A Maine Video Game Designer Levels Up

Founder and art director of Chickadee Games, Adam deGrandis, on how he broke into the industry, the craft of game design, and the future of indie games in Maine.

“When I was in middle school, I was playing a game, and I had the realization that making games was someone’s job,” says Adam deGrandis, who is sipping coffee on his back porch in Scarborough one clear spring morning. “That blew me away. And a second later I thought, Oh my god— that could be my job!” The year was 1995, and the game was Command and Conquer (which might bring up some memories for the elder millennials and gen-Xers out there). It would be a decade before deGrandis would get his foot in the door of the then-fledgling indie gaming industry, but that realization stuck with him, propelling him along what, by his own account, was no easy path. “Learning how to make games is hard,” deGrandis admits. “Doing it blind,” with little to no help, “is incredibly hard.”

In the early 2000s deGrandis attended the Maine College of Art (MECA—now Maine College of Art and Design, MECA&D) for graphic design. He realized that, although the college did not yet have any courses in game design, the computers all had a 3D-modeling software program called Maya installed. “I was aware [Maya] was used in games and in film, and I had access to it. I would basically skip classes to teach myself Maya,” he recalls. Serendipitous as this opportunity may seem, it points to a larger pattern in deGrandis’s early years: striving to realize his goal while taking advantage of the scant resources available. These were the days of dial-up internet and sluggish Yahoo searches. The lack of easily available information led deGrandis to take an all-or-nothing approach. “I came to the conclusion that if you work in games you have to be able to do everything. That’s not really the case. Most people specialize, but I didn’t know that.”

And so deGrandis taught himself everything, from design to modeling, programming, and digital art creation. In 2005 he got an internship at the early indie studio GarageGames and moved to Eugene, Oregon. DeGrandis bounced around the country following work until 2011, when he decided to move back to Portland. At the time, it seemed an odd choice for someone with his aspirations. “My wife, Sarah, and I moved back primarily because it’s a very high quality of life here. We love the environment, we love the people,” deGrandis says. But he admits that there wasn’t much of a video game development scene in Maine. Even so, with the connections he’d made on the West Coast, he managed to get by with freelance gigs and adjunct work at his alma mater. Then he founded Chickadee Games in 2014.

“Portland, and Maine in general, has such a rich history of artists of all stripes coming here. It took a little while, but I think digital art is now taking root the same way, especially games. Other people come here and say, ‘This feels like home,’ and they want to stay. It’s like, ‘Oh cool, because those are my people.’ The community just builds.”

These days, deGrandis thinks of himself primarily as an art director for hire. “That’s the short version,” he laughs. Using the art fundamentals he built at MECA, coupled with everything he’s learned about game creation since, he helps companies across the globe realize their games’ unique artistic visions from his home office in Scarborough. “I’ll start with a bunch of different questions; it’s a lot of listening. I’m trying to find out what the game is about. And I try to remove myself from that process as much as possible. I don’t want to make Adam’s version of their idea; I want to make their idea.”

DeGrandis takes this separation of self from work seriously. Although he still begins most of his projects with hand-drawn sketches, often creating unique playlists to get himself into the right headspace, he doesn’t necessarily consider what he does to be art in the strictest sense. “For most of my career I have approached my job more as a craftsman,” he explains. “An artist has questions they want to ask a viewer or audience, and they have something they want to say. A craftsman doesn’t have anything of their own they want to say, but they’re really interested in language, and they like wrestling with language.”

In deGrandis’s craft, he wrestles with what he calls the Triad of Concerns: visual communication, marketing, and production. The goal of visual communication is for gamers to be able to understand their characters’ motivation, obstacles, and rewards in “the five-second read,” which is what he calls looking at a screenshot of the game for just five seconds. This has to be balanced with both marketability—making sure the game looks good and appeals to gamers—and production—being mindful that it doesn’t take forever to create. “As I’m designing an art style, I’m weighing all these things. Every decision is deliberate.”

DeGrandis has been the art director on hit indie games such as Tooth and Tail, Steambirds Alliance, and Battle Bands, the last of which is from the local Portland developer Aerie Digital. Currently he’s working on revisioning the art style of Desktop Dungeons, an award-winning quickplay puzzle game. (A more inclusive list of his work can be found at chickadeegames.com.) And, for those looking to learn, he’s landed a job teaching his craft as a full-time educator at MECA&D, beginning this fall.

For inspiration, deGrandis looks to his surroundings. “Walking the trails all around the marsh here, that’s where I feel my temperature come down. Or even just going out to the ocean and looking at the expanse of it and feeling small. This is where I want to be. This is home.”

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