Set adrift like a modern day Swiss Family Robinson, Jason and Nicole Stark left the Australian games industry on mission together. They took their four children, they packed their bags and set sail to Noosa, Queensland. They gave themselves one single year to create a successful iOS game. This is their story: the story of a family and the video game they built together.
Sunlight filters through the window, but the classroom is grey. A girl dangles her legs idly beneath the desk. She doodles on her jotter; she dreams of black and white photographs. She waits for class to begin.
In the corner of her eye she sees a boy; a stride tempered with gawky teenage apprehension. Soon he’s standing by her desk. What does he want, this strange boy? Why does he look so sheepish? Why is he taking so long to speak?
Finally a sentence.
“Do you like fried bananas?” he asks.
“Do you like fried bananas?” he repeats.
And that was the very first time Nicole met her future husband, Jason. In high school. Minutes before Physics. Being asked if she liked fried bananas. Which she doesn’t.
“I’d actually made a bet with another girl I knew that this pick-up line wouldn’t work,” remembers Jason.
“But I lost the bet, because the line worked with a vengeance!”
One marriage, four children and over 20 years later, Nicole and Jason Stark are still together -- and in love -- but now they find themselves in a strange room, in a new town, having both left their jobs in the Australian Games Industry, moving their entire family to Noosa. They’ve given themselves one single year to make a successful iOS game.
Together, in this pokey room, in a little rental buried in the Brisbane wilderness, all Jason and Nicole Stark have is their video game. And each other.
Getting The Hell Out Of Dodge
"It hasn’t been easy,” says Nicole.
Jason and Nicole’s story began one year ago under familiar circumstances: redundancy and the collapse of the Australian Games Industry.
“It sounds very brave and noble to say we left the Australian Games Industry,” says Jason. “But really the Australian Games Industry left us.
“It left a lot of people.”
The year is 2010. Krome is in the midst of a high-profile closure; Jason Stark works there as an art director. He is one of the ‘lucky ones’ -- among the numbers recruited by KMM to help make Happy Feet 2, a video game based on the movie being rushed to completion by frantic hands at Dr D Studios in Sydney. It was a Band-Aid fix for a long-term problem, and Jason knew it.
“About 18 months ago, it all started going bad,” he says. “Krome closed, but my team survived for a little bit longer -- we were bought by Kennedy Miller Mitchell. We survived for a while and finished Happy Feet 2, but then we were shut down.”
For Jason, it was hardly unexpected.
“The details of that final day, well, it would have been great if there was some cinematic moment, but it was really a succession of events,” remembers Jason. “KMM shutting us down gradually became more and more likely. The final announcement was really anti-climatic. At that stage most of us already had plans.”
Jason’s plan involved dragging his wife and four children the hell outta dodge.
Children And Bears
“At that point,” says Jason, “it was either pack our bags for Canada or go it alone. But the idea of our children growing up with Canadian accents? Well, that was enough to make the decision for us.”
“I’m pretty sure a bear would have eaten one of them,” adds Nicole.
“Yeah,” continues Jason, “our children are very scared of bears.”
The Stark family decided to go it alone. They had a game idea. They wanted to create a family studio in order to build that game.
Avoiding bears and reducing costs were top priorities. Jason and Nicole decided to move themselves away from the development hub of Brisbane to the remote town of Noosa.
“The first decision was to find a really cheap place to live,” says Jason. “The choice was either live in a terrible, terrible suburb of Brisbane or move to Noosa, which is, coincidentally, a really nice place to live. So we packed our bags and moved here.
“The kids love it here, because they can live next to the beach. That was part of the rationale. We wanted a place where we could entertain our children for free!”
The children. The Stark kids are an important part of this story. Jason and Nicole have four in total -- all girls. Alia is 19, Raven 15, Yukari is six, and Violet is the youngest at three. The kids are part of the reason why Nicole left Krome Studios five years before Jason did -- Jason was made redundant, but Nicole left her animation job of her own volition, on her own terms. Baby terms.
“She got tired of making games,” claims Jason, “so she decided to make people instead.”
But pretty soon the people Nicole and Jason made wanted to help mum and dad make video games.
“The game we are currently making was not our idea!” laments Jason. “It was all Alia.
“Our original idea was a very gamey game. It was an RPG, with sci-fi and film noir elements. Whenever I told my family or friends about it their eyes would glaze over. They’d nod.
“Then my daughter -- who is lovely, but also evil -- she’s doing Psychology and she came home with this awesome little plan. She said, ‘this is how the government should fix the obesity crisis. They should let evolution do the work and just unleash tigers on the streets’.
“I told my brother in law about it. He laughed and said, ‘I’d play that video game.’”
