Get to Know a GameDev: Oliver Snyders
South African writer and indie dev advocate Oliver Snyders has experienced two sides of the games industry as both a game designer and a writer for the press. Author of A Gamer’s Guide to Gaming, he expertly examines “the present and future of videogames, ..the industry that creates them, and the fans who nurture them.” Naturally we were keen to ask Oliver to share some insights, and he graciously provided this prolific GameDev Cafe interview. Enjoy!
How would you describe your role in games?
I’ve always been a writer of some description, and after a six year stint writing about games and the industry in a professional enthusiast press capacity, I think I’ll always consider myself a member of the press; I’ve still got a few large scale feature ideas, websites, videos, books, and other writing projects I’d like to pursue and create in the future. And stories and characters for games, of course.
I’m slowly transitioning (back) to game development, and I’m excited to be working on making games again with my brother, Kyle-Ben Snyders, under our KO Entertainment Software banner. I’m primarily a game designer in this sphere, but I do take on ‘business’ and awareness roles as the need arises. I’m also in the process of learning Game Maker and tinkering with a few prototype projects that (if all goes well) will keep my brother and I busy through to the end of 2018, so I guess I’m a prototype programmer – or Chief Tinkerer – too.
Something else I’m very, very keen on continuing to work on is my place in the industry as an advocate for indie games – especially games that push boundaries, are exceptionally well crafted, and are generally unique and creative. There are of course already lots of amazing indie game promoters and champions online, and my influence is still infinitesimal, but I’m actively working to make sure that I’m taking a different approach (like writing tiny rhymes on Twitter) and putting in the time to discover games that may go unnoticed by the general game-playing audience (by scouring #ScreenshotSaturday, for example). My absolute hope is that I can help shine a light on games that I think are extraordinary.
Compelling #IndieGames Out This Week!
1 of 10:
— Oliver Snyders (@OliverSnyders) April 18, 2017
That’s how we initially found you! Did you always want to work in games?
Despite my pre-teen self alternately wanting to become an archaeologist, a pilot, a professional cricket player, a comic strip writer, and a palaeontologist, the fact that I grew up playing games and reading about them (and spending an inordinate amount of time doing both) meant that the draw to do something in the video game world became too strong to ignore.
At [grade] school , I was the kid who wrote about Shigeru Miyamoto every chance I got, and dropped references to Guybrush Threepwood and Myst in class projects. I read every game magazine I could get to find out more about the games I was playing, and the people and companies that made them (usually subsisting on a diet of CVG and EGM). I was also borderline obsessed with Monkey Island, DOOM, and Star Control 2.
So when did you get the urge to try game development?
Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat 2 gave me my first inkling into the process of game development. I knew that people made games, but the fact that Mortal Kombat’s characters were basically photos of people stitched together into an animation made it seem all the more doable, so I set to work ‘designing’ a ‘game’ that could use the same principles. ‘Fairy Tails’ will (un)fortunately never be made, but those ideas and drawings occupied a large slice of my mindshare back then.
My obsession with games continued, but it wasn’t until Final Fantasy VII in 1997 (and Final Fantasy VIII and IX) and Metal Gear Solid in 1998 that I began looking into how games were actually made, with an eye on creating and directing CG video. Up until 2000 I tried learning 3D modelling and rendering with demo versions of Strata 3D and Rhino 3D with… limited success, but following a few revelatory multiplayer sessions of Half-Life and Counter-Strike, and after seeing my youngest brother (Kyle-Ben, 12) creating Half-Life mods, I knew for certain that I wanted to make games, not videos.
I wanted to be able to create fun for other people – the kind of fun my friends and I had with multiplayer games like Quake 3, StarCraft, and Counter-Strike. For whatever reason, I fixated on these games’ level design as key contributors to this ‘fun,’ and thanks to an (ultra slow) 56K modem, I was able to visit sites like Gamasutra and GameDev.net to save tutorials, articles on development advice, and game post-mortems for offline reading, all of which led very naturally to an interest in game design while fuelling my passion for game development overall.
And from there you began making games on your own?
