The video game industry is as prone to systemic oppression as any other. Developers of color, and perhaps particularly Black developers, face an uphill battle for employment, let alone creative expression. With this series of features, DBLTAP hopes to highlight the creations of Black developers working to tell their own stories through games in this monthly series. Check out our previous entries here.
Stormy Nights Interactive is the combined forces of SrBilyon Harris and Daniel Kinjerski, two game makers with a focus on teaching as they entertain. Daniel leads programming, while SrBilyon tackles the big picture — directing, designing and producing. Their first game, Calcusaurus, taught elementary math through the always-compelling lens of dinosaurs that can shoot lasers. Their next title, the charming 2D brawler Breeze in the Clouds, sends a corgi to the skies to fix the weather. We spoke to SrBilyon about what education means to him, what it's like to receive money from the Humble Black Developers Fund, and plenty more.
DBLTAP: Where did you guys come up with the idea for Breeze in the Clouds?
SrBilyon Harris: Breeze in the Clouds was actually an idea I had prior to officially forming Stormy Nights. It was just kind of a small idea that spawned during a bus ride home from college. Then from there it was just a lot of ideas that kind of got tacked on as I learned game development and general software engineering. So really, it started off as a very small idea of like, there was this corgi who somehow just got drifted into the clouds. And he was stuck up there trying to, like, do things with weather, like these little weather factories and whatnot. And then the idea pretty much matured as, you know, I continued to learn. And, you know, just some outside influences. Weather was something that I was always really interested in, so I kind of just doubled down on, like, "Alright, let's make this game completely weather-centric."
It was one of those weird days where it was partially sunny. Like, there were clouds up, but it was also raining. So it was one of those weird days.
DBLTAP: Sun showers.
SH: Yeah, and I was kind of like, "Well, that weather machine's broke." [Laughs]
DBLTAP: So it was sort of percolating in the back of your mind, even as you were working on Calcasaurus?
SH: I guess I can give a little more background. The original idea for Breeze was actually like around 2011. You may find some old clips out there on my YouTube channel of some 3D prototypes that I did for Breeze back then, when I was going to make it kind of a 3D platformer. And I was like, a big noob developer back then, so I didn't know anything. I was learning Unity pretty much when it first came over to the PC side. So I had a lot of ideas and stuff, and didn't have enough experience to, actually, you know, execute on it. And then come around I think it was 2014 but more so into into 2015, is when I decided I'm going to actually make Breeze 2D since a lot of the growing inspirations for Breeze were from 2D games and cartoons and stuff. So the current Breeze as you and many know it kind of started around like late 2014, mostly in 2015.
DBLTAP: Why a Corgi?
SH: Cute. [Laughs] I think at the time my thought was like, I knew I wanted it to be a dog, because that's where the idea came from, like a dog just got stuck in the clouds. But I wanted to choose a dog where, like, operating machinery and stuff would be very difficult. And, like, climbing around on clouds, which I kind of thought were like big hills and mountains and buildings and stuff like that. Corgis are stubby, so trying to imagine them do these really difficult tasks with these small, little limbs, and it's just being a really small dog — It kind of just stuck with me.
DBLTAP: Calcusaurus and now Breeze both have educational elements. Can you tell me about why you feel it's important to have educational stuff in your games?
SH: It was something that we established pretty early on, that we wanted to have games that had very heavy themes that would introduce educational elements in a way that was very engaging. Whereas, you know, games that are written for just straight educational purposes are kind of — how should I say — very task-oriented. Not necessarily thinking of gameplay in terms of how regular adventure games and RPGs and stuff would play. We wanted the games to still feel like they are standalone games, but just the overall world, and through the mechanics and whatnot, you're introduced to all these different themes.
My mother herself, she was in education. Most of my childhood, through seeing her put together coursework and teaching other kids, especially really younger kids, I think it kind of just latched on to me. So I was like, "Okay, it'd be really cool if I could create games that were very focused on a particular topic, and people may indirectly pick up certain knowledge from these games." Weather, for example. Like, I remember maybe one or two courses that went over weather, I think in middle and high school, but not in great detail. And that may just have been my school, but I thought it'd be really cool to be able to create a world and a bunch of different characters that are focused around something and they're memorable. So maybe after someone plays Breeze, for example, they hear certain meteorology terms or see something that's happening outside of their window and whatnot, and maybe think on a character that's based off of that particular weather phenomenon or something like that.
