Where did your interest in video games begin, before it was a creative endeavour for you?
My first interest was in board games. They were a big focus in my family. Dad was into card games, and every Christmas we played loads of board games. My dad bought some every Christmas, and by ten or 11 years old I started designing them. Before any computer came along, board games were an important part of my life.
My first exposure to video games was in the arcades, with games like Defender and Robotron; a whole bunch of those kinds of things. They weren’t exactly my kind of games, because I was into strategy board games.
Then, home computers came along, and it was a different proposition. I saw them as a vehicle for implementing new board game ideas. I thought then it would be possible that computers could be able to do things that were far more awesome than board games. Introducing things like new line-of-sight mechanics and all that kind of stuff; it felt like more of a natural progression for me to get into than the arcade stuff. I wanted to implement my ideas for board games with computers.
My first interest wasn’t even playing computer games. I wanted to make them.
So that would have been the early 1980s, right? What hardware were you using?
It was. I started with a ZX81, which I bought from a friend at school in 1982. I got my 48k Spectrum when I left school in 1983, and I started programming on it straight away. I programmed my first game on it the instant that I got it.
Did you not have any interest in playing other computer games back then?
I did buy and play other titles when I got my Spectrum, but I bought it to make a game on, and that was it.
What about learning coding back then? Are you entirely self-taught?
Yes. I learned BASIC programming and Assembly language programming on my 48k Spectrum. In fact, I’d learned a bit on the ZX81 as well. I did make games with the ZX81, with my 16k RAM pack. I stuck it onto a big board of wood to prevent the RAM pack wobble crashing the thing.
I had big problems with that though, with loading and saving games. That just irritated me. It wasn’t good enough for me to make games on. The 48k Spectrum was the machine I needed. It was a mean machine and, I think, the main impetuous behind that boom in bedroom coders.
When did your transition from hobbyist coder to professional developer happen?
There wasn’t really a transition. The first game on my 48k Spectrum got a full release. It was published. That was a game called Nebula.
I made it in BASIC and I programmed it in two or three months over the summer in 1983. It was published by Red Shift, which was a group of friends of mine that got together to publish games. I just went straight into making games for release. There was no distinction between hobbyist and professional for me then.
Over three decades after Nebula, you’re still making games. What keeps you engaged and enthusiastic about games after all these years?
Today, it’s really the diversity. The array of genres, of business models, of audiences and so on is amazing. What’s happening now is phenomenal and really exciting to me. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about the industry than I am now.
Things are innovating and changing in games so much. We’re on an up. There have been some real down phases in the industry over the years. There was the late ‘90s and early 2000s when the so-called ‘death of PC gaming’ was upon us. Then, there was the rapid increases in development costs and team sizes, when it seemed harder to make a living for indie developers.
But today, it feels very different, and very exciting. There will always be tough periods, of course, because there’s so much going on, and so many games. There’s only so much people can pay attention to.
I like the fact there is that audience diversification today, and that it keeps happening. That means niches – and I guess I’m making niche strategy games – can still exist and hopefully do well. That alone is great; a good thing for games today. Games need that explosion of diversity to continue.
You seem very optimistic about games, but what about where you’ve struggled over time? When has it been tougher for you?
Working with big publishers. That was difficult for me. I learned a lot working with publishers, working with Ubisoft. But it wasn’t a very creative time, and I didn’t feel I was achieving anything. It was difficult to get things done.
The biggest problem for me was that you are working to please a number of people in publishing organisations, and you don’t have that direct relationship with the consumer, which I was used to with my early games. I expanded the idea through my game Laser Squad Nemesis, as we had a lot of contact with the community of players that developed around it. I really enjoyed that.
I felt that was totally missing at big publishers. Trying to please marketing people and all the different stakeholders in a project can mean you’re pulled in all kinds of different directions. For me, being a producer as well as a game designer in that situation, I was always trying to manage a lot of people’s expectations.
Then there were projects getting cancelled. Even I worked on projects that I cancelled, because they weren’t going anywhere. I wish I’d cancelled some of them sooner.
Working within a big publisher seems an extremely inefficient way to make games. There was always a lot of work done on a lot of things that should have been canned, and a lot of promising things that got squashed for, in my opinion, completely invalid reasons.
You get a lot of that going on, and for me I wanted to go back to that direct relationship with the players of my style of game. That’s what I want to be doing.
Now, you’ve just finished a very successful crowdfunding project for Chaos: Reborn, and you’re using Unity for the game. Does that feel like the kind of thing you wanted to get back to, in terms of direct player contact and creativity?
Is it a return to my early days? Yes and no.
Yes, in that it’s a return to me creating the vision for the game, without interference from other people with other ideas about that vision. Of course, there is still an element of needing other people to buy into my idea, but it’s very different from working with a publisher where you have a vision for your game, and then it gets altered by people, mutated into some horrible, mutant, bastard offspring of a ginger demon.
But there are improvements in terms of where I am, too. I guess back in the early days of my career, I had a very limited pool of people to test my games. It was my friends and family. Now, with the internet you can contact thousands of people who want to try out your games. That’s certainly better than it was, and is very exciting to me.
So I am getting back once again to a place where I am the proprietor of a vision, but now I can expose my vision and game’s design to many more players, and very early on.
During my Chaos: Reborn Kickstarter I found that side of things very rewarding, and very stimulating.
That campaign did very well there, hitting $210,854 when the target was $180,000. What did you learn from this?
What I kind of knew before was how important PR and getting the campaign exposed would be. I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t during the course of the Kickstarter campaign, and that was a real eye-opener.
Initially, my focus was on the traditional gaming press. And I got a lot of coverage which I worked hard for.
But then, I switched focus to try and get more YouTubers on board. I had a playable demo so I got them to play the game with me. I also managed to get Ken Levine on board to try it out, and Jake Solomon, who helped me with some celebrity games.
At that point, when we made that change in strategy, some of my backers were already YouTubers and they were doing well, making videos of the game and showing on their channels. So we began targeting more YouTubers, and even when they weren’t the biggest channels, I think it made a difference. The YouTubers seemed to help a lot.
In terms of the traditional gaming media, I also learned during the campaign about who and what made a difference. Rock, Paper, Shotgun was really up there.
Reddit had a real impact too, I put real effort in there. I did a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’, and that did seem to give a noticeable boost.
Overall, I knew how important PR was about getting your game out there to people, but I guess now I realise how fundamental it has to be to your strategy to maintain the level of awareness needed.
Releasing the prototype to the public really mattered too. I was really nervous about that, because I had a rough prototype, but it had a lot missing, with bog-standard Unity GUI and so on. But the players responded well. Some became ambassadors for the campaign. My backers became my PR guys, and it was great.
I could have planned more in advance, but doing a Kickstarter is about trying to respond to what’s going on as best you can, while the campaign is still active. I went through fear and terror and excitement, and had to change the way I was doing things as I did them. And then went through having to spend a day twiddling my thumbs while I wondered what the hell I was supposed to be doing next.
It was a real rollercoaster ride. I enjoyed most of it, and was very worried for some of it, but it did work out well in the end.