Our Seattle Indies Spotlight series returns with an interview with Ty Taylor.
Ty was recently featured in Forbes’s “30 Under 30 – Games 2019.” His releases as an indie developer include The Bridge, an award-winning, M. C. Escher-inspired puzzle game that’s sold over 600,000 copies and the action-puzzle game, Tumblestone, which sold nearly 500,000 copies. His work has earned recognition at IndieCade and the Independent Games Festival, and has been featured in the Museum of Pop Culture. His company, The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild, was created in 2011 for the commercial release of The Bridge.
Our interview focused on two central themes: How did Ty become a successful indie dev? How can others replicate his success? We were curious about learning how to become a person that could add value to the Seattle Indies community, if desired, but Ty’s wisdom should prove useful to anyone aspiring to become a successful game dev, or achieve success in any creative endeavors.
As a brief summary of the interview, which you can also watch our 17-minute video version on our YouTube page, Ty talked about what he looks for in making good games, what metrics he uses for judging whether a game is successful, what he did to succeed, and his advice on work/life balance, even while working on what you love doing.
Our questions include some from the Seattle Indies community!
Let’s start with the most difficult question first: Do you like videogames?
I think they’re fine.
I don’t play them as much as I did when I was a kid, only because given any amount of time in my life, I could either be making games or I could be playing games, and I know what I’d rather do nine times out of ten: I’d rather be making them. That’s kind of why I’m here today. Of course I still play games, I still like games, I’m a game developer for a reason.
Why do you like making games more than playing them?
Creative outlet, mostly. I like building things. I’ve always liked making things. Whether it’s from production or from design or from programming, I like creating something out of absolutely nothing. That’s why I got into games, so that I can make whatever I want to make it exist within the world.
What’s your favorite game?
I don’t have a favorite game. It’s hard to ask someone for a favorite song, TV show or something, but I like the games where I can play with people. Rock Band is one of my favorites because [it’s nice having] a bunch of friends coming together and playing in the same room or Jack Box Party Pack Games where you have a room full of people all playing on their phones.
Basically, I gravitate toward local multiplayer games more than any other games just because I like the social aspect of them. I don’t have a whole lot of time in my day to play games and so I don’t really want to play a long, single-player game, I want to play a game that connects me with people.
What makes a game good?
As weird of an answer as it is: fun. It’s the kind of thing where you know it if you see it, if you play it, if you have that kind of visceral reaction where you’re like: “OK, that was a good experience,” “Everyone around me is having a good experience,” “I want to do one more round or one more game.”
It’s a similar thing I was looking for when I was designing Tumblestone.
If I was seeing this kind of reaction from people that I enjoy myself when they play it, like in a local multiplayer game where everyone’s laughing, having a good time, that really draws me into wanting to play more of it.
Are there certain design philosophies or trends that usually signal to you that it’s a well-made game?
Player responses. The only way to actively judge how well a game is designed is to playtest it. If you think it’s a good game but you put it in front of 10 people and all of them don’t really have the same reaction that you were hoping for or are not having a good time at all, it’s not a good game! So, playtesting the game and gauging the reaction of players is the only way to do it.
Becoming a game dev
How did you start making games? On what platform and at what age?
I was a freshman in high school and the platform was a TI-83 calculator.
I was bored in study hall, we didn’t have laptops at the time, and everyone in school had these graphing calculators that had programming functionality. You could go into other games, like if there was a Pac-Man game, you could go in and see the code, and go: “What if I change this number? Oh! It goes twice as fast!”
From there, I completely taught myself how to program from reverse engineering the code from other games and modding them, changing a line or two, until I was just able to make my own games on this little calculator because I was bored in study hall.
When did you pivot from making games casually to deciding it could be a full-time career?
Interestingly, well over halfway into developing The Bridge. I was always a hobbyist game developer from as soon as I can remember, whether or not it was physical or digital. Before I learned how to program, I was making card games or variations of chess or whatever but then once I learned how to make videogames, I was always doing it, compulsively, and so I’ve always been a hobbyist in that way.
Starting The Bridge was no different.
I wasn’t really selling games before that. Halfway through making The Bridge, I realized: “Actually, this is something that people are paying attention to.” I was getting emails from Steam, back in 2011, which was a big deal back then. “I need to pay attention to this.” Then I launched it on Steam and the rest is history, right?
How supportive were your parents and teachers of this career path?
