The series continues with another interview. Answering my questions this time is Christopher ‘Jack’ Nilssen of Dark Acre, creator of Above and Below and Ball of Steel, both of which are free to play online. Dark Acre are currently working on three upcoming titles, Project Zero Zero, Rocket Prevenge and The Child: Episode One.G.S: Is game development something which you’ve always wanted to pursue, or was there one particularly pivotal moment in your life when you made the decision you wanted to be a game developer?
C.N: I wanted to be either a movie director or writer, those were the first careers I thought about pursing. I've always been an avid gamer, my father gave me a chess set when I was 6 and I was fortunate enough to be born into the digital gaming era and have friends who had access to the early machines. I didn't consider fully committing myself to life as a game developer until I developed this weird sense of dissatisfaction with the games I was playing. I felt that the problems I perceived with the gaming industry were due to the disconnect between the creative and the business sides of producing games. I wasn't really sure if there was a solution but I vowed to find out if these were even real problems. I dedicated myself to learning first everything I could about business (I took several years worth of business studies) and then the development of games themselves.
So yeah, you could say it was something of a later-in-life epiphany, and not something I thought about when I was whacking bushes with the master sword in the Legend of Zelda.
G.S: In Ball of Steel, you seem to be dabbling in abstract storytelling, giving the most seemingly-innocuous actions a more significant meaning via thought-provoking use of dialogue. Is this a trend that you intend to continue with future Dark Acre projects?
C.N: First off, thanks for playing enough of Ball of Steel to recognize the narrative elements, we really appreciate that! That all evolved more or less naturally as we tried to build more interesting layers on top of the basic "roll the ball into the hole" foundation. The collectibles, different surfaces and hazards, then finally the narrative. It's not really explicitly explained in the game, and that's fine for what it was. Overall it was an exercise in writing branched narrative that evolves over the course of play, and a valuable experience for us for future endeavors. I really want to write stories that are flexible enough for players to adopt their own plots and narratives from.
|'We tried to build more interesting layers on top of the basic "roll the ball into the hole" foundation.'|
C.N: I believe that there's a lot more shelved or abandoned ideas than polished and published ones in the games business. I figured out early on that it's important to recognize when something isn't working and take whatever lessons have been learned and move on to something else. If something's not working it could be any combination of things from lack of experience or the simple fact that the game isn't engaging enough. And as a micro developer we can afford to throw things out and move on quickly, so it pays to play to that strength.
G.S: What benefits does using Unity 3D provide for a developer?
Additionally there's an ever-growing community of developers that have worked hard to provide support for the engine (in addition to Unity themselves) so nearly any question you might have has already been answered on one of the many forums.
G.S: According to your website, Rocket Prevenge is going to be a ‘Tower
C.N: We're not ready to reveal too many details about Project Prevenge except that it's nearing alpha and more information will be forthcoming. As you may know there's currently a sort of battle going on in the independent development world about how open we should be with our ideas. I feel that if your eventual goal isn't capitalization on your idea, like if you're not planning on making money on your game, you should tell everyone about it and share the process with all. It helps others learn how game development works. But in this age of cloning and mass reproduction, combines with the race-to-the-bottom in the mobile market you absolutely have to safeguard your ideas from prying eyes. It's an unfortunate situation to be in, but a reality of the business of games. And if you don't have an army of lawyers and millions of dollars behind you, but you might have a hit on your hands, it only makes sense to keep it safe, keep it secret.
|'We're not ready to reveal too many details about Project Prevenge'|
G.S: Seeing as you are in the process of writing a third book about it, one would assume that the back story for Project Zero Zero is fairly dense. Will it be necessary for people to read the books to understand the plot of the game?
C.N: The Solarus Books (available on Amazon.com!) are mostly for my own benefit in helping crystalize the ideas I have for how the universe of Project Zero Zero will work. I need to know who the people are that inhabit that space, how they think, what kind of technology is available to them, and what kind of history there is. The resulting game(s) won't require the players to have read the books, but hopefully they'll take some pleasure in them.
G.S: Who are your favourite indie developers at the moment? Did any of their games or development philosophies directly influence your own games?
C.N: To quote Yves Tanguy, "I believe there is little to gain by exchanging opinions with other artists concerning either the ideology of art or technical methods." I've never really had any heroes or role models coming up, because I didn't know who these developers were, really. Now that I do I see that we're all of us trying to carve out our own little space in this wild frontier. Digital game development is such a new discipline and there's so much exploration to be done that it could be dangerous to adopt any one modus operandi. The key I think is to do what you feel in your heart is best for the game that you're trying to make. Fight mediocrity and avoid group-think, think for yourself, question anyone that claims to be an authority.
There's some "old-timers" that I respect a lot, though. Richard Bartle's one that springs to mind, he's one of the first developers to come up with a working MMO and his ideas on world-building and player investment are brilliant. But yeah, if you were to ask me who's qualified to guide newcomers through the minefield of game development there's really no one I could say has the wisdom to take you on that path. Perhaps I just haven't come across that person yet, or perhaps that person doesn't yet exist. Which is a perfect segue into your next question...
G.S: What advice would you give to aspiring developers?
C.N: Create your first games as fast as you can and get them out in the public eye as quickly as possible. Don't give a damn about how it looks, make sure it's at least playable. You should be able to start the game, play through to whatever kill or win state you've established, and return to the menu or allow a restart (the "game loop"). Then go on to the next. Gather feedback from that first publish but don't expect it. Keep repeating this process, keep the games simple (1-3 features) and eventually you'll reach a state where you have enough of a mastery over the tools and the process of publishing to start thinking about "serious" projects.
Also, if you're going solo, make sure you have enough capitol to keep the boat afloat for at least 5 years. Treat everything you do as a new business. Develop yourself as a brand. Establish awareness by whatever means possible: meetups, Twitter/Facebook/G+, ad campaigns.
Never give up.
Ignore the advice of people like me and do what your heart tells you to do.
Thank you very much to Christopher for his participation in this series. There will be another interview soon, so keep an eye out.