I’m Luca Redwood. I’m 29. I’m in London, in the UK, and I’m not sure I’m qualified to talk about the games industry but I’ll give it a crack.
Why do you doubt whether you’re qualified? I’m not trying to make you nervous or anything, but that does seem to be a thing, like even people who play games or used to play them have this -- and I’m not calling you self-conscious, but they have this self-consciousness of, "Well, I’m not sure if I can really weigh in here."
Ah, well, I think that’s valid, because it’s a big place, right? And you’ve only got your subjective experiences. You can talk about things that annoy you, things that you like, but to preach that this is some universal truth when you’ve only got your window of experience probably isn’t right.
Well, it isn’t about universal truths. It’s about your truths. And for those reading -- and intend for the site to be read by people who aren’t super familiar with games -- you have made games. You certainly have some experience.
Yeah, okay, fair enough. I can certainly talk about my experiences, but other people’s experiences might have been different.
Just so people have some context for the things you’re saying and where you’re coming from, what are some of the things you’ve made?
So the game that kind of got me started making games properly was called 10000000. I did it in my spare time. I started making it when I found out my wife was pregnant. I made it in nine months because I kind of figured I’d have no free time in the rest of my life after that point. So, I worked evenings and weekends after my day job like that. That worked really well. It let me quit my job, start making games full-time.
What was your day job?
At the time I was a software developer in financial trading software. Interesting enough, although the subject matter isn’t necessarily that interesting.
When did you know that you could quit your day job and focus more on creative pursuits?
So, yeah, that was weighing heavily on my mind. Because I released it when I had the baby and then I was thinking, "Okay, well this is going really well, it’s got some momentum."
But I had no real experience in making and selling videogames before that point. So I had no idea I was like, "Okay, it’s selling really well now, it’s paying way more than my day job does, but is it going to stop tomorrow? Or is it going to stop the day after? So I hand in my notice and then the day after all sales stops?"
I had no idea. So I waited until it made enough that I could support myself for the next two years. And then I figured, right, that’s safe, I can quit my job now and if it all does go tits up --
How long did that take, for two years’ worth to pile up after it came out?
Uh, two or three months.
Oh, yeah, it’s done crazy well and it’s done -- better since, since at that point it was just on iOS. And then it went to Linux, and then it went to PC.
Why did you decide to port it Steam and were you concerned about that? Because it feels like a game that’s so touch-specific that it’s hard to imagine it working in a different sense, if you know what I mean.
Yeah, I’ve got a couple things to say about that.
So, the game was -- I didn’t have a Mac, right? I needed a Mac to develop for iPhones. So the game was made entirely on PC first, with just a mind for it being on a touchscreen.
When actually I was lent a friend’s Mac to build it and I put it on the phone and I realized that I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Things that in You Must Build A Boat I’m changing, just like, nah, that’s a bit too small but it’s too late to change it now, that sort of thing.
So it already worked quite well on PC. But I hadn’t planned on releasing it on PC. Then Steam emailed me and they said, "Do you want it on Steam?" And I can’t think of any world where I’d say, “Nah, you’re all right” to that question.
The shadowy people at Steam who shall not be named?
Yeah. So that, and, it worked but you’re right, it’s not the same experience on desktop. And that was really tricky. So even though when the reviews came in for the Steam version they were generally good, one common criticism was, "You know, it’s the same. Not really changed much, it’s the same experience as the phone."
And you can’t really go to a critic and say you were wrong, but --
I think with some game critics you can do that.
Well the thing was, that -- you’re right, is -- and that took three months to get there, right, because touch is very different from mouse and almost all the numbers have been changed under the hood to get the same experience on Steam and mobile. And while it’s completely transparent to the player, there’s actually a lot of tiny little changes under the hood to make it work.
So, I guess this would be perhaps the only natural place in the course of our conversation to mention that you’re working on a new game as well?
Uh, yeah. It’s the sequel to 10000000. And the good thing about this is, I did 10000000 in my spare time. Nine months. As hard as deadlines get, right? It did well enough now that I can fund myself making a good game, and fund myself to do it until I’m happy with it and not push something out the door before I’m ready.
So it’s all the things I wish I could have done but I didn’t have time. And I’m pretty happy about how it’s turning out.
