Mars Defender has been doing quite well in the Android and Apple stores (ranked #52 in the new arcade/action game section on Android Market, and top 100 RPG for iPad in several of the regional Apple stores). The following is an interview with me that has been published on playandroid.com. Give an indie developer time to rant, and stand back..
1.) Please introduce yourself.
Hi! My name is Sam Redfern, and I’m the developer of Mars Defender and Block Rockin’ on the Android/iOS, plus a bunch of other games on desktops, including a car-combat MMO for Windows/Mac and a wargame on the Amiga – and even a space trader game on the BBC Micro! I’m actually a university lecturer by career so game development is a part-time (evenings and weekends) activity for me.
2.) What made you want to be a game developer?
I started programming back in the early 1980s, and being an 11 year old I guess games were the obvious thing to work on. Part of the motivation at the time was that games were hard to come by. Not many were available, they weren’t very good, and there was no such thing as freeware or shareware, which is pretty critical as a penniless kid. I wanted to play games, and to do that I had to make them myself. I have made games ever since; it has always been my passion.
I can actually trace it back to my very young years – even as a 7 year old, I used to make crazy, rules-based boardgames involving lots of little bits of coloured paper and dicerolls. I came from the Dungeons & Dragons ‘do it yourself’ generation.
More recently, my reasons for making games have changed. On one level, the opportunity for making a success is clearly attainable by anyone (the ‘barriers to entry’ have gone away, to put it in corporate speak) – I think mobile gaming has done a huge amount for the democracy of the process, for re-instilling the indie spirit into the industry. So yeah, I want some success But probably more importantly than that, I get a real kick out of bringing pleasure to the people that play my games. Entertainment really is a noble calling, I think. Maybe it’s middle-age talking here, but I don’t think I’d be content doing a job that didn’t improve the world in some way. In Darkwind, for example, I have caused a community of like-minded people around the world to meet – people who have made firm friendships with each other and who spend hours online and even meet face to face – this is my achievement, I have changed these people’s lives for the better.
3.) What platforms do you develop games for and why?
Currently, I develop for Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, and Web browser. Why? Because they’re all important platforms and are all relatively easy to target.
4.) What are your experiences in porting games between two platforms?
If I’m targeting multiple platforms, I would make this decision up-front, and use a cross-platform tool or language. I have never attempted to retro-actively port a game. My MMO (Darkwind: War on Wheels) is based on the Torque game engine, which allowed me to (fairly easily) deploy my servers onto Linux, and clients onto Windows and OSX. My mobile games (Mars Defender and Block Rockin’ – there’s more on the way!) were done using the Shiva game engine. The main reason I picked this engine was its truly astounding list of deployment targets. So, deploying a Shiva game to iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, and Web Browser is actually very easy – not much code at all needs to be modified.
5.) How do you get inspiration for a game?
Interesting question, and not one I have been asked before. I’d say it depends on the game. Darkwind was a culmination of years of thinking about MMOs, wargames, and my own ‘ideal online game’ – it was a slow process that was certainly seeded in my Cars Wars / D&D boardgaming in the 1980s. My two Android games both grew out of experimentation with Shiva, coupled with a strong sense of what I personally think makes a game interesting. I have in development a mobile/web ‘text-based MMO’ style game (drawing on influences from games such as iMobsters and Vampire Online – games which I think are really poor as games, but which have very clever marketing hooks built into them). Maybe this seems like a slightly more hard-nosed way of going about getting inspiration, but my goal is to develop a game that uses the clever techniques of these games while making a good game in the process.
6.) How long does it take for you to write a game from start to finish?
I depends on the game! Block Rockin’ took about 3 months, Mars Defender took about 6 months (very much part time though, and while working on other game prototypes as well as Darkwind and my day job!), Darkwind took 6 years and counting! (like any good MMO, it’s never ‘finished’). I tend to work alone as much as possible, collaborating only in terms of art and music. This keeps everything much simpler and removes stresses and recriminations.
7.) What are the biggest technical challenges when you develop a game?
It depends on the game! – er.. did I say that before?
