Ryan talks about his student team project…
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Interviewer: I’m here at the San Francisco Game Developers Conference and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Ryan: Hi, my name is Ryan Sharp, and I’m the Executive Producer for Anteater Games.
Interviewer: What is that? What is that exactly?
Ryan: Anteater Games is the indie development group that came out of the Game Development Club based out of the University of California-Irvine.
Interviewer: And so, what game did you guys decide to do?
Ryan: Our first game, first completed game is called Rock Candy, and it’s a 2D tile switching kind of puzzle game programmed primarily in Flash and not meant to be anything really complicated. But it’s something that a couple of students could do while fitting it around their class schedules.
Interviewer: How many students did you have working on this, and how did you organize that?
Ryan: When the project started, the Game Development Club had only six people in it. Now, it’s ballooned to up over 40, but the Rock Candy team is still remaining at just six people.
Interviewer: And so, you had six people. As you were developing this game, did more people try to come in or want to come in because now you had something to show or how did that work?
Ryan: Actually, it was kind of hard to find the six people initially to start the club. In fact, for the first third of development, we didn’t even have an artist. We had to use program art for the whole thing.
Interviewer: You mentioned Flash. I don’t think that’s usually taught in classes. How did you go about using that, and what inspired it?
Ryan: It was mainly just something that the programmers had done as a hobby because you’re right, Flash is not a very often taught programming language. In fact, there are no Flash classes that I’m aware of at the University of California-Irvine.
Interviewer: So, you start developing this. Did you start developing at the beginning of the year then?
Interviewer: At the beginning of the school year.
Ryan: Yeah. The Game Development Club started up at the beginning of the school year. We kind of all came together and sectioned off people into teams and each team started their own game. Rock Candy was just the one that was lucky enough to finish first.
Interviewer: Did you guys have weekly updates, or how did you manage the development, and what were some of the challenges you ran into as you were trying to finish the development because you said it took a whole school year to finish this?
Ryan: Yeah. I mean, being students there’s always the problem of mid-terms and finals and papers and such. And so, we did make a point to meet pretty much, rain or shine, at least, once every single week at the same place, same time just as some kind of mile post to gauge our progress and address problems.
Interviewer: Did you have a playable demo as quickly as possible? How did the process work?
Ryan: The process actually went through a couple false starts, prototypes that wound up having to be scrapped and code changes that wound up being pretty drastic. But, yeah, the point was to get something playable as soon as possible just to figure out if the design we had settled on was actually fun.
Interviewer: So, to get something playable you started prototyping stuff and you decided, you just played it and it wasn’t fun, or how did you decide? Or did you have other people come in and play?
Ryan: Well, the game itself was always sound, we felt. The false starts had more to do with programming and the tack of how we’re going to make the game work.
Interviewer: You guys are on the quarter system or the semester system?
Ryan: Yeah, UC-Irvine is still on the quarter system.
Interviewer: OK. So, you have mid-terms; you have finals. How did you keep momentum? How did you keep steam going through the second quarter and stuff like that because you guys didn’t finish the game before this, right? This was outside of class, too.
Ryan: Yeah. One of the team members actually had worked in the game industry before, but other than that, this was our first real effort to make a game. And yeah, we did have to do this outside of classes. We had to do it around our schedules, and really there’s not much to say as to how, aside from just to have a good producer that’s continually cracking the whip and always making sure that people were on task and concentrating and to help motivate them.
Interviewer: Can you talk about the roles that the students played in this project? Did you just have all programmers or what?
Ryan: It breaks down; we had two artists, one for the user interface and one for the backgrounds. We had two musicians, one for sound effects and one for the actual musical themes. We only had one programmer which I suppose makes you really think that he was an excellent programmer, and then we had one designer/writer/producer who sort of kept the whole project on track.
Interviewer: Did you guys work during winter break, or how did that go?
Ryan: Breaks were a hit and miss sort of thing because if they stayed home or stayed on the university it was an opportunity to get lots of work done, but if, say, they went home for the summer or went home for the holidays, there was usually something of a black hole productivity-wise.
Interviewer: Any other challenges as you were completing this? Did you complete it at the end of the school year, or did you need the summer, too?
Ryan: We used all the holidays. It was more of a calendar year than a school year.
