Developer Interview: Matt Christian of Subject Matter Games

Apr 5, 2015

Today’s Game Developers Like You interview (now extended into April 2015, too!) is with Matt Christian of Wisconsin.

Q: Hey Matt! High level – to set things up – what’s your story so far?

A: I’m currently the creative director and CEO of Subject Matter Games. I have an educational background in computer programming and advanced mathematics and have been gaming since I was about age 5. After several personal gaming related projects I formed Subject Matter Games in April 2014 to develop and create unique, quality games with a very small team. Outside of gaming I have about 8-10 years of programming experience in traditional software engineer roles.

Q: What are some of the videogames that you’ve been developing?

A: In August 2014 under Subject Matter Games I published the free game Don’t Be Dinner on the Windows 8 Store. It’s an interactive fiction game featuring a dialogue tree leading to 45 differing endings. For more information people can check out the Don’t Be Dinner landing page, which includes the trailer video and Windows Store link.

Before creating Don’t Be Dinner, most of my work was non-commercial and posted on my website or forums. Don’t Be Dinner was the first product released on a commercial channel, however it is also 100% free to download and play, and doesn’t have ads.

Currently we are developing Project Torment, a third-person psychological horror game. It has a strong narrative focus. Gameplay changes based on the player’s actions. The game follows a man named David who wakes up after an accident to find the world around him changed, and is now filled with unknown creatures. The monsters are horrifying, but the most terrifying thing might be David.

Q: Were there videogames that you’ve played which inspired you to be a developer?

A: There are a ton of games that inspire me to create. Recently I remodeled a room in my home to my game development office, and I put three paintings on the walls that I think illustrate the biggest influences. I have a large print of the bubble head nurse from the Silent Hill series, I have a painting of Booker falling through the air trying to catch Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite, and I have a fantasy cityscape inspired by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. These paintings help define what I strive for: ambitious games with an immersive atmosphere and an emotional connection to the player.

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

A: I work full time in a traditional technology position unrelated to the gaming industry. After finishing my day job I go home and work on game development for a few hours. Weekends often include long sessions of game development as well.

Until my last two projects I have typically been a solo developer. Recently I started bringing in outside contract work to help with the art and music, which allows me to focus on the design, story, and programming.

I currently use Unity with C#. Other tools used by Subject Matter Games include Photoshop, Blender, and the LibreOffice products.

Q: How and when did you start making videogames?

A: In junior year of high school I was given the choice to take either a precalculus course or a computer programming course. At the time I was nearly failing math, due to a lack of focus, and so I chose computer programming. Within a few weeks of starting the class I picked up a reference book on Visual Basic 6 and developed a Windows form-based game in my free time. That first game that I made is still shown on my website. At the same time I was also taking a ‘technologies’ course, for which I coded a Legend of Zelda fan site. Between these two courses I knew that I wanted to continue programming and that I wanted to continue making games.

Of course, later when I went to college for programming I found out that at that level it heavily involved advanced mathematics. Fortunately by that point I was more focused, and I finished the required courses without any trouble.

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

A: One of the most recent challenges I’ve had is going from a game like Don’t Be Dinner – where the game is relatively restricted from a gameplay perspective – to my new game, Project Torment, which is less restrictive. In Don’t Be Dinner the game controlled the camera completely, and the player simply watched then interacted by selecting from menus. There wasn’t a lot of freedom for the player. Project Torment, in contrast, is much more open. Most of the control is in the player’s hands. When they start the game they control movement, camera, menus, etc. Opening up the amount of freedom in a game always increases the amount of challenge, but it’s a lot more rewarding as the developer when the player has more control.

As another challenge, our team is incredibly small. We have 1-2 primary developers, assisted by some outside contractors that we work with. Working with contractors is easy, but can be costly. There are crowdfunding methods we could use like Kickstarter, but these days being a game on Kickstarter is like being a leaf in a forest. We’re trying to solve the question of ‘What is your backup plan when your primary funding method fails?’ before we even attempt to fund through a method like that.

Q: Do you still play games? Has your experience or preference among games changed since you became a developer?

A: I usually play games a little each night, although my interests are often in specific genres or retro games. Though I grew up playing a lot of 90’s adventure games I’ve found that they’re too slow for me now, which is a shame, as I still find that genre to be great in concept.

The biggest change since becoming a developer is having conflicting feelings about criticism for games that I haven’t developed. On the one hand, I appreciate every developer’s input into any game that gets released. I play it and give the game the benefit of the doubt, even if the game isn’t very good. On the other hand, if a big name game comes out and receives critical acclaim I no longer trust that it’s good without playing it. I end up judging it based on how I personally enjoy it. Games should be an experience for each player, not the player’s friend, or for a big news site to tell players what they thought about it.

Q: Any game development role models or heroes?

A: Growing up as a programmer with a technical background my initial influences were often the programming role models like John Carmack or Tim Sweeney. As I’ve begun to work more on design I have expanded that list to include more of the designer, including David Jaffe and John Romero. From a narrative and writing perspective I really look up to what Ken Levine has done in his games, particularly with Bioshock Infinite.