OK, let’s say it depends on the game engine.. Shiva is closed-source, meaning I am limited to working within the parameters of the engine itself – if it has a weakness or inability to do what I want, I have to do a work-around. This came as a bit of a shock after years of working with Torque, which provides full source code to developers. In Darkwind, I was free to make fundamental changes to how textures are blended, how the particle system operates, and even how time progresses in the game. In Shiva I have to make the best I can with the exposed API. The benefit to Shiva though is that it’s not my problem to ensure cross-platform compatibilty or future-platform support.
It also depends on the target platform: phones are not as powerful as desktop computers. I started work on a deathracer game last year, while I was admittedly naive about using Shiva, and got quite disillusioned at one point while trying to find a way to have 15 NPC cars moving around under full physics and controlled by AI.
8.) What do you think the future of gaming will look like?
Another good (and difficult) question. I can certainly tell you that gaming has changed radically in the past 5 years or so. Sometimes I give lectures in my university about the history of gaming, so the evolution of the industry is something I think about quite a bit. What mobile and other less powerful devices such as the Wii have brought about is a change to what was previously a relentless drive towards better graphics. It was all a bit depressing between about 2000 and 2005 – but the trend was in place before that too: basically, indies had increasingly no chance of being successful; all that mattered was better eye-candy, and this meant bigger and bigger budgets.
Mobile and casual gaming are, in my opinion, largely responsible for the widespread maturation of the gaming public. I think if Minecraft was developed 5 years ago it may have failed: its potential customers would be unable to see beyond its (on first glance) weak graphics and would be incapable of grasping its awesome and innovative gameplay. I have tangible proof of this too: when Darkwind was first in open Alpha, back in 2006, I used to get a lot of comments about the graphics quality being poor; now, a full 5 years later, I hardly every see complaints about its graphics. This is quite astounding when you consider that this kind of reversal has never before happened in the history of computer games. To some extent, the (modest) success of my MMO project, which doesn’t run on mobile devices, can be put down to the shift in emphasis, from graphics to gameplay and depth, brought about in the minds of the public by mobile and casual games.
Sorry, you asked about the future of gaming, not the past! Well, it’s an evolutionary process that continues from the past to the future, so the simple answer is that I see exciting times ahead. Nintendo and Apple have taught the big companies that innovative hardware can be very successful, while Facebook and others have taught the same lesson with software; and this will hopefully mean that we continue to see original ways of physcially interacting with our devices – this will translate, of course, into original gameplay ideas. While it’s obviously good to have continual graphics improvements, I truly hope that this remains as it currently is, just one factor driving the industry, and that we never return to graphics being the only thing that matters – because that was killing innovation in the early years of this century.
9.) What is your favourite game at the moment and why?
I actually don’t play a whole lot of games at the moment. I have two kids and a fulltime job, on top of my game development, so I really can’t afford the time. As a game developer, it’s important that I’m aware of what’s going on out there, so one of the things I do is buy games for my kids to play and get them to report back to me on them. This can backfire.. (my 8 year old son is the world’s worst Minecraft addict).
Games I actually play at the moment: Pro Evolution Soccer and Grand Slam Tennis on the Wii. These are very much casual, skill-based games which is one of the genres I like and which don’t demand a lot of time. If I had more time, I would probably be playing Football Manager, Minecraft and Darkwind.
As an indie-dev., I think Minecraft is truely inspirational, and it shows what can be achieved. I could have written it! It provides an excellent mix of gameplay that appeals on many levels, and it is hugely successful without having any coherent marketing or even a good website! Even my naive knowledge of marketing tells me that most of the fundamental rules of what a website ‘should’ do are broken by Minecraft’s. But this all just goes to prove that if you have a good enough idea and the vision and drive to carry it through, you can stuff the established wisdom. The modern gaming public has an appetite for deep gameplay and innovation, and this makes it an exciting time to be an indie developer.
10.) What is your advice for new developers?
My main advice would be: don’t be afraid to innovate! You are not going to be able to compete with big companies by copying them and making a poor clone. But equally, they often have too much interia behind them and are unwilling to take risks. So: do something original! The world doesn’t need another second-rate first-person shooter.
My other advice would be to develop some thick skin. The anonymity of the internet means that some people, even entire communities (I won’t name specific websites here) will constantly bash, ridicule and belittle your efforts. You have to realise that these are people who themselves are creating nothing, they have no idea of the talent and dedication involved in what you’re doing, so just ignore them if you can. Focus on those people that do like your work; there will be plenty of them too.