Q&A: Trawling the Moscow metro with Russian Subway Dogs

As the game heads into the final hours of its Kickstarter, we have a chat with Russian Subway Dogs' lead developer, Miguel Sternberg.

Last month, we brought you a gameplay preview of Russian Subway Dogs, the newest game by independent Canadian studio Spooky Squid. You might remember that name as the folks behind They Bleed Pixels, a splendidly macabre yet adorable beat-em-up platformer which debuted on Steam in 2012. Russian Subway Dogs is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter and -- though its fate remains uncertain as of this writing -- we thought it'd be a good opportunity to cast a bit more light on the game and have a chat with its lead developer, Miguel Sternberg.

A veteran of Toronto's thriving independent games scene, Sternberg was a co-founder of Capybara Games (currently making Below for Xbox One) and Toronto's Hand-Eye Society. He first developed Russian Subway Dogs during a game jam in 2012. It's currently playable as an alpha while the Kickstarter is underway.

ZAM: First, the big one: how do you feel heading into the Kickstarter's final 24 hours?

Miguel Sternberg: So incredibly mixed. Right now as I’m typing this we just hit our 50% funded goal and we have about 13 hours left till the campaign ends. So our chances of actually hitting our goal are vanishingly slim at this point. However at the same time I’m seeing the community really rally behind it in these final hours, which has been really heartwarming! A lot of fans and other creators who’ve made things I’ve loved are still tweeting about it and spreading the word.

In general the response to the game has just been incredibly positive and that’s been really confidence-building for myself and the team. [Russian Subway Dogs] has this weird quirky theme and gameplay. I’ve mostly been quietly working on it alone behind the scenes for the last few years whenever I’ve had time. We also haven’t had the chance to show this revamped version at big public events. So going in, we had no real sense of what the public response would be. It could have been a great game that no one cared about, that definitely happens. Luckily, we’ve seen a lot of excitement and coverage of the game since the Kickstarter announcement. It’s been really great to see my own feelings about the game and it’s theme being shared by so many folks.

K.C. Green's Question Hound (aka 'This Is Fine' dog) was announced as a playable character in Russian Subway Dogs. K.C. Green's Question Hound (aka 'This Is Fine' dog) cameos as a playable character in Russian Subway Dogs.

As Kickstarters go, Russian Subway Dogs is like, nearly zero risk. There's a working alpha build, a clear roadmap, a team with a proven track record, you even have prototype photos for the plushies. How long did it take you to prep for the Kickstarter's launch?

It was really important to me that if we did a Kickstarter we were 100% capable of delivering on our promises. I probably spent more time in spreadsheets working out budgets and schedules for this project than any game previously, possibly combined. 

In terms of time, I started seriously thinking about the Kickstarter around March/April of this year and it became my full time thing probably around May/June through to today.  Some of that was working on the game, getting it running at 60fps, creating new sprites, et cetera.  There was also some day to day, keeping the company running stuff in there. But a huge amount of that time was pure Kickstarter: budgeting, writing copy, designing promo art. So roughly 2-3 months of full time prep and then a month of running it.

"There’s a part of me that wishes I’d just skipped the Kickstarter."

If you could do the campaign over from the top, what might you do differently?

We could have done a better job reaching out to streamers and YouTube folk. Game streams were much less of a thing when we launched They Bleed Pixels and I’m really still getting to grips with how that whole world works. There were also some things I improved during the Kickstarter that make the game better for streaming, particularly revamping the sound to emphasize the humor, that I wish I’d got to sooner. I also would have made a few of the backer achievements easier to hit.

There’s a part of me that wishes I’d just skipped the Kickstarter and spent all that time and energy on the game, but even if it doesn’t succeed it’s been really helpful in other ways. It’s been great for getting the word out about the game. Also as someone who’s not super great at PR there are very few opportunities to spend a solid month just doing just PR and I’ve learned a ton from that!

One of the real-life Moscow subway interiors recreated in the game. One of the real-life Moscow subway interiors recreated in the game.

You've clearly done a lot of research for this game, not just of the real stray dogs who ride the Moscow subway but the look and feel of the setting; the station interiors. How have Russian fans responded?

