Hey guys! I’ve been a bit slow on here lately as I, unfortunately, came down with Covid after dodging it for over two years. Damn. Anyway, while articles will likely be slow by my end for a while, I was able to conduct an interview with Nathaniel Ayer, lead dev of indie turn-based RPG Himeko Sutori. You can pick up that game here:
First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you do?
My name is Nathaniel. No joke, I used to be a CIA officer. I resigned after becoming extremely frustrated and jaded by something that happened there. (You can check out a post on Imgur where I discuss that in as much detail as I’m allowed. https://imgur.com/gallery/WCV3Gu7 ) I had always wanted to make a video game, so after resigning from government service, decided to give that a try. I had a modest little Kickstarter, moved to a country where the money would stretch further, released a game into early access, and eventually into full release.
What does being a game designer actually mean?
A game designer is one of two things:
1: A specialty of game developer who designs, analyzes, and tweaks game systems to make the game deliver the intended user experience.
2: A useless “ideas guy” who wastes lots of time on Reddit making posts that say “Hey, what would you think about a game where you do X” instead of making a prototype to see whether doing X is actually fun.
There has been a great deal of controversy in recent years about microtransactions in gaming. Not so much an opinion, but why do games tend to cut out content to sell later as DLC and loot boxes? Is it to do with development costs? Or is it time-related?
Unfortunately, our behavior as consumers encourages this behavior from publishers. Everyone has to make money somehow, and I don’t fault publishers for wanting to make money. If we don’t like DLC and loot boxes, then we need to stop buying and playing games that feature them. If we do that, then publishers will realize that these aren’t profitable strategies and they’ll go back to selling us complete games, one price for the whole game, without the addictive gambling hidden inside.
Tell us about your current project.
About a little over a year ago I pushed Himeko Sutori from early access to full release. The game is a large-scale strategy RPG inspired by the classic Ogre Battle 64. The market has plenty of small-scale tactical RPGs where you control a party of maybe 5 or 6 characters. And we have our choice of fantasy-themed strategy games where you control an army of hundreds of identical nameless soldiers. But there’s a gap between them—the niche that Himeko Sutori fills—where you can have lots of unique characters, and still have the epic scale of massive battles.
After releasing Himeko Sutori, I started thinking about my next project. And I thought a lot about the advice given by Jeff Vogel from Spiderweb Software. He has given a few talks at GDC where he explains how he has stayed in business for so long. He does it by making OK games quickly and at a low cost. I think he said that he makes “games for people who have played all the good games.” He recommends using your old engine, using your old code, and using your old assets to make a new game, that maybe you’ll remaster a few years down the road.
So I thought that instead of investing lots of time into learning the current state-of-the-art in video game technology, I’d keep using my ancient Unreal Engine 3. My goal is to make a game that’s better than Himeko Sutori, and to do it on a faster development schedule.
What I’ve done so far is make a sort of plotless RPG adventure called Septaroad Voyager. It works; it has combat, level-ups, shops, equipment, potions, quests, dialog, saving/loading progress, a pretty slick menu system, controller support, localization support, modding support, and pretty much everything you would expect from a good RPG. I just don’t really have a solid idea for a plot right now. So I offered free copies of my game on /r/gamedev and /r/inat to anyone who had an idea for a game and wanted to make it.
What I’m hoping to do next is to get ideas from the community and see what they are most excited about, most interested in, and from there I can roll my current work on Septaroad Voyager into a standalone game that will put food on the table for me and my family.
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 learned very early on you have to have thick skin. Don’t take things personally. Some people are going to be insanely vitriolic. (Literally, I had a guy in my game’s community who I think was mentally unstable. He would ask if he could join my team and port the game to other engines and platforms for me, and then later the same day post a profanity-laden tirade about what an awful game I had made and what a worthless person I was.) When people tell you how much your game sucks and how much you suck for making it, and for making excuses about why you did it that way instead of their way, then you just have to say “Thanks for the input” and move on.
Eventually, after just trying to be honest and forthright, explaining why I would implement some things and not others, and why some things are easier or harder to do than others, I think the players started to appreciate the communication.
What advice would you give budding developers into taking the plunge into game design?
First off, don’t do it. Seriously. It is really, really hard to make it in this industry. You are consigning yourself to years of frustration for what is almost certainly going to be a fraction of what you would make working for someone else in a different field. Don’t major in game design. Don’t major in game development. Get a degree in computer science and then if you want to, you can make games in your free time. But don’t jump in, expecting game development (especially game design) to provide you any kind of financial stability.
