Monday, October 17, 2011

Indie Cred: Indieviewed

Yes! It’s Indie Cred! It’s Monday! This is the best thing ever! I am totally not assuming things for you! And what’s even better is that I have some bona fide exclusive content for you, my dear readers, of which no other part of the web has or ever will have (OR ELSE). By some great magic of the internet, internal combustion engines, and government-funded municipal services I went and had a meatbag-to-meatbag meetup with an authentic, basement-having, ramen-eating, code-writing indie dev. And what a meetup it was!

You’d like to know how it went, huh. You’d like that. Yeah. You selfish, meandering, amoral

Anyway. Interview! We met up over some burgers and iced tea and had it out over various topics, but mostly focusing on the Man in Blue Sweatshirt: Jack Sanders. What is written here is the transcript of our conversation, which I dutifully transcribed from the recording I did in a Red Robin in Fresno. Apologies for the strange background noises.

The conversation continues on in the audio, so feel free to listen to the whole thing if you’d like to hear more!

MIBS interview by Timothy Hsu

The Mediocrity Codex: So, Introduce yourself! What’s your name, etc.

Jack (Man in Blue Sweatshirt): That’s kind of like one of the hardest questions ever! Okay so, My name is Jack Sanders and I try to go by the name alias “Man in Blue Sweatshirt”. It’s not a company, it’s just my other name, so I don’t want that misconception to go around too much. I’m not a company! [He is 17 years old and is based in Yosemite Falls, California, too!]

So, what I do is, I try to explore my creativity and the main way that I do that is by making games.

TMC: So, when did you get started?

J: I first got started making games when I was 10 years old. I started with a program called GameMaker [at the time, version 6] and I was absolutely terrible at it. The first thing I made didn’t even work. I had this grand vision for this Zelda-like game, but it ended up being a stick figure that shot arrows at targets.
TMC: That’s pretty good!

J: Well...maybe. I was only 10 years old! So, roughly, my first 4 years of making games was all about making clone games, because I didn’t really have any idea of what else to do. I felt like, at that point, ”these games are really cool, let me see if I can replicate what they did.”

TMC: Games like what?

J: Games like, well, I replicated a lot of the old Zelda games, because when I started playing video games what really got me was that those were my favorite. So, when I started making games I started making very Zelda-like games, and as I did that I started learning a lot about what makes a game a game and about how video game design theory goes. And that has sort of helped me get to where I am today because I feel like, if I had just gone into it, and I was just trying to be original at first I feel like I would have gotten lost.

TMC: Okay, so you kind of built a foundation—

J: I built a foundation by building on what they [those games] had.  On what I liked, basically. And then I started figuring out more and more of what I liked and how to make what I liked happen in a game.
TMC: Do you feel by now that you have your own style?

J: Yeah, I feel that right now, I’m just starting to develop my style. Like, it’s happening right now. For a long time I was just experimenting. Like I said before (he did say this before I started recording), I’ve made like a hundred games but no one’s seen a single one of them because they’re all just concepts and experiments.

TMC: Well, you made one! At least! Well, three actually –

J: Technically three, yeah. On my website.

TMC: Which is, ah!

J: Yeah, which I’ll be revamping soon!

TMC: Yeah! Okay, so you’ve kind of developed a foundation for the way you make games. Can you verbalize exactly what it is? Or is it just like, you like Zelda –

J: Haha! Well, Zelda isn’t it, but I used that as one example. So, my foundation of what I build a game on is basically give the player something to do, and then give them a challenge to solve with the thing you just gave them something to do something with. I think this is pretty much the foundation of any video game if you think about it. Give the player a tool and give them a problem. And what I do, that is, my approach or my theory, is I try to be as creative as possible with that and try to think of as many ways as possible to let that player use that tool to solve a problem. And I try to make it so that it’s not like a problem that you just look at and say “okay, that’s what I do.” I try to make it a problem that is something that the player has to think about or be strategic about or –

TMC: Like “puzzle” it out –

J: Like, yeah. It’s kind of like a puzzle, but it’s not necessarily a puzzle.

