A Comedian And A Rocket Scientist Walk Into A Bar, And Try To Make A Video Game
by Kyle Hilliard on May 01, 2013 at 01:33 PM
Publisher: Fun for Life Games
Developer: Fun for Life Games
Release: 2013
Platform: iOS

Michael Swaim (you might recognize him from this video) is known on the Internet as the sarcastic Tsar of video content for Very few of the things he says while on camera can be taken seriously, which is by design. It’s no surprise that when he plugged his own Kickstarter project on the most recent episode of his recurring web series, Does Not Compute, he had to clarify that MyTemple “is not a joke.”  The game is one part RPG and one part workout tracker. The progress you log with your exercise is turned around into experience and skills to be used in an RPG. Swaim is writing the story and scenarios for the game, and his longtime friend Griffin Rowell is doing the behind-the-scenes programming work.

Head here to check out the Kickstarter for MyTemple

Swaim and Rowell have known each other since kindergarten. It made speaking with them on the phone about their Kickstarter project difficult. “This will be somewhat problematic, to try and get a fix on my voice, because Griffin and I have been known to have almost identical voices,” Swaim said. “We’ve been best friends since we were five years old and our cadence is identical and everyone comments on it, so this might be a terrible interview for you. I am sorry.” MyTemple is not a game that the two have been contemplating their whole lives, but the idea of making a game is the fruition of a lifelong dream.

Swaim and his co-worker at Cracked, Cody Johnston, are handling the game’s story. Despite the participation of at least two writers from the humor website, the game is not associated with Cracked. The staff just likes to work on each other’s projects. “What Cracked fans think of us is basically true,” Swaim says. “We all sleep in a giant sleeping pile and like the smell of each other’s farts.” They simply like working together, even outside of work.

Rowell is handling the programming side of the game and, despite growing up with Swaim, took a very different direction in life. He has an undergraduate degree in physics, has a background in materials engineering, is a published co-author on papers with Nobel Laureate Alan Heeger, and is well on his way to becoming a literal rocket scientist. “And his name is Griffin, like the mythical beast!” adds Swaim. His military title is Air Battle Master, and he’s also an accomplished athlete. Rowell doesn’t like to tout his own accomplishments, but Swaim has no problem doing it for him. Swaim proudly brags about Rowell’s ability to run 60-mile ultramarathon races, and how he tackled the 218-mile John Muir Trail. Rowell says, “I didn’t run the 200 miles straight, to be fair.”

“Yeah, he just walked with a tent in his backpack the whole time,” says Swaim.

One of the two men seen above is a rocket scientist

Proclaiming Rowell’s athletic achievements isn’t just about bragging rights. It’s a way of adding credibility to the Kickstarter project he and Swaim are developing. Rowell says, “We were both super fat children, and fitness has become a part of  [Swaim’s] life, and a big part of my life.” The game that Swaim and Rowell are proposing on their Kickstarter is a fitness/RPG hybrid called MyTemple.

At its core, MyTemple is a tracker that logs your jogging and exercise progress, but Rowell has developed special programs that help to reward players for their effort rather than just total miles ran. After calibrating the app after your first few workouts, Rowell says, "The algorithms that we’ve developed – it will average those performances and calculate how much better you’re doing over your baseline." It’s a way of encouraging players of all athletic capabilities to be able to play, and get a rewarding experience out of it.

“It’s funny that Griffin says, ‘We developed algorithms.’ Griffin’s a f------ rocket scientist,” says Swaim. “I’ve never developed an algorithm in my life.” Rewarding effort as opposed to total workout is also a way to encourage a balanced multiplayer.

Pictured above: algorithms

The multiplayer will allow you to pit your character against your friends’ characters, but just because your friend is an accomplished marathon runner (as is the case for Swaim), you won’t be at a severe disadvantage. In this way, the game has some Tamagotchi elements, as your exercise routine will determine the strength and health of your player. Swaim says, “You’re cultivating this temple with this RPG character, and you’re making your guy or gal as buff as you possibly can, picking up whatever shock swords you are able to pry from the cold, dead hooves of the goat man in level four.” You can then use those weapon pickups against your friends, as well as the enemies of the single-player campaign.

The single-player game looks more like a traditional RPG, and it starts out with something that Swaim wishes that every RPG did – it opens the entire world to you immediately. The world is based on Mayan and Incan culture. “It’s rooted in that kind of folklore, but really, it’s a bunch of crazy magic and epic stuff to battle and fight and whatever,” Swaim says. You enter a world where you find that a temple – your temple – has fallen into disrepair. It’s up to players to repair their temple, as well as level up their own character by taking on assorted missions from the people you meet and converse with in the world. “Everyone in an RPG has some bull---- chore they need you to do,” says Swaim. As you level up your character and fix up your temple, your world map will become more vibrant, and begin to house the assorted characters you have met and helped throughout the course of the game.

Swaim references Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comic-book series – not the movies, Swaim is quick to clarify – as an influence on both the way the story unfolds and how it uses folklore as a jumping-off point. “All of the [Hellboy] stories themselves are sort of twists on folklore that Mike Mignola dug up. So, in the same way, I’d like to steal his whole model and make myself rich off of it.”

