I caught up with David Johnston creator of “Adventures of Shuggy”. Shuggy is a vampire who adventures through puzzling landscapes and battles with many a foe. Dave talks about indie development life, tips for making and publishing indie games. To see his site and games visit: http://smudgedcat.com.
Oliver: How valuable is social media in marketing indie games
Dave – Extremely valuable, I can’t imagine how different things would be if I didn’t have my Twitter and Facebook accounts. I probably favour Twitter more, it’s what I tend to use myself to follow different people and see what everyone is up to. They can achieve different things though, I tend to use Facebook more for announcements about games and ‘official’ things whereas I’m happy to talk about other random stuff on Twitter.
Oliver: Where do you get the ideas for your games
Dave – Hard to say I suppose. I play quite a lot of games myself so I inevitably get inspiration from other games and think about how I’d like them to be different somehow. Some games tend to spin out from developing concepts like my Portal-inspired game, Gateways. I initially wondered how Portal would work if it was in 2D and once that was implemented I realised that having 2 portals of different sizes would naturally lead the player to changing size. I’ve written a few games that involve time travel so a natural progression of that was thinking how travelling through portals might let you travel in time. Once there are a few ideas like that you can start to see a game forming!
Oliver: How long have you been making games?
Dave – I started when I was really young, probably about 8 or 9. I remember getting my first thing published in a magazine when I was about 11 and being really excited. It was back in the day before the internet when magazines would print code listings that people could type in to play a game, seems crazy now! I haven’t been doing games the whole time though, when I graduated from university I went to work for Rare but didn’t like it so ended up in other software engineer jobs. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve come back into games to pursue ideas I’ve had.
Oliver: What do you use to make your games?
– Recently I’ve used the XNA framework from Microsoft. It was what made me decide to implement Shuggy because when it came out it was clearly going to become a way for independent developers to release games on the XBox (what has now become the XBox Live Indie Games channel). I use that with Visual Studio C# for all the coding stuff. I don’t do any of the artwork for my games because anything I do looks awful but I occasionally use GIMP to mess around with the graphics a bit. I tend to write my own level editors for my games because it gives me the flexibility to add new features and change whatever I want.
Oliver: That sounds like an amazing Idea!!
Oliver: How long does it take to make them?
Dave – It depends a lot on the scope of the game. It’s difficult to pin down a time for Shuggy because I started it in 2007 and it got released in 2011.However I didn’t spend all of those 4 years working on the game. I’d say a game like Shuggy or Gateways probably takes about a year of actual solid work to develop. I’ve released other games on the Xbox indie channel which only took a couple of months to write like Growing Pains since they’re much smaller projects.
Oliver: Your recent game shuggy is available on steam and xbla, thats amazing! How did you go about getting it published on the xbla and the steam marketplace?
Dave – Thanks! Getting Shuggy on XBLA was a long and painful progress. I entered the game into the Dream Build Play competition that Microsoft run back in 2007 and it made it into the top 20 but didn’t get a publishing deal. Thankfully it gained enough interest that I was able to arrange a publishing deal myself with Sierra Online, then owned by Vivendi Games.
Things went great for a while and it was looking like the game would release in 2008 but Vivendi Games got taken over by Activision/Blizzard and everything went quiet. After a long period of not even being able to contact anyone I was finally told the contract was being terminated. It took almost another year to get another publisher to back the game, Valcon,
and the game finally made it onto XBLA last year.
Getting onto Steam was much easier although I did submit the game to them and didn’t hear anything for the first 4 months. Once the ball was rolling things were much smoother for the Steam release, partly because I was self-publishing at this point. Steam don’t really have an approval process for releasing games like Microsoft do. Microsoft have a big list of things that must be correct in the game and if you put your game into certification and fail on one of those points then you have to go through the whole thing again.
Oliver: Do you make much money from your games?
Dave – Not a massive amount. I’m making enough to keep going at this point which is the main thing. Hopefully sales of Gateways and Shuggy on Steam will make enough that I’ll be able to fund development of another game.
Oliver: How possible is it to make a living from indie games?
Dave – It’s certainly possible, plenty of people do it, but expect a lot of hard work if you do decide to go for it!
