Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Bi-Weekly Interview #14 - Jessica Fong and Mark Biundo

As an artist, it seems like the landscape is ever-changing from simply the tools, to the aesthetic. I intend to be an artist that never wants to stop learning, and as such, I find more and more interesting artists every day. Each artist has a unique insight and point of view, no matter the experience level. New views help open my mind and teach me there are many ways to utilize my skills and I hope that sharing our stories will help others in the same way. I believe there are many paths on an artistic journey, and each interview will help to show the stories of the artists that tread them.

Today we'll be interviewing special guests Jessica Fong and Mark Biundo from Lonely Egg Studios.

Kaminski: My first question is typically the same, but here goes: What made you pursue art? Is it something that you always saw yourself pursuing? What KEEPS you pursuing it?


Biundo: I’m basically a life long gamer.  I also grew up doing a lot of theater from a young age.  I've always wanted to pursue some sort of expressive medium, though that shifted from theater to games in high school, then to film as I entered college, and back to games after my freshman year.  What ultimately drove me to and keeps me working in gaming is the nature of interactivity.  While different artistic mediums excel at different types of storytelling, games (or more generally "interactive media") literally put you in the shoes of another person, creature, or thing you could never experience being in real life.  I think that gives them an incredible power to generate empathy and understanding, and gives us as developers a unique way to affect peoples' hearts and minds.

Fong: Ok, I think the first question is a two parter for me:

'Pursuing art as a form of expression': I can’t pinpoint the catalyst exactly. As far back as I can remember, imagery and visuals have always clicked as a natural form of language to portray my thoughts and feelings.

'Pursuing art as a career': My high school art teacher David Hevel sparked and bridged how expression and livelihood can come together. He introduced me to visual design and connected me to mentor and friend Nate Fredenburg.

Is it something that I always saw myself pursuing? As a career, no, for a while before college I thought about majoring in bioengineering due to pressure of expectations at home and flipped between an interest in art as a hobby and as a career. But even when not actively focused on art, I was still creating and improving well being. And forging yourself alongside craft I would consider inseparable as a creative. Haha, art works in mysterious ways, you never really stop pursuing it.

What keeps me pursuing it? I continue pursuing art because it’s how I communicate and depict my reality to others. I’m interested in learning how others convey their realities and furthering fields in supporting those expressions. These things keep me connected to the world and it's a powerful idea and mission I find worth pursuing.

Kaminski: It's interesting that you talk about flip-flopping about an art career. I flipped all over the place, but mainly within the art track. Sure, there are days where the simple... "IS THIS REALLY A THING?!" pop up, but all-in-all I always tell myself - hell it's a train I can't get off of now, might as well keep on going.
I thought if I wasn't going to do art at one point that I would do something in math... and then statistics kicked my ass left and right.

Fong: Haha, it was hard for me to define what I 'wanted' at the time. I had family, friends, peers, colleagues, etc. growing that all had different ideas of what they think I wanted and what makes you 'successful.'

Kaminski: It's interesting how easy it is to fall in that trap. "Being defined by those around you." OR "Letting others dictate what makes you, you."
Hell, I've been guilty of it myself.
Your art seems to have a tinge of both cyberpunk and the macabre. Was this something that happened naturally or is there a story or piece that inspired this leap? In that vein, are these both genres that you've always found yourself drawn to?

Fong: When I was young I was drawn to subjects that I felt kinship to or felt like extensions of what I was feeling: the lost belongings in the winding gnarly woods by my house, the lone fish swimming upstream in the creek, the rotten things taken over by flowers in the backyard. Then, my father played Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and Alien for me as a kid and those almost certainly solidified the aesthetics I use now. I had an abusive mother, and the mutated and winding cityscapes with no end or beginning paired with troubled characters trying to survive and understand their place and find answers in them.... it just clicked. This is exactly how I felt all the time and now I had a means / a way to visualize it. It might seem corny, but it was groundbreaking for me.

