Jasper Byrne was forced to make money from personal projects because he was made redundant from his job in the commercial gaming industry. He made Soul Brother, which was subsequently bought. After he had been re-hired by the same company for a number of months, he decided to make the choice to travel the solo route the second time around.
Bonus link at the bottom of interview to a page of concept art.
Cambridge, UK. Occasionally Tokyo.
Development tool(s) of choice?
I made this horrible sprawling thing called TELEPLAY, which is actually written in a language called BlitzMax. It’s a tilemap & sprite editor, point’n’click / survival horror puzzle creator, and an IDE for its scripting language called HAL. TELEPLAY currently has a Flash back-end, which is what was used for Soul Brother, although all the game code is written in HAL.
It’s a bit complicated, I hardly understand it myself sometimes. It’s very quick to make games in though, and can do a number of styles. But I think no-one else would be able to use it unless I made it more friendly.
Actually a lot of the code in the Flash back-end for TELEPLAY is stolen from Flixel and bent to my evil will. That said, the editor is the most important part of it, and I do have a sort of urge to share it with people. It’s sort of like a Flash Game Maker /Adventure Game Studio hybrid, so it has a place of its own. I’d need a ‘proper’ coder to make it happen though I think. Things like the code highlighting have bugs in them, and I don’t understand how I wrote it anymore.
What do you do?
I make music, predominantly drum’n’bass, under the handle Sonic / Sonic & Silver / Accidental Heroes. Until yesterday I worked in the game industry for the last three years at Frontier Developments. I was primarily working on Xbox games such as Kinectimals. Quite a different world from my indie one.
How did you get into game development?
Well my dad got a ZX Spectrum in about ‘83, and I think I wrote my first game for it in ‘84. I copied in a breakout clone and changed it so you could shoot. I then wrote an adventure game but I didn’t know you could store flags in variables, just how to input and print text - so there was this door which asked you if you’d found the key! I still have the cassette with the breakout clone somewhere.
I made a lot of games on the Amiga in a language called AMOS in my school days, and published two of them. One was freeware, the other shareware, a point’n’click adventure called Keith’s Quest. It came out in ‘95 I think.
But as I got more heavily into music at that time, and the Amiga died out, I lost interest in game dev for almost a decade. When Mark Sibly (who’d made the rival language to AMOS, BlitzBasic, on the Amiga) released a similar language on the PC, I started to dabble again.
I decided to leave the music industry as my main career in 2008, which was when I joined Frontier, but I have kept doing it on a smaller scale. I think the reason I’ve got so into the indie games thing is that it reminds me of the heroes of mine from the 8 & 16-bit eras.
How did Keith’s Quest fare from a commercial standpoint?
Not great at all - it was reviewed really well in Amiga Format, getting 85% in CU Amiga too, but it was just too late in the life of the machine. Doom had come out, and suddenly the planar graphics tech of the Amiga seemed dated. That said I still have a bunch of lovely fan letters, and some hilarious ones asking for solutions to puzzles… and it’s still played and distributed today by aficionados (I made it open source a few years back when it re-surfaced on the internet). If you track it down and play it, bear in mind the dialogue was written by an 18 year old me!
You’ve just gone full-time indie for the second time. The first time wasn’t your own choice. I’m sure even for those that do choose that path and have a solid plan, it’s a scary decision to make. What were your feelings the first time around? Were you given enough time to formulate any sortof plan?
At first it was scary, but I just ploughed into the work because when you have a wife and daughter you really can’t afford not to pay the rent!
I was very fortunate really because I made Soul Brother straight after my redundancy (well after a month spent on another game which I still plan to release), and heard back from Adult Swim the day before re-joining the company. I did carry on working on it in my free time for the last few months while at my job, but it was tiring. As I have the money from this game, which gives me some leeway to make the next one, I figured it was time to give it a go properly.
Did you manage to stay afloat until you were re-employed?
Just about. It was a shame because I’d been saving slowly for years, and a good chunk got eaten up. Redundancy in the mainstream industry is almost as risky as making indie games these days!
So the second time around, it IS your choice. How much more prepared are you this time around? Which route are you going to take?
I feel like a lot of new doors have opened. I have three or four projects I think are possibly viable, and I guess I have a better sense of that now that I’ve finished one for a bigger company. My main project is Legend of the Starmen, which is attempting to be a run’n’gun crossed with Demon’s Souls. It’s the riskiest one because it’s bigger than Soul Brother. But I have a couple (of projects) I could quite quickly fall back on if it’s taking too long. And this ridiculous dancing RPG I’m working on with Terry. There’s always the possibility of a Soul Sister, or something like that (haha).
