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Cinematic Arts student signs video game deal with Adult Swim

As commencement nears, an inventive senior looks ahead to his career in interactive games

horsebackLife is moving ahead, swimmingly, for USC School of Cinematic Arts student Jean Canellas.

The senior enrolled in the Interactive Media and Games division (IMGD) will graduate next month from the top-ranked games program in the country. He also founded his own production company and signed a development and distribution deal with Adult Swim Games for his 2-D action-RPG Death’s Gambit.

Canellas talked about his breakthrough in the industry, his creative vision and lessons learned along the way.

If you had to pitch Death’s Gambit right now, what would you say?

Death’s Gambit is a challenging 2-D action-RPG that focuses on big, amazing boss battles set in an interconnected, non-linear world. The only thing stopping progression is generally whether you can beat a certain enemy or area. Beating an area’s powerful boss rewards you with newer, better gear and weapons that will help you progress to the next area. The goal is to make the game more about strategy and well-planned play and less about perfect “twitch reflexes” or “muscle memory.”

What inspired the concept? Were there any influences in particular?

We [Canellas and his White Rabbit production studio, co-founded by fellow IMGD student Alex Kubodera] gathered inspiration from a lot of our favorite stories, games and movies. It’s hard to say one thing in particular.

For the gameplay, Death’s Gambit borrows inspiration from Castlevania, Shadow of the Colossus, the “Souls” game series [including Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls II] and Spec Ops: The Line.

The initial idea for the story was created after I binge watched all of the Ghost in the Shell series. It might seem like an odd inspiration, but the philosophy behind the story draws upon several ideas from that series. The world itself is inspired by Studio Ghibli’s work [a studio co-founded by acclaimed Japanese animators Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away) and Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya)], Lord of the Rings and Attack on Titan. There are other story inspirations, but I’ll let people figure those out when they play the game.

Can you talk a little bit about the game development deal that you have with Adult Swim?

Everything really started for us once we posted the first pictures of Death’s Gambit on several indie game forums, such as TIGSource. People within the games industry, from developers to press, found out about our game from those forums. From there, we got email from people who wanted to work with us. And we got a lot of email from publishers looking to fund or publish our game.

Adult Swim Games was one of the many publishers that contacted us. After a long deliberation, we ultimately agreed that the Adult Swim Games deal would work out the best. They’re helping us do all kinds of things that we simply don’t have time for, like marketing, PR and distribution. Adult Swim also found us awesome opportunities and spaces to show off the game, such as big events like PAX [The Penny Arcade Expo] and IGF [The Independent Games Festival]. Back in March, we unveiled our game for the first time at the PAX East event in Boston, and we got a lot of good press from it.

How has the festival experience been for you?

It has been unreal. That’s probably the best word to use. It is still hard to believe. When you work on a game for so long, it’s hard to predict what the audience reaction will be. This was even more amplified by the fact that this was our first real game — we had never made anything like this before.

Looking back on it, we initially didn’t want to show the game because we didn’t think it was ready yet, but it worked out in the end. From going to events, we learned more about what people expected from the game, and we were also really happy to find out that the audience we are going for really liked it.

Is there anything you’ve learned throughout this process that you’d like to share with other students?

Making games is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. For other game-design students out there, I highly recommend getting a game programming minor. I personally hate programming, but I stuck with it, and it has helped me get to where I am today. If you are a designer and you want to see your exact vision become a reality, becoming a good programmer and learning that skill set can only help. A programming background will also open doors once you start looking for game-design jobs.

One thing that I learned about the IMGD program is that you need to be very proactive to get the most out of it. If you don’t put the time into making games, you will graduate without a good portfolio. You must put as much time as possible into making games and building a strong body of work.

Also, in terms of promoting your own indie game, we learned early on that many of the big press sites, as well as smaller media outlets, look at indie game forums like TIGSource for new games to cover. I would recommend keeping a devlog on indie game forums like TIGSource. You should also email small indie game press sites for coverage and publicity. Your game will have an easier time getting covered by smaller sites.

Where can people get a chance to play your game or learn more about it?

Death’s Gambit is still early in development. We have not announced a release date yet. That being said, you can follow the development by checking out our website at and our weekly development blog.

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Cinematic Arts student signs video game deal with Adult Swim

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