Interview: The Yawhg’s Damian Sommer

Damian Sommer
Damian Sommer (Photo by Ryan Roth)

Meet Damian Sommer. Er, Summer. Some-r? Are we sure about Damien?

Is it OK if we get his name wrong?

“I wouldn’t mind if you did,” said Damian Sommer (actual spelling). “That’d be funny.”

It also wouldn’t be the first time. The developer’s name has become a running joke amongst his friends, an indication of his minimal celebrity. He’ll know he’s hit the big time once people stop getting it wrong.

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That might happen sooner than he’s expecting. The Yawhg – the game Sommer created alongside artist Emily Carroll – is nominated for Excellence in Audio and Excellence in Narrative at the 2014 Independent Games Festival awards. His name appears correctly on the list of nominees. Should he win during Wednesday’s ceremony at GDC, reporters will have had two full months to study and get it right.

It would be an autocorrect moment two years in the making, providing stability to the ambivalent interpretations of his name and capping the turbulent journey of The Yawhg. According to Sommer, The Yawhg was not supposed to be the game that got him to San Francisco.

“The whole game is just this really happy accident,” said Sommer. To him, this trip to GDC is largely happenstance.

There is some truth to that, but it’s an incomplete version of events. Some of the story elements are haphazard – there are false starts, missed connections, and more than a few alternate endings – but the foundations for Sommer’s current success were laid years in advance.

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The Yawhg is a narrative-based local multiplayer game in which players take turns performing medieval activities to prepare for an impending disaster. Best described as multiple perspective choose-your-own-adventure(s), it was originally commissioned for the inaugural Comics vs. Games initiative, which paired game developers with comic book artists to create games for the 2012 Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

And right from the beginning, we find the first of many paths not taken.

yawhg-arena

At around the same time, Sommer also began work on The Clown Who Wanted Everything, a puzzle platformer about a clown who collects various items. There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of it. The game is still floundering on Sommer’s laptop as a reminder of how easily we can be led astray by our own assumptions.

Sommer expected The Yawhg to be a holdover, a guerrilla project that he’d finish quickly before turning his full attention to Clown. Sommer was so confident that he willfully neglected The Yawhg even after it proved to be a hit at TCAF, literally giving the game away because he didn’t think he could sell it. All fans had to do was ask.

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“I’d give it to them,” Sommer said sheepishly, confessing that he didn’t always tell his co-developers about his largesse. “Don’t spread it around because I don’t think it works outside the convention floor.”

Sommer eventually opted for a commercial launch for strictly financial reasons. The game was finished and he needed the money. But it’s another ‘what if.’ His decision led to an award nomination, which in turn led to his current slate of interviews. What happens if survival instinct never forced Sommer to release The Yawhg?

Cut to the present reality, and The Clown Who Wanted Everything is almost an afterthought. The Yawhg, meanwhile, recently debuted on Steam amidst a wave of local multiplayer titles. The same design specifics that once precluded sales are now a touted feature, making The Yawhg a confluence of good fortune and good design.

At first, Sommer resists the idea that The Yawhg has much in common with competitive games like Samurai Gunn and Nidhogg, arguing that the current influx of local multiplayer is more coincidence than phenomenon.

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But that analysis doesn’t hold upon reflection. Sommer eventually recounts a timeline that began with No Quarter, an NYU incubator that commissions games for a gallery setting. In addition to spawning standouts like Hokra, Nidhogg, and BaraBariBall, the event influenced scores of other game designers, including Spooky Squid’s Miguel Sternberg, who established a similar set of criteria as the curator of Comics vs. Games.

“There’s going to be a bunch of people [at TCAF]. It’d be good if all of them could play together,” said Sommer of the mandate that neatly encapsulates the appeal of The Yawhg.

The Yawhg is best played with a bunch of people who are completely fresh to the experience,” said Sommer. “It’s a tool to interact with other people, which is what most local multiplayer games are. It gets people talking. It gets people laughing.”

Yawhg-drinking

While The Yawhg may not be competitive, it is packed with hilarious hidden moments that become more memorable when shared with other individuals. That’s why it worked at TCAF, and that’s why it translates to the home, where the crowds are smaller but the relationships are deeper.

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The “happy accident” was an indirect by-product of a game installation in New York City that reminded people how much fun multiplayer used to be.

Tracing Sommer’s involvement is similarly illuminating.

“I got asked to be a part of Comics vs. Games because I did a project with Craig Adams in a previous TIFF Nexus Initiative [The 2011 Peripherals Initiative]. I got recruited for that because I made a TOJam game called Friendship in Four Colours.”

Prior to that, Sommer had put himself in a position to be noticed.

“I learned about TOJam because I was interested in Nidhogg and followed [Nidhogg creator] Mark Essen (@messhof) on Twitter. He tweeted about the Hand Eye Society and how he was going to be here. I went to the Hand Eye Society and then I went to TOJam and made a game.”

“It doesn’t feel like I’ve progressed at all, but if I look back I’m in a better place than I thought I would be. I thought I’d be making money off of The Clown Who Wanted Everything at this point.”

The Clown Who Wanted Everything
The Clown Who Wanted Everything

When Sommer tells it, the history seems linear, a string of causes leading directly to effects. The trouble is that the path isn’t that clear when you’re on it, only taking shape with the perspective of hindsight.

“You’re just making a whole bunch of stuff. And then one of those things will lead into something else,” said Sommer of his thoughts at the time.

And really, that’s all anyone can hope for. But that sounds random, a collection of lucky breaks that culminated at GDC, and his involvement in Comics vs. Games and the Peripherals Initiative was not coincidence. After all, people had to know him for something before they knew him for The Yawhg, and that speaks to Sommer’s deliberate preparation.

