Interview with Indie Developer Andy Esser

When you were nine years old did you know what you wanted to do with your life? Had you ever even thought about it? If you did, are you now doing what you thought you would be? Well, if you’re indie developer Andy Esser you not only knew what you wanted to do, but were already teaching yourself the skills you’d need for your future career. Currently working on two games that tackle loss in very different ways, I was able to get some insight from Andy regarding the touching inspiration behind some of his work, his advice for getting where he is today and sharing a game name with a triple-A console title.

Laura: Could you start off by just introducing yourself for any of our readers who don’t know who you are?

Andy: Right, well I’m Andy Esser, 25 year old developer, currently working for Blitz Games Studios in Leamington Spa – whilst doing my own indie thing on the side. I’d just like to take this instance to thank you for choosing to interview me. I am very honoured to be here, and hopefully people find what I have to say interesting.

Laura: How did you first get into game development? Was it something you always knew you wanted to do?

Andy: Well I’ve been programming since I was nine years old. I’ve always enjoyed computer games, and the two seemed to just go together so well in my mind. I think I was about 15-16 when a friend told me about OpenGL, this great way of rendering things to the screen, so I got stuck in, messing around with loads of different things and just learning more and more stuff about games, rendering and programming. I even started to work on my own Game Engine, since I’m kind of suicidal when it comes to projects and love taking on far too much work than is healthy.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get into the industry straight away. For a long time I worked as a Network Engineer, until I was reading Rock, Paper, Shotgun one day and saw an article about this new website for indie developers to distribute their games, called IndieCity. So I looked at the site, joined the IRC channel and for almost a year I was in the IRC channel pretty much daily, getting to know the ‘regulars’ and the staff. It was through this that I heard about a vacancy for a backend web developer.

Now I’ve done my fair share of HTML and PHP and CSS and various other web technologies, but had never touched Java, which was really a concern to me as the job was specifically for a Java developer. I was working at a school at the time, so I spent the entire of half-term learning Java. I literally did not leave the house and just read whatever I could about Java and the various other technologies surrounding it. At the end of the week I travelled up to Leamington Spa for a two-day interview! Just the fact the interview was two whole days was terrifying, but I seemed to make a good impression, and here I am today, working with the IndieCity team at Blitz Games Studios.

Laura: Fantastic! Could you tell our readers about the games you’re currently working on and just give a brief description of what each one is about?

Andy: Well at Blitz, I’m still very much focussed on IndieCity and other web based technologies, so all of my direct games stuff is all indie. Currently me and my good friend Phil Hurst, together being Zero Dependency, are working on a couple of projects.

Firstly, “The Adventures of Bubble & Squeak” is a 2.5D puzzle platformer where you have two characters (Bubble and Squeak, oddly enough) who each have unique abilities and by cleverly combining these abilities you solve puzzles. There’s no deep storyline or anything like that. Just very simple, pick up and play mechanics aimed to be accessible to people of all ages.

Secondly, “Destiny”, which is actually now just a working title due to a rather large studio making a game of the same name. Destiny is a third person shooter/RPG which sees you play the role of a mother and a father (at differing points in the storyline) who are desperately trying to find their lost daughter when London suddenly becomes attacked by an unknown force.

We jokingly refer to Destiny as our “AAA Game” as it has such a massive scope and at the moment is beyond the reach of just myself and Phil. Because of this we’re working on the storyline and some concepts and ideas, but we haven’t started full production on it yet

Laura: Let’s talk a little more about The Adventures of Bubble & Squeak. What sort of inspirations have you drawn from while working on the game?

Andy: Well in terms of gameplay, I’ve been very inspired by games such as Ratchet & Clank, and Crash Bandicoot. Nothing overly complex, it’s mainly about exploring a level, collecting items and solving puzzles.

In terms of character designs, it will probably be obvious that we’ve drawn from films such as Monsters Inc. with our fantastical monsters who are actually really lovely and really friendly. Take Sully for example, he’s this big lumbering monster, but actually he’s just a giant teddy bear that is not averse to giving out hugs.

It was pointed out to me recently that many of the game ideas I come up with have a central theme (either obvious or subtle) of loss (you can thank Dan Pearce @GameDesignDan for that revelation). Bubble & Squeak can be likened to you as a child (Bubble) having an imaginary friend to play with or protect you (Squeak) and as you get older and time moves on, this friend that has always been there before slowly starts to disappear and move away, replaced with other people or hobbies.

