The Queasy life of independent games

While down at Sony’s PlayStation holiday preview event in New York last week, I came across a pleasant surprise. One of the launch titles for the upcoming PlayStation Vita, the portable game system that will succeed the PlayStation Portable by the end of this year, is being developed by Queasy Games, a tiny Toronto startup.

Queasy is the brainchild of Jonathan Mak, a 28-year-old game designer who studied computer science at the University of Toronto. Mak saw his first success a few years ago with Everyday Shooter, which was picked up and offered by Sony as a downloadable game over the PlayStation Network. That led to the upcoming Vita release Sound Shapes, an intriguing idea that marries gaming with music creation.

I wrote about some of the better Vita games last week and also had a chat with Mak about the world of independent games. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:

Q: How did you get into games?

A: My parents started a computer business in the eighties so we always had a computer lying around and my older brothers would be playing video games. Somewhere around grade 7 or 8 I met a friend who taught me how to make programs, how to code. That’s when I started making video games. Back then it was a lot harder to make games because you had to do all this weird computer hackery just to draw a pixel.

I was trying to think of how to break in [to the business], but there was no indie scene or at least I wasn’t aware of it. All I knew about was whatever was in PC Gamer. Someone in the industry told me to go to university, so I did. I don’t know how helpful that was but I did meet a fellow game developer there, they’re now Metanet [creators of the popular game N+]. They were a year or two ahead of me and they showed me the indie scene back then. They started working on N and I thought, hey—maybe I could make a game on my own instead of working for some gigantic company.

When I graduated I took a year off to try to make a game that I could sell and break in [with], but that [Gate 88] didn’t do very well at all. From there, I got a job. [Gate 88] had a chat program built in and someone offered me a job in that chat program. I did that for a couple of years and during that time I worked on Everyday Shooter, which was my first commercial game and the first that actually came out and made money. After that, I hooked up with Shaw-Han Liem, a musician from Toronto, and we started collaborating on a project. It was very simple, we were working on a visualizer and started dabbling with some game prototypes. We did like nine prototypes and then we hit upon an idea that would become Sound Shapes. Since then we’ve hired some people to help us out.

Q: When did you form Queasy?

A: Queasy was the name I would release games under when I was a kid, in grade 7 and 8. When I put out Everyday Shooter I just called the company Queasy Games.

Q: Are you still in a basement or do you have an office?

A: We have an actual office, but we were in a basement until we had our first hire, which was a year and a half or two years ago.

Q: How did you get hooked up with Sony for the Vita?

A: [Everyday Shooter] happened because I was showing that game at the [Independent Games Festival] and got nominated as a finalist. A bunch of Sony guys were there and I guess they liked it and offered to publish it. So with [Sound Shapes], since we’d already done business with Sony, it made sense to go back to them to see what they thought. When we showed them, they flew us down [in 2009] and showed us the early prototype Vita hardware. They were like, “It’s a good fit, what do you think?” and we were like, “Okay.”

Q: How has working on Sound Shapes been?

A: The design of it is so difficult to comes to terms with because of the tight integration with musical gameplay. If you change one little thing, like you make one thing move faster so that it’s more fun, that breaks the music. You do one thing to the music and that breaks the game. That’s been the hardest part, is figuring that out. It’s not a resource-intensive thing, it’s just that someone has to sit down and go through it.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you find as an indie game developer?

A: It may not be the answer you’re expecting, but it’s just about making a good game. Once you’ve made a good game, people want good games, publishers want good games, your audience wants good games. From a business point of view, it’s easy to market a good game. People will pay money for that. The hardest part is coming up with a good concept and executing on it. There’s a balance between the amount of time it takes to do that and the amount of money you have in the bank. I’ve gone through the process twice now of having no money to make a game. It’s about not giving in to tangential jobs just to pay for your project.

Sometimes you might make something that you think is really awesome but that the public just doesn’t get or isn’t ready for and then you have to make a decision of, “Oh I can take this path and dumb it down or be true to myself and figure out why nobody is getting it. Can I change it in a way that it’s accessible but doesn’t destroy the original vision of the game?” That’s something I hope as a game creator that I learn to do better and better because that would help to make the game better.

Q: Why did you decide to stay independent rather than working for a big company?

A: It wasn’t like I was sitting there and thinking, “Okay, I could work for a triple-A game company or I can start my own business and make a game.” It was more like I have this idea for a game, so how do I make it? I guess by definition at the time, that was independent. I also thought that it’d be hard to get a job. After that first year where I made the game that didn’t do very well, I actually tried to get a job in a triple-A game company and they didn’t hire me, which I think was a good decision on everyone’s part. I don’t think I would have done well there. It’s so specialized and I have no desire to specialize.

Q: It seems like many good independent game companies eventually get bought up. Can they survive on their own or do they inevitably get acquired?

A: There are people who are in it just to make video games and there are people in it to start a business making video games. For me it’s never been about making money. The only reason Queasy Games is incorporated is because there’s a technical issue where if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t get money. From a business point of view I know tons of people who don’t get bought out, who stay small. It’s kind of surprising when you say that most small companies get bought up because I don’t know anyone who would want to get bought. The business entity exists for negotiating their next game and that’s it, it’s not to grow or for turning a profit. They’re secondary to making a great game. For me, if one day I burn all the cash and the capital is gone, I’m perfectly okay with finding a job and making my games on the side until the next game I make makes money. I wouldn’t go and work on a game that I have no interest in because life is too short to do something you don’t want to do.

In Canada, we do have a lot of grant programs and that really helps keep companies alive to make their games. It’s a very good buffer. There’s a couple granting agencies and there’s also arts grants, which I haven’t had much luck with because I don’t think games are generally recognized as art in the arts-granting community in Toronto and Canada.

Q: Some people, like film critic Roger Ebert, have said video games aren’t art. How do you weigh in on that debate?

A: When I was a kid coming out of university I totally got into that debate, but it was very academic. Now, I don’t really care. Whether people think it’s art or not doesn’t concern me. For many years now, I’ve thought that you decide whether it’s art, it’s not for Ebert to decide. You look at a painting and that can mean nothing to you or something to you, or you walk down the street and you hear that wind rustling through the trees. That can have meaning for you. For some people, it’s just, “Oh, it’s breezy today.” People should just think for themselves. I’ve been able to read meanings into games and also not, depending on the game. Same for movies, novels. For me, it’s beyond that question now. When I think of that debate, it’s like looking at a photograph where I’m like 19 or 20 thinking about those things. It’s as absurd as asking a musician, “Why are you doing this? Is it art that you’re doing?” Maybe what I’m doing isn’t art to you, but who cares, it’s just what I do.

Q: That said, what’s your favourite game?

A: My favourite game is probably Tetris. It’s a game I’ve been playing since I was like 8, and I’ve never stopped playing. When I started playing it, I actually didn’t like it, but then I saw my brother’s friend playing it and he was speed running it. I was like, “There’s this whole other side to this simple game that I didn’t see.” I started reading into it. I was going through some stuff when I was kid and I thought, “Oh, this game is like life. Sometimes you get really bad pieces and you just have to deal with it.” Then I started to think of it in terms of probability, which is when that poker craze happened – at least in Canada – where poker became a thing and people were talking about odds and stuff. I was like, “Oh yeah, sometimes you have to rearrange the play field so that odds are you’ll have a piece that you can use somewhere.” It’s something that has always grown with me and once in a while I’ll think of a new meme for it.