Oliver: Convince me to go indie in one sentence
Dave – You get to work from home, decide what hours you work and play a lot of games
Oliver: If I wanted to make a game for xbla and steam, what advice would you give
Dave – My advice would probably be to not bother about XBLA, not in the beginning anyway. It’s much easier to get noticed on the PC and anyone can make a game and stick it out there (although not on Steam of course). XBLA just involves jumping through too many hoops. If the game is successful on the PC I think it makes an XBLA version much more viable. Make your game and then try distributing it through your own website first to get some feedback about the game before approaching Steam and trying to get it on there.
Oliver: What is the difference between xbox live indie games and xbox live arcade?
Dave – Live Arcade is a collection of games that is managed by Microsoft. You have to apply to them to see if they would be interested in your game first
of all and then you have to go through the certification process that I talked about and wait to be assigned a release slot to actually get your game out there.
The Indie Games channel isn’t managed by Microsoft. You can buy a membership to App Hub (99$ a year I think), then develop your game and put it up to be playtested by other members. Once you think you’re game is ready to release you have to get it peer reviewed by the other members of the App Hub.
Reviewers will check for things like your game crashing and if there are any weird issues with it. If your game fails peer review then you have to wait 7 days before you can submit again. Once it’s passed peer review then you just release your game and it will become available in the indie games channel. However, a lot of games get released on there so it’s very hard to get noticed, Microsoft rarely promote XBLIG titles so a lot people find they get lost in a sea of games.
Oliver: You’ve received some great coverage of shuggy, how much work goes behind marketing a game?
Dave – It takes a lot of effort. I’ve spent several days just on email contacting different websites and magazines trying to get people to cover the game. With appearing on Steam I do get some people that contact me because they’ve seen the game appearing in Steam’s new releases which is quite cool. You need to keep pretty good track of what codes you’ve handed out to what reviewers and keep hassling the larger sites to get the to cover your game.
Oliver: What is the best language to get started with developing games? Could anyone make a game, or do you have to be a certain type of person?
Dave – I think C# is a really good language to start learning games. It’s so much easier than using C or C++. And it’s not like it’s just a “starter”
programming language either, both Shuggy and Gateways were written using it. Of course you can always use a tool like “Game Maker” to make a game and you can get away with not doing any coding at all, just a bit of scripting.
I think anyone can make a game but it probably does require a certain type of person to make a really good game. You have to be good at thinking about what will actually make a game fun and be able to try and view the game objectively despite having spent months being really close to it.
Oliver: Have you come across any challenges so far? How did you overcome them?
Dave – There are plenty of challenges to overcome both from the technical side when you get something that just doesn’t work and also the experiences I had with publishers. There wasn’t much I could do about the publisher stuff except stay calm and hope things would work out for the best. At least technical problems are something you can actually tackle and do something about. I remember I had a really nasty bug in Shuggy where the game would just crash randomly. It only happened every couple of days and it didn’t
seem specific to a certain type of level or anything. It took ages to track that down but when I finally did it was a great sense of accomplishment.
Oliver: What have you learnt in the past few years since you started making games
Dave – Probably the most important thing I’ve learnt is related to the publicity side of doing games. It’s almost like you have to spend as much time trying
to promote your game as you do actually developing it. Just making a great game and throwing it up on your website isn’t suddenly going to attract
loads of people no matter how brilliant the game is. I’ve definitely learnt to be a lot more pro-active in approaching people about covering my game.
Oliver: Any tips for contacting reviewers and publishers?
Dave – Most websites or publishers have a contact page or email address you can use. Be sure to give them all the information they need, link to your website, a YouTube video of the game, maybe stick a couple of screenshots in there. I’d also say it’s best to be fairly formal, more so with publishers than reviewers I guess. Just present people with the facts about your game and point out what makes it unique and interesting. Don’t start your email with “You dude, check out my tooootally awesome game wot I made…”, it’ll get ignored immediately!
Oliver: Good luck with all of your future projects and current games! I hope they go well for you.
Thanks – Dave
Check out David’s games on steam and Xbox live arcade. To learn more about c# programming visit: http://youngwebbuilder.com/tools-for-learning-programming
I also highly recommend that you check out his 2d Portal inspired game Gateways.