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Taking a byte of Litchfield

Litchfield became home to Paul Perkins about a decade ago. The Kentucky native saw it as a good place to raise a family.

Nothing has changed his perception of Litchfield during the past 10 years.

In fact, he enjoys the town — its people, buildings, history and events — so much that he’s using his burgeoning skills as a video game creator to immortalize Litchfield in digital form.

“I had the idea for this for a while, but really started working on it within the past month,” Perkins, 32, said during an interview in late November. “From making a game design document and getting my thoughts together, and then, of course, right now I’m in the process of making all the artwork for this.”

That artwork will include two-dimensional, digital versions of landmarks, such as Central Park and its bandstand, and historic buildings like the G.A.R. Hall and Opera House. Oh, and he envisions events like Watercade, the county fair, Parade of Bands and more being part of the game play, as well.

To ensure his game includes the best, or most memorable, of Litchfield, Perkins put out a call on social media in November and again earlier this month, asking Litchfield residents to share with him the landmark buildings and events that make the town special to them.

“I had my idea, but I also … there’s probably things that I’m not aware of, events throughout the town that maybe people would like to see in it,” Perkins said. “That’s why I was asking for suggestions.

“I got a lot of positive feedback,” he added. “I think I got over 200 likes on that post, and more than a dozen people shared it. It was kind of my way of gauging and feeling out and getting people’s opinion.”

Perkins, wearing a T-shirt depicting the classic 1980s arcade game “Donkey Kong,” talked enthusiastically about his game, whose working title is, “Town Life RPG, Litchfield MN.” A role-playing game – the “RPG” in the title — it begins with the player moving into an old farmhouse on the edge of town, and then sets about exploring the town and meeting its residents.

It isn’t the high-tech, three-dimensional, cinematic production of today’s top RPG games like “World of Warcraft” or “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.” Think one less dimension, more basic, pixelated. Like the 1990s Nintendo classic “Super Mario Brothers Bros.”

While today’s teenage gamers might turn their nose up at the game, Perkins sees it as fitting the “classic” niche, in addition to helping him improve his skills as a video game creator.

“This is something that helps me, as an independent game developer, grow,” he said. “The more different kinds of games that you create and the more that you do, the better your skills.”

Perkins said he got started in video game development as a sort of evolution from his longtime love of playing video games.

“As far as video games go, it’s always been a passion of mine,” he said. “I’ve been playing video games since I was old enough to know how to use a controller.

“So, I’ve been a huge video game nerd, you could say, for a long time,” Perkins said. “Making video games is something that I’ve picked up over the last five or six years. I’ve self-taught myself everything I know about it.”

Perkins grew up in Pine Knot, Kentucky, population 1,680, in the south-central part of the state. After graduating from high school in 2008, he attended Universal Technical Institute in Morrisville, North Carolina, to study automotive tech, a field that he says tied into his interest in video games.

“Automotive is something I liked. I like working with my hands,” he said. “So, I knew that (auto repair) was going to be something that would be quick and easy for me to get through school.”

The training got him a job working with the Lexus plant in Lexington, Kentucky, where he worked until moving to Minnesota.

“That’s been my career,” Perkins said. “I still very much like doing that.”

He met his future wife — Hannah Orsatti, a Litchfield resident — through the online dating website eHarmony. They “courted” virtually for a few months, using technology such as email and Skype to stay in touch. Perkins soon decided to move to Minnesota, and shortly after they were engaged, and then married on Aug. 28, 2010.

They have four children ranging in age from 2 to 9, with a fifth child on the way. A busy household, to be sure.

Add in Perkins’ job as a service technician at an auto dealership in Willmar, and finding time to be a video game developer might seem a challenge. And, well, it is, Perkins admitted. But video games — both playing and creating them — is still just a hobby, one that he finds time to do in the evening, usually after his children go to bed.

“I don’t do it full-time, and I haven’t made a whole lot of money doing it,” Perkins said. “So, yeah, it’s the learning experience. It’s for my own enjoyment.”

It is enough of a pursuit where Perkins has established a name for his video game cottage industry — 4:8 Games, a name derived from Philippians 4:8, a Bible verse that he said encapsulates his goal of creating wholesome entertainment through video games. Through 4:8 Games, he has worked with a music composer and writer, and another game developer on projects.

But while developing a video game that grabs the attention of a large audience is intriguing, that isn’t really the goal, Perkins said. At least right now.

“I guess if any of the games did take off, and people liked it, I mean, obviously, that wouldn’t be a bad thing,” he said. “It’s just, you know, my vision for my game studio or vision overall of 4:8 Games is to make wholesome games, games that bring the family together.

“My idea is just to make games that … game time is family time,” he added.

At the Perkins home, he said, they plan “video game night” like other families might plan “movie night.”

“I guess I could say I’ve been blessed with a wife who’s kind of nerdy, too,” Perkins said with a chuckle. “She enjoys video games as much as I do. She’s always reminded me of that — be glad I’m as big a nerd of video games as you.