KaminskiDo you have any formal training as an artist or is it something you evolved naturally? If so, what was your experience in school like? If not, do you feel like your experience in the industry has kicked your ass into gear to excel in the way you have?

Fong: It's both, I drew on my own all the way up till high school where I took art classes. My teacher, David Hevel (he's such a gift) had me skip the intro art classes so I could take part in AP art for college credit. Then, I went on to major in studio art at Cal Poly Polytechnic State University. The art department there has traditional curriculum: focuses on art theory, traditional tools, art history, and self expression in preparation for a career as a studio/gallery artist. I loved all of it and sucked it up like a sponge, but I was also learning and yearning to be involved in digital visual development. One of the reasons I chose Cal Poly was partially due to my parents' desire for a buffer to switch majors if art didn't work out; the school has an excellent engineering department. This actually ironically aided in my goals to be involved with visual design as most of my friends in college ended up being programmers and engineers passionate about game dev. I asked professors if I could tailor assignments towards my own personal projects, started a Concept Art Club, and joined the Cal Poly Game Development Club. After I graduated, my partner Mark Biundo was still working towards his B.S. in Computer Game Design at UC Santa Cruz and I moved in with him till he finished. I learned from his peers and professors and volunteered my art services to the students' final game projects for several years. So I do have formal training in art, but I also was self driven to forge paths.

Kaminski: Switching gears: Do you do conventions quite often?

Fong: I’ve sold at conventions 2-3 times a year for 10+ years and attend/volunteer at others. I sell at California and Bay Area cons to support local run cons and artists, but am open to going out of state if funds allow in the future! There are incredible artists I've met like Bordin Marsinkul from Hyperbooster Studio who make much of their living from conventions. With my current business and goals, it's just not possible for me to do back to back conventions. With every convention we're able to attend there's weeks of planning, budget spreadsheets, restocking with suppliers, inventory logging, and of course the up front costs to account for. Selling at conventions now is a great way for the studio to connect with the community and fans while also giving a boost to funds and visibility for projects and personal art. I love conventions and they have a special place in my heart, they're pretty much where I started showing my work publicly!

Kaminski: My school actually got my start in conventions with these small programs at local museums like "Illustrators take over the Brooks". I had no idea what I was getting myself into... did your school get you out into the world that way or were you left to your own devices? Do you have any tales of your first con adventures?

Fong: I remember programs like that! I was in high school when I was introduced to the local con Fanime through my peer group and thought it would be fun to attend and share a hotel room with friends. I was intrigued when I saw they had an artist alley and my high school teacher and friends supported my interest in showcasing and selling there. I had no idea what it really entailed to sell at a con and my first table was... dinky, haha! I didn't have a display, had a simple red table cloth, and my few prints from Kinko's were just placed wherever on the table, but attendees and other artists there still appreciated the art anyway. They were positive, supportive, and helpful; it was a community that I didn't know existed around me.

Kaminski: This one is kind of an obvious, but leading question: What's your experience been like thus far in the game industry? And also - is Lonely Egg your first experience in a managerial position for games and/or is this your first experience on the game development track?

Fong: I can only really speak from my experiences with indie game projects: it's been one heck of a roller coaster and I don't see it stopping anytime soon. I feel the way indie games are treated, viewed, and established needs more time to mature. Passionate people are in indie games, but there needs to be more systemic efforts towards supporting the arts, lowering obstacles from a small business stand point, and education geared towards how to be a empathetic problem solver/critical thinker. Many projects I've been a part of have voices that I feel are important for the growing industry to hear and pursue, but fail often due to things I would consider are holding back the industry's longevity and innovation; and it ranges from elitism, cliques, lack of soft skills, legal/financial obstacles, bullying, pressures of perfection, etc. I'm humbled by the mistakes and peers I've learned from on the projects I've had the honor of being a part of, it lights a fire under my butt to continue forward. There's work to be done.
Lonely Egg I would consider my first real experience in an owner/manager position, to clarify: 'real' as in my partner and I are taking on the risk and personal investment along with the responsibilities. I was in art direction and asset management for short periods on other indie games, but the projects were mostly managed and owned by someone else. There's a pressure like no other when everything so far has culminated to this point, we're shaping our own brand to the public, and aiming to have it fulfill the personal visions and missions we have.

