First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you do?
I’m Bobby Two Hands online, Alex offline, I’m a solo game dev from the UK, working on a strategy game called Shadows of Forbidden Gods. As a solo dev, I guess I do everything (to greater or lesser success) other than art.
What does being a game designer actually mean?
I guess the essence of game design is to design problems for players to solve, either through reflexes or reasoning. Obviously this is an over-simplification, but I personally feel players enjoy the process of learning a new skill, whether this skill is “How to shoot a guy from half the map away” in a shooter, to “How to design a smoothly flowing traffic system” in Cities Skylines to “How to construct and fly a lunar mission” in Kerbal Space Program.
Obviously narrative, world-building and character interactions are also important, but in a larger team those might be the responsibility of the writing and/or art design team. The game designer is there to design the core of the game, and the game is a thing for the players to explore, experiment with and master. At least in my biased opinion.
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?
It’s hard for me to comment on the financial status of large studios, I’ve never worked on one, but there’s always a profit motive, because the more money you make the more games you can make, and the larger, more detailed, more exciting they can be.
As hardware becomes more powerful, more stuff can be put into games, and that stuff has to be designed and crafted. A complex open world game will cost many times what a 2005 single player shooter would, due to the extreme amount of assets (not just characters, but even bushes, rocks and tin cans to make the litter on the side of the road more realistic). Voice acting, writing, 2D assets and playtesting all add up, and there’s always going to be a pressure to make as much money in the current game as possible to fund an even larger one next time.
Tell us about your current project.
My current game is all about bringing the end of the world. You play as a dark Lovecraftian god, returning from death to eradicate or enslave an entire fantasy world.
It’s very NPC-focused, with heroes and rulers making decisions constantly, even without your intervention, and nations will rise and fall even if your agents never interact with the world. The aim was to make a very living and responsive world, so you can see humanity try to adapt and respond to your assault, and to give a huge range of strategic opportunities for you to exploit.
It’s also very character-focused, with an aim to allow stories to emerge by having interpersonal relationships between your evil agents and the good heroes. A hero might grow to hate orcs if an orcish horde razes their home-town, or hate the vampire who killed their brother, or grow cowardly when they are defeated in combat. The aim is for the relationships and personalities of the NPCs to change as the game progresses, to bring about meaningful character arcs.
On the other hand, it’s also about entire worlds, so has a large focus on terrain manipulation, letting the player freeze the entire world, or destroy half a continent with a volcano.
The game itself was partially inspired by a Kickstarter which sadly failed to deliver anything (although NPC-lead games has been something I’ve loved the idea of forever). The community for the Kickstarter stuck together somehow, and I joined it and together we discussed creating a game in the same genre as the game the Kickstarter was intended to produce.
This gave this project a very community-lead approach. All the dark gods are co-designed by community members or people I know in real life, who came up with unique ideas for Lovecraftian Beings and their associated game mechanics. This hopefully makes them very distinct, one from the other, with different ideas about what an apocalyptic Elder Being might look like and how the game’s mechanics could be made to work for that particular Dark God.
I usually have discord open while developing, and will chat about game mechanics before I write them, while I’m writing them, and then as players first experience them, to see what’s working and what people are looking for in the game.
Often I feel like the game is the community’s game, I just happen to be the person coding 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’ve actually always been surprised by just how positive and supportive the various communities I’ve encountered are. Occasionally someone posts something phrased a bit rudely, or in a way which comes across as rudely due to the lack of tone-of-voice on the internet, but as a whole even these comments are well-meaning and communicate something useful about that particular user’s perspective on the game.
Other than outright spam, I think all comments reflect something about the game, which must be taken into account, even if it’s not able to be fixed. As a game designer you’re obviously faced with a huge number of conflicting goals, and can’t satisfy everyone or deliver everything you’d like to, but it’s unwise to just ignore complaints. Ignoring negative criticism is a dangerous path towards only listening to praise, which will ultimately undermine any objectivity and perspective and ruin the game you’re trying to make.
What advice would you give budding developers into taking the plunge into game design?
My advice of course only applies to tiny teams (solos especially) since that’s the only thing I have experience in.
In this context, my advice would be to avoid taking any career decisions before having some manner of playable prototype. The very core essence of a game can be tested and played with extremely minimal graphics, awful UI, bad control schemes… Testing it out early can let you know if you’re onto a winner, if the unique selling point of your game will work and will be fun. Only once you’ve got this thing done should you commit to it. Spend weekends making this tiny prototype, and get people to try it out. Not only will it keep you from quitting your job to work on a project which won’t work out, it will provide the framework around which the entire rest of the game can be built.
If you still have time to play video games, what are some of your favorite ones to play?
I’ve not got as much time as I once did, but definitely do find a moment or two to play games.
During the pandemic, I had to change how I socialised, and spending time together playing video games is a great way to keep up with friends. On that front, I play Hunt: Showdown (which I occasionally look to for lore inspiration), and various Jackbox Party Pack games (for members of my social circle who don’t want to spend their evenings shotgunning leech-filled corpses).
On the single player front, I’m a big fan of Rimworld, Kerbal Space Program and Factorio. Stuff which has interesting amounts of planning and designing.
What inspires you to do what you do?
