Interview: Psychotic Psoftware and the trials and tribulations of indie development

34 mins read

Psychotic Psoftware’s Mike Hanson is no stranger to the gaming industry, as he has worked for an independent developer creating casual mobile titles for years. Today, his upcoming retro inspired 2D shooter, Power Up, is currently in the middle of its Kickstarter campaign and releasing on both Xbox Live Arcade and PC sometime later this year.

Despite what some people seem to believe, the current contraction within the gaming industry has affected the independent sector of the industry as well and Hanson knows the pains of its grips all too well. I recently got the chance to sit down and chat with Hanson about his new title, but while I had the chance, I got an intriguing insight on what it’s actually like to be in the shoes of an independent developer that’s trying to crack into the gaming industry full-time. 

Digitally Downloaded (DD): How is 2013 shaping up for Psychotic Psoftware? What are your top priorities for the year?
Mike Hanson (MH): 2013 is already shaping up to be an interesting time for me personally. Having been comfortably (perhaps too comfortably) in the same Games Artist/Lead Artist job since 2006, I found myself redundant when the company officially closed its art department on Dec 31st. This literally meant that I was on my own as of New Year’s Day and it affected me in a few ways. Ultimately, my priority was and still is to find a job in a market that is currently unnervingly reminiscent of a desert dust-bowl! I’m finding that video games is a specialist’s industry at the moment, and I’m more of an an all-rounder.

The usual financial issues apply too… Since my redundancy, money is a much more finite resource than it was, not that I was particularly flush before. Mainly, I was saving with a view to having my software licences ready by the time I release Power Up, my first proper game. I had to quickly redirect those savings into paying the bills, mortgage and general survival. Which is why I started the Kickstarter campaign…
DD: Your upcoming game, Power Up, is in the middle of its Kickstarter campaign – can you tell our readers a bit about it?
MH: Power Up is very much created in the style of a classic side scrolling shooter (or a SHMUP), The game’s narrative is set over five big levels, crammed full of enemies with all kinds of different attack patterns. I’ve topped off these levels in style, with giant monster bosses too! There’s plenty of bullet-hell to contend with and …oh yeah, plenty of Powering-Up to be had. In fact, your ship comes equipped with an array of weapons for dealing with just about every kind of encounter! Something sneaking up behind you?… there’s a gun for that! That boss needs fast-repeating plasma machine gun fire concentrated in one place?… There’s a gun for that too!! What really makes Power Up though, is that as you progress through the game, you get to select which weapons you want to power up as you go. If you just want to bulldoze your way through with the straight lazer, go for it… just be prepared to be dodging a lot of enemy fire from behind, above and below as well!

While Power Up plays in a classic way, albeit with plenty of control and pick-up innovations here and there, I decided on a visual motif for the game that’s altogether more modern and really gives Power Up a look of its own. Painting the backgrounds in 2D, I opted for rendered 3D ships with a bit of grit and specular shine to them, generally unseen in traditional 3D gaming. Rendering the ships also made animating them much easier so it suited me technically as well as aesthetically. I took a similar decision with the music too. Initially, I was considering chiptunes but soon realised that the more realistic art demanded slightly less synthesised music, so to that end I’ve been experimenting with choir and orchestral samples alongside big beats. So far the results are good pretty good!
DD: The game definitely has a great “old school” vibe to it – are we right in guessing that the developer is “old school” at heart as well? What are some of your favourite retro titles?
MH: Definitely. I grew up in the 80s. When I was nine my Mum bought my brother and me a Spectrum +2. It simply blew me away! I was particularly hooked to some of the forgotten greats like King’s Keep, Blind Panic, and Sceptre of Bagdad. Don’t get me wrong, the great games of the 8-Bit era are just too many to name and include a plethora of great coin-op conversions and movie licences too (Shadow Warriors, Robocop and Batman the Movie all particularly spring to mind), but if I had to pick one Spectrum game that I still repeatedly crave a return to, it’s Imagine’s Target Renegade. There’s something about that game on the Spectrum that combines Mike Lamb’s tight, disciplined coding with Dawn Drake’s perfectly grounded and paced character animation and Gari Biasilo’s (mostly) dark and haunting music that turns a game on a very limited device into an utterly engaging, visceral ballet with a real sense of mortal danger around every corner. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I can really recommend emulating Target Renegade on the Spectrum 128K, nice and big on your screen, in a darkened room with the music up. Gets me every time, that!

