Most people expect to hear that I grew up dreaming of making video games but that’s not the case.
I got my first taste of programming when I was in fourth grade. I actually started doing simple coding on a T1994a. I didn’t complete any big projects back then, at least not until my high school years. During that time, I put together some turn-based strategy and RPG games using Pascal.
Then I hit my college years, enough said. Between girls, drinking, homework and lots of part time jobs I barely had time for programming, let alone game development. I landed a decent web development job straight out of college and it consumed more of my time. I’ll tell you right now, the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was piece together a video game. My brain was always fried and I just wanted to put my feet up and get some rest.
Then I hit my mid-30s, that rough over-the-hill age where you start to pay attention to what’s going on around you. It wasn’t a midlife crisis or anything. I was just getting tired of the club scene and a lifestyle that had me participating in it. By that time, even minor hangovers were lasting me days on end. Let me tell you something, hangovers get more and more brutal the older you get I don’t care who you are. God knows how alcoholics walk around blasted all the damn time. I feel horrible after just one night! But I digress.
I started looking for something more productive to do with my free time, something that would make me a bit of money on the side. I caught wind of the Apple App store and how developers were making tons of money just by coding games. The mobile app market was booming at that time, so I didn’t think it was going to end up being a pipe dream.
Shortly after I grew interested in that stuff, Google launched Android. I had been working with Java for more than 10 years by then, so it seemed like the perfect platform for me.
A Love for RPG-Style Games
As for how Tales of Illyria came about, I’ve always loved RPG style games. My favorite game of all time is Ultima 4, which directly inspired the codex for Tales of Illyria. Ultima 4 was bundled with a beautiful map and various books, which helped immerse you in the lore and game world. Not one of those elements even mentioned that it was paired with a game. They just made you feel like everything was taking place in a real world. That experience forged my decision to make an RPG, and it inspired a lot of the mechanics and gameplay you see in Tales of Illyria. Of course, our game has some unique flair to it but I’m sure you already know that, right?
I started to put some ideas together for a game, and that’s when I went looking for some help. I placed an ad on Craigslist for a graphic artist. You wouldn’t believe the kind of responses I got. I met with about 10 to 15 “half steppers.,”Tthat’s what I call the ones that talk a good game but have nothing to show for it. Luckily, Jon Smith answered the ad and our initial team of two was assembled.
Soon after we started developing the game, it became apparent that the work required was increasing exponentially and I hired multiple writers to alleviate some of the work. The thing is I never planned it that way. My original intention was to remain small. I merely stumbled upon the winning formula I use now.
Now our studio, Little Killerz, based in Austin, Texas, has a team of nine members: programmers Chad Maniccia (me) and artist Jon Smith, along with a composer, another graphic artist and five writers. We have four titles under our belt but our most renowned games are Legends Arcana and Tales of Illyria.
Why Little Killerz?
I’m sure one of the first looming questions is: Why did I choose to call the company Little Killerz? The name stems from our first collaboration, a game called The Ultimate Bad Ass Game of all Time, in which little toys kill each other quite violently. But our flagship game, however, is still Tales of Illyria. It’s our crowning glory, our ultimate offering. Many people have called it, “the best RPG on Android.”
Tales of Illyria was first conceived as a hybrid of sorts, part Oregon Trail, part Lord of the Rings and part Game of Thrones. It blends old school paper RPG gameplay with strategic and procedural turn-based elements. Check it out if you haven’t already – I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.
The team is working on a sequel called Tales of Illyria: Behind the Iron Wall. The plan is to release it sometime in early 2014.
You Want to Work in Video Games Huh? Hah!
So you want to work in video games? I’m sorry but I have to laugh a little at your enthusiasm! Not in a condescending manner mind you but because I truly know what working in the ‘indie’ scene means. Trust me when I say that you probably don’t want to make video games for a living. I’ll lay out all my reasoning behind that statement for you.
When it comes to being a game developer, you really only have two choices: You can work for a large company or you can go strictly indie.
If you work for a large studio, you better believe they are going to use and abuse you like a sweat shop worker. You will be a very small cog in the wheel of a giant machine, and that translates to very little creative input. You will be in constant crunch mode, working 12-hour days, 60 to 80 hours a week without additional pay In order to meet deadlines and line the pockets of many executives.
