Q & A: Digger Dan developer, Mick Waites, talks industry and 3DS vs. NGP

12 mins read

The creative mind behind the quite excellent Digger Dan, Mick Waites, took the time to sit down with us and talk about breaking into the UK games industry and give us his view on the upcoming 3DS vs. NGP battle.

Coming soon to iOS

 1) Could you provide us with your background? How did you get into games development?

Well, I’ve recently turned 40, I’m married with a 4 year old son and I’ve been into video games pretty much from the day they were originally invented. I got an Acorn Electron when I was about 11 and taught myself to program on it. I had quite a few games on the Electron and always marvelled at them and aspired to write my own, holding their creators up as some sort of magical geniuses, but I never really believed I could one day be doing the same thing.

I never really had the financial means to put myself through any sort of education beyond my school qualifications and spent a good deal of my early adult life working in jobs I hated. Eventually, a friend suggested I apply to be a tester within the industry based on my game playing ability and the way I tended to like to complete games 100 per cent. This seemed like a complete waste of time to me since all game development companies were mythical creations staffed with wizards and the like (at least in my mind). After a quick scan through Edge magazine, he found an advert for a developer about 7 miles away who were hiring testers and the next thing you know I’ve got myself a job as a tester.

Whilst working for this first company, I soon realised that I did have what was needed to be a professional games programmer and that all I needed was a little more experience of different languages and skills and to get a chance. As part of my self training I started work on a certain Digger Dan game, which was inspired by all my own favourite early video games, which did land me in my first programming role in the industry.

2) You’ve had experience across a number of different downloadable platforms. How have you found each to work with? What are the challenges/ advantages to each?

To be honest, the only issue that I find tricky relates to the control methods. In all generations of gaming hardware before this one, all devices had one thing in common – they usually had enough buttons to control most game, even mobile phones. But this generation has changed all that. The Wii is more about movement than it is buttons. The DS is begging for some touch interaction. Some phones and tablets don’t have any usable button inputs at all and rely entirely on touch and/or motion sensing. That is the real challenge for a developer of “casual” games – designing a game that works well on all systems, because you really need to get it out onto all systems to get the best returns on the time you put into it.

My Digger Dan DSiWare game is currently being converted over to iPhone and iPad but, to be honest, it’s not really best suited to those devices. It was designed entirely around the DS hardware so to control it on the iPhone I’m having to put “buttons” on the touch screen, it’s not ideal but it also works the other way. The massively popular (and deservingly so) Angry Birds has recently been ported over to the PSP download service and the reviews I’ve seen have said that the controls are terrible. This is the big challenge at the moment as far as I’m concerned, designing a game that can be spread across as many platforms as possible without those hardware differences spoiling the final product.

3) How have the console manufacturers been to work with, in terms of support, resources etc?

That question is very hard to answer. It really depends, and quite rightly, on who you are. The console manufacturers are all just businesses like anyone else and they only have limited resources. They direct those resources towards the developers who they feel will give them the best returns. I know of companies who are begging Nintendo to get them running on the 3DS but haven’t got there yet and I know of a company who could get 3DS systems tomorrow if they asked for them. It seems pretty harsh to the ones who are ready to get going on 3DS but aren’t seen as big fish to Nintendo, but I understand Nintendo’s point of view.

All the console manufacturers provide good tools, resources and support for developing on their gear. It’d be stupid of them not to as they all make money from every game sale.

Digital downloads have proven to be a Godsend for smaller projects

4) What are your thoughts about the upcoming consoles – the 3DS and NGP, and the download platforms of both – have you worked with either yet, and if so what are your impressions?

Well, I have two sets of impressions, really. First of all as a developer:

I’ve not worked on the 3DS yet, but I am desperate to. I’m not that interested in the overall power of the system, that doesn’t really fit in with the sort of games I like to work on, but I would like to have a play with the 3D screen to see what can be done with it and I’d also like to dip my programming toes into wireless multiplayer and online features.

I have worked on the PSP2 (I refuse to call it the NGP). It is a nice system although a little hard to tell how powerful it actually is with the project I am working on as we are porting PS3 code so our stuff is currently running very slowly while we optimise/re-work it all for the different architecture. The hardware and development software have been in development whilst I’ve had my hands on the kit and that has made it pretty challenging to work with.

As a game player:

I cannot wait to get my hands on the 3DS in three weeks. I’ve had a play with one in Manchester earlier in the year and was amazed at the quality of the 3D screen. It was far better than I was expecting (I wasn’t expecting it to be very good, to be honest). I really like the things Nintendo have added to this generation – the play coins as a reward for exercise, an improved eShop, an overall more online focused experience with the film downloads etc. I really am excited about this and hope I can finish my iOS version of Digger Dan very soon as I know it will get massively delayed from the 25th onwards…

As for the PSP2, sorry Sony but “meh”. I just am not excited by this at all. There is just not adding anything new to the device that interests me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it isn’t an incredible piece of hardware – it is – but it just doesn’t seem to offer anything new that I want to experience, so the only thing that’ll make me get one is if it gets enough games on there that I really want to play. Favourite Sony games for me include Ape Escape, Loco Roco and Ratchet and Clank.

5) As a developer, what are some of the challenges you encounter in making a living out of this industry? What would be your advice to up-and-comers?

Well, staying employed is a biggie. I’ve been made redundant three times in the industry now and have worked for a total of six companies in just 12 years, with three years out of the industry somewhere in the middle of all that!

My advice to up-and-comers would be this:

Focus on what you want to do in the industry, on what you are good at. There seems to be a lot of people say they are interested in making games, but don’t seem to know in exactly what role that might be. It’s not impossible to do a little bit of everything if you are good at everything, but most people are better at one particular thing be it math, art, animation, design or level design (two completely different skills).

If you know you are already good at something, put some practical samples of your work together and send them round the smaller studios. If you can demonstrate that you have the ability to do the job, you don’t need a degree to get started in this industry.

This is the bio under which all legacy DigitallyDownloaded.net articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

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