The CEO and creative director behind Runbow and Dawn of the Monsters discusses the recent discomfort of running a Unity team, his Godzilla ’98 VHS collection, and more.
What do you do after directing the most uniquely you project of your career?
This was my question for Alex Rushdy, CEO and creative director of 13AM Games, the Toronto, Ontario indie studio behind popular games including Runbow, Double Cross, and most recently, Dawn of the Monsters. We spoke remotely for the most recent episode of my game development podcast, GameDev Breakdown.
“I’m just gonna throw in the towel, actually,” Alex joked in reply. “Maybe become a farmer.”
As we sat down over Zoom, 13AM was in post-launch for Dawn of the Monsters, its third major release. The side-scrolling giant monster beat-em-up has the coveted Very Positive reviews label on Steam, just like both of their games before it. Alex has been along for the ride for all three titles, but Dawn is special to him. If you’ve seen his website, his blog, or his social media accounts, you’ll understand why.
Alex Rushdy technically didn’t choose to work in game development at all. As a gifted artist, he studied visual art and design after high school with plans to get into filmmaking. Special effects and fantasy worlds appealed to him, but the videography work that was actually available to him after graduation did not. Rather than take his chances and relocate to LA without a safety net, he took a gap year to volunteer in the Czech Republic.
Upon returning, he applied to film school and a game design program simultaneously.
“I said whoever accepts is where I go. That’s what I’ll do,” Alex recalls. “Game design accepted. I moved to Toronto, and the rest is history.”
Alex couldn’t have known how important the school that accepted him would be to the rest of his career.
George Brown College, as it turned out, placed big emphasis on practical exercises for students. They were encouraged to divide into actual development teams and attempt to function as a real studio before they ever reached graduation. When they did, magic happened.
“We were at a game jam. We split into two teams…one of us made a game called Ms. Cthulhu which was our first released game,” Alex says. “The other team worked on a very early prototype of Runbow.”
The team saw real potential in its multiplayer platform racer, and it didn’t take too much additional development time to bring that potential to the surface. Runbow won best design at a student showcase, and an industry agent agreed to help them secure government funding to work on a full commercial release for the game. Their next positive feedback came from Nintendo.
“We showed it to Nintendo, and Nintendo loved it,” Alex recalls. The company invited his team to show off the game at Indiecade and outfitted them with Wii U development kits. George Brown College contributed a year’s worth of free office space to help the team get underway. It was enough time to incorporate and release the game. 13AM Games was officially on the map, and it’s been moving steadily ever since.
Alex’s role at the company evolved pretty quickly too.
Alex supported Runbow’s development primarily as a designer but also stepped in when needed as the game’s creative director. The team succeeded in releasing a popular first title, but the group had to scramble to ensure all of the business-side roles were filled before moving on.
“For the first, I dunno, year of the company, we didn’t have a CEO,” Alex explains. “I was kind of asked to step into that role in 2015 or 2016, which I have no experience in, so I had to kind of figure that out as I went along.”
Now, Alex gets to contribute his own art for fun a bit less frequently, he attends a lot more meetings, and he has to track issues he never could have anticipated. 13AM is a Unity studio, for example, and when Unity CEO John Riccitiello made harsh comments at the expense of critical developers following its controversial merger announcement, Alex was listening.
“They’re weird. They’re doing weird stuff,” Alex said with a sigh when I brought up the company. “Unity now is not the Unity that we knew when we started using it and started our company which is–frankly, it’s disappointing for us.”
Alex emphasized that the engine works well for their purposes, but the team has regularly looked around for alternatives.
“At one point, we considered hopping over to Unreal,” Alex recalled about the team’s early days. “We were talking a lot with Epic. We were like, ‘Hey, has anyone ever made a 2D game with Unreal Engine?’ They were like, ‘We don’t know.’ We looked into it, and the answer was no…We make games. We don’t make game engines, so we’re always looking for new ways to make games.”
Despite Alex’s increasingly buttoned-down work, he seems to be staying unflinchingly true to himself. If you skipped his bio before scrolling his Twitter feed, the first thing you’d notice about him was his genuine enthusiasm for all things kaiju (the Japanese genre of TV, film, and games featuring giant monsters). His blog, Control All Monsters, is a blend of monster talk, video game history, and game design, which he says enjoys decent readership. As I write this, he’s bouncing around between toy stores and amusement parks in Tokyo. When friends and colleagues started discretely slipping him VHS copies of Matthew Broderick’s notorious Godzilla ’98 film as a goof, Alex leaned into the bit, assembling what is hopefully Earth’s largest collection of copies of the movie.
“Every time I saw a Godzilla ’98 tape, I bought it,” Alex admits with a laugh. “Now I have over forty of them.”
When 13AM set its sights on a kaiju-inspired monster game, it’s probably safe to describe the project as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Alex.
“I think it’s the most I’ve directed a game,” Alex readily admitted. “I’m so happy with how it turned out, not just in the stuff that I specifically wanted to see happen but also in the stuff that the team took into directions I didn’t expect.” Chief among those contributions, Alex points to narrative direction and writing work by team member Unai Cabezón Lumbreras.
The challenge for a studio with a game like Dawn of the Monsters is to remind western audiences that–although they don’t widely celebrate it–they routinely love nearly all giant monster content. 13AM found a way to make it work.
“We got so many comments like that,” Alex says. “They’d see the game, and they’d talk about, ‘Oh, I used to love Rampage!’ or, ‘I used to love King of the Monsters! I can’t wait to play this! There hasn’t been a game like this in a long time!'”
Launch was just the beginning for Dawn of the Monsters. Alex says 13AM is planning to add content to the game, but he’s spearheading a number of other initiatives to keep it fresh in the minds of players. The studio took a one-shot comic book to the famed Godzilla and kaiju festival G-Fest. The game is also being localized for Japanese audiences. Once this is complete, the English version will be updated for anyone who wants to experience the game again in the style of a Japanese monster movie. When we spoke, a ramen chain in Ontario was offering a special menu item inspired by a character from the game.
“A lot of the games that I grew up with were these worlds, right?” Alex explains. “They were so memorable. I still have those memories because they were so iconic and I spent so much time in them…We’re always trying to make sure we build new worlds that players are going to get excited about and want to be involved in beyond just downloading the game, playing it, and then turning it off.”
Dawn of the Monsters even helped launch Alex’s side business in vinyl toy production.
When his convention hobby led him to meet new friends and left him with an interest in flipping merch, Alex dreamed with a buddy about designing and creating a brand new toy to sell to the crowds. When Dawn was greenlit, inspiration struck. 13AM licensed the monster designs to Alex’s toy company for marketing purposes, and the new company went into production.
“We gave it a shot, and it was great,” Alex said. “Our first [toy] sold out pretty darn quick considering it was for a game that didn’t release until like three years later.”
Alex did, of course, have more serious thoughts in response to my question about following the project of a lifetime.
“Being in that world for so long, I don’t mind doing a game where I’m not in that world for a bit,” he says. “I definitely have other extreme passion projects that I’d love to get off the ground.”
Alex loves shoot-em-ups in the style of R-Type and Darius.
“I don’t know how big that market for shoot-em-ups is,” he says. “But, like, I don’t care. I just want to make one. They’re fantastic…You can play them for five minutes. You can play them for an hour, and they’re fun. That’s what I really appreciate about it.”