“That wasn’t obviously something that I had to be in a spouse, but it was just kind of an added bonus,” he said. “She’s been really supportive.”

Through that support, Perkins has already developed a few games.

The first game, “Paper Doodle Craft,” has the player maneuver a doodle-sketched rocket through an endless maze of similarly doodled obstacles. “Pixel Blocks,” is a digital version of playing with blocks, in which Perkins said he used “real world physics” to replicate how blocks might be stacked and how they might tumble down. And “Junk Food Invaders,” completed most recently, emulates the classic “Galaga,” with the player shooting missiles at falling junk food.

All of the games, available on Google Play and the Apple App Store, were inspired by Perkins’ enjoyment of classic video games, as well his wish to create games his children might like to play. They are basic in their design, Perkins said, yet his children have given them a thumb-up. And they have even been downloaded from the app stores.

“The first one I did (Paper Doodle Craft), I took inspiration from the fact that (doodling) was something I did when I was in school,” he said. “I’d sit and doodle instead of listening to my studies, like I should have been. I’d make my whole notebook like a racecourse made out of pencil, and then I could trace my little spacecraft, hovercraft through the course and stuff like that.

“That was fairly simple to make,” he said, using a program for developers called Game Salad, which teaches programming while making a game. “The artwork was very simple. It’s pixel art.”

As if playing with his virtual building blocks, Perkins is stacking and expanding his skills as a developer with “Town Life RPG: Litchfield MN.”

And learning about his adopted home along the way.

Exploration is the name of the game in “Town Life RPG: Litchfield MN,” Perkins said, with no real points system or conclusion.

“You’re just moving in the town,” Perkins explained. “Some of this I take inspiration from my own experience moving up to Litchfield.”

The game player’s character moves about the virtual Litchfield meeting and interacting with other non-playable characters, or NPCs, from the town. In addition, players collect things to build a life in the town.

“Some of that’s not fleshed out 100 percent, but for sure, it will be exploring, being able to explore everything in town,” Perkins said. “And being able to kind of just get to know what the feel of the town is, with things like Watercade that the player can visit, like Pie in the Park”

He plans to replicate in chunky, pixelated form Litchfield’s downtown, its businesses and residential areas. The character will have the option of strolling the town on foot or using a car to maneuver the streets.

He said he sees endless possibilities in what could be an endless game. And with today’s technology of app stores, updates to the game will be more feasible than the old days of cartridge- or disc-based games.

Based on feedback he’s received on social media, he hopes the game could be a popular app store download to mobile phones for some area residents.

Regardless of its audience potential, Perkins said, it has been a worthwhile project.

“I’ve found it to be a lot of fun, just doing it,” he said. “Making Central Park, thinking about creating the town, that’s been fun.”

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Relief bill not the solution some want
  • Updated

Meeker County businesses could see more assistance as a result of the COVID-19 aid bill passed by the Legislature last week.

The bill, which passed during a one-day special session Dec. 14, included $216 million in business relief. Among the details, it calls for:

  • Department of Revenue to distribute $88 million to restaurants, bars and other eligible business that have seen a 30 percent decline in their business. Also included in the list are gyms, bowling alleys and breweries, wineries and distilleries.
  • $14 million in targeted assistance to movie theaters and convention centers through the Department of Employment and Economic Development.
  • $114 million for the state’s 87 counties, who will be tasked with distributing their allocation to businesses in need. Meeker County is in line to receive $458,000; McLeod County $700,000.
  • A 13-week extension of unemployment benefits for those who lost jobs due to the pandemic.

“I think that was remarkable,” Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, said of the Legislature’s quick and collaborative action. “But even more remarkable was in such a short time they were able to put the bill together.

“(Rep.) Dave Baker, R-Willmar spearheaded the Republican side,” Urdahl added, “and did a fine job of getting both sides and the governor. It’s a good example of what can be done when we’re working together.”

Though there was overwhelming bipartisan agreement on the bill — it passed 117-13 in the House and 62-4 in the Senate — there was division over who, or what, was at fault for the dire position many businesses have found themselves in during the pandemic.

Many Republicans pointed directly at Gov. Tim Walz, whose executive orders restricting some businesses, including closing bars and restaurants to indoor service, they blamed for putting businesses in peril. Democrats pushed back, saying Walz has followed the science in trying to slow the spread of COVID-19.

For his part, Walz said in a statement that the bill’s passage was “a critical lifeline for those businesses, and for the Minnesotans whose livelihoods depend on them. This bipartisan bill will provide direct, targeted aid to keep our small businesses afloat, support workers struggling to get by, and help families put food on the table while we work to get the virus under control.”

But State Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, one of 13 legislators who opposed the bill, called the bill the wrong way to help businesses and workers.

