Indie Corner Episode 21: A Busy Month
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So I’ve been playing a lot of games lately. With so many out there, sometimes we get amazing games which just don’t get the attention they deserve. One of these games is Ctrl Alt Ego, a fascinating immersive sim exploring robotics, hacking and survival. I didn’t even hear about it until recently which was a major misfortune! I really need to up my game.
I tracked down the developer Francis Clark and spent some time talking to him. One of my favorite parts of this business for me is talking to the minds behind these great titles. It’s easy to forget sometimes that humans exist behind these games. These are their babies, after all. I’m still very proud of and protective of the games I was part of: Spellforce 3 Fallen God and Spellforce 3: Soul Harvest, although I did more work on Fallen God. I love those trolls.
Enough talk about trolls and demons for now, however. Here’s my interview with Francis! You can buy Ctrl Alt Ego here:
First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you do?
I’m Francis Clark, main developer on Ctrl Alt Ego. I do everything! My main interests are coding, game design, level design.
What does being a game designer actually mean?
I don’t know – I’ve never worked for a proper games company (not for want of trying, always got rejected) so I’ve absolutely no idea what real game designers do.
For me it’s all about coming up with overlapping game mechanics, then putting those mechanics into a context where they are credible, fun, and rewarding to play around with. Ctrl Alt Ego grew organically out of this kind of process – there was never a design document – former co-developer and I obsessively elaborated and argued about the core systems of the game until we both felt that were ‘good’. This then became the ‘design’. i.e. the design only emerged from the bits once we had them assembled and were able to mess around with them.
There has been a great deal of controversy in recent years about micro transactions in gaming. Not so much an opinion, but why do games tend to cut out content to sell later as DLC and lootboxes? Is it to do with development costs? Or is it time related?
I have no idea and it’s not a subject I’m interested in!
Tell us about your current project.
Ctrl Alt Ego is a complete, deep, unique sci-fi immersive sim. You play a disembodied consciousness that transmits itself between different robots and devices in order to exploit their capabilities.
It’s essentially a ‘possession’ mechanic on steroids. You’re dumped into interconnected non-linear sandbox-like environments, given a goal, and then left to figure out how to achieve the goal for yourself, encouraging creative problem solving, exploration and experimentation. The game has a more revolutionary fail state system than even Bioshock. The story is itself a grand puzzle that you may or may not ‘solve’ depending on how much attention you pay to it.
As anyone who creates anything, we must all deal with criticism from consumers. How do you go about it particularly in the prolific and viral standard of gaming today?
I welcome it, mostly. It’s actually really hard to get good quality negative feedback, so when it comes along, I treasure it. I’m advanced enough in age to appreciate that everyone has different opinions about stuff. I don’t stop creating just because some people don’t like it or respond negatively to it – part of creating something new is taking risks with things, or trying to do things differently. I think it was Ricky Gervais who said if you make a joke and the whole room is laughing, it’s not a good joke. I think it might be the same with games – you almost NEED some negative reaction to know that what you made has an ‘edge’.
What advice would you give budding developers into taking the plunge into game design?
Make a game, no matter how small, from start to finish, and get people to play it. Everything I just said is a huge amount of hard work – it’s important to find this out early so you know what you’re letting yourself in for!
If you still have time to play video games, what are some of your favorite ones to play?
I don’t have the time or energy that I used to when I was younger, and development of Ctrl Alt Ego has basically taken over my life. So I haven’t played all that much in the last few years. Generally I like to play immersive sims (last few I played were Prey 2017, Dishonored 2, Gloomwood EA) and first-person rpgs (last two were Fallout 4, The Outer Worlds).
What inspires you to do what you do?
I’ve always felt compelled to MAKE STUFF. Not necessarily games! I’ve always been making *something* my entire life. It’s an irrepressible urge.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Doing the art. Environments, character models, props, store key-art etc… I’m bad at it. If I make another game, I’d like to team up with an artist.
What was your favorite thing about game development? Is there anything you find difficult or challenging in dealing with the struggles?
I love coding. Probably the AI was the most fun thing to work on, though it wasn’t always the most fun to debug. I also loved designing the levels – the part where it was in my head and I was sketching it out with the gameplay in mind, I mean.
Probably one of the biggest challenges with making Ctrl Alt Ego was managing the enormous complexity. I probably bit off more than I could chew, or at least I was at the absolute limit of what I could chew.
Because it’s an immersive sim with very open gameplay, I was having to keep all the moving parts in mind at all times: Story, flow, character progression, all the overlapping systems etc – I think I very nearly went nuts at one point. But somehow I held it all together and very proud of the result.
What lessons have you learned from your first game?
Things mostly take a lot longer than you’d like them to. Also, if something goes in easily, it’s usually right. And if something is just refusing to feel right… then it’s probably wrong – consider sacking that thing.
What are your future project(s)?
Nothing planned – I either need Ctrl Alt Ego to sell a lot more to pay for the next one, or else I need to find am alternative source of funding. I’m pretty sure I’ll be making *something*, just don’t know what. Ideally I’ll be making Ctrl Alt Ego 2!
If you couldn’t be an game developer, what ideal job would you like to do?
The ideal for me is to be working for myself, answerable only to me. I was a software developer before and I always enjoyed that – but it’s not an ideal that I aspire to.
What is your ideal video game if money and time was no object?
Ooooooh I’d love to make a huuuuuuuuge open-world immersive sim. Fallout4 meets Deus Ex, say.