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Interview: At Robert Bowling's Robotoki ‘everyone’s a designer’

Robert Bowling has been busy since he moved on from Infinity Ward, where he worked as the creative strategist for first-person shooter franchise Call of Duty. He founded his own studio, Robotoki, shortly after departing last year and announced the company’s first title in June.

Only Human Element, slated for 2015, may not be the developer’s “first” in the truest sense. With a little help from Kickstarter, Robotoki may launch a puzzle-platformer called The Adventures of Dash by the end of this year.

If the deep, post-apocalyptic Human Element seems like a far cry from a cutely drawn game about a narcoleptic boy named Dash, it is. Those differences are what make The Adventures of Dash such an important project for the team at Robotoki.

“It allows us a creative outlet to refresh ourselves emotionally and intellectually,” Bowling, the studio’s president and creative director, told GameZone in an interview. “It's a big lesson I learned watching our team work for seven-plus years on only Call of Duty. You get fatigued, you get burnt out creatively working in the same universe, making more of the same types of objects and scenarios. You can always do more, but having the ability to take a mental break and tackle entirely different creative problems and styles has been amazing.

“I want our signature to be innovation in how we approach our games,” he said. “At the surface, both of our games appear to be standard fare — a 2D platformer or a zombie-apocalypse game. But when you dig deeper, you see that we're doing things no one has attempted before. With Adventures of Dash, [it’s] all about the unique art styles in every level, the diversity of the many styles of game in one. With Human Element, it’s our cross platform, multi-screen approach to gameplay and how we can pull real-world data into the game universe via GPS and map data APIs.”

The Adventures of Dash - 1

Both Dash and Human Element are launching for a wide selection of platforms, including consoles, mobile devices, and the upcoming Android-based microconsole Ouya.

“Freedom to play how you want and where you want is the key to our development; most importantly, adapting the gameplay experience to [these devices] is a real focus for us,” said Bowling.

“It's a challenge as you have to think creatively about how and when you introduce each of these platforms; especially as an indie developer, you really have to structure your launch strategy in stages."

Bowling doesn’t want Robotoki to be defined by the specific experiences it creates but rather by the team creating them. That will lead to various styles of games, not just ones evident of a triple-A first-person-shooter background.

“Even with Human Element, our first-person game, it's far from a ‘shooter’ because it's focused on building a world where there a million more choices you can make that don't involve combat,” he said.

Dash is the product of a collaboration of many artists. The talent is shaping the game — not trying to make it fit a predetermined vision. They come from diverse backgrounds, like Brandon Wilhelm, who is fresh out of a college and has been uploading his art online for a year.

“I fell in love with his style and needed to see it come to life in a game, so we hired him, and he's taken on the entire Awake world art style,” said Bowling, referring to the parts of Dash where the main character isn’t dreaming.

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“Then you have members like Nate Mitchell, who is a toy maker by trade and has never worked in games,” he said. “His unique character design and perspective from working in the action-figure space has been amazing to see in an interactive environment. Since this is a 2D game, we can let their art and personal style really shine while letting people like [gameplay designer/coder John Sahas] and I find ways to incorporate [it] into the game space.”

Finding ways to move away from typical game experiences is an “extremely important” challenge for any developer to take on, says Bowling. For The Adventures of Dash, the unique angle is the visuals, which change from dream to dream as Dash falls asleep.

“We want to lure the players in with something that feels comfortable, that they can wrap their head around, and then use that opportunity to expose them to an innovative new take on the genres,” he said.

Of course, when it comes to including homages to classic platformer stars like Jazz Jackrabbit (creator Cliff Bleszinski, formerly of Epic Games, has given his full support), Robotoki has to strike a careful balance between looking to the past and looking forward at something fresh and original.

“The art style is so important to that, which is why we opted not to go 16-bit or 8-bit retro design and really come out with a strong and unique art style for the game as a whole,” said Bowling.

He added, “We want to pay respect with homages and references without making them a pillar of the game. Let them be a nice reminder and then move on to the core gameplay.”

The Adventures of Dash - 3

Bowling called the game’s narrative “whimsical”; it’s not complicated. That doesn’t mean Dash is without a serious undertone.

“It was important to us that we subtly show the reality of the very real condition of narcolepsy without putting a massive spotlight on it, but this is something people live with every day,” he said. “It's part of their lives and in an entertaining way, we get to explore that.”

Thanks to the studio’s “everyone’s a designer” philosophy, the possibilities are limitless. That means that everyone at Robotoki can participate in the overall design even if they’re not designers by profession.

“Our motto when hiring is, ‘Let your job description be your launching pad, not your confines,’” said Bowling. “Which is a bit cheesy, but it gets across our point that we want you to come here, bring your expertise, and expect to grow into so much more than what your job description says you are right now.”

As someone who’s been restricted to one property for years, Bowling is embracing the new creative environment.

“It's shown me you never know what someone is capable of until you give them the opportunity,” he said.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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