CHRISTOPHER ‘JACK’ NILSSEN is an independent game developer, science fiction author, runner, yogini, and lover who is awake before you in the morning. He spent his twenties living and working in Tokyo, Japan, where he learned to celebrate diversity and appreciate privacy. When asked what his favorite anything is, he usually responds with “I don’t play favorites“.
What is the current project your working on?
The main project for the last year has been “The Child”, an isometric point-and-click adventure game. There’s a secondary project, code-named PREVENGEANCE, that’s a 2D tower defense “brawl” for iPad.
How do you measure success?
If even a single person plays one of my games and gets some tiny iota of entertainment & enjoyment from that, I’ve done my job.
How do you handle rejection?
It’s hard to get rejected in game development. You either “hit”, put together some winning combination of player interaction and content, or you don’t. When you don’t hit it can feel pretty crappy but you get over it quickly by producing more and more content. Then it just becomes a marathon race with an undetermined finish line.
Did you always want to be a game developer?
Nah, the first career I remember wanting to have was that of a movie director, like Steven Spielburg. It wasn’t really until about 10 years ago at age 27 that I put it all together in my head that making games might be a good thing for me.
What inspires you to create games?
I love games, I love the interactivity of them. That you can create something that someone else can play with and get their own experience from is fascinating to me. I also have a few stories I want other people to “find” (as opposed to just “telling” them, like books & movies) and games is the perfect platform for that type of narrative delivery.
What is the best thing about being a game developer?
Sometimes it’s cool to think I’m part of a “new media” movement. A lot of the stuff we do, if we do it well, no one’s ever experienced before. There’s a lot of “explorer reward” to that, like being the first person in space, or on the bottom of the sea. Also making the attempt to be in tune with the games industry unearths a lot of rare gems in the form of games “normal” gamers may never hear of.
What is the worst thing about being one?
Creating a videogame (or analog game) that WORKS, one that runs or plays without fault, is easily communicated to a player, and provides some form of enjoyment is a HARD LABOR. Thinking up the initial idea is easy, almost anyone can do that, but carrying that idea through the execution process to completion is one of the most difficult things to do. Why do you think the major game studios require a hundred people working a whole year to produce a game? And even then those games come out with bugs and problems. At the core of it, game development is hard work, and for solo or small-team independents like myself it’s just that much harder.
That and not being able to really explain to anyone else what is precisely that I do, beyond “make games”. That can be frustrating.
What is the estimated number of projects you have worked on?
At the time of this interview I’ve been a game developer for 3 years, and I’ve published 22 games and abandoned 5. I have yet to publish a game for money, and I believe at most my games have gotten perhaps 10K plays.
What is your favorite game of all time?
I don’t play favorites, but the game I’ve most enjoyed in recent memory has been Polytron’s absolutely phenomenal FEZ. If you own an XBOX 360 and love charming, exploration-based platforming with unique mechanics and style, you’ve got to check it out. It’s this generation’s “A Link to the Past”.
How has your life changed since you created “Dark Acre Game Development”?
I don’t punch a clock anymore. I’m not beholden to a boss. The profit of my labor is solely mine. I don’t need to wear pants. I go hungry a lot yet am somehow getting fatter…
What is one piece of advice you can give to someone who also wants to become a game developer?
I can only really speak to those with independent aspirations: Be prepared to work hard, and to fail. Don’t be afraid to publish. Have enough money in the bank to survive for 5 years without a payday. Never give up, never stop learning. Don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done; prove it to yourself.
What do you like to do besides creating games?
I’m a science fiction author with 3 published stories and more to come. I’m an avid runner when the weather’s right, and just an annoyed one when it’s not. I enjoy ashtanga yoga. And of course, playing games both analog & digital.
Have you had any other jobs before you decided to become a game developer?
Yeah, I’ve done all kinds of stuff. A lot of kitchen work as a youngster, from dishwashing up the chain to chef. I’ve been a security guard, an errand boy, and an accounting assistant. In my “dark years” I was a drug dealer & a bit of a gangster. The longest and most profitable stretch so far was 10 years in Japan as an English teacher.
