2009: The Year of The Indie Developer?

A few days ago I went out to lunch with some friends and they brought up an interesting thought: Will 2009 be the year of the indie developer?

I loved the sound of that! I’ve been an indie developer for a year and a half, and I’m seeing more and more people taking tha route. I think indie development is necessary for a healthy game development industry. Where else are people going to try weird ideas, experimental development techniques, an commercially unproven designs? I think it’s a sign of maturity that we’re seeing a need filled by independent development next to the Maddens and Worlds of Warcraft and other chart-toppers.

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Stranger in a Mac Land

I’ve worked with many operating systems over the years: from the humble CP/M, to early versions of DOS, to  Windows 3.0 (if you can even call that an OS), along with many different versions of Linux since 1993, a smattering of VMS, and, of course, all the recent flavors of Windows. But somehow, I always managed to avoid Apple operating systems.

Starting iPhone development was a bit of a change since it required me to work exclusively under OSX and use a new IDE (XCode). I had talked to people who found the change very cumbersome and found the new environment got in their way, so I approached it with a bit of trepidation.

It’s An OS X World

With my new Macbook Pro under my arm (actually, it wasn’t new, I bought it used off Craigslist because I couldn’t afford a new one), I embarked on an adventure to this strange, new world of OS X development.

Some background is necessary here: I”m a minimalistic, no frills kind of guy when it comes to my preferences when working with computers (although now that I think about it, it probably applies to most other things in my life as well). The first thing I do with a new install of Windows is turn off all the GUI animations (don’t get me started on the search puppy dog!!), most of the sounds, all the auto-complete and auto-spellcheck features, and automatic upgrades. When I want the computer to do something, I’ll tell it to do so. Otherwise I want it to be quiet and responsive.

My ideal Visual Studio setup is also pretty similar: No fancy web startup page, no animations, no autocompletions by default (unless I press CTRL-Space), out with all the toolbars, just give me two text windows side by side and control everything from keyboard shortcuts (which I’m still using the ones from Visual C++ 6.0).

Needless to say, I was afraid of clashing with Mac OSX’s environment. I had a suspicious that it was full of eye candy, GUI frills, and required a mouse for everything. Not a good match.

There wasn’t as much of a learning curve as some getting-used-to. There are some Mac quirkiness that I just don’t get: The disembodied menu on the top of the screen, the lack of change of mouse cursor when you can resize a window, or not being able to automatically restore a file to its original location from the recycle bin.

But those are all relatively small things that don’t overshadow the fact that I just love this new environment. I used to like the Windows fonts, but after a week of using a Mac, I can’t go back to those tiny, jaggedy Windows fonts. Handling of multiple monitors is perfectly integrated and works like a charm. In general, things Just Work (TM).

Then there are the things that I love from my time in Linux that I can’t live without: Multiple desktops with Spaces, a decent command line shell, or being able to tweak settings directly in low-level config files.

And the thing that has changed how I work the most: Spotlight. No need for icons everywhere, or “Start | Programs” or anything. Just start typing what you want and there it is. It’s like the return of the command line on steroids. Between Spotlight, Firefox smart locaton bar, GMarks, and Ubiquity, I feel right at home. Now combine them all somehow and I’ll be in heaven!

But Wait, What About Windows?

I ended up falling in love with OS X so much, that I quickly moved to it as my primary environment at home for everything. Frankly, these days, it’s pretty easy for me to change environments since most of what I do is online. Just give me Firefox (or a good browser) and I’m there: GMail, Google Calendar, Google Reader, Google Docs (hmm… I sense a theme here), and a Wiki cover most of what I do on a daily basis.

For the rest of the apps, almost everything I need runs under OS X: good media visualizer (Preview), photograph organizer (Lightroom), image editor (The Gimp/Photoshop), audio editor (Audacity), music player (iTunes), and a few more odds and ends. OS X comes with some great utilities out of the box too, like Grab, Preview, or Activity Monitor.

