I was first introduced to James Biddulph’s Jamo Games back in 2014. It was near the height of the PSVita’s relative popularity and he’d just announced a new strategy game for the platform – Inner City Kids. For (very understandable) reasons that James goes into below, however, the game didn’t make it to the end of its development journey. Any disappointment that I had about Inner City Kids not reaching release is very easily offset by the games James has released though – In 2017, James released one of my personal favourite games of the year, ‘The Botanist’, a chilled out title about cultivating plants that are generated from a seed word and ‘Deck The Halls’, a festive game about quickly decorating houses with a tinsel cannon. I highly recommend checking both of these games out.
James is now working on his latest project, ‘Echo Terminal‘, a survival horror puzzle game in which you play a security officer who uses his terminal to help people escape from a lab when things go horribly, horribly wrong. Having followed James for years on Twitter, I know him to be an insightful games designer so when the opportunity arose, I jumped at the chance to ask him some questions about Echo Terminal, his path into games and his new “minimum risk” approach to creating games. Read on.
Could you talk me through your path into and through the gaming industry?
I’ve worked in games for a long time now, about ten years. I went to uni to study illustration as I wanted to be a concept artist, in games or films, and my first job in games was doing concept art for game pitches. I worked there during my final year at uni, leaving for lectures then heading back there again, and doing my uni work in the evenings.
I’ve kind of always made games since I was a kid, but I never felt like I excelled at anything at school other than art, so it felt like a natural direction to go in. Pretty quickly after I started working, I moved over to working on game design, and started putting together prototypes in Flash.
I did that for a while, we did a lot of pitches as I worked at a ‘Serious Games’ company, which basically means games to educate, or raise awareness of something, so they were always done with external partners. At that time I wasn’t too involved in full scale development. The company changed its focus and I lost my job, and went freelance pretty much out of desperation, to be honest.
I started pixelartcommissions.com and managed to make a good go of doing pixel art for other peoples games, which I still do now, although much less often. I’ve got work on all of the major platforms now I think, which is pretty cool, but at the same time I really wanted to make my own games. It’s tough trying to make enough to live while also trying to make your own games, especially when freelancing. I did release a couple of mobile games which made no money at all.
For the past few years I’ve been working as lead designer for a different serious games company, which even though I have less time overall, has freed enough space in my head not having to worry about my next job for me to make The Botanist, and now move onto Echo Terminal.
Pretty much none of my journey was intentional, I just tried to follow the opportunities I saw as best as I could and ended up here.
You’re currently working on a game called Echo Terminal. What inspired you to make it?
My inspiration for Echo Terminal has come from a few different places. The overall idea was inspired by that scene in Aliens where they are all standing in the room together watching the scanner, crossed with an old idea I had where you played X Com through lots of FPS views, which would be awesome to play, I think.
The final design didn’t end up too much like either of those, and that is mainly because of the merciless rescoping of the project. Weapons and classes got cut first, which changed the theme, then different locations became the one facility and the game kept getting smaller. I’ve mentioned my ‘minimum risk’ approach that influences how I make my games from the ground up. I’m never aiming to make ‘The One Game’, so I’m not precious about my designs.
For Echo Terminal, you’re aiming for a PlayStation 1 inspired aesthetic. It looks great in Echo Terminal (seriously, I love it) but it’s an art direction that’s quite rare these days. Why do you think that is?
Thanks! I love the PS1 style. It fits perfectly into my ‘polished but fast’ ideology too, as I don’t have to worry about high poly models, or making normal maps or whatever that takes up so much time. I just made the full cast of characters probably 20 hours, so I get way more time to make the game play better.
My guess is that it won’t be rare for much longer. For me the games that formed how I view them today, were PS1 games. I had played games before then, but Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy and so many other games on PS1 just blew my mind. I think though, it’s just an age thing, so we will see more devs trying this out, and a lot of them who make pixel art games now might move over to this style.
While other indie developers specialise in a particular genre, you tend to switch it up. Echo Terminal, The Botanist, Inner City Kids and Deck The Halls are all very different types of games, mechanically and thematically. What motivates you to continue to try new things?
Honestly, it’s because I don’t know what I’m doing. I go around in circles on this all the time. I feel like my life would be easier if people looked at my games and knew what they were getting, and if they would like my next one. How many players of The Botanist will like Echo Terminal? I’m really not sure, how do you build an audience on that? But I don’t know what kind of games I should be making, or what I’m best at, so I just make all sorts of things in the hope that I can narrow it down. Maybe Echo Terminal will be the defining game that answers this for me?
You’ve also building a reputation for creating unique hooks for your games. All of your published works are unlike anything else out there. Do you leave many ideas on the cutting room floor before deciding on what to develop further?
