Connie Choi Deborah Chantson Feature Gabriela Kim Passos Interview Joan Lee PlayStation Rooster Rooster PS4 Rooster PS5 Sasha Boersma Sony Sticky Brain Studios

Interview With Rooster Team Sticky Brain Studios – Really Great People Doing Really Great Work

Video games are not a place where you’ll commonly find auteurs. Individual geniuses that can be given the full credit for what makes a game amazing, clever, seminal, pick your descriptive word.

Oh sure, there have been and likely will still be individual names the industry upholds and gives too much credit to. Hideo Kojima, Ken Levine, Neil Druckmann, Amy Hennig, Cory Barlog, Hidetaka Miyazaki – to name a few, are all easily recognizable names for anyone entrenched in gaming.

They’re each credited with being the artists that brought some truly amazing games to life – and that’s definitely true in part, but they are not the only ones responsible. Games are (mostly) made by a team of people. It’s a collaborative art form where projects rarely get to the finish line with only one person doing all the work.

And before you say Eric Barone, the reality is that Stardew Valley would’ve never been made if Barone didn’t have his partner, Amber, keeping their household afloat while Barone worked on the game. I also shouldn’t have to point out that stories like Barone’s are the exception, not the rule.

Which brings us to Sticky Brain Studios, a small development team based in Toronto that’s been around for 11 years, where a team of creators are collaborating to bring into the world, Rooster. A culturally-rich game framed by the Chinese Zodiac about learning how to apologize and own up to your mistakes. It’ll be launching first on PC through Steam, but PSU can also exclusively confirm that the team is in the process of bringing it to PlayStation.

For PSU, I got to speak with Sticky Brain co-founder Sasha Boersma, art director Connie Choi, writer and narrative director Deborah Chanston, animation director Joan Lee and technical director Gabriela Kim Passos, about Rooster, the studio environment of Sticky Brain, and what gets created after communication.

Interview With Rooster Team Sticky Brain Studios – Really Great People Doing Really Great Work

Building The Team

While researching and preparing for this interview, it had already started to become clear to me that the team at Sticky Brain Studios was one that got along quite well, a clarity that could have easily been shattered the moment I jumped on the call with each of them since this came from nothing more than me just catching a vibe.

So it was a nice validation of my own vibes radar when I jumped on the call and could quickly tell I was right, – even though Kim Passos unfortunately couldn’t join the call until later on – as I heard Boersma explain how the team behind Rooster came together.

For Connie Choi and Joan Lee, they both began working with Sticky Brain as freelancers on contracts before being brought on full time. For Lee, it worked out that after being laid off from their previous full-time studio, Sticky Brain had an opportunity for them to join the team full-time. Choi quit her previous role to join up with Sticky Brain.

“When we got the funding for Rooster from the Canada Media Fund in Ontario Creates, we flipped her [Choi] into full time employment, and now she’s stuck with us for a while.” Choi and Boersma both laughed as Choi smiled and said “I’m cool with that.”

Deborah Chantson came to the team very differently however, because her connection with Boersma and Sticky Brain’s co-founder Ted Brunt goes back much further.

“Deb’s story with us is something completely different,” began Boersma. Chanston first worked with the two co-founders through one of her earliest opportunities post-graduate studies.

“She was working as a story coordinator for a tv show at the same company that my business partner and I were heading up the interactive team for.

We wanted to make sure the interactive companion to the tv show aligned in the story, and we went ‘Is there anyone from the story department that we can hire on the interactive team who can help bring it together? And they went ‘Yes, have Deb.'”

That was Chantson’s start in writing for interactive narratives. But it wasn’t until a while later when Boersma and Sticky Brain were beginning to look for funding for Rooster that Chantson came back into Boersma’s mind.

While shopping Rooster around, Boersma realized they needed a strong writer to enter the fray and create more clarity for investors and the team as to what shape Rooster would take.

Boersma first went to email Chanston to ask if Chanston could put out the call that Sticky Brain was looking for a writer in a BIPOC writers groups she knew Chanston was a part of. Before she sent the email though, she had a lightning flash of realization, deleted her original message and simply asked Chantson if she was interested in the project. It was the fastest positive response Boersma says she ever received.

