Developer Interview with Start2Continue

Anthony Magestro talks to me and the team about gamedev. Check out the original article HERE.

Anthony Magestro

One thing I personally enjoy about the indie side of the video game industry is how varied and unique the studios are. From pipe dreams on the side that started with one person (such as Tom Francis and Gunpoint) or developers that once needed a publisher but are now able to stand on their own (like TaleWorlds and Mount & Blade), there are as many management and collaboration styles as there are teams.

Regardless of shape, size, and genre, most indie studios manage to work face-to-face with their teammates, whether that’s in someone’s parent’s basement or the spare IT lab on campus at the local college. Developers like Boomzap Entertainment, however, are one of few studios that operate on a virtual office model with its 60-some collaborators sprinkled throughout Singapore, Japan, Phillipines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Ukraine, Pakistan, and Russia.

Founded in 2005 by Chris Natsuume and Allan Simonsen, Boomzap has released around 40 games to date on various platforms, with its latest project Legends of Callasia having recently been greenlit on Steam. A product of a lifelong dream between two friends, Boomzap seeks to be a big mover in the industry, setting its sights at becoming the “premiere regional publisher of Southeast Asia.”

Luckily, Chris, who serves as Creative Director (and is based in Yokohama, Japan), Game Designer Nelson Capilos, and Lead Artist Edwin Sablaya (both from the Phillipines), were able to take time from their busy schedules of world dom- game development to shed some light on where they began and what it’s like working at Boomzap’s virtual office.

In the Beginning

Like any band of warriors, our trio is no different, having hailed from varying lands, backgrounds, and disciplines before uniting under Boomzap’s banner. All three started either with encouragement to join or having known someone already slogging through the industry:

Nelson Capilos: A former colleague of mine was a game tester for Gameloft Philippines, and I wanted to apply too, but got rejected for not having a solid gaming experience. I spent the next two years trying to get into QA, and had a big break when I got into a start-up company looking for game testers. It was a contractual job, so when it ended, I went back to Gameloft and eventually got hired. I stayed there for a couple of months, until I found out about Boomzap’s work-from-home setup. That got me interested, so I applied as QA yet again and eventually became a game designer. Now I’m working on a game called Legends of Callasia here at Boomzap, designing and testing the game with Chris.

Edwin Sablaya: Ever since I was a kid, I only liked to draw, especially monsters. Then when I reached college, I had a friend who liked to code and we decided that someday we will create our own game company. We already have a name of our own company back then. He wanted to name it ‘Equator Games: Where hot games are made,’ and mine was ‘Evolution Entertainment: Quality Evolves.’ Our clients were students who needed help in their thesis. We did earn a little cash back then. Fun times! Then we tried to enter the game industry. I applied here at Boomzap as a 2D game artist and luckily I got in.

Chris Natsuume: I realized that game development could be a career when I was drunk at a hot tub party in Austin with a bunch of guys who just got hired to be game designers at Origin. It blew my mind…but it never occurred to me that you could actually make games for a living. From that moment on, it was the only thing I wanted to do, and largely, the only thing I have done. Luckily, I happened to know a bunch of guys who worked at Origin, so when they left to make their own company, I had a nepotistic way into the industry. It was a very lucky break.

Before that party, I was unaware that making games was a career. It was 1990, and the computer game industry was nothing like it is now. There were no game development schools, there were very few famous, or even well known, game developers…I had been making games since I was in elementary school – designing D&D modules, campaign worlds, even making simple games on my C64 in BASIC all the way back in junior high, but I thought that was just a hobby. It wasn’t until I had a couple friends tell me that they had gotten game dev jobs that I thought, “Oh, wait, you mean that can be an actual career?! Sign me up!” Since then, that’s largely all I have done, or wanted to do.

