“Artist. Writer. Game Designer. Activist. Critic. Speaker. Thinker.”
Shawn, thanks for talking with me today! It’s been awhile since we spoke. Are you still working on your indie project?
“Yeah, still working on it.”
What’s the name of your project?
“It’s called Treachery in Beatdown City.”
How would you describe your responsibilities in the creation of the game?
“That’s a big question [Laughs]. I came up with the initial idea, originally creating artwork and a basic story. I reached out to my friend Manny to see if he wanted to code on it, but it wasn’t until I set up a project in GameMaker and hooked up the player with controls that he realized I’d make it without him. So I basically do everything that isn’t direct coding. I also don’t do the music.”
Sometimes you need to start something before others will jump in. It builds confidence in others that you are serious. Or at least they feel like they don’t want to be left out.
“It’s true. It was pretty much just a concept at the time. It can be easy to just throw ideas out there, but people will get really motivated when they can see some aspect of the game working.”
Concepts take shape when they get out of your head and into a tangible, physical space (paper, concept art, prototype, etc…).
“That’s also true. I had a lot of ideas that changed when we started actually making the game. The basic gameplay changed drastically, partially because of trying to resolve issues in GameMaker with animation, but the conceit actually made the game more interesting. Even still, I get to this point where until an idea is up and running I usually don’t know the amount of work that will need to go in in order to get it working right. (our game is also fairly complex in terms of development, as a beat ‘em up/action RPG).”
I can’t wait to play your game. The mashup of concepts intrigues me. Are you still using Game Maker to create the game?
“No, it’s running in Unity currently. We started building it in GameMaker, got a proof of concept done, and then used that to pitch Sony for a Playstation Mobile contract. PSM didn’t have anything to do with GameMaker, so we had to use their specific SDK which relied on C#. Then when PSM folded we moved it into Unity completely using a lot of the C# knowledge while also having to relearn how to do almost everything [Laughs]. (not to say GameMaker isn’t viable, most Vlambeer games are made in GameMaker).”
“Learning how to think, how to create and think about creation, or just learning how to creatively code, are far more important than a ‘game design degree’ which might actually limit you.”
Such a huge undertaking. Treachery is not your first experience with game development. You were not always indie. What was your first job in game development?
“My first job working in games was working as a ‘Gameplay Capture Artist’ at Rockstar Games, which pretty much meant I would make the footage that would go into trailers using a variety of debug tools (like things such as invincibility cheats, spawning vehicles, detaching/moving the camera, etc.). I also helped, via writing request documents, to make the debug tools more robust.”
“I didn’t have a whole lot of design responsibilities, if any, really, at my job. Treachery was where I started flexing my design muscles, but also I worked on some games in game jams before I went full time on the project. I also wrote game design criticism for my own website a few years back. I spent a lot of time thinking about games and how they work.”
So, what do you think influenced your design sensibilities more, working at Rockstar, the game jams, or the critiques? I assume they all had equal influence.
“Well, I started coming up with game ideas in a somewhat serious manner in high school. It’s why I wanted to make them eventually. That lead me to start writing about them more critically. It was actually really frustrating working at the publishing side of a game company with no real influence over direct game design ideas, which definitely lead me to want to make my own games, even more so.”
Yeah, working on the video end, the game is practically done by the time you see it I imagine. You’re not early enough in the pipeline to influence. Also, being on the publishing side you aren’t embedded in the game development team.
“Actually I worked on a couple of games from a really early on aspect, it’s just the design philosophies were already being worked on by the designers, which I wasn’t. I think that gave me a unique view, seeing the games without being so close to the design, which was pretty much locked. But also, I don’t enjoy open world games from a basic design standpoint, and the things I wanted to change were probably too big for the scope the team even had.”
“It’s why working on smaller scale games, more focused games, made more sense for me. You can have ambition without breaking some predetermined open world game’s systems.”
“I wanted to have a more design centric role, but that didn’t exactly work out.”
Did you get a formal education in video editing prior to your Rockstar position? If so, where did you go to school?
“I went to School of Visual Arts for Graphic Design, then transferred to ‘Computer Art’ which basically means 3D animation. We were tasked with making short 3D movies, and yet there was zero in the way of editing and camera training in any of our classes. They didn’t even actually teach us much in the way of environmental modeling, just characters and animation.