It couldn’t feel like anything less than fate, hearing Boersma recount how they all came together and to hear them each speak on their version of events. Seeing the team as it is today, Sticky Brain looks to be the example of what a game development studio can look like.

A space where creatives feel they can be vulnerable with others, share their ideas, be fiercely collaborative and love the work they get to do. Everyone, at some point on the call, spoke to how Sticky Brain is a great place to work because they feel it’s a safe space to let their creativity fly.

That’s the environment that allowed Choi to pitch two projects that have now gone from pitching to full production. Kimono, a mobile game from Sticky Brain was Choi’s first pitch that became one of the studio’s main projects. Rooster is now the second.

“It’s a studio that is very open to ideas. Ted and Sasha made it clear if I had any ideas, I can come pitch it,” said Choi. “I felt like I can really be myself, working at this company.”

In a games industry that, despite the games themselves in many ways being a new era of ‘the best video games of all time,’ is internally suffering, Sticky Brain Studios stands as a bright spot of how things can work, if your focus is clear and fueled by creativity, collaboration, and communication.

“A Literal Dreams Come True Story”

Choi was the one who had the original idea for Rooster, something that she says came to her in a dream. “A literal dreams come true story,” adds Chantson. “Like Twilight, but better,” I say. All agreed.

But while it is a dream for any creative to get to do work in their field on an idea they hatched, the actual endeavour of doing it isn’t always the dream we think it’ll be.

That’s not the case for Choi and the rest of Rooster’s core creative team at Sticky Brain, because Sticky Brain isn’t like most studios. That’s not to say the team doesn’t struggle through some decisions and isn’t working tirelessly to make sure they execute on making a great game.

Instead just an observation that while there’s a strong case to be made that Sticky Brain’s methods of operation should be the norm, that’s not the reality of this industry.

“In this environment, everyone really pitched in their strengths and their own ideas into trying to make the process of making this game as smooth as possible,” said Choi.

“We’re constantly pitching ways to improve things, and this is from everybody. I have certain gaps, for example organization, and it’s really supportive in the way where Joan stepped up and led a meeting on file naming and all that. I was like ‘Ah ha! Someone finally did that.’ We all pulled in our strengths.”

“The other really interesting thing is at Sticky Brain, Ted and I have our years of experience,” says Boersma. “For almost everyone on the team, they’re in a very new role than they’ve ever been in before.

So Connie’s done art and animation for games, this is her first time stepping into an official art director role. And she’s been growing into the role through the two years of production.

Joan, we had actually intended to be supplemental art/animation, but just as Connie was saying, ‘Oh I’ve got gaps here and there,’ Joan really stepped up and has really grown into this animation director role, which was not part of our original plan, but just recognizing some of the gaps that Connie had and some of her untapped strengths that I don’t know if she even knew she had.

And so Joan joins the official creative lead team. For Gabi, they have been a solo developer for most of their projects. This is Gabi’s first official technical director role, with the title, with a couple of developers working under them collaboratively, so that’s new to them.

Deb’s written for film and television, has done a lot of community management and marketing but it’s her first narrative designer capacity. She’s done games writing before from us, [but] it’s her first time in narrative design. And you can just keep working down the team from there.”

Boersma goes on to describe other members of Sticky Brain, some of whom it’s their first game projects, that are each growing into these roles, which I see to be directly because Sticky Brain has created a space for that to be possible.

“This really interesting growth for everyone, which I think is a lot of – you know Ted and I are always learning, always growing, we don’t like the rigid hierarchy as a result. We just want to see really great people do really great work.

And I think that’s how the collaborative method and everyone being able to support each other, and the sense they’re all in it to make this game and the fact that because there’s no one fighting to stay in their lane, like – there’s none of the ‘someone else is after my job.’

It’s [instead] like Connie was just saying, ‘Oh you’re good at that? I’m not.'” Choi echoed this sentiment by saying “Help me!” as Boersma continued.

“[This] is how Ted and I work. A lot of people are confused with how the two of us share the duties at the head of the company but it’s because he’s got things he’s good at and I’ve got things I’m good at.

And it makes complete sense to us how we’ve split the responsibilities, but we still step in and help each other as much as we can. And I think that says a lot too with how this team collaborates and have created their own models.” Boersma asks for confirmation from the rest of the team, who all agree with her. “I super agree,” says Choi.