The Downside of Indie Game Development
That sounds horrible right? Naturally, you’re thinking the better choice is to go indie! The sad truth, however, is that working as an indie can mean even worse working conditions. You will need a separate day job with a full-time schedule of at least 40 hours a week just to sustain yourself. And, game development sucks away all of your free time so you can kiss all of your leisure time goodbye, and I do mean all of it. Sadly, that means there is no time to play games if you are making them. When you’re not working your side job, you’ll need to be working diligently on your game.
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a massive game surge right now. Lots and lots of games are flooding the market, both of the indie and AAA variety. That means even if you make a quality game it’s more likely that you will sell very few copies than hit it big. In fact, most indie developers make a very small amount of money. It’s impossible for every developer to see the kind of success that Notch did, although that would be something. (If you don’t follow the indie scene, Notch (Markus Persson) is the infamous creator of Minecraft.)
Finally, you should know that if you choose game development for a career, you will lose the magic! What sorcery is this, you say? The truth is once you actually know how video games work, I mean once you know all of the ins and outs of the industry, most of the magic is lost. It just goes away, evaporates so to speak. It’s like learning the secret to your favorite magic trick. Or, if magic is not your thing, then consider the moment you found out what hot dogs are actually made of. Bleh! Just thinking about it still gives me shivers! It’s funny how most people feel the same way but they still go on eating the hot dogs. And, believe me, you will be eating lots of them as a self-employed game developer. Seriously, you’ll have to get used to a diet of hot dogs and ramen noodles.
I know you might think that I’m trying to talk you out of making games just to keep competition down. Not at all. I just want you to know what you are getting into. When you account for the opportunity cost, many studios that make money are operating at a loss. Programming business applications will likely pay better than making an indie game even if it’s not as much fun.
You’re Not Convinced, Now What?
So, you pushed through all of that negative wish-wash I spewed above and you still want to work in video games? I’ll admit it can be very rewarding to design games. It’s even more rewarding when you get to see people enjoying them. It’s amazing to see something you created, something of your own blood and sweat, making people smile. It’s even more satisfying when those gamers begin to obsess over how much food they should buy next time they leave town! (That’s a reference to our game Tales, if you didn’t catch that). With any luck, maybe you will be the next winner of the mobile App Store lottery.
For good measure, here are some useful pointers to help you out on your journey. I had to learn most of these the hard way.
- Choose a multi-platform game engine like Unity. You don’t want to manage multiple code bases and you want to maximize your audience. It will also allow you to jump to other platforms fairly easily.
- Start very small in every way imaginable. Put together a small team and a small game. Maintain a small budget and adhere to a short time frame. Do not try to make the next big RPG. Save the big games for the big fellas.
- Don’t make a game that is out of your team’s core competency. If you can’t write, don’t make a game with lots of dialogue and a story.
- Find a niche and do your best not to copy other games. Come up with something as original as you can. Believe it or not, there are still plenty of possibilities.
- Don’t create a game if another developer already does it better. They will dwarf you.
- Only work with other motivated people or keep the people you work with motivated. The latter is more difficult but choose one.
- Keep your overhead low. Low, low, low to tha’ flo’.
- Start a developer blog, and update it regularly. It’s free marketing and it works.
- Engage with your audience through social media and forums as soon as possible. Don’t try to connect with people after you are trying to sell them something. Build your audience early.
- Design a board game first. Board games are much easier to design than video games and they typically only have a few core mechanics. This way you can quickly experiment with rules and how they affect game play.
- Don’t waste your time with school. It takes a lot of money and you can teach yourself most of the skills you will need to succeed. Potential employers or collaborators are going to be more impressed with a resume of games than a resume of paper.
- Finally make games because you have a passion for developing, not to make money.
Blood, Sweat and Tears
Now my general tone may sound a bit nonchalant, like I have no interest in making games but the reality is certainly far from that. I’ve just put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the game. Hell, the whole entire team has. What I’ve seen in return makes me question if it was truly worth it or not. To be perfectly honest, if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do it again. I could be making more money doing something like consulting or programming work instead. That being said, it doesn’t make me any less grateful or proud of where the team is now.
My final point is this, I’m invested now and I can’t turn around. I’m deep in the muck and grime, and my future has already been carved into stone. Sure, I could change direction at any time but I’ve already put so much into this career that I’m unwilling to walk away. Before you get to the point where you’re too invested or too involved like I am now, make sure this is the life you want. I am getting a small taste of success now and that will increase as I make more games. The problem is it’s going to take more time before I’m where I truly want to be and I have no clue how much. If you want to enter this world, you’d better be prepared for that.
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