Kathy Smart on fairy tales, self-empowerment, and developing Frog’s Princess
It’s not often you meet someone like Kathy Smart. She’s a fascinating individual with a palpable passion for game development and for her own game, Frog’s Princess. Something of a mother figure to the local Adelaide game development community, she moderates Discord servers and keeps the community abreast of resources, events, and opportunities. I’ve lost track of the number of times I heard her offer her assistance and encouragement to her peers in the Indie Game Room at AVCon, as well how often she declared, “I’m so lucky!” despite the many obstacles she’s faced to create Frog’s Princess.
There are many wonderfully useful life skills that videogames teach children; critical thinking, perseverance, planning, and communication, for a start. But it’s harder to find games that really delve into the emotional lives of children and present them with ways to navigate their way through in a really empowering, compelling way.
That’s just what Kathy is hoping to achieve with Frog’s Princess.
In Frog’s Princess, Princess Emma must try to convince her sceptical family that evil surrounds their kingdom, and infuriatingly, no one will listen to her. Prince Francis is trying to save his own bodyguard, but it’s a tough feat to pull off when you’re a frog. Together, Emma and Francis must save and heal the kingdom in what is a fairy tale that challenges many of the ideas about personal agency and gender roles that society has traditionally instilled in children.
Kathy was kind enough to let us play Frog’s Princess during AVCon and to take the time to sit down for a chat about it.
PowerUp!: Tell me about Frog’s Princess and what inspired you to create it.
Kathy: Frog’s Princess is a fully voiced interactive storyboard for children. It’s an ethical fairy tale about a lot of different issues. You’d already know that girls are not very empowered in our society; it was important to me to tell a story where the girl saved the kingdom.
But also, boys have their own struggles that aren’t often recognized. In this case, the prince’s father is so noble that he feels he can’t live up to him. He has his own fears to face. But in the end, the princess saves the king, and the prince heals the kingdom. It was really important to me that the girl is the hero and the boy is the healer.
It’s kind of a role reversal, but it shouldn’t be. Boys should be allowed to be sensitive, and girls heroic. It should be allowed to be normal.
There’s one situation where the princess’s elder sister—she’s revered and everyone says how wise she is—she says that one of the other characters is crippled, and cripples can’t be happy. And, of course, we prove that wrong, very dramatically.
PU!: You’re tackling some deep themes!
K: Yes! Hopefully, it’s fun too! It’s a deep story, it takes three hours if you don’t experiment or explore too deeply. But as soon as you start changing your choices —and that’s the point of the game—it takes longer.
There are only three mechanics to the game. The first is that you press ‘play’! The second is that you can skip to anywhere in the story. But the main mechanic is that you choose your hero to play, and choose what they say. Every time the hero speaks, you have ten choices of dialogue for what they’ll say. They might be cheerful, they might be charming, they might be bossy.
PU!: What are you hoping to achieve with these choices?
K: The idea of this is that the children playing can experiment with the kind of hero that they want to be. I’ve noticed that they’ll go back and change their choices when they’ve progressed a bit. They start to see how shallow perhaps some of the more fun choices can be, and just sometimes, they’ll go back and change to a more responsible choice.
The first time through they usually just want to find out what happens. It’s only later they’ll think, “I can make my own story, I want to change the hero.” It’s a really interesting platform to teach them to empathize and to think about the decisions they make.
PU!: Where are you hoping to take Frog’s Princess next? Are you hoping to place it in schools or libraries, for example?
K: Originally I aimed it at schools. But then, while I was at a sort of teacher’s conference, I had a disaster.
A while back I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to make it diverse as I wanted and finish the game. So my choice was to either do a vertical slice and just have a chapter or two, with diverse characters, or to do the whole story and make sure it was consistent and complete. So I decided to get the whole story done and concentrate on diversifying the characters later.
I ran a Kickstarter, asking for $14,000 to write the characters. And it bombed so badly, it was a disaster. As a result, I don’t want to give it to schools yet because I don’t want to promote to children that you can only be represented if you’re Caucasian.
PU!: And now you’re running another Kickstarter, can you tell me what you hope to achieve with that? Have you changed your campaign since the first one?
K: I’ve been so lucky. There’s a Working Lunch group for women in games. Two hundred and fifty women who are in game development across Australia applied to be paired with mentors, and 25 were accepted. Five in South Australia got mentors, and I was one of them.
My mentor asked me what my plan was, and strongly emphasized that I should make a plan. So, my plan is that I’m asking for $1000 in this Kickstarter. If it succeeds, I’ll be able to make the game more diverse.
PU!: What is it about the fairy tale genre that drew you towards it to convey these messages? And how did you land on games as a platform for that?
K: I started off as a writer, I have a masters in Creative Writing. The reason I write fairy tales is that it’s really important to demonstrate to children that you can get out of bad situations and that you can do it yourself. You don’t have to wait to be saved. You could be in a dire family situation, but you can find a way to survive.
