From Curtis Park to the universe, via a video game

Garret Arney-Johnson spent 10 years working in Sacramento-area restaurants before turning to a slightly different line of business – galactic conquest.

He now goes by the name “Garret AJ” and spends his time creating the visual palette for a sprawling video game set 1,500 years in the future. He and other members of his company are fleshing out his sketches of soldiers, nobles, pirates and starship captains, inhabitants in a universe where the troubled ruling empire has its roots in imperial Russia. (You could call it “Tsars in Space,” but the Internet beat you to it.)

From his small studio in Sacramento’s Curtis Park, Arney-Johnson, 28, serves as art director and concept artist for “The Mandate.” It’s the first game by startup developer Perihelion Interactive, but members of the international team have worked on well-known games by major publishers, including titles in the “Assassin’s Creed,” “FarCry and “Call of Duty” series.

Perihelion is registered in Sacramento, but exists mostly on the Internet. The 16-member team is scattered across nine time zones, with drawings and plot descriptions shooting from continent to continent via email and meetings held on Skype.

And while at least one team member has sunk his own money into the project, Perihelion has secured the bulk of its financing by persuading the people who will play the game to invest directly in it. In what’s become the largest Sacramento-based project ever funded through Kickstarter, the company last month raised more than $700,000 in pledges from backers around the world.

Individual investments range from $10 to $10,000. In return, most backers will get a copy of the game, and those who invested more could see themselves in the finished game engraved in the “wall of heroes” or represented as a statue. In addition to offering money, some investors also suggested new features that will be included in the final version of the game.

It’s an indie approach that relies more on a shared vision among creators and enthusiasts than it does on corporate market research about hot trends in games.

“To us, it’s not just a cool game that we want to play,” Arney-Johnson said. “It’s a message to the game industry that this is the way that these games should be made.”

Started in high school

Arney-Johnson first started drawing pictures for an imagined video game about futuristic tank warfare when he was in high school in Grass Valley.

“Mostly I was drawing these ideas to bring to my school so I could talk to my friends about them,” he said. “So I was designing games when I was 16 years old, before I knew that any of this was actually paid work.”

For paychecks back then, he headed to the kitchen. Arney-Johnson worked until about three years ago in a series of restaurants and culinary businesses, including Roseville’s The Greenhouse and Lincoln’s Meridians.

An old friend who had recently finished film school approached him about creating some concept art to pitch a live-action movie loosely based on the video game “Pac-Man.” He still has that first drawing, an angular cityscape depicting New York City after an alien attack. “It’s terrible, right? I didn’t even have a tablet back then. I did it in pen and I scanned it.”

The movie was never made. Arney-Johnson got paid about $80 for it, though, and soon he was finding freelance work in illustration and concept art, including work on video games.

But he didn’t hook up with his current crew until Ole Herbjornsen, producer and lead designer for “The Mandate,” spotted his work on an Internet forum for game developers early in 2013.

The two connected and “nerded out” over games and science fiction, particularly shows such as “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica,” which were about crew relationships and diplomacy as much as space battles. Both were interested in creating a game that would combine big-picture strategy with character nuance, not another shoot-’em-up where every encounter ends in combat.

“We are all huge science-fiction fans on the team, so we found common ground pretty quickly,” said Herbjornsen, who hails from Norway but is leading Perihelion’s efforts from Kosice, in the Slovak Republic. Soon Garret AJ became part of the “Mandate” team.

“There are a bunch of people who are connected by this thin thread,” Arney-Johnson says of his co-workers. “One worked with somebody here, worked with someone else there, and it turned into this web of people who liked the idea and wanted to work on this.”

Kickstarter boost

The game designers had pitched previous ideas where they worked, without success. At about the same time, some independent designers began striking gold on Kickstarter with game concepts outside the mainstream. One project launched in early 2012 by a well-known San Francisco game designer raised pledges of more that $400,000 in less than one day and eventually secured more than $3 million; by the end of 2012, backers had pledged a total of $83 million via Kickstarter for games.

Games have become the largest single category for cash raised on Kickstarter, with the average amount pledged more than three times higher than the average for all projects. Through Kickstarter, Perihelion originally had hoped to secure $500,000 to finance work on “The Mandate.” But the concept struck a major chord with gamers, with 16,400 backers worldwide pledging more than $700,000 toward the project.

That amount makes it the biggest Kickstarter project to hit the Sacramento area, according to Justin Kazmark, spokesman for the New York-based “crowdsourcing” service. (Perihelion is based in Sacramento in part because Arney-Johnson was the only U.S.-based member of the team and a U.S. address makes it easier to collect on pledges using’s financial services.)

Online fundraising sites such as Kickstarter offer a way to finance game development that was unavailable even a few years ago, said Mark Otero, general manager of EA Capital Games in Sacramento.

“It’s making access to capital much more effective and efficient,” said Otero, who sold his mobile and social media game company KlickNation to Electronic Arts in 2011 for a reported $35 million.

When KlickNation was getting started, there was no real game development “ecosystem” in Sacramento, Otero said, and startups had to rely on “friends, family and fools” for cash. “What Kickstarter has done is give people plenty of examples of how to do it right, and it’s on one platform so that makes it a bit more frictionless for entrepreneurs,” he said.

It also puts game developers – who may be used to working in a cave of computer equipment – in the spotlight, appealing directly to potential investors.

As a freelance artist, Arney-Johnson had some experience pitching his portfolio to clients, but the Kickstarter campaign was “probably the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “It’s kind of like you’re out there saying ‘Please, like me!’ ”

There’s also a delicate balance in appealing to the game-backing public without overselling, said Michael Cromwell, the U.K.-based community manager for Perihelion. “Backers-as-investors want information, not hype,” he said.

Now with the fundraising completed, the Perihelion team can get back to work on the game itself, aware that $700,000 isn’t a lot of money for an ambitious game combining real-time strategy with role playing. To keep costs down, the company plans to license existing “game engine” software rather than building it from scratch, and concentrate on unique elements of story and game play.

The target to deliver “The Mandate” to customers is early 2015, with some backers able to “beta-test” an almost-finished version late this year. The Perihelion team took a breather in December after raising the cash, but work will ramp up againthis month, in a Curtis Park studio and around the globe.

“The money will be in a bank right down the street, but this is a brave new world where ‘local’ is becoming much larger,” Arney-Johnson said. “ ‘Local’ is people speckled all over the world now, and for something like this that’s going to be sold worldwide, it makes sense that it has a worldwide team.”