Ignore the computers and spend the time talking instead – Interview with Martin Jonasson

You started making games around the time when the Experimental Gameplay Project was getting popular, and you’re using its methodology until this day. Can you talk about what makes prototyping many small games so compelling to you?

Most of the game ideas I get are along the lines “wouldn’t it be cool if…”, that lends itself well to smaller scope mechanics and not at all well for more broad concepts. I also have a very hard time keeping a larger game design in my head at one time, I much prefer getting bits out and trying them before committing to something larger.

It’s also immensely satisfying to sit down for a day and blast out an idea I’ve had. Game development is a slow moving and incremental process for most of the time, save those first few hours when you’re trying out something new. It’s a pleasure.

Many of your games started as game jam projects. You’re also co-organising the No More Sweden game jam. What’s the thing that you love most about game jams, and what’s the one you hate the most?

When I left my day job to go full indie my perspective on game jams changed quite a bit. As an employee with a limited time to work on games they were a great opportunity to buckle down and make something over a weekend. But, when you’re indie and can (and should) work on games all day, every day. That’s suddenly less interesting, at least for me. Nowadays, game jams are mainly about the social parts for me. Getting a chance to meet old friends and making new ones.

This matches my feelings about jams rather well, it’s great to get together and make games for a couple of days, but, really I just wish we’d ignore the computers and spend the time talking instead.

Before rymdkapsel you mainly worked on projects of smaller scope. At what point during its development did you realise that rymdkapsel was going to be bigger in scope, and eventually, a bigger success?

The scope of rymdkapsel very much snuck up on me. I don’t think I would have had the guts to do it had I known what I was getting into. The process of making that game was odd. I had the basic game working after just a month, it’s scary how similar a screenshot one month into development looks to the final thing.

One month into development

PSM release one year later

After about two or three months I posted a teaser trailer, which then got me in touch with Sony to publish on Vita, that’s when everything took a step up. I had a gut feeling it would be well received, but I was never convinced it’d be a success. It was a massive privilege to get a shot at making something like that and having the resources to make a good go at it.

Rymdkapsel launched on Vita via PlayStation Mobile, then came to iOS and Android, then finally to Steam. Can you share how the different platforms worked out for you in terms of revenue and how you experienced the ease of porting and self-publishing on the different platforms?

The revenue split is roughly this: iOS is half of total revenue, Google Play about a fifth. The remaining third is evenly split between the PC version (Steam and Humble Store), a Humble Bundle (November 2013) and Sony.

I struck a PubFund-esque deal with Sony, meaning I got an advance on royalties which helped immensely. Without that the game wouldn’t be nearly as polished.

I didn’t find any of the platforms to be all that different from each other. The ease of updating on Steam (and to a lesser extent Google Play) is probably the one thing that sets it apart. They all take a couple of days of poking to get your head around.

Could you describe how you managed the transition from being a web developer to becoming a full-time independent game developer?

I was lucky enough to have a skill that was in high demand, meaning that I could charge a hourly rate three or four times that of my actual needs. That meant that every hour of web development I did paid for two or three hours of game development. As I did mostly interactive flash web stuff, my skills transfer nicely across. I tried doing game development as a freelancer, but (save for one project) it was an exercise in frustration.

You’re based in Sweden which has relatively high taxes and cost of living compared to other regions. Do you feel that this factor makes making a living with independent games a more difficult goal to achieve?

It’s a a double edged sword. Those high taxes pay for the social security net that keeps me from dying when I get sick, even if I’m broke. They also paid for the infrastructure that got me a great internet connection and allowed my parents to get a computer on the cheap. As did they pay for my university degree in Game Design.

So, for most of my life, before I made a successful game, they were an asset. Now, they game is doing well enough that I’ll manage, but I still happily pay my taxes knowing they help me, and more importantly others that need it more.

You are doing weekly game development streams on Twitch and participate in events like Mojam. How did you get into streaming and what’s your main motivation to keep doing it?

I only really got into streaming in time for the first Mojam in 2013, it seemed like an interesting experience and indeed it was! I enjoy talking about what I do and why I do it, and hope to maybe share some of my knowledge along the way. I’ve held a few courses as a teacher before, and that’s fun too, but streaming lets me get much more of an outlet for that without having to deal with homework!

The main charm that keeps me coming back to streaming is the immediate interaction with the audience. As I said earlier, game development can be a slow moving process, even if you’re fast it’ll take weeks from you doing the work until it reaches your players. With streaming you cut that loop short, it’s a matter of seconds instead.

Many people that come from Flash game development have moved on to Unity. What made you choose Haxe as your primary development environment?

I never liked working in 3D, I don’t know if it’s because the games I played growing up was exclusively 2D, it may also be that I’m lazy. Either way, I find 3D an unnecessary complication for my purposes. And, with Unity you’re forced to deal with it, even if you just want to do 2D. Haxe and OpenFL came along at a perfect time for me, it was such a smooth transition I hardly felt like I switched. That said, I’m not chained to that forever, I may still switch over if the tech requires it.

You designed a four-player arcade machine called Crime City Arcade together with Niklas Ström, and published instructions including the laser cutter schema for how to build your own. How has the reaction been from people playing it and from people building their own versions?

It’s a great machine to bring anywhere, even though it’s big and cumbersome, every time we take it out, we wonder why we don’t do it more often. As far as I know no one has made another one from our plans, but there’s quite a few four player machines out there.

The biggest upside of having it is that people seem to think it’s some magical device, but really, it’s just a screen in a box with a couple of controllers. I can pop it open and show them how it all works, hopefully that makes building your own a little bit more approachable.

We dream of making one that’s battery powered so we can bring it around to parks and set up little ad hoc arcades over the summer. I’m excited for that!

Any chance that people who don’t own an Ouya will be able to play Mrs Dad Vs. Körv at some point?

Yes. One day!

What is your favourite fruit?

I’m not much of a fruit person, especially not grapefruits. They’re awful.

Could you share some advise for people who are just starting out making games?

Don’t worry about stuff. If you’re just starting out, pick any programming language, any platform and just make something. If it turns out good, you can deal with that as it comes. If it doesn’t, just make a new thing. Use source control, eat your vegetables and be nice.