On Art and Failed Kickstarters - Interview with Ryan Miller

Published: February 20, 2015 9:00 AM /


Dysfunctional Systems Bouchard by rtil

Today we have artist Ryan Miller (Known as rtil online) with us who is the artist for several games, but most recently was the lead artist on the failed Kickstarter project Dysfunctional Systems 2. You can read about that more from their director here and here on his official statements on what occurred and the refund process. We also reached out to the director, Jeremy, to discuss the situation on Dysfunctional Systems 2, but he told us he doesn't want to talk about the issue further.

So we'd like to thank Ryan for talking to us some about that and also about art in general and how it works with games and technology! He also does a lot of solo work that you can check out on his Deviant Art page.

TR: Can you tell us about yourself and what you do?

Ryan: My name is Ryan, although i'm known online as rtil. I'm a freelance artist and animator who primarily works in games. I've been involved in a number of game projects over the last few years, possibly most notable being the fighting game Skullgirls.

TR: Having worked on an Indie game, how would you compare that experience to working on smaller commissions and other styles of projects?

Ryan: So far my experience with indie games in the online world is only slightly different to other small scale projects. The more visible discrepancy, in my opinion, is the experience of creating a game with people all over the world via the internet instead of a centralized, physical location. My last job at an actual studio ended in early 2011, and I've worked from home ever since. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, but with the growing number of powerful tools at the disposal of creators, the ability of indie studios and developers to utilize the talents of people thousands of miles away is all too tempting.

Though, the more people that are involved, the more complicated things can get. People who get cold feet can suddenly disappear, clients can flake on payments, files go missing - the risks tend to balloon. Starry-eyed project leaders sometimes become blinded by their ambitions and forget to factor in Murphy's Law - that is, whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. And the bigger the projects come, the harder they can fall. One little commission falling through? It's something you can easily move on from. An ambitious game project subject to the scrutiny of the public? That's a whole other monster, full of anxiety and unknowns. And through the lens of the internet, things can change in the blink of an eye for better or worse.

TR: What was the most challenging thing for you as an artist working on a game?

Ryan: Dysfunctional Systems 2 is the first notable title I had ever worked on in which I was at the helm of the artistic style. Beforehand, my work has mostly involved working in someone else's style. This is a very important skill to have, and I was used to doing it. So DS2 had me stepping out of my comfort zone and being at the helm of what the look for the game would be. But early on I found myself a bit intimidated by the fact that the franchise already has an established style. And even though I was asked not to attempt to replicate the previous art, I found myself torn between trying to find a middle ground with the old style of the game drawn - by the previous artist Doomfest - and my own. On top of this, my job began almost immediately when the Kickstarter was launched, where new art had to be pumped out as quickly as possible to generate interest in funding the game. This period of growing pains in my artistic style piled on top of the time constraints had me rushing out stunted concept pieces that I had to force myself to be content with because there was simply no more time to change them.

It was only after the Kickstarter that I was able to focus on my weaknesses and create an artistic style for the game that was both faithful to what fans were familiar with, yet authentically my own. The more I created, the better it felt and the faster I was able to do it. But I'm still embarrassed by the art I produced during the Kickstarter - even though I do think it's a good landmark to show how far I've come since then.

TR: In your blog post in January on DeviantArt, you mentioned some issues with the conclusion of Dysfunctional Systems 2. I know you don’t want to get into that too much, but what would you be willing to share on it, and why were you wanting to work on it on a volunteer basis?

Ryan: Near the end of 2014, I had been working on DS2 for about 10 months, although I feel more consistent progress on the game started around the summertime. Before I left for the holidays, I made sure I had all the work done required me for the "Prologue" episode that was promised to backers. Dani, the project lead, wanted to have it out before the end of the year. I wasn't going to be back home until right before the end of the year, though I had a feeling it probably would need a little more polishing anyway by the time I had returned.

Winter and Waverly by Rtil
One of the Promotional pieces from DS2's Kickstarter

But when I did return, suddenly Dani was talking about cancelling the game, and that all the money for the project was gone. Now, in the past, he had shared some financial concerns with me - I had actually agreed to a pay cut a few months beforehand. However, I had assumed that he had a budget for the game that would pan out over the course of production, and there were some minor snags along the way. Although it was far worse than that - so much worse that in retrospect I find it hard to believe he had a solid financial plan for the game at all, and was simply hoping the game would be done by the time the money had dried up. That, or he had severely underestimated how much work the game would take, which is also plausible considering the scale of the game was much larger than anything he had taken up before.

