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Meet the dev who sold his house to make a 100% for-charity game

Meet the dev who sold his house to make a 100% for-charity game

March 9, 2018 | By Brandon Sheffield

March 9, 2018 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Indie, Serious, Business/Marketing

The man who sold his house to finish his game.

I’ll admit, Kenny Roy’s situation frustrates me. He told me he could hear it in my voice as we talked. He was calling me from across the globe, after selling his home in LA, and moving his wife and kids in with her parents in New Zealand. He did all this in order to make a game for charity, from which he would never recoup a dime.

I’m frustrated because his kids are sleeping on air mattresses. I’m frustrated because I know he did it to make something beautiful  – a game designed to help kids deal with cancer and its treatments – but he has built in no provisions to keep going. All the money goes to the GameChanger charity, which tries to brighten the lives of kids with cancer.

I know what he is trying to achieve, and how hard he’s trying to achieve it. But this is only the second game he’s ever tried to make. I just hope he gets the chance to do it again. The game is called I, Hope, and it’s already helped at least one child overcome their fear of invasive and experimental cancer treatments.

Zelda for a cause

I, Hope is a Zelda-like 3D adventure game designed specifically with children with cancer in mind,” Roy tells me. “It’s supposed to be sort of a metaphorical cathartic battle that gives them some repeated success in learning the coping skills they need to deal with the disease and the treatment.”

Roy learned from the GameChanger charity what these kids go through with cancer – and it’s not just the disease, but the treatments themselves can also be incredibly painful to deal with. “There’s been a need for more games like I, Hope, where the message is targeted like a tactical strike on the physical and emotional needs of these kids,” he says.

Roy thinks of the game as a direct translation of the skills needed to go through treatments, and the big evil in the game is a giant black beast that’s literally named “Cancer.” As far as the game itself, it has numerous parallels to Breath of the Wild.

"I knew I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and there was just no way to keep going. But once you go to a hospital and a child who has cancer touches the controller of your game, that’s it, you forfeited the right to stop working on that game anymore."

“It’s kind of ridiculous, because when I started working on it over two years ago, I didn’t even know Breath of the Wild was coming out,” he says. “And around 2016 they started releasing screens, and my friends were like ‘oh, that’s looks like your game.’ And one of the skills, you can stop time, and again people are like ‘whoa, this looks like that stasis thing!’ So if you didn’t know when I started developing it, it looks like I tried to create 10 percent of BOTW.”

The game begins with a coming of age ceremony for the kids of this village, called Island Fall. During island fall, new islands appear from the clouds, and if you’re old enough, you can go on an adventure through them. When the main character Hope’s island shows up, it turns out there are 5, which is an unprecedented number of islands. The villages are excited, until and a monster called Cancer lands, and destroys her village. Her grandfather tells her she can defeat it, but she needs to go get the weapons to do so from the surrounding islands.

These islands are called knowledge, strength, courage, support, and hope. You can see where this is going!

“I was trying to copy every single game that I loved for each of its component parts,” he says. “I wanted it to have that adventure feeling of Ocarina Of Time, and the platforming fun of Banjo Kazooie, and the puzzles of Uncharted. That sounds great, but also impossible for an indie making his second game, who’s learning Unity off the internet.”

An inauspicious beginning

“I started this project at a personal low,” he admits. “I’d been in animation for 18 years, and I had my own animation company in LA, and I was really getting dragged along, with projects getting pulled, and I was working ungodly hours.”

He wanted a change, and having always loved games, it was a natural fit. Plus, not being a coder, there were now a lot more options available to him in terms of free engines, so there was a lot more he could do himself.

“It’s not like I started working fewer hours in games,” he says, “but I went from working with the absolute worst people to the best people on the planet, like directors of children’s hospitals, and Child Life experts, who are responsible for the day to day emotional and physical wellbeing of children who have extended hospital stays. They basically try to recreate as good a childhood in spite of fighting these diseases as possible. They do tutoring, organize social events, or bring in things related to their interests.”

He first tried to kickstart the game, having successfully kickstarted a short film called The Little Painter. “I thought man, just do that again, easy,” says Roy. “That failed spectacularly. I won’t go too much into it but I think I learned a lot about what the gaming community sees as a valuable project. It’s not that they’re not charitable, but it’s always going to be gameplay and visuals first. Charity is like a bonus.”

“I had basically nothing when I started. I had temp levels just running around… and nobody was interested at all and nobody cared. So I went over to Indiegogo thinking if I can get just a little bit of money, then maybe I can go back to Kickstarter after that. The indiegogo got me like $2k. And I started with that.”

But this represented only the beginning of his financial troubles. “Essentially it turns out that when you have an animation company and instead of spending 25 percent of your time doing business development and 25 percent producing, if you’re spending all that time just working personally on a video game, the work is going to dry up,” he says.

That happened in 2017, a year after he started working on the game. The big problem came when a three-year, multimillion dollar contract which he had staffed up for just completely vanished into thin air. For him, it was do or die time.

Selling the house

“We always had a contingency plan, a ripcord as I call it, which meant selling everything and I’d go back to animating on feature films, which is where I came from,” he says. “And that ain’t bad, and it’s not a hard life, but this was the moment when it was like, this is a ripcord moment. So for a long time we decided that if we were ever going to move, it would be near my wife’s family, because my family was kind of dispersed, and I was the only one in LA still. So we have two young boys, and we decided we were going to give New Zealand a shot, because that’s where my wife is from, and that’s where we met.”

