Ask An Indie: Darrel Cusey, Lakehome Games

Categories to Ask An Indie where we interview local independent game developers to learn how they make, do and create.

The Indie: Darrel Cusey, Senior Programmer, Lakehome Games.

What inspired you to start making games?

I started making games because I couldn’t pay for them myself. I saved all my chore and birthday money and bought a Commodore 16 when I was 9. I started making clones of games I saw in arcades. The graphics were simple, they ran really slow, but I enjoyed making them and learning programming at the same time. I could also play them for free as much as I wanted.

I started making video games again when my son asked me, “Dad, how do they DO that?” Of course, the more I explained, the more he wanted to know. Eventually we were working on our own games together. Video game programming can teach so many skills and life lessons — how to break down a large job into smaller tasks; how to keep your focus; and how to learn from your mistakes and improve your skills. I think it’s that sense of awe and wonder that you can create when you have an infinite palette to work with that inspired me when I was a child, and still inspires me today.

At what age did you create your first game? What was it like?

I created my first game when I was 9 years old. It was a clone of Centipede, programmed in Assembly Language on the Commodore 16. It used PETSCII characters, so I think I could get at most 12 rows of mushrooms on the screen at a time. I had to toggle the graphic for the archer’s arrow between two different lines so that it only moved up one space per scanning pass. I had the spider, the flea, and the scorpion, so, it was pretty complex for an Assembly program. It even had sound effects for when your arrow hit a centipede segment, although I could never get the sound that the centipede makes just right. It was pretty hard to play without a trackball. The keyboard was probably the worst-possible interface for the game, but I got pretty good at it eventually.

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

Working in the corporate world for over 20 years, I have taken more technical training classes than I can count. Although none of this training spoke directly to game programming, learning a variety of programming languages and tools has taught me how to solve problems and how to take an engineering approach to design and development. I feel that game development is, at its heart, a mostly creative and artistic endeavor. However, there comes a time when you need to be able to actually build the tech and the art to support your game idea. All the creativity in the world won’t get you anywhere if you can’t communicate your vision somehow. My professional programming experience gives me a strong foundation to build on. I have also been learning game development from online tutorials, reading books and being active in the local game development community. Game jams and collaborative projects have served as a kind of training, with feedback from other independent game developers serving as teacher and guide.

What are some of your favorite tools or resources?

Anything that’s on the “bleeding edge” of technology! I love looking for tools that no one else is using yet, and really digging in and finding out what makes them tick. If you do this, you’ll find new approaches to solving old problems that are often easily applicable to other areas of development. This, will inevitably inspire me to develop new solutions to other problems. For example, I am right now in the middle of learning Amazon’s new Lumberyard ( editor. I’m discovering all these new approaches Amazon took to cloud-based persistence and synchronization, and it’s really very thrilling! I’m also convinced that node graph programming (like uScript for Unity or Blueprint for Unreal) is really the way of the future, so that’s an area of development that I’m watching closely. VR has everyone’s attention right now and there are some really exciting advances happening. It’s really a great time to be a game developer!

How many people does your studio employ and in what capacity?

I work with two studios in Minneapolis. The first is my own studio, Lakehome Games, which is just myself, my wife and my son. Together we design and build games as a family activity. While other families are watching TV or playing board games, we’re planning story arcs and doing level design. I do all the programming, my wife does all the artwork, and my son composes and performs music and comes up with all kinds of fantastic ideas for games. We all do design and game testing, usually over the dinner table.

I also collaborate with Whiteout Studios. The great part about working with multiple studios like this is that the studios can all help each other “fill in the gaps” for projects where they may need some additional resources or skills. We’re always looking for other studios we can collaborate with, so it’s like having this ever-expanding pool of talented people that can be pulled together to work on different projects.

What game(s) have you published and on what platforms are they available?

Lakehome Games, is just about to publish our first mobile game. It’s a clever and original puzzle game for iOS and Android called “Bitter Plants.” Bitter Plants is currently in Alpha Testing.

In collaboration with Whiteout Studios, last year we finished a relatively large multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) called ShatterRealm. ShatterRealm was a playable multi-player demo developed in Unity 4, and was designed to show-off the artistic and technical capabilities of the team. We still haven’t been able to secure backing from a publisher to expand it into a full game, but we hope to someday find the right publisher so that we can share it with others.

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

The Twin Cities has an extraordinarily talented and diverse pool of artists and engineers working in game development either in large or indie studios. It is also regularly voted as one of the best places to live and work in the United States, with excellent schools, great health care, clear air and water, incredible outdoor recreation… the list just goes on and on.

However, saying all that, I think the hardest part about being a game developer in the Twin Cites is to get people who live OUTSIDE the Twin Cities to get past their stereotypes of Minnesota and the people who live here. Trying to convince a traditional game publisher that a small but talented team of people living in Minnesota could make an amazing AAA-quality game is just like pulling teeth. We constantly run into these stereotypes that people have about Minnesota and about people who live in Minnesota which makes it incredibly difficult to form collaborations or partnerships.

What is the most rewarding?

In general, finishing a project and seeing how someone else experiences it is incredible. I think when someone plays a game and “makes it their own,” that’s really amazing. They might play the game in a way that you never imagined, or create fan art with entirely different interpretations for game elements or game characters than what you had originally designed. When a game “speaks to” people, and they see it through the lens of their own life experiences, I think both the developer and the player somehow enrich each other’s life in a way — which is an incredibly powerful thing.

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

I almost want to say something like, “the secret is… there is no secret.” But, I think that’s only mostly true. The game development industry, like any other, is full of people who love what they do and are very good at it. I think anyone who is trying to “break into” the industry will find that there’s actually no barrier at all. There’s nothing to break into. If you are passionate about video games, and if you really work hard to be the best that you can be in whatever role you choose, the “industry” will find you. Granted, you have to promote yourself and your skills, but that can be as simple as being active in local game development groups. In the Twin Cites we have GLITCH and IGDATC and probably dozens of others. You just have to look around and find like-minded people who share your interests and get involved. You won’t “break in,” though — the game industry will just sort of “absorb” you, like a giant, hungry space amoeba.

My one piece of advice to people who are getting into game development is… don’t EVER throw away anything you create. It doesn’t matter if it’s pencil sketches, early programs, mods you did as a teenager, or paper level designs for your D&D group after college. It all has value, and it shows that you have a history and a love for gaming in a wide variety of formats. You may not want all of it in your portfolio, but having your work easily accessible to you can be a powerful source of encouragement, inspiration, and reinforcement.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

There will be times when you’ll feel unoriginal, you’ll run into what seems like an impossible system requirement, or you may just feel like you have lost focus of what your game is supposed to be about. It will be at those times when you can look back at all the great things you’ve created, and you’ll realize you can keep making great things… and that will keep you going.