Obviously, there are a lot of tricks and tropes to fairy tales. For example, a lot of old German fairy tales feature a young girl in peril. And there’s the trope that her mother is dead, but in a lot of ways it’s really significant that the mother is dead, because if she’s not, then she’s not protecting her child, she’s allowing her to be in this peril.
As a result, that might impact how we view the child in that we might not like the child so much if she’s got a neglectful mother. And so, these fairy tale tropes; there’s a reason why they’re so powerful.
So, yeah, I’m really into fairy tales. I wrote stories and thought about their themes, and I thought I’d really like kids to see them and to experience them. I quit work and studied for two years to be a game designer. You try and learn computer programming in six weeks! So many tutorials!
Then I did a ‘greybox’—that’s where the designer lays everything out and decides, this is what’s going to happen and where it’s going to happen—and an artist came in and said, “You call that a castle?!” And she really took it and made it so good. It was fantastic!
PU!: Tell me about some
of the people who’ve worked on Frog’s
Princess with you, and how you discovered them.
K: We had 3D artist Riley Hanlin involved who was really, really good. She’d just come off two-and-a-half years of production on an acclaimed game, The Station. She did a magnificent job. I only had the budget to work with her for a few weeks, but she made an entire medieval world in those few weeks. She was really passionate about the game, she really understood what I needed.
John Costello is our technical artist. He did the visual
effects. We had 918 pages and they had to be all placed, so he did all of that technical,
behind the scenes stuff.
I advertised for a programmer, but then I had to respond to the applicants—I like to respond to each one personally—to explain that the position had been filled. So, if you ever see a job you like, it’s important to go for it straight away!
My programmer, Scott Purcival, is a genius. Since he was eight years old he’s been tutoring other people in how to use computers. He’s always wanted to work in games and had already made a few of his own. He had a few weeks free between jobs and he took this on. I asked for some loading screens and he animated them. I didn’t need it, but he did it, and it was so good! And he keeps adding little touches like that.
Chris Paterson is taking the time to work full-time as a composer. He makes beautiful music. He composed seven out of ten of our major themes and it’s made all the difference. It’s put emotion in the game, it’s made it not just a story, it’s a real experience.
We have one person who I met at a breakfast event and is great at QA. He suggested I move the ‘move’ button, because he said, “Why do I have to lift my arm up? Why can’t it be at the bottom of the screen with the play button?” I’d never have thought of that!
I found someone on a Discord server who did the UI for us. He was really intelligent in terms of how he thought about how another person would see the game and understand how to play it.
I’ve got an assistant who picked up our t-shirts for today, she got everything organized and took care of little details, just little things I wouldn’t think of. If it hadn’t been for her I wouldn’t have even made it here.
I’m really honoured that these people have worked on my game. It’s all been carefully budgeted, and I pay everybody an hourly rate.
A lot of people suggest other people to work with who they’ve worked with before. You get that a lot in the games industry. As a result, I try to help out—if someone’s looking for someone to fill a role I always try to help out, because it’s really hard when people can’t get into the industry because they don’t have these contacts. I fully understand it because I’ve gone through it myself.
PU!: Have you faced any challenges during the development process?
K: I’ve been so lucky, even though I’m doing everything on a micro-budget.
There was the South Australian Game Developer fund that I applied for, it looked really promising. I kind of counted on it, which you should never do. And then the fund closed because of the election!
It’s been an amazing experience. I’ve shown it at a few places, and even written an academic paper about it.
PU!: Are you hoping to attend more conventions with Frog’s Princess after AVCon?
K: Well, it’s a lot of work to go to conventions. A lot of time and money goes into the materials to get here. I’ve had a lot of really useful feedback here but I’m really going to have to push it to schools if I’m going to get kids to play it. And we have the Kickstarter coming up of course.
Since AVCon, Kathy’s Kickstarter campaign has been successfully funded! Kathy and her team are now working to make Frog’s Princess more accessible for hearing-impaired, vision-impaired, and colourblind readers. She’s particularly excited to be including character customization for the playable heroes, telling us—
We are so pleased to have worked out how to deliver it, given the large number of character expressions and poses … As well as hair, skin and eye colour choices, and hair styles which include coily, curly, wavy and straight hair, we have bald princes and princesses which will be perfect for cancer patients who have so much time on their hands but who are often too ill to do much. Interestingly, we expect the patients themselves to be aspirational and not choose bald characters, but we think it will help [non-suffering] players empathize with them.
Frog’s Princess will launch on the 12th of November for PC, Mac, iOS and Android and will be available on Steam, the GooglePlay Store, and the App Store. You can keep up with all the news on the game at the Frog’s Princess website or follow Kathy on Twitter.
Many thanks to Kathy to taking the time to talk with us.