Spark Plug Games: When in Doubt, Mumble

Half Empty Energy Tank traveled to Cary, North Carolina where we spent the day with Spark Plug Games. We ate pizza, laughed, played a number of games, and picked each other’s brains. I even got the chance to interview John O’Neill, the President and CEO and Megan Carriker, the Community and Brand Manager.

John, who has a great big laugh and a face full of hair, starting thinking about Spark Plug Games in the mid-summer of 2007. “I was working for another local game company and had been in the industry for almost 10 years, doing console games for the most part. I met a lot of fantastic people, but I personally shifted more into business,” John said as we gathered around their intimate conference room. “A lot of people were getting burnt out, and I felt there was an opportunity to do something a little different. The inspiration for the company was about getting back to what games were about. It wasn’t about multi-billion dollar budgets or multiple years of development, it was about making fun games. And so myself and a friend of mine, Ben Lichius, who is a fantastic artist, became a great balance for my insane business plans,” John said.

Spark Plug Games started in the early days as a console gaming company, but in 2008 with the economy bounce, the industry started to change. And with it, Spark Plug Games discovered the causal side of gaming. Since John had previous experience in the industry, they already had all the requirements for console gaming, and had even started developing games with several brands for the Wii, but the money behind the budgets never came through. At that point, they discovered the they could make great games in 5 to 6 months as opposed to 12 to 24 months.

“We were fortunate enough to take great creative and technical development and able to use a small team setting and a lower amount of time to develop products, which were casual games; and we found we were very good at it. And everything just kinda rolled forward from there. Lots of magic,” smiled John.

Megan, who actually went to the same high school as Bryan, joined Spark Plug Games in January of this year and has been building up their community ever since. She covers multiple things such as business development, marketing, and has even taken on a few production projects. “I’m learning lots and doing lots. I think [we have so much fun here] because we’re small. We have about 10 people on staff right now, so everyone has to pitch in, in a lot of different ways. I’ve also done Q&A and play testing – which I’m horrible at because I have no patience whatsoever and that just never ends well,” Megan comments.

Spark Plug Games has officially made over 50 products, but that includes a mixture of professional projects being done for corporations, so publicly around 20 products for users. Even though John has previous game industry experience, he’s still very sentimental about his first Spark Plug game. “I saved pictures of the first check we ever received, the first crits and the first user reviews of the game. Things that seem a little silly when you look back because I’ve done games for so long, but it was an enormous sense of pride when you see your team complete a project,” John remembers. “I’ve been on teams before, but that was when I was part of the team, now I’m creating the team and I’m proud of what the team, themselves have created. It’s amazing to see what people can produce when given the freedom and flexibility that we’re trying to allow here.”

At that point we took a small break from the serious questions and joked around about what mythical animals we would be. Megan, immediately yelled, “Dragon!” and John pondered about being some sort of Rat Dragon Hunter before going into a rant about otters. “I’ve got a lot of respect for otters right now. I know this is random, but I saw this on Planet Earth and it was this family of otters taking on this crocodile. It was the coolest thing because they’re taunting this crocodile and I’m like, ‘They’re gonna get eaten!’ but the crocodile backs off. So they’re cool creatures, don’t ever take on a family of otters. Yeah, they’ll beat a dragon, anytime,”

On that note, we plunged into Spark Plug’s newest game, Plight of the Zombie – a puzzle based game initially launching for Android devices. The twist is, instead the user plays as the zombie and all the zombie wants to do is…well, eat. “And that’s really all there is to it, you’re just hungry. And you don’t know why humans are coming after you, and it’s just not right and it’s not fair and all you want are brains. So we felt that needed to be portrayed,” Megan clarified.

Many people will argue that the zombie genre is overdone, but John disagrees. “Any genre can be overdone if there’s a lot of crap and what we’re trying to do is put a quality game out. So I definitely think that it has a place,” John commented.

One huge difference for POTZ is the game pace, instead of a fast shooter, it’s a puzzle style, so it could take some time to work it out. Bryan even pointed out that it looks like a reverse tower defense game, where technically you’re the offense, but you’re just hungry.

When asked about the future of Spark Plug Games, John declared that only world domination would do, but in fact discovering a passion for building innovative but smaller scoped games where you don’t have to invest 200 hours of play, but instead make small re-playable chunks of fun, like what the industry first started as.”We actually had a discussion earlier about what it means to be an Indie game company. And we want to take Spark Plug Games and instead of being known as a game developer, we want to be known as a video game company. So not only being an indie developer, but also an indie publisher for example, when we launched Witches’ Workshop Open for Business in March and we were the publishers. It will play on everything because we are our own publisher. So I can’t read the future, but that is the general direction we are going in,” Megan explained.

John agreed and remarked, “This is very important, and that’s why we found someone like Megan, it’s a necessary piece of our already small team. Most of us know how to make games, but we don’t know how to market them.”

Megan explained a slight problem with building their community, “Right now we have several games on Big Fish with open forums, people are discussing the games, but we can’t put links up to send them outside the forum or the post gets deleted. So there’s a lot of fans out there and we can’t talk to them and they don’t know about us. We’re still working on building a community, it’s a lot of fun, but a lot of opportunity ahead of us.”

Shaun mentioned he liked the music from the POTZ trailer, which was done by No More Kings, a small Los Angeles based band that you should definitely check out. We ended the interview with the weirdest things they had in their wallets. Megan, excitedly showed us a fortune (from a fortune cookie) that read, “When in doubt, mumble.” and John showed us a piece of dirt he found at the gym and was so fascinated by it, he lamented it and now carries it with him everywhere.

If you’d like to listen to the interview in it’s entirety, check out the 8th episode of Destroy This Podcast – Rock Stars in their Pajamas.


Brittany Saturn

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