As mentioned before, the community is a big part of it. It’s nice to see people playing the game, discovering stuff I’ve put in there, speculating about or suggesting new features, making mods for it…
But other than that, I can’t really tell you. I’ve always had this urge to make games, and spent countless hours with the Warcraft III map editor, making all kinds of crazy stuff. Even if no-one was playing, I couldn’t imagine stopping making stuff, it’s just something I feel compelled to do.
Artistically, there’s obviously the various writings of Lovecraft and associated writers, but I also listen to a lot of music. The prototype for the game was written while basically having Esben and the Witch (especially the EP ‘Older Terrors’) on repeat. I’ve got a fondness for music which touches on Lovecraftian horror, such as HEALTH, some of Emily Jane White’s stuff, Port Sulfur Band or How to Destroy Angels.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Marketing constantly eludes me. I’ve still no idea really how you go about letting people know about your game. This said, I had no idea how to do all the other parts of the game dev process, but have apparently learnt those skills, so I’m hopeful I can figure this bit out too.
In terms of pure game dev, it would probably be UI. It’s always difficult, especially with a complex game, to figure out what information the players need and which they don’t. Too much information will lead to them ignoring the messages, too little will mean they’ve got no access to the information they need. It’s a work in progress, and one which the community focus works well for, as I can get constant feedback on my changes and on which bits still need work.
What was your favorite thing about game development? Is there anything you find difficult or challenging in dealing with the struggles?
The best part is quite possibly the sense of community. I like the fact that it’s a job with tangible benefits to others. Obviously it’s not as serious or impactful as being a doctor or humanitarian aid worker, but it’s nice to think that people will enjoy the code or lore I write. Being on discord allows me to directly talk to the players in real time, which is something which even a few years ago would have been near impossible for a game dev, but really makes each update feel that it’s done something useful for someone.
Obviously there are a huge number of difficulties, but I guess that’s just the world we live in these days. I can’t honestly complain too much. I may not be paid as much as some of my software dev friends, but I set my own hours and it’s work I enjoy.
What lessons have you learned from your first game?
Definitely that the UI can’t ever take second-seat. It’s a core part of the game, and actual game design decisions, such as how the AI operates, may need to be considered in terms of the UI. Getting the AI’s decision-making process to work in a fashion which can be displayed as simply as possible on the UI has been a focus on this iteration, following lessons learnt previously.
One disappointing lesson learnt previously was how low the contribution rate for open-source projects is. My previous game was fully open-source, with a github repository, but disappointingly never became what I’d hoped for, a fully community-lead game. It makes sense, and my poor documentation can’t have helped, but it was a dream of mine to participate as one dev amongst many.
What are your future project(s)?
For now, I’m entirely focused on this current game. I’ve no plans for any future projects, and probably won’t be starting anything new for a couple of years at least.
Regarding Shadows’ own progress, however, when we reach the end of Early Access I hope the funding will be at a point where I can release some free updates for a bit, before starting work on some DLCs. There are so many different subjects which can be covered, in an apocalypse/horror setting, so there’s plenty of space to expand.
One particular thing I’d love to add is an underground/undersea component to the game. A full second map (or two) which your agents and eventually heroes (when they find the way down) can venture down into and find new horrors, nightmares and abominations to send upwards to destroy the human kingdoms. All kinds of ambitious ideas could be explored here, such as giant monsters the size of entire kingdoms, which have organs and tentacles reaching along the various cave systems or across the seabeds.
If you couldn’t be an game developer, what ideal job would you like to do?
Alongside developing the game, I’m also doing a PhD in Artificial Intelligence, so I guess I’d carry on down that career path. Maybe one day I’ll be able to combine the two, but no promises.
What is your ideal video game if money and time was no object?
Very difficult question, there’s just so much I’ve wanted to do, since playing my first few video games all those years ago.
One project I wanted for a long time was a simulated city, where each NPC would have a complex set of objectives, and go about a full simulated life. Ideally the entire city would develop and progress and the citizens engage in economic and social behaviour, leading to emergent outcomes to the player’s actions. I’d like a simulation where the appearance of a new resource (such as the opening of a cave full of gems) would lead to the entire city changing, as various NPCs change their profession to exploit the new resource. These changes would then impact others, as they could sell to the now-wealthy other gem-gathering NPCs, and formerly important buildings would be abandoned as the city changed economic focus.
What it boils down to is wanting the NPCs you meet to be very complex, very autonomous creatures, with a life of their own, which you can watch and participate in. I remember being obsessed with the city in the snowglobe of one of the Fable games, and wanting to simulate it, to have a tiny city/village in a video game where every NPC was fully interactable and followed their own self-set goals and plans.
Ideally this would even extend to cover cultural developments. An idea I followed up during that obsession was that you could simulate culture by dividing people up into social classes based on income, and have the high-income folk wanting to have clothing (for example) which set them apart from the lower-income NPCs. The lower-income NPCs would try to emulate the high-income ones, so the high-income NPCs would need to buy only the rarest goods (which would drive up the prices enough for the low-income ones to be unable to obtain them). This would meant that regardless of what was a ‘rare’ commodity in the simulation, the rich would want it, and the poor would try to buy cheaper approximations. If the situation changed, the culture would adapt over time, as people changed what they valued.
Who knows, maybe one day someone will make something like this and I can play it. Maybe it will be me, if I find the time and funding.