Interviewer: Cool. While you were developing this, were you attending other conferences trying to get feedback from other game developers because your goal was to make a game and sell it, or what was the goal?
Ryan: The goal was always to make a game and get it published, not even to self-publish but to go out and have a publisher look at this and say, “Yes. This is something that is professionally done that we want to publish because…” That more than anything else was the leg up we wanted to have leaving school over all the other graduates.
Interviewer: Did you wait until the game was done to do that, or did you focus on it while – when was it beginning to look like this thing was definitely going to be completed? I think there comes a point where you kind of can see that this game is playable and workable, and it’s actually a joy to finish it instead of like, “Hey, what’s going on?”
Ryan: I think it probably took it until about the 60 to 70 percent complete point before it was this is more than just a project, this is a game. And what’s more, that it is a game that is fun to play.
Interviewer: At that point, did you start showing it to potential folks that could pick it up or publish it?
Ryan: No. We decided to hold off on showing it to publishers until it was all the way complete because the kind of leverage a publisher has over a developer in terms of your IP rights and in terms of royalties and everything, when you’re still asking them to fund its continued development, are enormous compared to the much reduced risk when you say, “Here’s the game. It’s done. Do you want it?”
Interviewer: So, you finish this game. What did you do to market it, promote it, stuff like that?
Ryan: Well, as far as marketing goes, I’m here at Game Developers Conference doing it right now.
Interviewer: So, you’re meeting with other folks to publish it?
Ryan: Yes. Tomorrow and Friday and Saturday I have meetings all up and down the schedule with potential publishers and developers.
Interviewer: How did you get in contact with these people? I mean, it seems like a big step from being a little club in a student group to actually getting meetings with publishers.
Ryan: Well, you just have to get involved. Things like the International Game Developers Association, those meetings we made all sorts of contacts in. Coming to prior Game Developers Conferences and other trade show events, like E3, it’s all about making contacts. And it’s just one of those things you have to work at. You have to grind it.
Interviewer: So, you do that. You’ve got contacts. You’ve got e-mails. You e-mail them. You set up these meetings. Why go through a publisher? Why not self-publish?
Ryan: Self-publishing is saying that you’ve made something that you felt is good enough to sell, and that’s not really hard to do when you’re the creator. To actually go out and get a publisher, somebody who’s been in this industry a while who’s seen more than their fair share of independent games, and to have them say that yes, this is something worth paying for and worth publishing. I just think it’s the difference in the impact on a resume between a sling shot and a trebuchet.
Interviewer: And why not just get the audience that you’re targeting this game at to play it and see what they say, see if they like it? But, you know, have those testers come in. If you have a hundred of those testers and they’re addicted to the game, is that enough validation to say that you can self-publish?
Ryan: I really don’t think so because New Grounds has dozens, hundreds of five star rated games that have hundreds of fans that no self-respecting publisher would touch with a 10 foot pole. I mean, it really is just a different breed between the casual, the enthusiast and the actual dedicated professional.
Interviewer: So, what’s next in store? Are you six folks still working together on other games, or have you disassembled and found other teams and started working on those?
Ryan: Well, the Game Development Club at the University of California-Irvine currently has six different game projects going on of various teams and team sizes. And so, maybe, we’ll redistribute our talents among them. Maybe, we’ll come back together. The goal is never to be just an indie company. The goal was to use this game to prove our various skills in an industry context because it’s that classic industry trap of you need experience to get a job; you need a job to get experience.
So, we’re basically attempting to bypass – we’re getting experience by doing it ourselves and having a publisher validate that experience by taking our game and saying, “Yes. This is professional quality. We’re going to publish it.” And so, then we’ll have the experience we need to get jobs at the companies we want to work for.
Interviewer: So, your goal is to leverage this project to get a job at another company as compared to starting your own indie studio or something.
Ryan: Right. None of us are interested in trying to start a company from scratch. It’s just full of pitfalls and tears, and it’s just an ugly picture. You have to be half crazy to try starting a game company.
Interviewer: Sure. Let’s talk about your Game Development Club. How did it go from 6 to 40? That’s pretty awesome, and how is everything being managed and more all kept on all six projects?
