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Interview With Untold Entertainment's Ryan Henson Creighton

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Twice a month, we revisit some of our best posts from throughout the history of Activetuts+. This week's retro-Active post is an interview with one of my favorite Flash and Unity game developers. Does Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure ring a bell?

Ryan Henson Creighton has eleven years' experience in the gaming industry, and founded the Toronto-based game studio Untold Entertainment in 2007. He runs one of my favorite blogs on the whole Internet, covering Flash tutorials, Unity tutorials, game design, conference summaries, and rants. Ryan's very active on Twitter, and has written an excellent guide to game development with Unity.

He also has all the coins.

(Photo of Ryan credit Brendan Lynch.)

QWhen you first got into Unity, you said this was partly because you didn't want to put all your eggs in one basket, and partly because of a few questionable decisions Adobe made with Flash. That was eighteen months ago. For a games developer curious about Unity today, what would you say are the main advantages?

i’m striving to realize that “build once, deploy anywhere” dream that Adobe hinted at but couldn’t deliver on. Unity doesn’t live up to that promise either, but both platforms get us closer to a place where we developers don’t have to learn a dozen competing technologies just to see our work on different platforms.

Me? Oh – i’m just doing a little game development.

The advantage of Unity over Flash is that Unity 3D is a game engine. Flash is not, plain and simple – it’s a content creation tool. In fact, a few months ago, Adobe announced that they were putting together their first on-staff focus group for game development. Their first! This comes after about fifteen years of developers strangling Macromedia/Adobe’s product into something that can play games. This all leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Flash should have had proper collision detection, pathfinding, particle systems, physics, and gamepad control about eight years ago.

“Marty – MARTY! Flash is in trouble!”

Unity, conversely (as with Scratch, GameMaker, Blender, UDK, and many others) is a proper game engine – you know, for making games. The trade-off with something like Unity is the tool’s reach. Adobe rightly touts its Flash player’s ubiquity … I think 104% of computers are running it, including computers from the future and fictional computers from your favourite sci-fi novels (HAL from 2001 enjoys a good game of Bloons, i hear.) Unity can boast maybe a 5% installation base, if you squint and hold the chart at an angle. It’s to the point where it doesn’t yet make economic sense to develop a web game with Unity, which is why i haven’t. This situation should improve dramatically, as Unity announced they’re working on an “Export to swf” capability, facilitated by Molehill (the agonizingly past-due Flash 3D functionality).

QIt's only recently that Adobe have embraced Flash game development, while Unity have been all about that from launch. Does the attitude of the companies have a clear difference on the tools themselves?

i think it took Adobe far too long to realize the value of their army of two million developers, and they’re scrambling to do right by that group as companies like Unity Technologies threaten to eat their lunch. After the incredible let-down of Adobe’s half-assed lip-service to 3D in Flash (no built-in depth management? Seriously?), the push for Molehill in the wake of Unity’s popularity is not coincidental. Unity is in a very strong position, because they can look at what Macromedia/Adobe have done and sort of patch holes in history. Building the Unity Asset Store, and offering the Union game brokering service, for example, were very smart moves; MM/Adobe left a lot of money on the table by letting sites like ActiveDen sell Flash widgets.

“Pssst … wanna buy 8.fla?”

As a developer, with so many platforms and languages and development tools out there, I want to ally with a company that has my back – a company that cares that i’m using their tool, responds to the needs of the community, and respects the fact that i could flit like a butterfly to the next nectar-filled development platform, but i don’t. Can Adobe pull it out of the fire with their game squad? Maybe. i’ve spent 11 years working with Flash, and inertia makes it very tough for me to dislodge myself. But i feel there’s bad blood with Adobe, and that their sudden interest in developers feels cynical. When i spoke to an Adobe employee earlier this year about it, i said “A focus on game developers? Finally! What took you so long?” He merely shrugged.

Game developers are gold to these companies. They deserve more than a shrug.

QYou've had a lot of experience helping people learn to develop games; besides your book and your blog, you've worked for the Board of Education, and as a college instructor. Is Unity easy to learn?

i don’t know if this is a worldwide phenomenon, but one of the pitfalls the colleges around Toronto succumb to is that they hear Unity and Flash are sooo easy to develop for. Console developers like to say, somewhat disparagingly, “we use Flash for rapid prototyping.” So i hear this repeated in colleges: “We’ll teach our students to learn Flash, but just for – you know – rapid prototyping”, as if all the “cool” and “real” programming are only happening with C-based languages, and Flash is only appropriate for toddlers or Special Olympians. Same deal with Unity 3D – the deans and program co-ordinators hear it’s “super-easy” to develop games with the tool, so they figure they can just run a 4-month course inside a Game Development program and that’ll be sufficient.

We merely make it look easy.

