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Taking Independent Videogame Developers out of context since 2010.

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About  

The Last and Final Word: Loren Schmidt

Loren Schmidt managed to garner critical acclaim and recognition as a talented up-and-coming indie developer with his pixelated platformer, Star Guard. I found out just what makes Loren tick.

Age?

28

Location?

Oakland, California

Development tool(s) of choice?

I’ve used AS3, Java, and Processing, and I’m currently limping along in C++.

For art and sound, I use used GIMP and sfxr. I’m hoping to become increasingly familiar with making sound effects, because I don’t know a lot about it and it seems like a lot of fun.

How did game development come into your life?

My parents were somewhat anti-media, and I didn’t have a lot of exposure to television or games at home. I was introduced to games through fleeting encounters with arcade machines and visits to friends’ houses.

While I would have loved learning to make games as a young child, we didn’t have a computer when I was young. I didn’t have an opportunity to start until much later in life. Looking back, though, there were a lot of indications of where I was headed. I used to draw a lot. I made mazes with my friends, built castles out of blocks and spent countless hours building things with Lego. I was fascinated with interactivity. I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. I made up a lot of board games, many of which imitated video games in some way. I distinctly recall making up a broken turn based version of Space Invaders on a checkerboard. Bad tuning!

What are your goals as an indie developer?

One of my favorite things is seeing a project where all the parts come together and fit perfectly. Solo development is very appealing to me, because that happens so naturally. The same is true of making games with a small team.

Like a lot of other people I know, in the past I’ve had trouble with taking on too many projects and not bringing any of them to fruition. Right now one of my goals is to get better about finishing things.

Do you have any plans to collaborate with any other developers at some point in the future? Is there anyone in particular that you feel is on a similar wavelength to yourself?

I really enjoy collaborations. Though none of them have been released, I have done a few projects with other developers. I made a little maze game with Oryx earlier this year. It’s called Famaze. We really should finish that…

I think I’m happiest when I’m making things in close proximity to other people. I do solo projects a lot, though, so try to satisfy that need by actively staying in touch with a few friends who have similar interests. We regularly share our progress with each other and send builds and screen shots back and forth. I draw a lot of inspiration from that.

There are a lot of people with whom I’d love to collaborate, though I don’t currently have any plans. For instance I really like Anna Anthropy’s stuff. I’d love to do a little collaborative project with her at some point…

What were your primary influences in creating Star Guard?

The biggest influences were Flywrench, first person shooters, and shmups. Esthetically, I’m drawn toward games which feature tiny living things moving around in a little world. There’s something magical about that. A game like Lode Runner is a bit like a dollhouse or an ant farm. The Pit (Centuri, 1982) has a similar magical feel. It’s not a good game, but it appeals to me strongly in that way and had a big effect on the feel of the game.

What did you learn about game development from the development and subsequent critical success of Star Guard?

Initially, development went well. The game came together steadily, and I was excited about it and eager to see it completed. However, that phase didn’t last forever. Star Guard is one of many projects which was hurt by my lack of follow through. I never stopped liking the game or believing in it, but in the latter half of development my productivity plummeted. I got into the habit of getting very little done and I didn’t feel good about it. I had some trouble with depression during this period, and that affected things as well.

I’ve fallen in love with a lot of projects and then seen myself fail to complete them. That hurts a lot, so I’ve put a lot of effort into figuring out why that happened. I’m still learning, but my current project is going a lot more smoothly. One thing I’ve changed is that I’m structuring things a bit more. I’m writing down short term goals for myself, and dividing each goal into bite sized pieces. That helps a lot. I can’t think about it all at once, that’s daunting! Another thing I’m trying to do is get enough sleep. On autopilot I have a tendency do wise things like stay up until 3 AM playing Doom. While I enjoy that, I find myself feeling a lot better and being more productive when I get up early after a good night’s rest and start making things immediately.

One thing that went very well during the development of Star Guard is testing. A bunch of people kindly volunteered to help test. It was really time consuming, but I learned a lot. Because I didn’t have the facilities to do proper testing, I asked people to record video of themselves playing. That turned out to be very helpful, particularly in improving the level design and the feel of the controls. I’m very thankful to everyone who helped test the game at various stages, and I try to make it up to them by helping test other people’s games whenever I can.

At what point did you switch to c++ and how did you find the learning curve?

I was initially a visual artist, but I wanted to be able to make games. With that intent, I’ve been learning to program over the past five years or so.

I’ve done a little bit of C++ stuff in the past, but I never really became familiar with it. I picked it back up recently because it’s a good fit for my current project. Over the last few months I’ve been industriously creating memory leaks, getting confused by syntax and committing stylistic blasphemy. Bit by bit I’m getting a more comfortable with the language. All things considered, I think it’s been treating me well.

How do you approach the planning of a game and the development process itself?

I usually begin with a fuzzy idea of what the game will feel like and a few core design ideas. At some point early in the project, I decide on what sorts of technology and which platform to use. Sometimes that takes me a while to decide.

