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How I Became A Game Designer

The nice folks at bit-tech were kind enough to give me the excellent opportunity to do a monthly column on game development—a sort of developer’s diary, if you will. Apparently, I’m one of a few prominent indie and professional developers who’ll be doing this. Because this is my first column, I figured it would probably be prudent to introduce myself. My name is James Silva and I run Ska Studios.

My first foray into game development happened nearly seven years ago, in 2001, with the release of Zombie Smashers X. ZSX was a terribly ugly game that was basically a new take on the Nintendo classic, River City Ransom, but with excessive amounts of blood. The game pitted one or two heroes against an army of zombies, ninjas, vampires, mutants and demons in a quest to save the world from a guy in a white suit with a pompadour named The One.

Before you ask, I had not seen The Matrix at this point, though I believe it was out on DVD.

"As the dishwasher, I had the unique position of being the least-respected individual in the entire facility..."

ZSX got a little bit of coverage: a tiny block of text in Computer Games Magazine and inclusion on the PC Gamer demo CD, which for me was ‘the big time'.

I created a few more abominations in the next fear years, including such gems as Survival Crisis Z (an awesome game – Ed), Zombies and Pterodactyls 2005, Zombie Smashers X2, and ZSX3: Ninjastarmageddon, with various degrees of success and failure. Unfortunately, the emphasis was mostly on the latter.

Some games, like Survival Crisis Z, really picked up a cult following, while others did not. SCZ was a gritty zombie survival horror game that fans of zombie camp culture really just loved – ugly graphics and all.

ZSX3, a game about zombies and ninjas driving convertibles in space and which could qualify as roughly the complete opposite to SCZ, tried to make zombies cute. All that did though was succeed in scaring off the zombie camp fans (because of the cute zombies) and the casual cute crowd (because of the zombies, cute or not). To this day, I’m still not quite sure what I was doing with ZSX3; it’s a half decent game, but looks and feels nothing like what I usually create.

"The story of a lowly dishwasher who mercilessly slaughtered piles of extremely well trained evil minions had to be made into a game..."

Before Zombie Smashers X2, in 2004 or so I think, I was working as a dishwasher in what I like to call a fake Italian restaurant. By ‘fake’ I mean that all item names on the menu were in Italian (House Salad becomes Insalata Mista), but none of the waitresses had the faintest idea how to pronounce them.

As the dishwasher, I had the unique position of being the least-respected individual in the entire facility, so I began to counter this with statements to the waitstaff like “You know, Bruce Lee was once a dishwasher.”

Fact: Bruce Lee was a dishwasher, and he showed them!

Eventually, my imagination got the better of me, and the story of a lowly dishwasher who mercilessly slaughtered piles of extremely well trained evil minions became a story that simply had to be made into a game.

I originally envisioned The Dishwasher as being a third person shooter. I played with the Torque Engine. I fantasised about Max Payne-style gunplay with unprecedented acrobatics. I played with Torque some more. I realised I was in over my head. I shelved the project and started working on something else.

When I returned to the project I envisioned The Dishwasher as a side scrolling shooter, a la Abuse, a game that time seems to have forgotten. Everything would be hand drawn, inked, and scanned. I did some drawings. I did some inking. I did some scanning. I realised that what I had was ugly and probably wouldn’t be fun to play at all. I shelved the project again.

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James Silva

Later, I tried again with The Dishwasher, this time as a side scrolling action platformer in 3D – sort of like Viewtiful Joe meets God of War, with graphics on par with Final Fantasy 7. I actually made quite a bit of progress with this iteration—I had a combo system, a few enemies, and a decent looking demo level. Once again, I realised I was putting way too much work towards little gain, and in order to finish the project I would need years. I shelved the project a third time.

"After playing around with GSE for a little while, I decided I really liked it, and the whole deploy-on-360 aspect just floored me with awesomeness."

A few months down the road, Microsoft released XNA Game Studio Express, an environment that promised to get independent developers a chance to develop for the Xbox 360.

After playing around with GSE for a little while, I decided I really liked it, and the whole deploy-on-360 aspect just floored me with awesomeness. Microsoft held the Dream-Build-Play challenge: a competition to develop a game with GSE, with the grand prize being an Xbox Live Arcade contract (aka ‘A Dream Come True’). I decided it was time to re-re-re-imagine The Dishwasher—he was heading for the 360!

Through a concept art process involving a white board and a dry whiteboard marker, The Dishwasher himself got a bit of a makeover. He went from sporting short spiky hair, Jnco-esque jeans and a wifebeater to wearing a Kurt Cobain/girl-from-the-Ring hairstyle and one of those Samurai skirts that I know nothing about, except that they look cooler than the manskirts in God of War and Conan. He also got fangs.

The end product was something deliciously sinister: a dishwasher who will have his revenge! Also, The Dishwasher was rechristened The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai.

Development on the fourth iteration of The Dishwasher (third if you don’t count the first false start) began, pushing forward with all of the ferocity of some sort of grotesque steamroller retrofitted with rocket launchers and miniguns, driven by Chuck Norris, who is also armed, albeit unnecessarily.

"The Dishwasher barreled along with more momentum than any other project I’d worked on."

Dream-Build-Play only allowed about four months of development time and I was facing many midsized and large teams from all over the world, but for some reason, The Dishwasher barreled along with more momentum than any other project I’d worked on. Map areas were stitched into levels, levels were arranged, bosses were built, tweaked, and thrown into the ends of levels, new weapons and moves were added, and effects really began to bloom (pun unfortunately intended).

By the time of the contest deadline, The Dishwasher had eleven levels, six regular enemies, thirteen bosses, five weapons, and thousands of frames of animation all around. The videos I had put up of The Dishwasher had attracted quite a bit of attention already, but the moment of truth was nigh at hand. After a few hair-loss-inducing incidents with the Dream-Build-Play game submission page flaking out, The Dishwasher was safely in the hands of what I now assume must be the world’s most qualified judges, and I could only cross my fingers, wait, and pray.

You can read the second part of How I Became A Games Designer here