Q&A: SuperTry, indie game dev and tabletop RPG maker

By Spencer Furniss

Meet Kevin Cole, the man pictured above with the glasses and bushy beard, who is likely describing a chaotic explosion in space at the time the photo was taken.

Kevin works as game developer and main designer at SuperTry Studios, which has been pumping out games since 2013, from browser-based to tabletop.

I first found Kevin on the podcast Pretend Friends, where they play the game Kevin and SuperTry made, called Space Kings. Throughout all three seasons of the podcast, Kevin, along with SuperTry member Hadley St. Clair, have masterfully woven a story, demonstrating expertise in narrative design and game making.

It was enough to convince me to experience SuperTry’s best work for myself, along with sitting down for an interview with Kevin over Discord.

SuperTry’s super hits

Whenever I decide to jump into a new artist of any medium, I start by looking for what they’ve made that is being talked about most. In SuperTry’s case, this led me to two completely different games – Haque, the “glitch fantasy” roguelike, and Space Kings, the tabletop RPG system

I’ll start off with Haque, as I’ve spent an absurd amount of time within the roguelike/lite genre and had purchased it right around the time I heard Cole for the first time. Haque, which SuperTry released in 2017, is a low-bit roguelike that’s all about … well, whatever you’d like it to be. If you like bird-human-werewolves, the nostalgia of old computer games on floppy disc, and moral dilemmas, this is the game for you.

Done in the retro style of ASCII, Haque throws you into a world where something crazy is bound to happen. Like most roguelikes, the story changes depending on your own personal choice. Whether you make it to the end of your run is entirely based on your ability and luck. What sets Haque apart from other games in the same genre is in its character.

When passion is put into a project, it shows. Within Haque, some of what you experience genuinely drips with character. Sprites are pleasantly bouncy and colorful. Sound effects are beautiful and punchy, reminiscent of what can be found on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The music is always somehow perfect for the situations you find yourself in. And the systems within the game all make sense. Information is displayed in such a user-friendly way that you will never get frustrated.

Combat is similar to a tactics game, where you have your turn to take actions (move, attack, etc.) and then your enemies get to respond. This doesn’t mean the game is a simple cakewalk because even just playing too loose with one enemy can end your run in a second.

Haque has quite a fanbase from what I’ve seen. One Steam user who left a review has even spent over 400 hours playing it.

The other crowning jewel of SuperTry happens to be Space Kings. Created in order to play something akin to Dungeons & Dragons with large amounts of intoxicated friends, Space Kings is all about complexity through simplicity and fun.

With an incredibly comprehensive character creation sheet and a system that involves a shuffled deck of playing cards instead of dice, Space Kings is possibly the most inviting environment for RPG newbies and D&D veterans alike. Action rolls are as simple as picking out which two stats you’ll use for that action and flipping cards off the top of your deck. 

For example, let’s say you’re playing a small cat-like creature who really loves swords. You’re flying with your best friends across the galaxy and you feel the compulsion to slice an attacking ship in half. You decide that you’ll tether yourself to your own ship and attack the enemy ship with your sword. 

“Uhhhhh, I’ll say that agility and melee is needed to slice a ship in half,” the DM says oblivious to the fact that out of the 14 cards you just flipped, 7 of them were successes. “Well shit,” says the DM, “Yeah, you cut the ship in half. And as the ship and pilot’s halves begin to float off into space, they explode!”

Everyone at the table laughs, and that’s the point. Space Kings is meant for you to have fun and get into whatever sort of scenario you want to play in. 

It is such an inviting RPG, in fact, that when Kevin started the Kickstarter campaign to publish it as a physical product it reached its goal within the first day. It was such a successful campaign that when all was said and done , people donated $26,000 to SuperTry, which had an original goal of $6,000. It speaks a lot to the passion of creators and the love they invest in the product and their fanbase that this campaign could be so successful.

Another impressive feat had to be Kevin and SuperTry’s goal for 2020, which was borderline insanity. For every month of the year, he decided he would develop and release an entire game. Not only did he do that, but he released them for free to play on your browser.

If you decide to pay Kevin for his efforts you can download executable versions for your computer, complete with controller support. You’ll find platformers, shoot-em-ups, a horror point and click game, and more within these twelve golden nuggets.

Now let’s peer into the mind of the man behind SuperTry.

Q&A Interview

Hi Kevin! To start off, is there any game or moment from growing up where you stopped and thought, “Hmmm, do I want to make games one day?”

I don’t think I can single out a single moment when I started wanting to make games. I’ve kind of wanted to for my whole life! When I was a kid I’d make up (terrible) board games and card games and make up new rules for chess and stuff like that. I started thinking that I could make video games when I first played Cave Story (I want to say in 2006?) and learned that it was all made by one person. That’s when I thought it might be possible.

You know, I totally see that. Cave Story seems like it could have inspired quite a few mechanics of your last year of games.