In the early 90s, I moved onto the Amiga. Man, what an advance that was. I went from eight(ish) clashing colours to what felt like millions! Obviously it wasn’t, but suddenly games had arcade clarity. I was mad for platform games back then and for a while, I was completely enamoured with the likes of Wolfchild, Assassin, Yo! Jo, Robocod, Superfrog, Midnight Resistance, Zool… the list goes on. I was particularly taken with games that showed unique audio/visual flare. Reflections’ Shadow of the Beast was hypnotic and beautiful, although simplistic too in hingsight. Also, pretty much everything that came from the likes of Sensible Software, The Bitmap Brothers and Team 17 was like gold dust to me… In fact, one game that gave me a real appreciation of the side scrolling SHMUP was Team 17’s Project-X. There was something about the way in which the game was  presented that implied an immersive depth I could never quite put my finger on. Something about the deep rumble of the diegetic sounds alongside the rich textures of the environments. That one imprinted itself quite deep on my psyche and draws a few comparisons with Power Up from the Twitter community… Quite right too.

I think the game I still enjoy most from that catalogue though, is the rough playing, surprisingly deep, gorefest that is Moonstone: A Hard Day’s Knight. That one really played to my love for brawlers, and while it really only hints at the genre with controls that are at first, difficult to master, what they did with meshing the brawler mechanics with the RPG gave the game incredible depth and longevity for its time. The lovely array of enemies with their own bloodthirsty characteristics was also just awesome. Moonstone is one of those games that screams for a remake, though I doubt we’ll ever see one that does the original idea any justice when you put it in context.

Finally, I bought a Sega Mega Drive (Genesis) from a shcool friend around the same time. I’m not sure why, I probably felt that I needed to taste the console end of the 16-bit games era and I’m glad that I did. I was able to feed my hunger for tightly made, fast paced action-platform games, repeatedly battering the likes of Strider, Altered Beast, Alisa Dragoon and Revenge of Shinobi, while enjoying 16-bit games from an altogether more stylised and ordered angle. While console games sorely missed the creative playpen that was the Public Domain market on home computers, they certainly had something all of their own in well made, quick to play games with that Almost-Coin-Op quality. I think that it was coming to consoles through the background of Amiga gaming that gave me such a taste for making my own.
DD: Decades ago, the high degree of difficulty that was found within the majority of titles oftentimes stemmed from console limitations. With those limitations now removed – how does this affect designing retro-styled games today? Is it easy to make games too difficult with today’s advanced development tools?
MH: Interesting question that. With coin-ops, your capacity for completing them was partially a question of your skill as a player as much as it was down to the amount of coins in your pocket. If you could afford it, you could finish most arcade games back in the day. These games were usually ported to home computers and consoles with the three-lives, three-credit rule which was generally given a bit of leeway in their Options menus, and of course, their difficulty would have had to be balanced accordingly with regards to what resources the game gave you as a developer: Broadly, the speed of play, availability of beneficial pickups, enemy AI, etc.
I think that once I’ve got my game in place on its first target platform, I’m hoping it’s mostly about that balance… that said, at the time of writing, Power Up is devilishly difficult even on Xbox, but I’ve a few ideas to level that out a bit so it’s less “rage-quit” and a bit more fun.

Where I’m seeing a parallel between coin-op ports and modern multi-device ports is in the different control mechanics of different devices. With Power Up, a big worry for me at the moment is my upcoming PC port and how that will play for people without analogue pads. As you know, the game was initially designed for Xbox and to that end, plays really nicely with a USB Xbox pad… but it’s not my place to say to people “Go out and buy a nice USB Xbox pad if you want to get the best out of my game”… it looks as though I might have to account for people playing with the limited control of a keyboard, and that’s the sort of thing that takes a few weeks of extra work to get right. Then there’s touch screen controls for mobile devices… Having worked in handheld games for a few years now, I’ve got a good idea of some of the difficulties in store if I take that route.

So yeah, while the console limitations were a variable back then, the varying demands of a player’s device are just as much an issue today.
DD: You’re a one-man company at Psychotic Psoftware, putting every aspect of the game’s development process and release solely on your shoulders – exactly how challenging is this task for you? 
MH: It’s a lot of work. While I was in education, and later in gainful employment, making my own little games was really just a hobby. I wanted to better myself with a view to perhaps becoming self sufficient if I ever had to. Before my recent redundancy I was putting two nights a week aside so that I’d have some family time in the week and at week ends, while balancing a full time job with my home game-development hobby. For a just over a month now, I’ve seen a massive increase in my own activities  what with the job hunt, organising myself with a proper home office space from which to work, and getting this Kickstarter off the ground and publicised to the best of my abilities. It doesn’t leave much time for fun at the moment but I’m hoping all the effort will pay off.

