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Indie Developer Spotlight: jo-robo

Indie Developer Spotlight: jo-robo

Over the last 4 years I have spent most of my free time organizing events for the greater Sacramento game developer community. At one point we were averaging at least three to four events per month. This left me very little time to actually play games created by our developers. Now that I have stepped down from those responsibilities I have more time to devote to playing games!

The first one I had to play is called robo-tea:1cup! created by independent game developer Josie Noronha aka jo-robo. I have been following Josie on Twitter for at least three years. First off what attracted me to her was her vibrant personality and transparency for who she is and what she stands for. I believe a lot of those attributes transfers beautifully into her art and games. I was captivated! In 2016 we finally had the opportunity to meet in real life when she debuted at the Sacramento Indie Arcade. True to her online persona, Josie was an absolute delight to meet in person! She brought the cutest robo swag and decorated her table in eye popping colors. Josie was one of a handful of female developers showcasing their games that day.

jo-robo at the 2016 Sacramento Indie Arcade

jo-robo at the 2016 Sacramento Indie Arcade

With that said, I am happy to shine another light on her as my indie developer for the month of February. Once again we had an opportunity to chat and I got to learn more about the creator behind the game.

Can you tell me a little about yourself and your position with your game studio?

Hi hello, I’m Josie Noronha, an illustrator and gamedev. I am located in Sacramento, CA and enjoy all the coffee shops and restaurants in the area. “jo-robo” or “robohaven” are the names I publish my works under, and if I had to choose one as my studio name… I guess “jo-robo” would be that? I still can’t really decide.

How did you get started in game development?

I started in my final year at Otis College of Art and Design. When I started my major, Digital Media, I knew I wanted to work in games as an artist. Oddly enough, I ended up scrapping that vision when I began my thesis, and decided that making the games I wanted was much more satisfying than making art for others’ projects!

Are you self-taught or did you go to school for game development?

I’m self-taught. I went to art school, so I was exposed to how to make 3D models and user interface assets, and how to get them into game engines. But the game design and coding aspects were things I taught myself. I still consider myself a baby programmer but that’s because I hadn’t really kept up with anything past the HTML I learned during my Neopets days haha!

What games inspired you?

The games that inspired me to start making my own were: Harvest Moon DS Cute and Animal Crossing. The western release of Harvest Moon DS Cute tried to gut the “Friendship Ceremony,” which was a lesbian marriage option of sorts. Unfortunately (or fortunately) they forgot to take out the affection meter system, so I could see how much the Witch Princess liked me. I absolutely hated that I could see how strong my bond with the Witch Princess was growing but was unable to “marry” her and have her move in with me. That eventually led me to make my own queer dating sims. Animal Crossing is gentle and relatively peaceful, with no pressure to “win” or fear of “losing,” which I absolutely love! I get very easily stressed out and having a place I can go to where I can forget about that is fantastic.

Where does your love of robots stem from?

I was asked this before I graduated college and back then I simply answered, “I love the aesthetic of robots.” But the person who asked was skeptical and said that there’s probably a deeper meaning to it. And recently I finally figured it out. Robots have the potential to be any gender and most people accept that off the bat. No questions asked. Nobody asks to see their privates or birth certificate, they just accept the designation and pronouns that the robot characters have and leave it at that. I guess it’s that I do love the customizable aesthetic but I also love that their identities are never questioned. I hope that someday everyone can be accepted and not questioned on their identities and don’t have to be robots for that to happen.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never played a game like this before. What kind of audience is this geared for?

No worries! robo-tea:1cup! is made first of all for queer teens and young adults. But over time I’ve had the chance to watch people of all sorts enjoy my game! Kids love the bright colours and simple design. Quite a few have played through it at conventions to prove their reading level haha! And there have been a lot of people, my age and older, who have thanked me for making this game. I always end up in tears after those interactions because this game was made to be enjoyed by as many people as possible, especially in times of stress and feeling low. It’s my hope that more people can enjoy a slice of robo-life and romance cutiebots without any anxiety.

I loved the music in your game. Who made it for you?

The main theme song and the song that plays when you watch shows with your dates in the first robo-tea game were made by the fantastic Zack Ross (@skeletondoggy) and the rest were songs I found on Free Music Archive (a great resource if you have a low budget). From there, I’ve been reaching out to Zack and other lovely queer developers like Angel Sera (@pastelbunny) and Sasha Reneau (@sasha_reneau) for my future projects’ music!

 In your opinion, how important are story driven games?

I think story games are just as important as all other sorts of games are. What particularly draws me to narrative games? They are like having other lives added to my own. If the game has choices, I am now given the option to make choices I otherwise wouldn’t have [an] opportunity to. And if it has a linear story, then I get to experience a life that has been laid out specifically for the player to enjoy (or cry about). It’s like having a meal lovingly prepared for you and you get to experience and taste the journey they’ve made!

 If sparkle shakes existed for real, what would they taste like?

Ideally? They’d be made out of blueberries, strawberries, sprite, whatever ice cream you like, and glitter. Edible glitter is pretty much just sugar and colour and some other chemical things.

Do you feel like your culture has played a role in the characters you created? Specifically with reference to the card game you’re currently working on. I noticed the intricate detail in your art and couldn’t help but wonder.

