Interview With Icarus Developer Justin Scott

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Justin Scott allowed us to conduct an e-mail interview about his fantastic indie hit, Icarus.  Justin also speaks on DRM, piracy, life as an indie dev and much more.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Icarus.

I am the sole designer, programmer, graphic artist, manager, and marketer for Icarus. I had br1ghtpr1mate do the music though. I was really lucky with that, he’s a super talented guy and made the whole process a lot easier and more fun.

As for personal details, I’m a Computing Science graduate who cares too much about games. I’ve been making worlds on paper since I was a kid, putting them in code since I was a teen, and studying game design as a hobby for a couple years now I suppose. I don’t see myself in the game industry in the foreseeable future, but it’s definitely a huge driving force behind my programming career.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

You can blame it on my parents for buying me Learn to Program BASIC by Interplay. I remember being endlessly infuriated by the fact that I would have to run my code from inside the interpreter and it wouldn’t let me compile it into an executable. I’ll save you a long story and just say that it led to a lot of text based games and learning C/C++ and eventually my degree in university. I just love imagining how technology can bring my imagination to life.

Icarus is really my first foray into doing a fully fledged game backed with creative design. I think it wasn’t until I started watching ExtraCredits and RevRants that I really started thinking about game design as opposed to game programming game engines. That really changed my perception of games and opened a new world to me.

Where did the idea for Icarus come from?

It was actually a really strange process. I had an engine that I had previously built that revolved around a procedurally generated, tile-based world and I basically let my imagination go crazy with all the different possibilities.

I came up with some fun ones like a Dwarf Fortress-esque game in 2D, which apparently already exists. I considered city building games, fighting games, and RPGs. Obviously the RPG aspect stuck and after weeks of fiddling with the idea I had a roadmap to create Icarus.

Thinking back on it, it was almost like creating a song. I had a sketch I wanted to use, the engine, and I built everything around that using the rules of game design until I had something with a life of its own. I like that, very natural.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Icarus?

One of the huge successes I had was just completing it. It takes a lot of dedication and willpower to plan out your game, break it into chunks, and then say, “Okay, for the next half a year I’m going to devote my life to doing this.” There are a lot of times when I would have loved to restart on a different game but just having something completed is a pretty impressive feat in itself.

Something that was both a success and failure was my delegation. If it weren’t for br1ght pr1mate I probably wouldn’t have finished the game, so huge props to him, but I also wish I had offloaded more tasks like the art. I guess I felt personally responsible for whatever I felt I could do myself, which is a hard instinct to fight. Even a loner like Toady One of Dwarf Fortress fame has his brother to help develop theme and style.

As for failures, the one that really sticks out was using XNA which really limited my potential community. If you’re not in the know, XNA is a Microsoft library for C# and they’re not in the business of supporting non-Windows platforms. If I had a few months I could try to make an XBLIG or Monogame port but I have neither the time nor the energy to do that. If you want to develop any of those for me and take a portion of the profits then you should contact me!

In its current form, how close is Icarus to your initial vision?

Icarus is both spot on and a million miles away from my goals. I would love to have resources to implement more levels, more choices, boss fights, expanded mechanics, more fun things to do, a female playable character, a choice of companions, better graphics, a weather system, a more in-depth wildlife system, better trees, randomly generated towns, dynamic NPC spawning, high-score boards, and dynamic soundtracks. However, I’m only one man and I only have so many hours and none of these things are really the core of the game.

What is core is my goal of creating a game to challenge the standards of the Bioware RPG, and that is fully realized. I’ve hit all the milestones and goals I’ve set and I believe I’ve made Icarus into a solid game that embodies these ideals. And from the feedback and reviews I’ve gotten it seems like I’m not the only one who feels that way.

 

Some developers admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Icarus and if you faced a similar challenge.

That’s a really interesting question that deserves an interesting answer. My game is too easy, and that’s by design.

In RPGs, from Bioware to Black Isle, combat often feels too difficult and unintuitive to me and that only ends up artificially restricting me from the story. In these cases I rarely have an alternative and often just end up cheating to be allowed to experience the game. To me, this is bad design because my sense of accomplishment is delivered through the unique choices I take and not that I was good in arbitrary digital combat.

However, you then look at a game like Fallout 3. That’s a very easy game that still has some challenges but never makes me feel like I just didn’t do good enough and now I have to cheat to continue. If I lost a fight it was because I made a bad decision and picked the wrong battle to fight.