“…While the relief will help some, ultimately the best way we can help businesses is to let them fully open so they can safely serve their customers,” Gruenhagen said in a Dec. 16 statement. “That is why I will continue pushing to end Governor Walz’s emergency powers and restore the legislature’s constitutionally designated role as a coequal branch of government.”

The frustration with closures bubbled up during a Meeker County Board meeting Tuesday, as well, when Commissioner Beth Oberg, who manages the Litchfield American Legion restaurant and bar, offered what she called a “rant.”

“Now we all know why Walz put off his decision,” Oberg said of the governor’s scheduled address, originally set for Dec. 14 then delayed to Dec. 16. “It’s just a band-aid. The whole thing has been ridiculous.”

She mentioned “a movement” among rural businesses who planned to ignore the governor’s executive order – which he did extend through Jan. 10.

“People want to open,” Oberg said. “In my opinion, it’s just not the answer. They’re throwing some money at people trying to keep businesses … to keep their mouth shut. All they want to do is operate. This isn’t what they want.”

Gruenhagen also faulted the extension of unemployment benefits because of “unintentional consequences.” He said he’s been contacted by business owners who have struggled to hire employees during the pandemic.

“Understandably, some folks may choose to stay unemployed despite being offered their job back because unemployment benefits have been so generous,” Gruenhagen said. “Ultimately, unemployment insurance is not supposed to pay out if an employee is offered their job back or another same or similar job, but they have not been stopping payments for this reason.”

County Board approves 2021 budget, levy
  • Updated

The Meeker County Board formally approved the county’s 2021 levy and adopted the 2021 budget during its meeting last week.

Next year’s budget will grow by about $1.6 million, or 4.7 percent, to $35.2 million. The levy will increase 2.9 percent or $440,000 next year, to $15.5 million.

While both the budget and levy received unanimous approval, it didn’t come before Commissioner Beth Oberg expressed disappointment in the growing cost of government.

“We always have the discussion and it always remains the same,” Oberg said of the increases, which she questioned when the preliminary budget and levy were presented in early September.

And the preliminary levy did decrease from that point – from an initial 5.5 percent to the 2.9 percent increase approved at the Dec. 15 meeting.

County Administrator Paul Virnig said that a goal this year was to reduce use of fund balance, in a change from 2020 when there were larger draw downs of balances in different funds. And there were some areas, especially the highway construction budget, that were larger than normal. In addition, the county’s interest earning fell by about $180,000.

“It’s a long process,” Virnig said of building the annual budget. “We start in May and (it) culminates in December to certify (the levy) to the state.”

The highway construction budget for 2021 increases by $1.6 million, basically the amount of the budget increase, Virnig noted, from $7,971,520 this year to $9,535,050 in 2021. The highway budget is prone to some up-and-down, depending on projects anticipated each year, as evidenced by the fact that the 2019 highway fund was $8,466,392 – nearly $500,000 more than the 2020 fund.

Meeker County Social Services “tightened their belt a little closer for next year,” Virnig said, and the 2021 Human Services fund will see a $81,005 decrease from the current year.

Virnig also highlighted what he said was a “historically low number” in terms of the personnel costs. With a net increase of $260,000 in 2021, county wages will increase less than 2 pecent next year, he explained.

School Board approves levy
  • Updated

Litchfield School Board’s truth-in-taxation hearing Dec. 14 was a quiet affair, with no members of the public showing up at the Wagner Education Building to question or discuss the district’s levy or operation.

And following a brief presentation by Business Manager Jesse Johnson, the School Board certified the district’s 2021 levy at $5.5 million — a 3.77 percent increase over the current year.

Johnson’s presentation included an explanation that the tax levy is based on state-determined formulas, with some increases in tax levies offset by state aid. In addition, school districts’ budgets are limited by state-set revenue formulas, voter-approved levies and fund balances, not tax levies alone.

The bulk of the school district’s 2020-2021 general fund revenue — more than 80 percent, or $15.6 million — came from the state, with local taxes providing 16.73 percent ($3.2 million) and the federal government 1.98 percent ($380,256).

The district’s budget is divided into five funds – general, food service, community service, building construction and debt service.

Litchfield School District’s construction fund is its largest for 2021, as one would expect, with the district in the midst of voter-approved construction projects at Lake Ripley Elementary School and the high school/middle school complex. The construction fund balance on June 30, 2021 is projected to be $21,538,606.

More than half of the 2020-2021 budget is in salaries and wages, with the district spending $10,629,142 or 56.75 percent there. Purchased services make up 19 percent (3,567,205) of the expenditures, and wages 16.21 percent ($2,939,472).

Johnson explained that the district’s re-employment insurance levy increased due to the uncertainty of COVID-19 pandemic effect on the staff. Costs have increased the past two quarters, he said, and he used an estimate of $75,000 for the fiscal 2021-2022 levy. In answer to a question from board member Dave Huhner, Johnson said there may be multiple reasons for the increases, from staff needing to stay home with a child, to being unable to work due to an underlying medical condition.