May 15, 2013 3:02 PM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Alistair Aitcheson, one of the few developers that have properly endangered my iPad with his 2-players/1-iPad offerings and a genuinely talented crafter of games, discusses his creations and provides us with some handy tips for the aspiring game developer:
Hello Alistair, would you mind introducing yourself to the readers of Indiegames.com?
Hi there! I'm Alistair, and I've been working full time as an indie developer for the past three years. I predominantly make games for iPhone and iPad, starting with Greedy Bankers, an iPhone puzzle game I released in 2011. I developed an iPad follow-up Greedy Bankers vs The World later that year, which introduced shared-tablet multiplayer. And I've just launched my new iPad game, Slamjet Stadium, with an even bigger focus on shared-tablet play. I love getting people to physically interact over a tablet, get in each other's way, cheat and mess each other up, so it's been a driving force behind a lot of my recent work!
And why did you decide to enter the world of indie gaming? How long have you been actually creating games?
I started out in 2001, when I was a teenager, learning a language called Blitz Basic. I did that throughout high school, working on bigger and bigger games, teaching myself as I went along, learning by doing really. When I went to university to study Maths I got involved with the student game design society, and that's when my interest boomed. I met other enthusiastic game-makers, learnt new tools, had exciting creative discussions, worked on group projects, did game jams... I really fell in love with game design, and exploring the form went from a hobby to a life ambition.
When did you decide to try and, maybe just maybe, survive by making games?
As I was reaching the end of my degree, I'd been debating about what to do with my future career. I'd been considering doing a PhD in Maths but deep down I knew my heart lay in making games. I'd regret it if I didn't pursue my passion. But with that, I wanted to do things my way. I wanted to make my own decisions, follow my own inspirations, explore the parts of the medium I thought were most important. So it made sense to take a shot at running an indie micro-studio. Again, I'd regret it if I didn't!
So your latest project, Slamjet Stadium, how would you describe it?
It's a futuristic deathsport - a version of football/soccer played on hoverbikes - where two players share the iPad and are encouraged to get in each other's way, sling each other's characters into traps, grab each other's hands and play dirty.
It's a very physical game, and that's something I feel is very exciting on tablet. Rather than each player having their own controller, we can share the whole input space. Why split it into sides? Both players have access to the whole screen to play on, and physically maneuvering around each other is part of the fun. I've taken it to events and people get really competitive over it - you can see some of that in the trailer - and it's great because people come away with great stories to tell and a shared experience with friends. A little cheating and schadenfreude goes a long way!
Is it doing well for you?
It had a very exciting launch, far more successful than I'd expected to be honest! It was selected for New & Noteworthy in the iPad store in the USA when it launched, and then later in 60 other countries too. All very exciting. Of course, that kind of promotion doesn't last forever, so I'm continuing trying to build interest in the game and get the word out about it. I'm looking to take it to live events whenever I can. There's plenty more I want to do to share it!
Care to share any tips with other devs trying to make mobile games?
On the business side - which is important if you want to make a living off of your work - I'd say it's really important to focus on what makes you unique as an indie. What can you do that large studios can't? On mobile there's a lot of schemes out there for user acquisition, monetisation optimisation, burst advertising... the problem is that so much of it only works if you're a big company with a lot of money to splash out on it. As an indie you need to be radical and different. Make sure people know who you are, and why your game is something worth believing in. What is your cause? Don't go for "safe" options - they don't exist. Do something radical and identifiable.
I'm not talking about cunning plans and PR stunts here - I'm saying to stay true to yourself as a designer. Make what you believe in, not what you think will sell. The chances are the games that you genuinely have passion for are the ones that players will take an interest in, and those are the ones that you'll make a living from.
What about your thoughts on the current state of gaming?
We're at an interesting point in time at the moment. The best thing is that there's more and more ways to make games, more and more people getting involved in game-making, and it's never been easier to get your games out there to players. But it's as hard as it ever was to get your game noticed if you want to make a living. We've seen these open systems such as the App Store, starting out as a promising frontier for the little guy, getting dominated by big fish who have the resources to game the system. Realistically you just have to make the best of the opportunities in front of you. Making the games you love all day long is an awesome dream career. No-one can expect to live out their dreams without putting up a fight!
Oh, and what about the brilliantly named Greedy Bankers? Is it a deeply political attempt at satire, a puzzle game or both?
Haha, that's an interesting story! In truth, the gameplay's what came first. It began as a prototype for an Experimental Gameplay Project event in 2010, and my focus was on making a simple-to-learn puzzle game system with lots of emergent complexity to explore. It was about merging gems and managing space, and I gave it the name "Greedy Bankers" because they were big in the news at the time (they still are!)
I liked the idea that I could put an arbitrary villain in the title and it would become topical. I didn't really know about sub-prime loans and collateralised debt obligations and the like (I recommend watching Inside Job if you want to learn about those!). But I felt at that time that people needed a villain, regardless of knowing how and why they were a villain. So in a way it was a joke about my feelings about the world a the time.
As it went on, though, people really seemed to latch on to the banking theme, and I liked the opportunity to draw all the characters that came with it. Rich fat-cat stereotypes, vaults full of cash, sneaky robbers... And once I put in the multiplayer mode - where players can reach across the screen and steal gems from each other - greed became a big deal in the gameplay too!
How do you usually design a game? Is there a particular method you are following?
I typically begin with a lot of prototyping and testing. Particularly with shared-tablet multiplayer games, being able to whip together a prototype in a couple of days and then take it down to the pub is great. It's the perfect atmosphere for them, and you really get a feel for how they go down in a social setting. With Slamjet Stadium there was clearly something in the prototype (originally just circles and squares) that my friends got fired up and competitive over, so I decided to build it up into a full game.
From there I largely play it by ear. I guess you have that freedom as an indie! So usually while I'm coding the core gameplay I'll be sketching out design and layout ideas, printing out reams of reference images and picking out the visual traits I can use for the game... I have a big wall of reference art next to my desk, and sketchbooks full of character doodles, arenas, and long windy spider diagrams. So the visual style in Slamjet Stadium comes from a wide range of sci-fi, sport and industrial imagery I picked up from comics, films and real-world locations. The deathsport setting made sense for a highly physical game where playing dirty was the focus - I wanted to get players into the spirit as soon as they started playing!
The whole process is very free-form, but it pays to test regularly at the pub to try out variations and see if it's going along the right lines. The more of this you do the better a feel you get for where to focus your attention.
What does the future hold?
I've got a lot of ideas up my sleeve that I'm eager to explore. And I'll definitely continue to support and build on Slamjet Stadium with updates, and take it to as many shows and events as I can.
I still love shared-tablet multiplayer and am keen to explore it further, but I'm also excited to play around with something completely different. So, as before, I'll be doing lots of prototypes and experiments to see what I get passionate about and what players get inspired by. I've built some already which I think have great potential, and it's exciting to be back doing all this experimentation. At some point one of these will be screaming to be turned into a full-scale game, and that's when I'll decide to devote my full attention to it.