Independent game development in Australia consistently produces some of the most compelling experiences to be found in gaming, standing toe-to-toe with larger entities on the global development stage. The PAX AUS Indie Showcase serves to highlight some of the fantastic work being put out by local developers. Player2.net.au has spoken with developers awarded a spot in the PAX AUS 2018 Indie Showcase to get a sneak peek at what attendees can look forward to.
PAX AUS 2018 Indie Showcase – Dissembler
Following the success of his release Boson X, developer Ian MacLarty has continued his work in the field of game development. His latest title, Dissembler, has been featured on the App Store and showcases Ian’s approach to development which blends creativity with practicality in a way that has allowed him to become a full time independent game developer. Player2 spoke to Ian about winning a place in the PAX AUS 2018 Indie Showcase as well as his ideas on game design and what titles he has planned for the future.
Stephen del Prado: Hi Ian, how’s it going?
SDP: Is this your first PAX?
IM: Yeah, it is my first time exhibiting. I have attended in the past, but first time showing stuff.
SDP: Nice! I thought I’d start with a little bit about yourself. What drew you to game development in the first place?
IM: I was working with a colleague of mine, not in games – in a software company. He was working on an engine called Allegro. This was probably about 10 years ago. I’d always been interested in games and just thought I’d give it a go. I quite enjoyed the process of making games. It kind of appealed to…I’m quite interested in arts, but I’m also interested in the programming and engineering aspects of it also. So it kind of brought together a lot of different diverse skills, into one thing, I am also interested in music as well. It kind of brought together a lot of my interests into one thing.
SDP: Sort of let you flex all of those muscles so to speak.
IM: Yeah. Then I released a few mobile games with a friend of mine and gradually got to be more serious over the years and honed my craft.
SDP: Are you now full time into game development or do you still have a day job as well?
IM: I have been full time since last year, so just in a good financial position. I’ve been in the IT industry for I guess …almost 20 years. Paid off our house recently, so that was quite nice. I was in a pretty comfortable financial position and had developed a bit of an audience. I had released a minor hit about 5 years ago called Boson X. I had a decent audience and had developed my craft to the point where I felt confident I could make things people would want so I thought I may as well give it a go and so I have been doing it full time for just over a year.
SDP: Had you already started developing Dissembler before that point or was it the push to move into full time?
IM: I had started a doing it a bit, Dissembler wasn’t really the push to go full time. I kind of wanted to develop those kind of games – really small scope games that would hopefully take me 6 -8 months to develop and… I’m working on another one now and that’s what I’m gonna be doing for the next three years. I had started it a couple months before I went full time, but I kind of had enough sort of momentum and savings to go for a few years so the idea was to put out a few games, but I’m quite happy with the way Dissembler has gone. It was released in February and it’s been featured on the App Store quite a lot and has done reasonably well.
SDP: If you had to elevator pitch Dissembler to someone, how would you describe it?
IM: So, it’s a puzzle game where you’re taking apart little artworks one colour at a time by flipping tiles. It sounds a bit like a match 3 game – you’re flipping tiles and forming little groups of the same colour that disappear, but the big difference is that you don’t get new tiles falling in from the top to replace those ones. The goal is to clear the board of all the tiles, and that adds a whole new level of play to the game because the order you eliminate tiles becomes very important. It becomes much more a game about thinking ahead and considering your decisions in the game.
SDP: So less of that reaction speed that most match 3 puzzlers have?
IM: Yes, it’s about hunting for patterns and more about thinking ahead and planning ahead. A more “thinky” match 3 I guess * laughs * A more traditional puzzles game in the sense that you have all the information ahead of time, so you can see all the tiles there, it’s just about matching them in the right order so they all disappear in the end.
SDP: Obviously it’s been featured in the App Store, there’s been a lot of positive coverage, but being selected as an Indie Showcase winner is another big boost to visibility. What was your reaction to the news that you’d been successful?
