The Flame in the Flood © 2016. Image courtesy of The Molasses Flood

The Molasses Flood:

Life after AAA

Last modification: 28 Aug, 2017
11 mins

When Irrational Games closed in early 2014, it left behind many of the talented hands that developed the critically-acclaimed BioShock Infinite. But from its ashes rose a new indie studio formed by a few of the studio’s veterans: The Molasses Flood.

We spoke with The Molasses Flood’s animator, Gwen Frey about the making of The Flame in The Flood and the ups & downs of going from AAA to indie.


The Flame in the Flood


How did the Molasses Flood get started?

Scott “Sinc” Sinclair (Art Director) had left Irrational Games prior to its closure to pursue a career in painting. Forrest Dowling (Lead Level Designer) was buying a print off from Sinc when Forrest got a text that Irrational Games shut down. That’s when they started talking about starting their own studio.

After that, Forrest started asking around to find who would be interested and I volunteered immediately. I’ve always wanted to be a part of an indie studio so, I followed up with him and Chad LaClair and Damian Isla did as well. Bryn Bennett, one of our programmers, was last to come on board. He was our friend from the area and was working at Harmonix at the time. He was really close with all of us and we convinced him to quit his job at Harmonix.

What was it like starting your project on Kickstarter?

It was emotional and stressful in ways I didn’t expect. I expected that I would wear many hats and I would be moving into a position where I wouldn’t have many people I could fall back on. I didn’t expect how difficult it would be to start a company from the business standpoint. For instance, I don’t have health insurance- how do I get health insurance? What do we need to get trademarked? There was a lot to do to set up a business and I didn’t quite know that going in. It’s a perfect example of what you take for granted if you work a AAA studio that you figure out when you go indie.

The Flame in the Flood in-game screenshotThe Flame in the Flood © 2016. Image courtesy of The Molasses Flood

Can you describe the Flame in The Flood in a few sentences?

It’s a survival rogue-like title where you play a character named Scout who goes up a procedurally generated river. You’ll get off at different locations, dock at different islands and use what you find to survive. Every playthrough is a new experience and you start over from the beginning each time. Your goal is to make it to the end of the river.

What was the inspiration behind the game?

I think we drew from many inspirations. Our art director grew up in Florida and he’s in love with this aesthetic and vibe that is very alt country. We all love the outdoors and we’ll frequently go camping or backpacking. Mostly, we drew from our personal experience. We came upon the feeling and vibe first and then we thought a survival game would fit that best.

The Flame in the Flood in-game screenshotThe Flame in the Flood © 2016. Image courtesy of The Molasses Flood

How did you guys get Chuck Ragan on board?

Scott Sinclair and Chuck Ragan are old friends. They used to jam together down in Florida and they’ve always wanted to collaborate. This game was their opportunity to do it. Before, Sinc was working at a AAA studio and you can’t just throw you friend’s music into a game. But Chuck’s alt country music perfectly hits the vibe of The Flame in the Flood so we were really excited to bring his work into the game. He actually made a custom soundtrack for the game and he’s been great to work it. It’s awesome when you go down the river and you just hear him break into song.

Chuck Ragan and Forrest Dowling from The Molasses FloodChuck Ragan and Forrest Dowling. Image courtesy of The Molasses Flood

Did you approach this project differently compared to your work for BioShock Infinite?

I had a much wider variety of things I had to do for this role. However, I think people have this starry-eyed idea that in AAA, work happens cleaner and your production is a lot smoother. In my experience, the AAA pipeline is just as messy: design will change and you’ll have to go back and work some fundamental parts of your animation tree whether you’re in AAA or in an indie studio. But, I think it’s less stressful to make wild changes in an indie space because there are fewer hands that touch any given asset.

Tell us a little bit of what your animation pipeline looked like for Flame in the Flood.

It’s very similar to a AAA pipeline except the handoffs were between me and me rather than me to another person. So I get a FBX from Sinc and then I clean up the model, and then I rig the model, and I hand the model off to me and I retouch the rigs, so I hand the rig to… me and then I fix the rig and I hand the rig back to the animator, which is me, and then I keep animating and then I bring into the engine and then I exported FBXs from my animations using a script that I wrote and bring it into the engine where I hook it up… it’s the same pipeline you’d have in AAA. It’s just the name is always the same name rather than it being 6 different people.

