Gristmill Studios grinding through life

Grinding in games is a necessary evil. The main character may need to be ten levels stronger to have a chance at beating the next boss, and so the grind begins. Gristmill Studios gets its name from the the mill that is typically used to grind corn and flour, a grist mill, and the studio’s new logo resembles a mill stone. So, the similarities are present and studio has a similar ideal in mind, grinding.

Gristmill Studios is headed by eight guys who bring their unique experiences and flavor to the studio. The guys behind the studio are Rod Runnheim, who makes the particle effects and shades as well as the architecture and design; Doug Graham, who does the early stage prototyping in addition to shading, AI and gameplay; Matthew Porcelli, who does the interface and game art as well as the 2D animations and game trailers; Timothy Polcyn, who does the editing tools and interface design; Jesse Nivens, who does the graphic design, branding, art interface, web design, titles and menus; John Clark, who works on the game trailers, game art and illustrations; Jeff Krause, who does the coding, writing, game testing and sound and Brian Rossman, who does the interface and the game and game engine design.

While the studio is still in its early years, the staff has experience making games.

Runnheim has been writing computer games since he was 12. “I’ve always had a fixation on the graphics of games and the framework that makes them go,” he said. “I’ve picked up some game-play design along the way, but am generally happiest pushing pixels and performance, in that order.

Polcyn “wrote a boot-up password program for my Apple IIe BASIC disk.”

Graham has some experience with most consoles that have been ever on the market, beginning with the “Atari 800, then an Atari 800 XL, then the OG Nintendo, Packard Bell 486… PS2, Wii, Xbox 360, PC,” Graham said. “You name it, I have probably played it, [but] I love going back to the classics; the first game I wrote in XNA was a Ramparts clone.”

Graham’s collection of consoles is part of the reason Gristmill has released its last two games on the Xbox Indie market instead of any of the other avenues available on the PC or mobile phone markets.

“Though developing games for web or PC can be thrilling, you get an electric tingle up your spine the first time you load your game up on the LCD, and your brain says, ‘I’m playing a game on an Xbox. It’s my game. That’s my game on an XBOX!’” Graham said. “It’s an amazing feeling built upon years of nostalgia – we grew up playing Nintendo and Atari – so consoles are a big part of why we wanted to be game developers.”

Like Graham, Krause had a connection with video games early in his life and felt an instant connection. Krause said he was born with a dream to make video games.

“It was exactly like Adam and Eve with the apple, but my apple was actually a Commodore 64 and Eden was my future,” Krause said. “I was banished to wander the wilderness for 30 years or so. I mean, it was cool because I got a degree, a wife and a couple of awesome boys along the way. Then, I entered the Promised Land where I met an angel who showed me the joys of creation, creativity and Diet Coke.”

That angel Krause spoke of was Graham, but although Graham led him to Gristmill, Krause’s sons are what truly pushed his dream along.

“I have kids of my own, and they are as insane about games as I was,” Krause said. “They are the inspiration that has caused me to return to my youthful aspirations to stop playing sports, stop riding bikes, stop eating and make my dream come true.”

The newest part of that dream is Gristmill’s newest game, XenoMiner, whch is being released as part of the Xbox Indie game spotlight Uprising III. XenoMiner is a building and creating game similar to Minecraft, but with a twist of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“We’re all sci-fi fanatics and gravitated toward the idea of a survival situation for a marooned astronaut,” Nivens said. “Moving to a science fiction/space setting gave us a great way to introduce programmable bots, which have become the most exciting feature in the game.”

While the bots are the most exciting feature of the game, the soundtrack is perhaps some of the most interesting since it was recorded and produced by Lucid Darqly from xXRx. Nivens said the soundtrack was originally planned to be royalty-free tunes, but he was working on the album art for xXRx’s new record 333ch2 and heard something he liked.

“They have a dark, electro-industrial style that really fit in with the mood of XenoMiner,” Nivens said. “Lucid Darqly from xXRx had always wanted to score a game, so when I asked him about writing some music for XenoMiner he said yes immediately. He wrote some new tracks to use in the general game play, along with letting us use xXRx’s song ‘Wraith Dream’ on the title screen.”

Although the music change took an unexpected, but welcome change, other aspects during development were not as well discussed among the group, including the name of the newest game.

“When we started out it was called SpaceMiner. My project folder is still called that,” Krause said. “Then suddenly everyone was calling it XenoMiner. I think I missed the memo.”

Names aside, the game development process is typically a well-thought out and discussed affair, allowing the game to be completely fleshed out and a quality end-product. This is something Runnheim feels is perhaps the most important aspect in the process.

“Making games has always been about the process of creation for me,” said Runnheim “To be fully engaged, I have to be building something more than a mechanic with flashing pixels. Nothing against cool mechanics, or flashing pixels, but the process does not hold together for me unless the game projects something more.”

That inner desire to make something more than gimmicks and pretty graphics led the team to enter Microsoft’s Dream. Build. Play contest. The team’s XenoMiner did not win the grand prize but did get its game published to the Indie market and received an unexpected surprise.

“After Dream. Build. Play in June, the Indie Uprising crew asked us to sign on,” Nivens said. “We spent the rest of the summer trying to perfect our feature-set for release. We still have tons of stuff we want to add in updates and are already making plans for future versions.”

With the release of XenoMiner already in the rearview mirror, Gristmill undoubtedly wants to get started on its next title. However, as with many things, life is in the way, and the staff will have to grind through in order to make the next game.

“We all just work on the game when our schedules allow,” Krause said. “We all have full-time jobs, families, girlfriends, pets, plants um…dance lessons. Because of that, it can be hard to have time to develop, but from the beginning we made a point to set aside one night a week where we can all get together and focus on building our games. If I could do anything differently, it would be to make this a full-time gig.”

And although Krause would love to make game developing a full-time job, he knows the money is not the driving force behind the development. However, he did offer some advice for those trying to break into the field.

“I would say have kids, but taken out of context that statement would be weird,” Krause. “First realize that it takes work. A lot of work. But if you are willing to invest the time and effort, there isn’t much to keep you from succeeding. Oh, and keep the definition of ‘succeeding’ to ‘I made a game’ instead of ‘I made a game and got rich and bought a monkey to dress up as a butler to follow me around wherever I go.’ Keep it reasonable.”

Among the Gristmill staff who is taking the Krause-view of game development is Clark. Clark, whose early years of drawing super heroes and hating math led to a career of graphic and broadcast video design, said he would not change a thing about his childhood and adolescent years, because those decisions led him to “these Gristmill Dudes, an incredibly creative bunch of developers. And we all are living happily ever after… but I still hate math.”



About Steve Lesniewski

Steve lives in Chicago and recently graduated from the University of Illinois. He has been fascinated with video games since his ninth birthday when he received a Gameboy Color and Pokemon Blue. He loves following sports and cheers win or lose for the Bears, Bulls and the Fighting Illini, who include the 2012 men’s gymnastic national champs as well as the 2011 women’s volleyball national runner-up.