Kyle Sloka-Frey, Joey Laland

EvolvingPoet Media

Posted by Mervyn Graham, Philip Jong.
First posted on 28 June 2013. Last updated on 28 June 2013.
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Kyle Sloka-Frey, Joey Laland
Joey Laland and Kyle Sloka-Frey (left to right) are cofounders of EvolvingPoet Media, developer of Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds.
Kyle Sloka-Frey, Joey Laland
Kyle Sloka-Frey, Joey Laland

All images are courtesy of EvolvingPoet Media © 2013.

For more information, visit EvolvingPoet Media.

Indie game developers come and go; but if ambition and hard work count toward increasing their longevity, then Kyle Sloka-Frey and Joey LaLand of EvolvingPoet Media (or Evolving Poet Media) have hit the ground running. Located in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, EvolvingPoet Media began in 2006 initially as a self-publishing store for indie writers. Branching out in 2012, Frey and LaLand pivoted their company into an indie game development studio. They worked on a number of minor game projects before undertaking on their first major commercial game release—Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds.

The different skill sets and experiences that Frey and LaLand have brought into their company serve them well to complement each other when working together on Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds. With a background in programming and scripting, Frey has been making small games for fun for years. He is also a talented musician, composing musical scores for the games he makes. By contrast, with a deep experience in graphics design, LaLand has previously created a number of popular game maps as well as levels and graphics for many ROM hacks.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Frey and Laland about Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds. In the interview, they speak candidly of their roles as indie game developers and designers, the inspiration behind the game, how the game's unique art style fits into its storytelling, what adventure game fans can expect from the game, and what lies in the near future for them and their company.

Check out our gallery of previously unpublished concept and production art from Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds, including an exclusive screenshot of a deleted scene from the game!

When was your company founded? Why did you name it EvolvingPoet Media? Prior to Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds, what game projects had your company previously undertaken?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: We officially became an LLC last November, but I had been doing a variety of other things under the name before that (namely web design and some freeware games). The name EvolvingPoet Media actually comes from a site that I started about 7 years ago that acted as a self-publishing store for writers and poets (fairly similar to sites like Unfortunately, that didn't really work out (mostly because I was 14 at the time). After a year or two, it became my moniker for web development, and then last year, it became the name of our game company.

We worked on five other titles before Jack Haunt. They were essentially a series of games that were supposed to help us become a cohesive team that could actually make complete, polished games. Our first was called Tiny Hero, and it was an extremely average micro-RPG that helped us realize that we could actually complete a game. Next we made an Oregon Trail-esque game called Drive Car, where we worked more on honing our art style and tone. After that came Man Hole Man, which was a Sokoban game that we designed to be as mobile friendly on as many devices as possible. We started seeing some success when we put out our next game Go! Mechacat!! Go!, which was a Tiny Wing-esque game that we count as our first real game with all of the parts that a game needs. Our last title before Jack Haunt was Reach For The Stars, an infinite jumping game that we felt was complete and could stand up to other competing games. Having completed all of those games and learned from our many mistakes, we thought it was time to move on to a semi-fully fledged game finally, Jack Haunt.

What were your favorite adventure games of yesteryear? Why?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: Any that I could get my hands on: Grim Fandago, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Maniac Mansion, Sam and Max. I never got into the games that my friends were playing back then (mostly FPS's), and I only had a Window 95 computer until 2006, so adventure games were my only real option back then (except for RPG's of course, which I played a ton of as well). All of the adventure games that I played were quirky, humorous, and a little dark, which are all qualities that still resonate with me when I play games.

Joey Laland: Boy and His Blob, Clock Tower, the original Castlevania series and the Legend of Zelda series all make up my adventure game youth. It wasn't until much later I picked up the Sam and Max series, Nightshade for the NES, and Silent Hill. The list is a lot longer than that but these all left distinct impressions on me and not very many games like BaHB, CT, Nightshade or the original Silent Hill (1 through 3) are made these days. I hold them up on a pedestal as artifacts from an era since lost.