I think there's more room for creativity as a programmer than non programmers realize, even in non game development roles. Programming is basically defining a logic problem, breaking it down into smaller pieces, and then building those pieces one at a time to bring the full solution together.

Biundo: Prior to Lonely Egg, I was a part of a college team, we worked on a narrative game called Project Perfect Citizen.  It didn't have a particular hierarchy in terms of management, it was just very collaborative.  At my day job I work at a very small startup, so it's pretty self driven and it's given me a lot of practice at organizing and sequencing what needs to be done.
Lonely Egg is my first official job in the games industry though.
I love the idea of collaboration in a studio environment, which is what would appeal to me if I worked there. Being solo can get quite lonely by comparison.

KaminskiDo you have any projects (personal or otherwise) that you'd like to promote?

Fong: Yeah! My partner (Mark Biundo) and I are co-founders of Lonely Egg Studio and our first game is In the Keeper's Shadow, an intimate dystopian surreal hand-painted adventure game where Emi, a young, inquisitive girl journeys to unearth secrets amidst the crumbling, war-torn city sheís called home. We recently put out the press kit on the site, an art teaser video, and we're planning to start dev Twitch streams soon as things ramp up. In the Keeper's Shadow is a retelling the Keeper and the Girl work (like Game of Thrones from Song of Ice and Fire) that included artwork, story, and game notes I worked on mostly privately for the last 11+ years.

With In the Keeper's Shadow, this is the first time ALL personal and Keeper and the Girl materials have been scanned and made available. One of them being the original comprehensive 'game design document' which is around 30 pages of tiny handwritten notes from an independent course back in college. That was a painnnnn to make sense of for our writers, but worth it. Those were private/personal notes that had ....some painful memories that only a few people ever saw.

KaminskiHas it been a scary ride?
I’ve never really worked in interactive games myself - cards, and RPGs haven't been too bad.

Biundo: Well, our experience is pretty atypical, as we're kind of on the fringes of the indie scene. We do get a lot of support and love, but from a pretty small portion of the actual industry.

Kaminski: The biggest battle is actually creating the product, which it looks like is well underway (or complete?). So you all have half the battle already done.

Fong: Marketing is a whole different beast that you'll get knocked out! I highly recommend twitter, InstaGram blasts, and also We love all those games! Edith Finch has been a great narrative reference for us.
I would like there to be a more widespread interest and appreciation for creators in games. blasts.
Games, Anime, Sci-Fi and Fantasy as well as Art cons would be a good bet to throw some flyers around as well. Especially once you start the kickstarter / funding drive.

The game is turning the the inner world that aided me through adversity into a cathartic release for friends and family to see our past build something positive. The older world and game notes/sketches were private, the ramblings and expressions of a younger me. It wasn't until this year that all of my Keeper and the Girl work were made available, scanned, and transcribed for our writers. The scariest part were the obstacles I would face revolving a project of this nature.
I love imagery with themes of legacy, the old talking to the new, what is consequently left behind, and how we personally internalize what it all means. The game touches on it.
Games are amazing in that regard. Seeing your work through still pictures and words, I've been limited to how connected I feel to the characters/my personas. I'm thrilled and a little scared to play and experience them in a way I haven't before.

Kaminski: See, the thing with Lonely Egg that I can see, even before you told me, that there's not only a passion, but also that it's about a much bigger issue.
Take a look at all of the what I would call timeless games in terms of themes and they all live to tell a message.
Shadow of the Colossus : Selflessness, Sacrifice, a moral for loneliness and depression.
Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee : The need for escape.
EarthBound is the need for stable relationships and the importance of them.
The fact that you're making games with a message is super appealing to me. Add to that the fact that I immediately bonded with the artwork.