Having just released Soul Brother, did the decision to go full-time indie, depend entirely on selling this game to get yourself some breathing space money-wise or is it something you would have done regardless?
No, I couldn’t have done it without this game. Terry has been a bit of a mentor for me (even though he’s much younger) - he even set up the submission to Adult Swim. I basically figured I’d attempt to somehow use his model of a smaller sponsored game (Don’t Look Back) followed by a riskier, larger one which had a substantial demo but was also downloadable (VVVVVV). Whether it works for me will depend entirely on whether I can channel 10% of that guy’s awesomeness.
How did the process of selling Soul Brother go?
I hated it to be honest. I’m not a natural businessman at all. I just want to make things! That said, once I was with Adult Swim, it was plain sailing because they really are great to work with and totally got the game. They have been the only ones to comment on the more existential themes of the game, which really surprised me in a good way.
What other portals did you submit Soul Brother to and what were their responses like?
I put the game up on FlashGameLicense which is also a great service, and I’ll definitely be using them again in future. A few people really loved it and it received a number of high bids, but the Adult Swim guys don’t use the service, so I had to submit it separately. It was quite a different version back then.
A number of indies of late seem to choose Adult Swim these days. Why is that?
For the reasons above really, and the fact that it gives the financial freedom to work on something silly and uncommercial! I really like that they’re venturing further into the leftfield set of developers, and supporting people like cactus and so on who really don’t make the money they deserve.
Having worked in the commercial video game industry, being made redundant and being forced to travel the solo route, what have you taken away from this? What are the important lessons learned?
I think the most important thing I learnt was that it’s virtually impossible to do both. While in the job, I’d struggled with the original PC version of Soul Brother for several months. I abandoned it and many other projects of similar size over the three years, because with such slow progress, it’s easy to lose interest. Once redundant, I got it mostly finished from scratch in under two months. I found out I need to be able to focus on a project for longer periods to keep up the motivation and solve the bigger problems.
I guess what I’m saying is that the only way to find out if you can do is to actually do it. I think examples like Pixel and Locomalito are rare, where the artist has had the patience to see a large, part-time project through. Most indie titles of any length are made by those doing it full-time.
Many developers say that when they don’t have a deadline, they find it hard to keep working on the same projects and stay motivated. Did you have to discipline yourself into a daily routine?
One thing I did learn from the industry was to try and work as much as possible in work hours. When I was a DJ, I used to stay up ‘till 5am working on tunes and get up after lunch with a big joint. Nowadays I try to separate it out so I can spend time with my wife and daughter. I’m not a natural early riser, but I’m trying!
Deadlines really help, or I’d never have made Soundless Mountain II I think. Most of my finished games are from competitions. I’m figuring this out though still - I have in the back of my mind the idea of trying to submit Legend of the Starmen for Independent Games Festival this year if it goes well. So that gives me four or five months.
So you’re using the IGF deadline as a motivator to finish your next project?
Well it’s more that… if I don’t have a decent game on my hands by then, I’ll need to start looking for another day job. It sort of coincides with my safety net of cash running low.
I know you wouldn’t expect to win IGF (with the huge amount of entries each year, nobody really does I suppose) but what would winning such a prestigious competition mean to you, aside from providing you with the vital funding to continue?
The funding is the main thing really. If I were able to have one game sell well, then I could focus less on what I thought could be commercial, and make stuff that was more varied, more freeware. I’m still making the games I want to make, just a subset of them I think could sell right now.
Being in your mid 30’s and with the average age of the indie developer being quite young, does it make you feel a little out of place (especially when the mentors tend to be younger, rather then older)?
Sometimes - I look at it as an advantage and a disadvantage. I’m from a generation that didn’t grow up with the net, so I find it hard to even comprehend how a game like Minecraft has been made. At Frontier my lead designer was nearly 10 years younger than me - I was a dinosaur in the company relatively speaking.
When it comes to people with raw talent, age means nothing and a lot of the greatest artists produce their greatest works in their early 20’s. One of the reasons I felt it was time to move on from music was that I believed I’d already got as far as I was going to go. So I don’t really feel out of place with the younger guys, just in awe of them! I’m still learning a lot about design and in particular the business side from them.
But I guess being older and having spent ten years roaming the wilds and touring as a musician mean that I might have a slightly different angle. I try to keep the aesthetics influenced from sources other than the indie scene - movies, books, having a child, living in Saigon, playing a set in Shibuya, sleeping in a hammock in Mexico, the brightly coloured rainbow painting that’s on my wall… at least I hope they’re in there somewhere.
Bonus: Jasper Byrne concept art