DBLTAP: You started touching on it a little bit, but how do you make a game educational without making it into like, an educational game? You know what I mean?
SH: Yeah, I think that's a tricky thing that even now, it's a bit... I wouldn't say it's hard, like impossible, it's just more so kind of understanding the differences or maybe nuances between like, "Okay, I have a character that's based off of clouds and all he's going to do is spit out cloud facts." Versus, "Hey, there's this character who's based off of clouds, and there's a bunch of other different characters based off of clouds, but they all have a particular design to them, and maybe certain attributes that you could align with clouds." I'm trying to explain it without spoiling too much, but that's kind of the thought process of each character. Like, "Okay, well, we have an icy character who does this, we have a rain-based character who does that," and just trying to make their personality and attributes of their design portray that phenomenon. There's also different areas of the game that help kind of support those characters as well.
So I would say just the experience of going to these different areas, and engaging with these characters is going to bring forth knowledge. Some people might miss particulars, but just being able to portray or deliver certain educational aspects in the way that we're trying to hopefully would, you know, carry on to people's [understanding]. Hopefully, you know, seeing the characters and their interactions in the world and whatnot, certain facts about weather might stick.
DBLTAP: I am assuming you had to do some amount of research for this game. What was that process like?
SH: Oh, yeah. I've bought literal weather textbooks.
DBLTAP: Oh, my God.
SH: Yeah, I've got weather textbooks. I've literally written myself essays just to be able to recall certain information as I need it. Like even for the team. A lot of the research that I've collected, I've kind of — I call it K-12-ing it. I turned it into very digestible information. Like, okay, here's a highlight, here's why this is important. But I find myself still having to frequently go over the information to keep it fresh in my head. So that way as I'm further developing these characters or some of their actions and stuff like that, that, you know, if an animator says, "Hey, we need an action as this weather phenomenon, what is this weather phenomenon?" That I'm able to actually provide the information in an easy way, as opposed to just spitting out a definition.
DBLTAP: Are you also engaging with the environmentalist aspect [of weather] as well?
SH: More so in the case of — and, once again, I'm trying to avoid spoiler information, but — within the world of the game, different characters have different roles. And their portrayal is more so aligned with, "How does this one thing affect this other thing." Of course, there's going to be — I would say most people have a general understanding of pollution's effects on the environment and stuff like that, so you'll kind of come in with that information. And so when you're introduced to certain characters that represent pollution, you're gonna go, "Oh, this is obviously not healthy for the air or, you know, anything else." And you'll see their different actions and how that influences the different characters and the different areas that they interact with.
DBLTAP: Does Breeze engage with the political dimensions of climate change at all?
SH: I would say not Breeze directly. And this is hard to say without spoiling [Laughs]. I can say that within the world of Breeze, at least as far as the characters and the locations and whatnot, they do discuss how their particular functions influence the inhabitants of Earth. Let's just say that. Their perspective on it is different than our perspective on it as inhabitants of Earth, if I'm to make that relationship. So they're more so focused on the repercussions of not fixing things, or what have you.
DBLTAP: Do you think it's important for games to engage with that political aspect? I know it's not a main focus of your game, but you are to some extent, it sounds like —
SH: Cognizant of it?
SH: Yeah [Laughs]. That's hard to answer. I would say it really just comes down to the creator's intention. If they want to push for really getting into the weeds and the details of it, I would say definitely go for it. It's not 100%, you know, the angle that I'm going for in terms of designing the game's world and whatnot, but it does include those elements.
DBLTAP: It seems like you guys get a lot of fan art. Why do you think that is?
SH: I could have several answers for that. I think one of the things that I hear most often — And maybe this was just because of an earlier decision that I made back when we had a blog. Well, we still have a blog, but I had a blog on Tumblr a few years back. Originally, as I did dev logs, I was more so focused on general game development stuff, and randomly posting a screenshot here and there. I didn't really know how to, like, show what we were doing. So one thing that I did start was, I was like, "I'm just gonna slowly show off a couple of the characters and kind of try to explain how I'm making essentially these weather characters," right? So after the first one or two, those type of posts — and maybe just because they had a lot of art associated with them — got a lot more traffic than me just saying, "Hey, I was programming this thing, and it broke and then I ate a sandwich," right? [Laughs] So I started introducing a couple of the antagonists, and I did them in a very, "Meet this character," type of way. And those type of posts just blew up. I was like, "Okay, well, that's interesting. In hindsight, not surprising."
