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The Last and Final Word: David Shute

David Shute showed his immense promise as an independent videogame developer by winning the JayisGames Casual Gameplay Design Competition #6 with Small Worlds.

Bonus link at the end of the interview.

Age?

33 and counting.

Where are you from?

I live in England - um, nowhere fixed at the moment. I was based in Southampton for ages, but I’m midway through an incredibly protracted move to Bristol.

Development tool(s) of choice?

Flash, mostly, although for fun I occasionally dabble in 3D stuff like Unity and XNA.

What do you do?

I’m an animator, working mostly in 2D computery stuff.

How did you get into game development?

I’ve been making little games for myself for as long as I’ve had a computer, dating back to little malformed efforts on the ZX Spectrum, then various BASIC languages on the PC through the ’90s. When Doom came out, I got quite heavily addicted to modding it – although I never really released anything into the wild. Small Worlds was the first game that I was pleased enough with to sent out into the wider world.

Where did ideas for Small Worlds come from?

The short answer is just that CGDC #6 competition theme (‘explore!’) is just about my favourite verb in gaming, and so I knew I had to try to make something to fit. The longer answer is that it incorporates a few bits and pieces from previous abandoned games I’d tried to make before. In particular, I briefly attempted to make a low-fi flick-screen platformer called ‘Kemiro’ a couple of years before, that had the same chunky landscapes and three-pixel protagonist. Kemiro in turn was heavily influenced by Nifflas' Knytt games.

The original idea for Small Worlds was quite different from the finished result really, which is one of the nice things about just diving into making a game without thinking it through first. When I started, it was going to be a lot more cartoony and colourful, and take place in a single giant world rather than several smaller ones. I had this great idea for slowly building the music out of layered tracks as you collected the orbs too, but it turned out that wasn’t attainable in the three weeks I had. In the end, I loved the music I eventually chose so I’m not sorry, but I might return to that idea in future.

The zooming effect came out of nowhere, really. I was thinking about the process of exploring – how your world gets bigger, the more of it you see, and your own significance in relation to it smaller, and it seemed like that would translate literally into a game mechanic pretty well.

The very chunky pixel style that Small Worlds uses is quite unique, very pretty and really stands out. Why did you decide to use this graphical style and again, what inspired it?

I just really love pixel art. There’s something of a feeling that indie game designers lazily go for pixel art as a first resort because it’s easier, but I really feel there’s a genuine aesthetic beauty in it that has nothing to do with nostalgia. It’s an awful cliché, I know, but sometimes imposing strict limitations on yourself generates creativity, and having to limit yourself to drawing the world with 2-feet-square blocks of colour necessitates a level of efficiency and clarity to the art that otherwise might be easy to over-complicate. In Small Worlds, I wanted to see just how low I could make the game resolution, and still create a meaningful, decipherable environment for the player.

From a more practical perspective, chunky pixel art scales well, which was important. The world had to look the same when zoomed right in then when seen in totality, so it had to be a more abstract representational approach rather than a detailed one. Too much detail would become crowded and distracting once the camera drew back.

You won the Casual Gameplay Design Competition #6 with Small Worlds. Do you think winning a competition validates your abilities as a game developer?

Yeah, I think it probably did, or at least it felt like it did at the time. Until I released the game, I had no idea if it was any good at all, and to get that instant positive feedback was amazing. I don’t necessarily think it says anything about my wider game design skills though – Small Worlds is based on a single unique gimmick, so it’s not necessarily the kind of thing that can be replicated.

Have your projects become more ambitious as a result of winning?

I don’t think winning the competition made my projects more ambitious - I’m always fighting my own inclination to make things bigger and better anyway, so not much has changed there. It’s so easy to let projects snowball out of hand, which is why there are so many unfinished games littering my (and many other would-be game designers’) hard drives. The real skill is to be able to reign yourself in and just concentrate on making something manageable.

