Dec 26, 2015

Indie game creator savors sweet praise for Prune

Excerpted from Wisconsin State Journal

By Judy Newman

An artistic game about growing trees, made by a Madison independent game developer, is the best video game of 2015, according to TIME magazine.

Prune, created by Joel McDonald, also drew Apple’s praise as Game of the Year for the iPad.

It is one of two games, made in Madison, that appear on Apple’s list of best iPad games in 2015. Lost Within, by Human Head Studios, is No. 22 on the iPad list.

“I’m honestly still in shock,” McDonald said.

Prune involves swiping away branches to avoid obstacles as a tree tries to grow. The minimalist artwork, inspired by Japanese ink wash paintings, is set against simple, calming music.

“Prune is a game about removing things to nurture other things,” TIME said. “But it’s also about basking in a minimalist garden of forking paths as you work out the spatial logistics of coaxing a tree to blossom. It’s both an arboricultural exercise and a meditation — on light, darkness, color, sound and perhaps most of all, the things we’re forced to leave behind.”

In sharp contrast to the popular shoot-’em-up video games, Prune is “a bonsai tree in your pocket,” said the Verge, a tech website.

McDonald, a native of Des Moines and graduate of Iowa State University in Ames, worked in game design at Raven Software, Middleton, for seven years until he decided to go solo in 2013. After six months of puttering, he spotted a Twitter post by fellow Raven alum, Aaron San Filippo, with a basic computer script for a tree. Then a few weeks later, after a stormy night, he saw a partially fallen tree behind his Madison home. “Something clicked in my brain,” McDonald said.

It took 15 months to develop Prune, “a game about the simple pleasures of growing and cultivating trees,” he said. Or maybe not so simple.

“You find yourself on this barren landscape, this hostile planet,” he said. “You take part in this almost-dance with the tree. You don’t have full control over the tree — it’s an organic, living thing — but you can direct the tree to sunlight so you can bloom flowers. … It’s about cultivating what matters and cutting away what doesn’t.”

It’s the antithesis of the type of games Raven works on for parent company Activision, such as Call of Duty and Star Wars. McDonald said he didn’t consciously seek to go in the opposite direction, but added, “I was definitely ready for a change.”

As an indie developer working out of a home office, McDonald can still hardly believe that Prune has become so popular, with “all the great games that are out there, developed by large studios” with multimillion-dollar budgets.

His own game cost “barely anything” to put together — less than $10,000 for software and to hire Seattle composer Kyle Preston to write the music, he said.

At a download cost of $3.99, or $2.99 over the holidays, “it’s done very, very well,” McDonald said. “My entire goal as an indie was to pay our cost of living and allow me to make more games from home. It’s definitely done that.”

Home is a place on the West Side where the 32-year-old McDonald lives with his wife, Janice, and their two sons, ages 2 and 5.

McDonald said with the success of his first project, he wants to stay solo and doesn’t want to open a larger studio. “Because that’s what I enjoy,” he said.

Paul Jadin, president of the Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP), said recognition for the two locally devised games is further evidence of “the vibrancy and growth potential” of the industry here.

“Madison is ripe for attracting and growing top-notch video game talent, as evidenced by this recent ranking,” Jadin said.

MadREP and the UW-Madison’s Games+Learning+Society formed the Madison Game Alliance earlier this year to strengthen the local game development cluster.

In addition to Raven and Human Head, mobile game developer PerBlue, educational game maker Filament Games and at least 15 more startups in the game industry operate in the eight-county area around Madison, MadREP said.

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