Cooper Riehl wants to make video games.
He has wanted to since middle school, when he played GameCube and RuneScape and discovered how to program text adventures onto his TI-85 calculator.
Now, he’s a senior at the School of Engineering, and he’s putting that dream into motion as a programmer and webmaster for Wolverine Soft, a student-run organization dedicated to fostering game development talent.
“I would love to do it professionally,” Riehl said in a Skype interview with The Michigan Daily. “I haven’t decided what I want to do finally when I get out of college, but I would love to work at a big-name studio or a small indie studio with a couple of friends, as long as we were making enough to support ourselves. It’s definitely a big passion of mine.”
For Riehl, making games is an opportunity to have a career as a software programmer in a field that brings people joy.
“I do think games are an art form, but for me it’s more about programming something exciting rather than some boring old system in a bank somewhere,” he said. “I like the idea of writing code to create something that people actually enjoy using rather than just another random application.”
He’s not the only one around campus who dreams of making video game development a career. According to Riehl, more than 80 new members signed up for Wolverine Soft this semester alone — the biggest uptick in membership since Riehl joined the club three years ago.
It’s not hard to understand why independent game development is currently such an appealing career venue for young programmers, artists and musicians, as both mainstream and game-industry-specific journalists have brought monumental attention to indie success stories.
In 2012, Lissanne Pajot and James Swirsky’s acclaimed documentary “Indie Game: The Movie” told the story of four independent developers whose projects turned into landmark commercial and critical successes, simultaneously making each of them millions and skyrocketing them into avant-gardist wunderkind status among their industry peers. The New Yorker and The Atlantic have also published extensive profiles of developers Rami Ismail and Jonathan Blow, respectively, highlighting their near-overnight successes, their road-hitting indie hero lifestyle and their thorough dedication to their art.
More recently, the runaway success of Toby Fox’s “Undertale” has grabbed the attention of young game developers. A heartfelt, character-driven role-playing game with simple graphics and beautiful original music, “Undertale” was Fox’s very first video game (he had previously worked on free modifications for other games), developed in GameMaker: Studio using Kickstarter crowdfunding. His on-the-first-try breakout hit is one of the reasons aspiring developers like Riehl are so dedicated to indie success.
“That one (‘Undertale’) was huge for a lot of people, and I’m certainly included in that,” Riehl said. “The impressive part is that Toby Fox is just this one man. I mean, he had like a few people supporting him, but this small development team made this huge successful game that everyone has been talking about.”
It’s estimated by some sites that the 25-year-old Fox has made eight-figure profits from “Undertale.”
But for most independent developers, it’s certainly not just about the money. As artists, indie developers are given the freedom to experiment and implement their creative visions exactly as they want to. They often work on their own schedules, and are given agency to choose exactly with whom they’d like to work.
According to Ye Feng, a developer at the new Shanghai-based indie studio, Pixpil, there’s simply a lot to love about working as an indie developer.
“That’s too many to list,” he wrote in an email interview with The Michigan Daily. “Essentially everything you can imagine about doing your stuff rather than your boss’s.”
Pixpil is currently working on a post-apocalyptic action, role-playing game called “Eastward,” which has recently garned a ton of buzz on Twitter. They’re a team of eight, and a lone third-party investor is funding them independently. Their game is inspired by games like “The Legend of Zelda” and “Earthbound,” as well as Studio Ghibli’s unique visual animation style. They’re keeping details about the game’s plot under wraps.
“In ‘Eastward,’ there’s a middle-age man (who) travels with a mystery white-haired teenage girl, but that’s all I can say for now,” Feng wrote. “Sorry.”
“Eastward” ’s pixel art is haunting, stylized and uniquely animated and lit, and the beauty of its design has caught the attention of thousands of fans on Twitter. GIFs of “Eastward” ’s pixel art frequently go viral on games-focused corners of Twitter.
“Yes, sometimes we feel just lucky on Twitter!” Feng wrote. “To be honest, Twitter is more developer friendly and gathered quite a lot (of) pixel artist and retro-style-lover-gamers. As a niche market, people are so eager to see something awesome or done in a new twist. For example, we have an in-house engine (that) enables dynamic lighting, and sometimes (Pixpil designer) Tommo will make some neat little animation to make the scene look ‘alive.’ I think that’s basically why we’ve got some warm welcomes on Twitter.”
Feng told me that Pixpil accomplishes their beautiful 3-D lighting effects using tools written for Moai, a popular open-source game engine. He credits widely available engines like Moai, Unity and GameMaker with leading a wave of brand-new indie developers making great games.
“If you take a look into human history, every time a true revolution/evolution happened, there was always a kind of massively-easy-to-use technology behind it,” he said.
Riehl agrees. “It’s become so easy now to get into the game development field if that’s something you want to do,” he said. “Obviously it’s not for everyone, but if you’re a programmer and you’re interested in game design, it’s really easy to just go download Unity and just start looking up tutorials on how to use it. And after you spend a few hours, you can make a simple platformer where you, like, jump around and grab a star, or something. So I definitely think the availability of these tools has led to an increase in volume of indie games and possibly quality. Now we have people that might have great ideas, but before they couldn’t get into the field. Now it’s really easy for them to get a hand in game design.”
Some independent developers, though, prefer to write their own engines. Chevy Ray Johnston is the architect of the FlashPunk creation library, a set of tools designed for assisting developers creating games with Flash. Johnston is an indie development renaissance man, to say the least — he’s also the artist, writer, designer and programmer of the upcoming indie RPG “Ikenfell,” an adventure set in a school for witches and wizards. Johnston is coding the engine for “Ikenfell” from scratch in C#.
