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The Last and Final Word: Jonathan Whiting

Jonathan Whiting was made redundant from a job in the mainstream videogaming industry. Because of this, he is contemplative of making that big leap of faith - you know - the one to become a full time indie. His list of works thus far include (but are not limited to) Jed, Isles of Color and crushd.

Bonus link at the bottom of the interview.


Age?

25

Country?

UK, but more specifically in Oxford.

Development tools(s) of choice?

At the moment I use Flex (Adobe’s free framework for the flash runtime). When I’m not doing that I’m a raw metal C, SDL, and openGL sort of a chap.

What do you do?

I make games! More helpfully though, my released independent games were all hobby work. I’ve recently been made redundant from a comparatively mainstream, games industry coding job. I’m currently splitting my time between making games, and working out where to go next. I’m also big into rock climbing and adore live music, so my time is often spread a little thin, and I’ve been really enjoying having a bit more time to soak into indie development recently.

How did you get into game development?

It’s been sort of buzzing around in the background ever since I learnt that computers could be programmed. My first game was a text based racer with only one yes / no option and no way of winning (I must have been well under 10 when I wrote it). As I learnt to code properly it was always driven at least partially with the thought “I could make a game with this” in mind. Having said that it wasn’t until the day I started work in the industry that it became anything other than an interesting hobby to me.

Most of your creations are small games that seem to have been spawned from competitions such as Ludum Dare and TIGSource. Is entering competitions a way to motivate yourself to create something? 

Yeah, I find competitions, especially ones with really tight deadlines to be incredibly motivating. I would say though, that it’s less about starting something, which is easy, and more about finishing something, which is hard as hell.

Does having a concrete deadline help or hinder the creative process? Are there features that you had to leave out because of this?

I’m guess I’m of the opinion that all constraints breed creativity. Strict deadlines are interesting in that they force me to run with my first reasonable idea, perversely this is often better than one I’ve mulled over for ages. Of course things get left out or improperly realised, but the failures are usually the biggest lessons too.

What is it about competitions like Ludum Dare that you find rewarding?

I get a huge kick out of biting off more than I can reasonably chew, and giving everything in an attempt to somehow realise it. It’s exciting in a way that game development rarely is otherwise, and without the competition aspect, there’s little reason to turn up the pressure so high.

How have your entries performed so far? Have you been happy with the results?

My entries have so far largely floated around somewhere in the top ten. Given the amount of people that take part, this is rather gratifying, but I’ll admit to a slightly embarrassing desire to do even better in future. As far as I can tell the key to doing pretty well is to get something playable on day one, if you leave level design, polish, etc. too late you’re unlikely to shine. To really hit it out the park though takes something pretty spectacular.

Do you feel that winning a Ludum Dare (or any competition) would increase your confidence or validate you as a developer?

This is a little difficult to answer. Whilst I’d definitely love to win a competition, I’m finding it difficult to quantify why exactly. I’d like to be able to say I don’t need the validation, but I’d be lying to myself: validation is great! I guess I do want to be able to say “hey, I did it” to myself.

Do you think it would increase the respect you get from your peers?

After the Ludum Dare results are released, the atmosphere is more one of “sweet, see you at the next one” than “wow, you’re amazing”, and that’s exactly the way it should be. Anyway, I can far more confidently say that’s not what it’s about for me. If I have something to prove then it’s something to prove to myself, not to someone else.

Do you find the Ludum Dare judging system rewarding, from the perspective of being judged by other developers, as opposed to a panel of judges or the general public?

As a result of the number of developers that enter Ludum Dare each time (which is frankly brilliant), the judging system doesn’t end up feeling all that different to a public vote. There are still the slight biases towards not overly experimental content, and aspects of a popularity contest. Saying that will have made me sound quite bitter, and I’m really not!

I don’t think the system is any better or worse than any potential alternative. It’s just that it’s impossible to come up with any sort of judgement system for something so subjective that is without flaws. The system Ludum Dare uses seems to work pretty well, and copes well with the continually astonishing number of entries, so it’s definitely doing something pretty right.

