Sean Liska is a former University of Windsor student and one of the creators of Nifty Studios, a small games developer. He studied Visual Arts at the University of Windsor and completed a program in 3D Game Art and Design at VanArts, The Vancouver Institute of Media Arts, in British Columbia.
1.) How did you get into digital artwork?
Digital Artwork I actually got into back at General Amherst, probably about grade ten or eleven after messing around with a program called LightWave. I was interested in 3D stuff created by Disney and other major studios. They weren’t doing as much at the time [as they are now] but I started dabbling in it then.
2.) What were some of your first creations?
I started creating little characters in small environments using stop-motion animation. I would make little G.I. Joes and Transformers and move them a little and take a picture, move them a little and take a picture. The original stuff I was trying to build was associated with that development. I made a transformer called Bumblebee in 3D and I did a General Amherst Bulldog logo in 3D. They used it at the beginning of presentations they were doing. I did some other things, like one really old one of a story with a worm and he had his own little environment. He had his own little apple car that he would drive around. It was very crude and rudimentary. He didn’t really do a lot. He was in his little house looking out the window and he kind of inched around the house and grabbed whatever he was looking for and got into his little car and drove around and did whatever.
3.) Did you go to the University of Windsor with this type of computer animation in mind?
I went with visual arts in mind originally. When I applied for digital animation at other schools they said I needed an art background. Before university, I was really into sculpture and I didn’t really use pencil much, so I got into that and it wasn’t until university that I really got into art.
4.) What did you do after you graduated?
I worked for a while at McGuill Multimedia. I think they’re called Ronan Technologies now but I’m not sure. I worked there for a while, probably five or six years, then decided it was time for me to move on and pick up and figure out what I wanted to do with my art stuff. When I was working there I was more interested in programming rather than the art side. Then a buddy and I decided to travel across Canada. When I was done, I decided to go back to school for 3D Game Art and Design at VanArts in British Columbia. It was a good time going cross-country with my friend. It was pretty awesome.
5.) After you finished at VanArts, did you start working for other companies?
I finished the program there and came back to Ontario and I ended up getting a job at a video game golf simulator company, Interactive Sports. It was a full-out golf simulator. You have a real golf club and you hit a ball at the screen. The ball hits the screen and all that information is transferred into the digital world and you see the digital ball move into the course so you’re really playing golf. It was all software they created for their purposes of the game.
6.) So with this game, you could play golf during the winter?
Yeah, some places in Windsor actually own the ones that we worked on for that reason. There’s an indoor golf facility in Windsor that I think has some.
7.) Did you get to test the golf simulators?
Oh yeah we had to test them! We would do the graphics and go into the test room and then you would punch it into the computer. You’d hit some balls, write some notes, make some changes, then go back and hit some more balls.
8.) Did you learn a lot while you were with that company?
Yes, it was really good. That’s actually where I met Nelson Baptista and Guy Gonsalves, the guys I started Nifty Studios with. I met those guys there, then I decided that I needed to leave that place so I could start to pursue Nifty Studios full time. They couldn’t leave, so they’ve been working on Nifty Studios when they have time. I left to pursue my art full time.
9.) What kind of work have you done at Nifty Studios?
We just released a cool video I could probably send you. We do have a game we released, “Minions Plight” on the IOS and Android. [In this game] you’re this little green minion and you basically play the role of a test subject where the little minion’s job is to test these spaceships and figure out how long they last. There’s a bit of a story behind that. You’re placed in a spaceship with this little guy and you have to shoot these asteroids until you eventually get smooshed. There is no actual winning, you try to get your best high score and little power-ups so you can get your best high score. As you shoot the asteroids, satellites, and enemies little power-ups come down and you can pick them up, activate them, then your ship transforms and you get new weapons that you can use to extend your high score even further. We did a few other things that are up on our website for little competitions that took place in Toronto. They’re free-play things like alpha-beta, so they’re not fully complete finished games, but you can get enjoyment out of them because they’re quick little games. In one called “Office Spaz!” you go around and mangle the office and destroy the office as much as you can in a time limit. There’s another one that’s meant to go with robotic components. It’s called “Frank!”. It’s a little robot that sits on the desk when you’re playing. It’s a puzzle game and as you complete the puzzles the robot starts to come to life. There’s a little video on the website when you finish the robot sits up and comes to life and looks at you. In university I did a lot of experimentation with robots so I wanted to bring that into the game element that I really enjoy doing. We tried to see if we could fit the two together in some way.
10.) What types of games do you like to work on?
Right now we’re making smaller mobile games. We don’t have a preference, just whatever we feel like making. We’re a little bit more towards cartoony-style in some of the stuff we’ve been doing but we enjoy doing realistic stuff too. We released a video for Halloween using Oculus Rift and in this one it’s a little scary thing that we put together (watch this reaction video!). So you start the game off and you don’t have much control so you can only look around and you’re stuck in this elevator looking around and there’s scary music and weird things going on and the doors open and there’s another room. Maybe something will happen, maybe something won’t. You go to the next level and things start happening and its pretty cool. It’s a short, quick experience. It’s not too bad. (Get the game here!)
