Game Developers Discuss the Media that Taught Them How to Take the Road Less Traveled
So You Want to Work in Video Games Part III
Sarah Northway who, along with her husband Colin, make up Northway Games, are the developers and designers of a slew of magnificent and ground-breaking indie titles, including the tactilely vibrant, critically acclaimed, and award winning Incredipede; the iconoclastic Rebuild, a series of Zombie builder games; as well as the casual word game, Word Up Dog. Northway Games are friends of the site because they are both brilliant indie game developers and very generous with their thoughts and time. As proof, what follows are three works of media that taught and inspired indie game designer and developer, Sarah Northway.
I joined Neopets back in 2000. It’s a flash game portal where you earn virtual currency by playing games and use it to buy items for your virtual pets. You dress them up, you feed them: it’s tedious, but that’s not the point.
My fascination is with the economy that grew up around collecting and trading items. Players write scripts to help them pounce on underpriced stuff in the virtual stores, then resell it above market value. Merchants specialize and link their shops into giant “malls”, providing an alternative to the poor native search tools. Third party sites scrape item and price data and present it in a more accessible way. Guilds host offline auction houses, private trades and donation boxes for new players. So much of this is done outside the actual framework of the website.
Neopets made me realize that sometimes the game isn’t the fun part; sometimes the players just use it as a base to create their own game. I gained a real appreciation for community from Neopets and I someday hope to create a game with such a following.
This quirky local multiplayer Star Trek sim is some kind of game designer crack. I think it’s because it’s so bad and so good at the same time. The interface is borderline unusable, the universe is pretty much empty, and the enemy AIs are as dumb and predictable as posts. But the game is so much fun to play. We all sit around a table, the captain up front with the main screen, the rest of us manning our own unique stations, accepting orders and gradually gelling into an effective team. We don’t wear Star Trek uniforms—I’m not one of those people I swear—but a little role-playing might go on after a few drinks. It’s a very fun game, but some of the most fun we have is afterwards.
Every time we play with other game developers, we end up talking for hours, even days after about how the game could be improved. That an unpolished experience could be so enjoyable is very exciting. It’s a good exercise just to think about how I’d improve on it, even if I’d never actually write such a game.
You can pick up your copy of Artemis here:
You can pick up your copy of Artemis here:
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
This was an urban fantasy novel I read when I was a young teen. The protagonist is a musician with a badass 80′s Annie Lennox look, and the book quotes lyrics from actual songs by the author’s rock band. It was the first time I’d really considered the author of a book and realized there was a real person there: a person like me!
I got all excited about writing after that and spent my teens working on clumsy urban fantasy stories I never finished. I might have even become a writer if the Internet hadn’t come along and changed everything. Today I’m proud to put my own name on my games, and try to add a bit of myself into everything I write.
I’ve written elsewhere on this site about our dedication to the Trese Brothers. Whether braving the cosmos in Star Traders, a cyberpunk future in Cyber Knights, an alternative universe Spanish Main in Age of Pirates, or most recently a world of dark fantasy in Heroes of Steel all of the Trese Bothers RPGs are deep, nuanced titles whose trappings invariably connote a labor of love. If you’re a fan of RPGs and you haven’t played a Trese Brothers’ game, pick up one of the above today. Seriously. Today.
As a kid, I must have watched Willow a hundred times. I still love the movie today, and find it a simple yet exciting story, with superb characters. In spite of their flaws, betrayals, and idiocy at times, you still fall in love with them. Willow is probably responsible for perking my interest in convoluted stories about characters and situations that are neither simple nor straight.
Final Fantasy IV
There is a moment in Final Fantasy IV, when Kain turns on your group and uses the deadly jump command against you. It is such a devastating sequence. As a player, Kain was almost too good up to that point, he crushed everything. Then he turns on you. The low moments of defeat are the ones that set the moments of jubilation and victory in stark contrast and make a story truly powerful.
The Redwall Series
When I was young, my father used to read the Redwall series by Brian Jacques to my brother and me. We must have read the first eight or nine of them together. The novels span many years, generations as well as countless places all set within this fantastical world of mice, badgers, squirrels and all the rest. The Redwall books instilled in me a real love of layered storytelling and adventure, and really got me started on the entire genre of fantasy. I know that if I someday have children, I will definitely read the Redwall series to them.