IM: I’m quite happy that I get to show it at PAX. I’m not sure how much extra visibility there’ll be in terms…because the game has been out since February so it will be quite interesting to see if there is any corresponding boost to sales and that. But I am quite looking forward to showing it at PAX. It is quite fun to show people your game and have them play it live and then also hopefully talk about some new games I’m developing as well.
SDP: I mean, one benefit could be that people can purchase Dissembler right after they’ve experienced it on the show floor…
IM: Yes that’s true, yes * laughs* I think it will be really interesting. I am quite looking forward to just talking to people about the game and having them play it and seeing their reactions. Also hopefully showing a new game that I’m working on as well and being able to gauge people’s reactions on that as well.
SDP: Given Dissembler was inspired by puzzle games, are there any titles in particular that influenced your decisions during the design process?
IM: I quite liked…there’s a game called Stickets, it was developed a few years ago by a friend of mine, Shang Lun. It won some awards and got quite a bit of buzz on twitter. It was more an infinite game, but had a nice kind of feeling where you always had to keep one step ahead of yourself, and that was the feeling I was going for in the infinite mode for Dissembler which was actually the first mode that I made. Then the puzzle mode kind of came out of the infinite mode. So that was definitely an influence. Coincidently, Stickets is also about and has coloured squares in it. It does feel quite different, but it was definitely an influence just in terms of feeling I wanted to capture. In terms of other games, something like Lion, by Thomas Baulker. That’s very popular on Steam, probably a 5-year-old game now. It is very easy to sort of…consume levels in the game. I think Dissembler is probably harder than that. It has a nice sort of pacing that I wanted to kind of imitate. It also has daily puzzles which are randomly generated, so that was definitely an inspiration to putting that in Dissembler as well.
SDP: With all the positive coverage that Dissembler received post release, was there any point before release that you were feeling a bit worried that it wouldn’t be well received?
IM: Oh yeah, of course * laughs * It’s not like…you never know. I felt positive that it was good in that whoever I’d shown it to had good reactions to it. Even complete strangers I’d shown it to at work in progress nights, where they didn’t even know I was the person who had developed it, they had good reactions to it and sort of got into it. I think I had a feeling I was onto a good thing, but you never know. Particularly with a paid game on the App Store, you just never know how it’s going to go down.
I think even getting coverage in media, particularly for a mobile game, it doesn’t actually make a huge amount of difference to sales. I think it makes more of a difference to Steam, because my perception is that the mobile gaming audience is not that invested in following games media, they kind of just go to the App Store and see what looks good, or rely on friends to recommend things whereas PC and console game audiences are much more invested in the ‘harp’ about what’s coming up and reading games media. Still, even though I think it did fairly well it probably could’ve… there’s things I could have done better, and it would have maybe done better. I think the name wasn’t ideal. I think a lot of people had problems remembering the name. There were a lot of things I learnt from it that I would do differently next time, but I was happy with how it did, but yeah, you never know. And I kind of prepared for that, as I have released quite a few games now…I’m never going to put all my eggs in one basket.
SDP: I think outside of a few websites, mobile gamed tend to come so thick and fast that I think most media and editors sort of aren’t necessarily drawn to covering them, as well as the In-App Purchase and microtransaction side of things. Also, as you’ve mentioned, the general audience for mobile games is a casual audience and they aren’t necessarily following any of these websites so it doesn’t really drive traffic for them either.
IM: I think that will be another nice thing about PAX, is that I’ll get more awareness around the Steam version of the game as well.
SDP: I’ve always thought it must be extremely difficult to create puzzle games. You need to find the right balance between something that’s not too easy but it also isn’t too difficult. Was there a lot of trial and error and player feedback to get Dissembler just right?
IM: Definitely yeah. I did a lot of playtesting – I find I always have to deliberately make things that to me feel too easy, because I’ll invariably make things that are too hard. I think because you’re designing it and playing it yourself, it’s really hard to sense how difficult things are gonna be for other people. Particularly in the first 30 or 50 levels, just making it easy enough that people are getting into but challenging enough that they’re not finding it boring. You know, you’re never going to get everyone – you’re never going to get everyone liking it and being at the right level for everyone. It’s a very hard balancing act, so there was a lot of playtesting, putting it in front of people and not telling them anything and seeing how they go, then making adjustments. Taking every opportunity to put it in front of people. Also, I think after a while you do get a bit of intuition as to what people are gonna struggle with. You kind of have to develop that over time and it often goes against your own instincts of what you think is gonna be hard. You have to learn that through playtesting a lot.