TMC: Not necessarily a “puzzle game” –

J: Not necessarily a puzzle game, but like every mechanic is a puzzle in its own way. And that’s where the Zelda influence kind of comes into effect, because that’s where I feel that Zelda does a lot of that.

TMC: Like for example, the hookshot, it’s kind of an implement you can use. You can use it to stun enemies and other various things. Like it has multiple uses, but it’s intended use is a single purpose.

J: Yeah, and it has all these secondary uses along with stuff to explore and it also opens up these new things for you. So that’s kind of the feeling that I base most of my stuff on. And it’s not necessarily just with equipment, but with mechanics in general when I approach a game.

TMC: So what do you use now? What are your tools of the trade?

J: So, my tools…I guess I’ll start with the very simple stuff: for art I use, which is a Windows program (which is free, by the way). I prefer it to Photoshop because personally I feel like it’s much better for pixel art, but I do use Photoshop as well when I’m not doing such. Moving more into programming, I use FlashDevelop and FlashBuilder, because now I’m doing development on a Mac so I’m using FlashBuilder a lot for programming.

TMC: So you develop on a Mac!

J: Yeah, I do develop on a Mac now, but I still do my art on a windows computer because I love so much, but I do all my programming on a Mac now. Anyway, my preferred tool for making games right now is probably FlashPunk, which is made by Chevy Ray Johnston.

TMC: Oh man, love Chevy Ray.

J: Oh yeah, when I think of him I think of Sonic the Hedgehog. Anyway, enough about ChevyRay. This is about being selfish. This is about Jack! Haha. Anyway, so I use FlashPunk. I really, really like it. It takes care a lot of the “dirty” stuff for me while I get to focus on the gameplay and the things that really affect my game. Lately I’ve also been using xCode, which is on the Mac for developing Mac and iOS applications, since right now I’m developing an iPhone game. So that’s my latest project to go along with all my Flash stuff, because, personally, from a developer standpoint, I still prefer making Flash games, but iOS is really fun as well.

TMC: It’s fun? Or…is it more like a necessary evil, or?

J: In what sense?

TMC: Because, to be honest iOS and Flash don’t play well together, or at all.

J: Oh, well actually that was the first thing I tried to do. My original intention for getting into iPhone stuff was to port pocket protector over to the iPhone. At first I thought, “okay, Adobe’s got this thing where you can package a Flash app for an iPhone. So, I get it running, and it runs at 2 frames per second (fps). That was the max. [I laughed. Ha!] Yeah, so at that point I realized that I would have to totally rewrite this thing if I wanted to do that. So that kind of discouraged me a little bit.
So what I’m working on right now is just the native game, ironically written in C++ (which actually pushed me away from making games for a long, long time). I really hated C++.

TMC: So, these tools and things like that. Did you learn these programming languages on your own?

J: Yeah, I am completely self-taught. Well, I mean I bought a book, but that’s still being self-taught [laughs]. So, when I started using GameMaker, it has its own built-in scripting language. It made it really easy for me to get into it because it was really friendly. Like, some programming languages are very strict and they’re very technical, but with GameMaker it was much more open and there were much less rules to abide by. So I had a lot easier of an experience getting into it initially. So then after that, I jumped into learning C++, which was kind of…how do I explain this. It was terrible. It was terrible. Let’s put it that way: it was a grindfest, and it didn’t really get me very far. I started getting something going, but then I realized, “I need a game engine.”  And I realized I can’t write one on my own. I’m not that good. And that was when things kind of began to fall apart for me because I didn’t know how to begin making one!

So then, I started going back to GameMaker for awhile, and that was working okay for me for awhile, but then I realized that the techniques that I had learned while using C++ didn’t work in GameMaker, but they were much better for making games. So then I realized I needed something else. And then I found FlashPunk. And it was just…euphoria. I found the thing that clicks for me. So at that point, that’s when I started developing Pocket Protector. It was the very first thing I did.