Fong: Yes! I believe that telling people's real inner realities is a big step in advocacy
It connects you to the themes and the characters, thus connecting you to the creator.
I played the Beginner's Guide not that long ago. I really recommend it.
I guess Getting Over It also got a lot of recent recognition for it's existential commentary.

Kaminski: Yeah, and then even bigger themes would be in things like BioShockPreyDishonoredPortalWhat Remains of Edith Finch, etc.
Hell, even Night in the Woods was about growth.

But all of this ties back around to the issue at hand, that stories such as these are meant to potentially show bigger messages that (hopefully) stick with people and outlive their direct experience.
Basically that we still remember fondly after-the-fact.

Fong: We love all those games! Edith Finch has been a great narrative reference for us.
I would like there to be a more widespread interest and appreciation for creators in games

Kaminski: I actually think we're about to REALLY get into that because of the peak of graphics.
Narrative and story will take a complete forefront to the glitz.
And (hopefully) humans will start to become more concerned with actually getting an experience rather than a simple *BANG* *BANG*.
(Not to dissuade people that enjoy those games, because let’s face it, I enjoy a run-n-gun from time-to-time, myself)

Fong: Back in my studio art academics we were taught that an artwork doesn't stop at the edges of the canvas. The frame, the location it's in, the materials, the artist, the process are all part of the "artwork"
That's how you support the longevity for the work and the artist.

Kaminski: Now you're speaking my language (until you get into the WARHOLIAN HELL)

Fong: I guess that's different then what I mean. This is actually a great way to combat clones in the long term. By supporting an individual, you create less worth in clone work. And for meaning, an artist can gave as little or as much meaning they want to put in, it's interesting to know, but if I'm a functioning normal viewer, I'll take away my own meaning, too, without judging the creator's intentions.

It's kind of a humbling experience.

I get to see a fragment of someone's vision, but I know that I can't know everything about the artist's life to truly know everything about the work or what it took to get this piece here in front of me. It adds a bit of mystery that I get to fill in.

Kaminski: The fact that it's under the guise of pseudo-cutesy makes it all the better to me. Like for example how EarthBound and Little Nightmares were 'sort-of' cutesy, but dealing with some REALLY heavy stuff.

Fong: I love that play on opposites! It's life man, a push and pull between opposing things. For me childhood had its downs/dark times sure, but I was still a kid. Kids enjoy the little things and find the craziest stuff funny.

KaminskiWhat would you recommend for a creative to start off with to get their name into the industry? Any specific things to study, themes, etc.? In that vein, do you have any recommendations for places to get a foot-in-the-door so to speak?
And for you specifically, Mark, what does creativity in the industry mean to you? Being a programmer and all, you are literally bringing life to pixels.

Biundo: There's no one size fits all route for breaking into the industry.  Generally, if you find what you love doing, do it a whole lot, and try to show people what you've done, you're on the right track.
I think there's more room for creativity as a programmer than non programmers realize, even in non game development roles.
Programming is basically defining a logic problem, breaking it down into smaller pieces, and then building those pieces one at a time to bring the full solution together.
Pretty frequently, as you're undergoing that process, you'll come across one of two things: you can't do it the way you originally intended, or you can actually do something more/better.
In the former case, the creativity comes into play in finding a way to either route around the problem, or assisting with design to find a solution that achieves the design goals while being technically feasible.
In the latter, you can end up providing your designers with new tools to play with that afford them opportunities they hadn't thought of.

Fong: For me it was being open minded and adaptive. The industry and life change constantly, so much you can not account for. I recently did a podcast episode with Iva from Art Side of Life and I brought up the GDC talk "Everything I Said Was Wrong: Why Indie Is Different Now," I recommend watching it because they comment on how there isn't one path and things done now may not work the next day. If you ask around, people have journeys all over the board as to how they got to where they are now.  Whether it's an interview, making a game, selling a product, having a portfolio, going to art school, etc, it all ends with you taking it in and making a choice. Nothing will happen if you do nothing.
I also ask myself and re-evaluate what things mean to me constantly.