11.) How successful would you say Nifty Studios has been?
We’re still new but we’re gaining a little bit of traction. It’s definitely not an easy thing to pull everything together and try to get it running so we can all live off it. Financially, we’re not making enough money to live off of it as a full-time job so our problem right now is figuring out how to do that. You’re so passionate about what you do you don’t think about how to make money off of it. We love doing it, but there’s also a business side we don’t really have experience in, but we’re learning it as we go. As far as the sort of feedback we’ve been getting from people testing the games and trying virtual reality stuff, it’s been pretty good solid feedback. You can tell that there’s talent there and eventually it’ll shine through. Making that financial step into the big-time is the hard part. It’s one of those things that takes time. A lot of the time you’ll hear about these businesses or newer companies and you think, “Where did they come from?” But they’ve been around for five to ten years and suddenly they made it big. Look at these guys, they struggle for five to ten years and you’ve never heard about them and now all you hear about is them. So maybe in five years, that’ll be us. It’s pretty exciting watching it go. The last video we released started getting a bit of exposure. More and more people were revealing it and those people were getting maybe a thousand or five hundred “likes” and someone else would pick it up and you would see it steamroll and that kind of stuff is exciting. We’re getting our name out there and building things people are using and getting excited about and it’s pretty awesome.
12.) Would you say you’re more into making video or mobile games?
We’re not locked down to any particular thing. We started with mobile because we thought it would be easiest, but it’s not really easier! It’s just sort of a different area to have an expertise in, it’s not really all that different. A lot of our stuff is for PC or mobile. We haven’t really locked down to one or the other.
13.) What are your plans for Nifty Studios?
In the future, my ultimate vision of Nifty Studios is getting all the guys I work with right now into one little studio and hopefully spring-boarding off of that into a bit of a larger studio where I can maybe start hiring people from the local area so I can teach them. Like when I was a kid, there was no place here for it. Now you have the university and St. Clair [College] to develop those, but I’m not sure where they’re going right now. After that, are [students] actually getting into gaming or going off into dabbling in other things like webpage companies? So it would be nice to have everything together and integrating more into the Windsor culture.
14.) It’s great that you want to get involved with the local community. Is this what inspired you to teach drawing classes at the Gibson Gallery in Amherstburg?
Bonnie [Deslippe, office manager] just asked me to. I know her because she’s my best friend’s mom. The guy I travelled across Canada with is her son and she had me on Facebook and she followed my art all along. Then all of a sudden, one day when I was working in Toronto she asked if I wanted to do an art show. I haven’t thought of it in ages, since I was in university, so I thought, “Yeah, let’s do it!” When I moved back here I was looking for a part time job to get into the community a bit more and she said, “We have drawing classes,” I was like, “Sure, let’s give it a shot,” and I’ve been enjoying it ever since. It’s good seeing the kids in the same situation as I was and just helping them and doodling with them. It’s always encouraging when you get to inspire other people as an artist. The most rewarding thing is when other artists look at your work and say, “That’s cool!” That’s your acceptance, and that kind of acceptance makes you feel good knowing you’ve done something right.
15.) Has it been difficult for you to get your art out there and gain acceptance?
I don’t know, it’s always been a struggle for me. It’s always been like battling uphill because I was never really an artist until I hit university. I considered myself more of a technician. I was always playing with cameras and stuff like that. All these people who came into university went into a lot of drawing programs and they had an understanding of how to draw. In my first life-drawing class, I was trying to draw a figure and all the other students were drawing nice figures and I was like, “What am I doing here?” It’s been an uphill battle but I keep at it, and you’ve got to tell everyone if you want to do it just stick with it and you’ll get somewhere eventually. That’s what I’ve been doing so I’ll keep sticking with it and see where I end up.
16.) Is there anything that you feel should be known about your inspiration for Nifty Studios?
When I was at the university, we created these Battle Bots and that was one of the big things. When I was in university I was experimenting with robotics stuff and we ended up building a 340lb robot and we went to San Francisco to compete in Battle Bots and that was sort of my major project that I finished off at university. I try to keep busy doing unusual things like the car that you saw.
Things like that. Anything that’s different. One of the things for me is what I experienced when I did Battle Bots. I had this big robot and I took it to Art in the Park so people could walk by and see it. At that point I could see a lot of adults walking around and seeing this huge robotic device and seeing those eyes light up was like a child’s eyes lighting up at Christmas. It was something they’ve never seen before. That’s one of the reasons I gravitate towards virtual reality and video games because it’s a world where you can make anything you want to. People put this device on [Oculus Rift] and maybe you’re giving them something they’ve never seen before and that’s something we want to start exploring. As technology gets better and better you can start implementing things that allow you to touch things in that world. It sends off a pulse or a sound wave of some sort so that you can actually touch it, so if you see a sphere in virtual reality, there’s a device where you can actually almost feel that so it makes the connection a bit more. It’s going to be wild with some of the stuff they come out with.
17.) Is that why you left your desk job?
I realized that’s not me and it’s time to try this.
Photos used were Sean Liska’s own.