He knew it was a difficult decision, but by 2017, kids with cancer had already been playing his game, through research set up by Microsoft and Xbox. He felt there was no going back. “There were so many points at which we were like – we’re going completely bankrupt, we’re not even going to make a cent on this, because it’s 100 percent of proceeds to charity,” he admits. “100 percent of profits would’ve been crazy enough. I don’t even know if that has been done for a game unless it was research.”

“I know that this has absolutely never been done before,” he says. “So… at each one of those times, something made it so I knew I had to go on. Right before the first hospital visit I made, I knew I’d bitten off more than I could chew, and there was just no way to keep going. But once you go to a hospital and a child who has cancer touches the controller of your game, that’s it, you forfeited the right to stop working on that game anymore. If they spend even a minute of their time – which could be limited because many of these kids have terminal cancer – stopping the project means that you threw away the 5 minutes, or 10 minutes, or hour that they played your game.”

“I didn’t realize this was going to strike me, but it did. I called my wife and said we got done in this first room, and I was talking about the kid playing the game and I realized… I told her I have to finish this game now. And she understood.”

“At a certain point it meant selling the house and being… just going 100 percent all in on the project,” Roy said, with some audible exhaustion. He knows that I’m frustrated with him for this generous thing he’s trying to do, which in turn frustrates me even more. I mention that this is an amazing feat to attempt, but what of his own kids? What if this business decision means he can never make a game to help kids again? I asked him this earlier in an email: How did nobody stop you?

Roy tells me he told his wife that I asked this, and she laughed, and then cried. He agrees that it’s a rough spot. “Microsoft, really Katie over there, was telling me all along the way,” he says. “I would call her and update her, and I’m going way over schedule, and she was the one saying constantly ‘you have to take care of yourself. If you go bankrupt and put yourself in a situation where you can’t finish this game, all of it is lost.’ I basically just didn’t listen to her.”

The path forward

I had initially pegged Kenny as someone with zero business sense, but I was wrong in that. To finish this game he called in favors from around the globe – from getting assistance from an animation camp he attends, to a free day in 2K Czech’s mocap studio, to massive upcoming promotions from ID@XBOX when the game releases there on April 4. And the GameChanger charity will be getting the game into every hospital in America. So he does have the sense and ability to pull things together. Perhaps he just has no sense of self preservation.

"I honestly know that in all likelihood, any game I made, no matter how good it was, it was likely to fail. I looked at this and said if I am going to go down, I’ll go down on something I really believe in."

We discussed the difficulty of marketing any game, whether it’s for charity or not, and how he’s just piled risks on top of that. “I honestly know that in all likelihood, any game I made, no matter how good it was, it was likely to fail,” he says, referring to the current state of the indie market. “I looked at this and said if I am going to go down, I’ll go down on something I really believe in.”

“There are a lot worse ways to spend your life savings than helping every cancer patient in America,” he says. “I went to one kid’s house, and the kid has leukemia, a rare form. He was about to go into this experimental treatment on the east coast. I was showing him the game, and mentioned to him that there was a section called the Cave of Hope, where messages appear in light on the walls. It’s messages from cancer patients and Child Life people, and if you want to take a break, you can just go into the cave and relax, and there’s hopeful messages, and there’s dripping water and all that.”

“But he was really shy,” says Roy. “I could tell he was intimidated to do anything, and he didn’t really want to talk, so I had him just sat in that cave. Later, out of nowhere, he said “there should be a baby dolphin in the cave.” And I looked at the mom and said ‘that’s amazing.’ So I did it. A month later I got a mail from his mom, because he’s just gotten out of the hospital with this treatment. She said the last time he got the treatment it wrecked his system, he hated it, and he didn’t want to ever do it again no matter what happened, it was just too painful.

She said ‘I told him to remember the cave, remember the messages, and remember the baby dolphin – and he focused on it, he thought about it, he calmed down, and he got through it. And now the treatment is working, he’s back at home, and all of us are full of hope.’ It felt amazing.”

Helping Kenny

Kenny Roy’s hope is that when other charities see the success of his game, they’ll want to make some of their own, and he’s hoping they’ll hire him to do it, now that he has the pipelines in place.

"Right now I’m the expert in the world on making video games for charities that are 100 percent for that charity."

“Right now I’m the expert in the world on making video games for charities that are 100 percent for that charity,” he says. “So the idea is that with this position that I’ve put myself in, I will be able to advise associations and tell them what I see this as being. I’d say, ‘well, you have marketing budgets, but put whatever, a couple hundred thousand aside for a game, and then I have laid the groundwork for all the support from the industry.’ They literally had to patch Xbox Live because the percentage they take was hardcoded. Now they can take 0% and they can change that per title. So I’ll tell these people, I laid the groundwork for this, that’s baked in, and has essentially the financial support from these platforms in order to make money. So if you have a targeted message you need, a game is the best way to do that. So instead of doing dorky mailers, do this instead.”

If you’re interested in helping him achieve his goals, you can of course buy the game on Steam or Xbox One when it’s released April 4. But more immediately, you can vote for his game in Amazon’s indie amplifier, which will send $175,000 to the GameChanger charity if it wins. Anyone with an Amazon Prime account can vote.

I don’t approve of developers sacrificing their lives, and the lives of their families to make a game. We have enough of that going around, and it shouldn’t be glorified. But just this one time, I at least understand why he did it, even if I think it’s self-destructive.

In Roy’s own words: “It’s hard to focus on how much I’m completely going totally against the financial wellbeing of myself and my family and everything, when I know that there’s at least one kid out there, who because of my game, this might have made all the difference in his life. Just because it existed and was there. It’s all worth it.”

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