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Wooly spaceships, new frontiers: Launching an indie career with Voyager
New-minted indie developer Ken Amarit is something of a jack of all trades, about to make his formal game dev debut on iOS with Voyager. Aiming to do the whole works on his own, he was drawn to emphasize perhaps the most unique of his many skills. It's his approach to game creation that holds interesting takeaways for all beginning indies, and those about to fly solo for the first time.
The most eye-catching feature of accelerometer-controlled flight game Voyager is its stop-motion animation, made out of felted wool. Not only did Amarit think the touchable look of the felted wool animation would be a good fit for iOS platforms, but it was also something he could bring to the competitive App Store landscape that few others could offer.
Amarit, who calls his dev house Oh My! Me Studios, went to school for film, but was always interested in programming, with a history of experimenting with graphical text adventures and arcade games he admits "weren't very good." On the first day of his computer science class, the professor promptly told the students that making games would probably turn out to be a waste of their ambition, encouraging the class instead to pursue operating systems or artificial intelligence technology.
Disappointed in the lack of opportunity to pursue his creative dreams, Amarit changed paths and ultimately pursued film and television in New York City -- a tough choice with uncertain outcome. When the opportunity arose to join a friend's social media startup in San Francisco, Amarit took it, and there he had the chance to really hone his programming skills on the job.
"I'd say, 'Oh yeah, I'll add that feature -- give me four days,'" he recalls, laughing. "And I'd panic, and figure it out always in the nick of time."
But that proving ground opened up more opportunities for programming jobs, and he ended up back in New York doing web development. Still, his itch to do something creative hadn't really been scratched since that computer science professor shut him down in college. Then, one day at New York City's Kinokuniya bookstore, a book on needle-felting wool caught his eye, and he thought he might try to make a teddy bear as a present for his girlfriend.
Worth a shot
He found the spontaneous craft project an interesting learning experience, and it also sparked his imagination as far as what he might do with the animation learnings he'd had in film school. He'd wanted to make games, but his programming teacher had discouraged it; since film school he'd wanted to do animation, but was dissuaded by the singular focus an animation career requires, and he succeeded at web development, but craved something creative. It was at this point that it finally seemed like the right time for Amarit to try making a game on his own.
"I thought it was worth a shot," he says of his decision to go for it.
The prototype that would become Voyager only took a couple of days. Amarit describes himself as a mid-level coder, so it was important to work within the constraints of his own strengths and weaknesses, since it was his goal to try making the game all by himself. As a result, "the mechanics are very simple," he says. After the game itself was about 50 percent done, using temporary art from Photoshop, it was time to shift gears to the art.
Here was where Amarit's passion for dabbling in a wide variety of fields would serve his first game. He thought doing animated felted wool would add the unique touch he realized was needed to make Voyager stand out.
"Needle felting is, basically, you take raw wool, which is processed -- cleaned off the sheep and carded for spinning. If you spun it, it would become yarn," he explains. "But if you needle-felt it, you take little needles and kind of poke at it until it starts to form a shape... so you're basically sculpting with wool."
Amarit needle-felted nearly all the game's individual objects -- about 40 in total. "Then once the object is done -- for example, an airplane -- I take that, and I have this green screen set up... this super-cheap one I got on Amazon, and sorta cheap lights... and I take a photo of the airplane in 10 different frames," he continues. "I'm kind of animating it like a stop-motion movie, but much simpler. Then I take it all into Photoshop and put all the individual frames in a spreadsheet, and once I get to that point, it's almost like any other game, but instead of drawing it it's images I've taken with a camera."
Close friends and family helped him prototype Voyager to its ultimate result, a tilt-controlled flying game that lends itself to intentionally-short play sessions. Players navigate to avoid obstacles across four different levels. The main mechanic is the ability to slow down time until the associated gauge runs out, to be recharged again.
Again Amarit winged an idea that he hoped would compensate for some of the shortfalls in his one-man band. He designed a few different levels that generate at random, but not algorithmically -- each level has three to five possible maps that are chosen randomly each time. That gives the player a feeling of experiencing something different each time, but without creating a fully random generator.
"It's supposed to feel like one of those games that seemingly goes on forever, but it doesn't," he says. "There doesn't necessarily need to be hours upon hours worth of replay value."
"It seems like I'm combining a bunch of things I'm mediocre at to create something that feels like how I imagine it in my head," Amarit continues, laughing. "I had this idea about animating wool, and I thought it would look cool or interesting. But then once I finished my first prototype, I realized how insanely difficult game design is, and I had the hardest time creating even a non-game interactive experience that wasn't trivial. I still have a hard time."
Most aspiring game designers have some, but not all of the skills they need to achieve the vision they have in their head. In order to make a start and get out there, it requires a combination of ingenious compensation -- playing to one's strengths, not being especially ambitious at first so as to downplay weaknesses, and trying to find a unique angle.
Amarit is fortunate to be part artist, part programmer, voraciously curious about all kinds of avenues of expression. But he says he watched hours and hours of lectures from designers like Jonathan Blow, and closely studied games he admired, like Action Button Entertainment's Ziggurat. Watching videos and analyzing other simple mobile games helped him pin down where he needed to focus and improve. Getting creative commons music from archive.org was another sensible move.
"Really, being able to code has been the most valuable skill in practicing game design," he suggests. "If I think of an idea, I can try it immediately and find out if it's fun or not."
"I still have a ton to learn, but that's why I'm trying to make Voyager as a 'tiny game,'" he adds. "I have lots more ideas that I want to start working on as soon as I can, and each one will explore something new or different, hopefully, that I haven't tried before."
Amarit is ready for App Store certification, and plans on pricing Voyager at 99 cents. Going freemium and designing for in-app purchases is a bit ambitious relative to what he's trying out with Voyager. He says he hopes the game will make enough money to keep himself going.
At the very least, the title is an interesting example of how a one-person experimental shop just went for it, benefited from exploring a number of creative arenas, and made a few key choices that played to his strengths. Anyone hoping to try their first iOS game might try cribbing from Amarit's playbook.