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The realities of making independent games: Checking in with Future Proof Games

Originally published January 25, 2015

While video games are fun for players, the work involved in designing and launching a video game is often a daunting, and sometimes painful, process. At the largest gaming companies, the individual production phases of designing, programming, writing, testing and marketing a video game are often handled by separate and distinct teams of experienced professionals working within varying degrees of isolation and collaboration. For small, independent companies like Future Proof Games, the roles of Lead Designer, Content Designer, Game Mechanic Designer, Level Designer, Writer, Lead Programmer, Artificial Intelligence Programmer, Graphics Programmer, Network Programmer, Tools Programmer, User Interface Programmer, Art Director, Lead Artist, Concept Artist, Modeler, Animator, Audio Engineer, Voice Talent, Quality Assurance Tester, Marketing Vice-President, Chief Financial Officer and Chief Executive Officer are shared by two people.

How in the hell does that work?

In this update, SFL spoke with Gregory Avery-Weir about their company’s plans to move forward with its latest projects as they also begin working a day job.

SFL: The next several months promise to be very busy for your partner, Melissa. Where do things stand today with your projects?

Gregory Avery-Weir, Co-Founder of Future Proof Games

Gregory Avery-Weir: Currently, we are working on Exploit: Zero Day. At the same time, this upcoming Monday, I am starting a full-time contract position at a bank. In order to fund development on my creative work, I am taking a short-term contract to build up my savings again. What that means is that, over the next three to six months, one of my goals is going to be to maintain forward progress on my personal project, on Future Proof Game project, even though it’s something I can only work on in my spare time.

My new day job is not going to be particularly creative. My hope is that it won’t be too much of a tax on the creative aspects of my mind, so that I am able to go work and come home, and I would then be able to engage parts of my brain that weren’t being engaged by my day job, and make progress on the projects that I really care about in the long term.

My hope is that within three months, we will have released what we call Alpha: Zero. It is going to be a private release that is enough of a game-play experience that we will be able to get meaningful feedback on the core aspects of the game. It won’t be the full product that is Exploit: Zero Day, but it will be enough that we can ask other people to take a look and let us know what they think.

There are also a few other projects that I am hoping will be released in that time frame. We would like to get a basic copy of a role playing book out called‚ ‘LORE’. Those books probably won’t be particularly profitable given the market for that sort of thing, but it is a project we have been working on for a while, and we would like to finally get released in some form and in the hands of people so that it is not just a project for us anymore.

SFL: Can you go into some more description about LORE?

Avery-Weir: The acronym stands for ‘Lightweight, Omnipotent, Roleplaying System.’ It is a table-top role playing rule set. I released a beta version of it in 2009, but the new version is expanded. Its rules are a little more creative now. It is a game like Dungeons & Dragons, or any table-top role-play game like that, but one of the things it is focused on is providing rules that will work for more than just, ‘we are a bunch of people who have to kill a bunch of other people to achieve our goals.’ There have certainly been games like that that have been made, but with this one, we are trying to focus a whole lot less on physical combat as a central tenant of the system. It is also designed to be lightweight so that people can pick up and play it quickly. They can make characters quickly. They don’t have to remember a lot of rules in order to play. Sort of a get-the-system-out-of-the-way-of-the-fun-role-playing game.

SFL: Where does LORE stand right now in terms of its development?

Avery-Weir: Most of the text of the book is complete, but there is about ten percent that still needs to be written. Then there is typesetting and formatting that needs to be done.

The release we are looking at doing in the next three to six months I think we are calling it LORE Basic, which is going to have limited illustrations if any. It is not going to be a pretty product but it is going to be a basic rule set so that people can buy it and provide feedback. If people are especially interested in it then we could expand it to become a prettier version that incorporates any feedback we receive to make it a more photogenic product.

It will be available as both print on demand and as a downloadable PDF. That’s a pretty standard way of releasing this sort of rule book these days. If you just want it in digital on your Kindle or iPad or whatever, you can buy one and that version probably will end up getting a free upgrade from LORE to the deluxe edition or whatever we end up calling it. Then, if you want a physical book, you can order it and it will be printed on demand.