Well, as soon as the ultrasound showed that I was a boy, my dad went out and bought a Nintendo Entertainment System, so that’s maybe a little bit of a sexist gesture but still, I was born with Super Mario before I could talk or walk. Very supportive.
I went to school for Computer Science, and they helped me out there. I started out by working at Microsoft on Xbox One, so they were supportive of that. The biggest leap was when I was like: “Oh, I’m going to leave my 6-figure Microsoft job to be Indie.” They were like: “Uhh… OK…” That’s when I showed them Indie Game: The Movie, but yeah, it all worked out.
Did showing them Indie Game: The Movie work?
Oh no, it scared the hell out of them. I should not have shown them that movie.
A lot of Indies take a lot more risk than I ever have and I respect the hell out of them for that.
There was actually a question, on that note, from the community. Phoenix Soodalkov asked: “If you weren’t making much money initially when you started your own business, how hard was it getting used to the new situation and not being paid a good salary from an employer like Microsoft?”
I launched The Bridge while at Microsoft.
By the time I left Microsoft, I was making more from that game than I was at Microsoft, so that was fortunate. I was in a fortunate position to just be able to comfortably leave. I know a lot of people, probably, are not in that situation.
A lot of Indies take a lot more risk than I ever have and I respect the hell out of them for that. I guess my risk was during Microsoft, I threw away all of my sleep and social life to work two 40-hour-a-week jobs, if not more than that, to make The Bridge at the same time I was working on Xbox.
It was still a hobby- it was still an obsession- so if that didn’t work out, whatever, I still had my cushy job at Microsoft, but it did, so I was pretty fortunate in that way to just comfortably leave.
Yeah, that’s always the big risk. Let’s jump back to this question: What words of encouragement would you give to the younger version of yourself?
Don’t be so ambitious with game design. I see this not just with my team and myself, but with a lot of people starting out. They’re like: “I wanna make the next Skyrim! I’m using Unity, so, it should be fine!” A lot of people have way, way over-scoped their projects.
You see this in game jams all the time.
You see this in people’s first projects, where they’ll be pitching like the project, and I try not to laugh, because it’s just- and I don’t mean it in like a diskish way, but, it’s so over-scoped that like they need to cut 95% of it to have anything that’s even remotely viable. I guess you have to fail once or twice to figure that out, but if I could really tell people, start off with something the scale of Pac-Man or Tetris or smaller if you’ve never made a game before because making something over-scoped is a great way to fail.
I think that’s true of any industry or anything in general. So, was there a particular game dev that inspired you growing up or around your high school era?
I don’t know about high school era, but I think one of the things that made me realize that this doesn’t just need to be a hobby, and I’m not just building things for myself or my friends to play, but I could potentially launch a game out into the world was Jon Blow. Braid was basically made by two people, Jon Blow and the artist David Hellman, made Braid by themselves. It launched on Xbox 360, became a huge hit.
That was around the time I was starting The Bridge.
I looked at them, like: “I could make this! I could do all this!” And I did make a game- not necessarily a game that’s Braid, but still, a game I was able to make a living off of, which is hugely inspiring. It was made by two people. So was The Bridge.
Being a game dev
Is there a game dev that currently influences you today?
Influence, in a traditional way, not like the spark of influence that I had with Braid, but I definitely have a lot of respect for people who take enormous risks to make their passion; probably more risk than I have, so not necessarily “inspired” for me to keep going, but very optimistic, humbled, and appreciated by just the community at large. Like the Indies that sacrifice so much to be able to make passion.
What do you enjoy the most about making games professionally?
The creative freedom, for sure. I loved my job at Microsoft. It was my second-favorite job, by far, but also being able to wake up, and: “I’m gonna work on this today, because I can!” Just wide open pastures of creative freedom is by far my favorite part of being an Indie.
Conversely, are there any challenges that are different or difficult for making a game professionally?
Within a more professional scope like Microsoft, there’s job security! And health insurance! You might not be able to make what you want to every day, hopefully you’re on a product you like, but even if you’re not making what you want to, you’re still getting a solid paycheck, you can still maybe work 40 or 50 hours or something reasonable, and go home, and have a life.
Whereas Indie life, sometimes it can get pretty obsessive levels. Even with Tumblestone, when it was my full time job, I was working 100-hour weeks for months! It’s kind of a different mindset.
Yeah, that can really be challenging, but, how awesome is it to have actually achieved the dream of becoming an Indie?