How would you describe your education?
A waste of time and money. Aside from the basics, all post-secondary has taught me is that if you know what you want to do go out and do it. Unless of course it’s brain surgery then you’re probably better off getting professional guidance. Personally, I wish they’d do away with standardized education and bring back wholesale apprenticeships.
How would you describe the gaming “scene” where you live?
Surprisingly, even though Vancouver is considered something of a mecca for game development on the West Coast, there’s a much less-active gaming scene than other places in Canada like Toronto. Then again for me the majority of my gaming happens in virtual space, and that’s been constantly growing for years.
How has social media changed the gaming industry?
Obviously the desire to create a hit “social game” has become the major focus of a lot of studios, though no one can really define what that ideal social game is! You’ve got games that can Tweet stuff to other people, and games that rely on social networking to function, but all of that still remains secondary to crafting a good, core player experience.
In terms of how social media has helped developers, especially independents like myself, it’s become the water cooler. Twitter and other hubs are places where independents can find one an other and exchange ideas and quips pretty easily, so levering that to get some form of social activity has become pretty important for a lot of us. Also it functions well as a grassroots marketing engine, places where we can promote our games and raise awareness.
What’s your opinion on crowdfunding?
When I first started planning for life as an independent I could never have foreseen things like Kickstarter. Sure, we had PayPal donation systems back then, but even pre-orders for games were an alien concept. Now it seems a lot of people are willing to throw their money at ghosts and promises and as a businessperson I don’t like it. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t believe in charging people money for things that “might be”. But I do think it’s great that there’s a platform for those that do.
How do independent games differ from the mainstream?
I think that the main difference is budget and time spent perfecting what you’re delivering to your players. An independent can craft something that’s every bit as good as something a major studio comes up with, it just takes longer and is more prone to failure. Personally I think an independent would do well to avoid the stigma of being an “indie” and try to present themselves as professionals, if the end goal is competing with the big boys. But the wonderful thing about being independent is you can do whatever you feel.
You could go back in time and see any game being made. Which game would it be and why?
There really haven’t been a lot of games that struck me as “holy crap how did they do that”? In fact, it’s really only FEZ that’s had me scratching my head and trying to figure out how it’s done. As for learning someone else’s process I’m not really keen on that. I think we can learn fundamental principles, but it’s up to each of us to suss out our own methods of working through attempting to execute.
What’s your favorite quote and why?
“Life is hard; it’s harder if you’re stupid.” – John Wayne. Basically, never overestimate the other person’s (or your own!) intelligence.
What is your opinion on game to movie adaptions?
It seems like they really could be good. Look at the Halo, Mass Effect, and more recently Prototype 2 TV commercials. There’s potential in there to craft really great movies using these properties. I think they’ve gotten this stigma because of people like Uwe Boll who make garbage films as slush funds, and the studios who give the rights so that it happens. Perhaps we’re in the same bad old days that comic book movies were in. If it follows that trend then maybe in a few years we’ll start seeing some really great adaptations of video game properties on the silver screen.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Buy (or borrow for free if you’re an Amazon Prime member) my eBooks! If you like science fiction I think they’re decent stories, and those pennies are currently the only active commercial funding channels for Dark Acre Games, since I don’t take donations.
Aside from that selfish plug, I’d encourage anyone who’s ever thought about making games to go ahead and give it a try. The tools are getting easier and easier to use, and I think it’s only a matter of time before pretty much anyone can make games. I ESPECIALLY recommend spending a couple of months in your part time to learn something like Unity or Flash and come up with some simple games to see if you even like doing it, before dropping thousands of dollars on school or several years in a career you might wind up hating. Thanks for the questions and if you’ve got any more feel free to hit me on Formspring: http://www.formspring.me/DarkAcreJack
I’ve seen FEZ via the documentary “Indie Game: The Movie“. It looks crazy awesome. I wish you all the best with “The Child”, “PREVENGEANCE”, your future projects and books.