Cave Story does bleed into a lot of the games I make but I think it’s more because the principles of the game are really solid. I tend to keep my resolutions small and my pixels chunky like Cave Story because it’s a lot easier to work with while I’m juggling art, programming, sound effects, etc. I wish I had the pixel art skills of Pixel, Cave Story’s creator, but his work has always been a high bar for me to shoot for.

Looking through your marathon of a new game every month from last year, do you think you can pick a favorite child?

Hm, that’s tough! I think I can find something I’m really proud of in each one of my kids but Beneath Faelin Wood, our March offering, might be my favorite. Joe’s music is evocative and beautiful, Hadley’s script is tight and moving, and I’m happy with my mechanics and my art on that one.

Were there any particularly special moments you had working with others in SuperTry like Hadley or other friends of yours?

Working with Jeff on Outfoxed was awesome and an incredible learning experience because I rarely get to work with concept art on anything I do. Joe Kenneally did all the music for my games last year and a good number of the projects were made by just the two of us. We have really good chemistry together but when we get a third person on the project it starts to feel like we’re a team. Those little moments of seeing the game come to life because of something your teammates worked hard on are moments I cherish from this year.

There is another moment that sticks in my mind. While working with Hadley (cowriter of Haque) on the shade between the trees, I was tasked with making a jumpscare. Hadley made the visual asset and the script while I worked on the effects, the sound, and the timing. When I submitted the latest build for Hadley to test, I actually managed to scare them! That felt great. I felt like I understood horror a little better.

Are there any moments you’ve had in table top sessions that have inspired a game you’ve made?

There are surprisingly few moments inspired by our tabletop sessions now that I think about it! I tend to think of tabletop games and video games as completely different design spaces. When I design mechanics for tabletop games I tend to think most about how players will interact with each other. Maybe if I made more multiplayer video games or single player TTRPGs there’d be more overlap.

How closely do you and Joe Kenneally work while games are in progress? Does the mood or style of music ever influence the game or vice versa?

Joe and I are pretty in sync when it comes to working together. Typically I’ll send him a track list and some notes on what I want the feel of the game to be and when next I hear from him he has a completed track for me. I’ll regularly send him gameplay clips so he can have a better feel of what the game’s going to be like, but most of the time he just goes off and makes something wonderful.

Joe’s music almost always influences the game. I love to find the moments where gameplay and music match up harmoniously and I try to make them if I can’t find them. I love these moments so much that Princess Frenchfries and Hot Soul Laser Beam were basically made with Joe’s music as the level design. They’re kind of like interactive music videos.

Do you enjoy the thought that, out there right now are people (maybe even myself) who are playing your games, determined to beat them in a certain amount of lives/just want to beat the game? Some of these games are brutal! I keep thinking about you tweeting about relaxing with Hot Soul Laser Beam, and I’m sitting here sweating, trying to not die more than twice.

I worry a lot about turning folks away with how difficult my games can be so I’m relieved when I hear it’s a draw for some players! I don’t think I make my games difficult out of conscious sadism or schadenfreude, I think I just like games that you have to get to know a little. I like prickly games. With Hot Soul Laser Beam there’s no way to fail so that’s what makes it relaxing for me. Just do your best and have a solid five or so minutes where you’re just thinking about making robots explode and collecting cats.

On the topic of difficulty, do you enjoy other difficult indie games like Kaizo World, Super Meat Boy and the I Wanna Be The Guy series?

I do! I like Super Meat Boy because it’s more about developing a skill and less about memorizing specific trap placements. I Wanna Be The Guy was a very early influence but I did not get very far in it. The speed runs are a sight to behold.

I’m not saying your games aren’t fair, I swear! They can definitely reach NES levels of difficulty though!

No, I totally get it! There are a lot of different kinds of difficulty and they each test different kinds of skills. It takes a lot of time and skill to truly build an excellent tutorial and bring players up to speed with a mechanically rich game. Now that I’m not doing single-month projects, I’m trying to make my difficult, mechanically complex games, but be a gentler, more patient teacher.

What was it like being part of the massive Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality? Were you chosen to be part of it or did indie devs offer their games to be part of the bundle? 

Hadley spotted the call for devs to submit their games to the bundle and we acted as quickly as possible to get Haque in there. Hadley, Joe, and I all agreed that the cause was absolutely worth it. It was incredibly moving to see that bundle soar and we made some awesome friends who also participated in or backed the bundle. The Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality was one of my favorite parts of last year.

I have to imagine creating things with Hadley is a bunch of fun, as you two are both warehouses of imagination. Do you two ever have brainstorming sessions? Any particular times where you two just shared story ideas or game ideas that stick out? Can be Space Kings or otherwise!