“I absolutely love writing tools and software, maybe as much as developing games,” Johnston wrote in an email interview with The Michigan Daily. “After ‘Ikenfell’ is done, I plan on ramping up the software portion of my company as well, selling some cool developer apps. I got into it through making games. Different games have required different editor tools in order to design them, so building those tools helped me find something else that I love doing.”
The game looks incredible — the art style feels quirky and original, the battle system looks like a unique combination of “Paper Mario” and “Fire Emblem” and the setting seems like a brilliant opportunity to tell stories of teen angst, explore hidden secrets and live out classic “Harry Potter”/“Carry On”-style magical fantasies.
Gamers are showing no shortage of excitement for “Ikenfell.” Johnston received $61,787 in funding for the game on Kickstarter against a $25,000 goal — that’s more than Toby Fox originally received for “Undertale.” He’s even managed to attract aivi & surasshu, the composers for Cartoon Network’s “Steven Universe” (Johnston’s favorite cartoon), to write the game’s music.
“I'm so excited about this,” he said. “They’re game musicians, and I’m a fairly well-known game developer, so we crossed paths eventually. We didn’t know each other that well, but I cold-called (because I adore their work on ‘Steven’) and (sent) them a bunch of screenshots and details about the game and asked if they were interested. They haven’t started working on the soundtrack yet, but I’ve told them I want them to experiment and try some things they don’t normally get to try. I want the music of the game to have a voice of its own. You can expect vocals in at least a couple of the game’s tracks.”
“Ikenfell” and “Eastward” are both superb-looking projects that have managed to secure enough funding to last through the course of development. But if you’re planning on getting into game development to make money on easy street, you may want to look more deeply into the realities of the industry.
Recently, Vice’s Waypoint published extensive interviews with several game developers about the harsh lifestyle that comes with game development, and the sheer difficulty of managing large-scale projects and experimenting with new kinds of game mechanics. To make matters worse, other journalists, such as The Verge’s Casey Newton, have grown concerned about the financial viability of the independent market — especially on mobile platforms.
Both of the developers I spoke to acknowledged the daunting challenges behind indie game development, and the behind-the-scenes stress that goes with it.
Feng said the more management-related aspects of game development are the toughest.
“(The) first (challenge) is to decide when to stop and when to polish,” he wrote. “There’s always (room) for improvement but you have to stop somewhere. Knowing when to stop is important. Second is to hire the right person. It’s quite hard here.”
Johnston says it’s the complex systems behind certain game mechanics that are the most challenging to deal with.
“Balancing combat is ridiculously difficult, and I’m still working on it,” he wrote. “I’m actually just trucking through story, cutscenes and level design right now. Once I’ve done all that in an area, and I’m comfortable with the progression, then I go back over it and balance out the battles. Balancing it is basically just constantly tweaking, testing and thinking outside the box until it feels fun. It’s so much work, and even slight changes can have a massive butterfly effect in how the game feels. It will be a struggle until the very end.”
“Doing all the art, programming, design and writing for such a large game is such a vast amount of work I can barely even comprehend it sometimes. I just hunker down, put on music and work all day,” Johnston wrote.
Independent developers are also prone to receiving alarming amounts of hate for their projects. “Fez” developer Phil Fish, one of the subjects of “Indie Game: The Movie,” infamously quit the video game industry after being the victim of coordinated attacks from #GamerGate (a movement against increased gender inclusivity in gaming culture) after expressing his vocal support for Zoë Quinn, another independent developer who made international news after being subjected to daily harassment and threats from #GamerGate. More recently, the developer of the extraordinarily promising-looking RPG “Knuckle Sandwich,” Andrew Brophy, has been the victim of what appears to be a coordinated hate-campaign from 4Chan’s /v/ imageboard, posting swarms of negative comments on a recent promotional gameplay video uploaded to his YouTube channel.
But despite the challenges inherent to the profession, the independent development community shows no signs of slowing down. The in-development games featured in this article, “Ikenfell” and “Eastward,” are merely the tip of the iceberg for excellent-looking, ludicrously creative video games being made by small teams. Johnston recently pointed me toward “Cryamore,” an anime-inspired action-RPG with beautiful pixel art that received nearly $250,000 in funding on Kickstarter. Gabe and Michelle Telepak, the couple behind the adorable puppy-themed exploration game “Butt Sniffin’ Pugs” is so close to hitting their $60,000 Kickstarter goal, with less than a day left to go. And only Tuesday, a Norwegian indie development studio released “Owlboy,” a game nearly a decade in the making, to overwhelming acclaim.
I suppose that I should admit to you that I’ve been working on my first independent game project since summer semester. It’s a role-playing game themed around sexual stigma called “Post Modern Girls.” And while I’m working with some excellent people on the project — Music, Theatre & Dance junior James Fischer is composing the music, and Eastern Michigan University art student Jane Hodges has provided some incredible artwork — I’m still nervous about so much. Am I actually a competent enough programmer to make the project work? Am I going to be able to get funding somehow? What if I do a Kickstarter and it fails? What if I get hate? What if I’m not talented enough to make video games after all?
I pestered Johnston to give me some advice. His words were stern but salient — and I think any independent developer could draw something helpful from what he had to say.
“Keep it simple, and don’t add all this complexity to the game. It’s way too tempting to add new features because you feel like the gameplay isn’t deep enough, but adding more stuff is not the solution to that. All that does is water it down. Find the strongest aspects of the system and see what you can do with them, how you can bend and stretch them and create new puzzles and problems out of them. ‘Portal’ isn’t fun because they kept adding new guns, it’s fun because one gun is all you really need. I think if more RPG developers think this way, we could see some really interesting new games.”
Wolverine Soft holds open meetings every Monday from 7-9 p.m. in 3150 DOW, and encourages first-time game developers to attend. “Ikenfell” is expected to release in June 2018. The development of “Eastward” is chronicled on Twitter @pixpilgames.