A few years ago, I was blessed with a chance to speak to one of the script writers and design artists from Space Channel 5 and Seaman. Sadly, I cannot recall her name but she is my grandparents' high school friend's/Japanese wife's daughter. She had worked with the development during the late 90s before selling out to SEGA, causing her to lose faith in freedom of creativity; she left the team after production and began working as a graphic design artist in San Francisco. Our meeting soon turned into an unofficial interview as we began to discuss the difficulty of entering the industry.
For many of our generation, a career within the game industry is a dream come true. Many of us have grown up playing video games in our free time so it should be no surprise to see such passion for game creation rising from today's community. As the lovely lady I spoke to said, getting noticed within the industry is more difficult nowadays than in the past. Nintendo had revived gaming and there were already plenty of development studios that had become staples to the industry, but many of the studios that we know now were still spawning from basement-dweller dreams. Requirements for many jobs consisted of nothing more than just talent, having the ability to use your skills to create a solid, final product. Nowadays, getting a job with a developers is a tab more complicated. Today some companies require some form of college degree, a certain number of years of experience, and some jobs even require having published works.
Yet despite the challenges, many are still willing to build their foundations on passion and unique ideas. Independent developers have worked their way into a fine, small niche within gaming. Indie games have become our escape from the normal by offering us alternatives from the over saturated gaming market. They are willing to take risks with gameplay schemes, art styles, and concepts in general; adding a flavorful touch to our main gaming dish. Personally, I have always admired indie developers. (In case my love for the Chzo Mythos games had not pointed to that.) When it comes to the amount of work and dedication they hold, it simply fascinates me. I highly respect anyone - regardless if it is one person or a handful - who is willing to gather up the courage to chase after their dreams. (It is part of the reason I admire David Tennant as the 10th Doctor; it was his dream to be the Doctor as a kid and he became an actor for the part. )
Among the many taking risks for their games, is Andrew Rabon, a young indie developer who has been working on a game on his own. 4kg is a retro, 2D platformer that sends the player into an undetermined future. A machine-induced apocalypse has occurred, leaving humanity in ruins and left to pathetically attempt to survive. You play as a re-activated robot whose mission is to survey the landscape in such of remaining human survivors and exterminate them so machines can claim earth as their own. (What's up, Daleks? I'm kidding.) Over time, you begin to discover the lifestyle of the robot before the war broke out by unlocking hidden cutscenes.
It originally began its development in December 2009 as an Android software game for tablets and smart phones, but a year into its production things changed. His curiosity in web browser based games soon caused 4kg's development to shift into HTML 5. Tools like Canvas and the Audio tag allowed for easier development, but of course, no dream can be easily achieved. Not long after the format switch, the game's artist dropped out of the project - taking away the game's potential use of vector, Flash art. Rabon was left with no choose but to attempt the art himself in order to keep up with his personal production schedule, eventually settling on an old, pixel art style.
Despite his busy schedule, Rabon took some to do an interview with me:
What inspired you to want to be a game developer? Rabon: I've always wanted to make a game. I think it began with an issue of GamePro. I think when I was 10 or 11; it had an article on freeware game making programs, and I became fascinated with it. So I've tried over the years to make a game, but didn't have enough drive or concentration to finish any of them. 4kg is where I said, "enough is enough!" and buckled down. I fleshed out its design document to completion, and designed almost all the levels before even moving on to coding. I think that by having those done, they act as a road map, and I know how complete the game is and specifically what still has to be done.
What exactly fascinated you about developing a game independently? Rabon: Creating something unique and presenting it to others, I think. Getting reactions, positive and negative. Just trying to let someone else have fun; and I guess also making a computer - this massive complex system - do exactly what you want it to.
Would you say it was your desire to want to be creative or your desire to want to offer something to a community that was the fuel? Rabon: Both really. They complement each other. If I wanted to be creative, I could choose to write a book, or make a song, but I grew up on games and I know there's nothing like playing a fun game, the interaction is unparalleled. So I knew if I wanted to do something with my creativity, it would mostly be for games.
From what you said before, it sounded like there were past failed projects. Can you elaborate a bit on what eventually lead to the creation of 4kg? Care to show us a bit of insight into how you came up with its concept? Rabon: A lot of the concepts were about the digital realm. I guess I'm just attracted to that sort of theme. 4kg is completely unrelated to any of my previous game ideas. I came up with the name and basic concept (a platformer where you play as a robot after an apocalypse) when I was half asleep one night, and jotted it down in a sketch pad. I then developed the game's structure a bit, 15 total levels and their themes. I let it cool for a few months, and when I came back to it I finished up the design work and came up with the full story.
