Ken Wong got his first videogame job from a piece of fan-art he did on the internet.
He created a piece of fan-art for American McGee’s Alice, and got noticed by the game designer who asked him for if he wanted a job. Eventually that led to him being the art-director of the sequel, Alice: Madness Returns.
Most recently, Ken has been working on his own iOS game, Hackycat, which is a game of Hacky Sack except you kick cats in the air.
Hackycat is the first game that Ken Wong has worked on as an independent, solo developer.
He told me: “I have always been more interested in smaller more expressive games, and so when iOS came along, especially the iPad I got into these smaller tightly designed games, so that’s what I was interested in when I started Hackycat
“The barriers for entry are much lower for IOS, you can make a game with just a laptop and with some free software, and with an apple developer account, and that’s a lot easier than making a console game.”
Moving from a big project with a team, to a small indie title working by yourself can be challenging.
“you have to become very self reliant because you’re the only person there, you can’t turn to the programmer and say ‘hey can you fix this, can you work on this for the next couple of days?’ so I had to get used to not having anyone else and that often means taking on the role of producer, QA and handling marketing and all that kind of stuff.
“I was working from home at the same time, so it was really easy to get stuck in your own head. You’re working on the game design and you think it’s fun, but you’re not sure cause you know only you’re playing it yourself, so you need to get out there and have a few people play it and really listen to their feedback.
“It’s kinda hard when you know what you want and they’re just not getting it, they don’t think it’s fun, and that was challenging for me because I think I know what I want but you have to listen to the audience and analyse their feedback.”
Wong also warned those who wish to immediately want to go into indie development: “I do think that I can only do what I’m doing right now as an Indie because I spent many years working with a team of fantastic talented people who I learnt a lot from.
“I think it would be quite hard to do this without my prior experience, so I would say, if you can, work with people more experienced so you can learn for a few years.
“If you’re determined to embark on this indie adventure, listen and learn to the people around you, read as much as you can from people who have done indie games, listen to their advice, learn from their mistakes.
“I think there’s this idea of ‘I’m a game designer and I’m gonna make a game and people will like it’, it’s a more organic process than that, people will give you feedback and you have to respond to that.”
It’s too early for him to tell if it’s a big financial success, but in some ways, he’s already succeeded: “I think for me what I wanted to achieve with this game was complete the project, to make a game by myself and put it out, so I’ve done that and I’m really happy about it, so the next thing is just to see how well it does financially.”
“Games writing has a chequered history,” said Rhianna Pratchett, writer of the latest Tomb Raider reboot, Overlord, Mirrors Edge and Heavenly Sword.
“It wasn’t usually done by a professional writer, it was usually someone who just fancied a go or someone who drew the short straw.”
The last fifteen years has seen videogames bring more focus onto narrative, Rhianna Pratchett listed Portal, Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Dishonored as proof of this.
So when I met her at the Animex festival at Teesside University, I asked her what she considered when writing a game:
“It’s important to know how gameplay and story fit together, and how one informs another.
“With Tomb Raider we didn’t want the case that the story and gameplay were each created in a vacuum, we wanted it seamless and appear as a cohesive whole. It was important that both disciplines talk to each other to get this done.
“Tomb Raider’s not a story led game, it’s not a gameplay led game, it’s an experience led game, it’s a journey led game, so gameplay and story both come together to support that journey, to support that origin story of Lara.”
Overlord was a comedy-fantasy game, something not often seen, so I wondered why is videogame comedy not as big a thing?
“What worked with Overlord is that the humour was saturated throughout, it wasn’t just down to script, it was down to the overall premise, the animation of the minions, the voice acting and the level design. It was all very cohesive, it all kind of worked together. We had some really great voice actors.
“We sort of built the humour in from the ground up, through everything, and I think that’s kind of what you really need to do.
“If you look at something like the Monkey Island games, they take a similar way of doing things, they sort of built kind of comedy into the animation as well as the writing and the gameplay premise.
“I think comedy is hard to do in games because you can’t control the scenes in the same way as a film can. You can sort of control timing a little bit but because it’s an interactive medium you never quite know if the player is going to hit something at the right time.”
When creating stories, communication between divisions is important according to Pratchett.
“You really have to work closely with gameplay departments and level design, particularly with something like Overlord where I worked every day with the level designers.
“That meant that although it was my script, they had an input into it, it was shaped around what they wanted for their levels.
“On something like Tomb Raider which had a much bigger team, I drew reliance on creative director Noah Hughes and narrative designer John Stafford to be a conduit between myself and the team and make sure that I was aware of when things needed to change
“That’s quite a good way of working and it tends to work well.”