Developer Interview: Kurt Mai

Mar 28, 2015

Today’s Game Developers Like You interview is with Kurt Mai of Dallas, Texas.

Q: Hi Kurt! For starters, mind telling us a bit about yourself?

A: I’m a customer support engineer who likes to do some creative coding in my free time. I was involved in San Andreas multiplayer game modes modding in the past, but really started doing game development as a hobby in 2013 by using Unity.

My modding wasn’t too successful for various reasons. I decided to utilize what I learned from that project to go solo and create something that I wanted.

Q: How do you feel about Unity?

A: There are limitations, of course, but I just have to engineer around them. There is no best engine. Being able to solve problems is the key to using any platform.

Q: How would you describe your technique?

A: I walk the path as I pave it. This means there is a need for reorganizing the code once in a while, to solve problems that I didn’t foresee, but that’s just natural process.

Q: Do you have education or specific training related to game development? If so, how has or hasn’t it helped?

A: Being in tech support certainly doesn’t help much, but in college I studied programming which makes it easy for me to pick up the scripting part of game engines.

Other than that, I’m a jack-of-all-trades type of person so I like to explore and discover skills and knowledge from many disciplines. Being not afraid of breaking out of a “skill comfort zone” definitely helps me in being a solo game developer.

Q: Is your game development non-commercial, commercial, or a hybrid of the two?

A: One reason I decided to participate (unsuccessfully) in the game projects was because of their promise of a cut of profit. Of course that would never come true, so I decided to chase this dream on my own, back when indie dev still seemed new and people were saying, “if you make a decent game, people will buy it.”

Two years later the indie market totally became a bubble with everyone including myself trying to jump on the bandwagon. I realized that with all the noise going on, my game will surely drown in it without great dedication to marketing and promotion.

Q: What has kept you with it through and after those ups and downs?

A: I told myself to just ignore what’s going on out there and to make the best game I can, and just wait to see how the world becomes after it’s completed. I suspend any desire to make the game something people would want, and only focus on what I would want (within the reach of my skill, of course).

I continue to work on my lengthy, multi-year project because there’s a feeling of great accomplishment when I complete each feature.

Q: Mind telling us more about your current game?

A: My current game project is a PC-based, 3D “casual” flight combat game, with a mixed helicopter/winged aircraft. The player’s goal is to protect a city from waves of enemy attack through air combat and planning between the waves.

I’m developing it for anyone who is looking for some non-time-consuming fun, and enjoys helicopter air-to-air combat

Q: What are some challenges that you’ve worked through?

A: With my current project, the biggest challenge is not knowing what the game should be. I started by creating a space shooter. Then the idea morphed into a freelancer-ish helicopter combat/trading game in a setting of floating colonies above clouds.

My design at that time had three pillars: combat, trading, exploration. I realized that combat and trading often contradict each other or make things really complicated when both are emphasized, so I cut out the trading. Then exploration became pointless because flying over endless ocean is boring, and I really don’t have the resource to put in all kinds of things to explore for, so I cut out the exploring. Only combat was left, so my game finally became a wave-by-wave air combat game.

Now after one and half years of iteration I have arrived at a design that I’m able to carry out on my own. The challenge with previous designs are either gameplay being not very engaging, or the art required to make the environment believable is beyond my ability to produce.

Now, with low poly environment and aircraft models supplemented with baked ambient occlusion, I can easily produce consistent art throughout the game.

Design of gameplay took many changes to settle as well. Although I was serious when I started about wanting the game to be open world, open ended, and free roaming I eventually realized that players can easily get frustrated from lack of objective or bored from lack of challenge, unless the game has a tremendous amount of depth and complexity. That of course is beyond my ability to fabricate. The current design of waves of battle interleaved with management/planning still gives player full control of the outcome and yet keeps complexity at bay.

The combat can be challenging for beginners but after getting used to the way aircraft handles (it’s somewhat similar to Battlefield 2’s helicopter), and knowing how to control its motion like your own body, the rest is pure fun. I love the adrenaline rush when you hear the hit marker sound – it’s based on a glass breaking sound I edited. Due to the physics and craft handling, taking out an enemy takes skill and really gives a feeling of accomplishment. If your mind is not focused you’ll still be shot down even while in a well-equipped aircraft.

Q: How has making videogames been different from what you expected going into it?

A: It has involved a surprising level of hard work, anger, joy, jealousy, and trial of willpower.

Q: Has making videogames changed anything else about your life or how you see the world outside of games?

A: It’s mostly learning about how to approach a large scale problem, in a way that I might want to teach my kids one day.

Q: What’s a typical day in your life as a game developer like?

A: My day job involves taking customer calls, figuring out what’s wrong with their network, and moving on to the next customer immediately. It’s not as fast paced as call centers, but the level of complexity can be overwhelming sometimes.

After work I cook with my wife, and then after dinner play with my 3 year old daughter. After that I may get a couple of hours to work on the game, if I’m not too tired.

Q: What’s your process like?

A: I started by just making something playable – an aircraft that can fly among a few boxes and spheres. Then I gave it a weapon. Then I created an enemy to fight with. Then I made the environment so the aircraft can fly more meaningfully. I developed it around what I desired to play.

Q: What’s the biggest struggle that you’re dealing with as a developer?

A: The difficulty of reaching players. With the indie bubble going on it feels like even if you make it to the end and have a complete game, nobody will care to play it, even for free.

Q: If game development had a mascot and you got to decide what it’d be, what would that mascot be and why?

A: Salmon – swimming against the flow of the stream to achieve your goal.

Q: How do you deal with the temptation to start a new game project that has more “exciting” idea?

A: I constantly get inspired to make another game because I suddenly find a new and exciting idea. This is dangerous because it takes your focus away from what you are working on.

