Spokane Journal of Business

Galactic Dungeon Studios: Galactic dreams

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-—LeAnn Bjerken
With Galactic Dungeon Studios LLC, Daniel Bender is continuing his tattoo business while developing video games.

Galactic Dungeon Studios LLC’s 750-square-foot tiered space at 7 S. Stevens downtown would indeed have a dungeon vibe, if it weren’t for the large windows, and walls filled with colorful gaming and pop culture art and memorabilia.

It’s a fitting contrast for a business on two diverse, but parallel paths.

The venture is co-owned by tattoo artist Daniel Bender and his wife, Elaine Gonzalez. The two are aspiring video game developers who love all things retro and fantasy in nature. The couple opened the shop last September and have been working since then to grow the business enough to support their dream of developing the next popular video game. Meantime, Bender is operating his tattoo studio out of that space.

“I started with tattooing as a way of paying the bills until the game we’re working on is ready for publication,” he says. “But the goal is to hire more staff, so we can focus more on game design and development.”

Originally from Chicago, Bender says he’s been a tattoo artist for 19 years, the last 10 of which were spent living and working in Southern California.

It was there that he studied toward an associate degree in computer science and networking at Oxnard College, although he has yet to complete the program.

“Cost of living and operating a business is higher in California, so we decided to move to another area,” he says. “We just felt Spokane was a very interesting place, with a good mix of urban and more natural environments.”

In addition to his work at Galactic Dungeon, Bender also works a second job at downtown’s House of Charity. Although he declines to disclose the shop’s revenues, Bender says he sees between 15 and 20 tattoo clients each month.

“We’re still new enough that we’re not really making a profit yet, but we are growing, and there’s a not another shop in town that’s quite like us,” he asserts.

Bender’s style of tattooing is mostly color, old school/traditional, as well as fandom and pop culture pieces that appeal to gaming fans. All consultations are free, while tattoos are a minimum of $100, but can vary based on complexity, size, and placement.

“Our typical clients are students or military, but many are the same crowd that frequents the downtown comic book and gaming shops here,” he says.

He adds, “A lot of my clients really enjoy those hobbies and choose to wear that love on their skin. For some people, fantasy is a way of escaping the darker parts of reality, and I love having a job that facilitates that.”

He says some tattoo clients do ask about the business’s game development, but not often.

“Some are a bit curious, but we try not to talk about it too much so as not to give away any of our ideas,” he says. “Some of what we’re working on hasn’t ever been done in quite this way before.”

Much like tattooing, Bender says, video game design also involves bringing fantasy to life, albeit with a lot more technology involved.

Game designers not only have to create a story, but also need to design a program or an environment that accounts for different possible interactions players might want to make, in which to bring the story to life.

Bender says most game designers have a computer science degree or other educational background that allows them to understand computer code, which is the set of computer instructions that form a program.

So far, besides Bender and Gonzalez, the shop has one other employee, game designer and developer Drew Jones, who works remotely from his home in Canada.

Bender says Gonzalez has a background in retail and sales, and plans to start work on a computer science degree this fall in order to assist with Galactic Dungeon’s game design work.

Although both he and Jones each have some education in computer software development, Bender says much of what they do involves learning as they go.

“This industry is very do-it-yourself, which is part of the fun for us,” he says. “There are a lot of software packages out there for people who are just getting started in game design that help you learn, and the one we’re using is called Unity.”

Developed by San Francisco-based Unity Technologies, Unity is a cross-platform game engine primarily used to develop three-dimensional and two-dimensional video games and simulations for computers, consoles, and mobile devices.

“Unity allows us to develop what are essentially the bare bones of a game,” he says. “It’s a really user-friendly tool that helps us prepare for eventually being able to publish.”

Bender says the Galactic team’s goals in game development are to create games that combine retro aesthetics with modern design and smooth game play.

“We’re interested in revitalizing the retro style of older 2-D games we enjoyed playing when we were young,” he says. 

Bender says more recent games he and Jones are inspired by include the indie farming simulation role-playing video game Stardew Valley, and a 2-D action adventure game called Shovel Knight.

Bender says Galactic also wants to include co-op and multiplayer options in its games, as well as bringing a greater focus to game play and backstory.

“I feel like a lot of modern games sacrifice story content and rush through game play so there’s not as much entertainment or reward for the players,” he says. “For us, the story is really the heart of it, so we’re hoping to bring back some of the classic play and do something a bit different.”

Bender says Galactic’s team currently is working on a game that doesn’t have a title yet but has a cyberpunk theme. He says cyberpunk is described as a subgenre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future.

“It’s like a dystopian futuristic technocratic society; think something like Blade Runner,” he says. “Our target audience will be gamers of yesteryear.”

So far, Bender says the game’s basic framework has been completed, and he and Jones are now working toward adding details, backgrounds, and other programing.

He says the first step in getting Galactic’s game published will be to develop a proof of concept, or prototype for potential players to try.

“Once it’s done, we’ll be releasing some kind of demo for everyone to try out that we can then later throw up on something like Kickstarter,” he says. “We’d like to do this on our own if we can, but there is a high rate of failure so there’s always a chance it may not ever happen.”

Because Galactic currently only has two developers working on its game’s design, Bender says the process of getting it ready to be published may take another two to three years.

“Obviously, we’d like to get it out there as soon as possible,” he says. “At the same time, we also want to be able to offer a fun-to-play, retro-style game for a reasonable price.”

He says if sales of the company’s first game go well, he hopes to continue developing more either as additional sequels in the same series or entirely new games.

“Our ideal future is having a few tattooists continuing to do awesome tattoos while we get some fun and immersive games out for the public to experience,” he says. “We’d like to do both of course, but the end game for us will be selling the best in retro gaming at a fair price.”

LeAnn Bjerken
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Reporter LeAnn Bjerken is the most recent addition to the Journal's news team. A poet, cat lover and antique enthusiast, LeAnn is also an Eastern Washington University alum.

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