Ask An Indie: Mark LaCroix, Noble Robot

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

The Indie: Mark LaCroix, Director, Noble Robot

What inspired you to start making games?

For over a decade, I have worked professionally as a filmmaker, web developer, audio engineer, and motion graphics designer. I often jump from medium to medium, trying to further develop my voice as an artist. I’ve always been equally a visual designer, a technologist, and a storyteller, and have never been satisfied doing any one thing.

When I was in elementary school, I would spend recess in the computer lab building choose-your-own-adventures in HyperCard. In middle school, I made interactive animations in Flash and created mods for Quake and Quake II. In high school, I taught myself BASIC in order to create text adventure games on my graphing calculator.

So, I wasn’t so much inspired to make games as I simply one day realized that I’d been making games all along, and suddenly I had the experience I needed to start taking it seriously.

At what age did you create your first game?

I wouldn’t create what I truly consider my “first game” until I was 27, in 2011. It was a 2-player reflex-puzzle game for the ill-fated Blackberry Playbook, called “Operators: The Game with Two Sides.” It was… not a hit.

What formal training do you have that has helped you?

I have absolutely no formal training in programming or game development. I have a degree in English Literature and Independent Social Arts, which I named “Sound + Vision” after my favorite David Bowie song (it’s even printed on my degree). However, I consider that background to be particularly valuable to me and beneficial to my work.

I am a highly technical person, but the things that matter most to me are purpose, expression, and meaning. It’s hard to learn those things from a tutorial on YouTube.

What are some of your favorite tools or resources?

I co-host a weekly game development podcast called Nice Games Club, and we did an episode on this very topic! Listen to that episode here. Of course, I’d recommend our show as a resource, too, search for “Nice Games Club” in your podcast app, or subscribe.

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

It’s just me. I take the opportunity to collaborate whenever possible, and for my current game, each level is re-skinned in a different style by wide range of visual artists, but I haven’t yet got out of the habit of wanting to do everything on a project. Code, art, design, etc. It’s my nature.

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

Operators is still available for the Blackberry Playbook, if you blow the dust off it first. I had an improved Android port available for a time but removed it from Google Play in order to update it (yet I never did!). I also published a basic no-frills D&D dice rolling app that I made on a dare over a weekend a few years back, called Dieroller, available on Android and iOS. Right now, I’m focused on my current project, Metro Nexus, which went through Greenlight last year and will be released on Steam and Itch.io later this year (fingers crossed!).

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

If you start an indie band in your garage, even if you have modest expectations, you know that you’ll be able to find places to play and people to play with, no matter where you’re from.

But as an indie game developer, it’s easy to think that if you don’t live in San Francisco, that is not true for you. It’s easy to assume that the community lives entirely online, or that you are a small fish in a dry pond. Finding others to encourage you, to help you solve problems, or just to “talk shop” with, is something that a lot of people, myself included, assumed was out of reach for a long time.

Being wrong about that fact is the greatest challenge a Twin Cities developer can face. It gets a lot easier when you realize that there is an active community here, though organizations like Glitch, the Twin Cities chapter of IGDA, and the MN VR & HCI group. But, it can still be a challenge to participate. Going to events, playtesting other people’s work, and taking time away from your projects to network with peers isn’t easy, especially for people who have day jobs, families, or are looking for industry contacts in a region where it’s mostly self-financed indies. It’s worth it, but it’s not effortless.

What is the most rewarding?

Just the act of creation is immensely rewarding (“OMG, it runs!”). But, it is even more rewarding when you can get your work in front of players and see that something you made doesn’t just finally work, but is actually pretty good!

Of course, I’m skipping over the earlier parts where it doesn’t work and players don’t get it, or the times where you want to throw your keyboard across the room, but it’s easy to forget those things. You’ll never forget a player who laughs while playing your game and then excitedly asks you, “hey, when does this game come out?”

Those moments are incredible, but they can’t happen by yourself at your laptop. Prototyping, playtesting, and demoing your work for others is a fun reward when it goes well, but the feedback you get when it doesn’t go as well is just as important. It makes you a better developer, a better designer, and a better artist.

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

I’m not sure I have a lot of advice on this topic, since I don’t really care to call myself part of the “industry” (check back with me once Metro Nexus is released). But, if you want to learn how to be part of this “community,” I have a lot to say. Mostly, you can hear me talk about it on Nice Games Club, with the added bonus of hearing from my wonderful co-hosts Martha and Stephen, too.

The main thing I’d say to anyone looking to make games is to decide what you want to say. I come from a creative arts background, and for me, games are no different. Your game doesn’t have to make some grand world-changing statement (in fact, if you’re starting out, it really shouldn’t), but if it doesn’t have a point of view at all, though its mechanics, story, or visuals, you’ll have a much harder time making it, and an even harder time getting anyone to care about playing it.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek lately, so I’m feeling more optimistic about the future of humanity than recent evidence suggests.

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