Your competition games are obviously rather small, however Jed was a somewhat more ambitious endeavour - where did the idea for Jed come from and what inspired you to work on something a little bigger?

I think in terms of game world size some of my competition games are actually larger than Jed (I’m a little addicted to level design), but yes, Jed is certainly a far more fully realised game.

The timeline of things makes the question a bit interesting to answer. Jed is actually the first of my games that I’d consider relevant to my indie ‘career’. It was written and finished and publicly available before I’d even entered my first competition. It was however, pretty much unknown until it ended up featured comparatively recently on TIGSource. It was a slightly weird experience, suddenly having a lot of people playing a game that I’d written what felt like an age ago. Certainly an enjoyable one though.

In terms of what inspired Jed, well, I guess it was the first time I started on a game with a view to eventually publicly releasing it. The world switching mechanic was interesting, and I saw potential to tie it deeper into the core of a game than had previously been attempted, and everyone loves platformers, right? It took me an age to finish it. I was still very much trying to find my feet, especially in art and game design terms. I was also going through a somewhat ‘crunchy’ period in my professional life, and work stalled completely for several months on multiple occasions.

Do you feel more comfortable developing smaller, rapid prototypes or larger, more ambitious projects?

I guess I’m more comfortable working on smaller projects. Work wise I’ve nothing against doing larger, more ambitious things, but such work comes with a far larger risk. If I work for a weekend, or even for a few weeks on something and it falls flat, it’s no big deal, but to work for months and months on something that ends unsuccessfully would be pretty crushing.

I’m a little uncomfortable with the word prototype. It has implications of disposability, or of merely building a platform for the proper work to follow. While I do end up throwing work away, I rarely start on something without intending it be releasable, and while I do end up re-using ideas I don’t generally consider previous games to be merely trial runs. I’m probably being a little over sensitive, and not necessarily articulating myself very well, but there it is.

Have you got anything ambitious in the works?

I’ve a few more ambitious potential projects bubbling around in my head, but they’re still very much in the idea stage at the moment. I’ve not committed much work to them yet. I would love to finish some larger games though.

Jed was a downloadable game, however almost all your others can only be played online - why was Jed a downloadable as opposed to being browser only?

Basically Jed was a downloadable game because at the time I made it, I hadn’t realised how comfortable developing for the flash runtime had become. My previous experiences with flash had been a horror show of confusing timeline issues and frustration with actionscript 2. Once I’d discovered that the release of flex and actionscript 3 had made flash development a far more pleasing proposition to me, I haven’t really looked back.

Which format is more rewarding in terms of plays and feedback?

Nothing really comes close to browser, and particularly flash games in terms of audience. Instead of convincing people to download something, install it, and solve any compatibility problems, you can simply shove them a link and say “hey, try this!” and people are playing it. If you want lots of people to play your games, make them in flash.

Their is a bit of a flip side though: the transience of flash games makes their audience a rather fickle one. If you do anything too demanding of time or thought, you will turn off a good chunk of your audience, no matter how good the game is. Who can blame them though? There’s a continual stream of new things being released, so there’s just no need to fight to remain entertained. If I was to work on a deeper, larger, slower game than I’ve done so far, chances are I wouldn’t make it in flash.

Have you had to make any compromises because of the fickleness of the audience, or has the fact that you’ve worked on such small projects stemmed this issue?

Making compromises for the player is an essential part of game design. Tutorials, difficulty curves and control re-mapping are all compromises made for the player’s benefit, and are really just the tip of the iceberg. If you don’t think about your audience at least a little bit, the chances are you won’t have one. I have however, so far been pretty lucky in that respect. As you hint at, the size of my projects and the lack of money changing hands have meant that I’ve been pretty free to make whatever I want.

It’s a bit of a concern for the future, as if I were to stop making the games I wanted to make, would there really be any point being indie? I’m sure there’s a good sized middle ground though, and that’s what compromise is about, finding a place within it.

Since you specialise in making browser games, have you ever thought about going down the sponsorship route and earning some money from your game development?