Unfortunately, there are still a couple of things that I can only run under Windows. The main thing are games unfortunately, so I need to keep my Windows box around just for that. Although I just started playing World of Warcraft and it runs great on my Mac. Thanks Blizzard! Apart from that, every so often I need to do something in Visual Studio, or run some application I wrote in .Net. For that, I go about it in two different ways.

I can run it on the Windows box itself. Instead of keeping two sets of keyboards and mice (or a switch box), I used Synergy for a while. It was pretty cool being able to move the mouse cursor from one screen on the Mac to the screen on Windows and continue working there, and that might be a great solution if you’re working 50-50 on both platforms. In my case, it was more like 90-10 at the time (more like 99.9 to 0.1 now), so it felt a bit of a waste to have a full monitor dedicated to Windows. Instead, I decided to use Remote Desktop to control my Windows computer from the Mac. Amazingly enough, Microsoft wrote a Remote Desktop app for OS X that works like a charm, much better than some of the VNC programs I tried.

Whenever I don’t need to run something that is performance critical, I reach for Fusion. I’ve tried many products in the past that claim to run programs for another platform in your own computer: Wine, CrossOver Office, earlier versions of VMWare, but they’re always plagued by problems and incompatibilities. VMWare Fusion really surprised me by running anything I threw at it flawlessly, including Quicken (yes, I need to switch to Mint or Buxfer) and some hardware-accelerated 3D programs (those were a bit chuggy though, but they worked). And the coolest feature ever: Unity–I can run Windows apps in a window of their own directly on the Mac desktop. Totally awesome! On top of all that, I can have multiple snapshots, restore earlier states, and I can even run other operating systems like different versions of Linux. A geek’s true dream!

Some people will claim that I have drunk from the Apple kool-aid, and to a certain extent, they’re right. But I’d like to think I was swayed by many good reasons having to do with using the computer and being more productive, rather than Apple’s brainwashy, lifestyle marketing message. That and the smooth feel of the Macbook against the palm of my hands, its sleek profile, and sexy design. 🙂

What about XCode and development? That’s another story for another day.

Prototyping for Fun And Profit

So here we are, ready to start development of our first game. We have the time, the resources, and the game idea itself. Where do we start?

Since both Charles and I are tech guys, we knew we could implement our game idea without any problem and make it sing and dance at a silky-smooth 60 fps. But would it be fun? Now that we have these brand-new designer hats, finding that always elusive fun factor is a big concern. The idea of waiting for a couple of months before we could tell if our game idea was fun seemed too risky, so we tackled that problem first and head-on by prototyping.

We could start at the bottom, write some low-level input handling, some graphics rendering, a basic asset pipeline, and all the other usual suspects. The problem is that, even if we try to keep things as simple as possible, it would still be several weeks or even months before we can actually start implementing the game itself. And even when we do, we’ll always be running up against incomplete technology and having to spend time fleshing it out as we try to make a game come out of the other end.

Instead, we decided to start with a prototype. This isn’t supposed to be a “prototype” that eventually morphs into a shipping game, or a prototype that uses the same technology as the production code, or even a prototype that’s used to impress the big-wigs to squeeze some money out of them (ha!). No, all that stuff detracts from the ultimate goal of our prototype. Our approach was very similar to what Chris Hecker and Chaim Gingold described in their GDC presentation. We had the need to answer one very specific question: “Is our game idea fun?” And we wanted the answer as quickly and cheaply as possible. Everything else was secondary. Continue reading

Bringing Back The Dream

A lot of people have a particular moment or experience that defined their future. It can be anything: reading a particular book, traveling through a different country, meeting somebody special, or going through a very painful (or happy) experience. For me, the future crystallized on a Fall afternoon in 1985, when I sat in front of an 8-bit computer at a friend’s house. It was the beginning of a long personal journey. Continue reading

The Winds of Change

E3 is just around the corner, so we can expect to finally get the official announcements of Microsoft’s next-generation console, and maybe even Sony’s. That will mark the official transition into the next generation. And this is not just another console generation transition. This time it’s bigger. Much bigger.

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