Psychotic Psoftware interview: Power Up and more
Today we speak with Mike, from Psychotic Psoftware, an upcoming developer who has always been active regardless of what was going on. Releasing Power Up for XBLA sometime next year, Mike gives us some insight on who he is and what makes his process and passion for developing such a sturdy foundation for any quality title today.
GC: Hi Mike, reading your blog it sounds like you have great passion for making games. What was the inspiration you had to create Psychotic Software?
Mike: Well, right at the beginning it was the Amiga. As a kid I was so into that. I never thought I’d ever be a programmer but it was a really powerful art machine so I was able to play about with characters, animation and backgrounds to my hearts’ content. I think I first used the Psychotic Psoftware idea back then in a very early form. It was a nod to the likes of Psionic and Psygnosis who were instrumental in my gaming education. Later at university, it was all over my game development coursework and since then I’ve been rather attached to the little red grinning chap of the Psychotic logo.
GC: At the moment you are a one man team that creates Power Up in his spare time. What visions do you have for the future of Psychotic Psoftware?
Mike: Well, I started with Shockwave. Given the choice I’d be using that now (obviously with a quite a few improvements and modernisations). Director, the software to make Shockwave stuff looks to be on it’s last legs so I’ve had to move forward. Despite the repeated advice of my programmer friends, it took me a while to work up the courage to have a go at programming in xna. I might stick with that for a while but I’m exploring other avenues that it opens up. I hear that Unity is really powerful and I’m really quite intrigued. That said, I’m yet to see any income from my endeavours and xna is all but free to use for now so I’ll stay with it until I can afford something more sophisticated. As for the games…. well now, that would be telling, wouldn’t it.
I’m primarily an artist, then a musician and although Psychotic is about getting me more proficient as a programmer while actually producing some finished products, Power Up has also been about using the right style of art for getting things done quickly. Had I done all those spaceships in 2d, rotating them would have been a nightmare. Rendered 3D was just a case of making a model, texturing it up quickly, then rendering what I needed for the game.
I have quite a few ideas for future games. Some good ones too! They all entail me exercising my pretty vast library of visual styles from pixel popped, to painted… I wouldn’t even discount a bit of claymation too.
As for expansion, I’ve no considerable plans for that at present. I’ve had a few offers of collaboration though and there are a few individuals I’ve worked with before and would work with again.
GC: In your blog you mention your first self-made game called Diz which you built in 1998-1999. 14 years later, how much have you learnt?
Mike: Diz was my first go really. I just started coding and using the Director help archives. The language was almost like English at the time “if this then do that”, etc so I quickly saw the potential for building a first simple game based on “if”s and “then”s. I spent an evening making notes about how to break up the game into 3 levels over 3 zones and gave each one a section to fit a boss in. After quickly sketching out a load of characters and bosses to fill those zones I used rudimentary pixel popping software to do the art and found whatever free sounds I could online. There was barely anything resembling a design document for it.
The wonder of working alone and being able to do all the jobs you need done is that you save a lot of time on physical design texts or justifying your ideas to anyone else. As it’s all roughly bouncing around in my head all the time, it leaves plenty of room for molding and changing things as I go. I still pretty much work the same way now. If I’ve learned anything its that I get the best out the development process by treating the game like a living, growing thing and attending to its needs as it needs them. This also makes for frequent, highly satisfying moments of inspiration, although annoyingly, this is usually when I’m just nodding off to sleep at night.
Yeah, there are loads of programming tips to be had, but you can get those anywhere if you do enough internet trawling. The main lessons I learned are psychological. When I started I had no idea how to program. Vast expanses of code looked foreign and intimidating. I felt my pulse quicken when I looked at a tutorial. That’s because I was focusing on how hard this all was and not on what I wanted to do. Once you overcome that, your idea becomes more important than all the things that press on you how you can’t do it. You find that you’re pretty unstoppable and it’s really just a matter of time before you’ve made something you once thought completely impossible. It’s quite empowering really.