What’s the sequel called?
You Must Build A Boat.
I called it that because I thought 20000000 or 10000001 or whatever was a bit too obvious. And one of things I liked about 10000000 that -- I’m not anti-free-to-play, but I think there’s a lot of shit implementations, and one of the things that I don’t like is, you don’t know what you’re getting up front. It’s even worse in games where you pay and then you don’t realize and -- hit up with in-app purchases after you already paid.
So I wanted to make it totally clear, this game’s called 10000000 and the aim of the game is to get 10-million points. That’s it. It’s all there, no in-app purchases, you get what you’re given. And in You Must Build A Boat, I did the same thing, but in this one rather than getting 10-million points, you’ve got to build a boat.
And you said you don’t really play games anymore?
I mean, that’s not for lack of wanting to. But -- and I’m really cognizant of the fact that making video games, you’ll be better at it if you play a lot of videogames. And I feel like I’m really lacking. I’ve just been so busy on this game for the last two years I’ve barely had any time to play videogames, just sort of snatched little bits. It’s just a time thing.
It’s like any creative pursuit where if you’re a musician and you’re not listening to a lot of music, you can still be inspired and influenced by things outside of music.
I think that’s sort of my criticism of games, developers and writers and players to an extent, is like their main media consumption is just games and you’re really limiting yourself. So if you’re out living life instead or reading it will still come through in your games regardless of whether you’ve tried the newest DLC or whatever the latest blogged-about game is.
Yeah. That’s fair enough.
But I’m not a developer. As a developer is there a greater responsibility to be more on top of what’s coming out, or?
I don’t think that it’s a responsibility to be on top, I just think you might say, "Well, that’s a good idea." Or even, “I really don’t like that, but I wonder if I could do it better?”
I don’t know, it’s just -- it puts ideas in your mind when you play things. I agree with you in general, I do try to look for inspiration. Where else -- I’m playing with this thing for a tutorial.
I was in a DIY shop the other day and they did this call-out, saying, "Oh, we’re doing a product demonstration." And I thought, I’ll go check it out. So I walked over and the lady doing the product demonstration, she said “Okay, you’re all going to get a free product at the end of this thing!”
So they give you a little token and say you can swap this for the product at the end. She had a little demonstration and then at the end she gave us all the product.
She didn’t ask to exchange the token, right, but she knew because we were all stood there. But it was just this great way of getting people to stick around for the pitch, is they had some sort of tangible token in their hand, and that sort of made them stick around. It didn’t actually. It was completely unnecessary.
And I started playing around, putting that in a tutorial. Because it’s hard to get players to stick around for a tutorial. Like, I give a little token and sort of say, "Oh hey, yeah, you can swap this for some gold at the end of the tutorial," then people will read the tutorial. That was one little thing I tried to get inspired by outside of games recently.
I don’t know if it’ll work or if I’ll keep it, but I thought it was neat idea.
That sounds like a neat idea. Because I think, too, like the token in games today is achievements or trophies. Which, how do you feel about those?
Oh, I don’t have a problem with them. Personally I’m not really that interested in achievement-hunting but I recognize that some people are. I’ll put them in there for those people.
Well, this is sort of related to what you wanted to talk about with incentives: In your emails you were talking about as it gets easier to make games, it gets more crowded, and you’re able to do stuff now that would’ve been impossible 10 years ago.
You raised the question if you’ll be able to keep your head above water.
Yeah, there’s just going to be -- I went to GDC, I think not this year, I went the last year.
And I went to the IGF Awards, and I think it was Risk of Rain? It won an award. And people came on and they were -- I don’t know, they looked like 16 or something. And it was for a -- and I thought Risk of Rain, it looked shit hot. I didn’t have a chance to play it but it looked really good.
And there’s so much new talent, people more talented than me, coming into the games industry that -- I don’t know. I’ve got to be pushed out eventually.
But you’re 29. What is the age where you started to feel old?
No, no, it’s not an age thing at all.
It’s a skill thing. It’s how good your games are. You know, there are more and more games coming out that are better than my games. And I don’t know, I mean, I could maybe hire a few people and start a little company and try to get better that way but I’m not sure if that’s particularly something I want to do.
Because it’s just you making your games, right?