For me, I usually take some time each day to “daydream” this new game. Over time it may or may not fade out or become boring. If it doesn’t go away, I just let it become a hobby on its own, even take some time to research it, or write out a game design document. Pretty soon it’ll wear out as well. And if even then it doesn’t wear out, I’ll seriously consider making this game after I’m done with what I have. At this point though the initial adrenaline rush is no longer there, so my decisions are and must be made rationally.

Q: If you have a brand, company name, or developer alias, how did you come up with it or what does it mean?

A: My developer alias is Rotorist. It’s derived from word “motorist.” I’m crazy about helicopters.

Q: What do you do to get word out about your games?

A: For now, I just let a few of my friends know about it. I created a Facebook page for it and invited some connections, but almost nobody cared for it. The one person who gave it a “like” happened to be the leader of the game dev team I was involved in prior to my own project.

Q: What advice do you have for people who are thinking about getting into videogame development?

A: Stop thinking, stop studying, stop designing, and start making.

I learned how to program in Unity by making a ball bounce, and the next thing I made was a Diablo 2 style inventory UI. I took two weeks to follow a few YouTube tutorials on Blender. Then I made my first helicopter model that you see in the gameplay video. Learning by doing is the fastest way to learn.

Our brains don’t work too well with designing gameplay just from meditating and visualizing. You really have to make some kind of gameplay and PLAY it in order to find out what’s better. Brainstorming is mostly wishful thinking.

Want to make a game? Start off with writing some terrible spaghetti code that nobody can read and be proud of it. Meanwhile, the thinkers haven’t written down a single line.

Q: What do you do to learn and improve at your game making role(s)?

A: Solve problems on your own – rely on third party assets as little as possible.

For example, when I was trying to make terrain with specular shading with long view distance, I ran into the problem of high quality region (near camera) and LOD zone (far away) don’t have any gradual transitioning. All terrain shaders I find online have this problem, because none of them were built for flying games. So I stripped down the shader and figured out a way to smoothly transition between the high fidelity and low fidelity zones.

I also wrote my own flier AI and water shoreline effect. These took a lot of work but the process made me a better developer.

Q: Long-term, what are your aspirations or goals as a game developer?

A: I have a few ideas in my sleeves that I really want to implement into a game, but developing game around those ideas is beyond a solo project scope. My goal is to build my foundation and influence through this game project (showing that I am someone who can be trusted to work with) and form a team to carry out those ideas. However, I do not intend to abruptly switch my career into doing game development full-time because I have a family with established lifestyle that I have a responsibility to maintain.

Interview Flip! Kurt’s Question to Chris

Q from Kurt for Chris: I have read some of your articles, and I know you have games that you completed which have not become well known. Do you feel bummed out about those games? Do you still feel like your work has been rewarded if no one plays your game?

A from Chris: The work in every case has been hugely rewarding. I’m never bummed out about game development. I regard none of the time as wasted or poorly spent.

It’s never to me about how many people play it. I think this question is incredibly important, maybe now in 2015 more than ever. I’m glad you asked!

For context, there were about five years when I was developing games professionally which reached millions of people, were decently profitable, and/or earned various kinds of recognition. I say this not to brag, but only to illustrate that I approach this question as someone who has personally been on both sides of it multiple times. It’s not as though I’m projecting or theorizing, I’m able to directly compare experience with those higher profile projects to my many more lesser-known projects. Although strangers tend to regard the external measures as validation, aside from the value of having them in my portfolio those kinds of projects are not the most important nor most rewarding to me.

When I first release a game, it’s briefly exciting if it’s one that quickly reaches hundreds of thousands or millions of people, rather than dozens or hundreds. On the other hand, when it really falls flat, sure, it briefly hurts. But that thrill or pain really quickly wears off. By just a week or two later it makes absolutely no difference either way.

I help inexperienced developers make games. That’s what I’m about. The majority of my dozens of team projects were created and completed specifically as a way to help collaborators who were newer to game making get early applied experience and practice.

Speaking of helping inexperienced developers, now that I’m directly training others in developing their own games my quantity and diversity of past experience, no matter how low profile many of the results were, is of far greater practical use to me and them than the handful of projects which, by numbers reached, may have appeared better rewarded at the time. I’m able to recognize and draw upon more patterns of ways to do things and errors that early mistakes can lead to.

Nor is it true that “no one” played the games. The people on the team played it. Seeing as in many cases it was the first finished game that they helped make, that’s pretty neat. Plus, many of their friends and family members played it, with curiosity and great pride about what their personal connection has been doing. I find that incredibly rewarding.

I’m personally more interested in providing a more substantial benefit per person among fewer people – whether that’s to collaborators on my team, for a tiny underserved niche audience, or my training clients – than I am about producing a much smaller benefit per person even if that’s spread across a greater many more people.

I see game development as largely about self-discovery, self-enrichment, and self-improvement. There’s immense joy of creating something and improving at difficult skills.

I believe it’s entirely worthwhile and valuable to write poetry, songs, and short stories without need for commercial validation. I believe it’s worthwhile to learn how to play an instrument without needing to be a rockstar, to take better photographs without being a photographer, and to learn how to make furniture, or jewelry, or clothing without needing to do it for a multinational audience or corporation for the activity to be considered legitimate. I believe it’s greatly beneficial to study and practice a martial art or get in better shape without either needing to lead to a Hollywood action career. None of those are unusual things to believe, but by and large many people seem to still be figuring out that the same applies to making games.

Game development is a way of developing the developer, too.

(Thank you for writing a question for me to answer!)

Watch Kurt’s game in action. The gameplay looks great in motion:

Like and follow Kurt’s development on Facebook

Next entry: still can be a text interview with you, about your projects!

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