Artist Gabo Bernstein is creating all of the concept art for the game

Along with a rocket-scientist programmer and an accomplished comedy writer and performer, MyTemple also has another secret weapon in the form of Jay Pinkerton. Pinkerton works for Valve, and was a writer on Portal 2. Pinkerton used to be a writer for, and although his time there overlapped with Swaim’s only briefly, the two have developed a professional relationship. On the top of the Kickstarter page for MyTemple, there is a humorous forward from Pinkerton encouraging backers to get involved. “He, extremely graciously, lends his name to stuff I’m working on even though, honestly, he barely knows me,” Swaim says. “I think it’s just based on, he reads my work and goes, ‘Okay, this kid is not is not going to besmirch my name by taking a dump on the stage.’ And I’m not.”

Pinkerton is not directly involved in MyTemple in a tangible way, but he’s there to offer support and reply to Swaim’s 3:00AM e-mails asking how video games work. Swaim says, “He responds and says, ‘Don’t worry! This is how games work and you’re going to do this, and then you will be tripping over piles of money.’ That’s a quote, so please don’t make a liar out of Jay Pinkerton.”

The ultimate hope for the game, if it succeeds in its Kickstarter bid, is to create a game that encourages gamers to work out, and enjoy what Swaim hopes to be a well-written and rewarding RPG. “We really want to get people as addicted to this as they are Farmville or Mafia, but have them not feel s---y about it because they’re working out,” Swaim says.

“People play WoW for thousands of hours, and you do get a social aspect from it, but there is very little real-world consequence from it,” Rowell says. “If you could take that and make it so you’re developing yourself into a real superhero – basically parallel it with your character in the game world – then why not have that happen? I don’t know why it hasn’t happened yet. We want to do it.”

If the Kickstarter is successful, Swaim and Rowell hope to work on MyTemple for a long time to come. Right now the game is planned for iOS, but an Android version is certainly on their minds. “Making the game for Android will be our first stretch goal,” Swaim says. If the Kickstarter isn’t successful, Swaim plans to tackle any of the other million projects he is working on, and Rowell will go back to his academic pursuits. “Yeah, I’ll just go back to my rocket building,” Rowell says.

Head to page two to find out if MyTemple will be as funny as Ghostbusters, and why there is no space between the words “My” and “Temple.” To check out the Kickstarter for MyTemple, head here.

I had a few extra questions about MyTemple that I thought were worth sharing that didn't quite fit in the full preview. Here are some extra thoughts from Michael Swaim and Griffin Rowell.

Why did you choose to not put a space between ‘My’ and ‘Temple’?

Michael Swaim: I think it makes it sound like iPhone on some weird subconscious level. Because the “my” and the “I” and the one word. And that sold pretty well, so that’s my only reasoning. It also may have been that when I wrote the – Griffin, admit it if this is true – when I wrote the pitch doc, I typed MyTemple as the filename as one word, not intending it to be one word, but just because it’s a file name, and we may have just run with that.

Griffin Rowell: I think I just liked the way it looked. I might have seen that the first time and said, “Yeah, yeah. One word now.”

Swaim: Why, Kyle? Is it douchey? Should we not do it?

Why are you forcing the largest backers of your game to purchase a copy?

Rowell: Because they’re rich and can spend $10,000 on a Kickstarter for a fitness app; that’s crazy.

Swaim: And my answer is because I like funny jokes, and I had to write the rewards, and I am so happy that at least one person read all the rewards, because I put some jokes in there. That’s my only objective almost all of the time.

On a scale of Scary Movie to Ghostbusters, how funny will the game be?

Swaim: I’d like to think Ghostbusters minus one – I just don’t feel it’s in good form to equate yourself to Ghostbusters, especially before it’s out, but I think you’ve got Cody and I writing it, so it’s going to be funny and also I’d like to think very clever. Cracked’s thing is sort of making high-brow out of low-brow, and certainly this is like this magical realism world of folklore, so there is going to be a lot more mysticism and cool, epic moments, but our bread and butter is writing sketches, and sketch is essentially a short story with a twist and that’s the premise or whatever. So, I don’t think that is going to change.

We’re definitely going to write tight little short stories that hopefully, when you come back from your run, and you see how the story worked out, you’re going to laugh, and you’re going to want to hear another one. It’s almost going to be like a web comic strip that you’re a big fan of that you play along with and it develops as you play with it. That’s how we’d like it to be. And I think that’s something we really can offer, is just better writing than certainly 95 percent of apps see. And we’d like to think a lot of games in general see, because it’s going to be very high priority, and Cody and I are definitely very anal about our writing.

What games do you like?

Swaim: Any Tim Schafer game. Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, whatever the next one will be. I think [Double Fine] represent pretty much the best we [as writers of a comedic game] could hope to be. Tim Schafer, I consider one of the, or the, pioneering genius in the field of video game storytelling, as far as my sensibilities and my sense of humor goes. So yeah, as close as this game can be to a Tim Schafer game without getting sued for copyright, the better.

Rowell: We spent an entire weekend playing Psychonauts, I remember. It was good.