The Seattle Indie Interview: Dan Cook

Aug 1st, 2011 by Matthew Burns

Tell us your name and how you got into indie games.

My name is Daniel Cook, though most folks know me as ‘Danc’ via my blog I got into indies game back when they were called Shareware in the 90’s. Jason Emery, Alexander Brandon and I released a vertically scrolling shoot’em up called Tyrian though Epic Megagames that is still going strongly today as an open source project. It really was a wonderful period full of new games, new markets and new players. This was the era of the birth of Quake and Dune 2. Sadly, indie games went through a dark age during the ascent of the consoles as the gatekeepers like publisher and platform makers gained a strong upper hand and did their darndest to kill innovation and entrepreneurship. The decade of dominance by Xbox and PlayStation is easily the worst thing that has ever happened to smaller developers.

Now the dark ages are over. Digital distribution and games as services are helping loosen the grip of the publishers and platforms. We’ve got new platforms like mobile and flash and new business models like free-to-play. It seems that news these days falls into two categories: 1) Tales of woe as AAA studios come crashing down and 2) Tales of bewilderment as yet another indie titles turns into the next smash hit. This is the way it should be. Games are a revolutionary form of expression and do not fare well when shackled to controlling conservative organizations just looking to milk artists for a steady revenue stream.

What delights me is that so much of what was true back in the days of shareware is still true today. With the modern indie scene, I feel like I’ve come back to my roots. We’ve got small teams wearing lots of hats, dealing with design, art, tech and business all the at same time. Anyone with a spark talent, ideas and the ability to finish a game can get it out there and start building a direct relationship with their community and their customers.

What moments in games inspire you?

It is less the games and more the players of the games that inspire me. I think of game design as creating rules that run on human hardware. However, human brains are by no means a well understood and predictable computing device. As such, when I get someone to play a new design, I have only the fuzziest idea of what will happen. So with each playtest I watch for small moments of player emotion. If someone shows kindness I think, “How can we amplify that? What rule ran right at that tiny moment to cause this burst of wonderful humanity?”

In Realm of the Mad God, we noticed players giving complete strangers meeting up, working together and sharing treasure without saying a single word. That is the sort of behavior I want my games to encourage.

What game are you working on right now? What makes them special?

We’ve got six games I’m deep into the design and prototyping process for right now. Our coop MMO shooter Realm of the Mad God was just released, but as an MMO this is just at the beginning of its journey. I honestly don’t think that there is anything else out there like it. You get to rampage through a persistent world run by a rather irritable fellow named Oryx. There are hundreds of people playing together online at once and you get hordes of dozens of players all running about helping one another and dodging storms of hundreds of bullets. We had fun tweaking a lot of traditional MMO tropes. There’s permadeath, you can reach the level cap in less than a day and play is truly cooperative.

Now when you typically think of an MMO, you imagine rather staid turn-based combat. That’s what we’ve been limited to for decades.

Yet Realm is an action game that is just as responsive as a single player shooter. Realm may look retro but if you dig down just a little deeper you realize it is one of the most technologically advanced MMOs on the market today. Alex and Rob from Wild Shadow brought a level of engineering talent to the project that is almost unheard of in indie games. The latency and security tech alone are pure gold. The servers auto scale so that when someone like Penny Arcade dumps traffic on the site the game just shrugs it off and keeps going. To top it off, they are simulating 25,000 monsters on the backend. Just because they can. Of course, the other fun part about Realm is that all that tech is basically invisible to the player. Players just see an incredibly accessible game that they can instantly start playing with other people.

I keep threatening people with a new version of Triple Town, a game I keep thinking of as the Civilization of Match-3 titles. This is a game that manages to hook both my hardcore gamer friends and their mothers. And it has adorably scary giant bears. There’s a build about to head into private beta shortly. Also simmering in the background are some rather nifty builds of Steambirds, the turn-based steampunk aerial combat game I co-created with Andy Moore. Well over 14 million people have played various Steambirds games at this point. Hopefully we’ll add a few more players by the end of the year.

Spry Fox, the company I run with David Edery, is growing like crazy. We started out with a rather unique way going about development. Instead of being a traditional game studio, we assemble teams around a project. In some ways this is similar to how the movie industry operates. Everything is heavily design driven with lots of iterative prototyping. Everyone gets a share of the project and if the project turns into a great game, the people who actually made the game benefit. So far having experienced developers that feel ownership of their games has been a big win.

What is a burning lesson that you’ve learned about indie development that everyone should know?

One big burning lesson is that the vast majority of developers that are working in the traditional game industry are currently wasting their creative lives. Their skills are atrophying as they get squeezed into more and more specialized roles. Their souls are anesthetized by incessant grind and a lack of any meaningful ownership of their work. Every project killed or hobbled by publisher idiots or every night they work late due to broken politics is a large chunk of passion that they will never get back. If you are actually bright enough and talented enough to make games without a net, going indie is one of the most rewarding challenges you’ll ever undertake. You’ll learn more. You’ll be more creative. You’ll go from being a cog to charting your own path.

Some other tips:

  • Iterate and prototype and playtest like crazy. Toss all the AAA fluff that gets in the way of rapidly cycling on finding those wonderful moments of human emotion.
  • Measure how people respond to your game and tune your game till the metrics, not just your gut, report it is good.
  • Learn how to make money. Financial freedom helps enable creative freedom.

What would you like to see out of a Seattle Indies community?

More sharing. Indies thrive best when they help one another out by pooling lessons learned and skills. Most individual indies will never have the resources of a Zynga or an Activision. But collectively, we are have more agility, courage, learning and skill than even the largest mega-company. To tap into that, we need to meet up regularly and talk. Share the thing you wish you knew last year before you spent your life savings on a fantasy that was *almost* correct. For example, I want to tell every single indie I meet what I’ve learned about free-to-play games. That is exactly the sort of sharing that indies in Seattle should be doing because one 10-minute conversation may be the difference between a half dozen indies spending a year on a financial flop or a better outcome where they end up with a successful company that lets them make new games for years to come.

We are band of artists united in a common passion. The least we can do is show up once a month and help one another become better at what we do.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Matthew, I think you are awesome for setting up this site and helping organize Seattle Indies. I cannot wait to go to the next meetup.