SDP: You said you’ve attended PAX before, but not as an exhibitor. I know exhibitors don’t tend to get a lot of time on the floor to explore, but is there anything showing at PAX AUS this year that’s caught your eye? That you’d like to make some time for?
IM: I haven’t really kept track of what’s showing – I will definitely do the rounds on the indie floor to see what’s going on and hopefuly talk to a few of the devs, but no * laughs * I haven’t really been keeping track of what’s showing at PAX. I’m quite keen to do the rounds and see the indie floor.
SDP: It seems to get bigger every year.
IM: Yeah, I’ve gone the last two years – someone lent me their Exhibitor pass so I went for a morning for that. Last year I just bought a ticket and went for the one day. I’m always really quite surprised by the sheer volume of people particularly going through the indie section, there’s just a lot of interest in that which is encouraging.
SDP: In the trailers for Dissembler, it states production was assisted by the Victorian State Government and Film Victoria. How important is that support to the independent development community?
IM: I think it’s very important – I don’t think it was quite as important to me for this particular project but I have some other friends who’ve had Film Vic funding, actual production funding. I just got release funding, which means the game is basically done but I get a bunch of money for getting a professional trailer done. I got a bit of extra music, I got some PR work and all of that stuff helped a lot. I have friends working on multi-year games who have been funded through their production by Film Victoria and they’re multi person teams. The games just wouldn’t be made without that kind of funding. The games that are also risky – things like Paperbark. That received a lot of funding, things like Wayward Strand. I guess they’re riskier games, they have a particular idea of the thing they wanna make and it’s not necessarily guaranteed to be commercially successful. I think there’s value outside of commercial value – without Film Vic all those projects wouldn’t get made, so it’s really valuable.
SDP: Just before we wrap up, you mentioned a new project earlier – can you share any details about that or is it still in very early stages?
IM: It’s a game called Jump Grid and it’s a little action game about piloting an experimental craft through an obstacle course. Really short levels, it has a kind of novel control scheme. The only way you can move he ship is to teleport it to one of nine points on the screen, and there’s a lot of moving shapes and things you’ve got to avoid. Very tight, fast action game with simple controls but short and difficult levels. Kind of inspired by things like Super Hexagon and Flywrench – that sort of game. I’m hoping…I’m not sure when I’m gonna release it, it’s kind of…it’s quite far along, so I’m hoping to maybe have something to show at PAX. I might have one terminal set up with it, otherwise I’ll just show it to people on my phone. It is actually gonna be a PC first game, but I’ll probably release a mobile version of it at some point. There’s no trailer or anything for it yet…it will be called Jump Grid and it will be a little action game.
SDP: Sounds like you’re moving in a different direction from Dissembler then?
IM: Yeah, I mean I like to mix it up, like Boson X was another action game I released. I definitely would like to do another puzzle game because it was a lot of fun to make and it got quite a different audience. I would like to make something again for that audience, but it’s nice to alternate between different genres. It keeps things interesting for myself, particularly.
SDP: Thanks very much for speaking to Player2, Ian – we’re looking forward to seeing you and Dissembler at the Indie Showcase!
IM: Thanks Stephen, it was great chatting to you.
It was whilst toiling away in the bowels of the now mythical Australian Gamer forums that Stephen del Prados attempts at writing were recognised by then up-and-coming Matt ‘Hewso’ Hewson as “not terrible”. Since then Stephen has contributed to such sites as The Age’s now defunct Screen Play, the recently retired Black Panel and currently serves under Editor-in-Chief Hewso for Player2.net.au, at least until the pattern of decline obvious in his previous engagements is picked up by Hewso and he is exiled from games journalism forever