Welcome to 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?
I’ve been interested in game development for as long as I can remember. The creative and development process has always been really appealing to me. Programming feels like playing with Legos—there’s always something new you can create from tiny building blocks. I’ve done other programming work before, like server-side business programming. That can get boring and repetitive, but game programming never does; as a game developer you’re always making something different and you’re on the cutting edge of technology.
At what age did you create your first game? What was it like?
My first games were written in HyperCard and BASIC on my family’s Mac LC II. I guess I was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old. They were pretty horrible text adventures with some pretty arbitrary gameplay decisions in them. The earliest one I remember gave you choices like “Do you want to go left or right?” If you picked the wrong one, you died. The HyperCard games were a little better—they had pictures and buttons, but the gameplay was about the same. In high school, I made games for my TI-82 calculator, and they got a little bit better. Maybe other people might even consider them fun.
What formal training (if any) do you have that has helped you?
I have a degree in computer science from the University of Minnesota, Morris. I think my formal education has been a big help in my game development career. Since it wasn’t a game-oriented program, I learned a lot of the core theory of computer science. Even though we use different languages on just about every project we do, the underlying theory is still valuable. I also got a strong background in math while I was in college. Linear algebra in particular has been phenomenally useful in computer graphics and the physics of game design. This gives us a competitive edge and allows us to focus on the technical side of game development. I don’t think we’d be able to do the shaders, game physics, and engine development work that we do without that background.
What are some of your favorite tools or resources?
Just about every project we work on uses different tools, developer environments, and languages. But my favorite language is C#. My current project, Verdant Skies, uses C# and the Unity game engine. The ease of bringing a Unity game to multiple platforms and the completeness of the engine is a big plus. In the last year or two, they’ve become much more responsive to bug reports, and the quality has really gone up as a result.
For iOS work, I really like Objective-C and Xcode. The development process is really fast using those native tools, which is great, since long build and install times cause me to get distracted!
How many people does your studio employ and in what capacity?
Howling Moon Software has two employees. Scott Lembcke and myself are both programmers, and we focus on the technical side of software development. For projects like Verdant Skies, we bring in talent like Lizzy Siemers. She is an amazing artist who is contracting with us full-time to do all the art design and direction for Verdant Skies. Beth Korth is our narrative expert for the game. Troy Strand and Topher Pirkl are from Yellow Cord Audio, and they are working with us on the sound and music, respectively.
In the past, we’ve also had opportunities to collaborate with other great game developers in the Twin Cities, especially Graveck Interactive.
What game(s) have you published and on what platforms are they available?
At Howling Moon Software, we’ve worked on well over a dozen published titles, often contracting to do programming for large clients such as Disney and Warner Bros.
We started with a few self-published indie titles like Crayon Ball, which came out for Mac/Windows and then iOS. One early project I’m particularly proud of was the Phineas and Ferb games. We did two Unity Web Player games where we contracted for Graveck Interactive. Those games had some really cool tech, like a portal system.
Scott Lembcke wrote the Chipmunk2D Physics engine, which we used to license pretty widely. Portability is an important design goal, and it has been used on desktops, mobile devices, consoles, and even on the Nintendo DS. We’ve open-sourced it and we still get a lot of interest in the engine. It’s driven a lot of work towards us. We also worked on the SpriteBuilder game engine, which has some pretty cool tech that allows you to natively compile iOS games on the Android platform.
What is the most challenging thing about being a game developer in the Twin Cities?
For us, working in the Twin Cities works pretty well. However, you always wonder if there would be more opportunities for collaboration and finding work-for-hire in a city with a better established game development community. We’ve worked with clients in Silicon Valley and that sometimes means a little bit of travel.
What is the most rewarding?
The Twin Cities is a great place to live! The costs are drastically lower than living in San Francisco, and we can do the exact same work as someone who lives there.
The best thing about being a game developer (or a programmer in general) is the feeling that you’re creating something from a blank page. Being able to bring a vision to life, whether it is over the course of a 24-hour game jam or a year long project, is an amazing and powerful feeling. And hopefully, other people enjoy it!
What advice would you give someone trying to break into the industry?
My path of getting a traditional Computer Science degree worked out great for me. It has given me the flexibility to do game development, but also find other well-paying software development work. Because my csci program wasn’t just a “learn a specific programming language” sort of program, I’ve been able to adapt to work on all sorts of projects. I have the flexibility to choose projects which interest me. Our game development skillset overlaps with non-game applications, such as a real-time drone visualization software package we’re working on for a client. This approach is one way of breaking into the industry, and it’s worked well for us.
The other advice is simply: make stuff. If you’re a student, take some time to create games and establish a portfolio. When I’m looking for people to work with, I’m not at all interested in their educational history—I want to see what they’ve made. Prototypes, demos, and mods for existing games are great ways to show off your work. If you’re an artist, put together a portfolio—if possible import your assets into a game engine. Even if you can’t program, being able to show off assets in an engine goes a long way.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Our current project, Verdant Skies, was just released on Steam Greenlight! Please check it out and vote for us. We’ll also be showing off the game at Gamer’s Rhapsody. You can keep up with the development by joining our mailing list.