[Some blather about FlashPunk, ActionScript, C++, general developing and eating sounds]

TMC: So what are your more specific influences so to speak? I know you already mentioned Zelda, but are there particular developers? Because the way I see it now is that I don’t find myself adhering to particular franchises. I realize now, because what it is is that no matter what happens to the franchise, if that developer or designer isn’t behind it then the game is different anyways. I feel that it’s really the developer and designer that have that creative spirit which makes the game.

J: Yeah. And with that in mind, my biggest influence is probably [Shigeru] Miyamoto. He’s like the God of Videogame Design. What he does is he just asks, “how do I capture this experience?” and that’s what I try to do every day. I think that’s what all of us try to do every day. But going beyond that, it’s mostly indies that inspire me. It’s mostly because, you know, those guys [Miyamoto] have a bunch of people working for them, so what really inspires me are the people who are like, one or two of them and they just come together and make something awesome out of sheer will. That’s what really inspires me.

So people like Notch [Markus Persson], Chevy Ray Johnston, I would even say that Paul Hubans [phubans also did an interview for me] is an inspiration for me. And I have this kind of feeling that all the developers that I really like, they all have in common this sort of spirit of just wanting to make something really great. That’s their first and foremost goal all of the time. And that’s really what drives me. 

Of course, I do want to make money, but it’s not what I’m in it for. It’s for the craft.

TMC: So, in particular, Pocket Protector. Let’s talk about that particular game, since it is the only game you’ve technically released to the world. And in a sense I would say, well, it’s not your Magnum Opus, but really it’s the Magnum Opus of your childhood.
J: Yeah, it is! And it was actually intended as that. So my motivation for the game was to take all of these ideas that inspired me as a little kid. When I was a kid, I would play a game I would always think to myself, “wow this is so cool. I wonder how they did this? I wonder what it would be like if they did this in this game? How would things go if they did it this way?” Or “I think it would be really cool if this game had this mechanic or that mechanic in it”. So I just spent some time thinking about all the stuff that inspired me as a kid and eventually led up to me making games, and just said “All of these ideas and concepts; I’m going to make a game out of them.”  I ended up being heavily inspired by games like Zelda, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, roguelikes…

TMC: Any roguelikes in particular? Rogue? Nethack?

J: Rogue was actually the first roguelike I played [hah!] and pretty much the only one I’ve ever gotten into. So I just wanted to embody what I loved about all of those games in my game and kind of just bring it all together. And for two reasons: one was because I just really wanted to make a game that embodies everything I love about games, and two was, well, it was kind of so I could just put it all out there, make it, and just get it out of mind so I could work on other things. When you have these ideas as a game developer, they’re constantly hammering at your head, and I just felt like “I want to try this, I want to do this” and the only way for me to get it out of my head is to do it. So I just thought to myself “alright, I’m just going to put it all into one thing.” Well, I mean as cohesively as possible [laughs]. So that was how it went. And the reality of it is is that I ended up making about half of the stuff that I envisioned (but that happens with a lot of game developers).
 And so with my revamped version of the game that I’m working on now, I’m going back and I’m actually going to put in all the things that I envisioned for the game, because I really am going to try and make it what I envisioned. And then hopefully it’ll be successful so then I can move on to bigger and better things.

TMC: Hopefully it can be successful! What if it’s not?

J: What if it’s not? Keep trying [laughs]. Just, keep trying.

TMC: So in terms of Pocket Protector, let’s talk about what it is right now. In your words, what is Pocket Protector?
J: I would call it a mix between a traditional RPG, an action RPG, and a roguelike. The roguelike [influence] is obvious because you have the random dungeons, and I also have some hint of roguelike in there because of the insane difficulty I put in, because I really feel like roguelikes are just insanely hard. And the action RPG part was what was really one of my favorite genres of games, so I wanted to combine that and a roguelike together. And then the traditional RPG part comes in because I really love deep storytelling. So, Pocket Protector is action-rpg-roguelike, is how I would put it. 

Although, it’s not as deep right now as I hope it would be.

TMC: So what are your intentions for the game?

