Becoming a game designer

Dan Pearce won the inaugural BAFTA Young Game Designers competition - now he's an established indie

At the tender age of 16, Dan Pearce won the inaugural BAFTA Young Game Designers competition, which gave him the opportunity to work with TT Games and Electronic Arts. Still just 20, he’s made two critically acclaimed games and co-founded independent studio The Tall Trees. We caught up with him to discuss his BAFTA win, the breakout success of Castles in the Sky, and what the future holds for independent developers.

At what point did you realise you wanted to be a game designer?

I guess a lot of it came out of a reluctance to do real work [laughs]. I had this massive folder filled with sheets and sheets of paper. You know how [in TV shows] someone really nerdy will get out a book from the library and it’s comedically huge and they slam it down on the desk? It was like that. And it just had drawings of characters that I’d want to put in games, and story ideas, and... it was all terrible. But I kept adding to it and it [became] this huge body of work. So I knew I could sustain my interest in game design, whereas when you’re younger every week you have a different idea of what you want to do. This was the first thing where I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this and I can stay interested in this.’

So I started doing that when I was 13 or 14. I started playing around with things like RPG Maker and getting a feel for the sort things that I wanted to make. From there, it was going on internet forums and reading websites and things like that. I [went] to EGX for the first time – in 2010, I think. They were promoting game design workshops and I was 16 at the time and I ended up talking to Ed Stern from Splash Damage. And I thought, ‘Why not? It’s an opportunity to be creative.’

I ended up with this game which was, looking back on it, very, very basic satire. It was just a platformer where you play as a hamster and you save the princess. But the princess would save the hero. It was like, ‘What if the princess was smarter than the prince?’ stuff. But it won. And that was huge. That opened the door for everything else I now have. It was an amazing launch pad. I got a bunch of contacts. I got a bunch of experience. I got to look at TT Games QA Department. I went to EA Games, learned how they made games. I got a prototype made of the game we’d entered. It was a tremendous experience.

Castles in the Sky

Would you like to revisit that game [HAMSTER: accidental world domination] at some stage?

There’s a little part of me that does want to. Some of the stuff it was doing mechanically I still think is interesting. It was all about manipulating your weight to do certain things and shifting your weight around the level and picking things up. It was a real puzzle-platformer, but it was something that I found interesting. I think some elements of it ended up in 10 Second Ninja, actually. Yeah, there was some stuff there that I really liked. But there was some other stuff in there that I’m not quite so proud of.

How did the process of turning it into a prototype work?

That was through a studio called Electric TopHat. They were a small team that formed just after Real Time Worlds went down. And we went to Abertay University in Dundee. We all sat down and had a meeting with them and talked about what we wanted to do. And they went away for a month and came back, and we had this prototype, which weirdly was about three years ago now. It was only the end of last year I ended up showing that to Prince William [laughs]. It was the first time in ages that I’d seen it. It hadn’t aged particularly well.

But it was a great learning experience. I was very hesitant to communicate my ideas. I’m glad I learned that lesson later. I’m glad I learned how to communicate a lot better and how to find points of reference and make what I wanted very, very clear. And that was a really useful lesson to learn because that’s something that I know from speaking to other designers that can be something you only pick up after multiple projects. Whereas this was a very quick way to go, ‘Here are the fundamental lessons of working in a team,’ laid out in a very clear way with a very clear result.

So you were studying at university at the time and you decided to quit to basically pursue independent game development. Did you always want to be independent rather than joining a bigger company, even though you’d had the experience of working within a larger developer?

Yeah. The weird thing is, I wanted to be indie pretty much immediately after I left my time at EA Games. But that’s not a diss! [laughs]

How long were you at EA?

It really wasn’t long. It was like a week. But we were pretty integrated into how they worked. We got to see everything. Honestly, I think people probably expect me to be down on EA or something. But the people there were happy, people did feel like they had some influence. A lot of the people who were working there actually now gone on to work on Alien Isolation, which is one of the reasons why I’m so excited for that game, because there were very talented people there.