I have some self-reflection every once in a while and realize that this is not a position that most people are in. Most people can’t live forever making whatever they want and make a living off of it.
I realize it’s a top 0.1% of dream jobs in the world.
At this point, I’ve done it for a while, where I guess I’m used to it, and I take it for granted what I’m doing because it’s pretty fucking awesome! I mean it still has its own challenges, but I’m very, very happy with what I’m doing.
Forbes 30 Under 30 Feature
On that note, congrats on your feature in Forbes! What’s it like being featured in Forbes?
Thank you. It’s a bit surreal still to be in the Top 30 Under The Age Of 30 in the world at something, which, there are a lot of people in the world! There are a lot of people making indie games or games in general. I think nine people in the 30 Under 30 were making games, everyone else was a streamer, or a part of the platform, or something, but anyways, it’s really cool.
I’m still figuring out what the implications to it actually mean, but it’s a lot of people saying congratulations at this point. It’s surreal, it’s cool, and it’s been I guess a goal of mine, because I have so many friends over the years that have made the 30 Under 30. I’m like: “I can get there!” And it actually happened!
Have you had any strangers recognize you yet?
I don’t know about strangers, but people that I didn’t know at the Holiday Party that just happened were like: “Congrats on the Forbes thing!,” and I’m like: “Thank you!” It’s not as much as some random person in a shopping mall saying: “Hey! You’re Ty Taylor.” It’s not like that. It’s like some other indie game developer that knows who I am.
That makes sense. Did they ask for an autograph?
No. The only people asking for an autograph were my parents.
How quickly did you add that to your LinkedIn profile?
I don’t care about LinkedIn. LinkedIn is just for Amazon and Facebook to continuously ask me to work for them. I’m like: “No! This is not what I want!” I don’t even know why I have a LinkedIn profile, but I update it like Facebook and Twitter, right away.
On a more serious note, though, does it feel like validation for all the effort you put in over the years?
Yes, of course it’s validating. I’ve been working hard for a very, very long time. For several years. Now that I’m 29, it’s nice to be in the 30 Under 30! It’s the last year it was possible! It’s nice to be recognized.
Being a Seattle Indies community member
I’ve made almost all of my friends from Seattle Indies that I’ve made over the last seven years and that’s my favorite part.
You’ve been part of the Seattle Indies community since 2011. What do you enjoy the most about the community?
The meet-ups. The socials that we have every month. I’ve made so many friends at Seattle Indies. I moved to Seattle in 2011 not knowing anybody. So the first thing I did was look online for game developer communities and I found- I don’t even really know if we were called Seattle Indies at the time, it was just a group of people who hung out in 17-Bit’s office in SoDo and BYOB events. I’ve made almost all of my friends from Seattle Indies that I’ve made over the last seven years and that’s my favorite part.
How have you seen the community grow, since you first joined, like the Indie Support Group on Saturdays, or the Discord chatrooms?
The Seattle Indies have been adding so many events, like what you said, or the Show and Tell or the Seattle Indies Expo [SIX] has exploded, the Holiday Party has exploded, the Socials have exploded, everything is growing, and I think it’s a combination of people realizing: “These are some pretty cool events that we want to come out to!” So they’re coming, month after month, and just the relation of game developers in Seattle also makes sense.
Do you have any fun anecdotes about how the Seattle Indies helped out your career?
Yeah, the very first hard example of this, and it’s not so much the Seattle Indies as the greater Seattle area – the Washington Interactive Network was hosting their Power of Play event, which was not Seattle Indies, but there’s so much overlap, and I took The Bridge there. I ended up winning the event.
One of the judges was the Senior Content Manager at Valve. He sent me an email with no body, and just the subject said: “Email me.” During my presentation. I did. My game went onto Steam, back in early 2013, when that was a big deal, and the rest is history.
Over the years, I’ve met so many people at our events. So many good business connections. That was just one early, early example, but every Seattle Indies event there are people there like that. I often see representatives from Nintendo, Valve and Microsoft there.
Networking’s really what it’s all about. So, you’ve also demoed a few games at SIX. How was that like?
I love SIX. It’s way less of a hectic experience than Megabooth. Megabooth is great as well, but SIX is definitely more light-weight. You can actually talk to people. It’s not a constant stress ball and it’s a great way to share your game midway through development. Get it into the hands of people and get feedback.
Press show up to SIX, of course, and so do platform representative like Microsoft and Nintendo. It’s a great way to get the game in their hands. Showing at SIX is a great thing to do, especially when your game is midway through development.
