This is Ask An Indie where we interview local independent game developers to learn how they make, do and create.
What inspired you to start making games?
One theory is that creativity is not learned, but that we “unlearn” is as we grow older. I think play is the same way. Watching my 6-year old, she’ll make up more stories and games in a half-hour of make believe than I can manage in a week. It’s like her brain is doing what our brains only do while we are asleep — leaping from one idea to the next with only tenuous connection between them, if any.
I am inspired by new ideas, and creativity, and I want to implement those ideas as games because I see games as the natural evolution of play. A play that is often sorely lacking in our modern lifestyles!
When I think back, I’ve been making games my whole life. I can’t imagine not doing it. It’s only been in the last ten or so years that I’ve been more intentional about it. I keep a game idea journal and try to “do something” with the ideas that stick with me. I think part of what prompted the beginning of this era was just that I finally realized it was possible for me to make a video game entirely “on my own”. I started out by following a tutorial on making Tetris, and made an action puzzle and board game mashup called Go Tetris!. A couple of years later, the iOS app store was announced, and almost immediately I began making the game that I released as ActionChess.
At what age did you create your first game? What was it like?
A good friend of mine introduced me to a board game called Terrace, probably when we were in high school. It was a 2-4 player abstract strategy game played with little bubble looking pieces on a “terraced” chess board. It was actually played in an episode of Star Trek. The game had a newsletter called the Terrace Times, and it encouraged you to submit your own “variants” for publication. My friend and I had some of our ideas published in those newsletters, and I still have them in a box somewhere.
Later, when I was in high school, that same friend and I played a lot of Marathon, (a first-person shooter game by the same folks that went on to make Halo), and there was a pretty active community online making maps that you could download and play locally. We both made some maps, and some of his were bundled up in someone’s list of favorites, but mine never were. I’d like to think that was because they were too weird or something, but they probably just weren’t any good.
What formal training (if any) do you have that has helped you?
I was an english major in college. I want to argue that trained me to write board game rules and be super analytical about sentences and words, but really it was probably working on a website for some professors attached to the english department that had the most impact on my professional development. I also had some friends in college who were really into Interactive Fiction. Perhaps oddly, I’ve yet to release any games with significant story elements. I think I’m hyper-critical of my own writing, and it’s more intimidating to put that out there than a prototype game. Outside of a couple of stand-alone classes, I’ve never had any formal training in computer programming, but by 2006, when I released Go-Tetris, I had been a full time software developer for at least a few years.
What are some of your favorite tools or resources?
I have released the majority of my games on iOS. I really enjoy playing games on iPhones and iPads because there is a really personal feel to the touch interface. Plus, it’s nice to be able to pull out my phone and show people what I do at the drop of a hat. I do also really like Apple’s development environment, and while I might sometimes have a love/hate relationship with Xcode, I like it better than most of the other environments for coding that I’ve encountered over the years.
More of my time lately has been spent in Unity. I was very reluctant to embrace it at first, but there are so many people using it now, and the community around it is so large that there is very little that cannot be achieved in it. I feel like we are at a point where tools for game development are in their awkward teens. Unreal is giving Unity some healthy competition, and both are good choices for the VR revolution I’m imagining is just around the corner.
As for game industry resources, I follow headlines on www.gamasutra.com, GameIndustry.biz, and toucharcade.com.
How many people does your studio employ and in what capacity?
I’m a solo indie developer, but I do try and bring in folks to work on my projects whenever possible. Mostly these are friends I have met over the last few years in the local game development scene. I’ve been really lucky to work with some great artists and musicians. I’m also really lazy, and it’s a lot more work to integrate additional artwork and audio, so many of my games get released without very polished artwork or audio. This is something I’ve been trying to get better about, but it means a slower release schedule.
What game(s) have you published and on what platforms are they available?
I maintain a list of the games I’ve worked on at my website. The vast majority of my published work has been for iOS, but I have also developed a couple of games for a weird LED hardware project called the L3D. There is also a separate list of the board games I’ve designed. Note that none of my board game designs have actually been “published”, but most of my designs are what you’d call “abstract strategy” games, and those are rare to find a publisher. The lists also don’t include the dozens of prototypes that haven’t (yet) made it into the public sphere in some way. Lately I’ve been particularly interested in virtual reality, and I’m developing a game that I hope to make available first for “room scale” VR, (which currently means Valve’s Vive hardware).
What is the most challenging thing about being a game developer in the Twin Cities?
I don’t think it’s any more challenging to develop games here than it would be anywhere else, but it would be a lot more difficult if I really wanted to find a job for someone else developing games. There just aren’t really the bigger studios that you might find someplace like San Francisco, Seattle, New York, or Boston. So being a game developer here means intentionally keeping your projects small, and (probably) beginning them as “side projects” you work on when you have time between other projects. The vast majority of game development is done out of passion for games. As big as the industry is (it is quite big!), the people who actually start making games are often not compensated for their work. It’s akin to the movie industry. There are giant studios that make movies and can afford to pay their employees because they can expect a certain revenue when they release, but there are probably an equal number of smaller studios that expect to make very little from their efforts.
What is the most rewarding?
For me, the most rewarding thing about game development is being able to play the games that I make. I love the feeling of finishing a gnarly bit of code and then having the experience that I’ve only been imagining up to that point. Seeing others play my games is also right up there.
But if you are asking what’s most rewarding about making games in the Twin Cities, I’d say it’s meeting and talking to new game developers. The local game development “scene” is really growing right now, and part of that means that new folks who make games are coming out of the woodwork in really staggering numbers. I’ve been involved in the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Twin Cities chapter since around 2006, so I generally feel like I know most of of the local people who are making cool stuff, but in the last year I’ve met dozens of new game developers. Some of them have been around, and just not active in the meetups previously, and some of them are just new to game development in general. Glitch deserves a shout-out here, as they have definitely been instrumental in raising awareness that game development is even a thing in the twin cities.
What advice would you give someone trying to break into the industry?
My advice for someone wanting to get into game development is definitely going to be contextual to their situation. I love to give advice, so feel free to find me and ask for it. I will then follow up with a bevy of questions: What kind of games do you want to make? On what platforms? What are your current skills? Do you want to do it alone, or find a team? A lot of it is going to boil down to this one: Do you have a specific game in mind that you want to make? If so, it will shape a lot of my advice.
The most important thing is to make a game. One way to do that is to go to a game jam. Game jams are hackathons for game development. Usually taking place over the course of a weekend (or sometimes a whole week), they are a pretty amazing way to jump in and learn a bunch of stuff really quickly. I’d recommend going to one where you can work next to other folks in person, (but there are also game jams organized online pretty much every weekend). There is no better way to learn game development than to just do it. Note that it doesn’t matter what your skillset, you can probably help make a game, no matter what your skills.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
So many things!
At the beginning of 2016, I started a new project where I’m writing in my game design journal every day. I’m trying to come up with a new idea for a game (or at least a game mechanic) every day. Then on Fridays I write up summaries on my blog.