Way back in the post-millennial haze of 2003, I was at college and Ian (co-owner of Mode 7 Games) had just graduated. Ian told me that he was making a game, that it was something to do with sword-fighting and that he needed some music for it. I complied, willingly, as I’d always wanted to do a game soundtrack.
We had a development meeting in Ian’s flat: I remember it especially well as it was a bizarre collection of Ian’s friends who had been formed into a loose-knit indie game dev team. I’m the only survivor of those days!
The game was Determinance, our deeply divisive flying sword-fighting opus. We wanted to ask the question, “What happens if we make a slightly crazy game on our own terms?”
At that time, we could do this pretty much free of constraints: it’s a situation that you get only once or twice in your life if you’re very lucky. I’ve always been a believer in taking a leap at those points. It’s not something I could ever have done without the support of my loved ones – luckily everyone around me recognised that we were trying to do something new and supported us.
Even though our inexperience really showed through in the end product – it was too ambitious, too cranky and too raw – it was probably one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever done. Knowing that a team of basically two guys could make a game with quite a huge scope has fuelled our endeavours ever since: it imbues you with a massive dollop of hubris.
Indeed, hubris is pretty useful in the games industry. Within a couple of years, I was speaking about the game at GDC, having drinks with the current editors of magazines I’d read as a kid and shaking the CEO of Blizzard’s hand. One of the best things about our industry is that people don’t really care who you are – if you’re doing something vaguely interesting they generally will treat you with respect.
Determinance itself was a difficult proposition – some people still love the game and play it to this day – but it didn’t really go as far as we wanted. Fortunately, it was weird enough that it attracted the attention of various parties, leading to some great contract work which has sustained the company to this day. We learned a lot of lessons about value, money, hard work and perseverance: all important things to understand. It was definitely a second education.
We decided to embark on a second game, having made just enough money to keep going and fund it ourselves. This time it would be different: we would focus on creating a great core mechanic but also on opening this up to the player. My mantra was that we should think about the player at all times and be inclusive, rather than just follow our own path.
Frozen Synapse was born out of Ian’s love of simultaneous-turn-based games like Laser Squad: Nemesis and Chaos League, and my desire to do something with a modern, cool aesthetic. We thought that the two would go well together, and the reaction we’ve had so far shows that we’ve been right! Creating a hardcore tactical game was something that we really wanted to do, and something other people really wanted us to do, so it seemed like a good plan…
As you can see, my path in the games industry has been completely non-standard and is still yet to solidify; as such, I find it hard to give people specific advice. I do think I’ve learned some important generalities though, so here goes…
1. THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR QUALITY
A lot of bullshit is written about “how to get started in the industry”. My simple assertion here is that you have to be good at what you do, and what you produce has to be good.
Worth is relative: you have to match up what you’re doing to other things that are out there. Determinance wasn’t good all round by these standards, but where it was good (innovation, quirkiness) it brought us success: we even won an award! Worth brings rewards.
Even if you are just going for a job as an entry-level tester, you need to think, “Why am I the best possible tester?” Companies looking to hire you will be trying to answer that question as well.
2. SOMETIMES YOU SHOULD JUST GO FOR IT
Comparing your work to that of other people can be discouraging if you’re a certain kind of person. What I’m suggesting, though, is that you judge your abilities and work objectively and that means not underrating yourself. If you care enough to do the research and put in the work to improve yourself then congratulations: you’re already better than a huge raft of wannabes who will never get anywhere.
If you want to be an artist then make art. If you want to be an indie game developer then make indie games. Learn by doing. Ours is a practical industry: you will never get anywhere if all you have are ideas: one crappy finished game is worth 10,000 half-formed ideas. Jump in, as someone once said.
3. THINGS YOU NEED: LOTS OF SELF-BELIEF, A THICK SKIN, A BRAIN
Once you’ve jumped in and learned how to do whatever it is that you want to do in the industry, then you’ve added some value to yourself! You are now valuable – you can do work for other people, you can make money for yourself. Start to believe in your value and don’t let employers treat you like crap. So many people have quite terrible jobs in this industry just because they want to be around games: don’t put up with it.
If you try to do anything interesting, even if you don’t act like a dick, other people will be jealous and accusatory. When I told people that I owned a small games company after I left university, I’d get a mix of very inquisitive or very dismissive responses. Some people thought I was crazy, some people thought I was living their dream, some people thought it all was rubbish and it would fail after six months. You have to just ignore all of that – it’s not useful information. Most people cave in to social compliance and view their career as a negative which is balanced out by other aspects of their life: both of these things are paths to total personal disaster.
Finally, you need a brain. You need to know how much money you need to live on, how much things cost that you might need, how to negotiate, and to plan out how you’re going to live. That applies to any kind of career, from a junior marketing assistant at a massive publisher to a renegade indie auteur: have financial goals and plans, don’t just bumble along.
I hated spreadsheets, data analysis and money when I was a teenager: I found them dry and irrelevant. Now, I love them, because they are the tools I need to execute on the creative plans that we have as a company. We get to make unbelievably awesome stuff pulled directly from our imaginations, and that liberty only comes about if you have the right tools in place. Can’t make yourself interested in that stuff? Fine, go to work for someone who has it under control, or attract someone who likes that stuff to work with you. It’s vital to everything you do. That’s why the games industry is an industry: when you get involved with it, you’ll start to see how everything creative is powered by money, and to understand why that doesn’t have to be a depressing prospect.
I love the games industry: sometimes it really puts that love to the test, because there are a lot of negatives. There’s nowhere else where things move at such a massive rate – even films and TV are totally stagnated by comparison – and cynicism is endemic. But right now we’re living in an era where huge numbers of games come out every week; there are brilliant projects with unbelievably high budgets and brilliant projects made by one guy who can barely draw or code. Nowhere else is that exciting!
Paul Taylor is the Joint Managing Director of Mode 7 Games. Frozen Synapse is currently in development – for more information about the game please see http://www.frozensynapse.com. You can also hear Paul on the bi-weekly Visiting the Village podcast, at www.visitingthevillage.com.