SIX [Seattle Indies Expo] is a great way to practice demoing, if you’ve never done it before. Also, it’s a great way to get feedback, so you can sharpen the game and get it really ready for the big leagues like Megabooth or something like that.
Did you learn anything in particular from demoing games at SIX that helped you on bigger stages, like the main expo area of PAX and GDC?
SIX is a great way to practice exhibiting. Like it’s not at the scale of Megabooth, for example, so it’s not as much pressure. You’re not necessarily talking to the IGNs and Polygons of the world. You’re talking to the smaller producers- I mean, you might talk to IGN execs, but the point is, it’s a great way to practice demoing, if you’ve never done it before. Also, it’s a great way to get feedback, so you can sharpen the game and get it really ready for the big leagues like Megabooth or something like that.
Being a Seattle Indies volunteer/board member
You’ve also been a volunteer for the Seattle Indies for a little while now. What was the biggest driver for you to volunteer some of your time and your resources to the Seattle Indies?
I primarily, nowadays, am organizing the monthly socials, including the Holiday Party, along with other people of course, but I think that my primary driver for wanting to do that was the fact that I’ve made all of my friends from the Socials!
It’s been such an enormous impact on my life that I just wanted to be a part of that and make it happen. Just the thought of how many friendships that have been made because of just my small part in making the socials happen, like bringing it to a bigger venue like Optimism Brewing, or driving people to show up. It’s very humbling to think about how many connections have been made there. I like throwing parties and I like bringing people together.
Do you remember any particular examples of how you applied your skill set in a way that helped the Seattle Indies grow?
Well, I haven’t done any game development, per se, for Seattle Indies. It’s more of a social group as far as I’m concerned, as opposed to making games. But I speak to people like, just for example, going to the Show and Tell and offering my advice to people on their games. I feel like that’s probably pretty valuable to people.
I certainly think so! What would you say to other people that want to get involved and volunteer for Seattle Indies? How would you recommend they go about doing that?
There’s probably no limit to the amount help Seattle Indies can get. It’s just a completely volunteer and organizer-driven organization. Anyone can be an organizer so just come reach out to any of us, email email@example.com, message any of us on Facebook, or just talk to us at an event. We’ll get anyone started if they’re very seriously interested in helping out.
We’re also happy to hear that you’re a member of the Seattle Indies board now. What excites you the most about joining the board?
Well, just having my input into what the events are. Just kinda helping oil the machine at a more executive director level. I’ve been an organizer for a while now and just kinda wanted to put my- especially with some of our other board members either stepping down or moving to Vancouver or something, I wanted to step up and fill that gap, and just help out with the events more.
What changes do you hope to implement in the next six months, and perhaps in a wider scope, the next five years?
I don’t think there needs to be changes as much. I want to get more attendance at all of our events. It would be great if SIX could grow, but we have a pretty awesome venue right now. I kind of want to keep things about as it’s going; just bringing people together and giving everyone as much opportunities as they can to grow as an independent developer. Like we all know, typically being an indie developer is hard, and Seattle Indies’s mission is to make that easier for people here.
Questions from the Seattle Indies community
I definitely try to prioritize having a social life and getting out of the house and doing something over work.
We asked the Seattle Indies community for their questions. Our first question was from William Pheloung: “What are your work habits? Specifically, your day-to-day. Such as what do you do when you wake up? What gets you out of bed? And, when do you stop working?”
I’m the kind of person who is most productive in the mornings.
Like, my productivity is like super high in the mornings, and just goes down, and down, and down, and down. So in the evenings I try not to work because it’s not going to be as effective, but otherwise, my work schedule is any time I’m not doing something else. I definitely try to prioritize having a social life and getting out of the house and doing something over work.
If I have an opportunity to do that, I will, but I don’t idle. I don’t just sit around and watch TV typically.
I’m like: “I can be doing something with a game I’m working on,” and so that’s how I fill the gaps. I don’t necessarily have a 40-hour work week. I have a “whatever happens to fill in the gaps.” If I have a totally busy social week, I might not work that much, but if I don’t, I might work a lot, and I’ll just be comfortable either way.
These next two sets of questions were from Jake Vander Ende: “What’s the closest you’ve come to complete failure? How did you avoid that and recover?”
Before The Bridge, I made several small projects.