After a lot of learning and tinkering, and by 2003/4, Kyle-Ben and I had sent off two game project proposals to Activision’s ‘New Acquisitions’ department, both comprising development work based on the Quake 3 and Return to Castle Wolfenstein engines (similar enough to one another for us to use the same knowledge to demonstrate ideas for multiplayer and single-player portions of our game). The first proposal was met with an immediate (but very kindly worded) ‘no,’ but the second was received much more positively, together with a semi-invitation to meet to discuss it further.
Throughout this time, my parents were very patiently allowing me to pursue my dream job, but other than a nascent South African game development community online and two small, professional development companies at the time, there didn’t really seem to be a direct path to getting a job as a game developer in the country. I started helping out a few hobbyist groups in the local community with design and story work for their games in the hopes that one of them might develop into something tangible, but as these things often go, work on these projects sputtered out.
Kyle-Ben and I continued to work on a variety of projects, including a casual pet simulator that we got pretty far with called Watch Your Shape, but by 2006 I had taken a job at a videogame retail store to earn some money (as opposed to creating potential to earn money) while working on [games] part-time.
It wasn’t until 2008 when I joined videogame blog, El33tonline.com (now defunct), that I considered myself to be working in the games industry in any real capacity. I had grown up reading videogame news, reviews, and previews in magazines and online (with aspirations to create my own), so getting to write for El33tonline was an amazing opportunity. Kyle-Ben and I continued to work on games though, choosing to develop much more tightly scoped projects made in Flash. We were laser focused on finishing every game we started, which we succeeded in doing; making and releasing 9 games in a year and a half.
That’s quite a start. Did you face many personal challenges during this time?
I’ve been bestowed with a few genetic… ‘blessings,’ namely a propensity to get headaches and migraines, as well as chronic depression.
Individually and combined, challenges like these can make things a touch difficult, but thanks to the wonders of medication, as well as supportive friends and family, a good diet, and a consistent exercise regime, even these challenges can be managed. There are still bad (and very bad) days, but they come less often and less aggressively if they’re being managed effectively.
For others who might be going through this, can you share some of your personal high and low points?
A particularly deep low point in my ‘journey’ was realizing just how challenging – bordering on near impossibility – it would be to forge a meaningful career in game development in South Africa; especially in early to mid-2000 when internet access was very slow and very expensive. This was also before the revolution in digital distribution on Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network, and even though Steam was ‘a thing’ and PopCap was making money selling puzzle and action games on PC, the path to starting up a new game development company in the country was murky at best.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t try (and it didn’t stop others from trying, with various degrees of success), but it became clear that I would need to look overseas if I was going to pursue a career in game development. Making that kind of move was prohibitively costly, however, so I continued to look for opportunities closer to home.
More than a few high points surfaced during my time with El33tonline, though, and other than joining the team itself, trips to shows like E3, Gamescom, and rAge in Johannesburg were consistently highlights of my year, while opportunities to meet members of our community at various events around South Africa were very special to me, too. The decision to shut down El33tonline after eight years in operation (and six years of my involvement) was naturally a very low point, especially considering what we had built and how much of ourselves we had put into the site.
The release of my book A Gamer’s Guide to Gaming brought a new career highlight for me. I’m very proud of how it turned out, the immense amount of information and insight I’ve crammed into the book, and how it’s able to cater to both industry newcomers and old hands alike. I’m also proud of the fact that the book was written in my voice (for better or worse) as opposed to a style that I thought would appeal to a specific demographic, making for something that is uniquely ‘me’ and personal. I would love for people to read A Gamer’s Guide to Gaming because I genuinely think it’s something of value, so this opportunity to chat with GameDev Cafe represents another high point for me – it’s an honour to occupy a corner of The Internet alongside industry professionals that I happen to greatly respect and admire.
Do you have any particular heroes or role models in the game industry?
Overall, I think John Carmack’s pragmatic approach to game development has had the greatest impact on how I’ve worked on various projects. Listening to his QuakeCon keynote speeches over the years and reading interviews with him is always fascinating, but a few key takeaways repeat themselves again and again:
- You can learn something from everybody, and everything, as evidenced by his hiring decisions at id Software over the years, as well as his willingness to use good and bad development experiences as lessons for the future.
- You shouldn’t wait for inspiration or epiphanies in order to solve problems, but you should instead work at problems consistently in order to generate those ‘aha’ moments more frequently, combined with this quote: “Making one brilliant decision and a whole bunch of mediocre ones isn’t as good as making a whole bunch of generally smart decisions throughout the whole process.”
