Ask An Indie: Zach Johnson, Zachstronaut

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Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 1.01.38 PMAsk an Indie: Zach Johnson, owner and Creative Developer, Zachstronaut, LLC.

What inspired you to start making games?

I played a ton of games as a kid, and I found myself having ideas about how those games could work differently. I also spent hours and hours drawing things as a kid. I’d imagine things inspired by cartoons or whatever, and then I’d draw them out. I think I liked the process of creation. Games ended up being the same for me. I remember spending a lot of time with a pencil and graph paper drawing out my own levels for different games.

I was also very curious about how games actually worked and how they were made, and that’s what led me to discovering programming languages and learning how to code. Once I really got into coding for some reason I pretty much stopped drawing entirely. I think it was because I was excited by the fast results from my coding that I could see on the computer screen. I satisfied my desire to create something more than just drawing it did.

At what age did you create your first game?

I was 13 or so when I made my first game. It was a black and white maze game made in ASCII art for DOS. The player would just pick the direction they wanted to turn at intersections. So the gameplay part wasn’t very interesting… however, I spent loads of time hiding stuff in the maze. Lots of rooms with really weird pop culture references. Lots of obscure secret codes to unlock things that no player but me would have ever been able to find.

What formal training (if any) do you have that has helped you?

I did get a degree in Computer Science, but honestly I’m not sure how much that has helped me make games.

What are some of your favorite tools or resources?

I’m partial to all that the web has to offer, both as a toolset and a resource. I like JavaScript based game engines like Impact. I like the vast pool of inspiration, examples, and source code you can find on the web from so many places… TIGSource, indiedb, Ludum Dare, and so on.

How many people does your studio employ?

I work for my own company, Zachstronaut LLC, and I only employ myself. When I work solo on a game, I’m doing almost everything: design, art, programming, marketing, and so on. I do try to find partners to help with music, though.

But I also like to work on teams! I’ve been the programmer on a bigger team for some games. Right now I’m making the game Joggernauts with Tommy Sunders. He’s doing the art, I’m doing the programming, and we’re both working on game design.

What game(s) have you published, and where? On what platforms are they available?

I published my own game Legend of Equip > Pants, and that’s available on iOS and in the Chrome Store. I was also the programmer for the Beemo – Adventure Time app for iOS designed by Ham in the Fridge and published by Cartoon Network.

What is the most challenging thing about being a game developer in the Twin Cities?

Well first, I’m an indie developer, and I’m not looking for a major studio FT job in the game industry (well, not right now anyway, heh). So that influences my answer. And I’d say that all indie game makers regardless of where they are living probably face mostly the same issues. Maybe it is easier to network and get noticed if you live in LA or San Francisco? I think it is just kind of hard to get your game noticed no matter what.

What is the most rewarding?

The community. I’ve made lots of friends who make games professionally or just for fun (or both). It’s nice to be able to bounce ideas off people or just hang out. IGDA-TC in particular has been a great place to meet people.

What advice would you give someone trying to break into the industry?

Well, my first piece of advice is to start making games. Right now. You can learn how to do it at home using free online resources. Start with really small, really simple games.

Second, are you looking for a career? Do you want to make money while working on games? Then it is like any other industry. You’ve got to get the skills somewhere (training yourself or going to school), you’ve got to get your first job (it’ll probably NOT be doing what you actually want to do), and then it’ll take time (and a lot of hard work) to get where you want to go.

On the other hand, are you looking to make art? Or only work on your own projects? To be independent? That’s great, but you almost certainly aren’t going to make any money… for potentially a long time. Think of it like starting a band. Think of how many bands don’t really make any money from their music. If you want to make art, think of how few artists make a living off their art. I’m not trying to discourage anything… I’m just suggesting people really consider what they are getting themselves into. If you are prepared and realistic, you’ve got a better chance to make your dream work out.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

This was fun! Thanks!

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