Jake Vander Ende is a local maker and owner of the online shop Spriteborne, a shop full of items he crafts at home using his laser engraver. He’s a crafter, game developer, writer, and independent business owner, all of which he does from his “tiny little home office” just outside of Philadelphia. I got to sit down with him and ask him some questions about the history of his crafting, making games, and what he’s got planned for the future, as well as what advice he would offer to others thinking of starting a crafting business of their own.
So what does Spriteborne mean, anyway? “Spriteborne is just the official way of saying, ‘I make stuff,'” Vander Ende explained. “That’s what I tell people when they ask me what I do, at least. It’s a name that means I spend the bulk of my time making things, thinking of new things I can make, or figuring out how to make the things I’ve come up with.” He goes on to explain that “sprites are the visual component behind all classic video games and many modern video games. I feel like that was how those games conveyed their gameplay to the player, like the ideas were borne through sprites. I attribute everything from my spatial reasoning to my vocabulary and reading ability to my history with video games, so I think the name is an appropriate homage. Games can bring a lot to the table and I always hope I can work towards the same thing with what I do.”
He’s been making things since he was a kid – maps for board games and video games, 70 pages of what he refers to as “a ridiculously cheesy novel about a dragonslayer,” and once he “even tried making my own action figures out of aluminum foil, paper clips, and scotch tape.” In March 2012, he started Spriteborne, initially creating bleach shirts until he got chronically sick from it, and then switching over to etching glass and making decals with a vinyl cutter. From there, he got a laser engraver, which he uses to “make etched glassware, burn wood, cut acrylic, and even laser engrave shirts.” He started out at Etsy but recently switched over to Shopify, but his store has come full circle with shirt sales – both types of which are amazing.
Before Spriteborne, Vander Ende “was trying to fit in. Like most people, I grew up with the idea that you pick something you’re good at or something that pays well, get an education in that thing, get more education if you find some aspect of it that you’re particularly good at or interested in, and then you get a job that pays an appropriate wage to your education.” He got his masters in Criminology at West Chester University, and started working on his PhD in Criminology at Rutgers in Newark. “I envisioned this future of teaching college classes, doing research projects, and making games as a hobby in my spare time,” said Vander Ende, but “that didn’t happen. I was there for seven semesters before I left as all-but-dissertation. It was a mess.”
Through it all, he was still making stuff. He succeeded at NaNoWriMo twice (among several attempts), made shirts, traveled up to Boston for PAX East, had a video game blog called Aletheia’s Herald, did game reviews for DigitalReviews.net, and worked on his PhD dissertation, which was about “researching game developers and analyzing counter-piracy techniques. In hindsight,” he added, “it should have been obvious to me that it was making stuff I should be doing more of, not criminal justice research.”
But that kind of commitment to owning your own business is scary. In the end, he was encouraged by the people around him, and decided to take the plunge. “My friends and my girlfriend told me I needed to make a store, but it wasn’t until strangers were asking me how they could buy my work that the spark really happened. I started Spriteborne during my PhD and went full-time with it shortly thereafter. I haven’t looked back since.”
One of the places he continues to get encouragement is at Philly Dev Night at Cipher Prime’s Game Forge. Vander Ende was going to the Smithsonian’s Art of Video Games exhibit in March of 2012. “I had heard that Hideo Kojima and several people from the thatgamecompany team were going to be there and I thought it was a big, historic milestone that video games, this craft I adore, were going to be at the Smithsonian, so I went.” He also heard that Nikkolai Davenport, a Philly game developer, was going to be there as well, and contacted him to meet up. That weekend ended up being a monumental one for Vander Ende. “It was an invigorating experience, renewing my interest in games and creation and giving me a huge insurgence of hope by showing all these examples of people who make great things.” He added, “It’s worth noting that five days later, I started Spriteborne.”
On top of that, Davenport and I met Vander Ende and his girlfriend, and Davenport encouraged him to come join all of us at Dev Night. “I was timid about my own game development abilities, but Nikko kept encouraging me by telling me that it didn’t matter where I was with my skills and that I should just show up. I finally started going in February 2013 and I’ve been going almost every week since then. Going to dev night regularly has been instrumental to my growth as a game developer and as a TowerFall player.”
Vander Ende has also been heavily involved in game jams. “I love game jams because they help me practice the thing I most consistently have trouble: finishing things,” he said. “When you make stuff, you have tons of amorphous ideas in your head and there’s, like, a funnel of sorts through which they see the light of day. A small number of them ever see tangible progress, then a smaller number reach a functional, workable state, then an even smaller number ever get released to the public. If you don’t have an external timeline, the pressures to finish are less tangible and you find yourself finishing because you need to pay the bills, or because you want to get an idea out of the way for another idea, or whatever… Game jams boil all of that away and give you this microcosm where you can be like, ‘Okay, here are my constraints. The biggest pressure to finish is so that people can experience this thing I made.’ That’s the best possible reason to finish anything creative!”
Game jams are also less stressful because “they dramatically lower the quality standards bar,” which is a relief for many. “Given an unlimited timeline, I have a tendency to polish work well beyond what anyone else is ever going to notice. One of the storytelling moments for me is in my stencils, where I worked for over a month on one and under an hour on another. The month-long endeavor did well, but the under-an-hour design became my top-selling design of all time. There are definitely diminishing returns on polish and game jams do a great job of making sure you don’t go too far into them.”