And if I haven’t scared you off, and if you’re going to be a professional game developer regardless, then I guess my advice is this: Just do it. Stop planning. Stop asking “Which is better? What should I use?” and just get started. Don’t ask a bunch of people “What would you think about a game where you do X?” Go out and actually make a prototype. A crappy prototype is worth a thousand masterpiece game design documents.
And don’t say “I can’t program.” And don’t say “I can’t draw.” Stop making excuses and stop expecting someone else to come along to provide the skills you lack. If you want to make a game, and can’t program, then learn to program. If you want to make a game, but can’t make art, then learn to make art.
And lastly, you need to understand right now, before you start, that game development is work. Most of the time it is not fun. It is tedious and frustrating. If you only do it because it’s fun, then it’s a hobby, and you should plan on doing something else to make money. But if you do it to make money, then it’s a job, and you do it whether you want to or not.
If you still have time to play video games, what are some of your favorite ones to play?
I really don’t have a lot of time to play video games. Sometimes after I put the kids to bed, I might unwind with an old game. Recently I started a third playthrough of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, not really advancing the plot, but hunting, doing alchemy, and clearing bandit camps. And then I stopped playing again once I had enough money to top-tier armor.
Before that I had a run with Elite Dangerous. I did lots of mining, exploring, traveling out to distant planets to find rare engineering materials. And then after I bought a Federal Corvette, and upgraded all the weapons and shields, I blew up a bunch of NPC mercenaries in some war zones, and then felt like I had beaten the game, so I stopped playing.
What inspires you to do what you do?
Not gonna lie. Fear of starvation, spite for my old job, and being too prideful to start over working for someone else.
I’ve made a video game. It sold enough copies to pay the rent and put food on the table for the last few years. By game dev standards, that’s a success. I’ve done what I wanted to do so why keep doing it?
At this point, I can’t really do anything else and retirement isn’t an option. I would never go back to my old job. And my skill sets include espionage (with an expired security clearance) and game development (in an outdated engine), so anywhere else I would only qualify for an entry-level job. After working for myself for the last 5 years, I wouldn’t tolerate the low pay and lack of freedom working for someone else. So continuing to make and sell games as an independent developer looks like my best option.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Uncertainty. I don’t know how many copies I’m going to sell this month. I don’t know how much I’ll make during the big Steam summer sale event. I don’t know how long it will take me to make and sell my next game. I have some money, but I don’t want to spend it because I don’t know how long it has to last.
What was your favorite thing about game development? Is there anything you find difficult or challenging in dealing with the struggles?
Game development is really just a job. I do it, I get paid (not much), and life goes on. I’ve learned to not attach too much of myself to my career. Working for CIA was a big part of my identity and self-worth, and walking away from that was hard. But I had to realize that I wasn’t my career. Now I have to keep that same separation as a game developer. This is something I do to make money. I try to take some pride in it, and I do the best I can, but it’s not something that I can let myself be too attached to.
As for the difficulties and challenges, I tell myself that this is my job. You do your job because it’s your job. If you only do it when you feel like it, then it’s a hobby. So I get up every day and do my job, same as anyone at any job.
What lessons have you learned from your first game?
Your first game is going to have flaws. It will probably have a lot of flaws that, from a business standpoint, aren’t worth fixing. So for your first project, start small. I didn’t do that. I took on something way beyond my ability, and spent way too long doing it. I’ve learned a lot in terms of technical and artistic ability, but mostly I’ve learned about scoping a project and approaching it from a business standpoint. That’s going to offend the artist in you, but if you don’t have someone else limiting the scope and budget of the project, then you are going to have to do it yourself.
What are your future project(s)?
I’d like to turn Septaroad Voyager into an expansion that will provide at least a few hours of entertainment, and then I’d like to take what I’ve learned and built and turn that into a standalone game. And probably after that, I’ll finally start learning some up-to-date skills in current technology, and I’ll see about making another game with that.
If you couldn’t be a game developer, what ideal job would you like to do?
Astronaut. Diplomatic security special agent. CEO of Amazon. Massage school test subject.
What is your ideal video game if money and time were no object?
Here’s the thing: Limitations are part of the fun. Nothing that you make will ever be as good as the real thing, so go ahead and accept the limitations of time, money, skill, and technology. Accept that the game is going to be a game and not a simulation, that you are going to have to abstract some things and balance some things in order to make the game fun.
But if I had a studio with more people and a bigger budget… then I’d keep my ideas to myself, at least until I had made a working prototype.