together is a long one, sometimes years long, with numerous bug fixes and alterations, that can often be frustrating, Oneal said. Each room in VV’s new studio serves a purpose in the game creation process, or even just the well being of the company’s staff (like a gym and stashes of candy on the walls of a hallway).
The process starts with, like anything, a concept. Creators need to think of a visual direction, the overall direction of the game and “get alignment” with key stakeholders so everyone in the process completely understands the game they’re going to make. This is where the story forms.
Oneal said the beginning of development is always exciting, but each game moves into the “land of the unknown” shortly after.
“Even senior developers start to feel concerns and self doubts,” Oneal said. “That is the nature of the creative process. It’s painful. You’re having to sacrifice things that you feel so strongly about.”
Most of the time, a game makes it through this “emotional” process, but just like anything, not every project the company works on can make it to the staircase wall.
Creatives sometimes don’t always get to see their projects come to life and it can be tough. But even when games have to be cancelled, the company tries to distribute ideas throughout the rest of its arsenal of titles.
“You’re creating things that may be innovative in their own right that could be applied to other games,” Oneal said. “Every single game that I’ve ever worked on, there might be a mechanic or something that I saw in that cancelled game that appears in a game that is largely successful.”
Still, the company’s successes are seen in the countless pieces of memorabilia gracing the walls of its new $7.3 million expansion of an office space. A real-life replica of a weapon from “Destiny” (made with real leather), a sock-puppet concept art for a dragon and gigantic “Skylanders” promo displays show a studio that is run by adults with the creative spark and humor of carefree children.
But for Oneal, the studio is family. And they’re not just creating fun, they’re creating something more.
“Many of the games that we choose to work on are games that bring people together,” Oneal said. “ Whether it was “Skylanders,” where children and parents got together to play games, or “Destiny,” where total strangers could become friends through going on raids together, the idea that gamers across the world could have this common joy of fun that tears down any of our other differences, I hope that’s something that games continue to do.”
Oneal’s love for storytelling as a kid has come full circle through her work at VV, as adults now come up to her and thank her for playing a role in their first, or favorite, childhood games.
“I hope that the games we make inspire people,” Oneal said. “And what’s really cool for me, the kids who played my games are now adults. It’s kind of neat to hear ‘This inspired me to follow my passion.’ That’s pretty cool.”