There are two blogs on the Kickstarter where he goes in to some detail about what went wrong, and expresses that the fault is on him for the game's failure. The biggest mistake, in my opinion, was paying myself and probably others full time for our work. At the time, I did think it was odd considering the nature of my employment, but didn't feel that it was my place to question his judgement. In hindsight, I wish I would have been more vocal about my concerns regarding the game's finances early on. For example, even though I was working full time for Dischan, there was a significant period of time in which I was not working on DS2 every day, but rather 4 days out of the week. The other 3 were delegated to another project. I actually did raise a concern about this early on, but it wasn't until a few weeks later that I was delegated to working on DS2 full time.

And working on that game was my life for a significant portion of my year. I worked on the game every day 8 hours a day, sometimes even more, and was on a rigorous schedule that I had agreed to. It was the schedule that gave me some confidence in the fact I was not being paid how I normally would for a project like this, which is itemized. For example, finish a sprite sheet, receive X dollars. I figured, if I follow this schedule and finish everything on time, then it must correlate to how much money is left in order to complete the game. But again, that confidence was entirely misplaced.

In any case, when I got back and heard the grim news, I was shocked and disappointed. But I was invested in the game for more than just the pay. I had grown attached to the project, the story, the universe, the characters. And we had gotten so deep in to it I did not want to see all that work go to waste. And part of this is selfish - I had already created an immense amount of art for not just the Prologue but a healthy portion of what was going to be re-used for the script of the complete sequel, which was mostly complete in written form already.

Doom and gloom had already been cast over the production team, and Dani left for the day. They had agreed it might be best to simply throw in the towel. I wasn't happy with this, and convinced them that we should rally behind Dani and show him we still believe in the project and want to see it through to the end. After all, all of Dischan's previous projects were completed this way from start to finish - a group of people interested in an idea and creating it together in their spare time. Why not continue the project in this fashion? In my opinion, we had good momentum going in to the new year and I think the game could have been completed late Q1 or early Q2 - the first one, anyway (there were plans for a 3rd).

When Dani returned, we put the offer on the table. Let us finish the game, and we won't ask for another dime. He had to be on board - it was his project, and he was writing and coding for it as well. At this point he had already almost finished a draft of a blog for cancelling the game, but I thought that we had a good chance of changing his mind. Unfortunately, after mulling over it for a day or two, he ultimately posted the blog anyway without telling us, and that's when DS2 died. Honestly, I think he had already made up his mind before he even spoke to me after I returned. He even admits it himself in the blog - he lost interest in developing the game, and wanted to get out. This was his ticket to freedom.

Before I left Dischan, I was offered to stay, but I felt it was mostly out of pity. I had no reason to stay, and no place at Dischan. What we created he doesn't even want to release, even though the Prologue was effectively finished. The only way that it would ever see the light of day is if it was re-made from the ground-up. The writing, the art, everything. And I have a hard time believing that is ever going to happen, and I am exhausted from the whole experience. I wish them the best of luck, but I think it might be in all their best interests to move on as well.

TR: What tools do you prefer to use when doing art? What about the different tools for drawing versus animating and such?

Ryan: I mostly find myself in Photoshop these days because of all the painting that I do. But this year I want to get back into animated projects, something I had to put on the backburner for most of last year. I animate in Flash and do post work and effects in After Effects, although I would like to try and learn a program that is actually catered towards animators, as Flash has not really changed in the last couple versions. It has the bare bones of what animators need, and you can make it work for you if you know your way around it, but you do have to wrestle with its interface and tools a lot to get what you want. The fact that it took over a decade for a good video exporter to be made for it speaks volumes - and that tool (Swivel) was made for free by an independent developer!

Photoshop, on the other hand, is my home away from home. My collection of brushes is an absolute disaster, but it's my disaster, and I know where they all are. Making a painting is always an exciting time for me, and I feel like I learn something new every time I make one.