“When I first got into game development, my goal was to get influential people to like me,” said Sommer, who sought out Toronto luminaries like Sternberg and N+ co-creator Mare Sheppard.

It sounds mercenary when republished as a line of text, but it’s Networking 101 and it doesn’t make Sommer any less genuine. Sommer is the kind of person who makes friends rather than contacts, and the good will is reciprocal. He’s eager to pay it forward, as many developers in Toronto and elsewhere will attest.

But those behind-the-scenes conversations were noteworthy during the buildup to the IGF. Sommer already knew that The Yawhg was getting praise for audio and narrative and was likely to receive at least one nomination.

“I’m not supposed to know that,” he admitted, “but I have a few friends who were jury members. So when I got nominated, it was half joy and also half relief. When they started telling me you might have a shot, I got nervous. What if I don’t get it?”

Sommer didn’t name names, but if you’re searching for explanations for The Yawhg, that’s as good as any. Sommer is savvy enough to recognize that networking is part of the job and to define it as such, yet personable enough to make a meaningful, lasting impression. When Sternberg needed people for Comics vs. Games, Sommer had placed himself at the top of the list of candidates.

Fortunately, Sommer is also talented enough to capitalize on opportunity, which made it much easier to muster that initial enthusiasm. Success is more likely when you have a good product and everyone else is rooting from your corner.

Yet as well-connected as he is – and despite a proven track record of successful games and collaborations – Sommer struggles with the self-doubt that afflicts so many artists. The IGF has put that into focus. No matter what friends and supporters tell him, there’s still the fear that it could all be taken away at a moment’s notice. The more praise he receives, the greater that anxiety becomes.

After all, how can someone be a breakout star when nobody can agree on the spelling of his name?

That brings us to the next stage of the journey.

Sommer is on the verge of an IGF Award. His latest game has been exceptionally well reviewed and is currently available on Steam. But win or lose, the IGF is one data point on his game development trajectory, and a career is comprised of multiple such points. In order to cultivate his arcade (his word), Sommer has to keep making games for years, or maybe even decades.

Sommer is painfully aware of the implications. He talks at length about the Dunning-Kruger effect, and how his growth only makes him more aware of how much he doesn’t know.

“I think everyone making things is self-conscious. You’re putting yourself out there,” said Sommer, adding halfway through our conversation that he doesn’t feel like he has anything interesting to say in interviews. “Getting nominated is definitely a confidence raiser. At the same time, how did I trick these people into believing that my game was as good as these other games?”

The IGF nomination is a token, a chip that can be exchanged for a certain amount of cultural currency. True clout is attained through the accumulation of such items, but no artist ever accrues enough to be completely secure.

“We’ve been legitimized in the eyes of some people,” said Sommer of the IGF, though the range is limited to developers. “Most gamers have no idea what the IGF is.”

That’s why the Steam launch is another important milestone.

“A lot of people didn’t even realize the game had been out for nine months,” said Sommer. “If your game’s not on Steam, it doesn’t exist in the eyes of most people, or even most developers.”

An IGF victory would be a final feather, though perhaps the lightest of the three.

“You’re nominated for an IGF, and then you have two months on the IGF website,” said Sommer, explaining the difference between a resume entry and advertising. “When somebody finally wins the IGF, there might be one article saying who won.”

Either way, he’ll return home and his life will be much the same. He has to keep building the relationships and games that got him to the IGF, and he has doubts because he knows how much work needs to be done.

That’s also why his anxiety remains relevant. Once the show is over, Sommer is just another former IGF nominee, the nomination itself a reminder that what’s here today can be gone tomorrow.

yawhg-alchemy

Fortunately, Sommer will not be returning to zero. He’s a known presence and a valued member of the community, which allows him to focus on maintenance rather than acquisition. These days, he uses Twitter as a tool to keep in touch with other developers and to cultivate an audience.

“You spend most of your time away from these people,” said Sommer, contrasting daily life with gatherings like the Hand Eye Society and Torontaru, a monthly meet-up of game developers in Toronto. “Twitter is how you stay relevant in their minds.”

To that extent Sommer frequently gives away download keys on Twitter, usually in exchange for trivia about his past games.

“I run those contests to let people know I also made these games,” said Sommer. “My games don’t have a coherent style or a theme, so I try to drive that point home.”

In 2014, he sees that as an essential but under-appreciated aspect of game development. It’s work – Sommer regularly spends hours at a time interacting with new followers on Twitter – but he finds real value in the exchanges. He’s sincerely interested in other people’s stories, and the curiosity that makes him good at networking also makes him good at community relations.

“I want to make sure these people know that they’re not just a number to me and that I do care about who they are,” he said of his followers, who he’d prefer to regard as kindred rather than consumers.

“I feel bad taking people’s money. I struggle with that. Even now, I try to put it in the back of my mind.”

Sommer will ultimately have to negotiate the economics of the profession to his own satisfaction, but it is indicative of the thought that he puts into every aspect of design. He’s climbed from obscurity with an approach that’s structured enough to provide stability yet flexible enough to adapt for innovation.

The balancing act is difficult, but it’s worth it when the result is unexpected hits like The Yawhg, a title that will have one more chance to surprise its creator during the IGF presentation. Sommer doesn’t think he’ll win. But that’s precisely why it would be a fitting conclusion to the grand adventure that was never supposed to happen.

So who cares if a few people spell a name wrong? If Sommer’s rapid ascent is any indication, journalists will have plenty of chances to practice in the future.

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