Ryan: Well, the club started when, basically, a group of the computer science majors realized that they weren’t really being taught any skills that would lead them to industry jobs. To be fair, in recent years the school has sort of altered its curriculum more towards serious game development, but at the time the club started which was many years before I came on board, there was really nothing. So, it was just the thought of getting game development experience at school.
Interviewer: OK. But you had six when you started this project. How does it go to 40? Is it just year by year, or did you change something or was it because you had a completed game or you had a demo to show, maybe, during those intro days that inspired people to be like, “Wait. I want to join this.”
Ryan: I think a big part of it was we started leveraging our IGDA contacts and other industry contacts like that to bring speakers in. When you have people from Blizzard and Obsidian and Insomniac coming in to talk about their jobs and talk about their roles in history and how to get jobs and things like that, that will bring people in. And then, it’s a short step from there to get them to stay on and join a team and start working on a project.
Interviewer: Are these projects yearlong projects, or is it by quarter?
Ryan: We start them and then we try and finish them. We have some projects that have been running for years, and some projects that have been running for months. Usually, on any given student we’ve got about four years with them, if we catch them as a freshman. So, projects continue until either they’re completed or occasionally, unfortunately, abandoned.
Interviewer: What are the top suggestions you have then for other students who want to start their own game or make their own game while they’re in school?
Ryan: Get involved. Like I said, you get involved with the students. Get involved with the faculty. Get involved with the local game community. If you have an International Game Developers Association chapter near you, you should definitely attend it.
If you don’t, you should contact the National IGDA leadership and see who is local. Maybe, there’s a chance of starting one in your area, but you just have to get involved. It’s not anything you can do by yourself unless you’re Jonathan Blow.
Interviewer: Can’t you form a team without having to go through IGDA and all these other organizations? You can start your own team independently to an extent, right? It’s just too hard, right?
Ryan: Well, of course, you can start a team on your own. I’m just saying that there are so many benefits to doing it that if you want to choose hard work for yourself, that’s fine. But for me, I’d like the extra lives to start with.
Interviewer: Yeah. And so, what about Get Well Gamers or the non-profit group that you’re talking about?
Ryan: The Get Well Gamers Foundation is a California based 501(c)3 non-profit organization that is dedicated to bringing electronic entertainment to children’s hospitals.
Interviewer: Is that something then your club, the Game Development Club, works on, or is it something separate?
Ryan: That’s something separate. I started the foundation back in 2001 a couple of years before I even got involved with the Game Development Club.
Interviewer: What inspired you to start the foundation?
Ryan: I was ill a lot as a child, myself. Sort of being in the hospital in that transition period in the early ’80s between when there was no such thing as home gaming to having the NES and the master system and all those. The difference in a long hospital stay between having video games available and not is tremendous because video games, more than any other medium, have the ability to draw you into their world and out of your own world. And it really just enables people to forget that they’re sick.
Interviewer: What are you doing now to enhance the cause and get other people to… What’s the plan for this year?
Ryan: Well, this year we just got our paperwork done with the Canadian Revenue Agency which is their version of the IRS. So, we’re looking to expand our operations up north. We already have three Canadian hospitals, and we’re looking to add more.
Interviewer: Do you then just collect games and bring them there, or how does that work?
Ryan: The basic MO of the foundation is to collect used games and game systems from ordinary gamers and with occasional help from industry people like – we recently got donations from Ubisoft and Black Lantern Studios, High Voltage Software, et cetera. And we will just ship them game systems, accessories, controllers. Whatever they need, we will try to provide.
Interviewer: Do you visit any of these hospitals, too?
Ryan: Occasionally, we do in-person installations every so often. But it’s a hard cost to justify when we could be spending the money of those plane tickets and hotel stays just sending more stuff to more hospitals.
Interviewer: So, what’s next and planned then for the upcoming year?
Ryan: Well, there’s actually an interesting tie-in between the game club and the foundation in that we’re angling to have a percentage of the proceeds of Rock Candy go towards the foundation if the publisher agrees because it’s just a nice way to help fund what is normally not a very money-making operation.
Interviewer: Sure. And so, thanks very much for the interview. What are the websites that folks can visit to find out more about either Rock Candy or Get Well Gamers and any other thing like the student club?
Ryan: Well, for the Get Well Gamers Foundation the address is www.getwellgamers.org, and for Rock Candy the website is www.clubs.uci.edu/vgdc.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.