Thursday, August 4, 2011

Something, something: Paul Hubans

I can’t say enough about independent development. This really applies to every kind of small business in any industry, but games developers tend to be much more accessible and amiable due to their tech-savvy. In this case, the separation via computers actually improves the communication and increases the strength of the connection versus other areas. It’s really a great dynamic that I’ve always been dying to take advantage of.

Luckily for me, I did that very thing this past week.I braved the perilous caves of indie development to bring you a timely and insightful interview* with one of the eminent members of the indie enclave TIGSource: Paul Hubans!

Every community has leaders, but oftentimes those which are most influential are not official; rather they’re the ones with the ability to raise the barn from grass with a small sharp stick and an even sharper tongue, the ones who are capable of rousing emotion of many kinds directed at many things, the ones who may be at once called “trolls” while those same mouths treasure them as “pillars”. Paul Hubans is such a one as this.

Despite having had some press this past week, Phubans (as he is known) maintains his humility, knowing that glory isn’t about making the headlines, it’s about making games that people want to play.

And Paul Hubans is doing that very thing.

*I conducted this interview via email with Paul over the course of a few days last week. The questions are, to the best of my ability, consecutive and relevant, but due to the nature of email correspondence, may lack some of that "authentic interview feel". Just sprinkle some salt on it and it'll taste just fine, though. Thanks!

1) Thanks for doing this! It's a great pleasure for me to get the chance to talk to creators and designers of all types, especially games. I think that Indie development is especially conducive to this type of community interaction, and I aim to take advantage of it! Alright. Enough rambling. So, Paul Hubans, could you give us a short introduction as to who you are and what you do?

The pleasure is mine :) Well I'm an independent game developer living in San Francisco, CA. I'm mostly a designer but I do art and a little bit of coding... I'm familiar with how music should sound, but I can't read or write it to save my life, but I can play a wooden flute. Most of the games I've made have been with Game Maker, and include titles like Madhouse, Sword of Legends, and the recently released Indie Game Legend. In addition to making my own games, I also do work in the commercial game industry. I've worked on World of Goo, Dark Void Zero, and I'm currently doing art for a War of the Worlds game that will be released later this year.
Sword of Legends
 2) How did you get into developing games? When did you start?

I started when I was about 6 years old, which was 24 years ago, so I've pretty much been doing it my whole life. I was always pretty creative, but when that mixed with my exposure to video games on the Nintendo in 1987, it was then and there that I decided that I wanted to make my own games. So began a life of drawing and writing down game ideas, until I finally discovered Game Maker in 2003 and figured out how to use it. By 2004 I was making playable games.

3) Have you developed something of a philosophy of design over the years? In other words, do you approach each project with a specific aim or mindset, or is it more of an organic, seat-of-your-pants kind of thing?

I think it's a little bit of both, but there's always a vision in mind. Usually I know exactly what kind of game I want to make and I typically have a beginning and an end for the game in mind, then it's just a matter of fleshing out what goes in the middle. My style is very traditional, influenced by the kind of games I grew up with and loved as a kid; the NES and SNES-eras of games in particular. I do have a couple ideas for games that break this convention that I'd like to make someday, too. Over all, the process of game design feels very natural to me, like it's just some cool innate perk I was blessed with.
 4) It's awesome that you've had this kind of knack and passion for making games since you were so young. As you grew up (both professionally and physically) did you ever see things kind of change over time? Were there some major influence you could point to? Did you gain a lot of insight from working both as an independent as well as on teams for big companies (like Sega) and small ones (like 2DBoy)?

In regard to seeing things change, I noticed that games began to strive for a greater sense of realism; they weren't content to be just games anymore. I'm not so sure how much I learned at Sega or 2DBoy, since my roles at both of those companies was mostly based on quality assurance. I feel like my most recent job doing art for games is where I've grown the most in terms of improving my digital art skills, and I've learned a few tricks for doing some really cool stuff with art. Mostly though, my vision for my games is a pretty separate thing from the jobs I work; sometimes there is overlap in creative ideas, but mostly I try to keep the two separated.