Oh thanks! That’s a huge compliment, honestly, if I could choose one thing to be known for it would be that. I cut hundreds of ideas, some at prototype stages, some just a few sentences, I’m always coming up with new ideas. I think all game designers do, the trick is to know which ones to make, which my sales figures tell me I’m not very good at yet! Echo Terminal is one I picked from a massive document I have of my favourite ideas. It isn’t my one calling to make this game, I know it won’t be perfect, but it ticked the most boxes from my criteria on what to make next, so here it is.
For 2019, you’ve adopted what you’re calling a “minimum risk” game development style. Could you go into that in a little detail?
It’s really simple, but it needs a catchier name. A lot of developers have this dream game, sort of an ideal that they will do anything to get made. Like Phil Fish with Fez I guess, a super focused obsession that is the driving force of their development process. For me it’s different. I tried that with Inner City Kids and it doesn’t work. It is also super risky and not at all practical, but it can result in incredible games. I feel like this is how most indie games are approached, even if it isn’t conscious.
For me, my driving force is my ‘minimum risk’ approach. How should I approach development to be more efficient, cheaper, faster and better, while still delivering on my high level vision for the game? I’ve read some conflicting numbers, but an average Steam game last year sold about 2000 copies at $4.99, so using that as a baseline, can I make a game on that budget? If so, that might be a sustainable business. If you need to sell 100,000 to break even, that’s probably not going to happen. Using time and budget as a driving force sounds kind of like common sense in a lot of ways, but it frames design decisions in a very different way, and for me at least, makes me feel better about the compromises that I have to make away from my initial vision.
The vast majority of games that devs start never get finished, and I think allowing yourself to compromise and being okay with that is a big part of it. It leads with the idea of being humble, that my game isn’t going to be better than average, but that’s okay, it just needs to be as good as it can be, and it needs to exist.
You’ve dabbled in developing a game for consoles – well, the PSVita with Inner City Kids – in the past. Is this something you’d like to revisit in the future should the opportunity arise?
Haha, people do like to remind me of that… I still feel a lot of guilt that I never finished it, I kind of threw a big opportunity away, but I’m the only one to blame for that. I saw that game as a kind of ultimate strategy game, taking bits I loved from all sorts of places to make something really special. The problem was it was just too complicated at its core, so I couldn’t deliver it, but I also couldn’t rescope it.
I love games consoles, I mostly play on console and my frame of reference for games is through a console lense, so I feel like it would be a good home for my games, even though The Botanist and Echo Terminal probably wouldn’t work well on consoles. It is something I’m taking into account for my next project, but who knows if I will be able to get it on console or not. My goal is to one day release all of my games onto consoles.
Given the current volatility in the PC gaming market and the various stores/launchers vying for market share, have you given any thought to how or where you’ll be releasing Echo Terminal?
Well, we love drama in the games industry. But for now the reality of it is that I don’t think much has changed. Steam still take the same cut, but still have control of most digital games sales, the smaller stores still won’t provide many sales, and Epics store is still in too much flux to tell if it solves any problems or just changes them for new ones. It makes for fun reading but outside of the fairly small dev and press circles I’m not sure it looks that volatile.
I’ll be launching on Steam and Itch for now, because most people still just want Steam games and won’t buy otherwise. With Itch, I just like the platform, and I have somewhere to point people who don’t want Steam, or want me to get a bigger cut of the sale. I’m always considering the other platforms, so that might change. I’m not interested in challenging the status quo, to be honest. I barely have enough time to get my games made at all so it won’t be somewhere I put any effort.
In my head the ideal solution for small devs like me is to not care about platform, but have an audience ready and waiting to buy the game. If we rely on Steam, or Epic, or Nintendo or whatever platform holder hosts our game to sell for us, we put all of the power in their hands and just pray they will like our game enough to promote it, which is a bad idea regardless of percentages. This is where most of my effort goes, I try my best to do blog posts, twitter and I started a Discord recently too.
I would love to do physical versions though. Digital distribution is complicated, especially with the VAT rules in the UK on digital sales, but a physical version gets around those, and puts me in complete control of the sale too. Plus, how cool would Echo Terminal in a PS1 style case with a manual be? I think about the idea of acting like a local business a lot. I live in a city surrounded by people who play games but most of my sales come from other countries. We have so many games now maybe there is something in that?
Last question – If you could offer up one piece of advice to someone looking to become an indie game developer, what would it be?
Take risks with your game designs, not your game development. Your life at home, your future and your family is more important than any game idea, so don’t do things like spending your life savings or quitting your job to make games. Your first few games will probably be terrible anyway, so just learn to love the craft and try and discover the things that you don’t even know you don’t know yet before your rent depends on it.