- And be wary of the scope and scale of your project: “Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do.”
Prior to his departure from id Software, I would have guessed that John Carmack was the studio’s best game designer, too, able to guide projects with his pragmatic approach to keep the company’s games lean and manageable for a relatively small team.
Of course, Shigeru Miyamoto’s ability to instil a sense of fun and adventure in any projects he touches has been an inspiration mainstay. Interviews with people who work with him always convey a sense of awe in the way he can look at problems from a completely different angle, either coming up with a solution or spurring a new direction that results in a creative workaround, or even a completely new gameplay mechanic. I always try to approach design problems from different angles to try and emulate Miyamoto’s method of thinking, and Nintendo’s methods in general.
Tim Schafer’s attention to detail in the characters, stories, dialogue, and scenarios he has written for games like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Psychonauts, Brutal Legend, and Broken Age continue to be a source of inspiration – I want to write characters and invent worlds like that. [He] seems to stick to his own advice of writing more for a game than the player will ever see. As artists and designers work to bring the virtual world to virtual life, small details of that world’s history begin to emerge in the game itself, almost subconsciously on the part of the game’s developers because they’re drawing on source material that is much more detailed than a name and some concept art. As a result, [his] games have worlds and personalities that are incredibly rich and deep, so I think anyone making a story-driven game would do well to pay attention to Schafer’s writing process.
As far as enthusiast press writing goes, no-one has had as much of an impact on the way I think about videogame critique and coverage as Shawn Elliott. During his time at Computer Gaming World (CGW)/Games For Windows Magazine (GFW), EGM, and 1up.com, Elliott was a vocal advocate for videogame reviews and writing that gave readers a chance to think about games (and issues surrounding games) from a different perspective, while using a much more broad spectrum of subjects over and above comfortable conversations like ‘graphics’ and ‘story.’ Elliott was also keen on banishing writing clichés and overused terms in order to improve the overall quality of the games press, and pushed himself and his peers to do better.
In your opinion, how does one know they’ve ‘made it’ in the games industry?
I still don’t think I’ve ‘made it,’ and I don’t think I can be recognized as someone who has completely broken into the industry, but I’ve been worrying the walls with encouraging events over the last fifteen years and slowly ‘merging’ with the industry in small ways.
As a game developer, working with groups of friends and members of the South African game development community on game projects made even informal efforts seem more professional than they really were, giving me a glimpse of what it’s like to work in a team of developers on a single project. Chatting with Activision, pitching Watch Your Shape to casual game portals (over email), and getting paid $1200 for a Flash game Kyle-Ben and I made were all encouraging events, too.
As I understand it, there are game developers with five to ten years of studio experience who have never worked on a complete, shipping game because subsequent projects are cancelled before reaching the finish line. I wouldn’t compare myself to these sorts of highly experienced individuals, but it does feel like that sometimes: I have experience working on a bunch of projects, but only when Kyle-Ben and I decided to limit our focus and create tiny Flash games did we ever complete and release anything. Going through that process a few times – despite the scope and scale of the games we made – was incredibly valuable and prepared us for larger projects.
As a member of the press, however, getting paid to write about games and review them is probably a good measure of whether or not you’ve ‘made it.’ After a year of working at a videogame retail store, I emailed El33tonline’s editor, Lisa, and because they were based in Durban, I was able to meet the team in person and start writing news on a trial basis, which turned out to be a trial by fire because the following week was E3 2008! Over the next few weeks, I demonstrated that I had a pretty fierce work ethic by writing a steady stream of news and taking on a few review tasks, and after moving from part-time to full-time work, and thanks to the site’s month-over-month growth, we made our first international trip to cover Gamescom and GDC Europe in 2010 in Cologne, Germany.
When you find yourself in an amazing foreign city, standing in line waiting to get your GDC badge, and Warren Spector is standing in the line next-to yours, it’s difficult not to think that you’ve ‘made it.’
Over the years, I’ve been very fortunate to speak with and interview game developers that I greatly respect; saunter around invite-only industry parties and see video game legends; and play high profile, highly anticipated games ahead of release for previews and reviews. In the space of six short years, I felt that I had ‘made it’ as a member of the press, and I would have happily continued in that role if El33tonline had remained a sustainable entity.
