I’m going to start a games company, write a book about it and I’m doing it right now!
I’m going to give up my day job and for at least the next six months I’m going to become a video game producer and document the entire process. As background, I’ve spent the past 16 years developing secure web applications in startups for Zzzzzzz who cares, it’s not very interesting.
What is more interesting, to me at least, is the potential of the project as a document to chart if it’s possible or just a pipe dream. It’s come about by two things, the first is wondering why, if I love games so much, why don’t I try to make them and secondly can the development experiences I’ve had in the web industry be utilised in the video game industry. For example, my last position in an online CRM company (Woosabi) opened my eyes to the need to have a huge war chest for marketing. It was clear that without it, no matter how great your idea, if no-one hears about it, it’s a dead idea. And you’ve wasted your time. I don’t like wasting my time. By the way, Woosabi is far from dead, has a warchest and I’m still on the board as the technical director.
So I’m going to test the idea, I’m going to setup a games company and document its progress as it designs, builds and markets its first game. Being a good engineer I’m going to use as much expertise as I can and not re-invent the wheel: that includes people’s experiences. I’m lucky enough to have some good friends in the games industry so I’ll be taking their advice in big doses.
Today is, co-incidently, my birthday and I’ve just had two great things happen to me today. The first was being woken up by my 2 year old daughter to give me presents and then spending the day playing with the family in the park. The second was receiving replies from Eugene Jarvis (Defender, Robotron, Smash TV), Peter Liepa (Boulderdash http://ca.linkedin.com/in/peterliepa), Lee Cummings (GTA, Bully, Order Up http://www.linkedin.com/in/leecummings) and Giles at Llamasoft who have agreed to let me interview them on game design and development. Sadly Bill Williams (Necromancer) is not with us any more, I would have loved to hear his thoughts. As yet I’m waiting to hear back from Bill Hogue (Miner2049er), Manfred Trenz (Turrican), Howard Scott Warshaw (Yar’s Revenge), David Crane (Pitfall) and a few other luminaries. Cheeky I know. But what the hell, I’ not getting any younger and if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
Today is now also the birthday of Collision Games Inc, my game development company whose goal is to produce a single game for the current social & mobile platforms that incorporates social aspects but remains true to classic design templates. Oh, and I’ve only got 6 months to do it in.
What do I know about making a game?
This is pretty much the question that is circling me like a vulture at the moment. I made a few in the 80s on my spectrum, the usual derivative stuff, like Space Invaders (though for some reason I drew acorns as the invaders, probably a BBC micro thing!). I also built a tool for rendering newspaper stories on the spectrum, pretty much like teletext and the web does now. But apart from that, I’ve spent my career building business applications and they are very different beasts. However, I’m going to use the premise that my experience and long standing obsession with games will be enough to get me through. I know, it’s crazy house of cards isn’t it. Still, I hope my collision with the games industry is at least entertaining.
Interesting things happen when objects collide.
For example, take these two seemingly different forms of entertainment: Rugby and Video Games
(I should declare here that I’m Welsh and liking Rugby in Wales is probably genetic). Rugby is a sport that is all about collisions: where they happen, the utilisation of space in between them and what happens in their aftermath as part of a continuous feedback loop that is entertaining to both the participants and the audience.
This, to me, is the essence of a video game. It’s all about objects colliding (or not) within clearly defined boundaries using balanced rules to encourage repeated playing through a feedback mechanism e.g. hit the block to reveal coin, pickup coin get increase score and nice jingly sound. It is when these key areas are constructed to co-exist harmoniously we find the Finite State Machine entertaining. Take the classic game Boulderdash, it has an internal integrity that is mathematically simple and as is often the case, simplicity is beautiful. The game design is, at all times, true to itself. That is, its internal logic is consistent and coherent to the player. When this happens we can lose ourselves in these worlds as we’re not jarred back into our real surroundings. This to me is what art is.
The play’s the thing
Great video games have always struck me as miniature theatrical plays. They have a dramatic effect upon the observer borne out of their ability to playout a lifetime within a heavily condensed time frame due to their precise design. The following quote by British playwright John Osbourne has always felt as relevant to game design as playwriting:
“A play is an intricate mechanism, and the whole mesh of its engineering logic can be shattered by a misplaced word or emphasis.”
By the way, I wrote a single act play a few years back after being inspired by Osborne’s Look back in anger. It was called the Dead Orchestra and it was pretty awful. The process of writing it though was very interesting and much more hard work than I thought it would be. Seeing it completed was satisfying but the sense of wanting to constantly improve it was maddening. I am going to assume that game development, like application development follows a similar path.
In order to achieve success you have to define clearly what it is you are doing before you start so you can measure your progress against it. You also need a crystalised view of the end product’s usablilty and its market. It is unlikely that you will end up with the exact product you started out on paper to build (the testing feeback will modify that) but the market function, user and size should not change. If it does, it’s a different project. I can already hear Giles from Llamasoft disagreeing with most of that but for the purpose of this project I am going to use the following evaluation criteria:
1. The game must be social and will be available for the common platforms of the day e.g. Facebook, iPhone & Android
2. The game must relatively small in development terms to alleviate risk, has to be releasable within 6 months
3. The game mechanic must incorporate viral messaging to promote marketing
4. The game must be simple to pick up and hard to put down (of course, this is probably a near impossible task)
5. The game must earn money (we will leave it as loosely defined as that for the time being)
6. The game must be released as early as possible, using an agile release early release often methodology.