Adventure album cover by Rtil
"Adventure" album cover by Ryan

TR: How much do you think the existence of programs like Photoshop, and hardware like tablets, has changed the way art is produced?

Ryan: There's definitely more art being produced today than at any point in history, and it has good and bad consequences. The good is that artistic tools are more readily available to people, art is visible to more people than ever, and I think that inspires more people to pick up a copy of art software and give it a try. The bad is that I think many people getting in to art become impatient with traditional mediums and don't appreciate the value in learning how to use them. I know some artists who don't know how to draw with a pencil and get frustrated at the fact there is no "undo" button on the paper and canvas. They get too comfortable with the fact that there is no risk with any stroke that you make with a digital tablet, and because of that I don't think they put much value in them. I believe a traditional background is an important structural skill in the creation of a great digital artist. I could be wrong, and there's probably plenty of brilliant digital artists out there who never really bother to draw on paper or pick up a brush, but that's just how I feel. It certainly helped me become a better digital artist.

TR: With the internet having communities like Deviant Art, artists are able to communicate a lot more with fans, and fans are able to find art a lot easier. How do you think this has changed things and will it continue to do so going forward?

Ryan: I think this is a very positive thing for the art world. Artists who find success online are beginning to be able to support themselves through their art through their fans, and create the content that they want, and fans can find and support the work that interests them with little effort. Of course, with larger fanbases comes more responsibilities and transparency - it's a little scary how quickly mobs of people can turn on you if you make a mistake, and the more popular you are, the higher of a standard you are held to. Though this kind of drama isn't exclusive to the world of Deviant Art or any art community, it's something we see happen all the time. It's unfortunate, but it's a package deal. Overall, I think the good outweighs the bad. Seeing my friends being able to support their artistic endeavors through sites like Patreon is very exciting.

TR: What type of work do you most enjoy doing generally speaking?

Ryan: I've spent the last few years honing my painting skills but I'm an animator at heart. Unfortunately, creating an animated cartoon by yourself takes a long time, and so I don't finish them very often. But the feeling of finishing one is very rewarding, and seeing drawings come to life in motion is my favorite thing in the world.

the morning i saw you by rtil
Ryan's most recent animation, "The Morning I Saw You"

TR: You seem to be a big fan of Anime and Visual Novels – what would you say are your favorites, and what do you like most about those mediums?

Ryan: It's a little embarrassing to admit this, but despite being involved in the visual novel community, I have only played three - Katawa Shoujo, Dysfunctional Systems and Juniper's Knot, the latter of which can be read in a half an hour. It was the same story with Skullgirls - I've not even played that much of the game myself, and I don't play fighting games at all, I just like to work on them. Although, Katawa Shoujo was my first visual novel, and in a funny way it's what got me involved in visual novel production in the first place, so it will always have a special place in my heart.

Anime on the other hand I have seen a lot of. It's very hard to pick a favorite, but my two standbys for recommendations are always Spirited Away and Cowboy Bebop. Everyone I've recommended these two titles to have never been disappointed, and Spirited Away is what inspired me to become an animator. It changed my life more than anything else I can think of.

TR: Anything else you’d care to share?

Ryan: I hope that my overall attitude about what happened with DS2 didn't come off as too negative or discouraging. Despite the fact that the game ended up being cancelled, I highly valued the experience of working on it, my coworkers are great people, and I learned a lot and became a better artist because of it. I don't have any regrets about working on it, only disappointment that it ended the way it did.

If you have an idea for a game or a story, that's great, and you should chase that dream. Just don't let your ambitions get in the way of reason. Start small and work your way up instead of the other way around. Have patience, be willing to make compromises, and be content in knowing that not everything will go as planned - and plan for that fact. To me, that's part of the beauty of creating something. Whenever I start a painting, it never turns out the way I saw it in my head. But if it did, I think that would be boring. It makes the journey of creation more exciting to me.

I'd like to thank Ryan again for his time and wish him all the best. You can check out his stuff on Deviant Art, or visit his Store where you can buy stuff he's created.

Updated: A small typo was fixed that I missed in what Ryan said with his approval removing a repeat not.

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Don Parsons
| Senior Writer

A longtime lover of speculative fiction, in almost all its forms, Don joined TechRaptor in 2014 on a whim sending in an application as he was looking for… More about Don