It was probably seven years between when I learned how to program and make video games and when I started working on The Bridge, so I had a lot of small projects. Most of them did not work at all. They were kind of terrible. I just kept going because I had no pressure.
I was in college, so you know, whatever, it was not like I was trying to make a living. It was just a hobby.
So instead of playing video games, I was making them, because that’s what I usually preferred to do, once I figured out how, so I guess I failed many, many times in making games that no one will ever hear about, or basically, didn’t work, or are just objectively bad, but I just threw it away and made another one.
It was all learning and you learn through failure. That’s what I tell people now: “Just make a lot of games. Make small games, quick games, fail quickly, learn from it, and carry that over into your next project.” Maybe that seven years worth of failures has gone into making me make The Bridge.
“If you weren’t in game development, where would you be right now? What’s your alternate timeline life?”
I think if I had never gone into games, I would be fascinated by AI in some way, usually probably applied AI. The concept of automated cars, and self-driving cars, is so fascinating to me. I cannot wait until there’s a world where there is not a single human driver, so I would probably be a part of that in some way.
The next three questions were from Feiya Wang: “What are you planning to do with your horde of t-shirts that you never wear?”
I should donate them. I collect a lot of shirts from events. It seems like every time there’s a PAX or GDC or something, I come home with like three or four shirts that just pile up in my closet. Plus, I have over like 100 Tumblestone shirts. They’re not for me, just all sizes, for people when we were selling at our booth. I dunno, I probably should donate them at some point. They’re sentimental.
“How many suits do you own?”
Five. I just got an all-red one for the Holiday Party, and an all-blue one-
Video/Photographer Bilgem Cakir: Which was rocking!
Oh, thank you!
-and there’s three black suits, including one I had from high school which does not fit and I will never wear it. I should probably also donate that one.
It’s the sentimentality, though, right?
I guess. I don’t even know why I’m keeping it.
“What are your travel plans for 2019?”
As an Indie, my girlfriend and I are both full-time Indies, so we can go anywhere. So we’re planning on spending a month a year somewhere cool in 2019. We’re going to Hawaii for a month! That should be pretty rad! In addition to that, the GDCs, and all that.
This next question is from Phoenix Soodalkov: “What is your first memory of experiencing joy while playing a video game, and what was it like?”
Probably Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Looking back at it now: “Uhh… the graphics…” But, back in middle school or elementary school when I was playing it, seeing the open world and seeing the adventure, and being so immersed in the game was probably one of the first truly magical experiences I’ve felt with videogames. It’d be nice to recreate that as a game designer, but that’s a tall order.
While you’re there, I think time is best spent connecting with people.
Bilgem: Let me jump in. You mentioned GDC. I wanna ask: What are your favorite events that you make a point of going to every year, other than GDC and other Seattle Indies events?
Other than GDC and other Seattle Indies events, PAX is a great event.
Basically, any event I go to is for the people rather than the content of the event. I don’t even go to GDC talks anymore, just because you can see them all online later. While you’re there, I think time is best spent connecting with people. GDC is something where every game developer goes to, so you can have a lunch or coffee or drink with everyone. There are so many different people to talk to and it’s impossible to talk to everyone at GDC, so I try to spend my time just connecting with people.
Outside of GDC, Full Indie Summit is fantastic, in Vancouver, just a quick drive up north and a great community up there as well.
We already kind of asked this question before, but our final two questions from the community were asked anonymously: “At what point did you decide to quit Microsoft and work as an indie on your own games? What things did you consider when making that decision?”
More specifically, I had already launched The Bridge and saw some revenue from that. I felt safe quitting. I could have, maybe for my own personal reasons, left months earlier, but I was on the Xbox One team, so I wanted to see the Xbox One ship, so I stayed on until Xbox One shipped, because I wanted to be part of that. I was one of the first, I think, 28 people on the Xbox One, so I wanted to see it through. So shortly after the Xbox One launched and it was doing fine, there were no fires for me to put out as a engineer, I left.
That’s kinda the thing. Once you get a really big project: “OK, now this is done.”
Yeah, I mean, my personal time probably could have been better spent making my games, as, you know, I have a very limited life span, so I should be making as many games as possible, but I wanted to see the project through. I had a lot of friends on the team.
Bilgem: Do you currently have any on-going game projects that you’re working on? That you can talk about?
I do. Yeah, I can talk about them.