Russian fans seem to fall into three camps. There’s the “Oh cool a game set in Moscow!” which I can relate to given how rarely Toronto plays itself in media. I’m always excited when something like Scott Pilgrim or Orphan Black comes around. There’s the “Ugh... these cartoony stereotypes are so played out and boring” [camp] which I can also relate to. I’m certainly tired of Canadian accent “Aboot” jokes… though I would totally play more games with toque wearing, beer drinking, poutine eating Canadian lumberjacks. I do wish those folks noticed the care we’re putting into recreating the amazing subway stations. I imagine it’s one of those things that takes an outsider perspective to see, where if you live in Moscow you may have no idea how incredibly awesome and unusual your metro stations are and take them for granted.

"For a lot of people, the story of stray dogs learning to navigate the subway and scavenge for food is a story of animal ingenuity and the interesting ways humans and animals adapt to each other."

The last group are what I think are some sort of conservative nationalist trolls that almost exclusively post to our YouTube channel in Russian. As near as I can tell they’re upset about the game's focus on stray dogs which I think they see as a source of shame or something? It’s hard to tell. There tends to be a lot of racist/anti-Semitic language and swearing mixed in there.  

For the record, I think [Moscow's] stray dogs are no more shameful than Toronto’s racoon mobs. For a lot of people, myself included, the story of stray dogs learning to navigate the subway and scavenge for food is a story of animal ingenuity and the interesting ways humans and animals adapt to each other in cities.

Russian subway dog (actual). Photo via englishrussia.com Russian subway dog (actual). Photo via englishrussia.com

The emergence of nationalist trolls in the comments is surprising to me, though I suppose it shouldn't be. Do you think current Russia-U.S. tensions (which affect the rest of the world, obviously,) have played a part in the game's reception?

When I first [developed a prototype of] Russian Subway Dogs in 2012, U.S./Russian relations were actually not a big thing. As I've been working on it that's changed, with everything that's happened in Ukraine. So current events are definitely something I've thought about, even if they don't affect the game itself.

I'm glad the game happens to be about stray dogs and subways, which aren't politically polarizing (or at least shouldn't be?)... I think the game definitely is informed by growing up during the end of the Cold War in Canada, at least on some subconscious level. The 1980s still had traces of anti-Soviet Cold War propaganda, but it was also increasingly clear that most if not all of it was cartoonish misinformation and scaremongering, especially when viewed from just outside the U.S..

You mention Toronto rarely "playing itself" in media, which is true. It's often used as a stand-in for other cities in movies and television. Would you ever consider doing a game set there?

I definitely would like to set something in Toronto someday. If you dig into They Bleed Pixels extended lore (mostly found in the Steam Cards), that game is set in rural Ontario and in the present day the Book of Claws is  contained in the the brutalist architecture of Robart's Library here in Toronto. Doing something more contemporary in that world is something I've had in the back of my mind for a while and Toronto might be part of that. 

To an outsider, the Toronto indie scene seems like a very tight-knit, supportive community, perhaps moreso than other independent game scenes.

Toronto has one of the oldest and largest indie game scenes out there, thanks in part to being a big metropolitan city that didn’t have any triple-A game studios for a long long time. I think we’re less unique and more just a little bit ahead of the curve compared to what’s happening in other cities, which can be a blessing and a curse. We get to break a lot of new ground but we also get to make a lot of simple mistakes. It’s also large enough now that it’s less one scene and more a bunch of big overlapping scenes.

What a good pupper. What a good pupper.

This last question is very important: please describe your ideal doggy date.

Probably just chilling with my sister’s dog, River. She’s a rescue dog from Kentucky and just super sweet and friendly. Also an incredible trooper: my sister took her hitchhiking and camping across Canada and the US one summer, and I’m pretty sure a lot of dogs couldn’t handle that. There’s actually a portrait of River on our Kickstarter page in the description for the “pixel portrait of your dog” reward tier. [Included above. --ed]

Disclosure: Miguel Sternberg is a patron of Critical Distance, a site for which I serve as an advisory board member and which has no relationship to Zam. While we are acquainted, this interview was arranged and conducted over normal business channels.

UPDATE (5:48PM): A previous version of this article misidentified River as a different, but equally good, pupper.