Working at Boomzap

And so their paths have led them… well, back to the comfort of their homes, coffee shops, or wherever else they’d like to set up for the day. As wonderful as it sounds to not have to worry about a morning commute, cubicles, and awkward water cooler conversation, this sort of working arrangement isn’t for the faint of heart. For those who can manage to keep themselves focused, however, it’s a pretty sweet gig:

CN: For people who are disciplined and don’t need the daily pressure of having someone standing over your shoulder telling you to work, it is an improvement on the traditional method of work in just about every metric. I get to see so much of my family. I get to eat three meals a day with my wife. I work where I want to. I don’t waste time or money commuting. I don’t have to spend a fortune going out to eat. And in the winter I work every day in a very comfy pair of fleece pants and a Japanese hanten jacket. It’s like I never got out of bed.

For Chris, this is what an average day looks like:

CN: Wake up – see if anything happened in the middle of the night, start downloading the builds from last night (we do daily builds, every day, every project). Go get breakfast. Chat with teams on HipChat, see what info they need, and get them tasked up. Look at [my] tasklist, do a bunch of stuff. Go outside, take a walk or ride my bike for a couple hours. Get lunch. Check WIPs on the staff work so far, give notes. Somewhere in there, we usually have a team game of Callasia. Kids get home from school – go hang with them for a while. Snack. Do more work. Dinner. Come back, now that it’s quiet, get some concentration-heavy work done. Go to bed. That’s… pretty much my whole life summarized.

While they might not have to leave the house to come into work, Boomzap collaborates using a slew of productivity apps to streamline everything:

CN: HipChat is our god. I know all the cool kids are using Slack these days, but we find HipChat to be the killer tool for running distributed teams. We divide the company by project, by discipline (code, design, marketing) and make permanent chatrooms for those groups. So there is a Legends of Callasia marketing group, and a Monster Roller playtest group, for instance. Everyone in the company belongs [to] a subset of these groups – and being logged-in, working and available in one of these groups is what counts as “being at work” for us.

We then use Dropbox for storing and sharing big files, SVN for source control, and Basecamp for indexing information.

Just as Boomzap is divided by project and discipline, the work that trickles through their system is often placed in the hands of those who can tackle it best. For example, Edwin works with animators Ben Wong (Malaysia) and Siro Juddin (Indonesia), and artists Jaq dela Cruz (Phillipines) and Jun Martinez (Phillipines) on the studio’s games’ artwork and graphic design:

ES: Each of the artists has their own specialty, so to make the most of it we divide the task depending on the artist’s strength. This way we can work better and faster. Ben, Jaq, and Siro are awesome artists; at the same time, they are really good and excel in technical art. They can create beautiful effects and make sure that the UI is working properly in no time. Uncle Jun’s polishing technique is superb, he can polish anything swiftly while I help him in creating the concepts. This way, each of us can efficiently use our strength to finish each tasks and make sure we deliver the best product using our current skills.

Boomzap also has, what Nelson calls, an “open-source style” of training their staff, which he attributes a lot of his own knowledge on game design to:

NC: One example is when Chris rented an office space for 3 days to have Boomzap’s 3D artist teach other artists (and other staff who wants to learn) the basics of 3D modeling and rendering. You usually have to spend a few hundred bucks for that if you’ll go enroll somewhere, the instructors themselves willingly taught us, since it is the company as a whole which was going to benefit from this. We also have an internal wiki page wherein you get to input and share your game dev knowledge for newcomers.

Words of Wisdom

To wrap up, I figured I’d pick the brains of the pros for some advice for those who’re looking at making their own games one day, doing what these fine folks do:

What makes for a well-designed game?

NC: A well-designed game for me is a game your team enjoys playing. Your coder loves it, your artist loves it, your testers can’t get enough playing it. Prior to Legends of Callasia, we were building a real-time strategy game. It has been in the pipeline for ages. It has been passed along from one coder to another on numerous occasion. No one in the team really liked playing it; we always ended up adding unnecessary features that just ate up more production time instead of us being able to ship it earlier. Thus, we shut down the project, did some research, checked what went wrong, reached out to more people and came up with a conclusion that we should do a game that we love, that we would enjoy playing, and that we would be proud to claim our own and get people to come to us and say, “Thank you for this great game you made.”

