Freshly Laundered 018 / Neven Mrgan


Neven Mrgan has created such memorable games as Blackbar, The Incident, and Space Age. Based in Portland, Oregon he works as a designer at Panic Inc and enjoys cooking creative dishes for his family come dinner time. Read on to see how he balances work, family, and designing games we all love to play.

CB: Your day job is as a Designer at Panic Inc. How do you find time to design iOS games on the side?

NM: My usual answer to this is, “by being a terrible father and husband.” (NOTE: THIS IS A JOKE.) I suppose the truth is that I don’t have many other hobbies, except cooking: I come home from work, hang out with the family while making dinner, help put the kids to bed, then cook some more while I check on the computer in between pot-stirrings. I also try to focus on projects that are small enough in scope that I can tackle them in my spare time.

CB: Ha! An iOS game or app does not seem like a project that is small in scope. Designing a logo for a friends new brand, sure, creating an entire game with multiple levels seems like quite the undertaking! Space Age was announced on the Big Bucket Software blog in 2012, and launched in November of 2014. What was it like working on a project like that for over two years?

NM: *gulp* It was closer to three and a half years.

After our first game, The Incident, Matt and I had decided to do something bigger and more ambitious—that much was guaranteed. We figured Space Age might take twelve to eighteen months to put together. What we didn’t count on was the odd kind of progress you make with a story-driven game: you have to keep switching between the micro mode of solving THIS technical challenge or writing THIS puzzle, and the grand view of story flow and, for lack of a less pretentious word, meaning. It felt like solving a Rubik’s cube in that moving one piece also moved a bunch of others, and then we had to go back and shift them all. Of course, with a real Rubik’s cube, you develop certain tactics that help you get around that issue (so I’ve read on Wikipedia, anyway). We hadn’t worked on large games before, so we had to do our learning along the way.

In the end, the finished game took much longer than we expected, but it was also better than we expected. We joke that, had you told us in 2011 what kind of game we were signing up for, we would’ve politely declined to make it. I’m glad we didn’t.


CB: Wow! That’s a lot of time and effort to put towards a side project. Do you feel like it was worth it? How has the reception been for Space Age from the general populus?

NM: It was definitely worth doing. I hope it doesn’t sound like it was some torturous, nightmare project. We had fun the whole time (including the “gaaah if I can only figure out this one thing…!” kind of “fun”, of course.) What pushed it over the edge of “part-time project” and into that zone where it seems like something bigger and better than me was the soundtrack, composed by Cabel Sasser. Hearing his wonderful take on our little game scenes, after years of slowly progressing from “hey that’s a cute idea for a game” to a “uhh this is now a complex piece of software" made it all magical again.

I’m always glad to hear that people know about our games, happy to see that they’ve actually played them, tickled pink when they finish them, and straight-up flabbergasted when they do things like make fan art or post videos of their kids hacking at them. A story-driven game that’s a bit different than the usual stuff on iOS is a tall order, I understand that; when people take the time to try it, and then feel that their gamble has paid off, it just crushes me, in that “glad to be alive” sense.


CB: Space Age recently launched for Mac as well. Will you continue to iterate there, or are you moving on to something else? What’s your next big undertaking?

NM: Matt and I use iOS and Mac OS every day, and we like bringing our projects to both platforms, especially since Apple’s development tools make it easy. Space Age for Mac is interesting to me because it’s a little closer to many of the games that inspired it: Cannon Fodder, Command & Conquer, mouse-controlled graphic adventures.

We hope to keep making new games for as long as we can. Our next project might be something smaller, something faster, something stranger, but it will be definitely be different. That’s something I care about: making each project a new challenge for me, and a new surprise for the audience.

I’m also excited to work on more story-driven, text-heavy games with my other game-making partner, James Moore. Right now, I’m enjoying the idea of “writing” as well as “designing” and “drawing”.


CB: Where do you draw inspiration from when you’re designing games, other than the games you previously mentioned?

NM: I try to read as much and as broadly as I can, and I certainly hope that my interest in popular science, sci-fi, and existentialism informs my games. Growing up, I read every comic I ever saw, which included many indie titles and stuff that’s a little less superhero-based. My goal is to create approachable, friendly stories and mechanics, but it’s best if they have a little edge to them, a little aberration you’d never find at Disneyland.

My art style is inspired by graphic design and fine art more than by illustration or game art per se. I’m more concerned with composition, balance, and visual metaphor than with realism or cuteness.


CB: You mentioned earlier that you enjoy cooking, what’s your favorite meal to make for your family? Why?

NM: A recent favorite of The Mrgans is chicken tikka masala pizza. It satisfies my craving for making dough, my wife’s fondness for Indian food, and our daughter’s obvious addiction to pizza in any form. And while we live in a particularly restaurant-rich area of food-crazy Portland, this isn’t something we can find easily if we go out to eat.

I once had to explain what kind of love it is that I have for things like Mystery Science Theater 3000, the Finnish band Circle, and the film The Navigator. These are some of my favorite things in the world, but they’re not “perfect”; they’re decidedly flawed. It occurred to me that loving something like this doesn’t mean thinking it ideal, but being attached to it on some emotional/intellectual level enough to defend it nevertheless. So when my pizza-purist friends roll their eyes at the idea of Indian pizza, I will defend it, because while it’s a wackadoodle dish, I love it.


Various places you can find Neven on the world wide web: twitter, instagram, and tumblr. Wanna see his Space Age or Blackbar tee come back? Sign up on their respective pages.