Laura: Interesting. Does that central theme of a child and imaginary friend manifest in any ways in the gameplay?

Andy: Without giving too much away, and because we haven’t fully realised all the mechanics, yes it will manifest itself but the extent of this isn’t 100% decided yet. One thing I can promise is that one of the characters isn’t going to just suddenly disappear. People will have plenty of time to enjoy both of these characters we’re designing.

Laura: Brilliant. While we’re talking inspirations, what did you draw your inspirations from for Destiny?

Andy: Right well, this is where things are perhaps going to get a little bit dark. I lost my mother from cancer when I was nine, and then a few years ago my long term girlfriend left, both of which had a profound impact on me. Destiny will certainly echo the effects those events had on me. It’s a story about a very close and loving family, they have this amazing young daughter and the parents are in love. Suddenly, the world is broken apart and shattered and they have to fight to get their happiness back.

On the one hand you have this mother and father who will stop at nothing to get their daughter back and you have a daughter who just wants to go home and be safe. On top of all this there’s a very dark undertone around the whole story that affects all of them, everyone, in a way that’ll completely throw their lives upside down. Luckily, it gives the opportunity for something new and beautiful to grow out of it.

Laura: Is it tough to work on a game with subject matter that hits so close to home?

Andy: Yes and no. On the face of it, these are things that no-one wants to happen to them, but inevitably everyone will be affected by loss throughout their lives. The other side of that is that I’m getting to tell this story, my story in some respects, using a medium that people love and that really engages with the player to make them part of the story and perhaps show ultimately so many things in life are out of our control.

I’m hoping that people will really engage with the story, and enjoy being a part of it, the same way people love films that cause really intense emotions within you.

Laura: I completely understand, it often shows in the quality of emotion in a story when it’s something the person knows well.

Andy: Well I think all designers, of anything, draw from their own experiences in life, and all art allows you to take that and mould it to something other people can enjoy.

Laura: What sort of state are these games both in at the moment? Are they games that people can expect to see more from in the near future or more long term projects?

Andy: Unfortunately Destiny is very much a long term project. Unless I magically get a team of 20 really talented developers and a budget to match, it’s something that is going to take time to create. I’m such a perfectionist that I want it to be exactly how I envisage so it tells the story exactly how I want.

Bubble & Squeak is much further along, we’re actively developing the game and we’re hoping (fingers crossed) to have at least a demo available for people to play with in the not-too-distant future. We’re positive Bubble & Squeak is a 2013 release, we’re just not sure what stage of 2013 yet.

Laura: As someone who’s been entrenched in the game development work for a while, do you have any advice for newbies looking to get into it?

Andy: Get stuck in! With the rise in tools available on the market and the rise of stores such as the iOS App Store, Windows App Store and sites like IndieCity, it’s never been easier for people to make and release games.

Having written a game, and released it, it will be so much more valuable to a potential employer than many other forms of learning about games  – trying so hard not to say anything bad about game development degrees…

With the rise of Twitter & Facebook it’s also now easier than ever to get in contact with other people who are in exactly the same situation as you, who share that passion for games and are working on their skills. There are groups like the NIGD (Norfolk Indie Games Developers) run by Sam Jermy or GameDevNorth where indie developers travel to meet up, even if it’s just to go to the pub or have a meal and talk about their ideas.

Networking and getting to know people is the best way to get into the industry, showing the right person that you have what it takes can be all that’s needed to thrust you into a studio working on some very cool stuff. I’ve done the same thing here in Leamington, met up with other indie developers and as a result found out about cool games that are being developed and had the chance to work on some of them as well, for example Chopper Mike from VAMflax and Tactics Forever by DjArcas (of FortressCraft (in)fame).

Events like the Indie Game: The Meetup that I organised back in September last year in London brought together nearly 300 developers from all across the country into one (admittedly very small) pub and got discussions going and people showing off their games

Laura: Lastly, have you got any last words for our readers?

Andy: As I said, get stuck in! Use every ounce of your spare time to learn technologies in use in AAA studios, or practising your art, or writing stories.

Experience what the world has to offer, go out for a nice long walk, read lots of books, watch films, see a play. All of these things add to your experience which adds to what you can bring to a studio and ideas you can have for a story, or little touches that you might think of that someone else might have missed.

There are no hard and fast rules for getting into game development, it’s one of the most rapidly changing industries in the world, so you need to keep up and stay ahead of the curve, and once you do that who knows what amazing and beautiful stories and worlds you’ll be a key part of.

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