I’ve been kind of toying the notion, seriously now that I’m doing it, of turning Quantum, my company, into a publisher as well as a developer. So I’ve been working on publishing a game called Almost There, it’ll come out early next year , that’s kind of like Super Meat Boy meets Thomas Was Alone. Super Meat Boy-like gameplay; Thomas Was Alone-like graphics and presentation. It’s very, very fun and we’re launching it early next year.
As for a project that I’m designing, I’m working on a experimental, musical, bullet hell where every 60-second stage in the game has a different composer doing their style of music, basically, going and asking Disasterpeace, Grant Kirkhope, Chipzel to all do 60 seconds of their representative music, and I put that in the game, completely different graphics and gameplay for every stage, which is- that’s an ambitious thing that I didn’t even realize until after I started making the game, but, that’s what I’m doing! And it’s pretty fun! It’s a quick little arcade-y game that’s stupid hard.
It’s like Minit, in a way.
Yeah, I love Minit. Minit is one of my favorite games of last year.
Sort of; the 60-second part is, I think, the only thing it has in common with Minit. But it’s a bullet hell, it’s very colorful, action-y. It’s not about repeating the same day or anything. It’s not an adventure game like Minit.
It’s more like a Rock Band meets Ikaruga.
How’s the development going? Are there any shipping estimates?
I try not to set dates anymore with my games. I did that with- Tumblestone took three and a half years, and at every point in development, I said it was three months away. I’ve actively decided not to promise dates anymore because I don’t have a deadline either. I don’t need to, so, whenever it’s done.
It’s almost when you have like an open beta, it’s almost good just to release it out and say: “Here’s what we’ve got so far, here’s what we’re gonna work on next.” If that’s how you do your development cycles.
I’m not doing an open beta. For anyone who’s interested in giving feedback, I definitely would be interested in giving them a private key. I’m never going to open up a beta. It’s just going to launch simultaneously to consoles and to Steam.
First Look Screenshot: Dual Joy
How did the idea come about?
I don’t have much of an anecdotal story behind it, I just kinda thought it was an interesting gameplay. I wanted to make an action game. I had just made two puzzle games. Tumblestone is sort of an action game, but also a puzzle game. I wanted to make just an action game. Something very arcade-y, kinda like a twin-stick shooter, but I didn’t want to make a shooter, so it’s just a twin-stick dodge. The pieces came together to where you’re using both sticks to dodge things and that’s where the name Dual Joy came from where you’re using dual joysticks!
How much of the idea is your own and your teams? Do you get much creative control or are there any significant compromises?
In my experience, it totally depends on the game.
For example, for The Bridge, I wanted it to be “M. C. Escher: The Game.” I designed all the levels and I designed all the architecture but my very talented artist Mario, who I worked with, basically, once I gave him the architecture, he did all of the art detailing, the shading, basically all of the theming. Of course, he knew “M.C. Escher: The Game,” so he pulled from Escher’s works to make it all very themed like Escher.
As for Tumblestone, I designed all of the gameplay, but Alex and Justin and Mario, again worked on it, he designed all of the characters. I’m like: “I think I want 12 characters and 12 worlds.” He came up with who the characters are entirely. Around the characters, Justin worked on story outline and brought all the characters together, so it was an interesting constraints that were set.
I was like: “12 characters! 6 female, 6 male.” Mario made up the characters, like the Sausage King, or the Goblin King, or the Queen of the Nile. Justin made all the characters interact with each other and figure out what the friendships were between characters and things like that. Alex did a lot of the core programming, so from a software architecture point-of-view, he had, not creative control, but control over how to structure the game. How to format the code and things like that. He handled a lot of the menu systems and necessary parts like that.
Each person knows their specialty, so you might have bias on certain things, like: “Here’s what I like…” But, overall, you let them do their thing.
Since the Seattle Indies community prides itself on its diversity and inclusivity, can you highlight a recent example of how you’ve promoted diversity within your project?
In Dual Joy, I’m definitely trying to get people of color and female composers as much as possible. There are a lot of white male composers that I want. For the top of the top, like Disasterpeace, I’ll get them. But for the most part, I’m trying to get more marginalized composers, like Lena Raine and Chipzel– two fantastic female composers that I got on the project.
Have you encountered any unique challenges in developing this recent project?
This is the first project where I’m doing the art myself. I’m definitely getting consulting from art friends, mainly like: “Are the colors bad?” I don’t know, because I’m not actually an artist. I’m doing it all 100% shader-based. My background is from Computer Science, so I know shader. I think it’s interesting to make the game 100% shader-based. It also creates a lot of art challenges, but I’m having a lot of fun! I need a lot of consulting to make sure it doesn’t look bad.
