Recently I was asked to do a small interview with Russian indie game portal, IndieLand. For those of you who cannot read and understand Russian (myself included), I will post the English transcript below.
1) Tell about yourself (Where are you from, how old are you, etc)
“Hi there! I am Zachary Bell; @ZackBellGames on Twitter. I am a 23-year-old independent programmer and designer from the Seattle area. I am currently one-fourth of newly formed independent game studio, Spaceboy Games (Previously I had released titles under ZackBellGames, independently).”
2) How did you get into gamedev?
“Prior to game development, playing/teaching music was the only thing that consumed
my time. I was a drummer (minor studio player, gig…er, coach, and private instructor) and that is what I thought that I was going to do with my life. I was in a long-term relationship at the time, so when high school came to a close I decided to try to find an alternate career path that would prevent me from having to relocate frequently.
Eventually, that thought landed me in a position that I like to call: ‘Really Poor Tech School That Shall Not Be Named’. With music as a focus, grades seemed unimportant near the end of my high school career (oops). I took my only option and signed up for a local tech school. After meeting with an adviser, I ended up in their shiny, new game programming degree program.
The program was a mess. We were required to ‘become a C++ master’ in a matter of sixteen weeks. For those of you who know anything about programming, this feat is nearly impossible. However, the very first design class challenged us to implement a small game using a product called Game Maker 7. I embraced Game Maker and quickly left that school.
Luckily, my grades at ‘Really Poor Tech School That Shall Not Be Named’ were near perfect. With that, I moved into the Computer Science and Systems program at the University of Washington (UW). This is where I learned the bulk of my traditional programming knowledge.
I later attended DigiPen Institute of Technology (a private school focused on game development) and this is where I met Alejandro Hitti, who would end up becoming our producer/marketing guy, and one-fourth of our company, Spaceboy Games.
Alejandro continued on at DigiPen to learn more about the business and marketing aspects of game development, while I dropped out to start producing commercial games.
-I wanted a job that granted me the freedom to live wherever I wanted
-‘Bad, ugly, mean tech school of death’ introduced me to YoYo Games products
-Proper schooling taught me proper programming practices
-I trade games for money”
3) Tell about your first game.
“That is a tricky question to answer. My first game? My first finished game?
My first published game? The list goes on. To keep things interesting, I’ll discuss my first…publicly well-received, but eventual disaster of a game. Frog Sord.
I should probably stop talking about this game, but I still get asked about it often. In 2012, I started working on what was supposed to be my first commercial product. It was a simple, action-platformer about (you guessed it) a frog and a sword (sord?). During the prototyping phase, we were a team of two. The two of used Game Maker to put a small game together. It was short, fun, and easy to pick up and play. Sadly, it was ugly and lacked content. Around this time I had just met Alejandro and convinced my partner that he would be very beneficial to our team. He knew a thing or two about programming, design, and business. He also had potential access to resources that would allow us to hire an artist.
The art looked great, our productivity spiked, and our workspace/resources improved drastically! However, our team dynamics quickly took a turn for the worst. As our team grew, several pairs of people did NOT get along well at all. Huge personality differences and hugely opinionated people. Too many for a team so small, and too many for a project that began so simply.
In the end, I was feeling incredibly pressured to play both sides of several confrontations. I tried for months to keep all parties happy. At one point or another, I was probably a ‘bad friend’ to each of these people, but the project launching was my number one and I felt that I could mend each issue separately. This development experience is what shaped who I am as a friend, business partner, and entrepreneur.
After Frog Sord inevitably crumbled, I left everyone alone for awhile. I was emotionally drained, back at the drawing board, and trying to find some way to move on with game development. Not too long after, Alejandro and I continued to work together (we still do to this day), but I have yet to mend things with my original partner.”
4) Tell about INK (idea, creation, and publishing). Was it successful?
“Onto something more positive! Sorta. INK is my baby, but INK was also my last resort. Making games independently is hard work and I had exhausted all of my options as well as my bank account. The goal of INK was to return to my roots and just release a commercially viable product in the least amount of time.
This somewhat frantic and panicked state came about during Ludem Dare 32. For those that don’t know, Ludem Dare is a game jam where small teams create games, using a theme, within a very short time span. The theme for Ludem Dare 32 was ‘An Unconventional Weapon’. I had always wanted to make a 2D variation of the mechanics showcased in Super Mario Sunshine and this was a good opportunity. The player would wash paint off of different surfaces while simultaneously overcoming complex platforming situations.
The painting mechanics ended up feeling more fun than the removal of paint, so I stuck with that. I coupled this idea with an early mechanic from a game called, The Unfinished Swan. Combined, you have a game that plays similarily to Super Meat Boy, but all of the terrain is invisble until it is painted over. You paint the world by touching surfaces or by using your double jump to release paint from the player character.
I created the initial INK release in three weeks time. I didn’t need art assets and I had some old sfx readily available. After a surprisingly successful run on itch.io, I decided to post the game on Steam’s Greenlight platform. In less than three more weeks, INK was approved for release via Steam.
The total development time for the Steam release was about three months. I partnered up with Alejandro Hitti (business and Steam integration), Fellipe Martins (promotional art), and Vince Rubinetti (music and sfx) to further polish the game. INK has been available for a little over two months now and has sold over 16,000 copies (at an original price point of $4.99). When you take the soundtrack and deluxe edition into account, INK has made roughly $70,000 within a couple of months, which is more than enough to keep me afloat until I release another product.”
5) Why do you choose to use Game Maker (GM) products?
“I get this question pretty much every day, and my answer is typically ‘Why not?’. To me, game development is about results. My job as a developer is to…develop games. I can do that most quickly using GM because GM can handle the projects that I want to make efficiently and because I am very familiar with the GM API. If either of those were untrue, I would use a different tool. Until I choose to make either a large scale 3D game or the devs at YoYo Games decide to make drastic changes to how Game Maker
opperates, I will continue to use it.
In school I learned how to produce game engines from scratch in C/C++. It’s great fun, a challenge, and rewarding, but it is an enormous time sink. I have many, many 2D games lined up for release and I have no way of knowing how much time I have to create them, so why not play it safe/smart?”
6) What is next for you?
“Next for me is a game called, Fara Way: Eye of Darkness. It’s a procedurally generated rogue-like…like, inspired by games like Nuclear Throne and The Binding of Isaac, fused with mechanics from card-based action games like the Megaman: Battle Network series and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. It will be the first official Spaceboy Games title and currently has the full attention of myself and Alejandro, as well as Sandy Gordon (pixel art), Fellipe Martins (concept/promotional art), and Vincent Rubinetti (music/sfx).
Spaceboy Games and Fara Way: Eye of Darkness will be present at the 2016 Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. If you happen to be in central California, in March of 2016, please feel free to visit us at our booth! Alejandro and myself have also submitted a talk on the development and business aspects of INK. If that falls through, we will also be presenting the information at the DigiPen campus in Redmond, Washington.
Thanks for having me here today and showing interest in my work and the future of Spaceboy Games!”
That about covers the bulk of the interview! If you are a games journalist and would like to conduct an interview of your own, feel free to contact me via ZackBellGames@gmail.com or on Twitter. Thanks, everyone!