Bob Johnson from IonFx, developer of horror action indie title, Miasmata, discuss various aspects of PC gaming development and the industry as a whole. You will learn how Miasmata came to light, struggles of being indie and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Miasmata.
I’m Bob Johnson. I was responsible for the creative aspects of Miasmata: artwork, world design, music, etc. I essentially did everything that wasn’t programming. My brother Joe wrote the engine and did all of the programing.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Joe and I started developing games when we were kids on the Commodore 64 and Amiga. We were in elementary and middle school, so these were just crude BASIC games and we never came close finishing anything. When our dad came home with a 386 PC and eventually a 486, that’s when we started to get a little more serious. Joe started teaching himself C and I gave up on programming altogether in favor of doing artwork and level design. When Doom came out in the early 90s, that really got us interested in 3d and ray-casting engines. As we progressed through high school and into college, we created dozens of experimental rendering engines.
In 2004, after I had graduated from college, Joe and I decided it was time for us to create a commercial product. We had been playing with Windows PocketPCs at the time, so we thought it would be a really interesting and accessible platform to develop for. So, over the course of 3 months, we whipped together a racing game called GeoRally 2005. Joe built a software 3d engine for it and it did pretty well for us. We’ve released 6 more games since then, including Miasmata and a game called Obulis, which is available on Steam and other digital portals.
Where did the idea for Miasmata come from?
Much of it came from our camping adventures we took as kids. Every summer growing up, we’d travel to northern Minnesota with my Dad, uncle, brothers and cousins and spend a week in the wilderness. We’d spend the entire day hiking and portaging from camp site to camp site. It was really tough stuff, at least for us suburban kids. We injected a lot of the emotion and feeling of solitude from those trips into Miasmata. The creature in Miasmata is based on my cat Milo.
In its current form, how close is Miasmata to your initial vision?
Beyond some vague ideas for exploration, we didn’t really have a solid initial vision. We knew we wanted to build a terrain/nature engine, so we dove in head-first building the engine and the game slowly started to materialize from that. We were actually making huge gameplay decisions very late in the development.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Miasmata?
As far as the game’s development, I think our biggest failure was not having a clear-enough vision early on. I think we ended up wasting a lot of valuable time. We didn’t really develop a solid design document and plan, and that gave us too much opportunity to meander and lose focus on the big picture. Our biggest success was finding a way to finish a game of this scale. When the game really started to materialize, we developed a laser focus. I don’t think most people can really grasp just how big of a project this was for a two-man team.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Miasmata and if you faced a similar challenge.
That is something we also faced with Miasmata. The thing we found most challenging was communicating some of the more uncommon gameplay mechanics to people. Our cartography/triangulation system and momentum/sliding were really difficult for many people to grasp early on.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Miasmata would run on the various PC system configurations?
Yes, definitely. It was a constant struggle as far as getting things working across a large range of PC configurations. That’s just the nature of PC gaming though.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
We face the same difficulties that any small business faces, and it can be tough when business matters interfere with the creative side of things. We also have to deal with the the all-or-nothing nature of the business. Not having a steady, consistent income is very difficult and requires a lot of planning.
How did you go about funding Miasmata and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We use the profits from previous games to fund the next project. We’ve received a ton of great support from our friends and family over the years.
Tell us about the process of submitting Miasmata to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
We went through the Steam Greenlight process, and that was really interesting. It was a little un-nearving having the community select our game, but it was a really exciting process. Greenlight allowed us to build a great fan-base before we ever launched, so you’ll find no bigger champions of the Greenlight initiative than Joe and me. Other portals started to come to us, especially after we got Greenlit.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Yes, but Miasmata is such a different kind of game and we had a lot of conflicting data. Pricing is a very difficult thing to do.
Can you tell us why you chose not to release a demo for Miasmata?
We may release a demo in the future in an attempt to spark some new interest in the game. Its not as trivial as it may seem though.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Miasmata from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
It can be very important and we have counted on hearing back from the community, especially with bugs and technical issues. At the same time, we’ve been told hundreds of times that we need to add zombies, so the feedback can be hit or miss.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Miasmata professionally?
There are a number of professional reviewers out there that I respect tremendously. I value what they have to say a lot. Their opinions and attitudes will definitely shape our development decisions going forward. Being just a two-man team, it’s nice to have some outside perspective.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
I’m pretty interested in them and have been approached by a few. I don’t know too much about them though, so I’d need to learn more. I know that a lot of big-name games have been a part of them, so it seems they do well for the developers.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
From my vantage point, it seems the industry’s efforts are successful. PC gaming is thriving right now. The fact that non-DRM services like GOG and GamersGates exist is great for the customer, and and I think Steam’s popularity is proof that people are willing to accept a little DRM in order to give hard-working developers a little piece of mind. We’re going through a PC gaming renaissance right now, and I think both Pirates and DRM-detractors have become somewhat marginalized in this environment.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Miasmata?
I love it! It’s one of the coolest things we’ve seen. I was watching Miasmata videos practically non-stop for two weeks after we launched. I burned myself out a little bit doing that, but I try keep tabs on new videos as they come out.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I don’t think I really have a strong opinion on this subject. Games take a huge investment to develop, so I can appreciate developers wanting to monetize their efforts as much as possible, as long as that practice is done with integrity.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Miasmata?
I think it would be great, although that unfortunately wasn’t really a priority of ours when we first starting building the engine. It’d be a serious commitment on our part to get the ball rolling for the mod community, and I’m not sure we have the time to devote to that right now.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
• Be honest with yourself about your abilities as well as the marketability of your game.
• Make sure you’re serious about this path. You’ll very likely have to make huge sacrifices in your personal life to make your game a reality. Making a good game is far more than a full-time job, especially for a small team.
• Stop playing video games for fun. They are a huge waste of time and should only be used for research.
• If your game doesn’t have some immediately obvious appeal, don’t expect anybody to care about it.
• Cultivating an audience for your game can be a full-time job on its own.
• Don’t make an 8-bit style platformer. They don’t stand out any more. That bubble has burst.
We would like to thank Bob for taking time with us and wish him success in his future projects. You can pick up Miasmata via Steam.