Tag Archives: Keep Omaha Good Weird

Gaming with Marcus Ross

May 6, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Marcus Ross can frequently be found at Spielbound, one of Omaha’s hottest spots for board game enthusiasts. While Ross thoroughly enjoys board games, he’s not content just playing them—he also designs them. With three games officially published and more on the way, this Omaha native has taken his gaming passion to the next level.

As Ross describes it, his “real job” is working as a programmer for HATCX, an app that helps consumers compare prices between different medical services. His duties consist of back-end programming, which means while other programmers may be concerned with an app’s appearance and interface, Ross is focusing on the actual data the app provides to users.

Ross first took the plunge into game development several years back. He had been working long hours at a job he didn’t like, and his father had recently passed away.

“I thought ‘What would I be doing if I was just doing what I wanted to do?’” Ross says. “And I thought, ‘Game designing.’ So, I started just trying to spin up something like that.”

The first leg of his journey began in 2012, when he roped his cousin, Cara Heacock, into a “startup weekend.” This event required small groups to come together and pitch a business idea. Thus, Ross’ game development company, Water Bear Games, was born. Of the eight groups participating, they placed fifth. Despite the rough start and most of the other group members quitting, Ross kept moving forward with his business idea.

“I think we’re the only company that’s still going,” Heacock says.

She says she admires Ross’ determination. Even after experiencing several hiccups, Ross kept moving his vision forward.

Designing board games isn’t as glamorous—or as simple—as one might think. Countless hours of critiquing, crafting, and redesigning are poured into each of Ross’ projects, and some of them never even make it out of early development.

“I was just playing games, appreciating them, and saying ‘I think I can do this, it should be fun,’” Ross says.

Ross’ mid-development demos look far different from their polished, final forms. Game prototypes are a mishmash of various game pieces, homemade cards, hand-drawn boards, and just about anything else needed to make a board game function.

Ross’ first big break came in 2013, when Water Bear Games submitted a game design to a development contest hosted by the creators of Cards Against Humanity. Out of 500 contestants, Ross’ game, Discount Salmon, rose to the top. With guidance and publishing provided by Cards Against Humanity, Discount Salmon became a reality within a year.

As a joke, Ross had said he would wear a fish costume to promote the game if they won. Discount Salmon’s victory was a surprise, but that didn’t stop him from wearing a full body fish costume at the country’s largest gaming convention to promote it.

“The fish costume did the perfect thing,” Ross says. “The game is absurd. If the fish costume would bring you over, you’re already the right audience. The game sold itself.”

Spielbound guests pulling one of Ross’ games off the shelves might find themselves meeting the creator. He’s not shy when it comes to introducing himself or his games.

Ross is looking to the future of his game development career. He’s putting the finishing touches on his latest game before sending a prototype off to the publisher. If they choose to pick up the game, Ross could have his fourth game hit the shelves in 2019.


Visit waterbeargames.com to find more games from Ross and Heacock. 

This article appears in the May/June 2018 edition of The Encounter

Weird Is Good

July 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since transplanting from Pennsylvania nearly a decade ago, Christopher Vaughn Couse has made the observation that Omaha is downright weird—but in a good way.

From the hipster-laden streets of Benson to the apex of West Omaha’s suburbs, where cul-de-sacs meet cornfields—and of course there’s our friendly local billionaire, Mr. Buffett, who you may just spot snacking on a Dilly Bar—Couse is right: There’s no place like Homaha. As an artist, to pay homage to all the things that make Omaha, well, Omaha, Couse painted a simple black-and-white design with text that reads “Keep Omaha Good Weird.” It was part of Benson First Friday’s Tiny Mural Project.

“It’s about celebrating the city’s diversity and everyone’s willingness to embrace others for doing their own thing,” Couse says. Of course, it’s also a mix of the almost-revoked Nebraska mantra, “The Good Life,” and the “Keep Austin/Portland Weird” slogans.

If you’ve walked the streets of Benson or Dundee, stopped in at one of the latest oh-so-trendy and oh-so-healthy Eat Fit Go restaurants, or are familiar with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s “We Don’t Coast” campaign, you’ve likely seen Couse’s work. He may not be a Nebraska native, but with roots firmly planted in this city, his work as a freelancer, photographer, and illustrator seems to be sprouting up everywhere.

And that’s pretty darn good for a self-described “art school dropout.” It took just two years of classes in the art photography program at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for Couse to discover he needed to try a different path —and eventually a different city—to forge his career. Determined to utilize his keen eye and knack for creative styling as a professional artist, he knew it was time to move on from the world of lectures and syllabi when a professor told him art photography was a dead-end job.

“Just like that, tuition money became payments for nicer photography equipment,” Couse says.

Just because Couse was done with school didn’t mean he was done with education. He took his lack of professional training as a chance to personally develop his craft and began learning new mediums.

While he had been taking photographs since his teen years, the next evolution of his artistry came when he began combining his shots with handwritten notes to make collages. Then came illustrating and painting, then printmaking, and even working on zines. One glance at his Instagram, @christography, and you could argue he’s made social media his next canvas.

“I delve into different genres of art, figure out what I like, and begin incorporating these aesthetics into my own work,” Couse says. “I’ll admit, I have a bad problem of not sticking with one thing and instead trying to tackle a lot of things.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any similarities across mediums. Stylistically, his work is usually filled with color, idiosyncratic humor, and his emotions as each piece reflects what he was feeling when it was created. Thematically, he regularly combines text with imagery, and he’s often inspired by the conversations, people, and the city surrounding him.

For one of his most popular series, a combination of party gossip and local lore inspired him. Shortly after moving, he heard boozed-up friends describing metro movers and shakers as “Omaha Famous.” Using his love for pop culture, he decided to borrow this phrase and started illustrating portraits of actual famous people who were born in Omaha. Perhaps nowhere else will you find a collection that includes the likes of activist Malcolm X, President Gerald R. Ford, and Lady Gaga’s ex and “cool Nebraska guy” Lüc Carl. There’s even a coloring book available online, so you too can shade the mugs of Conor Oberst and Marlon Brando for only $4.

“What I love about Omaha—and why it inspires me—is it has a small-town feel but in a big-city atmosphere. I haven’t found that elsewhere,” Couse says.

Couse has further made an impact in the community through his creative freelance work. Often collaborating with branding agency Secret Penguin, he’s helped design packaging for Eat Fit Go, design signs for Flagship Commons, and developed promotional material for
“We Don’t Coast.”

As if all that combined with balancing a full-time retail job and playing daddy to a newborn wasn’t enough, he also preps collections of his work to show at local galleries, with a recent exhibit at Harney Street Gallery.

“I’m always searching for ways I can do better in life, better in my craft,” Couse says.

With Omaha and all of its oddities keeping him so busy, art projects get done when he can find the time. If one makes him a sweet penny, then great. If not, that’s A-OK with Couse, too.

“My end goal is to have fun and inspire other people to create things,” Couse says. “It’s not complicated. I just hope my art makes people smile for even a second.”

And there’s nothing downright weird about that at all.

Visit christophervaughncouse.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

Christopher Couse