Christopher Obritsch is a father, an ex-graphic designer and an indie game developer. He's also a self-confessed, present day Ghouls 'N Ghosts devotee—an affinity that, despite the legions of similar and not so similar games that've came and went since, was formed almost 30 years ago.
After a chance encounter with a Toronto Airport-dwelling arcade cabinet in the late '80s, Obritsch, then 12-years old, dedicated his spare time to programming crude iterations of Capcom's hit sidescrolling platformer on his Commodore 64. As a child himself, little did he know then that he'd one day embark on a similar journey with his own daughter close to three decades down the line.
"So one day, she's just sitting there and says: 'I want to fight Greenhead'," Obritsch tells me. He's in the middle of a Ghouls 'N Ghosts session, that his then four-year old daughter Maddi often looked in on. He's tanking the first level boss—a towering dual-horned, fire-breathing, green-headed cyclops dragon—and Maddi watches on.
"What do you mean, you want the controller, you want to play?'" Obritsch asks. "No, I want to be in the game, I want to be Arthur," his daughter replies.
Obritsch then explains why this isn't possible, that this is someone else's game, but that with his prior hobbyist coding knowledge he may be able to make something for her another time. Maddi mopes around the room for a while before Obritsch eventually asks what's up.
"Girls can't be knights, daddy, only boys can be knights," she says.
"I burst out laughing at that point," says Obritsch, "I put all of my work aside and started drawing her in the original Ghouls 'N Ghosts armour. I then asked her: 'What colour you want your armour to be?'"
Battle Princess Madelyn is the result of that conversation, a Ghouls 'N Ghosts-inspired platformer which "follows the journey of young knight in training, Madelyn, and her ghostly pet dog Fritzy," so reads the blurb on the game's Kickstarter campaign page. Originally asking for CA$60,000, the project has since eclipsed that figure three times over and has pushed over CA$200,000 with several hours to go.
Under the banner of Causal Bit Games, Obritsch is the Creative Director and CEO of the studio, while Daven Bigelow—a university student who once helped Obritsch with a previous hobbyist project—is VP and developer/programmer. Obritsch's wife Lina is "keeper of the cheese", aka admin and the controller of the project's money, and Madelyn herself is the "The Boss of Everything", "Master of all", and, crucially, the "Art director of Christopher."
Most interestingly, that last point is central to how Causal operates. After all, this game is about Maddi and for Maddi, therefore it makes perfect sense that much of it should be designed by Maddi. Obritsch is often forced to redirect Maddi's expectations and ideas in order to make the game playable, however he admits much of the creative process comes straight from her six-year old mind and that she's very proactive in translating her ideas from her head onto paper.
"It depends on what she wants to do that day," says Obritsch of Maddi's concepts. "If I'm sitting here working on something already I might stop what I'm doing and work with her on what she wants to do. I think the best example of that was when she was at her friend's house one day. She'll draw stuff for the game wherever she is, and she came home from her friends house that day and was like: 'Daddy, I made a monster for the game.' I asked what it was and she explained it to me. I then asked what she wanted it to do in-game and she showed me the drawing and explained what each part of the picture was."
This particular monster battle, Obritsch tells me, involves the player attacking the beast in a certain way so that it turns its back on the player. When it does that, the player is then required to "shoot it in the bum" several times until it is felled. If you imagine the multitude of games over the years which require players to shoot glowing red orbs or other such enemy weak spots, the idea of firing arrows into an adversary's backside doesn't seem all too far fetched.
Better yet, Maddi's unbridled innocence and direct way of thinking not only fits well with the 2D platformer genre, but it also provides a window into the imagination of a six-year old. Granted not every notion can make it into the final product—"On paper the 'cat level' Maddi wants is just a bunch of cats in a line"—the idea that nothing is too absurd or unorthodox could make for some really interesting design choices.
And this style of family-fuelled camaraderie appears to have resonated with Kickstarter backers, despite the fact both Obritsch and Bigelow weren't confident it'd get funded at all. "We were already planning what we would do to drive up funds if we were clawing to reach the goal by the end of the 30 days," Bigelow says. "We were already bracing ourselves to be like: okay, what's our plan if this doesn't get funded."
Of course Battle Princess Madelyn has now been funded with quite some change to spare. Obritsch tells me the scope of the project now won't necessarily get bigger beyond its Stretch Goal promises but that it will become cleaner, more refined and more focused. This side of the campaign is beyond Madelyn's control, however her outlook again in relation to her age and a creationist perspective is refreshing.
"At first she didn't really understand what was happening," explains Obritsch. "At first she was just happy to be doing the videos. In the Kickstarter video, I actually forgot to say that she was the Battle Princes and now we have to do another video because she wants everyone to know that she's the Battle Princes. It isn't about attention for her, she's just excited that people get to know who she kinda is. I don't know how to put it, it's almost like she thinks everyone that gets to play the game is her friend or something—which is a nice way of looking at it."
This rings particularly true against the game's underlying message and the treatment Maddi has at times received in the real world.
"She was going to daycare at that time and was having problems with boys picking on her and saying she can't do certain things because she's a girl," Obritsch adds laughing. "She got into a couple of fights with boys as a result."
"She's a real Battle Princess," Bigelow interjects.
And it's this that drives Battle Princess Madelyn as a project: yes, this is a game created by a father for his daughter, but the message remains the same off the back of Maddi's initial dismissal of female knights. Nonetheless, both Obritsch and Bigelow highlight Maddi's reaction to the overall process as their favourite part of creating this game.
"Working with Maddi on something like this is incredible," admits Obritsch. "Her input is just amazing, how excited she gets when we show her something new that we've done, that's always going to be the highlight of this because it's about her, it's for her—it is hers too. For me that's the exciting part."
"Chris and I work remotely but even just the brief moments where Chris will be working away and Maddi pops in and she'll talk on Skype and say hello," adds Bigelow. "Hearing how excited she is about the stuff that Chris is doing or when Chris is playing the game and she reports back on how she likes it—we're making this game for her and sharing it with the world."
Battle Princess Madelyn is currently in development and is provisionally expected in February 2018. Its Kickstarter page can be found in this direction.