SFL: And LORE will be coming out not via you but your company, Future Proof Games, correct?

Avery-Weir: Correct. I mean, currently my company is two people so I definitely have a strong creative voice. Most of my, or all of my, sizable projects are going to come out through Future Proof Games for the foreseeable future.

SFL: Tell me a little about what people can expect and where you are with Zero Day?

Avery-Weir: Zero Day is a social, hacking-themed puzzle game. You will be solving puzzles, many of which are created by other people, that represent computer systems that you are hacking into. There is a narrative that ties the whole story line together, where there will be an ongoing story that’s happening across the whole game with the non-player characters, intrigue and mysterious organizations and so on. The players will be able to role play with those characters on the games forums. So, the characters that are engaging in and driving the plot of the game, you can talk to them. You can try and convince them of your view points. You can hopefully influence the course of the development of the game.

On the low-level game play, you will be making puzzles. Sharing puzzles. Solving puzzles. What we are hoping for, and this is later on in development, is that your system-making skills and your puzzle-making skills will help you contribute to manipulating the events of the game. The game will present a dilemma that is being presented to the player base at large and they will be able to discuss it. They will be able to ask the characters that are portrayed by us at Future Proof Games about the nature of the dilemma. Then, our hope is we are still developing the system so that they will be able to craft puzzles that help to say clamp down the security of a humanitarian civilization in order to protect it. Whereas another group of players may believe that that humanitarian organization is really a front for something more sinister. So they will be trying to break through that security that was built up in part by other players.

SFL: You hope to be in about three months in an alpha state correct?

Avery-Weir: Yes, what we are calling Alpha Zero which is sort of minimal viable product. It will be very simple. It will just be the puzzle creation and sharing aspect of it along with a forum. There won’t be any plot out of Alpha Zero. That part will wait a little longer.

SFL: Is the game going to be Flash-based? How is this going to be constructed?

Avery-Weir: It will be on the web. We are using HTML5 to make the game. It is using a great game framework called Phaser.

Players will go onto our webpage and make an account or log in using existing social network credentials. You will be able to play it on desktop, tablet and smartphones. There may be a somewhat limited experience on smaller screens, but we are working out the details of how that will translate.

SFL: What are some of the obstacles ether practical, creative, logistical or whatever, that stands between you reaching these milestones both for projects?

Avery-Weir: Our main concern, regardless of my personal situation, is that we are a very small team and we are working on reasonably ambitious products.

Both Melissa and myself are very skilled developers. We both know how to do everything we need to do, but it is a matter of getting the work done in the short amount of time available. Melissa currently has a full-time job and probably will for the foreseeable future and, like I said before, I am going to be starting one very soon. That workload adds an extra layer of complication in that when you are only working evenings and weekends, hopefully you are driven by passion because if not, you will never find the time to do that work. Even then, your velocity on how much you are getting done when you have got eight hours if you are lucky rather than 40 hours of work. We don’t have any technical obstacles in our way. We are pretty confident we can achieve them given enough time. It’s just putting in the personal hours.

Financially speaking, we are still figuring out and refining our estimates of how successful we think each of these projects will be. We are pretty sure that LORE is likely to not make as much money. It would be surprising if it were particularly profitable just because of the nature of that market. It is currently dominated by a few big companies who themselves aren’t outstanding successes. For Zero Day, we are looking at a free-to-play business model that has been successful in the past but a lot of the ways it has been successful have been to have unethical approaches to your payment model. We don’t want to be unethical. We want to treat people with respect and make money in a way that is mutual with the players of the game. That makes it a little trickier to make money when you are trying to be a nice person and make money. Then there is just a matter of how much appeal the game will have how much publicity we can bring to it. I would say for both products that sustainability is the big challenge there. If we end up not getting as much work done as we wanted to all that really means is that the work will get pushed back which is too bad but I don’t think we are likely to abandon the project. It often feels very frustrating and hard to keep your motivation going when progress is very slow on a project.

