There are generally two types of people in the world — people who like to talk about doing things, and people who are actually doing things. I’m part of the former, but I’d like to be part of the latter. In order to find out what makes those types of special people tick (and how I can become one of them), I’ve started interviewing people I know who’ve stopped talking about doing things and started doing them. This is the first of that series.
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Robert Boyd is a co-creator of the popular indie video games Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World and the founder of Zeboyd Games. In addition to making innovative retro JRPGs, Robert has taught English both at home and abroad in Asia, and is the father of four daughters.
Did you start out making indie video games hoping to turn it into a career? At what point in your working on Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World did you think to yourself, “Oh man, I think I can make a career out of this?”
My original plan was to write amusing Choose Your Own Adventure style games as a part-time job to help support my other part-time job of teaching. Put out a new one each month, develop a strong fanbase, make $1,000-$2,000/month. When my second game, Molly the Were-Zompire, sold worse than my first one, it became evident that this strategy wouldn’t work without some major changes. I had always wanted to make RPGs, but had thought that they were beyond my programming skill. However, one day in January, when I was feeling depressed and trying to decide what to do, I just said “Forget this!” and decided to make an RPG even though I had no idea how I would do so. About three months later, Breath of Death VII came out.
What does your daily work schedule look like? Did you start out with a strict schedule to follow, or did you just do whatever felt natural and eventually one developed?
Until just recently, I’ve been working on game development on a strictly part-time basis – I’d go to my job as a teacher during the day and then work on game development at night when I had the time or on days when I didn’t have work. I’ve only just recently started full-time development so I don’t really have a strict schedule. What I do is make a list of goals I want to accomplish that day and then I do my best to accomplish them.
You’re a family man with a wife and beautiful daughters. Was there any anxiety during the whole process when it came to supporting your family? How did your wife feel about you spending time making video games?
There was definitely a lot of anxiety about the viability of all this in 2010. 2011 is definitely looking up. Our sales in the 1st quarter of 2011 have almost earned enough money to cover 3 months worth of expenses and we still have nearly 2 months left to go in the quarter! And we have the PC releases of our existing games and our upcoming 3rd RPG to look forward to – I definitely think 2011 will be the year where my game development changes not just from being a part-time job into a full time career, but into a surprisingly lucrative full time career.
Many of the reviews for Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World praise their sharp, witty writing. As the writer for those games, where do you get your inspiration for story ideas and dialogue? Were you always interested in writing? Are there any major influences on your writing style?
Inspiration comes from the usual sources – media I enjoy (and dislike), people I know, staring at walls until my forehead bleeds.
I’ve always wanted to be a novelist, but I think video game design and game writing suits my writing style better. Plus with my games, there’s a guarantee of release – I don’t know if I could take all the time to write out a really good novel without knowing if I could actually sell it to a publisher beforehand. As for influences, Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams are my two favorite writers of all time, so I try to include elements of their style in my own writing.
When you actually started making Breath of Death VII, you taught yourself C# and really didn’t have much programming knowledge or experience beforehand. However, you are fluent in two languages (English and Chinese). Do you feel that being bilingual helped in learning a programming language, or is that comparing apples to oranges?
I don’t think being bilingual was much of a help. Learning a programming language is more like learning a new form of math than it is learning an actual language.
Do you have any advice to learning a programming language, or is it just a lot of hard work?
Read a lot of examples online and don’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re stuck.
What is the biggest struggle you’ve had in programming your own video game? In writing your own video game?
The biggest struggle so far has probably just been trying to keep motivated to work on the game while still juggling a job, family, and other responsibilities. Hopefully, that will become much easier now that we’re starting to make enough money to justify doing game development full-time.
You work with two other people in Zeboyd Games — the artist and the composer. How did you find each other? Did you know each other before making games, or when you started making your game you decided you needed an artist and composer and went looking for them? Did the business side of making indie games surprise you, or did it come to you naturally?
I met our artist on the Penny Arcade forums. We were both active posters on the game industry business thread and he made an offhand remark that he wish he could work on XBLIG development as an artist. I needed an artist so I sent him an email asking if he’d be interested in working on a game idea I had in mind (an early version of Breath of Death VII). After confirming that I wasn’t going to go crazy with the scope, he agreed.
As for our musician, we were looking for good songs for Breath of Death VII and licensed a few songs from him. I really liked his musical style so we asked him to come on as our full fledged composer for Cthulhu Saves the World.
I have yet to actually meet either individual in person. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get everyone together to do a booth at PAX Prime this year.
Now that you’ve come this far, looking back, what is one thing you would have done differently if you had the chance?
I would have done more preparation before starting work on Cthulhu Saves the World. Cthulhu Saves the World was a lot more work than Breath of Death VII and a lot more work than I had planned for. If I had it to do over, I would have made another smaller game after Breath of Death VII, then made some better map designing tools before starting Cthulhu Saves the World. In the end, we would have had 3 games instead of 2 and it probably would have ended up taking about the same amount of time overall since we would have made fewer mistakes that needed correction.
Often times, some of our best ideas come by accident or necessity rather than deliberation. What’s the best idea you’ve stumbled upon while working on indie games?
Probably the random encounter cap. I was all for having monsters chase the player around in dungeons, but it turned out to be more work and time than I wanted to spend for that one feature. Random encounters are much easier to implement, but players tend to hate them. While I was trying to come up with a way to make random encounters less reviled, I came up with the idea of implementing random encounter limits in each dungeon and it turned out to be one of the most popular features in our RPGs.
After your second successful release with Cthulhu Saves the World, you started getting a lot of people asking for a job at Zeboyd Games, even saying they would work for free. Obviously, there’s a lot of people who want to get into making games and feel they have at least some skill or value to offer but aren’t sure how to break into the business. What advice would you give to them?
Stop talking about it and just do it. Make a game. Not only do you gain a lot of experience from making a game that you can’t get any other way, not only does it provide a good example of your talents to potential employers and teams, but it also proves that you can actually finish something. If you have the determination to start a project and actually finish it, that alone makes you stand out above the crowd.
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Do you know someone who is doing cool things and might want to talk about it? Let me know at tylee85 [at] gmail [dot] com.