So I basically just kind of continued it from there. I would have these character reveals, and then I would have the standard dev logs where I would go through general game dev process, and then another character reveal. I think people were just really hungry to see more of those character reveals. As more of those characters began to come out, people started doing fan art, and then I think it just got very — I mean, not very popular, but I think it just got popular through mutual folks who follow both the game and are friends with each other. They see people draw fan art so they want to draw fan art too. I think after I actually set up a Discord for the game, where it's mostly connected to the Patreon, just having another place for folks to talk about the game and whatnot, that really helped build a much larger community. I would say just like within the last couple of years our general following and general interactions have drastically increased from a few years back.
All that to say, I think I can attribute that [fan art] to the character reveals as well. A lot of folks that are also on the team, too, have pretty significant followings. So I think it's a mixture of that. A lot of people really say they just love the character designs. Like before they even know much about the game, they just go, "Hey, that's that —" I'm making a joke here — "That's that rat character from Breeze right?" He's a possum, but I let that slide.
DBLTAP: Wow, I mean, I didn't get it, so. [Laughs] I guess I don't see a lot of possums day to day.
SH: Yeah. That's just a running gag. A lot of folks have seen these characters just through fan art before they know the game, and then they finally find out like, "Oh, that's from an indie game in development."
DBLTAP: You mentioned your Patreon. I was really interested to see that you guys are working on there. So first, I guess you moved those dev logs from the Tumblr to Patreon, is that right?
SH: Yep. I had the dev log on Tumblr first, and then I set up my Patreon much later. And then I was basically kind of posting on both but it was the same stuff. It became a little redundant posting here and there, so I ended up electing to just move it all to Patreon. Some of it being that there was kind of a Tumblr exodus at the time. And also, second to that, I don't know if you saw the details of Patreon or whatnot, but for the most part, all of our dev logs are free to read. And I kind of just elected to do that somewhat because I had the Patreon more so open like a tip jar of sorts. And also second to that I wanted to have a bit of this open development type of thing, where I would show folks like, "This is the stuff that I've had to figure out or do to make the game and here's a little bit of the thought process behind why we did certain things," and stuff like that. And, you know, surprisingly, that worked out a lot better than I thought it would. The Patreon has been pretty consistent with folk eager to see more and leaving feedback on things that they see.
DBLTAP: Why did you choose Patreon in the first place?
SH: Games cost a lot of money to make. I was originally going to launch a Kickstarter. I think it was around like 2015, 2016 to — no pun intended — kickstart development again when I decided to move the game into 2D. But I decided not to do that for a numerous amount of reasons, and wanted to find a different facet of being able to continue to self fund the game. And I saw Patreon was kind of a thing that a lot of artists picked up on. But at the time, when I first started the Patreon, I didn't see a lot of game devs using it, or at least using it and it being effective towards bringing in enough funds to, you know, make a game. So I kind of just said, "Well, I mean, I can start it. I mean, the worst thing that could happen is that nothing really comes out of it." But I'm glad I did it. And I'm kind of glad to see that some other game devs are picking up on it as well. And I think that just may influence other devs, who are kind of iffy about it to give it a try.
DBLTAP: You would recommend it to other devs, then?
SH: Well, with an asterisk. I wouldn't really call it a drawback or consequence, but it's just something to keep in mind. You know, whatever the expectations that you set when you start the Patreon in terms of delivery, that's one thing that you have to pay attention to. Folks expect to see some type of posts of progress or, you know, whatever you're willing to offer to Patreon. So, if you're choosing to do that, just keep in mind that you have to account for the time it takes to maintain the Patreon if you're wanting it to be successful. I mean, I've seen Patreons where there aren't updates for a while but people want to stay on it, but that's just something to keep in mind.
DBLTAP: Speaking of funding, I saw that you were one of the first teams to be chosen for the Humble Black Game Developers fund. So I want to say congratulations for that first, pretty amazing.
SH: Thank you!
DBLTAP: How did that come together?
SH: I would say not as climactic story as you may think initially. I saw the application for it during the summer. And it was literally me just saying, "Well, why not?"