For Icarus I would rather it be too easy and the player can experience their story rather than too hard and people just give up. Balancing difficulty in RPGs is like chasing a phantom and can lead to bad overall game design decisions, and it’s only important as you design it to be.

That said, there is a hard difficulty in Icarus that makes combat more punishing and thus it factors more into your decision making. I’m not trying to say that difficulty is unimportant, merely not as important as people imagine it is and only one of many ways to feel a sense of accomplishment.

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Icarus would run on the various PC system configurations?

For all my trash talk about XNA, it helps a lot with this. Having studied making games in low-level languages I know hardware compatibility has the potential to be a huge problem and Microsoft does a pretty good job of taking care of it for you.

That said, I did have some significant issues the first time I tried to run it on a computer that wasn’t my own. I remember one time when I was showing off an early alpha at a party and the game would crash every time I tried to start a new game. Those kinds of problems are critical and infuriating, but it’s not so bad as long as you anticipate it. And of course my testers were invaluable, finding bugs I would never have found on my own.

Are there any plans to release Icarus on the Mac or Linux platforms?

I wish! As I mentioned earlier as my biggest mistake, I went with XNA and it crushed my multiplatform hopes and dreams. Even though there are a few options I just don’t have the resources to mess around with Icarus anymore. Sometimes the truth stings.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

This one is easy: getting your name out there. For a long time I felt like a nobody and that no one was listening to me. Just grab the world by the collar and make them listen to you! Not literally of course, be sure to play nice.

Creating the game is really the hardest part. Once you have that down you can’t really go wrong.

How did you decide on the Pay What You Can pricing method? 

It was really simple and one of my easier decisions. It’s a great model for indie games since people have wildly different ideas of what indie games are worth. As evidence to back that claim up, I’ve gotten everything from $1.75, the minimum, to $25.

I think donating half to charity definitely helped as well. I’ve heard people say that they paid more than they would have otherwise because they knew part of it was for charity. I read some article that said there’s evidence that you might make overall a larger profit that way, but mostly I just thought it would be really cool.

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

It’s a pretty amazing thing and another step toward cloud computing which is pretty awesome. I was considering putting my game on Steam but it would involve more coding to integrate their UI and I simply didn’t have the time for that.

I can’t even imagine going to the store anymore. Not only is it more inconvenient but it also costs more. Game stores also don’t seem to have the charm or necessity that book stores do so I can’t imagine them being around forever in the state they are. In fact, GameStop is already changing up its business plan to compensate.

How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and similar promotions?  Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

They’re really cool but it’s unfortunate that there’s so few of them. It feels like the games in the Humble Indie Bundle are getting a ridiculous marketing advantage due to the brand attached to the bundle. There are plenty of games that are just as good if not better than the games in the bundle and they’re forgotten because of that advantage.

I’d like to see a digital distribution platform that’s entirely dedicated to collecting cool indie games and offering a multitude of bundles. IndieCity might be a step toward that which would be really awesome.

13.  You released a PC demo for Icarus in an age where demos are becoming scare.  What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?

That was actually a really hard decision for me and I still don’t know if I made the right one. I was originally of the mindset that people who play the demo of my game will get “enough” and not want to buy the full thing. After getting 2 or 3 responses from people who said that they would have paid more or been less reluctant to buy it if they had a demo then I realized I was doing something wrong.

I think the biggest problem was that I didn’t know how to design a good demo. There’s a fine art to giving a window to just the right things so that the player has a taste of the game while dangling the full features in front of you. The industry is revisiting a lot of these issues with Free-to-Play games. For the longest time I could not imagine a version of Icarus that fits those specifications and I didn’t want to make a demo if I couldn’t make it right.

In the end I realized that the people not wanting to get the full thing if they played the demo was an excuse that uses bad demos to justify condemning all demos. A good demo is good marketing and results in sales but no demo requires a big commitment for consumers to actually buy your game. That combined with the idea that I’m not really in this for the money meant that a demo was inevitable.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Icarus.

I’ve had my visual art slammed as “developer art” in reviews and they wouldn’t be incorrect. I’m pretty good at modifying existing work to look how I want, but I’m bad at making assets from scratch. The attempt to replicate NES-era art is really a product of my limited art abilities which is a common story for indie developers it seems.

The level design stemmed from working with the strengths of a random terrain engine. I was going for a very natural look, like the terrain had formed itself over thousands of years, and built everything around that. The final product is a more atmospheric than challenging terrain, so it doesn’t really have the level design, thus gameplay, of a traditional platformer. But I feel like I didn’t take advantage of the exploration aspect that was possible outside of the Treasure Hunt.

