On December 2, 2014, local video game designer CJ Schnase received a phone call that he immediately had to share with the world. It was from a member of Team Nintendo, calling in response to an application to design video games for the Wii U.
“They asked, are you still interested in developing for the Wii U?” Schnase said. “And I’m like, yeah!?!”
Schnase, who co-founded the Fargo-based video game design startup Wicked Soul Studios, LLC with his friend Glenn Wade, had applied to design games for the Nintendo Wii U four months prior. He had nearly forgotten about it when he got the call, but after being accepted he knew this was their big break.
In fact, it’s a big break for the entire state of North Dakota.
“If we can get this project released and produced, it’ll be North Dakota’s first commercial product on a console,” Schnase said.
Many states right now don’t have a game design industry at all, he explained. Most are located in Texas or California, with a few other industries in Seattle, Chicago, and other bigger cities. But if games are released from Schnase and the handful of other fledgling game design studios in Fargo – such as Big4Productions, Beach Interactive, Raven Rock Software and other private projects – they will be the first out of North Dakota.
“It’s gonna be huge,” Schnase said, adding that a developed game industry in a city shows “a lot of maturity for this area, especially in the technology field.”
This, to be a pioneer in the North Dakota video game industry, has been Schnase’s dream since he was an 8th grader at Ben Franklin Middle School. When asked what his dream job was, there was no hesitation in his answer – a video game designer.
Even before that, his parents joked that they could always find him with a controller in his hand. And now, the 26-year-old claims that easily 20+ years of his life have been heavily involved with video games.
“I’m an obsessive geek over video games,” Schnase admits.
He pursued that dream through high school, working with computers and doing troubleshooting. He pursued it through college, working for his parents’ tow truck business 90+ hours a week while earning his degree in video game design from online courses with the University of Advancing Technology.
He pursued it through marriage, to his wife of five and a half years now, through thoughts of moving to Seattle for the game industry there, and eventually the decision to remain in Fargo and set up an independent studio.
He pursued it as he designed games with his partner Wade, and worked on projects like colorizing the old black and white Nintendo version of Super Mario Land 2 pixel by pixel – a project that got him his first significant attention on social media and “blew up on Facebook” he said. (Check it out here, it’s fantastic.)
And then, there was that phone call.
“I tell my wife, it’s like a dream that you want so bad that you could just break into tears about it,” he said.
When asked if that has ever happened, he said, “Not yet…not that I’m going to admit.”
Now, as a licensed designer, Schnase is taking his studio to the next level. With his partner Wade currently wrapped up with responsibilities at the Air Force, Schnase continues to build the studio on his own; he’s already sat down with banks to talk about small business loans, and met with Lake Agassiz about potential grants.
“Going into this venture is definitely scary when you’re looking at taking out these loans.” he said. “With a software company, you have nothing tangible for a collateral. So then it’s like, ok, do I want it enough to put my house up for it?”
The community has so far been very receptive to the idea, he said. At a meeting with Bell Bank, he was asked why Wicked Soul Studios is needed in Fargo, and why a game development industry as a whole is needed in Fargo?
“Look at our students that have to leave because there’s no work here for them,” Schnase responded. “I mean there’s some design jobs but they are far and few between and highly competitive because of how many people want to get that job right out of college.”
Not to mention, he added, the opportunity for internships which were so hard to find when he was working for his degree. Showing how the industry will add to the community while retaining local talent generates excitement at these meetings, Schnase said.
The current project underway, which he is building using the popular software development kit (SDK) called Unity, is a Super Mario-esque side-scroll game called Cursed Gold (although the title is subject to change).
Without giving too much away, it will feature a swashbuckling pirate on a quest to find hidden gold, Schnase said. Throughout the game the pirate is marooned on the island, following a series of journal entries through a forest, cave, temple, and finally a volcano. The most interesting mechanic, Schnase said, is that the pirate carries a revolver and a sword that is able to reflect projectiles.
To utilize the second player game pad that is a feature of the Wii U, Schnase said the game will also have a mining or digging expedition that will directly help the character on the main screen.
He draws his inspiration for games from his own experience as a hardcore gamer, as well as from reading game designer magazines. He collects all his ideas in a binder which is his go-to when developing a game.
“I’m always prototyping something in my head,” he said. “You never know when inspiration is going to hit you but when it does, it’s like an anvil on your head.”
Schnase hopes to have the game ready for release within 6 months to a year, by following “ a very aggressive development cycle.” This includes holding a Kickstarter campaign around March, in which he will be able to offer digital download codes for donators, courtesy of Nintendo. But first he is looking to hire an artist to work full-time developing pixelated artwork for the game, as well as a programmer to help with programming the game.
All of this, while continuing to foot the bills towing 40+ hours a week, scheduling meetings with businesses and working on marketing. This, Schnase said, is more of the dirty work. But for him it’s all worth it.
“It’s easier to be passionate about [the dirty work] when this is my livelihood. My dream project,” he said.
Important note from our nieghbors: Over in Brookings, South Dakota, Mantis Digital Arts has also been recently accepted to design for the Wii U, and is planning to release a game this year.
Photos by Marisa Jackels and Nintendo.