When it comes to the games themselves, have any titles left a strong emotional impact?
Gosh, there are so many.
Flower, Journey, and Shadow of the Colossus have all included particularly impactful moments and sequences, the elation of securing an alliance in Star Control II or getting the crew together in Monkey Island was incredible, while the characters, settings, and music of Grim Fandango never fail to stir a wide range of emotions in me.
I think that Final Fantasy VII, however, will remain the game that has had the greatest emotional impact on me… and not because of that death scene, either. I played the game in my early teens, so that would have affected my affection for the game quite a bit, but like Grim Fandango, the contextual wrapping around Final Fantasy VII is what I enjoyed most, and because every main character and environment had unique music and themes associated with them, there were very hard swings between emotional moments, all tied to specific events that I’ll never forget.
I think if I had played Final Fantasy VII in my twenties or thirties, it might not have made the list, but I happened to play it at a very particular time in my life (and after years of anticipation), so there’s definitely a bit of rose tint to my nostalgic lenses.
That’s natural 🙂 What do hope to see from video games, in the future?
For the most part, I think that the videogame industry is on a good path for the future, running alongside a few other paths that will need to converge at some point soon.
Representation of women and people of colour in videogames is at an all-time high, with triple-A games like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Watch Dogs 2, Call of Duty, Mafia III, Dishonored 2, FIFA, and Assassin’s Creed injecting more diverse characters into the games we play, while Ubisoft, Microsoft, EA, and even Nintendo have been good about giving women the spotlight when promoting games during major events.
There is, of course, still a long way to go in order to improve this representation and diversity, but I really do feel that we need to celebrate and acknowledge even these small steps and cheer on developers and publishers as they begin to walk (before running, sprinting, high jumping, climbing, and flying in the future, hopefully). Positive reinforcement can work wonders when trying to alter the habits and behaviour of people, and while the situation is a little different when corporations and billions of dollars are involved, giving a company an excuse to tout these kinds of efforts when comparing numbers and initiatives with their competitors is a win-win situation. While we must continue to keep game companies honest about how they include their audiences, we need to make a bigger noise about the companies that get it right than the companies that don’t. We still need to make a noise, regardless.
We need to push game companies and technology houses alike to support education and awareness initiatives, too, like Women Who Code and Girls Who Code, and even set up university/college bursaries/scholarships to encourage a greater variety of people to begin a career in game development. In the spirit of working with third-party partners to further the industry, I would also like to see game companies work much more closely with organizations like SpecialEffect and AbleGamers to introduce standards for better accessibility for disabled game players.
I’m pretty pleased about the incredibly diverse line-up of games being made, though, with experiences of every stripe released at every budget level and price point, from triple-A blockbusters, tiny indie experiences, sports, and esports games, to VR, AR, exploration, and empathy games… If anyone decries the lack of variety and innovation in the videogame industry, they’re simply not looking, and if they care that much about an industry that they deem to be creatively stagnant, then they should be doing a lot more to raise awareness around lesser known games that they think need more attention.
More work also needs to be done to reveal the behind-the-scenes inner workings of game development, because the lack of knowledge amongst fans and even the press about how games are made has been shocking, reaching new levels of ridiculousness during the launch of No Man’s Sky.
I would encourage people to read my book because I go to great lengths to tackle this very topic, but video series like the ones following the development of Double Fine’s games and Ninja Theory’s Hellblade are excellent, too, while the trend of indie developers streaming their art and programming work has been terrific to see. I also encourage people to support documentary initiatives like Danny O’Dwyer’s NoClip and Russ Pitts’ Stage of Development, because it means we get to learn how games are made directly from the people who make them.
And finally, what upcoming games are you most looking forward to?
Too many games!
I’m very keen to catch up on the big games of 2017 so far like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Nier, and upcoming smaller scale games like Hellblade, Below, and Strafe are all looking very tasty, too. I’m also very, very excited for Quake Champions.
There is a flood of amazing looking indie-developed games on the horizon for 2017 and beyond, so I’ve tried to cram my top ten most anticipated games into a list…
[Note: Oliver included an “optional list” of an additional fifty games; we’re going to go play and will share some more!]
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- On April 20, 2017