Vander Ende’s one publicly available video game, Hexlaser, was made for Ludum Dare, and he refers to his board game, Yomi’s Gate, as being “weirdly also the result of jam-like conditions… I ran into this weird confluence of supply logistics this spring where, for whatever reason, I simultaneously ran out of blank everything for my store. To make matters worse, some bizarre shipping delays happened to everything all at once. What it meant was about a week and a half where I simply didn’t have the materials to craft any of my orders. I took the opportunity to treat it as a jam, churning out about the vast majority of my unit designs and game rules before crafting materials arrived. It took me two months on an unlimited timeline to design vague rules and the first three game pieces, but then with an external clock to race I did 13 units and a fully functional set of rules in 11 days. I went from nothing worth showing to a game I could play with others all because I had suddenly had to use someone else’s timeline for finishing. That’s the real power of a game jam.” He sponsored the latest Philly Game Forge jam, and he showed off Yomi’s Gate at the Game Forge Social on December 12. You can follow him on Twitter to track his progress.
There’s an early access version of Yomi’s Gate currently for sale at Vander Ende’s site. Instead of crowdfunding, he went with early access, following the model of many PC games. “It’s an exact copy of the state the game is currently in, which is ‘fully playable and ready for presentation polish.’ All of the rules are there and they’ve undergone many months of refinement, but the game just doesn’t completely look like something you’d see on store shelves yet. For instance, there’s no box yet.”
But what’s the game about, you ask? Yomi’s Gate is “a tactical board game where you lead an army of samurai into battle against your opponent.” Vander Ende played strategy games with his dad growing up – games like Axis & Allies, Chess, Feudal, and Risk. Yomi’s Gate is his “entry into the genre,” but without the tedious aspects of those other games – “Chess is the same game every time, Feudal and Axis & Allies take forever to set up, and Risk has elements of randomness I don’t like, so I designed Yomi’s Gate to address all of those things. The map is comprised of modular hex boards to make new terrain each time you play, setup takes less than two minutes, and the game is completely deterministic to eliminate all randomness. Once you know the rules, it plays in under an hour. I’ve been bringing the game to Dev Night for playtesting almost every week and people seem to enjoy it, so I’m happy about that.”
“There are some small changes that need to happen to streamline the experience, but the game is mechanically functional and I’m happy with it so far,” Vander Ende said. “There are samurai, archers, cavalry, and all kinds of other cool stuff and it all works at a fundamental level. As something I can play with my dad and as something I can produce entirely on my own, the game is already a success. The childhood version of me who was drawing huge paper maps in my basement would be proud.”
So what’s next for Vander Ende and Spriteborne? “It’s not a glamorous answer, but my priority is sustainability. Whatever it takes to pay the bills, keep the shop running, and keep doing what I’m doing. If I can’t do that, no other answer I give here matters, you know?” He would like to turn his focus more on creating games, because he feels that “making games has a special kind of magic to it and I would love for that to be my mainstay.” There’s still much work to be done on Yomi’s Gate, including box design, instruction art, and finalizing the terrain, not to mention the necessity of getting the word out to the media and doing the trade show circuit. He’d also like to release a version of the game on iOS.
“Outside of that, I want to release a video game somewhere in some capacity,” he continued. “I’d like to do some version of Hexlaser, perhaps on Playstation Mobile for the Vita. I have some concepts I’m fleshing out for small mobile games. I want to make something my mom would play. Like a jam, the goal is simply completion of something to the extent that other people can enjoy it. As for what shape that takes, that’s up for negotiation and time will tell.”
When it comes to giving advice to those looking to start their own crafting company, Vander Ende is vehement: “Don’t! Seriously, don’t. Crafting things is a brutal, unstable industry and the odds suggest that you’re going to come out broke and miserable.” He says you must “learn to embrace failure,” and directs you to Darius Kazemi’s XOXO talk on the topic. But if you still want to go forward with it? “My best suggestion would be to figure out every step of the process for what you’re doing and cut out everything you don’t need. For example, I stopped printing and packing paper receipts for orders, relying on digital copies instead, and I must have saved myself a few hundred hours of work and hundreds of dollars in paper and ink by now. 80% of your time is occupied by 20% of your work, so identify that 20% and eliminate it. Automate your email. Filter everything. Manually block Reddit while you’re working. Use Skype or email instead of making time-consuming phone calls. I take a lot of my cues on this from Tim Ferris, the author behind Four-Hour Work Week, and I can’t recommend his book enough.”
His words aren’t meant to discourage, but rather to prepare you for what’s ahead. “Ultimately you just have to let the results of what you do wash over you, for better or worse, and continue making things no matter what happened with what you’ve already done. You have to accept every entry into the creative lottery as having the chance to be a natural 20 or a natural 1, that you might succeed or fail regardless of what you did to prepare. The biggest difference between long-term success and failure is that the long-term successes were able to continue weathering failure until they eventually did succeed. Rovio made 51 games before hitting it big with Angry Birds, you know.”
His final word of advice? “Play Dark Souls. If that game doesn’t break you, you can probably survive anything.”