Yeah, and I kind of like that way.
I -- to be honest, I was more happy when I worked in an office with a bunch of people, because you get to fool around and go to the pub at lunch and have someone to talk to. It’s pretty lonely working on my own, but on the other hand it’s good getting it done.
And I don’t want to hire anyone because I’m really exacting and I throw away, I mean, it’s got to be 98 percent of what I do. I mean, it’s taken three years. And that’s because 98 percent of it’s been thrown away. There’s 10 games that have been thrown away. And I can do it myself but I wouldn’t have the heart to do it to someone else. I really wouldn’t.
Because you’d be afraid they’d take it personally?
I think they would take it personally even if they said they didn’t.
I used to tell my students 90 percent of everything they write or will create just naturally wants to be bad. It has nothing to do with them, it’s just the nature of being creative. And over the course of telling my students that for a few years, I realized 90 was actually a little low. Ninety-eight actually seems about right.
There’s – and I’m just doing it because I think it’s a nice idea that if you look at my games and you see 10000000, which is the big one, there’s actually one before it called Roll Rover which was also a commercial release that I did in a few months, earlier, and it is rubbish. And you can still play it, it’s still there to download, and I’ve left it up there because there’s a big quality jump between that and 10000000, and that was a game that sold 20 copies to family and friends. And then 10000000 sold hundreds of thousands. And I just wanted to show that you can improve and get your first game done now because it’ll be rubbish, and then you can make your big successful one.
So you mentioned your stringent 98 percent figure and we talked a little bit about reviews before we started recording. I guess for you personally as a consumer of games -- although you said you don’t play as much as you used to -- do you use reviews as a tool to determine whether you should buy something or check it out?
Uh, yes. I sometimes do. There’s a -- review scores [are] quite a contentious issue, what do you think of review scores?
I’m so split.
Like the consumer half of me -- I will sometimes go on Metacritic and it’s useful to take a temperature, but it’s never a deciding factor.
I hate giving review scores on my reviews. So I don’t. And the places that I review for indulge my pomposity and will glean a number from my words. But I feel like as a critic it’s a distraction. But I totally understand why they’re there and why people want them. So I have a complicated relationship with them. How do you feel about them?
I like review scores. But I think -- it looks like an objective measure when you give a review score. And it’s not an objective measure, because at least in my opinion, games are quite subjective experiences. What’s good for one person might not be good for another. But I know which writers just from looking at the tagline agree with my views. So there’s a writer that writes at Eurogamer called Oli Welsh. As far as I can see from everything he’s reviewed he’s me. Right?
Everything I think about a game when I’ve played it, he writes it. So if he gives a game -- although they don’t do review scores anymore, but if he gave a game a high score of that, right, I know I’m going to like that because he likes it and he’s got the same taste in games as me. And I kind of like that.
There’s some other people I’d say we don’t agree on the same kind of games, so you give it a 10 and I’d probably think it’s a 3. So I’m not interested.
Well, I don’t know that I see many games critics giving games 3s.
Yeah, well, my personal 3 then.
I had an editor whose publication closed and he’s no longer in the industry, and he told me that some writers came to him hoping to write for them and were very transparent about their intent to slam or hate on games as a reviewer.
You and I were emailing a bit about this, sort of. Well -- about the sheer negativity around games online. Where do you think that comes from? Why are some people so pissy about something that’s supposed to be fun?
I don’t know. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I mean, to be fair, it was a hypothetical question. But you did give the correct answer though.
Yeah, it’s weird. I went to a trade show recently. I was showing off You Must Build A Boat. Some people coming past you sort of attending the convention, so I was like, "Oh, do you want to play this game?" “Nah.” “Stop! Why come to a trade show if you don’t like games?”
[Laughs.] What’d they say?
Oh, I didn’t say that, I thought that. I think there’s tile matching in the game, I think that automatically puts off a large contingent of people who consider themselves a bit more high-level gamer than that.
What can you really tell about a game from a glance?
Yeah, that’s -- my games, I try to make a road of an experience and it’s things like that. "If I’ve got enough time, maybe you’ll indulge me?"