From what I read, story is told through unlocked cutscenes. Is there a reason you choose to go with a less forceful approach to your story telling? Rabon: 4kg is a retro game and I really wanted a NES feel (with modern advancements.) NES games usually don't have a very big emphasis on story, and even today neither do most platform games, but I did have a story to tell with 4kg, so I struggled for a way to reconcile these two desires. Eventually, I realized that 4kg lacked a kind of extra reward system, so I made the cutscenes the "prize" for exploring and mastering the controls of the game.
Do you feel satisfied with that decision? Or do you feel like you had to sacrifice the plot in order to maintain the 'retro' feeling? Rabon: A part of me is kind of sad that not everybody will experience the full story. Even still, the story is simple enough that you don't have to experience it to enjoy the game. I think it's a happy balance. I also think it's good game design that players are rewarded with something that actually "matters" -- as opposed to so-called collect-athons where you just keep collecting more and more useless stuff. If 4kg had a lives system I could reward players with extra lives, or I could have unlockable bonus levels. But the cutscenes fit like a glove when I needed a reward system.
I guess in a way you could consider this a risk - hiding the story from the average player. Do you feel confident with taking such a risk? Rabon: Yeah. I feel like it's a good idea. I'd rather people complain about not enough story than too much.
Are there any other elements of the game you feel you are taking risks with? Rabon: Not really, I tried to limit myself with 4kg so I could complete it easier. Even though a lot of the game design is borrowed, I tried to keep it inventive and fresh, and try to introduce new mechanics often. I'm also trying to polish the experience as much as possible. I hope the end result is a very fun platformer with a bit of story that sticks with you, that might be a bit on the short side but never drags. That's my end goal.
Do you ever see yourself branching off into the use of other programs for future projects? Or are the talks of future games too off into the future to think about? Rabon: I do think about it a lot. Particularly for HTML5 game development, stuff is happening all the time so I have to constantly re-evaluate the tools I use. I've been looking into GameMaker: HTML5, and Impact.js. but Akihabara suits my needs, and I can do anything I want with the source code which is great. As for future games, since 4kg has had its design complete for over a year, I've had lots of time to think about the future. I tried not to at first of course, and just concentrate on 4kg, but my imagination never rests. So I'm designing my next game now.
Do you plan on continuing to develop your games independently like now? Or do you see yourself trying to reach out to other's to help produce the project a bit quicker? Such as maybe starting an "unofficial" development studio? Rabon: My next game will be like 4kg has been, but hopefully much quicker. Teaming up with others would let me develop bigger and more involved games, but there's a certain amount of expectations from those people you get involved in. It's a tough nut to crack but I think I will find an answer.
Is starting your own development studio a goal at some point? Is it something you'd like to do? Rabon: Yeah, of course. I don't know if it'd make any money though *chuckle* and I probably wouldn't handle the business side, so I'd need to find someone for that. If I could be a dedicated game designer, at my own studio or someone else's, I'd be content, but I have this feeling I can't shrug off that game design is the "easy way out," and that you have to be a coder or an artist first, then progress to a design role. That may or may not be the case, but I'm hoping that making my own games will be a "third" option, and that they'll show the other studios I'm a good game designer.
How has it been trying to handle a project by yourself? Rabon: It's really tough to stay motivated. It's easy to say, "Well I had a busy day, so I'll work on it tomorrow instead." If I had worked on 4kg every day it would be out by now, maybe even a year ago. Designing the game was a blast, and even coding and putting the sprites together. But just pushing through is a trial by fire. That's why having a complete design doc is so important, it lets you basically check things off a list and have a sense of completion and achievement.
Is there anything you wish you did differently? Rabon: Besides not having it released already, I would probably say I wish I had chosen HTML5 to start with. In the beginning, 4kg was for Android, but I switched after my artists dropped out of the project. I could have gotten a good bit of work done if I had stayed on one platform, although who knows, maybe not.
Speaking of artists, where did the music come from? Rabon: 8bitcollective hosts a bevy of fantastic chiptune music all available under a Creative Commons license. Even still, I specifically sought out each musician to ask for their approval for putting their music in 4kg. They have all agreed and 4kg has an absolutely fantastic nine-piece soundtrack because of them. I will be releasing this soundtrack for free on the game's blog following 4kg's release.
When can we expect to see 4kg's release? And is there anything else you would like to add? Rabon: After nearly two whole years, 4kg will be released for free this November. Users of any modern browser should be able to play it, although the game is being specifically optimized for Google Chrome. I am thinking of making other versions, like for Facebook, Android, or iPhone, but I don't know how long those could take, so I can't commit to that right now. I hope you look forward to 4kg's release, I know I am. I am actually a bit into designing my next game, which could be like something nobody's ever seen before, so I'm excited to be able to finally move fully into developing that.
You can head over to 4kg's website to continue to follow is development. A demo is also available on the site for anyone interested in giving it a shot, and contributing motivation to one man's dream.