It is now easier than ever to become an indie games developer, thanks to new routes to market including Steam Greenlight, and simpler games development tools like Scratch.
In the third part of our series on indie games development, we speak to Solar Sail Games
, brainchild of Tancred Dyke-Wells, creator and art director of the Nintendo Art Academy and Battalion Wars series, and Neil Millstone, lead programmer on Art Academy and founder of White Bat Games.
The first part, where we speak to FireTwin Games about their first app, Chamelon Swing is here
The second part, featuring John Evelyn, the man behind The Collage Atlas and A Skyrocket Story is here
.Computing: What made you want to start making games?
Tancred: I grew up in the 80s, during what could be described as the dawn of personal computers. We were the first generation to have computers at home - I started out with a Commodore Vic-20 as a teenager. These machines booted up with a command line interface only, so the invitation to program was there as soon as you switched them on. I found crafting a responsive, interactive experience to be instantly fascinating. I've been enjoying seeing my kids learn Scratch lately, it's very much the same kind of experience and they're already making some pretty complex games.
I'd always been into painting and drawing but game-making was this synthesis of technical and artistic modes of creativity which I've found more rewarding than anything else since - games can encompass all these other spheres of culture - literature, music, art, cinema, roleplay, competition and more - but interactivity means that games are the only form in which you can really enter, explore and play in a world which someone has created. They offer a unique level of immersion.
CTG: What programming languages / tools do you use when making games?
Neil: I have a special place in my heart for C++, but I'm currently using C# and the Unity engine for our game. Unity as a product has a huge amount of functionality built in, and as the only programmer it helps me iterate quickly on gameplay and make every code day count. As far as tools go, we're in love with Spine, an animation system which allows Tancred to produce beautiful animated characters and scenery, and comes with integrations for a large number of game engines. I do miss the days of assmbler and C though, it was a great feeling being so close to the metal and very satisfying to make those primitive consoles sing.
CTG: What would you advise other aspiring games developers - what skills should they focus on, and what are the pitfalls they should avoid?
CTG: Are there any other tools / skills you need outside of the main packages you use? Does knowledge of other coding languages help?
Neil: As an indie, everyone needs to wear many hats. Travelling around to events to secure funding, even dull stuff like the company accounts needs to be done by someone! As far as being a programmer goes, I feel that knowing only one programming language would be quite limiting. Techniques and idioms from one language will often help you in another. There are so many languages, libraries and engines out there that it can be overwhelming, so I would suggest avoiding the flavour of the month and learning something that's stayed relevant for some time. Knowing more than one language also helps when things inevitably change and you need to be productive with a new environment.
Neil: Things are very different today to when I started. Back then, most games programming knowledge was held hostage by large companies and it was very hard to learn the techniques that game programmers used. These days there are plenty of resources on the web to help you get started. If you want to dip your toe in the water, I would suggest Unity is a good place. As with any programming environment however, concentrate on concepts rather than the detail of the framework you choose. As for working on one of the large commercial game teams, core computer science skills and in-depth knowledge of C++ is still very important. Your dream might be to make your own games, but I feel the experience I gained working at large studios was invaluable, and it's a great way to make contacts in the industry too.
CTG: What's the secret behind making a great game?
Tancred: I believe it's passion. That might sound trite, but in my 20 years in the industry it's the one common denominator I think you could consistently call out across any selection of high-quality, successful titles - instances where the team and key creators have put something of themselves into the game and have committed to making something which they themselves believe in and enjoy. Conversely, titles I've been close to that were marketing or focus-group driven, which were made for an imagined audience sector or supposed demographic who are supposed to enjoy the type of thing you're making - those projects have more often foundered.
Of course there are other attributes that people might cite as key, originality for example - but innovation isn't fundamental to all great games, many simply iterate and evolve.
This is partly because the remainder of the task is execution, just hard work. Once you get past the point of making hard decisions about mechanics and features, there's still an enormous amount of slog that goes into the process of refining and balancing an interactive experience, making sure all the feedback and signalling to the player is just right, taking off all the rough edges, honing the level of challenge and gratification.
CTG: What's next for you after your current game?
Tancred: Another independent project, we hope! We're planning to shift genre, I can say that much - but again, we're going to make a game that we ourselves think is exciting and fun. We may grow the team a little but not by much, we're very much enjoying the social intimacy, lack of politics and creative efficiency and inclusion that having a tight team engenders.