You may remember that last month we posted a deal on-site for the PC version of the game Qwak as its developer, one Jamie Woodhouse, had decided to follow a pattern set by those such as Radiohead and World of Goo and held a week-long Pay-What-You-Want spree. Well, after the deal finished, we caught up with Jamie - the man behind such Amiga classics as Nitro and All Terrain Racing as well as Qwak - to ask him a few questions about life as a self-taught veteran of indie game development and how the industry has changed from his perspective over the past twenty years.
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): Hi Jamie and welcome to Dealspwn! Would you mind taking a moment to introduce yourself, and say hello?
Jamie Woodhouse: Hi Dealspwn!
Well, I’m an indie game developer, so I get to make the games I want to make. I had some early successes on the Amiga, where a few games I developed were published by Psygnosis and Team 17. I’m now focused on making indie games for PC, Mac, and soon, iPhone, and perhaps other platforms.
MG: You’ve been working in the games industry for over two decades now, is that right? When did you first decide you wanted to develop video games for a living?
JW: Yes, that’s right. It all started for me when I was dragged (kicking and screaming, against my will) in to computer club at school. I think all they had back then were BBC model B’s and a few Apple II’s; but that was enough for me, I was soon hooked, and in geek heaven, and soon found myself both playing games, and trying to make my own..
MG: And what was the first ever game you designed?
JW: There were so many, small prototypes, mostly coded in BBC basic. I remember doing a space invaders clone, on the BBC, that only had one invader! Maybe the first decent game I ever designed was ‘Zap’, again for the BBC, developed around 22 years ago in assembler; and published only last year! (There is a thriving retro gaming community and they love uncovering any hidden gems like that).
MG: I can imagine. Let’s turn our attention for a moment to the game you’re probably most well known for: Qwak, your platform-puzzler. On your site you refer to it as something of a ‘labour of love’. How did it all start, where did you get the concept from and what were your influences?
JW: Well, it’s like if you can imagine for a moment there was no such thing as money, and you could do whatever you wanted, create whatever you wanted; for me, at that time, that was Qwak.
As for my influences, when I started college, I used to skip class and go down the arcades to play on the games, classics like Gauntlet, Defender, Starforce, Flicky, and probably Bubble Bobble. Qwak gets compared to Bubble Bobble a lot; but creatively, it never felt to me like I set out to copy anything; though of course, I would have been influenced and shaped by all those early games.
MG: You updated the game for the Amiga in the early Nineties. What was it like working for/with Team 17?
JW: Working with Team 17 back then, was an absolute pleasure; especially with Qwak. Everyone ‘got’ the game, and enjoyed playing it, and although it was very much my baby, there was a great energy about the place, with people feeling enthusiastic and chipping in ideas etc.
MG: Qwak’s seen a number of different incarnations on a variety of different platforms over the years – BBC, Electron, Amiga, GBA and now finally PC. How did you go about adapting Qwak for its PC debut?
JW: Qwak is my first serious attempt at a PC game, so there was a bit of learning curve for me there. I wanted to keep the original ‘out of the frying pan, and in to the fire’ vibe of the game; and just beef up the graphics a bit, and add in some extra items and features.
MG: I imagine that can be the case a lot of the time when working on one’s own. With Qwak and All Terrain Racing published by Team 17 and Nitro published by Psygnosis, how has it differed over the years in terms of development process, testing, QA and so on between working with larger publishers and making games by yourself? Do you have a preference?
JW: I seem to remember with Psygnosis, they were always wanting little changes here and there, which just extended the time required for development. Aside from that, there wasn’t much difference, but then, all the games I worked on back then, I was very much the lead developer and driving force behind them.
My preference would be to work with other people, who enjoy what they’re doing, and have similar creative ideals as myself. I’m certainly open to that, but in the mean time, I’m going to stick with the indie thing.
MG: Well, the recent boom in casual gaming (and I use that term in its broadest sense) has certainly led to a virtual plethora of independent games, both browser based and downloadable. In terms of quality and quantity, the indie gaming sector appears to be thriving, but can this mean it’s sometimes difficult to make one’s voice heard?
