Back in August of this year, I attended Play NYC 2019 with several colleagues from TechRaptor. It was here that I discovered DB Attic Studios, an indie gaming company with an interesting twist: their games are made as a family. Stranger still is the fact that the majority of the team aren't even old enough to vote. I sat down to spend some time chatting with DB Attic Studios' founder, CEO, and matriarch Darlene Barker to see why they've decided to head down this path.
One of the first challenges I faced in speaking with Barker about DB Attic Studios was timing. She and her family were off to Africa for a month and would be far too busy to sit down and have a chat, so I had to postpone our conversation. I was finally able to sit down and chat with Darlene a few weeks ago, and I discovered a loving mother with a passion for taking leaps of faith and helping nurture her kids' creativity.
From Databases to Game Development
I can't count the number of indie game developers I've met over the years, but nearly every single one of have them has an interesting backstory. Some are former AAA game devs that wanted to do their own thing at their own pace. Others still went to school for game design, intent on making a career right from the beginning of their adult life. DB Attic Studios' CEO is in a third, much rarer category: someone with computer skills who had never created a video game until very recently.
"I do this full-time," Barker said. "I was laid off from Oracle three years ago, and I've been making games since, trying to resist the urge to go back to corporate America for the cushy checks, you know?"
In a sense, game development is almost a step down for Barker. While the medium certainly has its fair share of technical challenges, she was previously making much more money and working on what was likely far more challenging projects at Oracle and other companies.
"I did databases, data warehouses," she said. "For my Master's thesis, I remapped the human genome using PCs. I have a lot of coding experience, I guess I should say — but not in gaming. My gaming... you know, coming up with a story and then making it onto the screen, this is like, a three-year thing. I'm new."
All in the Family
Although Darlene Barker is the head of DB Attic Studios, she doesn't do all of the work. Instead, she gets help from her four homeschooled children, each of whom bring their own unique talents to the table.
Barker's oldest daughter, Isabelle, will be 18 in January 2020. She focuses on music and writing, and she is more of a "business-focused person" on the team. Christian, meanwhile, is just 14 years old but has a keen talent for editing video and sound effects, bolstered by an engineer's proclivity for tinkering. Anabel, 16, is the team's self-taught artist and has been working in the medium for half of her life. Lastly, Brigit has just turned 9 and does playtesting while also acting as "the mind of reason" — young children, after all, are well-known for being rather straightforward with their opinions.
As for Barker herself, she does most of the heavy lifting in the coding department, constantly learning new skills and coordinating the family team of five in their quest to make video games. One can imagine the chaotic fun that must be involved in taking the creations of a child and working together to make it into something real.
One can hardly doubt their passion for developing games. Passion, however, doesn't always translate into sales.
Snaking My Way Downtown
As a company, DB Attic Studios has only been in action for a handful of years. The family-run business has launched a single game since then and are now working on a second, unnamed title. The company's first game, Stinky Snake, is getting (in the words of Barker) "trickle, trickle" sales.
"I reduce the price, and 'trickle, trickle.' I go to an event, 'trickle, trickle.' But, I figure I'm a new person. I didn't market — I suck at marketing, I suck at PR, so... I'm doing better this time."
Most game developers are in the business to make money and have fun while doing it. DB Attic Studios, however, seems to be doing the reverse: having fun making games as a family and not being terribly concerned if they don't sell gangbusters — at least for now.
"The first time around, we were very careful," Barker said. "I didn't want to make any mistakes and [groans]. But this time around, we're having fun, you know? When we [recently made a video], Isabel did all of the music for it, we were moving things around and just enjoying the moment. So if it's not perfect for everybody, we enjoyed it."
There was one thing I was curious about: the DB Attic Studios staff page lists pretty much everyone in the family (even the family dog!), but their father isn't a part of the operation. Describing him as a man who adheres to the "happy wife, happy life" philosophy, Barker said that he's quite happy to help out at the occasional convention but is more often than not busy with traveling for work.
Barker herself was no stranger to hard work. At one point, she had a two-hour commute each way — an ordeal that was only tempered by the colorful creations of her kids. One of these creations was the Stinky Snake webcomic which eventually became the basis of their first game, and that moment was when she really made her leap of faith.
"Well, up 'til Oracle, I was the one doing the health insurance and being the stable force [in our family]. When that opportunity came, it was like writing on the wall, you know? Now or never. Instead of moving on to another company and then saying, 'Well, maybe I should have,' I just jumped right in."
The Odyssey Ahead for DB Attic Studios
Barker readily admits that DB Attic Studios' first title didn't do as well as they would have liked, but she's also not the type to give up so easily. The company's second project is already in the works.
Working on game development as a family has goodness knows how many challenges, especially when the project lead is brand-new to the industry. With indie competition getting tougher every day, DB Attic Studios has quite the uphill battle to fight.
Barker, for her part, doesn't see herself stopping her work on games anytime soon, even if she has to one day go back to boring, regular work.
"I already have another game waiting in queue. I'm not gonna give up. It would be foolish of me. Maybe I'll go back to work if I have to, but no, no. I'm not done making games."