So it was settled. The family Stark’s first game would be an iOS game about tigers eating fat people. That game would be called Run Fatty Run.
The House Of Stark
“It took us three weeks to set everything up,” claims Nicole.
“Yeah,” repeats Jason. “Three weeks.”
Three weeks to find an apartment. Three weeks to uproot possessions, furniture and six different lives from Brisbane to Noosa.
“We had chronic vertigo for the first three months,” says Jason. “We just couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t believe that our situation had changed so quickly.”
Until this point, Run Fatty Run had just been a hobby project for Jason and Nicole, something to tinker with in the few spare moments parents with four children can grab. Now, for the first time ever, their pet project was a full-time job.
“It was definitely an adjustment,” laughs Nicole.
“We haven’t been more than a foot away from each other for pretty much the last six months.”
Every morning Nicole wakes up, takes three-year-old Violet to school and Yukari to Kindy, before heading back home, where she and Jason sit back to back for a full working day and beyond, working on Run Fatty Run.
“We set up our day-to-day life exactly as if we had a job,” says Jason. “We set the kids off to school and then we sit down at our desks very, very close to each other! I can’t actually stretch back without clocking Nicole on the head!”
And, of course, they bicker. Like an old married couple.
“The biggest argument? There’s been so many,” says Nicole.
“She keeps asking me redo things,” laughs Jason. “Nothing’s ever good enough!"
“You just see each other a lot more,” adds Nicole.
“You see each other a lot more and you have to be firm and honest,” continues Jason. “You can’t tip toe around each other’s efforts. If something’s not working you have to treat each other like an employee. You have to tell each other when stuff sucks!”
“And that always goes down well,” laughs Nicole.
The biggest problem, particularly for Jason, is separating work life from home life; understandable considering how intertwined the two have become.
“Actually that’s the hardest thing,” admits Jason. “The computers are just there. I was driving you crazy, wasn’t I?”
“You have to make time in your life for not talking about work,” says Nicole, finally.
She Didn't Do Anything!
Yukari is six years old. Her wavy auburn hair dangles over the iPad. She brushes it from her face and plays intently. She begins to shout. She’s spotted a few problems and she wants her daddy to fix them.
“Yukari, just today -- she wasn’t intending to playtest the game, I didn’t tell her to at least -- but she sat down and played through the entire game, oscillating between laughing wildly and screaming at me to make it easier,” says Jason.
“And yeah, she found some usability issues. And then she was really excited because she insisted on being in the credits.”
It’s par for the course in the Stark household, a household where building video games is a family project.
“Raven in particular is really interested in it,” says Nicole proudly.
“Yeah,” confirms Jason. “That’s definitely that’s what she wants to do.”
Raven is 15 years old. She wants to become a video game artist.
“Raven’s done a lot of the artwork for the game’s cutscenes,” says Jason. She’s doing really well. It’s not surprising that she’s going to be an artist.”
Even three-year-old Violet will be in the game’s credits, alongside her older sister. Much to the dismay of Yukari.
“I suggested to Yukari that Violet, our youngest should be in the credits under special thanks,” says Jason, smiling. “Yukari just said, ‘Why? She didn’t do anything!’"
Swiss Family Stark
The Starks are something of a modern Swiss Family Robinson, cast ashore in Noosa, building video games instead of tree houses, hunting for bugs instead of foraging for food. Everything they do, they do together.
"If you can do anything as a family, I think that’s awesome," says Jason. “If you can build houses as a family or operate a shop as a family, that's great. I grew up in a large family myself, and they bought a lot of food businesses. It’s always been typical of the whole family to pitch in and help out. Your family was like that too, Nicole, wasn’t it?”
“I actually swore that my own family wouldn’t be like that!” laughs Nicole. “Because my parents owned a furniture shop and as kids we always had to help out and stuff.”
“We just picked a really cool thing to do,” says Jason. “And then forced the kids to help us!”
Sans any certification issues from Apple, Run Fatty Run will be released on the iTunes App Store next week. A video game conceived by a daughter, designed by a husband and wife, featuring art from a high school student, play-tested by a six-year-old.
Jason’s expectations are modest.
“I’d like to earn a lot of money,” says Jason. “If we’re talking pie-in-the-sky dreams, I’d like to mirror the success of Ski Safari, and I’d like to use that money to build a little studio -- so we can get out of our house, into an office, start a little team and help rebuild the local games industry."
“But you know, we’ll be happy if we just have enough to make another game,” says Nicole. "Enough money to avoid getting a real job.”
“We just need to make enough money so we can afford the divorce!”
Run Fatty Run will be out for iOS later next week. You can find out more information about the game here.