Hit play or download on the bar below for the podcast interview with Dan. Making Games is fun is also available on iTunes
London: busy, innit?
It's a sentiment which thousands have attempted to express in the opening paragraphs of articles related to London. A swathe of tablets pepper the capital's coffee shops, forming a constellation of journalists and frustrated writers, frowning at half-written sentences piled high with florid adjectives, until:
"Ah, Le mot juste", they declare, kissing the tips of their kale-stained fingers as they marvel at the impeccable, triple-filtered, TESCO's Finest range sentence lying emblazoned, black on white, on their screen:
"London: busy, innit?"
For some, London can be stifling, both for creativity and personal wellbeing; this was certainly the case for Dan Marshall of Size Five Games, the company behind titles such as 'Ben There, Dan That!', 'Time Gentlemen Please!' And 'Gun Monkeys'. He's been out of London and in the English countryside for over a year now, and he's incredibly happy. He doesn't miss the unsettled feeling of being in rented accommodation. He doesn't miss the thoroughfare of temporary friends, coming and going. He feels rooted here, like he's finally in his home as opposed to borrowing someone else's front room.
Scanning the area just outside the train station, I turn around to a loud horn honk and see Dan roll up in his four wheel drive behemoth, churning up the roadside gravel and beckoning me with an eager wave. He jumps out of the car to offer to help me put my stuff in the back. He's a tall, solid looking dude, with a booming voice and a friendly disposition. It feels to me like he's always lived out here, exuding as he does a sort of rural chic (he owns a pair of wellies). We drive for a short while until all is fields and sheep. A familiar whiff of animal shite passes into my nostrils and, having grown up in the sticks, I inhale nostalgically; ah, country air.
Since the move, he's been mostly concerned with making games and, when he's not relaxing, making token efforts at the several hundred mini jobs that require attention in a recently moved-into home. Floors have been removed, some yet to be replaced, stairs have been re...staired, and the third floor attic space has been converted into an office of sorts. The office comprises a desk, a computer, a printer, a devkit, a wooden floor and lots of empty space - delightfully uncluttered, by which I mean "not decorated yet". A single, small window offers plenty of natural light and a pleasant view into the surrounding greenery.
Rural England is often characterised as a sleepy, slow paced place, a million miles away from the rush of the big city. Since becoming freelance, Dan has made sure he hasn't fallen victim to this stereotype. He is a man with a great deal of self-discipline, his reasoning being the harder he works, the more likely he will remain successful, and the longer he can do the job he loves. He attributes this work ethic to treating self-employment like any other job, putting on a shirt and trousers and sitting down to work 9 to 5. These days, the shirt and trousers have gone - thankfully replaced with casual clothing - and he has no trouble maintaining focus.
For Dan, a strong work ethic and being approachable and helpful defines professionalism when your job is "sitting around designing guns and explosions". Sadly, nobody can escape the drudgery of bureaucracy, even those whose job entails making cool-ass robots. Being an indie company comprising one person certainly has its benefits, though; not only does Dan enjoy total freedom of control over his creative work, he also has the freedom to destroy it. Even in small companies, once budgets are assigned it can be difficult and ill-advised to abandon projects; if there's an office building and a team involved, work must be seen through to the end, even if it's not coming together as hoped. Dan can, in theory, abandon or freeze a project at a moment's notice.
Dan's upcoming title The Swindle was once doomed to the scrapheap - a game now in its final stages at the time of writing. The Swindle's AI routines had become too complicated and intelligent; realistic guards would have varying attributes determined on a sliding scale. This was an interesting idea, creating a more 'human' enemy but, sadly, outwitting the AI wasn't actually much fun.
It wasn't until Dan got his hands on Mossmouth's Spelunky that he identified the solution. He realised that the success of Spelunky's enemies lies in their set, readable rules; the definite paths and exploitable behaviour were significantly more fun to figure out and beat. Newly inspired, Dan fired up The Swindle and resumed work.
I pad around, shooting Dan's top floor office space, until he distracts me by asking if I want to try The Swindle. Being the towering pillar of professionalism that I am, I immediately put the camera down and grab a controller.