There’s definitely no monetary gain at this point, nor has there ever been for that matter… in fact, sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something there. I think there might be a bit of a misconception that people who make games are loaded. It’s not true. Even as a Lead Artist in the UK’s north-midlands, I was on less than the national average wage. The truth of the matter is that at the moment, I’m watching what savings I scraped together for software whittling away on survival while I multitask plugging away at Power Up, unpaid for around 10 hours a day with looking, and interviewing for a new job.

I have to admit that last time I was in a similar position, I simply spiralled into Accute Anxiety Disorder after a few months. Luckily, back then I was living at my Mum’s and could afford to lose the plot! This time I’ve got no such luxury. The simple fact is, whether it’s finding a job or making this work, I simply have to succeed. One thing that really helps right now is the knowledge that I’m not alone. My partner completely supports me in this, my family have openly expressed their pride for what I’m trying to do. These are hard times and I’m inspiring and inspired by a great many people trying to get off their knees financially, and make an honest living doing what they love. It’s actually pretty staggering how many good games industry creatives are starving in the hedgerows right now.

It really is my connection to the great gaming experiences of my youth coupled with my love of creating and breathing life into my ideas that keeps me doing this, I’ve put everything in this far so I owe it to myself to see it through. After all the blood, sweat and tears, just to pack it all in and go back to stacking shelves for a living would be an act akin to knowing where I’ve been and spitting my own face regardless.
DD: POWER UP was in development for several months before its Kickstarter campaign – what lead you to utilise the crowd funding option for your game?
MH: I mentioned in earlier interviews that I would have liked to sidestep crowd-funding if possible as I don’t like to be beholden to anybody if I can avoid it. The fact is that when i was made redundant, the choice was simply taken away. I can’t release Power Up without the licences for the software that I used to make the game and I now can’t afford the licences. After a bit of research, any government grant funding options seemed to require that I put up half of the cash myself and I don’t have that either. It was pretty clear that I needed to use Kickstarter at this point I’m just grateful that it’s there.
DD: There’s been some talk that Kickstarter might be out of its “honeymoon phase.” What do you make of this notion?
MH: It looks that way… Seems that a year ago the press was going crazy about it. It was a great idea too. “Here’s a thing that we want to make. Do you like things? Would you buy into this thing? Great! Be a part of it! Let’s get things into the world!” If you’re into something niche, chances are that somebody on Kickstarter is making something you’d love and loads of other people are backing it too. Not only do you get involved with it, but you become a part of a community that is also into what you’re into.

That’s the real value of Kickstarter and I hope the concept sticks around for good, bringing ever more variety and beauty into the world, but now that the initial buzz is over and we’ve familiarised ourselves with the model I can see how the honeymoon might be considered to have ended. I do think that if I’d tried my Kickstarter campaign year ago I might have had a more explosive response. Then again, look at where I was a year ago; clueless about Xbox coding, sitting in a cramped back bedroom and patting my own back for making a spaceship move around a screen. I had pretty much nothing to sell! Like I said, it was really for a lack of other choices that I went for Kickstarter. I’m very grateful that my campaign is doing as well as it is, despite the reports of a dwindling Kickstarter audience. I’m a determined sort and will do everything I can to make Power Up to the target. That’s as much as I can do.
DD: As of now, POWER UP is slated for an XBLA and PC release – are the upcoming indie friendly consoles like Ouya and Project Shield possible options for you going forward?
MH: Oh yeah. I stated on my Kickstarter that if we smash the £5000 target and hit £6000, I’ll be able to commission a good friend and former colleague of mine to code the iOS and Android versions of the game. The next priority after that is looking like Indie devices, though I haven’t set a date or financial commitment to these yet and there’s only so much scheduling I’m prepared to do before the first version of Power Up is finished, and as it’s just me right now, committing to anything that isn’t game-production uses precious game-production time.
But in brief; if there’s enough demand for my game, then yes! I’ll find a way to port Power Up to wherever enough people want to play it. What I’m generally telling people now is that if Power Up doesn’t seem to be coming to your device of choice, help me to raise a buzz about it. If there proves to be enough demand for Power Up on your device then chances are, you’ll get it.
DD: As a sole independent developer – do you find these upcoming consoles appealing and/or sustainable? Is there a niche for these types of consoles in our current gaming market?
MH: I’d like to think so, yes. If the initial reaction to them is anything to go by, people are seriously excited by devices for and by the good indies. I’m sure the model will work completely separately to mainstream gaming and if anything, might serve to further split indie gaming from the big players, for better or worse. To be honest though, I rarely speculate about this stuff. Short of developing proficiency with a crystal ball I find that it’s very difficult not to make a fool of myself when prophesising about what might happen. Look at my current choice in coding for my first proper indie game… Didn’t Microsoft just publicly discontinue XNA this week? DOH!!