DBLTAP: Like the Patreon?
SH: Yeah. I'm kind of one of those folks, I see it, I read it, I think about it, and then I just do it.
DBLTAP: I'm so jealous. Wow. Sorry, go ahead.
SH: [Laughs] Yeah, I mean, I do a lot of risk assessment for just general things in life. And once I feel comfortable in my gut that like, "Okay, this is a good idea," I just full throttle do it. I mean, I've been working on this game for like, ever, so.
But yeah, I applied for it. A lot of stuff happened during the summer in my actual life. I do also work a full time job. And I actually switched over to another job around the time. So between that I also got selected for Capy Games' mentorship program, too. And then I got a response from Humble saying, "Hey, we want to talk more about you and your project." So it was just really a matter of a few weeks, a few months of discussion, them meeting and asking about Breeze and what our plans are. They were very impressed with what they saw, and I'm very happy to hear that. It kind of confirmed a lot of things that I was, I guess you could say anxious about in terms of like, what is it like speaking to a publisher? Like how do you even handle that? So fortunately, this is an opportunity to get that experience.
DBLTAP: How did you feel when you found out that you were actually going to be in that cohort and receive funds?
SH: I kind of just paused and I was like, "Wow, this is actually happening." [Laughs] "This is about to be a lot of work!" Like I said, I evaluated it in my mind and had myself ready for the best case scenario. I think just preparing yourself and thinking ahead kind of makes it a lot easier to accept that, you know, things happen. I think more people kind of just think that for negative things, but even for positive things. Because I knew what this was going to mean. We're going to have deadlines, we're going to have funds to do what we want, we just need to make sure that we're ready and we execute. At the same time, it was still unreal, I'm not going to lie. Like, it just seemed like, "Wow, this is... This happened. Is this happening?" I think it was a matter of keeping myself level-headed so that I could be productive.
DBLTAP: On that topic of the Humble fund — There are a few of these funds, and more, it seems like, are cropping up every day that are making an active effort to seek out marginalized developers. Often Black developers in particular. Like, Niantic actually just announced theirs today.
SH: Oh, I didn't see that.
DBLTAP: Yeah, it's pretty cool. Do you think that these funds are going to be the start of a really permanent change in the games industry?
SH: I went to school for game development and whatnot, and just trying to survive getting through college, and seeing a lot of my peers — my school was predominantly black, the college — and a lot of folks just couldn't make it through college simply for the financial side of that. That's something that you'll see for finding a project for a game or art and whatnot is like, there are a lot of folks out there who have a passion to be able to do something, but if they don't have the means, or the means are very difficult to acquire, it just halts their ambitions. Obviously certain folks, circumstances and luck and just someone finding them helps them kind of elevate past that. But for the most part, it's really challenging for a lot of folks. I'm not going to lie and say that I've had to make a lot of sacrifices and double down on trying to get my project through and visible to folks, but it's very tough.
I do hope that more funds come out of it. But if not, I would hope that it would at least bring light to being able to see how you can bring opportunities to marginalized folks so that they can create their projects or get into certain industries where there, frankly, are barely any of us in it.
DBLTAP: Yeah. To that point, have you gotten to interact with any of the other recipients from the Humble fund? Is there some sense of community there?
SH: I was actually talking to [Adam Kareem] yesterday. I got a DM through my Breeze account. I get so many of those that I tend to miss them because Twitter hides them if we're not mutual followers. So we're actually going to get together and talk more through helping out with if you have game engine questions, if you've got, like, game process questions and whatnot. I've used Unity for, what, is it nine, 10 years now? There's a lot of things that I've learned over the years, and if I can help folks out, I would. I'm also making a hand-drawn 2D game, which... There's a lot of a lot of work behind that. More than some folks may realize. So once again, that was part of the reason why I decided for my dev log to be open, so that I could provide that information. Because otherwise it's kind of like, you don't know this stuff unless you're in the industry, or you just happen to stumble upon someone else who did it.
DBLTAP: Do you find community is something that is important to you in game development?
SH: I do.