Business Advice for Indie Developers
What does your workflow look like? What programs do you use?
As an engineer, I use Visual Studio and Unity and Gmail as a producer. I notice I’m in Gmail more than Visual Studio.
That kinda sucks, in a way.
No, I like being a producer. I like talking to people. I do what I do because I like it. I’d hire someone out to be a producer, but I like being a producer.
That’s where I was thinking that if you liked more of the programming aspect, it’d be one of those: “Oh, this Gmail stuff… Let me hire a producer.”
I like having a lot of different things going on. That way, I never get bored. If I’m just doing one thing forever, like, 40-hours a week, just this one thing, I will lose my mind and that’s kind of what I did at Microsoft. That’s why, while at Microsoft, I was making games on my own so I could have that kind of different thing, and now that I’m doing it 100% on my own, I can’t just do the same thing. If that means working on multiple projects, which I’m doing, or just wearing different hats, like being an artist one day or a producer the next day or an engineer the next day. I’m constantly switching around so I don’t lose my mind from boredom.
What did an average day working at Microsoft look and how does that compare to working full time as an indie developer?
I’m not full-time only working on the code. That’s the biggest thing, is I can choose: “Today, I really feel like doing art.” So I’ll do art, because I have that freedom. That freedom is the difference between Microsoft or any AAA or big company and being Indie, is actually having the freedom to say: “I really don’t wanna do this today.” Or: “I don’t want to send any email today.” You can do the other thing. You can be productive while not working on one particular facet.
I make sure to get eight and a half hours of sleep, I make sure I get good meals.
How do you strike a good work/life balance when you work on what you love?
I keep my schedule around- like I mentioned earlier- I only work when I don’t have anything else to do. If I want to be spending time with my girlfriend, going out with friends, doing a particular event, going to a Seattle Indies social, or whatever, that all takes priority. I make sure to get eight and a half hours of sleep, I make sure I get good meals. Every space in between that schedule is when I’m working. I don’t force myself to work 40 hours a week or 60 hours a week or anything anymore. I just work whenever there isn’t anything else to do.
Bilgem: There’s an interesting point there, though. It sounds like you don’t… rest. Right? Because you don’t need to, almost, like in the examples you give, like going out with friends or going to an Indie social, it’s not like: “Oh, I worked for 8 hours in the morning, I’ll just relax now.” It sounds like you’re doing less of that, and more of: “If I have something else, I’m doing that. If I don’t, then I’m working.” Am I reading it incorrectly?
No, you’re reading it correctly, but that “something else” does include rest.
Especially when hanging out with my girlfriend, if she’s like: “Hey, wanna play this videogame together?” “Absolutely, I wanna play this videogame together!” That takes my priority. I usually will work when she works, or if she’s doing something else like an art project, I’ll be working. Basically, I fit in the cracks in my schedule that I have.
Bilgem: Have you ever found yourself saying: “Hey, I need a chunk of time.” Then this other thing came up and cut it short?
It depends on what I’m working on. Some engineering tasks are the only ones that I can think of that might need, like: “This is a 2- or 3-hour block that I don’t want to be interrupted, because it’s like a critical engineering task.” Aside from that, I can fill 15-minute spaces fairly well.
What are some recent challenges you’ve overcome in managing your work?
Eventually, I convinced myself to hire out some work.
With my latest game, Dual Joy, it’s a music game where all the bullet patterns are tied to the notes, so first I get a composer to give me their music and then I script out when the notes need to fire, manually, and then I basically design the level around that. But this part was driving me crazy, it was so tedious, so I was like: “This is going to take me so many hours, I don’t want to do it at all.” It’s not like: “Oh, I’ll do it when I don’t feel like doing art.” Or: ”I’ll do it when I don’t feel like doing engineering.” I just never wanted to do it. So I was like, eventually: “OK, I’ll just hire it out.” Now I have two people helping me on the project who I’m like: “Here’s a new song! Script it out and then give it back to me.” So I can have them do that chunk.
It made my life so much happier when I was like: “I don’t need to do this myself.”
That’s usually the best way to go, too. If you look at a part and you dread it, it’s like: “Nah, I don’t wanna do this.”
And I’m trying to get better at delegating out like that.
