Ask An Indie: Patrick Swinnea, Peacock Games

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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: Patrick Swinnea, Peacock Games

What inspired you to start making games?

I grew up in the 80s on a steady diet of movies, cartoons, video games and Bible stories. The thing I took from all it was an awareness of the power and importance of storytelling. For me, movies were the ultimate form of story, and I knew at a pretty young age that I wanted to work in some kind of visual storytelling medium. (I was also super into magic, and my 10-year-old self figured that if making movies didn’t work out, I could always fall back on a career as a magician!)

I spent most of my 20s pursuing film and video production. I was doing a lot of corporate video work and trying to get my own stuff going on the side. When sub-$5k HD video cameras hit the market, the indie-film world hit peak saturation in about two seconds. I realized that, to sustain an income, I could either go all in on my corporate video business or find an opening in a different creative industry.

I’ve always loved video games, especially handheld games. (I think I have an attraction to miniaturized technology because it actually feels like impossible magic.) When Apple released the iPhone in 2007, I immediately knew I wanted to create content for it. Originally that took the form of an episodic video podcast, but it wasn’t long before I became curious about creating interactive content, which evolved into an interest in game development.

When I told my wife I was thinking about jumping in a new career, she thought about it for a few moments and said, “go for it.”

At what age did you create your first game?

In middle-school my friend Rusty and I created elaborate dungeon maps in our Mead notebooks. The player would have to find their way through the map using whatever inventory items they could collect along the way (bombs, ladders, boats). These games were terribly designed, and we quickly moved on to making Back to the Future fan comics (also quite terrible).

I published my first indie games at 30. I didn’t have any knowledge of software development, but my background in filmmaking gave me good sense of visual storytelling and I knew how to finish a project.

What formal training do you have that has helped you?

In college I jumped between theater, film and graphic design majors, picked up credits in entrepreneurship and journalism, wrote for a local sketch comedy show, and sold home theater systems for Bose.

What I didn’t realize at the time was how these random fields of study would benefit a career in game development.

Theater, film and journalism taught me storytelling, empathic listening, pacing and mood. Graphic design forced me to look at typography, layout and color in ways I had never considered. Working for Bose taught me how to interview a client, define their needs and design a solution.

I don’t have any formal training in programming (not counting a mandatory high-school Pascal class). I started learning Unity around version 1.5, at a time when the game industry as a whole looked at Unity as something for hobbyists and amateurs. Everything I learned about coding came from taking apart Unity example projects and studying the API. (After I learned what an API was, of course.)

What are some of your favorite tools or resources?

My usual setup is a MacBook Pro running Unity, Photoshop, OmniGraffle and SourceTree, an iPad Pro running Notability, and headphones, for listening to a constant stream of film and game soundtracks for inspiration. Increasingly, a VR setup of some kind is also within reach.

There are a ton of Unity plugins I love: TextMesh Pro, LeanTween, PathMagic, AmplifyColor, Cinema Director, Edy’s Vehicle Physics, ProBuilder, QuickEdit, Splat Painter, Curvy and Cubemapper. I’m also looking to start a project with Adventure Creator, which looks awesome.

For specific tasks I use Cheetah3D, Affinity Designer and Final Cut Pro X.

To stay educated on industry rumblings and design trends, I make frequent visits to Gamasutra, VR Digest, YouTube and the GDC Vault. I also try to play as many past and current games as I can, time permitting.

How many people does your studio employ and in what capacity?
I generally operate as a freelancer, so… technically just one! But I rarely work on solo projects these days. For most client projects I team up with other freelancers and I frequently collaborate with Martin Grider a.k.a Abstract Puzzle.

On team-based projects I focus on the Art, Design and UX side. I enjoy programming game logic and UI, but I’ll usually reach out for help with meatier code tasks.

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

Most of my self-published games lived (past tense) on the iOS App Store. Some did well (Alpha Runner, Omega Drive, Merlin’s Marble), others flopped (PictoHunt, Rock Hop, Spy Chaser). Some were weird little experiments that found a small but avid fanbase (Choose a Door, Grapes on a Plate).

Most of these have been pulled down over time due to license agreements or iOS update compatibility issues. I’m considering reworking some of them into VR titles.

Most of my current client projects are created for specific education or health related therapies, and are not publicly available. There’s a lot of interest at the moment from outside industries in Unity development, especially as VR gains traction, and lately I’ve been involved in some non-game projects as well.

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

I’ve actually found the Twin Cities to be a great place to be an indie game developer. The community is large enough to sustain several monthly meet-ups of very interesting people, but small enough to be accessible to anyone who wants to participate in a big way. If you have something interesting to say, you can be sure you won’t get lost in the crowd.

The downside is that you really have to think like an entrepreneur, and know that there aren’t a lot of large game developers here looking for specialized talent. That limits the scope of projects you can work on, and it means you need a wide set of skills to find consistent work. For some, the opportunities here will not fit their career needs.

What is the most rewarding?

I had a solid run as a self-published indie developer. Around 6 million people played my games, which was mind blowing for me at the time, and very humbling to be living at time when one person can have that kind of reach. (Compare this to world of “serious” indie filmmaking, where success is often defined as getting 50 people to show up to a festival screening.)

The most rewarding experiences have been the personal interactions with players over the years, and the amazing people I’ve met in this industry that I now consider close friends.

I’ve also received more than my share of hate mail, which I suppose “rewarded” me with a thick skin and the ability to accept criticism of every type. There’s also a calming satisfaction that comes from being able to smile through an inbox message from a stranger telling you to get a life.

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

Whatever it is you want to be doing, figure out what’s stopping you from doing it, and then just do it. If that means moving to a different city to be close to a particular game company, or carving your own path to pursue some exciting new thing that everyone else thinks is lame, do it.

Drop any preconceptions about how the industry is supposed to function. We’re all living in a game anyway, so find the glitches and exploit them. Expect to fail often (you will), and ignore cynics who don’t understand that failure is part of the game.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Get involved in the local community! Networking and staying visible is part of the job. If you see me at an event, say Hello!

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