SFL: Some people would question going into a project, such as the role-playing game, knowing that it is not going to make much money. What is your motivation then? What would you consider a success in terms of that particular project? How are you evaluating its level of success?

Avery-Weir: The reason I am making LORE in particular is because it is a gaming system that I wished already existed. It is the sort of gaming system that I want to be able to play. So I want to develop it and make it work and share it with other people who might have a similar desire to play a game that is fast and enables a story without complicated rules getting in the way. People who would want to create characters quickly and go through a game session and have the rules kind of be a fun and engaging facilitator for the stories you are creating. Success in my mind would be seeing other people using the game. Knowing that people are sharing it with their gaming groups, that they are creating interesting stories with it, that they are having great social experiences that are enabled by LORE. With the beta that I released in 2009, I have seen some people, occasionally I will get a link or something from someone somewhere on the web where they have run a campaign and enjoyed it a lot or said there is this system that is cool but I don’t like this and this thing it does so I am going to modify it. Experiencing those sorts of feedback is really awesome. People chopping and screwing my work or seeing someone enjoying and sharing my work, I think success on that project would be measured in seeing a bunch of people enjoying it. It is probably not going to break even. If it did, that would probably mean a whole lot of people were enjoying it which would be especially great.

SFL: What sort of management plan do you have in your head in terms of making all of this happen? Do you have anything specifically mapped out or are you following a more organic approach?

Melissa Avery-Weir and Gregory Avery-Weir, Co-Founders of Future Proof Games

Avery-Weir: We are using a rough form of a software development strategy called Agile Scrum. That helps to make tasks for group work to be done. You estimate how long it will take to do and then you organize your work into segments of time called sprints.

This all seems like a very reasonable way and very obvious way, but Agile has various things that help specify and make it an organized system. We are using that to manage what tasks we have and things like that. We currently have weekly meetings every Sunday evening. We sit down using screen sharing and voice chat. We go through what tasks we want to do for the next sprint. We review the last sprint and see what progress was done, what obstacles occurred.

Part of what that helps with it is really important when you are doing any large creative or engineering work to break the task up into small tasks so you accomplish something so that you have a feeling of completion or accomplishment in regards to the task, that you feel that you are making forward progress. If you just say, ‘I have this vision of what this will look like at the end and just start without benchmarks, then you can feel like you are Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill. You think you have gotten something accomplished, but then you see that something else isn’t done and you can get discouraged. If you set those milestones or markers of discrete small tasks, it helps you understand that, yes, you are making progress. You have made this much progress from the beginning and you have this much more till the end.

It is a pretty well established software development technique. It is matched kind of oddly to creative projects. It is kind of hard to have a task, to think about how you want to express this aesthetic concept, and then to think, ‘How can I construct that in a way to where I can tell when I am done, and so that I know what I am delivering at the end of it?’ Is it a write up, a vision, a mock-up image or something like that? Once you get into the groove of things, the technique is very useful even for the creative aspect.

SFL: What are the next steps between now and August, about a month from now. What do you think will happen? You will obviously be getting into the groove of your new work schedule and you are going to be moving forward with the role playing. Just explain in some detail what will you be doing in the next few weeks to get a couple steps closer to the finish line?

Avery-Weir: Creating and sticking to a routine is going to be very important. I have a tendency to fall out of a productive routine. Months can pass and I look up and I haven’t accomplished anything. So one of the things that is going to be very important for me is to very quickly establish a solid schedule of how I am organizing my life, so that I am getting my obligations done at my day job that is going to fund my continued existence. I hope to then transition to producing the stuff that I am passionate about. That routine of getting myself in a state where that is a habit of getting to work on time, and then getting to my personal work on time. Those both have the priority that they should have in my life. That is probably going to be a lot of the actual work I do for my creative projects over the next month or so. I may complete some tasks, and that is good but the real important work that I will be doing is forming a structure that will allow me to be productive throughout the close of my contract.