The Swindle is a game Dan has spent an inordinate amount of time playing, tweaking, replaying, to the point of exhaustion, so it's always a treat for him to see how a new player will tackle the mechanics. A fresh pair of eyes on the game offers him the opportunity to step back and see it in a different light, a less readily available resource when working alone. He has to bite his lip to stop himself from blurting out all the cool things you can do in the game, what I should be doing next and why what I'm about to do is a terrible idea:
'I should just shut up and let you discover it for yourself', he concedes grudgingly - a familiar exchange between dev and player; in fact, Dan himself admits that he often has trouble with this element of development:
' The worst thing is putting someone else in front of it, ' he admits, ' when someone else plays it and they play it wrong, and they're playing it too slowly '
' I can play The Swindle now and I can blitz through the levels in double quick time. Put someone who's never played it before in front of it and they're going through stuff for the first time, and you forget [that it's new to them] '
It's important to remember that part of the fun of a game is that sense of exploration; that first cautious foray into a game world is interesting and exciting, as is the ensuing process of acquiring gradual understanding and mastery of a game's environment and systems. A developer's familiarity with their game comes at the cost of a sense of perspective, and puts them at risk of confusing enjoyable player failure with poor game design.
Over time, the developer becomes an unreliable tester, being the only person who will play the game every single day for ten months straight. A worry that the game might be boring seeps in, which can lead to new features being added when, in actual fact, you're at risk of overcomplicating things or overwhelming the player.
It's time for a break from the game. We stroll around the village so I can get a sense of Dan's environment but mainly to photograph some sheep. At the nearby farm, I chat with the cows and coo at the lambs like a content simpleton. It makes me miss the countryside; the true fresh air, the calm, the quiet. I forgot how damn quiet it is.
For Dan, this atmosphere comes as a welcome change from the constant clamour of London. There certainly is an air of serenity in his country retreat, and I begin to appreciate what a great working environment this is. He tells me he prefers to work without distractions and can't understand people who listen to music or podcasts. Ironically, for a man with such a loud voice, he's at his best in the absolute silence of rural England, with nothing to distract him.
Dan's setup is that of the bedroom coder, except with the advantages of modern connectivity. As I photograph Dan at his desk, he gets an email through from a freelance composer he has commissioned to create music for The Swindle. He plays the piece that has been emailed to him and his eyes widen. Eagerly, he fires up the accompanying cutscene and layers it over the top.
" THAT'S PERFECT! " he yells, clapping his hands together loudly. As the industry has evolved, so has the indie dev. Working independently no longer means being alone; if anything, there is a greater sense of community as people around the world find solidarity in solitude, forming strong communities of people who share the same independent spirit; the same urge to make stuff.
As the sun goes down and the light is lost, we sit a while and talk games. Dan has some controversial opinions about his favourites and what he feels is overrated. He's confident and strong willed, but any behaviour that could be interpreted as brusque is offset by a disarming warmth and friendliness. The Swindle reflects him as a person - it has a good sense of humour, it's colourful and characterful. It seems the game has flourished, benefitting from his new place of work deep in the heart of the English countryside, in the beauty and the calm, interrupted only by the odd muck spreader or curious sheep.
In many ways, Dan's setup is similar to mine: working from home by yourself, for yourself. There is a freedom in being your own boss, but a lapse in self-discipline can see you wasting three hours on Twitter before you've even started. Conversely, you can end up working too late on a project and sit there staring at the absolute rubbish you've just typed for an hour because you're too tired to be working. Dan seems a relentlessly positive and organised person though, one who doesn't dwell on nonsense like I might. He has learned to switch off properly in the evenings and 'leave work at work' , as they say, even though 'work' is only ever a couple of flights of stairs away.
For Dan, independence is getting out of London. Independence is making room, finding a space in which to breathe and grow, by separating himself from the muggy throng that swallows so many.
You can find Dan on Twitter @danthat to find out the latest news about The Swindle, as well as be amused by his frighteningly honest tweets about how development is going. You can expect to be playing The Swindle in the Summer of 2015.