Hearing the team talk about what their experience at Sticky Brain is, felt like being privy to special insider knowledge for how good things can be when, as I said before, the focus is creativity, collaboration, and communication.

Which is why it cuts both ways when I asked the team what they see looking out into the rest of the games industry, compared to how Sticky Brain operates.

“I know this is a rarity.” said Chantson. She later added that she’s afraid she’ll never find this kind of working environment again. Lee adds that even pre-COVID, “Sticky Brain studios is not the norm. We definitely have a different way the company deals with structures, or I would say lack of structure that people might not have, because we’re very accommodating and because of the whole collaborative perspective that everybody works in.”

An Important Happy Coincidence

It’s immediately apparent when looking at Rooster, it’s a game born out of a specific culture, in this case Chinese culture. The previous game that Choi pitched, Kimono, also has deep cultural roots. In both games, it seems impossible to play them and not learn something about the culture they’re inspired by.

Even with Rooster not being out yet, it looks to me that the game walks the line of being ‘edutainment,’ even if that’s not always its intention. And all this is coming from a core creative team that each have East Asian backgrounds.

A culturally rich story, told from a richly diverse team, might just be something that a big suit at a different company would say is good for ‘checking off boxes.’ But for the team at Sticky Brain they all see the importance in games like Rooster, that speak to these specific cultural reference points in very clear, direct ways while telling stories that ultimately can speak to anyone.

“Games are like fruit, there’s something for everyone,” said Chantson when we were talking about player desire for big and small experiences. A comment that’s relevant to that conversation and this one.

The team saw the importance of games like Rooster in real time. In an interview with MobileSyrup, Boersma recounted a GDC story in which a young student had a game idea for a game set within Chinese mythology as their big, capstone project. While wanting to pull inspiration from her culture, it was the fact that she never saw games like Rooster that had her thinking this game wasn’t worth making.

Seeing the Rooster booth immediately shut down that line of thinking. Other people, like her, saw how great it could be to make a game rooted in Chinese culture. A story like this is basically the most direct example you can get on why representation matters.

And that doesn’t just mean base-level representation you’d see in a local university or college brochure, where students from all backgrounds are piled together in a promotional photo shoot. The kind of representation that’s deeply meaningful, made by artists pulling from their own life experiences.

That’s why, despite Rooster being set in Ancient China, it’s not aiming for total historical accuracy. The team has things about its setting they want to make sure are accurate of course, but that doesn’t apply everywhere.

The worry to ‘get everything right’ or for it all to be represented ‘correctly,’ whatever that’s meant to mean is less about the details in the game you could compare against a history book, and more about respecting the culture they’re representing in its totality, which also includes modern changes compared to ancient traditions.

The food and clothing you’ll see in Rooster are two examples of this, as the game pulls from modern aspects of Chinese culture, as well as aspects of the Tang dynasty, which is the game’s main setting.

“It’s a weird marriage between our contemporary culture versus the culture that might have been accurate or true for back then. I think it’s more so just being respectful, but also just making sure it resonates with us in a more personal level,” said Lee.

“We want to display the best of Chinese culture,” adds Chantson. In one level of Rooster, players are tasked with choosing a ‘correct gift,’ and it’s the knowledge that there can be an incorrect gift is what Chantson wants to get across. “One of the things I do want to impart is that you can choose a correct gift and an incorrect gift. Like if you show up to somebody’s house on Lunar New Year with a set of knives, like, please don’t do that. [laughs]”

Choi adds that this also isn’t a game made by people living in China. It’s made by people living in Canada, who’ve all had their own experiences Chinese culture as people born on the west side of the planet.

“This is definitely a game made by people not even in that country, and we’re celebrating it, based on what we know.” Which also speaks to a baseline connection between all the creative leads, and part of why they work so well together, best exemplified in Chantson’s elation that “95%” of her jokes land the way she intended them to.

Boersma recounts a different GDC experience, regarding the reaction from Chinese game publishers being shown Rooster. “It was this really interesting connection back of, this is very much a game rooted in emigration and the global diaspora, and yet when we met with people from China at GDC, they’re looking at it like, ‘Hey, this looks very Chinese.'”

Most validating for Chantson was how publishers from China understood Rooster’s tower-defense level. “Basically, you’re fending off unwelcome visitors and overbearing aunties who would generally just come and give you unsolicited advice when you have a new baby.