  • What does it mean to have my name in the industry? 
  • Who is the industry? My family? My peers? The global market?
  • What is the foot-in-the-door? Going to school? Studying and practicing it? Making a game? Winning an award? Starting your own studio?
  • What to study? What would help me now? 
  • What do I find interesting and important? 

Haha, it's a lot of problem solving and questions for myself to work through. For me I feel like these things are hard to act on if I don't know how they're defined for myself. And it might take years of experimentation and mistakes to get a even a light grasp on it. These are not easy questions.

KaminskiDo you have any questions for me?

Fong: Yeah! Do you have an idea of what success in the arts or industry entails for you?
And curious if there was an epiphany moment for you that shaped it?

Kaminski: Success: Firstly, of course, I think that it's important for everyone to have their own idea of what success means to them, individually. In one regard, I think that having financial stability from creativity is a big part of success, but success also means having the ability to share everything that I've learned with the folks that ask - and them actually take it to heart and to succeed on their own. So I guess in my own way, success is all about longevity. Having the ability to pass down knowledge and people actually appreciate it.
My epiphany moment started a bit before I started actively doing art. When I was back in high school, I continually admired art and people that create. I continually asked myself, "What kind of artist would I be if I could do art?"
Fast forward some time later, and quite a bit of dabbling and things - to a point where I was working what I would consider a dead-end job. I discovered conceptart.org and it's forums and realized that this is actually a thing that people do. It got my hand and mind moving way before I even knew what I was actually doing. I think that website was ultimately, my epiphany moment. I haven't really stopped drawing since then.

Fong: I agree with you, people finding their own sense of success. I remember conceptart.org, I didn't use it much though, it had wonderful sketchbooks in the forums!
It's nice to see that you asked those questions of yourself early in high school. Too often I find students who just do what they're told or can't think for themselves, they're just not really pushed to ask existential questions like that.

Kaminski: Thanks for asking - I don’t typically get asked questions for interviews, so this was more-or-less and experiment that I will continue moving forward.

The final two questions are typically the same: what goals do you have for the immediate? And long term?

Fong: Immediate goals: I would like to finish In the Keeper's Shadow and build foundations for the studio to enjoy it with family before the chance to meaningfully share dwindles away.

Biundo: My immediate goals are mainly to finish this project, developing experience as a team and hopefully a reputation along the way.

Fong: There is another game on the back burner till In the Keeper's Shadow is finished that is a letter to my father. In addition, we'd like to grow our participation in charities and organizations supporting children education and health.
Long term goals: Mark and I would like the studio to become financially stable enough to give back to charities and mentor/help other developers publish their personal projects while continuing to create our own IP.

Biundo: My long term goals would be that I'd like to explore more personal narrative games, hopefully sourcing from our different team members, as well as some less personal more "just for fun" type games, particularly RPGs.

Kaminski: The final question is pretty straight forward: What's the best piece of advice you've received OR what's some advice you could give fellow artists?

Fong: I can't speak for anyone reading what's the best course of action for whatever they may be going through, but I've found that learning to be more of a critical thinker and problem solver are skills worth building. Also, it's okay to make mistakes,  it comes with the territory of doing. But how you handle hardship and treat others in the process shapes and tells a lot about who you are.

Kaminski: Thanks you two, for taking the time to be a part of the interview series! I can't thank you enough!


Thank you all for reading, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Jessica Fong and Mark Biundo.
If you did, please give it a SHARE via Facebook or Twitter, below.
You can view this interview, and many more, HERE.

You can find view more of Jessica's work at:
You can also learn more about Lonely Egg Studio and their games at:
Jessica was also recently recommended the book Creativity, Inc. that dives into some deep issues about the creative process.
If you would like to be a part of my interview series, simply fill out the contact form HERE and I'll get back with you as soon as possible!



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