JW: Very much so, it’s very difficult to get yourself heard, and draw people’s attention to your games; plus, if you consider, there are professional game companies who have teams of people working on marketing; it’s not at all easy for an indie to get noticed!
But that really is the number one question for an indie game developer; “how do I raise awareness of my game, and get traffic to my site?” That’s something I’m learning about every day ... and if anyone has any bright ideas in this regard, they should definitely let me know.
MG: So what does being an independent games developer mean in 21st century Britain? Is there much support from the government and community for your work?
JW: I’ve found it’s pretty much a case of nobody loves you, and you’re on your own.
MG: Ouch. So as an independent you have to do every little thing yourself?
JW: Pretty much, yeah.
MG: With that in mind, when you set out to make games, as an independent, do you have a market in mind to begin with?
JW: Mostly, I make the kind of games that just feel fun to me. I think that’s pretty important to, to be making something that you personally buy in to and believe in and resonates with you.
Of course, you have to consider how other people are going to react to the game, will it be too easy, too hard, all that stuff. You want people enjoy your game, and that’s not only good business, it’s good for the soul too, to know you made something people enjoy.
MG: Absolutely! Any tips onwhat you think are the key ingredients that go into making a great game?
JW: You know, I have absolutely no idea! Really, I wouldn’t know how to quantify the ingredients just like that, and I’m not so sure there is a ‘magic formula’. At least for me, it’s always been a feeling thing, where I follow my intuition and gut-feeling.
So yeah, I don’t think it’s something you can (or should) define or quantify, to do so, you’d lose the essence and the magic of the thing. Making great games is like making art.
That said ...
I love multi-layered gameplay dynamics, and presenting the player with multiple challenges that they may choose to tackle in any order. I also like keeping the player constantly off-balance, and surprising them with sudden changes to their environment.
The player should always be rewarded for their skill, and always give them a change to survive, using skill, if they die, it should be their fault, as they’re lacking in skill to stay alive.
Another important thing is how well you present things visually to the player. You could really write a encyclopaedia on this stuff.
MG: A number of new developer tools have surfaced in the last year or two, and companies (I’m thinking Microsoft and the XNA tools in particular here) seem to be welcoming community-driven games more and more. With such tools available and a ready-made market in the form of Steam, Xbox LIVE and the Playstation Network, is this an avenue you have considered/are considering?
JW: I’ll be having a look at iPhone next (a bit late on the uptake I know), and also looking at various channels for digital distribution of Qwak. Haven’t really paid much attention to PSN so far; and there’s WiiWare too.
Really, it’s great that things are going this way; there seems to be much more scope for smaller indies to get their games out, than there would be through traditional distribution channels. In my book, that’s a very good thing; it’s very good that people can make the kind of game they want to make, that they believe in, and that they have a good route to market for those games.
MG: The market certainly seems like it’s opening up a lot more, though as you said earlier, it means getting your voice heard is becoming more of a mission I suppose. What does the future hold for Jamie Woodhouse, and can we expect to see any new projects in 2010?
JW: At the moment, I’m working on my base layer of tech (code) so incorporate iPhone, as well as Mac and PC. So future games I develop, will be cross-platform, and easily ported to other platforms.
I’m tempted to do another platformer, but with more exploration and adventure. I also have in mind a top-down racer (in the same vein as Nitro / ATR). Nothing set in stone as yet, but I generally feel quite positive.
MG: Good stuff! Well, nearly out of time, so a couple of classics to round things off with: What are you playing at the moment?
JW: Zelda Spirit Tracks on DS, but generally, I’m more occupied making games than playing them (and I prefer making them too).
MG: And, of course no interview would be complete without....What are your favourite games of all time?
JW: In the arcades, probably Starforce, or Krull (showing my age a bit there!). Then there’s Sid Meier's Colonization, which is like poison to me! I love it! It’s so utterly addictive, yet so simple and basic in its presentation.
MG: Thanks again for taking a moment or two to chat to us. Are there any final words you’d like to share with our readers?
JW: Yeah, if you’ve played any of my games let me know what you think, good or bad - it’s always great to get honest feedback. Okay, have fun!