The start of an indie game development career can be scary and exhilarating at the same time. And yet, the freedom to choose to do anything and create whatever you want has driven many game developers to pursue this avenue today, whether young or old, amateur or professional. It's one of many reasons why you see programmers and designers with years of experience leaving triple-A studios in order to strike it out on their own.
For novice game designer Trent Steen of recently formed Secret Tunnel Entertainment, indie development not only held that distinct allure but also served as a gateway to finally getting his feet wet in game design and programming in general.
"I'd always had the idea of working on games in my head ever since I was a little kid," Steen mentioned over email. "But when I started to get older and found out that a lot of times game development is an office job with horrible working conditions and not a whole lot of creative freedom, I got to be turned off from the idea."
Not surprisingly, Steen's perspective on the industry and the way it ran at that time was and still is shared by many would-be programmers and game designers today. What can be a rewarding career for some can also be quite harsh for others, depending on the position and company one works for. It isn't uncommon for many developers to lose a large part of their personal and family life due to their work, especially during "crunch time" - the period leading up to a game's release. And while it isn't all bad, a career with larger developers can be difficult and it's not for everyone.
But before Steen shut out the possibility of ever making and selling a game, something happened to change his outlook. In 2008, two former EA employees combined their talents to create and release an innovative title that would garner international acclaim and even manage to attract the attention of Nintendo, a feat not easily accomplished by anyone other than a third-party publisher at the time. That game was World of Goo, and it changed Steen's entire perception of how games were made.
"[World of Goo] blew me away," he mentioned. "And finding out that it was made by just two guys, which was unheard of at the time, completely opened my mind up to a new world of possibilities. If they could do it, why couldn“t I?"
It was that determination that would lead Steen to form Secret Tunnel Entertainment and develop his very first game, which would come to be known as Shapes of Gray, a retro-styled action arcade game that's aptly named for its visual style and premise.
Quite literally, it's about shapes of varying gray colors attacking each other - or more specifically - they're attacking the blob that you control which only has a sword to defend itself with. In each level, the only objective is to dispatch the different shapes within 10 seconds. Naturally, there are different shapes with varying attack patterns - some are little triangles that home in on your character immediately, others are faster and bounce around, and yet others might be stationary but shoot projectiles and the like. It mixes things up with new enemy attack patterns just enough to keep things consistently interesting, even if you will likely die again and again before making it to the very end.
In many ways, it's very much like Geometry Wars but mixed with the battle mechanics from the original The Legend of Zelda NES game. The concept is unabashedly simple, but there's a certain addicting quality to it not unlike arcade games of old. And the visuals, while unassuming and unimpressive at first glance, do carry a certain Edmund McMillen-esque vibe to them, (especially the little squares that can only be attacked from the back).
Due to this being his first title, Steen actually opted for this more simplistic look, which he admits is due in part to his limited drawing ability. The game itself was also made using Game Maker, a widely available game development program that has been taken advantage of by many indie studios and has produced such recent indie game darlings as Nidhogg, Risk of Rain, Spelunky, and Hotline Miami. Given the pedigree of those titles, it would be easy to assume that Game Maker is not exactly for amateur and novice developers, but Steen noted otherwise.
"Game Maker is super-easy to use," he reassured. "Anyone who even remotely has a passing interest in making games should check it out. After about two hours of doing tutorials you can already do a lot, and you“ll learn a ton just by making stuff you want to make. [The Studio version] has a couple of annoying quirks, but at the end of the day, it“s an incredibly easy and awesome tool to use, so I can“t complain too much."
When asked if he would ever bring Shapes of Gray to a console or handheld, Steen mentioned that he'd love to, but that it likely wouldn't happen anytime soon. He explained that consoles and handhelds aren't able to support games developed in Game Maker, at least not natively and without a proper porting process on the developer's end. And as for any intentions on bringing the game to iOS?
"I just can“t think of a good way to adapt the controls to a touch device," he mentioned.
"I will say, though, as much as people like to pick on the Xbox One, the fact that every One is also a dev kit is incredibly alluring to a broke, just-starting-out developer like me who doesn't have thousands of dollars to spend on dev kits. If I were to ever take the time to port the game, I might look into getting it on there before anywhere else."
So what's next for Secret Tunnel Entertainment? Beyond another title Steen is working on (that he mentions is mostly just for fun), he isn't 100% set on anything just yet, though he does have an idea for a game larger in scope than Shapes of Gray; the likes of which will require a proper prototype to determine exactly what can be done with it.
"It“s not an arcade game, though," he quickly deferred. "The closest thing I could compare it to right now is Warrior“s Way, but even that could change. [in regards to a platform], it might have an iOS version."
"Right now I“ve been looking at teams like Vlambeer who make really small but really fun sorts of games that they can churn out pretty quickly; a couple of friends and I played through Yeti Hunter and loved it. As an amateur, I“d like to create as many games as possible within the next few years so that I can get a lot of experience and get my name out there before starting work on a really big project."
As for Shapes of Gray, it's a short but sweet experience that's undeniably entertaining while it lasts. You can purchase the game for $2 on Secret Tunnel Entertainment's website (http://secret_tunnel.itch.io/shapes-of-gray), and for those interested in a Steam release, you can check out the game's page on Steam Greenlight.