J: My intentions? Well, I want to give the player a lot more to do in the game, because right now you just kind of go in there and play the dungeon, hack stuff up, then you get out and that’s it. I want to make it a lot deeper and I want to develop the story a lot more. More importantly, I want to add a lot more gameplay elements that really complexify (sic) it to the way an [traditional] RPG is complex, but not to the point where it becomes a number[s] game. I want to keep it all meaningful. Like in a Zelda game, for example, where you aren’t just crunching numbers, you’re just getting new stuff, new tools, stuff like that.
 And I also want to make it a lot easier to get into, to be quite honest, because one of the main complaints I got was that nobody could figure out how to play, or that it was too hard to play.

TMC: So you want to put in something like a proper tutorial –

J: Yeah, a proper tutorial, all the interfaces are going to be redone…There’s also going to be, well it’s not going to be an easier difficulty, but it’s going to be a more gradual curve so that you can learn the mechanics a little better before I throw you into hell.
TMC: And in terms of other things like item variety, other randomization aspects, etc…

J: Yeah, so I’m really taking the randomization much further. I really want to put a lot more emphasis on not just the randomization but also just how much there is in the game. Basically I want to take everything I’ve done and step it up a level. Where I left everything, it was basically half-complete. I want to add a lot of items and stuff, I want to add crafting, potion-making, quests – not like quests in the RPG sense, but more in the Zelda sense. In an RPG it’s very much like, “do you accept this quest? *DING* Get my five of this!” I don’t want to do that. I’m going more for something like: you see somebody on the street, and they’re really thirsty. They need a drink, so you bring them water, and they give you something because they’re really happy you gave them water.

TMC: Like in Zelda when you go under the bridge and talk to that old guy, or you give that guy a fish and he gives you a bottle.

J: Yeah, yeah exactly. Because personally, I feel like in RPGs the questing really just pulls you out of the game. It always makes me think “What the heck is this…” like “get me five fish/wood/ from the dungeon” “get me twenty of this, twenty of that” All these fetch quests with a quest log and their wall of text with your objective in a sentence…
TMC: Like World of Warcraft.

J: Yeah, so I really want to avoid that because I feel like it doesn’t add anything to the game in terms of “feeling like you’re doing something.” To me, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything, or helping somebody out, you just feel like you’re doing some mundane task for a little bit of gold or something. And that’s primarily what I’m trying to avoid. But, I do want to have quests in a meaningful sense.

TMC: What are you plans for the future? So far you haven’t really expounded too much on where you are in your life right now, and you still have quite a bit of ways in front of you. So with that in mind, what’s your understanding of the industry? Where do you think you’re going to fit/want to fit into in the industry?

J: That’s a really good question. I feel like right now, things are changing extremely quickly; from being this thing that was almost sort of like an IBM shirt-and-tie kind of thing and transitioning into something that’s more of (not necessarily hobbyist but) a creatively driven independent thing. I’m not saying it’s going to be totally one way or the other, but I am saying that it’s changing.
So where I see myself being is I always kind of want to be mostly the one guy making games (although of course I’m going to probably get into a team at some point ). My goal isn’t to make the next cultural phenomenon, but kind of…

TMC: That’s good! Well, the idea is that…What I’ve come to understand about indies is that there’s really just so many different things that motivate them to do what they do. There was a little survey that came out that surveyed independent game developers that [Adam Saltsman] conducted using Survey Monkey to try and get some answers from this demographic. To figure out why people wanted to go Indie. It was a very insightful look into the way things are. The most important reasons cited were 1) creative control and 2) ownership of the IP.

J: Well, yeah. When you think about it, what kind of artist wants to make something, and then have their rights to it be taken away. It just doesn’t make sense from the point of view of what an artist wants to do with their creation.

TMC: So I guess the question is: is it about money for you?

J: No, not at all. For me, it’s about creating something that is…well, it’s about creating an experience. It’s about creating a good game. Well, My motivation for wanting the money is so that I can have funding so that I can continue to make games and so I don’t have to hold up some day job and try to do it on the side or struggle with that. This is what I feel like I want to do (at least for the most part). That’s the way that I think about it.

