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Taking Independent Videogame Developers out of context since 2010.

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The Last and Final Word: cactus

cactus is an independent videogame developer from Sweden. He is what you might call royalty within the independent gaming community. He made a name for himself by releasing many small, surreal, play-against-expectation, experimental videogames.

Some of cactus’ more publicised efforts include Psychosomnium, Mondo Medicals, Xoldiers, Precision, Ad Nauseam 2, Shotgun Ninja and Clean Asia! His influence is widespread among other developers in the community. He picked up the Nuovo Award for his game, Tuning in the 2010 Independent Games Festival.

Name?

Jonatan Söderström.

Age?

26.

Location?

Gothenburg, Sweden.

Development tool(s) of choice?

GameMaker.

What do you do?

I make games, play in two bands and drink beer.

How did you get into game development?

A general lack of success in other forms of creativity made me seek out ways to make games without learning how to program. I came upon GameMaker and eventually took the time to learn how to code using its native language GML. I wanted to try making games since I was a kid, playing NES games (I always wanted to change the games I played). I even drew games on paper with cut out characters that you moved around, trying to avoid various death traps. When people started noticing the games I made and gave lots of feedback, I got hooked on the feeling of getting attention for something I created on my own. And so I kept doing it.

What are your current goals and aspirations as a game developer?

To make a game that I can be really proud of. I’d like to see games mature a bit and not always be all about entertainment, with more diversity and more niche genres. In general, I want everyone to be able to play something that fits their own tastes like a glove.

You’ve collaborated with the likes of messhof, Terry Cavanagh, Arthur Lee and Mark Johns. What role do you generally play in these collaborations or is it always something a bit different?

It’s been a bit different for each project. With Mark Johns I made the game and he ported it, and made some additional design choices and gave feedback. Arthur Lee basically did everything in our collaboration, except for the concept (which I came up with), the music and the graphics (and he even did some of those). Terry only did level design in both our collaborations (he’s pretty amazing at it). Messhof and I have always tried to compromise so that we both get to be equally creative, but I think we both have problems with not being in charge.

At times, you have struggled to live comfortably and pay the bills. As your notoriety as a game developer has increased, has it started to become any easier or more comfortable or is it still a constant struggle?

It’s been easier since I’ve been getting regular donations from a guy in Canada for the last two years, which I’ve been able to live off of. I’ve also been able to ask for donations whenever I need something I can’t afford, and doing the game for Adult Swim was really good for me. I kind of feel a bit like a leech asking people for money though.

Here’s a quote from a blog post, dated April 16th, 2011: “I’ve been feeling some pressure to actually make worthwhile games and generally not been having ideas popping into my head as frequently as I’ve had earlier." What is a worthwhile game to you?

A worthwhile game for me would be something that I could be so proud of that I’d actually show it to people I know because I think they would like it or at least recognize that it’s an interesting experience.

When you say ‘show it to people I know’, do you mean regular, possibly non-gaming friends and if so, do you think they would ‘get’ or ‘understand’ some of the unconventional videogames that you create?

Yes, I hope so. Most people act negatively when I tell them I make games, and that feels pretty sad. Only people who know how to code seem to react positively, with very few exceptions.

How has having the notoriety that you do affected you as a game developer?

Well, it does add pressure. I don’t feel as easygoing as I used to when I would try out any idea I got, even if I didn’t expect it to end up as a great game. I’ve also grown tired of indie games in general, not easily being interested or impressed by what I see posted on blogs. Nothing really feels new anymore and that’s something that has affected me more than anything else, when it comes to game making.

So you think that independent games are moving in a negative direction (for the most part)?

It’s not really about the direction, but more about the speed at which it’s moving, which seems to have slowed down significantly. Or maybe it’s just that the novelty of it all has worn off for me. It just felt like every two weeks or so, you’d see something that looked really fresh and interesting up until two years ago or so. I’d probably play twenty new games a week back then, and today I play maybe five games a month at most, and almost none of them feel very fresh.

It might just be that indie games have already covered a lot of ground, and finding new ways has gotten a lot harder. Though I do think that we’re living in a time period where people don’t really want to stand out by doing something different, but rather by excelling at something that’s already been established or simply gaining success by riding on the waves of whatever’s popular at the moment.

Due to your notoriety, your many successes and projects that haven’t worked out (such as Brain-Damaged Toon Underworld) have been very public. How do you feel about people watching your every move? Does it make the heighten the successes and make you feel worse when things don’t necessarily work out?

I try not to care, but it can be a bit daunting some times. The worst thing is when you actually do release something new and the response you get is “Why aren’t you working on <insert game> instead?”. I’ve done the same thing myself though, so I can understand where such comments are coming from.

Looking back on the larger scale projects that haven’t worked out, such as Akuchizoku and Brain-Damaged Toon Underworld, what do you think went wrong?