There’s this technique that I use, that I’ve used in 10000000, that I’ve used in a lot of other things and it’s a technique called focus scenes. And it’s a fantasy author called Brandon Sanderson -- he wrote this, and I just thought, "I can use this in games" -- which is he imagines some sort of cinematic thing and say, “Okay, I want to have this and the reader’s going to feel this, and then you work backwards.”
And you’ve got to earn that, right?
So in his case it’s through prose, in mine it’s through gameplay. So, all my games have a series of focus scenes that this is a really cool moment that’s going to happen, and now for the previous three hours to play I’ve got to find some way to foreshadow that. Some way to make that feel good. And it’s really hard to show off a game in five minutes, because you experience all the crap stuff that’s going to make the good bit feel good later on. But people seem to enjoy it, so I think I got away with it.
So do you feel like in game trailers you’re seeing just the good stuff or the crap stuff? [Laughs.]
Well, no, there’s no context, that’s what I mean. Like you’ve got to have the context to -- so, if you’ve not played 10000000, and I know you have but if the reader hasn’t and all of a sudden it says, you’re free, that’s great, if you saw that picture by itself, it’s nothing, right? If you’ve been working and getting that number into going up and up and up and up and then you get free then it’s brilliant and you love it. It’s -- you’ve got to have earned the context.
You said you wanted to talk a about "arty indie games that get a pass on gameplay." You said “just because a game is fancy-pants doesn’t mean it’s good.” So how do you define fancy-pants?
I don’t want to talk about specific games, but --
No, of course not.
Games that -- it feels like you could just put -- if you did something that’s deliberately counter to current games and --
Ah, you know I mean just artsy shit. I find it really hard to describe it without mentioning specific games. But we all know the kinds of games they are and that are very unusual, experimental, and I think that’s a great thing. And I want more people to be making unusual stuff and more people to be making experimental stuff.
But that doesn’t necessarily make it a good game.
I won’t name any titles here but will try to explain them so others can also be dialed in. But I feel like the people you’re talking about are being lauded as experimental even though they’re just being experimental in the usual ways. Maybe I’m not seeing enough, but I try best I can.
What I see, and you can comment or not, is people who are trying to prove themselves are artists or deep thinkers and just demonstrating that’s the way they want to be perceived. Where it’s almost like the game isn’t even about the player, it’s about the person making the game. There’s very little room left for the player.
Is that the sort of stuff you’re talking about?
Yeah, that’s sounds pretty close to me, yeah.
[Laughs.] I thought so. Okay, so, why do you think that stuff gets a pass? Do you feel like you see writers giving that stuff a pass, or is other developers giving it a pass? Or do you see players being like, "Hey, I really like this stuff that’s very navel-gazy."
Well, you don’t. You don’t. You see some games that are very critically lauded, and then you know if, say, you look at the Steam reviews if you dare. It’s just -- these are the ones where on Steam or the average Metacritic they’ve got the user rating and the critic rating. The users are like, "What is this rubbish? You don’t do anything, I don’t understand how to play the game."
Yeah. I mean, this goes to your first point, which is, you said you want to talk a little bit about games that are the same. When you’re talking about games that are just older games with a new skin on it, where do you find that the most offensive, the most bothersome or the most prevalent?
I remember in the -- I guess it must have been early PlayStation 3 sort of days, it was maybe late PlayStation 2 -- when God of War had come out. It was super-popular. Great game. Well-implemented, I think.
For like, the next year, every game was an action RPG. And I didn’t need to learn the controls, right? I could start to play this game, uses the exact same controls that I’d learned in God of War. And I could play that game completely, end to end, without even -- it’s just the same game and the worst implementation. It’s just madness.
Obviously you think about controls with your games, as we talked about before. But there does seem to be a lot of, "Eh, let’s just stick with what’s already worked for a long time." When did that become such an ironclad standard?
Yeah. I suppose that’s the economics of it, though, right? Everyone’s got a keyboard and mouse or a controller on consoles – so you make a game that works for that. You don’t have to sell as many copies I guess.
Yeah, it sounds really boring to even discuss --
It doesn’t bother me. I think there’s plenty of room for having experiences within the computer that I’d be -- I’m willing to restrict my controller input.
You said you were playing a thievery-based game, in our emails, and you were talking about the controls in that and how in exploring the city -- you wanted to talk about how you found it a little annoying or a little limiting.