Why did you want to become an indie game developer? Looking back, what prior personal, educational, or work experience had best prepared you to pursue this career?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: I really wanted to make weird things. That isn't very specific I suppose, but my main reasons for wanting to be a developer is to do things that haven't been seen a lot, make things that are just a bit unsettling, games that might change a person's perspective, or even just to pervert classic games.

As for preparing to be a developer, I'd have to say that all of the Computer Science classes have definitely been a huge help. My high school had a great computer science teacher who would let students who completed all of the available courses set up their own independent study courses. This let me have a solid knowledge of C++, Java, javascript, HTML, CSS, PHP, and even Assembly by the time I graduated.

Joey Laland: Throughout elementary and high school I worked day and night on RPG Maker games and Super Mario World ROM hacks. I spent so much time making my own levels and puzzles and drawing game art. Most recently I've been creating levels in Source for Team Fortress 2, which have been featured on several sites and servers, though originally I had started in other games on the engine like Half-Life 2 and Left 4 Dead. I took art classes all throughout my school career into college, though nothing I'd boast as impressive as the nerd above.

Adventure games have admittedly declined in popularity in recent years. Why have you decided to make an adventure game now?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: Well, initially Jack Haunt was being made for a very specific audience in cooperation with a company who was supposed to publish our next game. They said that they specifically wanted a "find the object" type game, and we really didn't want to make one. So we thought, why not make an adventure game? We like to play adventure games, there's a bit of "find the object" type gameplay in there, and I think it'll be fun to take such a complex genre and turn it into something that the publishers demographic would like.

Joey Laland: Every time we make a game we want to make something different from the last. Like Kyle said, we started it off as a point and click for a specific demographic as that was what was specially requested. The plan fell through and we had to try and diverge it towards being a "point and click adventure" with easier puzzles than I had wanted (because I personally want to make the player think hard enough to blow smoke out of their ears), but I was still excited to work on something new. I feel like players need something that doesn't insult their intelligence and lately even the big league game companies aren't making adventure games like that anymore. I want to help bring it back. This game helps us, as developers, learn how to make a game like that somewhere down the road.

Although many adventure games have featured ghost stories, only a few adventure games have chosen to focus on ghostly themes. What is the thematic inspiration behind Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: Jack Haunt first started off as a game about a lobotomy patient who had to find pieces of her memory in a house that she lived in. Then we put that design through one of our "meetings", which is typically just Joey and I sitting in a room (with my little brother or fiancé occasionally), and talking until it meets all of our requirements (something that I can program, graphics that Joey can draw, able to be done on our platform, etc). After an hour or so, we had finally arrived at the idea of Jack Haunt, an uber-cliché 50's detective in a fairly childish (with dark undertones) supernatural world.

Joey Laland: Yeah, originally the game was really serious, maybe took itself a little too seriously? We were requested to make a specific game for a specific demographic, so we looked around at what they were selling and it was all games in asylums and dark houses where you navigate through, do puzzles and read plot things. The original plot had a huge cliché twist like "You were the patient all along!" but it was something you could actually never figure out without picking up and reading documents we would hide throughout the game. It was also supposed to be much more horror-oriented. I think we settled that we would prefer something much more tongue-in-cheek and fourth-wall breaking and maybe something people can walk away from thinking about how cute the characters looked in their gloomy horrible lives.

The graphical styling in Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds is minimalistic and almost cartoonish. How does the game's art style fit with the game's storytelling?

Joey Laland: The house itself is colored in pale, light colors because the entire game is light hearted, as if nothing takes itself seriously. The lighter stuff is on the surface but there's also something sinister hiding in some of the details, and literally underneath all that is the dark, gritty stuff that reveals itself in the middle of the game. But even all the dark stuff is cartoony, and the other characters affected by it are nothing more than annoyed at it. Other than that, the minimalistic art style is something I use in a lot of my hobby art nowadays because it allows me to limit myself to a small color palette, which in the context of the game makes the player aware of important colors used throughout. Certain characters have qualities about them, some hidden and some mysterious, that are represented by bright greens, pale greens, black, white, and red. That answer is a lot longer than I had originally intended, so skip all of that trash. The short answer is: I like to draw with pretty colors, no detail, and no line art because it's nice to look at.