The music is a bit more interesting for me. I know I can do music but I also know it would have taken a lot of time. That and the fact that I really respect games with solid music that back the aesthetic meant that I wanted to seek out a proper musician to do my soundtrack for me. The hard part was doing it on a budget of $0.

I actually did a lot of research before I called out br1ght pr1mate on 8bc and I’m eternally grateful to him for agreeing to do everything he did. All I had to do was tell him I wanted an ambient feel to the music, give a few examples, and throw some timings and specific themes his way for certain levels. I knew he was good already and I wanted to just give him breathing space to do what he did best. He was an absolute pleasure to work with and deserves a good job at a nice game company somewhere.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Icarus professionally?

They are wonderful people and I want to buy them all a drink! I can’t ask for anything more other than people giving me their full and honest opinion.

I know what you’re thinking and I’ve definitely gotten negative feedback, but it’s all justified and backs up things I believe myself. Different people like different games and no game is perfect so if you don’t like my game then chances are I have no business forcing you to think otherwise. However, the flip side is that I’m hearing all these wonderful things about my game that mirror my own thoughts and it’s intoxicating.

I wish more people would review my game even if they hate it. The only goal I have is to get as many people as possible to play Icarus. I just want gamers and developers to play my game and understand the message I’m trying to convey with it. The point of Icarus is to start discussion and reviews can only help that.

How important is it to get instant feedback about Icarus from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

I don’t think any developer would say that he doesn’t want to get feedback from users and I certainly enjoy reading others’ thoughts and opinions. I regret that I don’t have the time to post on more forums but I tried to get the big ones and I always welcome comments and questions about Icarus. I was absolutely overjoyed when I started to get unsolicited emails from people who are interested in what I have to say and what Icarus is all about.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

I don’t entirely know what I can say that hasn’t already been said. Game companies have really covered the spectrum in what can be done with DRM. I will say that DRM seems to exist to combat the used game industry, not piracy, and that the used game industry exists because games are too expensive which is an even deeper-rooted issue that needs to be solved.

What I’m far angrier about isn’t DRM but closed systems like XBox Live and BattleNet 2.0. They artificially drive up the prices of games and lower the overall content. This is a topic that deserves an interview in itself so I’ll just point you over to this blogseries for some mandatory reading. These closed systems are far more effective than DRM and they’re far more damaging to the community in subtle ways.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

It’s hard to say because I don’t really buy DLC since I’d rather spend money on a new game with new mechanics rather than on rehashing the same old. From afar, I’ve been pretty disappointed in how DLC has been handled but it’s interesting that it has culminated into Free-to-Play games which are an interesting and not entirely terrible genre of their own.

I guess I can’t help but be bitter though since I grew up in the era of Quake, Half-Life, and open custom content which has long since been killed.

What are some of the games or genres you like to play?  Are you a fan of other indie developers?

I play a lot of different genres, and I think you have to in order to be a good developer. If you can name a genre then I can probably name an amazing game in it that you should play. Though closest to my heart are the games I grew up with: platformers (Mario and Sonic), social construction (Active Worlds and sort of Minecraft but not really), and first person shooters with a vibrant modding community (Quake 1 and Half-Life).

However, I have a lot less time than I used to which results in a very low tolerance for dredging through same-y game mechanics to find the few minutes of golden gameplay. It unfortunately cuts out a lot of potentially provocative games from my repertoire and makes me bored and annoyed with a lot of large-budget titles. That’s why I’ve turned my gaze to indie games.

I am absolutely a fan of Indie Developers because their creativity is what feeds my lust for new mechanics. Off the top of my head the developers I adore the most are Nifflas, who created possibly the most sensational ambient games in existence, and Jonathan Blow, whose philosophy in making games is truly inspiring. Now I just need to open a game studio and get both of them in the same room…

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Aside from run while you still can? Plan and give yourself a lot of time if you can. The game industry is infested with unreasonable deadlines that people run themselves ragged to meet. I planned Icarus month by month and I had plenty of time to make it and even completed a few weeks early. Make goals you know you can meet and don’t take guff from anyone who tells you to do otherwise.

You also get this from everyone, but play a lot of games. Surprisingly, I love playing new games. The more types of games I can play the better, even the ones I end up hating. Most of my good game ideas come from seeing games in other genres and being unsatisfied with some aspect of them. Write down every time that you wish you could just reach into the source code of a game and make a few tweaks.

We would like to thank Justin for giving us such detailed and wonderful answers.  You can grab Icarus on the official site.

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