The same applied to art and music. I kept drawing stuff until it was passable, I kept modelling stuff until it looked right, I kept composing until it sounded structured and deliberate and from project to project I saw improvements and new tricks turning up. I’m still seeing that happen to this day and I daresay I’ll go on developing with each of my games.
GC: We were surprised to discover that Power Up as been through 3 different versions. Power Up version 1 was created in 1999-2000 which you described as “horrible to play”. What did you learn from the mistakes in version 1 that helped you with the version you are creating now?
Mike: It was a number of things really. Many of them quite technical, but one that really springs to mind is that in that version of Power Up I hadn’t figured out a think alled “keypressed”. In a nutshell, it was a bit of Director syntax which would make something happen as long as a key was pressed. Instead, I’d become accustomed to using this thing called “KeyDown”. This behaved like pressing a key in a text editor. You know, hold a key and it prints a letter to the screen, then after a pause fo about a second or so, it prints that letter over and over in quick succession… Try it. Hold a key down in a text window and you’ll see what I mean. Now apply that to movement. My ship would move. Pause. Then move properly. A space shooter needs to be quick, responsive and mostly about player reflexes. If the controls are holding you back then the space shooter isn’t fit for purpose. Now add a button for shooting into the mix and things get worse still!
This was just the tip of the iceberg regarding version 1’s problems and amongst the sort of things I had to get my head around early on in my general game coding efforts. I could go on about how the over shoulder angle and bounding box collision detection caused all kinds of issues with how the game handled but if you’ve read my blog on the subject I’d be repeating myself. If you haven’t then I’m inclined to point you to it. Suffice to say, the upcoming version will have no such problems once I’ve tweaked it to within an inch of its life.
GC: Your inspiration for Power Up was a Mega Drive game called Hellfire. What games did you grow up with that might of affected the outcome of your games?
Mike: I’d say Helfire was inspiring in the method of weapon selection while the richer visuals of something like Project-X are more evident in the look of the game. At closer inspection there also might be a bit of R-Type in the ship’s design. That said, side scrolling shooters were not my favorite genre of games and there are relatively few sidescrolling shooters that I’d describe as really great. I chose the genre as a starting point in my xna journey as those games demand solid controls and collision detection while being fairly straightforward and easy to grasp in their mechanics.
GC: In the response to the final result of Power Up version 1 your lecturer said to you “I love ambitious failures”. Is this something you keep in mind when you make games? Is it better to be more ambitious but risk a higher chance of failure?
Mike: Yeah, sure. Why not? The problem with working for a games company is that you’re always within the constraints of what the company can or can’t afford to do. A smart games company doesn’t take risks it can’t afford to, and who’d blame them. As an individual, I’ve got nothing to lose but my own skills. And that would only happen if I didn’t exercise those skills. At present, I’ve had no real success of which to speak so there’s really no risk to me: I’ve no reputation to lose. I’ve no overheads but my own time. If I make any money from Power Up, it will be to buy any software, hardware, etc, that I might need do do some more interesting things.
I’d love to try some realtime 3D ideas as well as the rendered stuff in 2D I’ve already dabbled in, but then I’d also love to use a number of different mediums and experiment with lots of aspects of the audio/visual/tactile gaming experience. These deviations might be considered as risky at a company who’s income relies on constancy in their products. They aren’t really risks to me though. They’re more akin to experimentation. Learning through having fun with experimentation is what Psychotic was always all about for me… Lately it seems that sharing my experience is too and I’ve no problem with that. It’s just nice to be getting noticed.
GC: Power Up version 2 was made for mobile phones back in 2003-2004. The hardware for mobile phones around those years wasn’t great. Did the limitations of the hardware frustrate you or did you see it more of a good challenge?