What effect did the competition deadline have on the development of Small Worlds - were you forced to rush anything and did you comfortably make the deadline?

I certainly didn’t make the deadline easily – I was still coding twenty minutes before the cut-off point! The short timeframe had absolutely prime importance to the design, which began with the question ‘what can I make in three weeks?!’  If I’d had longer I would have added more stuff, but that wouldn’t necessarily have made it better.

Of course, there are things I would have liked to have spent more time on. The ending was pretty weak (not to mention pretentious!) and I’d have liked there to be more incidental animations in the two smaller worlds. The green level especially was a bit rushed, it could really do with some sort of focal point, to give the player that moment of realisation that comes during the other three.

You stated in your blog that you read all the feedback and comments from various blogs, regarding Small Worlds. Many developers specifically avoid this. I know that it probably received very little, if any, negative feedback, but do you think reading negative feedback would have a detrimental motivational effect on your game development or do you just see it as constructive criticism?

Sure I got negative feedback – this is the internet, after all. It’s all good to hear though. I’m pretty thick-skinned when it comes to criticism. Generally either critics have a valid point or they don’t – the level of politeness or hostility doesn’t really matter to me. Often critics are plain wrong, or simply not the intended audience, but if the overwhelming response is negative, then the only way you can improve is by listening to them.

Are there any particular highlights from the positive feedback that made you particularly proud?

Positive feedback is immensely gratifying, and nothing boosts motivation better than learning you’ve made this wonderful intangible emotional connection with a complete stranger on the other side of the world through your work. I think the very best things I’ve read are the players who felt the need to fill in the gaps in the very ambiguous story, and create overarching narratives connecting each of the worlds. That’s something I totally didn’t expect, and it’s marvellous.

What lessons did you learn from developing Small Worlds?

Lesson number one is certainly that it’s better to release a small game than toil away for years on a larger one that never sees the light of day. I’m still struggling to learn that one though so maybe it doesn’t count. I guess the main thing I learned was that it’s surprisingly easy to make a game and get it out there. It sounds obvious, but it really is just a matter of sitting down and getting on with it, and not falling into the trap of thinking that you’re working when you’re actually just procrastinating. You can ponder and analyse and plan until you’re old and grey, or you can just knuckle down and make the bloody thing, and see how it turns out.

In your blog, you talk about adding a feature to Small Worlds that will let users design and upload their own worlds. Are you still thinking of trying to implement this? 

The response to this was pretty unenthusiastic to be honest. I think it’d be a great idea, but I’m not sure about the technical aspects of doing that in Flash. Maybe I’ll look into it if I ever make a sequel!

When you break into the indie-gaming scene with a game like Small Worlds that has garnered so much positive critical acclaim, do you feel pressure to come up with something ‘bigger and better’ for your next project?

Definitely better, yeah – I think everyone wants their current project to be the best thing they’ve ever done. Bigger is troublesome though; when I finished Small Worlds I promised myself I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of overextending myself, but it’s really hard to keep the drive towards expansion in check. If you have a great idea, it’s only natural to want to wring every drop of potential out of it, but if there’s one thing Small Worlds showed, it’s that this isn’t always the right thing to do. One day I’ll convince myself of that, I’m sure.

Over the last few years, the quality of flash games has really exploded. Why do you think this has happened?

It’s all about the money really, isn’t it? It’s pretty easy to make a Flash game, and the potential audience is huge, so as soon as the portal sites and sponsors realised they could afford to pay real money for decent games, the quality started to shoot up. And then when the big game studios joined in later on, with their vast development budgets, the level of production values exploded too.

Things seem to have gotten a little less bright recently for new developers – it’s much harder to get sponsored at the moment, and the portals seem to be playing it pretty safe when it comes to spending their money. That’s my own experience, anyway. Could just be that I am bad at making games!

