Making a video game is hard in the most ideal of circumstances, but it's rare any game is actually made under those. AlphaLink, a sci-fi multiplayer shooter with some awfully pretty explosions and lasers, comes to Xbox this week, and falls into the "less than ideal" category.
It's early 2020, and game developers Blake and Mandy Lowry are feeling good. The longtime couple—the former an artist, the latter a software engineer—are in the middle of adopting a child, and some contract work has turned into an opportunity to work full-time with the folks contracting them. That full-time work could mean stability in the form of insurance and a regular paycheck, alongside potential for future gains, like stock options. It was huge.
Of course, we all remember what early 2020 was like. COVID-19 was no longer a distant idea in a newspaper headline; most of us were in lockdown. Millions were losing their jobs because everyone was staying home, afraid of a virus we didn't know much about. But working remotely was already a fact of life for Blake and Mandy, which meant COVID-19, scary as it was, didn't immediately impact their bottom line. The future was looking bright.
And then everything changed overnight.
"With no warning or indication, we got a video call to which the company said they were 'changing directions' and that they're going to have to let us go," said Blake to Waypoint recently. "No other explanation was ever given. We actually thought it was a joke at first, as I said out loud during the short call, but it wasn't."
Blake declined to specify who specifically laid the two of them off, and the couple noted they've had "largely no contact" with the company after their unceremonious departure. According to their LinkedIn profiles, until February 2020 they both worked at a company called Rive, whose primary product is a collaborative animation tool built for games and apps. One of the industries that absolutely thrived during COVID-19 was video games, because so many people were stuck at home and looking for things to occupy their time.
Rive did not respond to a request for comment by Waypoint.
Regardless, Blake and Mandy had a problem. They'd dropped their previous contract work for this, and because the adoption process is delicate and economic stability helps during the fraught process to bring a child into a home, the two could not claim unemployment. Instead, they scrambled to find contract work to fill the gap while figuring out the long term.
"We had a massive fear that by filing for unemployment, rather than putting ourselves out there for contract work, would have prevented us from being able to continue the process of adopting our (now) son," said Mandy. "And anyone who has been through the adoption process knows how long and stressful the process is, so any bumps can completely derail half a year's worth of meetings, paperwork and progress—it would have been truly devastating for us, especially after all of the other stress of the pandemic and being laid off in the way that we were."
Blake started working in games in the mid-2000s, making art for arcade games at places like Namco. Mandy, meanwhile, spent most of their 20s in the finance industry "putting people into debt as my job," as she put it. One day, Blake suggested Mandy try coding, and she took to it quickly. It only took a few years before Mandy took on programming contracts.
Alongside everything, Blake and Mandy had been developing AlphaLink, a local multiplayer sci-fi shooter, under their personal development banner, Black Hive. The two had always wanted to self-publish their own console game, and this was their shot. Inspired by the great times they'd had with friends playing games like Towerfall and Mario Kart, they wanted to create something in that image with their own sensibilities. At the end of February, they brought an early version of AlphaLink to a local bar's indie game competition—and won.
But then COVID-19 hit. And the layoffs hit. And they were in the middle of an adoption process. They didn't want to give up on AlphaLink, but it was suddenly clear a local multiplayer game in a world of social distancing was going to run into some issues and be, according to Blake, "borderline irresponsible". Black Hive is only two people—Blake and Mandy. Now, to make AlphaLink work, it'd have to include online multiplayer, the kind of feature players ignorant of the development process like to handwave away as being as simple as clicking a dropdown menu called "online multiplayer." It's so much more than that.
"This added to the complexity exponentially," said Blake. "We now had to have a full back end, full tracking of every component and every action being sent over servers—it felt like making an entirely new game. During one of our very small closed betas, it also became apparent we'd need bots, again another added layer of complexity. All of this led to an XP and leveling system, cosmetics etc, so you can get an idea of the domino effect it had."
Eventually, Blake and Mandy were able to complete their adoption, and welcome their then-five-year-old-son into the house. Their son had spent several years struggling to find the right family in Texas' foster system, but things seemed to click when the couple attended a "match party," events meant to move prospective parents past the phase of reading a bio.
When he came home, they discovered their son was suffering from two things: unresolved trauma from bouncing around the foster system and a then-undiagnosed case of ADHD.
A storage shed converted into an office, and also a place for their son. Photo courtesy of Mandy Lowry
"Our new son was in our tiny 12x8 office with us during [the] majority of development, which was quite an...experience," said Mandy. "It was a bit of trial and error finding all of the right pieces to help him and all that while also balancing time to take on contracts and work on AlphaLink. It's been a helluva ride."
Their son, now six years old, is doing much better now after proper diagnosis and treatment.
Often, the couple's day started at 5 a.m. when their son woke up, and became a juggling act of contract work to pay the bills, homeschooling, and developing AlphaLink. Most days didn't end until 10 p.m. or later, when they would find time for something called "sleep."
The next year or so was spent raising their son, picking up contracts, and finishing the game.
Now, AlphaLink launches this week, fulfilling a dream and capping a tumultuous period.
"It's like shutting the door on a bitter-sweet year," said Blake, "but it's also the chance to finally step through the doorway we've been looking at from afar, for a really long time."