I also noticed that when you’re handing something off to other people, you are more likely to over-engineer it and add a lot of bells and whistles. Now, because I am the animator, I know exactly what I need, and I don’t waste as much time making tools and adding features that I know I probably won’t use. When I was a rigger in AAA, I would more lovingly craft my rigs. I found I was more willing to be sloppy when I was rigging cause I knew that I was able to go back when I needed to. And I know it wouldn’t create a dependency or a slowdown in our pipeline if I had to go back and fix something.

Gwen Frey from The Molasses FloodGwen Frey. Image courtesy of The Molasses Flood

So, you can’t get angry at someone further up the pipeline for making a mistake?

Yeah, it’s rough. You find a lot of self-hatred. “Wow. Tuesday Gwen really phoned this in.”

Did you find that more liberating?

Yeah, there are definitely efficiencies that come from having fewer hands touching an asset. It’s easier when you are the customer of your product. If you think of it, the rigger makes the rig and hands it to the animator, and there’s times when you think you know what the animator wants but really you’re wrong. I am NEVER wrong, I’m the animator- I know what I want. So it is more efficient having one person touching the animation by far.

What were the major differences between working in AAA and on your own game?

Working on my own game was wonderful because I had the ability to do such a variety of things. The biggest difference is going from a large team size to a small team size and being able to have full and complete control over the animation, knowing that every animation in the game was my animation. It’s stressful but, it’s also extremely fulfilling and wonderful to have that kind of artistic control over an entire game.

"’s not as fulfilling as being able to give the game to your mom and say ‘Hey Mom! I did ALL of the animation in this- all of them!’"

Because you were a smaller team, did you share more of the overall artistic control?

We each had our areas of ownership. It’s the same thing in AAA, you’ll have your areas of ownership but, even if you’re lucky enough to be the one person who does the animation for this scene (which is highly unlikely), it’s not as fulfilling as being able to give the game to your mom and say ‘Hey Mom! I did ALL of the animation in this- all of them!’ Whereas in AAA, you give a game to your mom and you’d say “I did that animation right there… mostly… I mean, someone else blocked it in but, I cleaned it up’.

The Flame in the Flood in-game screenshotThe Flame in the Flood © 2016. Image courtesy of The Molasses Flood

That sounds like a huge motivator.

Oh yeah, having a large ownership over a part of the game in a way that’s easy to define to others was a large motivating factor in starting our own indie studio. I think we all really enjoyed that part of being in an indie studio.

Mostly because a lot of people don’t realize the artistry in the smaller details of making a game. It’s something that people in the industry will geek out about but I think the average consumer doesn’t realize what a challenge it is. So it’s hard to feel fulfilled in AAA.

How did you get started in the game industry?

I played a lot of video games growing up, I was a terrible college student because I was always playing games. The entire time I thought I’d be in film. It never occurred to me that I could work in the games industry. It wasn’t until half way through college when I met some programmers who were making an indie game and I thought ‘oh wait, people can make games for a living? I’m gonna do that!” And so, I completely shifted gears while I was in college and decided to pursue a video game career.

Do you have an artistic muse or inspiration if you need to get going in the morning?

This is embarrassing. So, for a while when I was feeling particularly unmotivated because of some long hours, I would start the day by watching a video. The video changed a few times. The first one was a Glengarry Glen Ross clip ‘Put the Coffee Down”. I would listen to that while I drank my coffee.

From left to right: Gwen Frey, Chad LaClair, Forrest Dowling, Scott Sinclair, Damian Isla and Bryn Bennett from The Molasses FloodFrom left to right: Gwen Frey, Chad LaClair, Forrest Dowling, Scott Sinclair, Damian Isla and Bryn Bennett. Image courtesy of The Molasses Flood

What advice would you give to someone that wants to pursue a career in the games industry?

If you want to be in the games industry the first thing you do is to set about making a game, it’s never been easier. There’s tons of ways to go about making a game- just do it, start creating a game.

The Flame in the Flood game logoThe Flame in the Flood © 2016. Image courtesy of The Molasses Flood

The Molasses Flood created The Flame in The Flood with talent, coffee and Autodesk Maya. Take the (procedurally generated) journey up river on
Steam or Xbox One. Visit the studio’s website to stay in the loop and make sure to check out Gwen’s YouTube channelfor some awesome animation tutorials for Maya.

  • Maya
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