Yes, so specifically, I started the game, I thought, alright, I’m gonna be a thief and I’m going to sort of go and sneak about and it was -- it was pretty.
And started and saw this sort of beautiful city and I started running across the rooftops and seeing all these things I could do. But it turned out I couldn’t. The only game was to run across these rooftops and chase someone and that was this setpiece and scene and I couldn’t go exploring. And -- kind of common in today’s videogames, it’s very on-rails, scene-to-scene sort of thing. So it annoyed me so much I just stopped playing the game there and then. It might have got a lot better after that.
And so that’s also sort of a perception problem. And I don’t think it’s fair to necessarily blame a developer for how their game is being perceived. Like --
The problem is I know there are exceptional games out there, right? So that’s why it’s annoying when you find something that’s just a worse imitation of something you already played. Because you may have even paid money to get it to find out that.
Well, and the flip of that is sometimes it seems like criticism that is different from what you normally hear or expect to hear isn’t that welcomed in the game space. I mean, am I incorrect in that perception? There are people who think there is only one "true" way to criticize.
It’s really important to me at least, because if you’re a triple-A person you’ll buy into adverts on buses and on TV and stuff. And I’m not. I live and die on that sort of thing, so, for me it’s really important I get good reviews. And that’s why I can’t read them, because I don’t have the heart to.
[Laughs.] You said your wife will read reviews for you? She’ll screen them for you?
Yeah, and distill them to what I should know from them.
So, given your 98 percent figure, how often do you feel like you hear in a review something that calls out maybe something you know you missed in that remaining two?
There’s always little things. No reviews are generally just 100-hundred percent full-blown praise. There’s always little things that I go, "Yeah, that was a good idea."
And so, Tom Chick at Quarter to Three, he wrote a very negative review of 10000000 when it came out, and it was just one thing: He didn’t really like was the controls, where it was just a bit sticky in a certain case and it was really complicated to fix it to be good. So I didn’t bother, because I had a hard deadline. But I emailed him and I said, "All right, it’s taken a few days but I’ve fixed it, it’s now this." He then wrote a follow-up and basically said, “Yeah, it’s very playable now, so that was one case where it was absolutely a good thing to have that critical feedback. Although, he gave it a 2 out of 5, and then he said it was a lot better, but Metacritic still lists a 2 out of 5, which drags my Metacritic rating right now. Which is a bit annoying.
I mean, Metacritic is such a ball of wax unto itself.
Is it not? I’ve got no idea.
For me, if you get -- I get a certain amount of sales a day, where does it come from, why, I’ve got no idea. I’ve got no marketing or analysis department looking at that. I just -- whatever happens happens.
But you’ve still got the pressure of time, right? Especially if you’re doing it as maybe you’ve decided to quit your job to go indie and you’ve got certain -- you’ve got to do something in certain amount of months. You’ve got to face reality at some point and say, "Maybe I’m 95 percent happy with this and I’m going to release it."
I mean, I consider myself quite lucky. I mean, I’ve always wanted to make videogames, and I am doing it now. It’s generally a pretty good place to work when you get to make games for a living.
But you seem to think that there’s a real problem, an undercurrent that’s all going to come to head soon, is that accurate?
There’s a lot of really ugly growing pains we’re experiencing. And I think there’s a narrowness and another type of perceived narrowness that contributes to an overall lack of creativity and many pockets of growing frustrations.
I don’t know how the economics of it work, I just wonder if some big triple-A company with 500 employees just said, "Right, you know, 50 groups of 10 and we’ll all make 10 indie games. One of them’s going to be good, right?" Because these are talented people.
I mean, I think it’s unfair and a weak position to just shovel the responsibility of creativity and experimentation onto the group of people with the least resources.
Well, I played, well, that’s not recently, but recently for me, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which I don’t think was AAA, but you know, wasn’t a one or two-man indie or at least it was pretty enough that I doubt it was. And that was very creative. It was an exceptional game.
I wish there were more big-budget games that were like games that I never played, but I don’t feel too hard done by in that there’s way more games now, right? So, "Okay, there’s all these military shooters that I’ve already played 500 of that are aimed at gamer bros, but there’s also hundreds of games that weren’t coming out five years ago, and I’d probably like some of them."