Dogwood Gaming: Creating Games with an Advanced AI System

CEO of Dogwood Gaming Samuel Martino told us about how the studio's cyberpunk RPG Ashes of Kanaka was made, talked about the AI system used in the remake, and explained how the company got the investment from the state.


Hello! I’m Samuel Martino and I am the CEO of Dogwood Gaming. I started the studio in my last year of college studying Political Science. I was good at it but didn’t want to go to law school and be a lawyer. While it might have made me a lot of money, it wasn’t going to make me happy. After talking to a couple of my friends, we thought making video games could be fun, 7 years and 4 games later, it is the best decision I’ve ever made. I am entirely self-taught as is most of my team, and all of my games have been made with Dogwood. 

Dogwood Gaming

Dogwood Gaming didn’t officially form until 2016, but we started working on projects in 2015. I used to go to this cafe in Rockville, MD called Sam’s Cafe where I met 90% of the people I work with and both of our private investors. Pretty much every day for 4-5 years I would show up and work on video games on my laptop in this cafe from open to close. Over the years, I met incredible people that made all of this possible.

I work with people who, back in 2016, had never opened a 3D program before and now they’re creating incredible projects with Dogwood. Can you believe our character artist Stephanie only started making them less than 2 years ago? The people I’ve gotten to meet and grow with are what really makes Dogwood special. I'm proud of all the projects I’ve gotten to work on. It would be hard to choose just one. Every game I’ve worked on has been a passion project.

Ashes of Kanaka

Ashes of Kanaka was the first game we ever made. When we first started, no one knew how to program, so we started in RPG Maker MV. It was an incredibly special project that took us to E3 for the first time and saw our company grow from 4 to 14 in just a few months. In the beginning, we came into this as huge Mass Effect fans and wanted to create a memorable world full of unforgettable characters with our limited resources.

Ashes was made with RPG Maker, Photoshop, and a lot of stubbornness. Our goal in making it was to have it stand out amongst the sea of RPG Maker titles. This was back in the days of Steam Greenlight, so being made in RPG Maker was almost a death sentence. We did everything we could from editing all the maps in Photoshop to designing 55 different companions who could join you in the story.

That companion system ended up being the basis for our AI system today. Everyone who worked on Ashes came in with zero experience and learned as we went, which really set the foundation for us as a company. We wanted Ashes to be an incredible sci-fi epic with a story and cast of characters that left as much of an impression as Mass Effect had on us. At the time, there was only so much we could do in RPG Maker. Now, with Unreal Engine, it feels like we can make it the game we always wanted it to be.

The AI System

Our AI system actually came as a necessity for our remake of Ashes of Kanaka. When bringing the game over to Unreal Engine, we wanted to make sure we could do everything we originally wanted to have in Ashes. The biggest challenge was to make our AI feel like friends who grow alongside you through the game. I have very fond memories of all the small bits of character building that came with all of the companions in Mass Effect. Ashes has 55 companions, and we wanted every single one of them to be unique and fun to have in your party. We want the player to be able to find a party of companions they want to play with, no matter who they are or how they want to play. This was the real start of the Dogwood Companion System.

At its core, our system creates personalities that will dictate how a companion acts in the world. A more aggressive companion will double on 13s when playing blackjack in a casino with you, while a more timid one may only make safe bets. These personalities then let us affect how they grow in combat. Just raising stat numbers doesn’t really change gameplay, but a companion whose aim gets noticeably better or who is willing to heal you more the more you fight with them does. This really opens the doors for what is possible with both ally and enemy AI. Imagine you encounter a boss multiple times who not only grows in power each time you fight him but learns your party composition and can adjust their strategy accordingly.

This system also works with background NPCs, allowing us to fill a space with hundreds of NPCs with their own goals and routines. Instead of just having background characters walk between points, they now have goals such as buying food or meeting up with friends. This makes everything feel so much more alive. We plan to release this to studios after the release of our remake of Ashes of Kanaka. We want Ashes to be our major unveiling of the full ability of our AI system. While we are developing the system in Ashes, we’re also working on integrating this with architecture programs and even film, so there should be a version out before the full release of Ashes. 

Unreal Engine

We started using Unreal Engine right after the release of the original Ashes of Kanaka. When we began our next project, we really didn’t know what to do since none of us had really programmed before. Unreal made it possible for any of our games to happen. I was never very good at programming, but the Blueprint system that Unreal has made it so I could learn a lot of it myself. Not to mention the incredible amount of free resources out there: 95% of every tutorial I’ve ever used was free on YouTube. Honestly, it is incredible the wealth of knowledge you can obtain with YouTube tutorials.

We are currently still using 4.25, but we want to move to Unreal 5 and our AI system is being built with 5 in mind. However, a lot of the plugins we use have not been upgraded yet, so as soon as they’re compatible, we’ll make the switch. Unreal has really been a fantastic engine to use, and I am so happy we made the switch after RPG Maker. The resources and support are incredible, and I don’t think we would be able to do what we do without Unreal Engine.

The Funding

It still feels pretty surreal to receive this investment from Maryland. I’ve been doing this for 6 years trying to get somewhere, and the resources for indie developers are slim, so we are incredibly fortunate.

Back in September of 2021, we were trying to figure out what to do. We had put so much time and effort into the remake of Ashes, but it still wasn’t at a point where we could confidently show investors. There were very limited options, especially for video games. This started from me banging on every office door from Annapolis to Baltimore to find small business aid. While it does exist in every state, sometimes it is just a bit more hidden.

Eventually, I found TEDCO (Maryland Technology Development Corporation) and after several months of interviews and demonstrations, they really came to believe in our AI system.

I wish I could say how to get such funding easily, but it literally took me driving all over my state, banging on doors, and mountains of paperwork and applications. The resources are available – and some are easier to find than others – but it can take a lot of legwork.

The funds are being used to be able to take on the incredible people who have worked until now out of love for the project. Everyone working with Dogwood does it because they are passionate about what they make. I wake up every day in awe at the incredible work that my team puts out, and now when I can pay them to do it, it's one of the most incredible feelings in the world.

Now, that we can afford our staff, we can get our AI system built much, much faster. All of us are hoping this generous investment was the break we all had been looking for.

The Future Plans

Our main focus is to continue developing our AI system and to ensure our remake of Ashes of Kanaka is the best it can be. We have a Kickstarter campaign coming up soon that will coincide with the release of a playable demo, so people can try out the early stages of our system very soon. We’re also actively looking for more applications that can use our AI system outside of gaming so we can continue to evolve the system’s capabilities.

I want to create games that are fun and leave an impact, and I think the best way to do that is to constantly try to innovate and bring something to the table. I believe Ashes of Kanaka will be the game that springs us forward, and we are all so excited to continue building games for you all.

The best advice I can give anyone who wants to start out as a game developer is to show kindness and understanding to all the people you work with. Everyone making video games does it because they want to, and the reason why Dogwood has the talent it does is that we’ve been able to build on this passion. The people I work with have produced such incredible content that I never thought I’d be working with now. I take a lot of pride in being able to check in with every department directly because I have at least some understanding of all the different programs. If you show your drive and passion, you will attract quality people.

Samuel Martino, CEO of Dogwood Gaming

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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