I’m trying to get better at hiring people onto the project. I just need to figure out how to split out the project well enough where I can say, like: “Here’s this isolated chunk that you can work on, and it doesn’t really affect much else.” Once I get to that point, I will probably- for my future projects, I will try to design the flow of creation of the project that way, so I can just hire out people to fill in these chunks of the project.
I worked 100-hour weeks for months. It was the most unhealthy I’ve ever been. Never do that. As a word of advice. I will look into the camera and say: “Never do that!”
How do you handle deadlines?
I try not to set them anymore.
With Tumblestone, we had an enormous, big scary deadline where Microsoft said: “You’re launching on July 16th.” And so, we said: “Yes, Microsoft! July 16th.” And that almost killed us. I worked 100-hour weeks for months. It was the most unhealthy I’ve ever been. Never do that. As a word of advice. I will look into the camera and say: “Never do that!”
Now I’m never letting myself do that.
I’m making sure to get eight and a half hours of sleep. I’m prioritizing social life, when I can, and, yeah, so now I don’t really set deadlines. There’s never going to be an absolute necessity for a deadline for me anymore. I realize I’m saying that totally from a point of privilege, where I’ve had successful games and so I can kind of chill out, but no amount of money should be worth losing your sanity.
Even if Microsoft offers you a large amount of money to launch on a particular date. Ask them to delay by a few months or something, and maybe they will. I should have done that! Anyway, I’m not setting deadlines ever again.
You know, that’s a good point, too. That always seems to be the case. Everyone burns themselves out because they’re told: “You’re going to launch on this date.” And they’re almost too scared to say: “Hey, I need an extension…”
The amount we got paid for the game, it was a scary thing to ask for an extension. If they had said no, or maybe: “Oh, we’ll find another game to fill this slot.” Or something, then maybe, like… we lose! So yeah, it was tough. But, we did it! We made it work, but, it was a very unhealthy situation.
Yeah, there’s no real good win for that.
Just try not to do it in the future.
What’s the hardest part about working on indie games compared to working at Microsoft?
The possibility of failure. All of my future games could be flops! I feel lucky to have two successful games. Most people have one, if they have any. Maybe I’m doing something right, but all of my future games could be totally not well received, like poorly-received, and, I dunno! That’s a huge risk! At Microsoft, if a project fails, whatever! You’re still a full-time employee. You’re still getting paid great. You just move onto a different project. No big deal.
At worst, maybe a slap on the wrist.
Unless you’re a VP, no [big deal]. “The project failed, but that’s not your fault. You’re just an engineer.”
Do you have any other advice for aspiring developers?
Just like what I mentioned before, keep your scope very reasonable.
Keep your team size small, if you want to be Indie. A lot of people try to work with a big team, but that becomes quadratically difficult to manage as you add people onto the project. Yeah, just scope, scope, scope is really all it is, and just expect to fail. I had seven years of failures before I created The Bridge, so expect, not necessarily seven years, but expect the first thing you ever work on to not make a million dollars. That’s pretty unreasonable, and basically never happens. So just expect failure and learn from it, and be like: “OK, what did I do wrong? Why don’t people like this game?” Just don’t repeat that in the future.
When you play games, pick apart all the things you don’t like about it, like why don’t you like doing this thing in another game that you’re playing, in any game, and don’t do that in your game.
And just kind of learn from other people’s failures, or just not necessarily failures, but things that you don’t like about their game.
You should talk about your game projects, like a proud father talking about their child getting a PhD!
Our last question for you, Ty. We already talked a little bit about your words of wisdom about making sure to pace yourself, but do you have any other sort of concluding thoughts for everyone?
Just come to the Seattle Indies events and network. Go to GDC. I know it can be a cost to incur, but it’s one of the best events. Get out there. Join online communities; there’s plenty of Facebook, reddit, and Discord groups for game development. Be active. It’s not super helpful just to create a game in isolation without ever talking about the game.
On that note, never shut up about your game.
With Tumblestone, we demoed it at 50 different places. We never shut up about it. I was constantly wearing a Tumblestone shirt, being on brand. Yeah, don’t be afraid to speak so highly about your game that you’re working on. A lot of people might have the ego reservation of like: “Oh, I don’t want to brag or anything.”
You should talk about your game projects, like a proud father talking about their child getting a PhD!
You should be always bragging about your game.
Just, yeah, never shut up about your game!
Thank you again for your time today, Ty.
This was Seattle Indies Spotlight. See you next time!