We impressed were whole-heartedly impressed with Hot Box Games first title, Space Bat, by it’s balance and overall design, so much so that we asked first time developers Hot Box Games to join us for this outing of So You Want to Work in Video Games. As we think that there’s an awful lot to be learned from those who’ve just placed their foot in the door as there does from more experienced developers.
Gorillaz: The Fall
I’m the musician at Hot Box Games so anything sound related comes my way. All the tracks in Spacebat are Chiptune-esque, but I pulled musical inspiration from a few sources.
When I started production on the music, I was listening to Gorillaz quite a bit, especially their album The Fall. I liked a lot of the bass lines on the album. Listening to them, helped me experiment more with the things I was writing for Spacebat. It was great being able to combine my love for music and gaming together, as I was pulling inspiration from all the games I’d played in the past into one big nostalgic wave.
You can check out The Fall and a bunch of other Gorillaz CDs here.
Super Meat Boy
One of the main things that really kickstarted my desire to make games was playing Super Meat Boy on XBLA. I had just watched Indie-Game: the movie and thought that it looked like a fun platformer. I picked up a copy and played it from start to finish. It amazed me that two guys could put together something so polished and well designed. I quickly realized that I was having more fun playing it than any of the big studio games I had played in the past few years. This spurred me to look into the indie game scene more and I found a treasure trove of indie gems that really opened my eyes to a different side of gaming.
It was at this time that I spoke to my friend Josh. We both realized we had an interest in making games and decided to have a go at it. We tried a few different engines but at that time we had hardly any real programming experience between us so we were struggling. Then I remembered a program called GM: Studio, and since I’d last used it, it had been updated to support exporting to the Android platform. Within a few days we had a little bat in space flapping his way around. This was a real eye-opener for us as it showed the ease at which we could get something from our heads to the phone.
We say the most promising new developer in mobile gaming is Peter Norbert, his Rising Empires earned a whopping 4.8 review in the pages of our magazine. This is because Rising Empires Premium is a deep, rich, without exaggeration, epic 4X strategy game that would make Sid Meier Proud. If you are reading this because you are interested in independent game development, we say, listen to Peter. He is without a doubt a developer to watch.
Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erickson
I’m a dreamer. When I read a good book I close my eyes and see the events in the book played out in my head. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is a series of ten novels written by the excellent author Steven Erikson. They tell of struggling empires and, more importantly, they follow the grunts and heroes who march in the armies. It’s a cruel world filled with colorful characters. I love it!
But how is this reflected in Rising Empires?
First, we wanted to re-create the brutality of the Malazan Book of the Fallen Series. The civilians in your towns and cities are not abstract blobs representing a population, they are real and detailed with every single citizen living, eating and breeding as an individual. The same goes for the armies defending your empire. Every soldier is an individual. In battle each soldier attacks individually, takes damage and struggles to survive. When you fight a war, your citizens perish. Sometimes in large enough numbers to make a big dent in your population as a whole.
Second, there are heroes; warriors or mages with exceptional skills that step forward when a company is performing extraordinary well in battle. These characters might single-handedly turn the tide of a combat between two companies, making as much damage as all the other soldiers in the company together.
How well we have succeeded in this is not for us to say, but it’s the feeling we want you to have when you imagine the world of Rising Empires
Sword of the Stars
Now you’re wondering: how can a sci-fi game with space ships and beam weapons influence us when designing and creating a fantasy game?
One of the features we like most in Sword of the Stars are the different movement mechanisms of the races. Each race plays uniquely and differently from the other races giving a special experience for the player. Kerberos Productions really succeeded in their first iteration of Sword of the Stars. We’ve tried to achieve the same with Rising Empires.
There are six races and each have their own unique perks and traits. As an example, take the Dwarf and the insectoid Krant. They are like night and day and you can’t play them the same way. In a Dwarf kingdom, each citizen is important. They are strong but their birth rate is very low. The Krant, on the other hand, won’t even notice the loss of a couple of thousands of citizens. Each citizen is weak but they multiply like maggots. And even though the Dwarves can’t develop cavalry, their special means of movement make them very fast in the Netherworld. These are but a few of the differences between the various races you can play in Rising Empires.
While this creates an interesting game and lots of re-playability it also causes one or two problems. How do we balance the races against each other when each race follow their own set of rules and game mechanics? But that’s another story.