And Sasha was explaining this to the mainland China visitors at her booth, and there was a moment where somebody had to translate that. But then they laughed, really satisfyingly.”

Boersma adds that he then called it “such a Chinese story point.” With all this said, Boersma doesn’t claim Sticky Brain has any mandate towards always educating while entertaining.

The team also agreed that they don’t necessarily feel a responsibility to make games that educate, specifically ones that educate on parts of their own cultural roots.

Sticky Brain has done educational-focused work, but if a game they’re creating does both, it comes more from genuine desire to make the best game they can.

“As a studio, for us we don’t see Rooster as necessarily educational, but we do see it as insightful in many ways,” said Boersma.

Chantson calls Rooster “enlightening,” more than it is educational. She also adds that the game does open with a series of facts, but just as a quick method of getting necessary information across, and establish the game’s setting. For that reason Chantson also implores players to not skip the intro.

Choi and Lee both call Rooster’s edutainment aspect “happy coincidence,” though Lee adds for herself that it is “more enjoyable,” and finds that games with an educational aspect are “more fulfilling” to make.

“I think it’s always very important when a game has some cultural roots. It always brings something more to the table,” says Kim Passos. “I think Rooster does bring something to the table that I haven’t seen before done in the way Rooster is doing it.

And I think it’s not only about culture, it’s so much about how culture and family and friendship interact and influence one another. I think that’s the most important thing about Rooster, in that sense.

It brings a lot of things that are close to so many people out there that have never seen themselves represented and have never felt seen by a game before.”

Chantson tags on “It’s one of the few Asian games out there without any martial arts in it.”

“I really enjoy games in general as a way of self-expression and also a way to connect,” says Choi. “And I’m hopping onto Gabi’s point of feeling seen. I’m putting in recipes and things that are sentimental, and some of them highly specific.

And maybe someone else out there knows exactly what I mean when I put it in there.”

What’s Created After Some Communication

“What’s created after some communication” was something Choi said that for me, is the simplest elevator pitch to describe Sticky Brain Studios and how it operates, and what it delivers.

A studio that is deeply collaborative, that communicates constantly and directly focuses on creating a space for game development that is as optimal as possible to everyone on the team and their strengths.

Lee described it as establishing negotiable and non-negotiable lines for the project, and in the case of negotiable items, always communicating in depth about what would make the most sense, to prepare for the project’s production to be as smooth as possible.

You might say that Sticky Brain is only able to operate the way it does because it’s a smaller studio, which is of course partly true. But that doesn’t change that Boersma and Brunt see more importance in making the games they, as a studio want to make. An huge influx of cash to Sticky Brain tomorrow wouldn’t mean they’d be making a massive game that’ll cost tens of millions or more to make.

You don’t need millions to see it’s best to create a working environment that lifts the team to express themselves to their fullest and feel safe to push their work to new heights.

For Sticky Brain, that’s led to a game they know is on the right track. Something everyone is proud to be a part of, and are looking forward to it being out in the world.

“I’m simultaneously super excited and super nervous about how people respond to the story and the gameplay,” says Chantson speaking about the game’s coming launch sometime in 2025.

“But GDC was so validating.” Kim Passos adds “I feel very proud of us.” Lee agrees and expresses that the game’s launch will be a great “sense of accomplishment” for them, knowing the hard work they put in to get it out there and the hope that players will connect with it.

Especially when considering that while this team seems like they’ve worked together forever, it’s really their first time each working together like this.

“And it gives you this sense of excitement for other projects that we’re going to work on together in the future, too,” she says.

Speaking of what’s next for Sticky Brain, even though Rooster is still in the works the team already has eyes set on the next project. A game called Grow Still, a coming of age story that Joan Lee pitched to Boersma and Brunt. The early word is that it’ll be very different from Rooster in that it won’t have the same cultural bent, but will be of a similarly scaled game.

Until then though, the team continues in the heat of Rooster’s development, being a team of really great people doing really great work.

Rooster is set to arrive sometime in Spring 2025.

Thank you to Sasha Boersma, Connie Choi, Deborah Chantson, Joan Lee and Gabriela Kim Passos for their time and generosity in their answers to make this interview happen.