Welcome to Ask An Indie where we interview local independent game developers to learn how they make, do and create.
The Indie: Jason Pfitzer – Creative Director, Northern Heart Studios
What inspired you to start making games?
It’s something I kind of always knew I wanted to do, but for the longest time seemed like a dream that would never really come true. Video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I was always a big dreamer as a kid. I used to draw my own dungeons for The Legend of Zelda on pieces of paper and tack them up on the wall. Recently, my parents were digging through some of my notebooks I had as a kid and found some old game concepts I had worked on when I was younger. So, it’s always been on my mind, but just never saw it as a viable career option until recently.
After graduating from college with a double major in multimedia design and graphic design, I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do; I was thinking maybe web development or UI/UX design. However, I ended up taking a job at Game Informer magazine as a layout designer. I wasn’t really using all of the skills I had learned in school, but it was a really, really cool job and it kind of started me on the road towards game development.
At what age did you create your first game? What was it like?
I want to say I was about 12 years old. I made it using a free copy of Game Maker, and didn’t do any real coding. I think I mostly used the game engine’s drag-and-drop visual programming tools. It was called Sawblade King or something like that, and was a wave survival game where you played as a giant saw blade, and mowed down waves of robots that marched toward your castle. It was actually pretty fun, but it was also super basic. Good learning experience though!
What formal training (if any) do you have that has helped you?
Probably the most helpful training I’ve received was my college education at UW-Stout; I double majored in graphic design and multimedia design. Graphic design was helpful on the art side of things, and also helps me to easily create my own marketing materials and personal branding. Multimedia design has helped me tremendously with the more technical side of things. I had classes for computer programming, interface design, 3D modeling and more.
Every day, my job at Concrete Software provides an opportunity to learn something new about the Unity game engine. I have learned a lot about game development in a short amount of time while working there.
What are some of your favorite tools or resources?
My favorite tools for creating art are Adobe Illustrator and Blender. I love the look of vector illustration, and have been doing it for a long time. I’ve only recently started using Blender and learning 3D, but it has been really fun and not too painful so far. I like to keep the 3D models low-poly and simple, since more complicated geometry would require significantly more self-teaching, which cuts into development time.
As for development, I absolutely love the Unity game engine. I honestly don’t think I would even be making video games if it didn’t exist. It’s really powerful, relatively easy to learn, and there’s tons of great documentation online from other users. It’s just the best.
How many people does your studio employ and in what capacity?
Right now it’s just me and whoever wants to work on projects with me. It’s not really employment as much as it is a casual partnership. A friend of mine from work, James Krantz, is the developer working with me on Pinbrawl. He is absolutely brilliant, and has been instrumental in getting everything set up correctly. Due to the heavily physics-based gameplay, I needed to team up with someone who likes to tinker and is good at math!
What game(s) have you published and on what platforms are they available?
I have shipped two games with Concrete Software, but have never finished a game of my own. We’re hoping to have an early-access build of Pinbrawl out by December, however. It will likely be through Itch.io’s Refinery.
What is the most challenging thing about being a game developer in the Twin Cities?
I would say the hardest part about being a developer here is that so many talented Minnesotans move out west because of the lack of “cool” or reputable game development companies here. You can only achieve so much as a small indie team, and larger companies in the area with more resources aren’t currently working on any groundbreaking titles that would put Minnesota on the map for game development.
What is the most rewarding?
What makes being a game developer here challenging is also what makes it incredibly rewarding. The Minneapolis/St. Paul development scene is tightly knit, and I know the other developers and their games fairly well at this point. It’s nice to see how everyone supports and promotes one another, and I can’t wait for Minnesota to start shipping more titles. I take pride in being a part of everything that’s happening here, no matter how small it is.
What advice would you give someone trying to break into the industry?
Make connections. Go to anything you can where you could meet other developers and game artists. Remember their names. Follow up with email and secure those connections. You’d be surprised how often it pays to know the right people!
Also, especially in places without a lot of action like Minnesota, remember that you don’t get your dream job by randomly stumbling over it. Making your dreams happen is a lot of really, really hard work, and you have to sacrifice a lot to better your skills, shift your mindset, and get your priorities in order to make your goals happen.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
The Minnesota game scene is small, but its growing. If you’re interested in breaking into the industry, or even moonlighting as a game artist or developer, you should definitely attend Glitch and IGDA events here in the Twin Cities! Getting in touch with Evva Kraikul from Glitch is what set my career in game development in motion. Hope to see you there!