5) The Indie Game Legend released recently, but I haven't seen too much about it on the "regular" sites. (Ed note: after this interview, it got featured on THREE sites. But I WAS FIRST! Too bad the internet will never know.) It's a shame too, because it's a pretty fun and rather substantial game! It feels like a mix of Zelda, Smash TV, and Metroid. What were your aims/influences for the project?

Well it's funny you should mention that, because it was just featured on three sites today: Pixel Prospector,, and MetaFilter. The game was influenced almost entirely by one of my favorite NES games, The Guardian Legend. I wasn't really expecting much more than a post on the front page of TIGSource, but Derek said he didn't want to give trolls fuel for the fire since the game is clearly part of the whole "circle-jerk"*... And that was exactly what it was meant to be, but more-so as a parody. (*circle-jerk refers to the act of self-gratification)
Video courtesy of PixelProspector

6) Speaking of influences, what were your particulars growing up? Any genres, mechanics, or ideas that seem to naturally find their way into your games? Or are there any mechanics you're just really enamored with right now and want to put into every game?

I think I'm mostly influenced by the charm and simplicity of some retro games, but that's really just speaking generally. When it comes to genres, I think that some of my favorite games have been action-RPGs, because they blend the real-time fun of exploration and battle (like Zelda) with the intricate and balanced systems of stats, equipment, and leveling up (like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, etc) Some of the best examples of action RPGs that inspired me are: Crystalis, Seiken Densetsu (Final Fantasy Adventure in the US), and The Guardian Legend. A more recent example would be Fallout 3. But these days, so many games are merging together elements from across various genres, so I wouldn't be surprised if 10 years from now there was only one genre; a sandbox exploration-heavy first-person-shooter with RPG elements, vehicles, and online play... At least that's where it seems like games are headed.

7) As a developer, what do you see as the key to making a good game? What about from your experience as a player? Do these ever conflict? How do you deal with those conflicts?

Well, obviously "good" and "bad" are relative to the individual, so most developers are really just hoping to make something that *most* people will enjoy. I tend to make the kind of games that I would enjoy playing, which ties into your other question here, I think... So no, there really isn't a conflict. Just play the kind of games you like to play, and make the kind of games you like to play. I think my tastes are pretty good, so as long as I'm making games that meet my own standards, I don't think anyone is going to be really disappointed.

8) How much of your time do you spend coding it up? Do you ever just get caught up in it all? What do you like to do when you need a break from coding?

When I'm making my own games with something like Game Maker, I'll spend entire days coding among other things. When I was working on Madhouse in 2004 and on, I would wake up and start working on it immediately and continue until I went to sleep, which was usually 14 hours a day on average. But of course, I was also doing design and art, as well as finding the right audio resources, playtesting the game with my little brother, and following feedback from the forums where I had posted it. These days I really don't do much coding at all, at least not with my current project, which is being coded by my roommate/dev partner. I typically tend to avoid coding and focus more on design and art, but it is fun to sometimes jump in and put something together in code; the feedback of seeing something come together is instantaneous. From here on out I'll probably be mostly a designer and project director alone, but I do have a few small games planned that I'd like to put together myself, as well. Indie Game Legend trilogy, anyone? ;)
Box Art for The Indie Game Legend
9) You mentioned Madhouse, so let's talk about that! You said you started development back in 2004. How far along is the project now?

I started it in 2004 but I stopped around 2007 after getting about 75% done with the game. Here's what happened: I was looking for some work at the time and replied to an ad on Craigslist requesting a pixel artist that did Nintendo-style graphics for a DS game that this guy wanted to do for his start-up. I sent the guy the link to Madhouse to show him that that's the kind of work I do, and he liked the game so much that he said he thought it would make a great DS game and asked me if I'd be interested in making it on the DS. I was young, aspiring, and maybe a little naive, but the answer was "of course!" So in about two weeks I wrote a 65+ page design doc that carefully outlined every aspect of the game and redesigned it for the DS. Then, the guy was trying to find a publisher for it, but he never really had me along for the pitches (which kind of made me a little dubious about his practices, but whatever) In the end, he ended up seeing another project I was working on at the time (Love Up) and decided that THAT one was the perfect game for his studio. I tried to work with him a little on this but the idea was still in development. When I felt like the vision was being compromised, I decided to call things quits with this guy and just continue doing the game dev thing as a hobby that I enjoyed. Ever since that, I kind of lost the spirit for working on Madhouse, but the good news is that I have bigger plans for its revival someday :)
*Ed note: an extremely playable (but singleplay only) version of the game can be found here.
10) I played some of it so far, and it plays great. Very old school, Very classic art and gameplay. What were your influences for this particular game?