I think my culture has definitely played a role in what I design. I have a strange relationship with my cultural background. My family’s origins are Goan and Mangalorean (both are Portuguese-Indian, due to colonization in that part of India). My grandparents on both sides moved from India to Pakistan and my parents were born there. Later, my parents emigrated from Pakistan to the US and I was born in Sacramento, CA. Because I have a weird distance from “being Indian” but have a strong desire to still participate in the culture, I incorporate designs I admire from the garments and art since those were my early ways of connecting with the culture I could’ve had. (I would add the food as an inspiration but I’m not sure I’ve done that yet. Maybe I could incorporate spice into a game…).

 What do you want players to feel after they complete your game?

When a player completes a robo-tea game, I want them to feel a little calmer. Maybe even a little blush from how sweet the romance was! For the core audience, I want teens and young adults to see that there are so many ways to be in relationships and that it’s not always about kissing and sex. Those are nice, but I think it’s the other things, like sharing meals, watching TV, playing games, talking about the things that you love or fear, and even having quiet moments… doing all those things together are what make strong relationships. If you can be friends and laugh with the person you’re interested in, I think that’s way more important than how cool/suave they are, haha! I think it’s that I want all players to feel a kind, fluffy feeling by the end of those games.

For my card game about affection, my hope is that you’ll have opened up to your partner(s). I’m making this game because I’ve had a hard time truly talking about how I feel about my partners and sharing super personal things with even my closest friends. I hope you can feel strong enough to be honest and open, both during and after playing the Affection Game.

Concept art for Affection Game

Concept art for Affection Game

Do you see this as a hobby or do you want to turn it into a full-fledged career?

I think at one point I wanted game development to be a career for me but I realized I lost all the fun in it when I was both a part of the process in a studio and when independent development was the only thing I had going for me. It was so stressful, thinking that projects would determine who I am in an industry. Honestly? Having gamedev as a hobby has been much more satisfying for me because I can make my queer robot dating dreams come true and not have to worry about if it makes money.

What have been some of your favorite cons?

Ooh. There are so many... Here’s some of my fav cons, in order of when I’ve had tables at them: Sacramento Indie Arcade, GaymerX, QGcon, Flamecon, and SacAnime!

Do you have any industry events that you like to attend during the year?

Industry event... I have attended E3 mixers and after-parties in the past but since moving back to Sac and also adjusting my budget, I can’t really see myself attending many industry events for a while. Unless I get a grant or am specially requested to attend, haha!

What are your goals in the next six months?

From January until June, my goals are:

o   Finish and publish robo-tea:2ndServing! by February 14th

o   Finish making Affection Game at some point in the year

o   Stop having deadlines for my games and take a break from gamedev

o   Visit my partners and rekindle that spark I had of wanting to write cute dates

o   Celebrate my birthday in June and maybe drop a hint about the next robo-tea game?

Do you think it is important to elevate women in games?

Most. Definitely. I think it’s important to elevate all marginalized voices in games, especially since that’s what will help create richer worlds, characters, and stories. Giving people who aren’t white, straight, cisgender men opportunities to give input on where games are going will lead to much more fascinating output. While I’ve only ever worked in one game studio, the ratio of men to women and non-binary individuals was suuuuper uneven, even in a small company where that might have been easier to change.

What has been the best way to market yourself and your games?

The best way for me to market my games has been by having an online presence through Twitter and tumblr, going to conventions, and simply existing. In both cases, I’ve been reliant on a ripple of friends and fans talking about my games to their friends and continuing that over and over. I don’t have much of a marketing budget and I also don’t think my games are very marketable. My games are more like comfort food for when people are in need of soothing. The best example of this was when I changed robo-tea:1cup! to being free/“pay what you want” during the 2016 presidential election night because I realized people were scared about what lay ahead. I put up posts on twitter and tumblr about the game being free for all who needed soothing and there were so many downloads and purchases for the next few days after that. The day after the election someone purchased my game for $210. I was baffled and also very grateful.

In 2017, the City of Sacramento launched a campaign to help elevate the Creative Economy in our region. This includes micro-grants awarded to various art disciplines. Do you see an opportunity for yourself and other local game developers to take advantage of a program like this? Will it help accelerate your development goals?

I definitely see a need for these grants in the indie developer community here. I could see these grants being used to buy assets and services that games would need, in my case that would be paying musicians and QA teams. There are a lot of developers in the area who might need help but can’t afford to hire a consultant or assistant on their projects. Or, they’re a solo developer who would need some financial stability while taking time to make their game. Indie development that doesn’t have financial backing from day one means you’re going to eat away at your savings… and grants would be helpful to start someone in the right direction.

Do you have any advice for aspiring and fellow game developers?

I would say hit the ground running. Even if you think you don’t have the skill right now, start with your idea today, and keep working with it. The first iteration of my robot world’s story was written in 2006, and through revising it over the past 10 years… I had a kind, gentle story ready to be made into a visual novel.

Sometimes you might have an idea that can be developed much faster than that and I highly recommend doing those quick games to build your skills. I think messing around in game engines can also help you get accustomed to the tools, which will make the future gamedev processes that much easier, especially if you’re a solo developer (like me!).

Where can people connect with you?

My games are on itch.io! I love responding to comments and questions on my game pages, so feel free to ask away!

If you’re looking for my social media: twitter (for ranting while making games), tumblr (development blog), and instagram (for doodles and pictures that aren’t always related to games). A major life change has involved lowering how often I use these accounts, but I will try my best to be as friendly as I can when I’m online!

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