TMC: What do you see yourself doing in the next 2-3 years?

J: I see myself (hopefully) being in university, brushing up my skills…because my plan, from now until the time I’m out of university, is to spend my time working on and developing my skills such that by the time I get out I can have something, I can have the skills and the techniques to make something really, really good. That’s the idea, at least. Because When I’m university I don’t have to worry about a lot of the things that I’m going to have to worry about afterwards. So I’ll have the opportunity to work on those things. University for me isn’t just going to be about learning academically; it’s also going to be a time for me to develop my creative abilities as well.

TMC: Cool! Do you have any other projects besides Pocket Protector planned? That you’re willing to talk about?

J: I do! I have one secret project, but I’m working on an iPhone game called Z4R right now. My goal here is to make a shoot ‘em-up game that works really well on a touchscreen. The thing I like about shoot ‘em-up games is that they’re really precise. They’re about precision, and doing things really spot-on and I feel like the general idea about touchscreen games is that you can’t be precise; you can’t play hardcore games on them. So my goal with this game is to kind of challenge that, and see if I can overcome that preconception. To make a game that’s really solid and really precise, and at the same time bringing something new (hopefully) to the way you play a shoot ‘em-up game.
TMC: And…that’s pretty teaser-y. That’s good!

J: Yeah! I do have a couple of things that are pretty concrete, but so far it’s pretty much just screenshots [laughs]. At this point I’m still trying to figure out how to make things work well, and it’s hard to say what I’m doing until I figure out what works well.

TMC: It’s like when you show someone something and you say “SO, it does this!” and they’re like “it doesn’t do that” and then you go “I KNOW IT DOESN’T but I want it to do this so bad!” [laughs]

J: Yeah. Like, how do I tell people what I’m doing when I don’t even know what I’m doing yet? [laughs]

TMC: That’s understandable. Well, is there anything else you’d like to say? Something you’d like to rant about game industry-wise, or about what it’s like to develop games on your own? Or maybe as a person who’s been on this side of development and as someone who’s played games since you were really small, who’s been influenced by it and spent a lot of time thinking about it too, because you want to design and develop them, do you see any trends?

J: Well, for indie games in general (and talking about the industry as whole as well) as a developer, as someone who wants to be an artist in the industry, or in any big media industry, you usually need connections, really good education, or you need to work for a really crazy company (SEGA or something) to actually break into it. And you don’t’ really have creative control (like we said earlier).

But what’s happening here [in games], and I think it’s also happening in music, art, and film as well, is that it’s becoming more about the individual person and their creativity, their imagination, and what they do, rather than the big company. Before, you needed a big company to distribute and market and things like that. But now that we have the…Well, I credit the entire indie game movement to the internet. And I credit all the other artistic movements going on to the internet right now as well. There are tons of really popular indie bands now. Tons of really popular artists and indie filmmakers happening right now. And it’s because of the internet. Because people can self-promote now.

TMC: Reddit, digg, metafilter –

J: Hell, Youtube. Stuff like that. Everybody self-promotes now. And I think that’s awesome. Because the people who are making the stuff are much closer to what people are seeing and how they’re hearing about it and it’s much more intimately connected.

TMC: The internet has really made the world much smaller. The world has shrunk. I think you’re very right. I mean, in what world would I, in this case, have found someone like you, and then just had an interview? Only through the internet.

J: I know. I mean, get this: in what world can you play somebody’s game, from across the entire world, and then you like it so much that you send them an email about it, and they actually respond to you. Like, you’re talking to the person who made this game. I think it’s really awesome.

And I really think this is happening with all the liberal arts. iTunes is just another example. And I love it. And that’s why I’m getting in on this.

Thanks again to Jack Sanders – Man in Blue Sweatshirt – for his time and congeniality in hosting me in the dry, boring desert that is the heart of the Central Valley. An iced tea for you, good sir. A hundred iced teas. May all your best wishes come true (unless they involve the deaths of other people, in which case: die, you murderer!) and I personally hope that Pocket Protector (and Z4R) turn out great. 

You can find both games at