Hadley is enormously fun to work with. When we work together usually one of us is the writer and the other is the editor. We find it’s really easy to support each other when we stick to these roles and it keeps the tone of the project consistent. We don’t so much brainstorm together as try to unstick each other and preserve our creative momentum.

When we were working on Haque we would carpool to our early Space Kings sessions together and talk about our ideas for the game on the drive. A lot of characters and moments probably wouldn’t have appeared in Haque if not for those drives.

Are there any similarities between developing video games and creating Space Kings?

There are! I think with both video games and tabletop games the goal is always to evoke something. When I work on platformer mechanics I want the movement to evoke flying around and doing flips and feeling free. When I work on Space Kings Ultimates I want to evoke the feeling being ridiculously tough or protecting your friends or lying your pants off. Sometimes it’s just moving numbers around but when you move the numbers around in a specific way it makes someone feel like a superhero for a second and that’s rad.

Are there kinds of stories and experiences that you feel indie games tell better than big budget games? What kind of story or perspective would you like to see more of in games?

I think indie games will always be better suited to telling stories that focus on incredibly specific feelings. Joakim Sandberg’s Iconoclasts springs to mind as a game that expresses feelings of social, religious, and familial pressure on identity really, really well.

I think in general I’d like to see games that are more personal and less mythical in their message. I want to see more games that are like They Might Be Giants songs, weird but committed to themselves.

Are there any games that you feel any self-respecting person should play in their lifetime? And how do you feel about games as art?

It’s tough to make sweeping recommendations of games because everyone’s abilities and tastes are so different. Games like Chrono Trigger, Cave Story, Pyre, and Gone Home are games that I hold incredibly close to my heart and I’d love it if more people played them. I think games like Florence and Packing Up the Rest of Your Stuff on the Last Day at Your Old Apartment are two incredibly succinct games that show off what’s unique about games as an artform and there’s a very low barrier to play either of them.

I think games are art and I refer to myself as an artist. Games are fascinating as art because they don’t just engage your senses and your imagination, they also demand you learn a skill to appreciate them.

What are your goals for Super Try in 2021?

SuperTry has a lot of projects right now! Bazooka Panic was our final game of 2020 and Joe and I have decided to expand on it in 2021. 7DRL, the jam that we submitted Beneath Faelin Wood to, is happening again in March and we want to participate in that again. Both of those projects are being supported by our patrons on Patreon.

Our biggest project is launching the Space Kings book which we Kickstarted in late 2019 and worked on throughout 2020. Hadley, Bryan, Brian, and I are in the final layout stages for the book and after that we have to print and ship it.

I guess if our goal in 2020 was to create and finish as many games as possible, our goal in 2021 is to polish the projects we have and give them the time they need to become truly excellent.

Also financial stability would be nice!

What would you tell yourself if you could speak to yourself when you first started working on games?

I don’t think I could tell myself anything! When I started I quit my job in mostly unearned anger to take a stab at changing the entire artform with my dream game.

That game was, well, it was my first video game ever! I learned a whole lot but I doubt I could have made anything at all if I hadn’t been fueled by passion and spite. I think if you want to make games, start with making a game that you really, really want to make.

I guess if I could tell past me one thing to ease his mind I’d say, “You will finish this game and you will make another one.”

Did you know that there’s someone with nearly 20 days worth of playtime on Haque? Have you ever looked at some of the high praise the game has, and if so how does it make you feel. How hard is it to take the harsher reviews?

Oh dang! I had no idea! I wonder if I know that person? The praise for Haque, for any of my games, keeps me going. I don’t always internalize it as well as I should but it means a lot to know that a game I worked on found a specific person and maybe offered them some relief. 

Harsh reviews weigh on me. I always feel like they’ve figured out what a fraud I am. I try and remind myself that if I’m getting a bad review it usually means my game reached so far outside my bubble that I found someone with completely different standards. But still, a bad comment can ruin my day.

What are some of the biggest difficulties of being an indie game developer? What is it like trying to get your finished product into the public?

If you do things my way the toughest part is the money. I moved back home in the Spring of 2013 and I’ve been making games full time for what will be eight years. In that time I’ve made enough income to continue beating back my student loans but not enough to move out of my parents’ attic. I’m lucky that I get along with my parents and I live in the age of crowdfunding and I wouldn’t trade this job for anything but eight years is a long time to live in financial instability. Games take a really long time to make and time is, unfortunately, money.

Releasing a finished product can be scary and the time leading up to the release can be incredibly stressful depending on the scope of your project and the amount of time you have to achieve it. Finishing twelve games last year gave me a lot of practice in what it’s like to finish something but unfortunately I usually could only manage a few days of promoting my finished work before I had to start a new game. People move on from new things so fast. If anyone goes back to any of my games even a month after their release, that feels like a win.

You can find Kevin on Twitter at @RealKevinCole and @SuperTryStudios. If you want to support Kevin you can find his Patreon at GiveKevinMoney.com.

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