I’ve noticed that in the past I’ve had trouble with projects which require a large amount of setup. If I spend months and months making an engine and building an editor, it can feel like I’m not getting anything done. I’m learning that long preparation periods are dangerous. To offset that, I’m ordering things a bit differently now. I’m trying to prioritize in such a way that I have something playable as quickly as possible- if I have to postpone some editor and engine features, that’s fine. I just need to be able to run around in the game world, to actually have something that feels like a game. I’m also spicing up that initial setup period with fun things like drawing and writing bits of story, so it’s not all code.

Space Ninja from Alillm really seems very similar to Star Guard in more ways then one. Do you see a game such as this as a compliment or does it annoy you that someone styled their game so closely to Star Guard?

My reaction to the game was positive. It seemed like it had a decent amount of effort put into it. In general I don’t really believe in ownership of ideas.

Where do you draw the line between a loving homage and a blantant rip-off?

Well, where it really gets sticky is when two commercial products are stepping on each other’s toes. Then it’s not just a matter of cave man politics. As an example, the iPhone version of Desktop Dungeons was beaten to release by a game which borrowed from it rather heavily. Fortunately the competitor was withdrawn from the app store, but it sounds as though it was a really ugly experience for the developers involved.

What motivates you to keep developing?

There are simply a lot of games that should exist and don’t. While I’m making a game, I have a picture in my head of how I imagine it to be. The urge to actually be able to play it is a huge motivator.

I also get a lot of enjoyment from the process. It’s so much fun seeing things come to life. I find that very satisfying.

What are your thoughts on the indie scene and what it has become over the last couple of years?

I’ve been too much of a hermit over the past few six months or so! The community is great. I’m constantly amazed at how friendly and open people are. That’s wonderful for current developers, and it’s also important because it makes it easier for new developers to learn how to make games in the first place.

If you are trying to figure something out, sometimes people point you at Google. Search engines are a great resource, but I feel that needs to come with a qualifier. Google is a terrible teacher. People, on the other hand, can understand what you know and don’t know, and intuitively grasp what you need next in order to learn most effectively. I’m increasingly of the opinion that the best way to pick up a new skill is from another person.

Though it’s easier than it ever has been to make games, the bar for entry is still too high. You shouldn’t need to be technically minded to make a game. Today making a game is a bit like sitting down with a reel of paper and punching out music for a player piano. It’s a meticulous, technical task. Making games should be more like playing a piano.

How high do you set the bar for yourself? Are you a perfectionist? Does a game have to fit together perfectly before you release it?

I’m definitely a perfectionist, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. I enjoy doing detailing and polish, which is definitely a plus. But sometimes, by which I mean usually, I make things more complicated than they need to be by doing things the hard way. One way this affects my process is that I tend to iterate a lot. For instance, when I was making Star Guard I spent a lot of time shuffling around the order of the rooms within the levels, playing with the pacing.

I’m never going to make anything perfect, but yes- my habits definitely affect my ability to complete a project and get it out the door. When I can see so many glaring flaws in something I’m making, it’s hard to do the sensible thing and just release it.

After release, do you enjoy playing your own games (or does the urge to play drop off)?

I do enjoy playing things once I’ve completed them. I went back and played through Star Guard earlier this month. It was fun, and also interesting- I’d spent enough time away from it that it seemed almost like someone else had made it. It was a weird dual sensation.

You entered Star Guard into Independent Games Festival (IGF) in 2010, for which it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Design category. What expectations did you have in entering it and would you have rathered it be a finalist for any other category?

I think comparing games is a bit like comparing cats and cuttlefish. I mean, clearly they’re both wonderful, and they’re so different that it seems odd to pick a winner. Due to the size of the event, I entered without high expectations. There are so many entrants every year! Design seemed like the best fit, but I wasn’t expecting anything.

Did you receive any constructive feedback from the judges and do you think the process of judgement was fair?

In general I felt that the feedback I received was too brief and overly vague.

I was really happy with the other design finalists that year. I really like Miegakure and Monaco, and when it came down to it I didn’t have any preference about which got the award. I had mixed feelings about some of the other categories, though. It seemed like the judging process was a bit too random.

My main complaint was with the numerical rating system. That kind of approach biases results in favor of mass appeal and competency instead of focus and inspiration. Actually I’m very happy with the process they used this year. I was glad to see them shift to a fuzzier, numbers-free approach with more emphasis on the final panel of judges.

What does IGF mean to you and what would winning mean to you?

While I am all for showcasing independent games, I actually have mixed feelings about competitions. Entering made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I have friends who have said that they really enjoy friendly rivalry, or who say that pressure to deliver really improved the quality of their games. Some of the fundamental ideas of a game competition are a bit unsettling to me, though. I feel uneasy with the antagonism and resentment that sometimes come out of competitions.

For me, the most important thing about the IGF is the sense of community. I find it inspiring to be with so many fellow enthusiasts in person.

As a side note, I have some rather surreal IGF memories. Last year I lost my voice, and was forced to communicate using only paper and pencil for three days. The year before that, Cactus wandered off and we were worried he’d been eaten by homeless people. We eventually found him safely ensconced in a restaurant. I was never so happy to witness someone drunkenly eating french fries and mumbling incoherently at a waitress.

Notes

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