Q: What’s something that you’d specifically like to say to other developers?

A:Keep going.

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

A: Getting started in video game development in 2015 is easy. My advice, however, would be to make sure you finish. A lot of people start games and never finish them (just look at my portfolio – I am an unfortunate example of this). If you want to create software for someone else to ever experience you have to release it. Don’t Be Dinner had a lot of other features that were cut in order to just get out the door what we created.

You have to find ways to create your own motivation. Finishing projects can be a pain, especially at the end of development when all you want to do is work on something else. I have two framed pictures of tweet responses from Jonathan Blow and David Jaffe that they responded to me regarding problems I asked them about development. Whenever I struggle working on something I can look at these frames and get the motivation to continue. It probably took them less than a few minutes to write, but it has provided me with the focus that I’ve needed countless times. Did I have to print them or frame them? Of course not. But having done so makes it easier to keep going.

Q: If you were just getting started making games today (instead of back when you did) how do you think your journey would be different?

A: I spent a lot of time when I was younger attempting to learn all the different calls and code for writing a game engine from scratch using C++ and DirectX. While that isn’t a bad thing to learn, it never did click for me. These days we see the rise of Unity, Unreal Engine, and other options that largely alleviate the need to learn low-level engine code. Realizing now that I am really more of a gameplay programmer, not an engine programmer, I probably would have found one of these technologies to use and then may have been able to produce better material than I did when starting out back then.

Q: What do you do to learn and improve at game making?

A: I really like watching videos of other game developers making their games. I think it provides a unique look at game development.

This also lets me look at their work from a distance and say, “They’re doing [insert thing] differently than I would. I’m going to do that a better way!” (The joke is usually on me for thinking that though.)

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

A: Our games have IndieDB pages, and Project Torment has a Concept page on Steam Greenlight. We post updates on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. We also share news on our website, SubMatterGames.com

Q: Any experience with emerging or unusual technologies, whether input devices, display hardware, etc.? How did it go? Would you recommend it to others?

A: With Project Torment we are experimenting with a lot of technologies. I believe this is the best time to be making games as an indie developer. A lot of commercial solutions are providing indie solutions to technology that was exclusively available to big studios in the past.

To author our animations for Project Torment we are using markerless facial motion capture through a webcam and software from Mixamo, as well as markerless body motion capture using another piece of software and two Microsoft Kinect sensors. It’s still too early for me to know whether I’d recommend either of these technologies and this approach to others, but in the short time we’ve used them we’ve enjoyed them becoming more and more stable and useful with each update. The future of these technologies for indies really exciting.

Q: How did you come up with Subject Matter Games as your brand?

A: Initially I was the only member on the team and went with the team name ‘Team[ZERO]’ as a nod to my programming background and the fact that I was the only developer. I soon realized that was a common team name, and decided to instead find something different. Around the same time I was researching the Silent Hill series, since I knew I wanted to later work on a horror title. Developers for the original Silent Hill game used the paintings of an artist named Francis Bacon for inspiration. I began to love his work.

After watching some interviews with Bacon I found a quote that I felt was dark enough to describe the point of view I wanted for my team’s games. When asked about why he draws such “terrible things” and not “something nicer” Francis Bacon said:

“If we take that up, about, ‘why doesn’t he paint a rose?’ A rose also is very mortal. When you see a rose, this beautiful rose, that in a day or two is dying, its head is falling over, and it’s withered. Is there a great deal of difference between a rose and my subject matter, really? It’s only a difference of subject matter.”

I decided to keep the layout of the logo like the initial array with the parenthesis.

After-the-fact I realized that the company name also has my name, Matt, in it.

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

A: Like any small company I would love to see the team at Subject Matter Games grow in size and be able to continually create more interesting titles.

This mirrors my personal experience with growth from game to game. Before Don’t Be Dinner I created a small Space Invaders type game, called Spacer, which was a simple 2D space shooter. With Don’t Be Dinner, I moved into 3D, dialogue trees, lighting, more complex audio, etc. Now with Project Torment the amount of core gameplay is increasing astronomically. The player is in control for the majority of the experience, and we are integrating in a lot of new technology for animation capturing.

I always look at my last project and think, “What can I make that is better than what I just made?” I hope to see my future goals and the company’s goals continue in that way of thinking.

Q: Any shoutouts that you’d like to mention?

A: John Heckendorf, a teacher I had in college. He probably won’t read this, but thanks for teaching me to code during the day and for fragging me in Battlefield during the LAN parties. (Yes, LAN parties!)

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matchristian (personal) / @matchristian (Subject Matter)

Find out more at his sites: insidegamer.org (personal) / submattergames.com (Subject Matter)

Also check out Matt’s YouTube channel for his development vlog (click here to subscribe!).

If you’d be interested in participating in a text interview to share your projects and perspectives, too, I’m still accepting and sharing new submissions for Game Developers Like You throughout this whole month of April (2015), too!



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