First time developer, Jacob Davis impressed us with his retro shooter, Galaxoid, with its driving music and gameplay and the way they jibe together so well. We also like how Jacob’s media picks here point budding game developer in the direction of a few excellent first-step tools.
When I was very young I remember my first time playing the Atari 2600. It was hooked up to a small old Curtis Mathes TV. My cousins and I spent hours glued to that TV set and the game that I distinctly remember playing over and over was a game programmed by Bob Whitehead called Sky Jinks. It was so amazing to me that the simple pixel shaped plane seemed to actually lift off of the ground as its shadow separated from it. Moving left and right the plane magically looked as if it rolled just as a plane would. These simple yet super effective techniques are what grabbed my interest before I even knew it. I still play Sky Jinks to this day and even started writing a clone just for the fun of it!
Ruby for Kids
Just about a year and a half ago I was browsing Pinterest while bored out of my mind at work. I came across a pin that linked to a page called Ruby for Kids. At that time I had never touched game development and for some reason I thought to myself, if kids can do it surely I can. So I dug in and started learning the basics of game programming. Gosu the Ruby Library used in the series made it really easy to get started since I already had a pretty good knowledge of Ruby. What I really learned though was the foundation and basic patterns of game programming. The update loop, collisions, etc. I created some pixel art sprites like those of Space Invaders or Galaxian and it eventually turned into a simple full on space shooter game. The original Gosu Galaxoid version still exists today. This was the very beginnings of my game development and also the very beginning for what would turn into my game, Galaxoid which was just released on Google Play, OUYA and iOS App Store.
Futile 2d Framework for Unity
After feeling pretty limited by my publishing options as well as the performance bottle necks I seemed to be facing using the Ruby version of Gosu, I had almost forgotten about game development. I then stumbled upon a Reddit post by Matt Rix. The post was about his new 2d framework for unity called Futile. He had already created a few tutorial videos about how to set it up and how to build a basic game, but what caught my attention was that it was mostly code based and left out the need to deal with much of the Unity UI. Awesome I thought to myself as Unity seemed pretty daunting to me. I decided to port Galaxoid over as a starting point for learning Futile and C#. Matt was always there to help whenever questions or problems came up and after a few weeks I quickly realized the power Unity + Futile. After that there was no turning back. I was going to build Galaxoid and release it completely. One year later, and a lot of late nights after an 8 hour day of development testing at my 9-5, and Galaxoid was released. I owe quite a bit to Matt, and also to his awesome 2d framework, Futile.
And second to last, but not second to least, we submit for your approval, one Charles Cross of Valorware. Charles’ superb RPG 9th Dawn was recommended to me by a Hardcore Droid reader after I had posted a list of the best Android RPGs. Said reader posted: “What about 9th Dawn?” below the review. I jumped right into the game the next day and was quietly blown away by the games homey retro-styled graphics, as well as by the title’s detailed open and persistent world. If you are an Android and an RPG gamer, then you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of 9th Dawn, and you’d do well to check out the sequel, due out later this year.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1977) Rankin/Bass animated film
If there was any place, event, time, or thing in the history of my life, which could be called the original source of my interest in fantastic adventures, tales of wizards, goblins, and heroes, and the ability a person has to create a world of their own design, this film was undoubtedly it. As a disclaimer, like every other reasonable person, I acknowledge that most of the merit attributable to the story of The Hobbit is from Tolkien’s original writings, and I have enjoyed those just as much as anyone, but I think there is still something to say about what Rankin and Bass were able to achieve with this animation.
I was probably about eight years old when I watched this film for the first time, and I always find myself going back to it each year to remind myself what a good fantasy adventure should feel like. The unique art style, the beautifully fitting songs by Glenn Yarbrough, and the moving voice acting all came together to paint for me a magical world that had both in it wonder and mystery, good and evil, happiness and sadness, and beginnings and ends. In today’s age of mega-blockbuster films, which take themselves oh so seriously, it is sometimes difficult to feel the sense of adventure that a fantasy story should evoke. It has been my goal for some time now to somehow, some way, recreate for others the feeling I got the first time that I heard John Huston say in a smokey and grandfatherly tone: “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” I sincerely hope that I can someday accomplish this through my game development work at Valorware.