My angle is broadly to finish what I’m doing, find out what it takes to port to other available popular devices, try and do it, then crack on with my next idea, taking my new-found skills with me. I’m not into lingering on a product and milking it for every penny at the cost of creativity. As far as I can tell, that kind of money-grabbing thinking is what leads to companies increasingly making creative redundancies while certain parts of the games market runs into disrepute with free-to-play shovelware. I make games! I want to put value back into good games. If I have to do that alone and poor, so be it.
DD: Is there any advice that you would like to give aspiring independent developers?
MH: It would be hypocritical of me to say don’t put yourself through it. There’s no pleasure like making something as complex as a video game by yourself or as a part of a small, reliable collaboration.

I often advise young aspiring game developers to specialise if they want to be employable as the present mainstream market prefers solid cogs for the machine. That’s not a bad thing. But it is what it is.

As for indie developers, my dad seems convinced that at any moment now, something I do is going to “Go Viral”! God, I hope he’s right, but I think his ideas are more indicative of the well intended but unsubstantiated myth that if a person works diligently to develop their talents, all it will take is one lucky break and they’ll be set for life. It’s a nice idea and I’d like to think there’s still some value in the work ethic. I try to believe that with enough effort you really will get there eventually, just remember that for every Minecraft, Terraria or Garry’s Mod, there’s a thousand people hitting full time jobs and putting a lot of hours into a hobby that’s yet to pay off.

If you’re just getting started with an indie game you’re really into, be ready to work hard and make a few sacrifices, but be disciplined as you do it. Focus on the journey and the ways in which you’re developing as a developer. But most importantly look after yourself and learn to spot the signs when you’re starting to come apart at the seams… Don’t worry, it happens, but if you break yourself doing this you’ll be no good to anybody for a good long while. Trust me. I learned that one from hard experience!
DD: Before we go we’ve got to ask – what games are you currently playing when you get a bit of spare time?
MH: Well, my other half is up north with family for week ends quite a lot at the moment. There’s some stuff going on up there that she’s got to be involved in and I’d just be in the way, so while I don’t get to do stuff with her, I do seem to be getting a bit of me-time, and I can’t resist a bit of gaming…

Apart from my occasional dip into mainstream gaming, which I must admit, seems to be leaving me feeling a bit unfulfilled lately, I’ve got two alternative, dirty little gaming habits at the moment…

One is the Xbox live Indie games. I basically have a little session, downloading a big batch of demos. If one takes my fancy, I throw a few quid in and invest a bit of time into playing it. Usually an indie game is fairly completable, so I stick with it until I finish it or get bored, then delve back into the indie games for another batch. My current favourite, and something I’ve been singing the praises of, is Firebase’s ArcadeCraft. I’ve just finished that one and have found myself really hungry for more content. If you’ve not tried it, it’s a real gem. I just hope it generates the interest to see some updates.

My other guilty pleasure is my little quest to emulate every Amiga game I can get to work. I know… that can be gruelling, right? There’s a lot of stinkers, but again, there’s a lot of undiscovered and forgotten wonders there too, and I tend to only give each game a quick go so I can get an idea of what they’re about so the bad bits aren’t too painful. I like to film my little play sessions and throw them up on my highly unsuccessful 1Go-Shortplay YouTube channel, but it’s not about the publicity… there were a lot of great and forgotten innovations in Amiga gaming. I like to think that by doing this “research” some of these ideas will rub off on me and find their way into future Psychotic games.
Before you go, be sure and checkout the new Power Up screenshots: 

This is the bio under which all legacy 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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