Joining Team Shellrazer

Back at the start of 2010, when I started on this weird little Ninja Robot Dinosaur indie adventure, my goal was simple: Make the games I want to make and do them solo.

Solo. For a guy who has spent 15 years making games ‘the traditional corporate way’, this may seem unusual, but it was a big part of the goal.

I like working by myself. I enjoy tackling the design, programming and art problems that come with making a game. When I’m sitting at my desk, staring at [code/a level/a sprite animation] trying to figure out how to make it work better, I am in the zone. It’s my happy place.

Nick Waanders, founder of Slick Entertainment (n+ and Scrap Metal on XBLA) is an indie developer in Vancouver. We’ve peripherally known each other for years (he left Relic the week after I joined) and became friends a couple of years ago.

The first time Nick asked me to work with him, I said no. In hindsight, I was probably quite rude about it, but, you know – I wanted to work solo.

Nick was persistent. He asked me a few more times, throwing the suggestion out whenever we got together. Then he suggested a week long jam, we got together over lunch, threw some ideas around, but nothing really came of it.

When the Global Game Jam came around, Nick and I were on the same team and throughout the weekend, Nick kept planting the seed. Even when he wasn’t saying the words, I could hear him whispering in my ear, like Vader to Luke: “Join me Shane.” At one point, I swore he told me he was my father. Whispering-in-my-head-Nick denies he said anything of the sort.

Then came Shellrazer.

Vancouver has a monthly indie developer meet-up called Full Indie. Nick and his partner in crime, Jesse the Drawbarian, were showing people things on their phones. People were excited. I was curious.

Nick came up to me and showed me some of the visual design that Jesse had put together and Nick looked at me and asked one more time: “Do you want in on this?”.

There wasn’t a second of hesitation.

“Dude. It’s a giant turtle, with guns, who shoots things and they blow up. Let’s do this. I’m in.”

Failure is vital

When I talk to people about pursuing their creative dreams, I’m often asked ‘What if I fail?’

The thing about creative work is not if you’ll fail, because you will, repeatedly.

Every writer has a drawer filled with terrible words, every artist has sketchbooks filled with ugly drawings, every film maker has hours of unwatchable trash hidden away and every game designer has painful prototypes stinking up their hard drive.

In creative work, you literally need to fail your way to success.

Embrace your failures and grow from them (but don’t ship them).

The Importance of Choosing Your Work

Space Marine by Cheol Joo Lee

Back in 2005, when I was working at Relic, a small group of artists would regularly get together for life drawing. They would each take turns as the model while everyone else drew. As an aspiring artist, I occasionally joined them to eke out whatever practice and knowledge I could.

The amount of art talent at Relic was incredible and one of the most talented artists in the studio was Cheol Joo Lee. During these life drawing sessions, Lee’s 30 second gestures were better than most people’s 5 minute studies. His mastery was amazing and drawing alongside Lee was akin to a white belt studying Tae Kwon Do under a world champion black belt.

One day during life drawing, Lee asked another artist, Stephen MacDonald (now Head of Production at Harmony Arcade), why he didn’t draw hands. Stephen replied that he was terrible at drawing hands. Lee, like the wise master that he is, replied with something that has stuck with me ever since.

“If you want to get better at drawing hands, draw more hands.”

This is a mantra I repeat regularly, not only to remind me to identify and address my weaknesses, but also to remind me that how I choose to spend my time is very important.

Every day we make choices about what we do. If we are doing something, we are getting better at it. If we spend enough time doing something, we develop a mastery of it.

Earlier this year, I shelved a sequel to Ray Ardent: Science Ninja halfway through development. The primary reason was about how I spent my time as a developer and where I wanted to grow.

My passion has always been for strategy and RPG’s. They are what I play, what I obsess about and they have been the most successful games I’ve made in my career.

Yet there I was, an indie developer making platformers. And because I was making platformers, I was getting better at making platformers – and I wasn’t getting better at making strategy and RPG games.

I needed to start working on the games I wanted to make. Even though it was risky. Even though it meant scrapping a couple of months of work and ignoring a year spent learning to make platformers.

If I wanted to get good at making strategy/RPG games, I had to make more strategy/RPG games.

When faced with a decision on what to work on — whether it’s a new job, a personal project or what you do with your spare time tonight — think about where you want to go, what you want to learn and what you want to get better at.

If you want to get good at drawing hands, draw more hands.

Game Developers Radio Interview

A little over a year ago I did a podcast interview with Game Developers Radio. The podcast went on a hiatus, but they are back in full swing and have posted the interview.

The focus of the interview is Scrum and Agile development, both for teams and solo developers. I’m a bit of a Scrum nut (understatement…) and it was a great interview to do.

The only big change since the interview is that I’m no longer using Google Docs for my backlog/planning and have switch to the glorious Pivotal Tracker after hearing Andy Moore mention it a few times.

You can listen to me rant in the interview here.