For independent developers who want to get started in game design, what programming languages would you suggest learning or book and website resources worth checking out?

NC: First thing you must consider is what language your engine will run on. A basic understanding of C++ and Excel formulas is a good start. Attend talks from Casual Connect (or watch them online) since they share direct insights from the developers themselves.

What were some of your artistic influences both in your personal style, as well as in the games you work on?

ES: I grew up playing Blizzard games. I started digital painting because of games like Diablo and Warcraft… I think the world inside [those games] influenced me not just in art but also [they] inspire me in what I want to create. Actually, it’s not just Diablo and Warcraft – those games are just the first games that really strengthened my desire to be an artist. Along the way, I continue to discover new games and films that help me fuel my passion about creating something. I will say right now that Blizzard, Studio Ghibli, and One Piece are on my top list of inspirations. I really love how they create these amazing new concepts and worlds [and] how they create the characters – especially the disturbing ones! Just looking at them makes me want to draw. It inspires me and at the same time it helps me to dream that one day I will also create my own world with my own original story and characters.

For Edwin: What are some of the software that your team uses? For an artist just starting out, what’s some advice you have for them?

ES: Most of the time we use Adobe Photoshop for conceptualizing and coloring. Sometimes, we also use 3D software like 3ds Max for structures and architectural stuff. We also have in-game video editors that we use for effects and animations.

If you want to enter the game industry as an artist my best advice is to start by painting what you love painting. For me that’s the best thing you need to do during the early stage. Grab your pen and just paint what you love in Photoshop! Yes! My advice is to start using Photoshop since you will use it a lot. Just keep painting while having fun! This way, you’ll discover things quickly than just reading and watching tutorials. I’m not saying don’t read or watch tutorials, you also need them! Just make sure you try and apply what you learn to your work. Finish your work the best way you can using your current skill!

Sometimes, [it’s] also good to compare your finished work to the work of the artist you admire. This way, you can see the things you still need to improve. Then paint again and again and once you feel confident with your work, compile them and make an online portfolio. Remember, quality is better than quantity. Just pick your current strongest work and post it online. This online portfolio of yours will do the talking by the time you already want to enter the industry. I think that’s the most basic advice I can give to aspiring artists who want to enter the game industry. Advice about the life of an artist inside the game industry is another story!

For Nelson: same question: for a game designer just starting out, what’s some advice you have for them?

NC: Be open to criticism, we tend to have that feeling that you’ve made the best game in the world. But, as soon as others gets to play with it, in comes feedbacks that totally says your game sucks. Instead of taking it negatively, you must use it in order to improve on your craft as well as the game you are working on.

If you had one piece of advice to give to someone who wants to start working in the video game industry, doing what you do, what would it be?

CN: Honestly, seriously reconsider that dream. Most people want to develop games because they think it’s going to be all making fun decisions about what to make, and coming up with fun ideas and shit. It’s not. It’s 5% that. And 95% “figuring out how to make that shit work” … Just loving games is no reason to make them – any more than loving music isn’t a good enough reason to drop out of college and try to be a rock and roll star. You have to do this job because you love MAKING games – even games that aren’t your cup of tea. If you can’t do that… find a career that pays better, has better working hours, and save your love of games for playing them.

Indeed, just like how money, fame, and glory aren’t acquired just with wishes and happy thoughts, success as a game developer comes from your love of developing games, not just your love for playing them. I mean, I love pew-pewing people in Battlefield 4 as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t make me an ace designer or prodigal developer.

That isn’t to say give up; that’s what most people do when things are tough. But think long and hard as to why you wanted to build something: is it a story you want to tell or a world and characters you want to bring to life? An answer to a long-suffering demand for a new kind of game that you’ve been dreaming to make? A test of your own creative skills in a medium you enjoy? Whatever that may be, whether that’s in your dad’s garage or stretched across the world like Boomzap, have fun doing it.