Yeah, I did everything on Madhouse; design, code, art, but not the music. I was careful to select the kind of tunes and sounds that made it into the game, though. My influences were largely from one of the Splatterhouse games: Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti. This game was basically a really awesome comic parody of various horror tropes and pop culture references. The SD (super-deformed) characters were cute and charming, and worked surprisingly well with the horror theme. This game was the  main inspiration for the theme of Madhouse. As for the actual gameplay and mechanics, I think there are a lot of influences from Zelda and I've noticed that the game plays a lot like Goldeneye 007 on the N64, but in top-down 2D form. A lot of people have said that the game reminds them of Zombies Ate my Neighbors, but I don't think that's a very fair or accurate assessment. ZAMN was a pretty shallow arcade-style game that I never really played as a kid and I didn't much care for it when I did try it out. A lot of people have also noted that the visual style of Madhouse is somewhat similar to that of Earthbound/Mother II, which is also interesting in that I've never played it.
11) What are your hopes for a Madhouse release? Platforms, distribution, etc. How afar off do you see it being? What are the major obstacles that would need to be overcome?

Well right now Madhouse hasn't really been touched in a while, maybe 2+ years. I'd like to make it an online game for Steam or console, hopefully both. I really think that Madhouse is really meant to be played as a versus game, since that's what it was originally conceptualized as (the single-player was kind of tacked on as an after-thought in response to players that didn't have anyone to play the local VS mode with). Madhouse is something I have thought about pitching to studios like the one I'm working for, but I really think it would be best if it was made by as few people as possible under my close direction. The game is very well documented and it's probably one of my most fleshed out ideas, so I feel that something like this could be huge if it were executed properly. As such, I'm in the process of making and releasing a few smaller projects that will hopefully earn me enough money to start up my own thing so I can fund projects like Madhouse Online.

12) And finally, any people you'd like to thank out there in the wide world of game design and development? Not just people who've been involved in your projects, but anything or anyone that you'd like to show your appreciation for :)

I'd like to thank Shigeru Miyamoto for creating the games that inspired me to choose game development as my path in life, among tons of other amazing Japanese developers, designers, and composers. I'd like to thank cool people in the indie scene like Jonatan Söderström, Paul Eres, Derek Yu, and BrandonMcCartin for being good friends and inspirational figures. I'd like to thank all the fans and supporters of my work, including my family, my buddy Jacob Latvala from Finland, and everyone else who ever praised the work I do. I'd also thank the critics for giving me an opportunity to do things better, either in my work or my personality. And finally I'd like to thank my friends and co-workers, my roommate Carter Randolph, friends Dan Fessler and Stevie Hryciw for their excellent support and great work on projects we've worked and are working on. And thank you, Tim, for giving me the opportunity to say all of this.

No, thank you Paul Hubans, for keepin' it classy! I love that his first dedication is to Miyamoto, who is often lost on the current generation as the head of an enormous, faceless corporation. We so easily lose sight of the fact that these huge corporations are composed of individuals, many of whom began as simply as our guest Paul. I'm certain they also do their best to continue their vision and tradition while having to struggle with the huge responsibility that is running an enormous corporation. They are still inspirational and, even if they eventually lose sight of their love for video games, deserve respect for paving the way for those who came after them.

Thanks once again to my guest Paul Hubans for taking the time to answer my possibly incoherent questions rather coherently, and providing some cool insights into the growth and development of both games and the developers who make them. As a person who's already enjoyed many hours of play in the games you've created, I hope that you continue to get more and more of your work out there for others to enjoy, and I hope you're rewarded for it! Like I once said, you certainly deserve it.

For a complete list of work by Paul Hubans, visit his website. I personally recommend downloading and playing the hell out of Madhouse, Sword of Legends, and The Indie Game Legend.