“I did, however, love comics a lot, and I read things like How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way as a kid, so I had ideas of camera angles that could create powerful emotions. I took a panel class in lieu of there being any sort of storyboarding class in the cartooning (comic) department, which no one else did.”
“So when I graduated, despite not being that big of a film guy, I understood camera work. Over my 4+ years at Rockstar I educated myself about film and camera work and cinematography to keep improving my work.”
I loved that book. I had a copy of that as well. How has your education served you in what you are doing now?
“I honestly have no clue. College overall feels kind of wasteful. I’m over $100K in debt, which makes working on my own projects very difficult. My thesis (short film) in school got me my job at Rockstar, and being at Rockstar definitely opened some doors for me, but I can’t really pinpoint if SVA did more good than harm.”
“Attending free talks and conferences at places like the NYU Game Center have done more for validating my design skills, as well as participating in game jams, too.”
“But I do know that I am an anomaly. People tell me that all the time. I am very good at dissecting and teaching myself things.”
The value of school is somewhat debatable when related to game development. Some people feel it is necessary, while I know some who have done well without completing a formal education. The common denominator is people still need a drive to learn.
“Yeah for sure, I can’t speak for anyone on this but myself, and I had to turn down the MFA program at NYU’s Game Center because I couldn’t afford it. Instead I went and founded my own company, and am a mentor to a lot of people, as well as a critic well versed in explaining these things…”
“How we learn is always different, and everyone needs to examine what is best for them, although I would absolutely caution against attending most game design programs that aren’t ‘the best’. Learning how to think, how to create and think about creation, or just learning how to creatively code, are far more important than a ‘game design degree’ which might actually limit you. It’s a buzzword these days, and places will try to take advantage while selling you a bunk degree.”
Can you explain what your typical work day is like, in your indie experience?
“I wouldn’t say I have one. I am in the middle of a lot of flux right now. I had to take a job recently to keep myself alive, and the job ended unexpectedly.”
“I know I used to wake up and work from home meeting my coworker once a week and that was actually not a good idea – working together is the best way to work.”
“This is probably the aspect of the project that needs the most attention, constant reevaluation and rethinking.”
Are there any tools or plugins that you use regularly? Anything you can’t live without?
How do you stay up on the latest trends in game design and the industry?
“I guess I pay a lot of attention to Gamasutra.com, I also follow a lot of people on Twitter, and I’m friends with a lot of game developers. Sometimes I participate in judging, I also go to conferences.”
“I play games that seem like they have something to add to my own experiences, either overall or on a more minute scale, like a specific menu style – but that can take from whenever, not just the most up to date things, because I’d say games actually have this amnesia where newer designers who may have skipped whole game generations or genre’s try to reinvent things and actually do a worse job of it.”
There are many things that have had previous iterations in prior games. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
“Yeah, exactly. At my first game jam even one group made an infinite runner but the team wasn’t familiar with other games in the genre, so they made all of these mistakes which were mitigated in other games prior… and that’s a fairly recent genre.”
What advice would you give to someone wanting to break into the game industry today?
“[Laughs], that’s always this really loaded question.”
Do your best [Laughs].
“I’d say, the best thing I can offer, is that games are not just these utilitarian things that don’t matter. Games in general have been important to who we are as humans. So by all means, make video games, find something you like about them and bring that to the table, but also don’t treat them as these empty, soulless vessels devoid of cultural weight. Think of games like music, like TV, like poetry, like novels, like movies. They matter, and if you just make X game in Y genre without thinking it through, you’ll probably get your idea copied and you’ll be mad, especially if the copies do better. But, if you inject your game with your essence, with some cultural weight, you will be able to create something that is bigger than just the idea, the art style, or the core mechanic.”
If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say? What is your tagline?
“For that I had to go to my twitter profile. Artist. Writer. Game Designer. Activist. Critic. Speaker. Thinker.”
Where can people find you?
“I can be found at @anuchallenger on Twitter, that’s the easiest way to say what’s up or follow what I’m doing. I also post a bit more infrequently at @beatdown_city about my game, and those tweets are usually more detailed and game specific (so less crossover).”
Shawn, thank you for your time. This has been a pleasure.
“Thanks for reaching out, I had fun.”