This is my second interview with a guest I've brought in for EGaDS. This time it's local developer Adam Atomic, creator of Canabalt, one of my favorite games of last year.
Me: I like video games, so I want to make video games as a career! What’s my first step?
Saltsman: MAKE SOME GAMES. It sounds totally obvious and/or ridiculous, but a really good way to get paid to make games is to start making games without the getting paid part first. You'll learn a lot, you'll build up a portfolio, and, hopefully, have some fun too. If you're not enjoying game-making without getting paid, then chances are you won't enjoy it very much after you get paid either. There are lots of great tools to help you make games right now, on almost any platform - Flash, Unity, Game Maker, XNA, UDK, etc. No excuses!
How did you end up in the role you're in now?
Mainly through persistence and accidents. I got my BA, then worked as a software developer for 2 or 3 years, before working as a freelance pixel artist for a couple years. Along the way I got enough connections and experience to start freelancing "right" (see http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AdamSaltsman/20090508/1343/Going_Commando.php ), and was able to start doing some internal development in Flash and on the iPhone. I was also lucky that one of my rock climbing buddies happened to be a computer genius with a great iPhone game just sitting around that needed some art! Was pretty happy to have a couple years as an artist behind me when he brought that up...
What piece of advice do you have for anybody who wants to be in the game design business that you wish you had at the beginning?
Make small games FIRST. You don't have to always make small games, but make small games first. And two or three small games is not enough. Make like ten. It won't take long, they're small after all! You don't even have to release them if you don't want to. Trying (and failing) to make big games can be a good experience too, but you need a lot of maturity or perspective or something to cope with that properly I think. Also, a college degree in no way, shape or form "guarantees" you a job. It never has, it never will.
What skills do you think are vital for people who want to make games for themselves?
Hopefully this doesn't sound circular or corny but the main thing you need is the ability and motivation to hunt out answers and tutorials and solutions for yourself. Along the way you will likely use THIS ability to pick up some secondary skills: scripting, practical visuals, practical audio, etc. This is all different from "real" programming, art, etc. You don't have to be a master of some discipline or other in order to produce stuff that at least communicates the basic idea.
What courses in college would you recommend for somebody who wants to make games?
I think it's really valuable to have a basic grasp of programming C-style languages. College is a great place to earn credit AND get that step out of the way, in a framework where you can get assistance, and get pushed through the nitty gritty stuff. I think writing is really, really important too, but finding a good writing course can be really tricky. I'm not talking about writing as in like... writing dialog for game characters though. Writing is really useful for communicating with other team members, with prospective clients, with the world at large (say from your dev blog), and with other humans on forums. Being able to do it well and comfortably will make your life a lot easier. So much of what we do relies on written language still that being able to do this properly is pretty much invaluable.
How tight-knit is the Austin indie development community?
I think we're fairly loose-knit at the moment, but not in a bad way. I'm looking forward to seeing our group grow and do some awesome over the next year or so.
What are the trade-offs between working for yourself and working for a bigger company?
Assuming you survive the first year or two on your own, the big trade-off is really responsibility, not stability. I think there's this idea that working for a big company, you know your job is safe... but that's just old-fashioned at this point. I may only have 6 months worth of money to live on, but I at least know I'll have my job for the next 6 months! The big thing I struggle with is making decisions about what to do next - what projects to take on, what projects to pass on, etc. I think that is a pretty huge burden, and I totally understand that not being right for some people, it's pretty stressful.
Where do you see indie development going in the next few years?
Anywhere it wants to, I guess. I think small developers with more room to take risks will continue to be responsible for the major advances in game mechanics and serious/mature content.
Can you describe the creation process for a game, starting at inspiration?
Oh man, that is a big question. For me it usually starts with a very simple concept, like "a platformer with only a jump button". Sometimes its a little more nebulous than that, but there's usually a nugget like that at the core of the thing. My next step varies a little - sometimes i'll try to flesh it out on paper, with sketches or something, which is usually a failure for me. Sometimes I'll prototype it in Flash, which is frequently a failure as well, but a little more productive usually. If the prototype feels good and I have a good idea of where to go with it next, then I'll start adding in some variety to the existing mechanics, and usually put in a bunch of possibly-final artwork, to at least start to get a feel for the world and the fantasy of the thing. At this stage, if it's the right kind of game, it starts to kind of make itself. You can immediately see a bunch of cool things to add, and it becomes a matter of which ones to choose, and which ones to abandon, based on whatever arbitrary sort of rules you set for yourself. It's pretty much the best process ever.