But it struck me that I could go into indie game development and fail, and then get a job at a bigger studio, whereas the other way around, it would be a bit harder. I had a really good opportunity with still being in school and then going to university. I had a good few years where I knew I could promote myself and get a decent body of work out there. And if it was a catastrophic failure, I could apply to work somewhere else with a pretty big portfolio of work - or at least a very polished portfolio of work.

So it seemed like the best decision for me. It seemed like it had the least risk to it and the most creative freedom. I mean, going to a real game development studio is always going to be there as a backup. Not that I think I’d get a job particularly easily there, but I feel like I would have decent evidence to show that I can do game design. But yeah, I’ve embraced being indie with open arms.

When I was at university, it became very quickly apparent to me that they were training us to be drones and cogs in much larger machines of game development. I felt like they ignored a lot of things that made game development important or interesting. For me, they had a lot of dated views of what games were. I was told that single-player games were going to die out because the AI wasn’t good enough. I think that was the point where I was, ‘Oh this university course is bad.’ [laughs] Because when I brought up games like Dear Esther and Deus Ex and things like that, my lecturer [said], ‘Oh, well the last game I played was Age of Empires II.’ I was like, ‘Oh wow. Nine grand for this? That’s not good enough.’ [laughs] So, yeah, after about a year, I [left].

What happened then?

My parents have been very, very good to me, actually. I wouldn’t be able to do this without them. They’ve been amazingly supportive. We had a point last summer where I felt sick with the idea of going back [to university]. I felt so stressed out just because I didn’t enjoy it. My parents sat me down and said, ‘We have enough evidence here to think it might just be worth supporting you and letting you make games yourself.’ They were very understanding and they completely got that I had options if indie game development was to fail. I’m very fortunate to have quite a wealth of contacts. I already had projects in development and I already had stuff on the horizon. I think I was still working on Castles [in the Sky] at that point, and we were already getting some interest for that. But they had a lot of faith in me, which I’m really, really grateful for. So, yeah, it didn’t seem like a particularly scary decision to decide to drop out of university.

10 Second Ninja

And then you started work on 10 Second Ninja.

Yeah. 10 Second Ninja started as my game to learn how to make and finish a game that’s polished. I thought it would take four months. But it took two years [laughs]. Which is a mistake that I think everyone has to make at least once. It was pretty useful. I learned a lot about promotion. I learned a lot about how difficult polish is. I learned about when you should iterate and when you should just round off the things that are already there. It was a really, really good learning experience.

We’ve spoken to other indie developers who’ve said that when you’re making your first game, you learn what to cut out. You start off with all these grand ideas and then the less useful ones gradually fall by the wayside. Does that tally with your experience?

Yeah. There’s a really cool designer [James Portnow] who makes a series called Extra Credits on YouTube, which is a great series on game design. And he did a video on lessons you need to know as a game designer. And one of the main lessons in there – I’ve never heard it better put than this – but he says, ‘The lesson you really need to learn is fail fast. There’s going to be so much wrong with your project. You need to know exactly what doesn’t work immediately so don’t waste time polishing everything. Get all the fundamental ideas in there. See what works. See what doesn’t work. And find workarounds early because you don’t want to have to be dealing with that stuff later.’

Castles in the Sky is a very different kind of game to 10 Second Ninja. Tell us a little more about how that came to be.

Jack [de Quidt, the other half of The Tall Trees] and I had wanted to work together for a while. And then one night, I felt very expressive. And I felt like I just wanted to make something in The Tall Trees vein. So I started prototyping some animations. I literally just had a boy jumping on a cloud. I was doing experiments with the sprites and the animation and making it feel good. But very quickly I felt like there was something in it. And I approached Jack with it the next morning. We turned it into a small jam game and worked on it for about a week. Then polished it up for a week. And then we just left it. I think it was June or July last year [when] we finished it.