Mike: Actually, it was a great challenge… and one that my coding skills at the time were really suited for. the game was to be played on the phone’s number pad which only had one-directional capabilities. (you could only do one key at a time). My limited control-coding skills handled pretty much identically so I was able to blast out game-demo after game-demo which were really well emulated on a phone. The only real frustration would have been that my coding skills weren’t up to scratch. However, this was placated by the fact that neither was the tech of the time. That said, I always knew that with some hard work on my part coupled with the natural development of modern devices, both of those frustrations would soon be a thing of the past.
GC: Power Up version 3 (the Xbox Live Arcade game you are currently working on) is looking like a great game. What do hope people will think when they play the final product?
Mike: Thanks. That’s very kind of you to say. Obviously, I have that demon inside me that tells me it’s going to be a total fail. It’s only human to feel like that really. However, I’ve found that for the most part the Twitter community I joined in with have been overwhelmingly positive about my efforts and have really driven me to put my fears aside and get on with it. On the other hand I’m not sure that it matters if it doesn’t meet with any particular acclaim on release. It’s a one-man spare-time project of roughly 8 hours a week for roughly 12 months. I haven’t done the maths on how many man-hours that is, but it’s not a lot. If I can get this game balanced about right, then finished and out on xblig, then I figure I’ve exceeded my own expectations and that’s something I’ll be very proud of. Also, I feel as good about the game’s playability as I do about its looks and so far I’m getting a pretty good response about those.
GC: What do you hope to achieve with Power Up?
Mike: Taking into account how little resources went into it’s creation, I’d love Power Up to be a shining beacon dedicated to what one committed individual can create. A HUGE success generating a comfortable lifestyle for me and my family from here on in… but to be a realistic. There’s a lot of great professional games out there with dedicated and talented teams doing things I have no intention of attempting to compete with at this point. There’s a good change that Power Up will be simply swallowed up into a mass of indie games that failed to make a mark. Maybe this is something that needs to be addressed in modern indie game distribution or maybe the indie games market is just too niche to make a living from.
Even if this proves to be the case, put simply I love making my own games and if I can find a way to supplement my income in any way from a hobby that I really do love… well, who wouldn’t want to be able to do that?
GC: When can we expect to see Power Up on XBLA?
Mike: Well, a lot of this depends on the xblig submission process. It’s something that I’ve heard can be a bit of a nightmare but am yet to have any real experience with. As I’m still hoping to have the game ready for submission in the coming new year, I’ve been saying early 2013. That could be any time in the first quarter though really. I know it’s a it of a cop-out as release dates go but releasing on xblig is all new ground to me. As soon as I’ve got a better grip on the process I’ll be able to give a better indication of release dates, etc .
GC: In an interview with 3rd Element they are taking keen interest to Ouya. What are your takes on it?
Mike: I’m an avid follower of the retro-gaming scene on YouTube and everybody’s put their oar in on this one. Admittedly, I’m not as clued up on Ouya as some but the general feeling is that Ouya is highly reminiscent of the aforementioned days of the Amiga and 8-bit Public Domain scenes. With that in mind, I’m obviously really excited about it and will be buying mine with a view to fully investigating its open source community. I get a lot of kicks out of indie games too so just playing with it as a consile will make me happy as a pig in the proverbial. I already have that buzzing excitement of the impending Amiga arrival I remember from one particular Christmas eve in the early 90s.
GC: Would you consider developing games for it?
Mike: Definitely. I’d need to do a bit more research first though. After a decade of pootling around with Director lingo, I’ve finally made the difficult jump to c# in a Microsoft Virtual Studio environment and making games in Ouya is likely to mean yet another shift in programming languages for me. I think that to let the Ouya arrive, let the dust settle and familiarize myself with the world of grown-up programming before making another leap is the smart thing to do.
…but it’s also reminiscent of when I first started, it’s all just a question the of psychology and confidence in making the leap. The world of consoles and routes-to-market is always moving pretty fast but I’m sticking with baby steps for now. Slow and steady currently seems to give me a better chance at making good games with a bit of an impact, and for the time being that’ll do me nicely.