Actually, I played Akuchizoku again about a month ago and I really want to finish it. I will probably re-do level two and add stuff to level three, possibly add another level, and then release the game at some point.

As for what went wrong, I think it’s just a matter of motivation running out and piling up a big to-do list that makes working on the game a chore. If you get an idea that seems fun to work on and that you will likely be able to finish off in a matter of days, instead of months, then it’s easy to get distracted, starting new projects.

In certain respects, you seem to be a poster boy for developers that don’t necessarily have the motivation to stick with the daily grind of larger projects. Do you still attempt to find ways to keep yourself motivated?

Of course. I don’t really want to be a poster boy for games made quickly or people with a short attention spann, but rather for eccentric game design and prolificacy.

Regarding motivation: I’m sure many people would like to know - have you found anything specific that actually works?

The thing I’ve gotten the most inspiration from recently is my girlfriend and my friend Dennis, who I did KDFW with. He’s been pushing me and kept things rolling when I didn’t have enough motivation on my own. He’s also super good at pushing himself with his own projects, and being around such a person is extremely motivating. So if you hang out with talented, nice and creative people who keep doing cool stuff, their motivation will rub off on you for sure.

There are times where you have thought about giving up game development. Is it something that still crosses your mind?

Of course. I’m getting old and don’t really want to support myself on something as risky as game development.

And if you weren’t doing game development, what do you think you would be doing?

I’m not sure I want to think about it. My options right now seem pretty depressing.

You released a game called Norrland on a limited edition cd in jackets with a certain degree of success. Was it hard to organise and is this something you would like to do again?

Not that hard really, although I’m ashamed to say that one copy of Norrland never got to the buyer. I sent it twice: the first time I had gotten the wrong shipping address and the second time I filled the address in incorrectly. So until I send the guy his copy, I won’t do another limited edition release on my own.

Dennis (who I worked on Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf with) will probably sell copies of that game on eBay soon though. The cover and print looks really nice (even better than the Norrland release).

When you started out in the independent gaming community, I understand you were relatively shy. You have since given many game development related talks and accepted the Nuovo Award at IGF 2010. How did you get over your fear of public speaking?

Alcohol. A few beers before you go up on stage kills the brain freezes, the nervosity and makes it easier to be comfortable doing something a little bit more out there. At least for me. I also taught two classes in rapid game development, which I did sober, so I guess you can get over your nerves without cheating, but I still do feel them.

How did teaching the rapid game development classes come about and where did you teach them?

One was at BTH (a University in southern Sweden). I was asked by Anders Bjerstedt Falk, whom I had met at GDC, if I wanted to teach some of his new students about rapid game development. He had seen my talk about prototyping and liked what I had to say, so he figured it’d be good for his students to hear from me first hand. It all worked out very well, and I had a good time working there! I got to stay at Kian Bashiri’s place, and he had some really nice room mates, so it was a really nice break from working at home.

I was also contacted Ola Janson out of the blue to work with his students for about a week at his game design course, and this year I did a presentation for a class at Chalmers University here in Gothenburg.

I was under the impression that you used Z-Game Editor for some time, right?

I only downloaded it but never used it. It seems really cool though, but as with Unity, I just haven’t found the time to sit down and try to learn it. One day I will, though.

You’ve had a long journey developing independent videogames, which has provided you with so many opportunities, such as entering competitions, entering the IGF on a number of occasions (and winning), collaborating with celebrated developers, travelling, meeting your peers and so much more. Take me through some of the highlights of your journey so far.

Well, the coolest part has been meeting other indies. Most of them haven’t been as nerdy as I expected, and I’ve found lots of cool people that I really love to hang out with. I haven’t really adapted to any form of gamer lifestyle, so it’s really nice that people aren’t trying to talk to me about Zelda and Halo when I meet them.

While most indies do seem to love games, and parts of game culture, they seem to be more in love with being creative. That has been very inspiring to see. It’s also cool to have had games shown on blogs, art exhibits and game conferences. And all the attention I’ve been getting is really nice in itself.

Do you look at what you do as art?

That’s a question that I’m getting increasingly tired of. I’d like to say that art is just a form of entertainment that pretentious people, as well as those who embrace being intellectual, enjoy in a way that isn’t that far off from how other people might enjoy a romantic comedy or a brain-dead action movie. I’m hoping my games speak to all kinds of people in all kinds of different ways. If someone thinks I’m high on drugs when I make my games; I don’t mind, as long as they say it as if they’ve had a good experience.

On the other hand, if someone sees a reference to psychology or philosophy (for instance) that I never intended in one of my games, I’ll take that as praise and appreciate that they’re taking what I do seriously enough to analyze to such a degree. So if I can get people to look at my games differently, depending on their own personal preferences, then I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished.

Notes

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    ANY MUSICIAN/ARTIST/GAME DEV/ANYONE SHOULD READ THIS!
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