Sam Barham is the Creative Director and Co-Founder of Balancing Monkey Games. With over twenty years of experience in developing software and graphics for various companies, Barham co-created Balancing Monkey Games with his wife, Anna Barham, in 2017. Since then, he has been working with BMG to produce and release the studio’s first game, Before We Leave. Wanting to learn more about Balancing Monkey Games as well as Before We Leave, I was able to interview Barham for ScifiPulse.
Yanes: Growing up, what were some video games you loved playing? Are there any old school games you still revisit?
Barham: I’ve loved so many games it’s hard to count! I remember the excitement of getting the extra 0.5Mb of memory for my Amiga 500 so that I could finally play Eye of the Beholder. I’ve played heaps of most of the Civilization games (although the later ones haven’t grabbed me as much – not enough time in the day!). Anno 1404, The Settlers, Fallen London + Sunless Sea, Hollow Knight, Mass Effect (with me doing the shooting and my wife choosing the dialogue), Aquaria and so many more! I don’t often revisit older games – when I’ve done so I tend to find my memories of them are better than the reality, and I’d rather keep the memories
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in the gaming industry? Was there a moment this goal crystalized for you?
Barham: I’ve always tinkered with making things, including games. But there hasn’t been any particular ‘moment’, it’s just how things have worked out mostly. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but actually working in the industry just kind of slowly aligned with my life and family and became a reality
Yanes: For people outside of New Zealand, what is the gaming industry like there?
Barham: Generally, really well connected and supportive of each other, especially when we were just starting out.
Yanes: Are there any opportunities unique to making games in New Zealand? For instance, if you found out an investor had a ton of money and was looking in the gaming industry, how would you get them to check out New Zealand’s game studios?
Barham: We’ve got surprisingly good internet, and our separation from the world makes us more used to working remotely than some. There’s currently a lot of political will and positivity around the gaming industry too, which helps in supporting us. Also, our existing game studios all seem to consistently punch above their weight.
Yanes: The latest game from Balancing Monkey Games is Before We Leave. What was the inspiration for this game?
Barham: Several things. I’ve had several prototypes of “game on a tiled sphere” sitting around for years, which is part of it. And I love games like Kingdoms and Castles and the Anno series, which informed the gameplay. But the main inspiration was this: In my hometown in Dunedin, we have a midwinter carnival every year, where people parade around the middle of town with huge lantern/floats. One year I went with my wife and kids, and one of the floats was a huge whale with a city of skyscrapers built on its back. I just loved that image, and knew I needed to make something of it!
Yanes: Before We Leave has an incredible visual style. When did you know you had the right style for the game? Were there any other artists you pulled from for inspiration?
Barham: Honestly it just evolved over time. I knew approximately what I wanted but didn’t have the skills to realise it. Once I had funding, I was able to bring in an artist – Rafal Urbanksi from Poland – who had the skills to build the 3D assets the game needed. And then later on we added a second programmer, Isaac Bennett, who actually had a Fine Arts degree in Photography, and better skills than I in writing shader code, so he was also really instrumental in making the style as good as it could be.
Yanes: While developing this game what were some obstacles the team had to overcome?
Barham: The creative journey sucks sometimes! Many days were great, some days sucked – a real emotional rollercoaster. Luckily I had 20 years of experience as a software developer, and a conscientious personality to draw on to help me stay focused.
Yanes: In the process of developing Before We Leave from an idea to final product, what were some aspects of it that took on a life of their own?
Barham: I’m not sure. I think we’ve stayed pretty closely in control overall. Some of the ideas and content generated by the community have been great though – they created all the Peeps bios and names, for example.
Yanes: When people finish playing Before We Leave, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Barham: We hope they feel happier from playing a nice game.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Barham: We’re currently working towards releasing Before We Leave on Steam in the timeframe of ‘soon’. After that we’ve got a new thing brewing, but we’re not ready to say more yet!