How long was Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds in development, from inception to release? What were the most difficult challenges you faced during the game's development process?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: Jack Haunt took about two and half months to complete. The most difficult challenge was definitely the end of the development process. I spent the last few days cramming in everything that I could, working much more than I probably should have been. Compounded on top of that though was that the end work was super boring, being made up mostly of bug fixes, UI tweaks, etc.

Joey Laland: It also didn't help that we had just began learning how to use that engine. For future games Kyle can now have the proper 6 to 8 hours of sleep without ripping out his hair and without the aid of an IV pumping caffeine into his system when he needs to fix a bug.

While the game's graphics may appeal to a younger audience, much of the game's more subtle noir humor is aimed toward an older audience. What audience are you targeting with the game?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: Originally, it was supposed to be targeting the audience that our publisher had specified (30-60 year old women of a very specific socio-economic status). Once they had turned us down though, we quickly adapted the game to fit 20-40 year olds. This let us do a lot of things with Jack Haunt that we had originally wanted to do, including tons of references, some weird dark parts, and a lot of allusions to more sinister happenings.

Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds is a very short game. What kinds of puzzles can gamers expect from the game? To what extent will the character Jack Haunt "live" (proverbially speaking, of course) on in a sequel?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: Jack Haunt's puzzles are supposed to fit into the game pretty well, so typical puzzles include things like finding keys, finding ways to get an object from somewhere, opening magical locks, etc. Nothing terribly strenuous, but they do require a bit of detective work.

As for Jack Haunt having a sequel, we've been throwing the idea around. Currently, we're thinking about making a much longer, in-depth Jack Haunt, centering around him running his own detective agency in the supernatural realm.

Joey Laland: Some of my favorite puzzles or sections in the game require you to do something weird and a little unexpected, but nothing you can't figure out without talking to another character or reading things or exploring your surroundings. That's also something we want to continue on another level in a Jack Haunt sequel. Like Kyle said, we're thinking he should be an afterlife detective for hire, so naturally he, and the player, will be required to do some actual hardcore detective work.

Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds was scripted using Construct 2 from Scirra. Why did you choose this over other freely available scripting tools (such as Adventure Maker or Adventure Game Studio)? What other development tools did you use to produce the game?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: We chose Construct 2 because its super easy to use, and let us make our games in HTML5 (which we can easily export to mobile devices, tablets, online, Windows, Mac, Linux, etc). We also used a lot of custom made JavaScript libraries that I created throughout the development process.

Currently, Jack : Old Haunting Grounds is available only via digital download from your website. What plans, if any, do you have in releasing the game on other platforms (including mobile) and via other distribution channels?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: I'm currently working on a port for Linux and iOS (for iPad), and depending on the demand, a Mac port will be coming out shortly after. We are also looking to have Jack Haunt released on IndieCity, Desura, and are looking to have a stint on IndieGameStand as well.

What does the future hold for EvolvingPoet Media? What plans, if any, do you have in making this a fulltime career?

Kyle Sloka-Frey: We've already started working on our next title, "Bide", which will be a game about a child and how he internally deals with the traumas that are presented to him, in the form of a platformer. Later this year, we might be working on the Jack Haunt sequel if things go well.

I definitely have an interest in making this into a full-time career, but even if we do succeed, I can't see myself being able to only have one job at a time (being super poor for a while has forced me to always have backups of everything).

Joey Laland: More games, better games, bigger games. We have a steadier foothold now and a niche fanbase and apparently this has been an interview the whole time? I don't know why nobody told me, I've never even done one of those before. I didn't even dress appropriately. So, I mean, even this interview is a first and that definitely counts for something when we think about the future. I also hope we connect with people that enjoy our games one day on a more interactive level, not just as indie developers but as fellow players as well.

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