When there were game jams, you'd meet all kinds of folks. But then I ended up moving to Dallas and became a little bit of a homebody. So I didn't really get that opportunity to find the local dev groups, which I should probably work on after the pandemic is over. So my sense of community really just came down to either Discord groups, which, that's a little more challenging, especially when they hit like the thousands [of members], or just mutuals through Twitter. Which is kind of how I built a lot of my team, was through Twitter. But I think having folks to be able to bounce ideas off of, and just being able to discuss things, and maybe learning something from them that you may not know that they know how to do or be able to speak on, that's really cool.
Like, one of my composers, Alan Gee, or Alan Garcia, we met through a contest back in 2011, actually. It was around the time I was starting Breeze. I knew that he did music just from the bio that I got. We were actually in a hotel and I started kind of meddling around with a piano. And he came over and he's just like, "Oh!" and he started joining in. And he just started, like, actually playing it. I was like, "Wow, I didn't know you could do that!" But I was just using that as an example of like, you may meet people for certain things, and then you learn more about them and it's like, "Wow, that's... I would have known that if we actually, you know, socialized." [Laughs]
DBLTAP: You mentioned that your mom's in education. Do you feel like you're continuing a legacy by making these educational games, like you're like the next in a line or something?
SH: I didn't really think of it that way. I felt like it kind of became a byproduct of just how I was raised, which I guess that's a positive, right? [Laughs] Because even in the summer — I used to dread it back then, but like — I would basically be pushed to read books during the summer. I'd do a lot of those — I don't actually know what you call them, but — workbooks, for math, and writing, and stuff like that. I was one of those kids, who get disciplined by having to write the same sentence like 100 times, or like fill up a piece of paper, and just found very efficient ways to speed up that process and what have you. But it definitely helps with like reading comprehension, and just getting familiar with different topics and whatnot.
I wouldn't say I was forced, but I was almost persuaded to kind of use Animal Planet as my Cartoon Network for years. So I was watching all types of Animal Planet shows. I still have these two really big binders — I actually don't know where they're at, I think I packed them in a box somewhere — but each page was this fold out of facts on a particular animal. So there's just a lot of topics that I ended up reading when I was younger. So yeah. Education!
DBLTAP: Do you think that that Animal Planet quote unquote "not-forced viewing" ties into your like — I mean it feels like you really love animals because of the way your game depicts them with such love. Do you think there's a tie there maybe?
SH: Oh, that's probably a tie, for sure. Back in the early days, when I was trying to decide what else was going to be in the game other than Breeze, I was kind of falling off this anime obsession. But at the same time, I was like, "Okay, I want to have human characters, I guess, right? But what do they look like?" So I'm sitting there trying to draw them, and I'm like, "Okay, this isn't turning out. Like, I can't draw people. I'm gonna draw animals. Animals are easy to draw."
I was wrong. Animals are actually harder to draw, because they're all different and they all do different things, and then trying to stylize that was very challenging. Then I kind of was like, "Okay, well, maybe there'll be fairies or something like that?" And I just couldn't put it together. So I ended up just hiring other artists do and I was like, "Hey, I can't draw animals. I can kind of draw them. Here's like, my main character." Who, for years people thought was a fox because I couldn't draw corgis. [Laughs] There was a corgi, there was a mouse, who was the character Float, so he kind of stayed around. And then one of the earliest characters was Pile, which, he's a bear.
It's kind of hard to find now, but I had a Twitter thread about a year ago about the development of a character, and I use Pile as an example because he probably had the most changes. I don't know how I went to that tangent. Anyway, I decided to have animals because A) I really like them, and B) I thought they were going to make designing characters easier, but I was wrong. But I stuck with it. Because I kind of was like, "Alright, well, a lot of my influences are games that have animals, like the Sonic and Crash series and stuff like that, so I'm just gonna continue this legacy."
DBLTAP: What art have you been inspired by that does ride the line between addressing both adults and kids?
SH: That's a hard question to answer. I would think it'd be easy, but... I guess kind of the general design of mascots, in a way. Like, people grew up, and they recall a mascot and they're like, "Hey, that's so and so." You don't really grow out of it. And even Disney shows or Looney Tunes, shows and whatnot. Plenty of people have Looney Tunes tattoos.
I think I just have a particular eye for what I like in the direction of mascot-ish characters. I also needed to keep in mind designs that were very easy to animate. I think that's one of the leading reasons as to why like Disney characters or, I mean, even cereal box mascots, stuff like that, have that design. The designs were almost a consequence of thinking that way, of how to have efficient designs that are very catchy.