story by Ryan Saylor
A Van Buren-based company is banking on the support of generous strangers as it attempts to raise $250,000 to fund development of a new video game using local students to get the game to market.
The company, JAZ Games, was founded by siblings Jacob, Allyson and Zachary Siler, who are all graduates of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.
According to Jacob, the CEO of the company, the idea for a the new game came to him about a year ago.
"I was just outside walking with one of my friends and I was thinking about the future of gaming," he said. "I had thought about online games a lot and I just had this idea. 'Wouldn't it be awesome to have a steampunk game that had a vast world and included open exploration of it?' I just had that spark and as I kept going through the months, the idea formed into this project, this series of games."
Before going any further, a definition of "steampunk" may be necessary. According to Dictionary.com, steampunk is "a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced machines and other technology based on steam power of the 19th century and taking place in a recognizable historical period or a fantasy world." Siler broke it down even further.
"Steampunk is the idea of retro futurism," he said. "In the case of steampunk specifically, it's the idea of the Victorian Era with futuristic ideas and technologies. It's also known as neo-Victorian."
With that out of the way, Siler said he and his siblings determined that Kickstarter would likely be the best and easiest way to fund their new project.
Initially, the trio published a book and raised 200% of the funding they were seeking through Kickstarter.
The book, he said, serves as the introduction to the video game "Sky Bridge: Fallen Stars," which describes a variety of characters fighting "their way deeper into a web of mystery and intrigue, they begin to discover that the lines between good and evil are not as clearly defined as they once believed. When secrets threaten to tear them apart, they must weigh their dedication to their cause against the cost of battling a conspiracy which could ultimately destroy the fabric of their civilization."
The money raised through the campaign will get the game off the ground, Siler said, through allowing the company to hire a variety of programers and graphic artists.
"The majority of the cost is so that we can set up our workspace, our office and furnish it with employees for long enough to complete the game," he said. "Most of the cost there is going to employees. We want to get as much of that money into work on the game as we can."
The company will also use interns from UAFS, he said, adding that the company would likely "cycle through" interns over multiple semesters while the game is in development.
Dr. Argie Nichols, a UAFS professor and the department head of Computer Graphic Technology, said students working toward a bachelor of arts in animation technology would be a good fit for companies like JAZ Games.
"Because they are internship positions in animation, the students can work here on our machines, our software. They can get real world experience and gain college credit at the same time," she said, adding that she was scheduled to meet with the company within days to work through details on the internships, which she said would be paid.
Nichols added that the degree program, which is only about two years old, allowed the university to service all sorts of businesses in the region, not just JAZ Games.
"The world is going to 3-D," she said. "It's not just video games. We've done real world projects, training videos for Gerdau, training videos for the Arkansas State Police, forensic videos for airplane crashes and car accidents. We even did a 3-D recreation for the Pentagon when 9/11 occurred. That particular one we had to keep quiet. We had to have government clearance to do that."
With the university's technology and interns coupled with Kickstarter funding, Siler is hopeful the project can get off the ground and on Apple and Windows-based computers sometime in "early 2015," all while employing between 40-50 people. But securing the $250,000 needed to get jumpstarted will be tough with only $800 raised toward the goal. It's a situation Siler said could be a challenge.
"We set out funding goal at $250,000. It's a lot for an unknown company, I think, but it's exactly what we need to accomplish the project."