The plan was that I would release 10 Second Ninja and we would release Castles afterwards. But then, that didn’t happen because...it was just before EGX last year, it’s weird how that keeps coming up. But I was doing an interview at Loading Bar back when it was in Soho. I was sitting with Nina Raze, who writes on Starbound. We were just having a conversation and then Mike Bithell and Daz Watford who’s the artist on Volume [laughs]. I just sat around and chatted for a while. I showed off my project to get some feedback on them. And Mike suggested that we release Castles first and we don’t release it for free; we charge a small amount for it. And he was spot on. I feel like I owe him a lot just for saying those things, because the price of Castles and releasing it first did a huge amount for that game’s success. And there have been so many opportunities we wouldn’t have had without it - even the BAFTA nomination, because if we had released it after 10 Second Ninja, then it wouldn’t have been out until probably around this time in the year. So we completely changed course.

And then two weeks after that conversation, Castles was out and we promoted it. We got the website out. We had this real rush to get it to people. And then, thankfully, people really, really liked it.

You must be thinking about your next project.

Well, I’ve been very, very foolish and got myself into a position where I’ve got way too many things on my plate right now. Because we’d like to bring [10 Second Ninja] to other platforms. We’d like to add more levels into it. But then we’re also prototyping a new project because Tim [Rurkowski, sound designer for 10 Second Ninja] and I have also got another programmer with us now, and we’d like to work on a new project. So we want to get 10 Second Ninja out on other platforms. And we want to get that next project into the stage where it’s past pure prototyping.

Pearce plans to keep his two areas of interest separate, but continue to explore both

Are you going to take a similar approach to 10 Second Ninja for your next game, or try something completely different? Or perhaps something that’s more personal like Castles in the Sky?

Well, with The Tall Trees - that’s sort of the personal stuff. I always feel tentative about The Tall Trees’ stuff just because it feels like it’s so personal; there are things that could get into those games that completely switches people off. And I might not even realise what I’m doing, just because it is so personal. Whereas the next games that I think we would do with the 10 Second Ninja team, we would work on more gamey games and things for other people. I’d like the next project to be something that I’m a bit more personally interested in or something where if someone else had made it, I would play it day one, [and] be super, super psyched about it.

So you’re keen to keep these two sides separate? You’ll use The Tall Trees for more personal, arty stuff, while your other projects aren’t released under that banner?

Yeah, I feel like I have to head in these two directions with these things because in most cases with games, the more you try to do a narrative that’s human and grounded and real, the more that will conflict with traditional game mechanics. It’s very difficult to get those things right. If you get them wrong, then you can end up with this really horrible trophy stuff that can be damaging. So I would prefer to keep those things separate: ‘This is like a game about the gameplay. And this is a game about everything around the gameplay.’

That’s one of the reasons why I’m at work prototyping the next Tall Trees thing. And the focus really isn’t on the gameplay with that either, which is similar to how it was with Castles. But it’s nice designing it like that; it’s very wholesome. It’s nice designing games where the gameplay isn’t the entire focus of the experience because if you design games like that, you can really end up hitting your head against the wall when you get bored of the gameplay and something’s breaking, or whatever. It can be a stressful experience in that way, because often you don’t know it’s good until someone else plays it. Whereas with something like Castles, we felt proud of that while we were making it. So that’s a really, really nice experience. I’d like to do both which is why I’m overworked right now!

You have to be adaptable in an industry that shifts as much as this one.

Yeah. It’s exciting! I mean, it’s incredibly stressful, but it’s really cool. I mean, even if you look where indie games were two years ago, when Indie Game: The Movie came out and everyone was making these small standalone releases, it was when we were just finishing up using Flash on every project and people were making small standalone games for free on websites and things like that.

It’s now gone from that phase to where, if you’re making an indie game it’s probably going to be commercial, especially if you want coverage. And it’s incredibly competitive, people who were making games then making their second and third games that are tremendously polished and they already have audiences. And that’s a big deal.