Yes, definitely. Making money from my independent game development is a question that has been dwelling strongly on my mind for several years, and now recently redundant, it’s stronger than ever. If I can make it financially viable, I’d absolutely love to work on independent games full time, but actually going flat out for that is a huge leap. There’s a fair handful of talented developers who seem to be making a reasonable, if unsteady living from flash sponsorship, and I suspect it would be as good a dropping off point as any.

This is quite a timely question in that I’ve just in the last few days, put the finishing touches on a flash platformer / music game. It’s a bit of a collaboration with my brother (under the guise of Demoscene Time Machine) who also let me use his music for Jed. I’m really quite excited about it. I think it’s one of the best games I’ve made, and I’m going through the process of looking for a sponsor right now. It’s a bit of a bigger deal than I’d perhaps like it to be, because if I do make some money, it could potentially be the prod I need to become a full time indie developer.

You recently participated in an experiment with 3 other developers (agj, Michael Brough and Noyb) in which you each decided to release each others’ games as if they were your own - can you tell us about this, the reasons behind it, whether it was a success and the results you concluded?

Hah, yes. So agj initially came up with the idea of more than one person developing games in tandem, and then releasing them all as the ‘wrong’ person. A few of us found the idea interesting enough to consider it. I was drawn by the unusualness of the idea, and that it contained a sort of meta-game, a game in which the players might be able to spot the disconnects, and maybe even trace them back to their original authors. If nothing else it’d be a good excuse to make some games. We discussed the idea for a while, and came up with the specifics. The games would all be themed around the word “Masquerade”, the chain of original authors to game releasers would form a loop, we wouldn’t explicitly lie about who made the games but we would allow the implicit authorship to be incorrect.

It was definitely an experiment, rather than some sort of carefully choreographed plan. None of us had any idea what the reaction might be. As with any experiment, it cannot truly be considered a failure if the the results are interesting, although the hopes we had for it didn’t materialise at all. Essentially all four games were accepted exactly as is, and if anybody had any doubts about the origin of any of the games, they kept completely quiet about it.

The people it did have a substantial impact on was the four of us. There was something deeply strange at seeing someone else claim responsibility for ones own work, even with permission, this I’d kind of suspected. What I wasn’t expecting though, is how attached I felt to Noyb’s game, and how detached I felt from my own game. Whilst there’s been some interest in the experiment after we announced and explained it, ultimately I think the only people we ended up tricking in any sense was ourselves. As a result of this, I suspect it was something more fascinating to have been a part of than to have observed. I certainly don’t regret the time spent on it though. It was quite an experience.

Since starting out, tell me some of the important lessons you have learned about game development in terms of finishing off a project?

I realise this is going to sound facetious, but one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is that the way to finish off a project is to keep working on it until it’s done. The reason I consider this to be a lesson, instead of a truism is that their are invariable substantial patches, in which the initial inspiration and motivation has evaporated. The difference between someone who gets stuff done, and someone who doesn’t isn’t talent or innate ability, but instead the willingness to just sit down and work even when it isn’t fun or easy. Realising that, and acting upon it makes all the difference in the world, and usually, once you are working again it starts to be fun again surprisingly quickly.

Apart from that, and in no particular order, things that work for me..

The simpler the idea, the more likely it will be finished. If you’re not going to finish it (be honest) and stop wasting time on it. In aesthetics, consistency is always more important than fidelity. No-one can tell if your code is perfect, or merely good enough. People who are working on their engine are unlikely to even start creating their game. Talking to people about it, especially in person is ridiculously motivating. If you don’t have a deadline, invent one. Be stingy (you’ll only fritter away the extra time).

Mostly though, just stick at it and it’ll happen.

How much emphasis do you place on ‘innovation’ from the perspective of creating something that isn’t a clone or has a unique gameplay mechanic?

Whilst I value innovation a great deal, it’s not some magical pedestal. It’s at least as important to have a solid understanding of the foundations. I think a lot of the best things have few or no new ideas. They’re just combined in a different or better way than have been before. So as a result of all that, I don’t feel a strong pressure to be new and fresh. Having said all that though, I think I’d get very bored working on something that doesn’t have at least a twist or a spark of something different or new.

Bonus page: Abandoned project snaps.

Notes

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