I recently interviewed game developer, Gregory Weir, who seems to have had the exact opposite experience to yourself with his sponsored browser games that he, himself calls ‘art games’. Maybe part of the process is building a trusting relationship with some of the bigger sponsors?

It’s interesting – it’s not an artistic or innovative conservatism, I think, but purely a structural one: I’ve seen so many excellent flash games fail to find a sponsor recently, and the only unifying reason I can think of is that they don’t have upgrade shops, or achievements, or consist of bite-sized five minute gameplay segments. Gregory’s games tend to focus on the multiple-ending / achievement hunting side of things, which is something that’s proven to be pretty successful. His games are great, too, which helps.

Who do you look up to and admire in the indie scene? Have any games or developers influenced your work in particular?

Nifflas’ atmospheric platformers are definite inspirations behind Small Worlds – the way he can create these delicate, fascinating worlds from the simplest of art is amazing. Terry Cavanagh's platformers are beautiful too. Identifying specific influences is hard though – every game I play is an influence, even the ones I don't fall in love with. There's normally at least one good idea in everything that gets made.

You seem acutely aware of the perception by some that ‘art games’ are pretentious. What is your take on the whole ‘games are art’ argument? Do you think videogames need to be more then just fun?

I don’t think that video games need to be fun. I don’t think they need to be anything - we’ve got this wonderful blank canvas for making any kind of experience we want, and we’ve only barely begun to scratch the surface. Saying video games need to be fun is like saying that movies need to be exciting, or art needs to be pretty. You might like exciting movies, or pretty art, and that’s totally fine, but you can also like other types. You can like both! That’s allowed.

But games are defined by how fun they are, right? The problem is the name we’ve chosen to give to the sort of things we make. ‘Video game’ is a medium, not a genre, and slavishly adhering to the ‘game’ part of the name is restrictive. It’s just a word, poorly chosen. Back in the misty past, when we started to make these things, we decided that since they all seemed to take the form of games, then that’s what we’d call them. The name seemed fitting at the time, but the medium has started to outgrow it. The same thing happened with comic books, once creators managed to give purchase to the idea that they have no responsibility to be comical or frivolous, the medium expanded into all sorts of exciting areas. They even managed to achieve a partial rebranding; the rise of the ‘graphic novel’ marked a clear acceptance that the existing name for their work was inadequate.

I’m not necessarily suggesting we stop calling them video games - although mainly this is because I can’t think of anything better - but we should make an effort to understand that it is just a name - it doesn’t prescribe a specific style of content any more than ‘movie’ does, or ‘novel,’ or ‘music.’ Movies can be static, novels can be re-tellings, music can be discordant, comics can be serious, and video games can be not fun. We’re not bound by these names - they’re handy labels, chosen for convenience - nothing more.

So we can have art-games, and game-games, and an infinite spectrum of experiences in between. Anyone who wants to make a video game should feel free to use the tools and language of the medium to make absolutely anything they want without having to justify themselves. As long as there’s an audience for it then it’s as valid as anything else. And who cares whether it conforms to some mythical platonic ideal of what a video game should be?

Sure, we don’t all have to like everything that gets made, but we’ll all be richer for the variety.

I get the feeling that you might like game development to play a larger part in your day to day income stream. Is it something you would enjoy doing on a more full-time basis?

To be honest, it’s kind of nice that game development isn’t my primary source of income – I do put games up for sponsorship and that sort of thing, so I’m hardly some anti-capitalist zealot, but my attitude is more ‘make a game, then see if I can make any money off it’ than ‘design a game in order to sell.’ It’s a fine distinction, but it gives me a lot of freedom. I can make a game, and if it’s popular then great, or if not, then it’s no big deal. I can make something that I know only has niche appeal, and not have to worry about whether it pays the rent.

Besides, I totally love my day job and I wouldn’t want to give that up. I want to do both, ideally. The animation side of things has taken over completely in the last few months though, so I would like to fine-tune the balance a bit better.

Bonus link: Concept art and abandoned videogames.

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