Lunar Silver Star Story
Keeping in line with The Hobbit’s adventurous charm, Lunar SSSC stands out in my memory as one of the most enjoyable and influential role playing that I ever played, and I would also venture to say that it is the title that first triggered my desire to create RPGs. In this day and age when games are often made with the production values of A-list films, people might criticize the fairly simple gameplay, the turn-based combat typical of just about every RPG of SSSC’s era (it was originally released for the Sega CD in 92), and the often cheesy dialogue and characters, which gave it a more lighthearted tone than some of the rather serious titles we are used to seeing today. For me, however, these and others characteristics of Lunar SSSC set the stage for the title to succeed.
By not trying bogging the gameplay down with all sorts of gimmicks, mini-games, and other distracting elements, Lunar provided one of the smoothest and most consistent progressions of any game I have played. Sure, these distractions can be fun, when done well, but often I find them to be pointless time wasters, implemented to increase the “play hours” of a game (see Final Fantasy IX for both good and bad examples of this). Lunar SSSC, on the other hand, kept you involved in what mattered: an enjoyable fantasy adventure in which you traversed a world to become a hero, became embroiled in a narrative where you were forced to choose to save what mattered to you most; and in a wonderful twist, the story culminates with you challenging fate itself. For bonus points, the game’s visuals, voice acting, music, and overall aesthetics were all very well rendered, a level of effort and perfection that was typical of Working Designs and in its hay day set it apart from other studios.
To this day, I use Lunar as a model for what I feel is the archetypal (think Plato), story-focused RPG: you become Alex and you are on a journey to become the next Dragonmaster. Should I ever come close to approaching the level of quality and polish that is exemplified in Lunar in any of my own works, I will then consider myself to have become the game designer that I want to be.
We just finished a So You Want to Work in Video Games that features Mr. Mannicia. We decided to do a feature based on Chad and his work because his RPG, Tales of Illyria, is frickin’ brilliant. One: it has a complex interactive novel-like story, and two: the game plays like a fantasy-themed Oregon Trail with engaging tactical combat ala Final Fantasy. It is a thoroughly enjoyable and engaging RPG and why this guy has not been picked up by some Borg-like corporation is beyond me. Needless to say, we recommend that you play Tales as soon and as frequently as you can. It is an awesome game; as in the original sense of the word; that is, a descriptor that qualifies a phenomenon or thing as inspiring awe.
Looking back, my biggest influence has to be Ultima 4. I’ve always felt that it meshed real and game world elements very well. I was immediately pulled in by the amazing box art.
Bundled inside the box were two quality manuals, a cloth map and an ankh. The books weren’t written in a normal manual style but presented as if they came directly from Britannia. This created a very immersive experience.
I remember the moment when I first started up the game, and found myself at a carnival visiting a fortune teller. By answering a series of hypothetical moral questions a character class was assigned to me. After that, the game was an entirely open world (a relatively unique prospect in a game from 1984) allowing me to go wherever and do whatever. In my opinion, the main quest to become the Avatar, with its moral challenges, often rife themselves with moral ambivalence is still one of the most innovative story lines ever produced for a game.
Interestingly enough, the game also taught me a great deal about being a good person.
Dungeons & Dragons
I still remember the first time I played D&D. I was on a school bus, attending a field trip. The DM gave me a dwarf warrior to start. Even though I didn’t know much about the game I was instantly hooked.
Our adventure began in a city where a merchant was selling magic items from a wagon turned storefront. I didn’t have the gold to buy a +1 short sword, but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying to take it by force! The merchant’s guards quickly cut down my dwarf. While my first character’s life was short my love for D&D still lives on.
From then on, I’d go to the mall and salivate over the countless D&D manuals and rule books every chance I got. I read most of them in the store because I couldn’t afford to buy them. In hindsight, this is probably why I hoard board games now.
*If you are an indie developer or games journalist interested in reading all of the articles from Part One and Part Two of our So You Want to Work in Video Games Series as well as all of the upcoming articles in the series, plus exclusive interviews, reviews, our app and digital magazine, you should subscribe to Hardcore Droid.
Send an email to aljackson[AT]hardcoredroid[DOT]com, type “work in games” in the subject heading and I will send you a discount coupon worth 20% off our already rather inexpensive yearly subscription fee.