There has always been a special relationship between game developers and the gaming media, but in recent years several members of the gaming press have tried their hand at the other side. Most join Publishers/developers in community manager type roles, like Dan Amrich at Activision. Others cross the divide using their writing skills to write scripts and story, like Gary Whitta who went from helping found PC Gamer to writing the most recent episode of Telltale’s Walking Dead game via writing a hit Hollywood movie (The book of Eli).
A brave few however take the plunge entirely, teaching themselves whole new skill sets and fully developing games of their own. Midlife Gamer were lucky enough to speak with four such men, who decided to stop writing about other’s games and make their own. Here today is the first of those interviews.
Justin Towell is the content editor at GamesRadar as well as a three time Guinness world record holder (currently holding records for Sega rally championship on the Saturn, Sonic 1 on the 360 and F1 2011). last year he took his first steps into game development, using free creation software GameSalad to create platformer Squeak’s Dreams, available on iOS here
Hi Justin, thanks for taking the time to speak to us. What made you decide you wanted to try your hand at making/writing games?
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but not knowing any coding always stopped me until now. My first ever home computer was a Commodore VIC-20 and I used to program little animation sequences of Formula One cars, but I didn’t know how to make games. I used to make little mazes too, for the cursor to move around, but I couldn’t work out how to make the walls solid. So when I saw a video of GameSalad for Mac, which allows drag and drop editing of assets etc. without the need for coding, I decided it was time to do something about my ambition, so I bought an iMac and made a game. I didn’t take the decision lightly (the iMac was £1000), but I really wanted to do it now the opportunity was there.
Do you feel that your experience in working in games media has helped you when it came to developing/writing your game(s)?
Undoubtedly. I have always been interested in games anyway, but becoming a professional critic gives you a rather polarised view of what’s good and what’s not. But I admit I was a bit concerned that my job would have a negative impact on how my game was received. I mean, what if people play my game, hate it and then think ‘well, if that’s what he thinks is a good game, then I don’t trust his opinion at all!’. Then there’s the simpler worry that I just might not be able to make a good game. Personally, I’m very pleased with how it came out, though I accept it has some flaws. The controls aren’t best suited to touch-screen input, the graphics can be too busy, you can’t save your progress… I know there are some shortcomings. But I also know that finishing the game ‘properly’ takes a good investment of time and requires considerable skill. I made a game that I, as a professional games critic, would want to play, and I succeeded. So I know that it has the kind of worth that I may not have recognised if I didn’t already work in the industry.
Did you approach any contacts in the industry about your game beforehand, or even discuss it with colleagues in the media?
No, not really. I did show the rest of my team a few early builds, to see how they played it and whether they all tried to do similar things ‘wrong’. That helped a lot. But no, it was only a couple of days prior to release that I sent anyone any codes for the game, mainly to reviewers to feature on their sites.
What challenges did you face developing your first game?
I don’t think any of it was easy. Mainly, I’d say bug fixing (the ducks were levitating which was all kinds of weird), although I also spent 8 hours programming the d-pad to work so that you didn’t have to take your thumb off the screen when shifting from left to right. I also had a big problem with memory management. GameSalad was suffering from a rather extreme memory leak issue around the time I was finishing up development, which meant the game would crash on lower-spec devices before you’d even reached the last level. It was also spiralling out of control in terms of file size, so I spent three or four hard sweeps through compressing everything as much as I could without visibly lowering the quality of the game. It looks nice now, but you should see the uncompressed backgrounds of the early builds. They’re beautiful. It was also a challenge to write music that fitted each scenario, but I think it works well, in particular the piano piece for the first Cheese Dream.
How nervous were you about letting your colleagues get hands on with your game?
Extremely! They’re all very, very sharp people and I care what they think. So I was very pleased when my colleague got stuck on the tree level, but persevered for over 10 minutes until he’d done it. If it wasn’t worth his time, he would have stopped playing, without question. But he didn’t!
How strange have you found it having people write reviews/previews about a game that you developed?
I did get nervous the first time, waiting to see the score. But it’s so great to visit a website and see a review of a game you made, seeing it in artwork around the page etc. I also got my press release on GamesPress, which is an industry resource for games journos, which made it feel way more real. The promo trailer got picked up from that and put everywhere, even on the biggest sites like Gamespot. That was sweet. However, I would say I am disappointed when fellow journalists pass judgement on it when I can tell they didn’t even get out of the first area, nor collected a single ‘big cheese’ from the bonus level. I mean, if they just searched the web, they’d find a level select cheat and even an entire video walkthrough. The game is there if they wanted to see it. So I have a much greater empathy for game devs who feel journalists haven’t played their games properly.
Has your experience developing/writing games had any effect on how you now approach writing about other games? And do you feel there are advantages to trying both sides of the coin?
Yes, I think it has. But I’m not sure it’s a good thing. My job is to tell our readers what games are like from their point of view and it would be a lot easier if I didn’t have the developer’s point of view creating pangs of conscience. Even bad games take a lot of time and energy to make. So while I now have a greater understanding of the process and am perhaps a little more forgiving than my colleagues when it comes to things like, say, the bugs in PS3 Skyrim (I can imagine the nightmare it was to have that happen from the devs’ point of view), I do have to keep objectivity at the front of my mind. I wouldn’t say it’s a hard fight to have with myself as I’m still using the same criteria I always have in my mind, but to be honest, a critic who has never made a game would have a much easier job .
Would you recommend other writers try their hand at developing games?
Not really, no! And not just for the above reason. I think the question should remove the part about other writers and change it to just ‘people’. I think anyone who has the means and the creative slant should give it a try. It’s not a small undertaking by any stretch of the imagination, so it’s a test to see what you’re made of. Can you follow through such a massive task from start to finish? Can you realise even 50% of your original vision? My final game was missing quite a few elements that I originally wanted to put in. Things like backgrounds changing according to how many gems you’ve collected etc. But while I think it’s something any person should do, perhaps writers are better if they concentrate on writing. Perhaps something like a book is a better step away from their day job, as it provides a more creative outlet without hopping over the fence completely into opposing territory.
Are there any other games you’d like to work on in the future? – Can you talk about anything?
I have registered the domain name for Bulletrisk.com as I have a working prototype of my second game already up and running on my test machine. But will it get finished? I’m not sure… It takes a lot of work and energy to create a game and I’ve got several other projects I feel would be more worth my time at the moment. Bulletrisk is incredibly addictive, though. Even though my prototype doesn’t have its own graphics yet (everything’s made up of placeholder graphics left over from Squeak’s Dreams), it’s already had me trying to beat my top score again and again. And then there’s the urge to create a Christmas demo for Squeak’s Dreams, although I’m running out of time for that already! I would definitely like to make another game, but nothing’s in active development as I write.
And finally, tradition here at Midlife Gamer dictates I must ask, what’s your favourite biscuit and beverage? (Jaffa Cakes are not a biscuit!!)
Ha! I’m partial to a mini gingerbread man dunked in a large mug of Earl Grey. One sugar, plus milk. Lovely :)
Squeak’s Dreams is out now for iOS for 69p/99c. You can read more of Justin’s work over at GamesRadar.com including his article on the ten things he learnt developing his first game
Stay tuned to Midlife Gamer in the coming days for more interviews with games journalists who have tried their hands making games, and follow me on Twitter (xixBlueWolfxix) for a chance to win a copy of Squeak’s Dreams.