If course, if you’ve actually bothered to make a game in either program, you’ll know that both require real-live Object-Oriented Programming chops. Sure, they do a lot of heavy-lifting for you – you don’t have to write your own physics engine in Unity, and you don’t have to worry about memory management or garbage collection in Flash … but both Unity and Flash require real, actual programming skills. Shocker! You need to know at least the very basics: operators, conditionals, functions, arguments, return values, variables, loops, and arrays. This is the very stuff I’m covering in my Understanding Programming tutorials on the Untold Entertainment blog. Once you’ve got that stuff under your belt, you can check out something like the Understanding Classes series, which is written for everyday folks like you and me (not CompSci eggheads).

So these colleges, who attract mostly video game players instead of video game creators, lead kids with “art skills” down the garden path, thinking that since these tools are “so easy”, a teacher should just be able to plow through 4 months with the students and they’ll come out the other end knowing how to build games with Flash or Unity. Then these kids put “i know teh Flash and teh Unity and sum UDK hyre me hor hor hor” on their resumes, and the market is flooded with grads who think they know how to do things. These grads – in the very worst cases – are hired by people who believe them. And then clients come to more experienced developers like Untold Entertainment asking me to fix what these kids broke. It’s a grim state of affairs.

“Let’s get my nephew to do it! He learned Flash at a community college!”

A much healthier approach is if you’ve got a student intake full of “artists” and you’re running a Flash course, teach them asset prep: how to build a puppet for animation, how to create both tweened and straight-ahead animations, how to name things, how to manage layers and libraries, etc. Then the graduate writes “i know teh asset prep in Flash hyre me hor hor hor” on his resume, and he’s actually correct, and so everyone is happy. If you’re running a Game Development Program and you want people to believe you and not get a shitty reputation like many community colleges are getting, you absolutely need to bite the bullet and properly teach your students how to program. Don’t run a Flash course or a Unity course. Run a programming course, which uses Flash or Unity to help students see results more quickly and easily (note to colleges: “more quickly and easily” is a comparative statement. It is NOT the same as “quickly and easily”!)

So, “is Unity easy to learn”? Yes and no. It’s certainly the easiest time you’ll ever have trying to build a 3D game, but that’s all relative. Designing in 3 dimensions is just straight-up complicated, which is why in my Unity 3D Beginners Guide, I stuck mostly to quasi-3D, and 2D games using 3D models. You don’t have to chug along very far before having to worry about trig and differential calculus, depending on your game design. Thankfully, there are a vast number of simpler game designs that you can absolutely pull off as a beginner, which is what my book aims to show you.

QFor a new Unity developer, what are three big mistakes that are easy to make but really important not to?

1. Do NOT pay a hooker with a cheque.

i can come up with others, but if you break that rule, you’re basically done for.

As pertains to game development, the biggest mistake that new and experienced developers alike make is dreaming too big. It’s very easy to play a video game and to be blind to all the effort that went into developing it – to forget the fact that you’re one person and they have a team of dozens … that they’ve got a budget and work 9-5 for years and you’re building your game for “free” in your off-hours and weekends. As i say in the book, many developers think they realize this, and they start making concessions: “Well, i wanna build something like World of Warcraft except better, because i feel the developers really messed up certain aspects of that game. But i realize it’s probably out of scope for me to build WoW, even if I get Johnny to do the art for it next week while he’s off school with an ingrown toenail, so i’ll tone it down a bit: i’ll only have twelve races and fourteen classes and thirty-seven weapons and blah blah blah …”

“Delusion” is not just a river in Africa.

This is the wrong approach. You won’t finish, and you’ll become bitter and jaded and you’ll move out of game development to pursue something easier, like hauling lumber in a logging camp.

The right approach is to think of the simplest game you can imagine, like motherfuck*ng dress-up, and then SCALE IT DOWN. Instead of a dress-up game with twenty outfits, reduce it to FIVE. i’m absolutely serious about this. Think of something almost insultingly simple, and then simplify it. At the end of the day, if you have one finished project, you are a fundamentally better human being than someone with twenty-thousand great ideas. He who executes, wins.

i think this is one area where those of us who grew up in the 80’s arcade era have a distinct advantage. We know what a small, manageable and playable game looks like. We know that you don’t need Gears of War to have fun – you just need Mr. Do or Bentley Bear running around some maze collecting golden whatevers. Today’s new crop of game developers have only monstrous multi-million dollar console titles as their models. The solution is for gamers to play more casual and classic games, and to really explore games that create fun with very few bells and whistles.

Of course, even veteran devs aren’t immune to this problem of over-scoping things. It’s probably my Achilles heel, and the reason why i don’t finish more of my own games. Here’s an anecdote from the trenches: i’m working on a platform game for a client right now, and it’s going to have a Level Select screen. i asked how many levels he wanted me to build, and he said “Oh, i dunno … 25?” and i said “Sure”, because 25 levels seems like a decent number of levels for a casual platform game. You see how that works? i wasn’t thinking about how long it was going to take me or how much money I was being paid – i was measuring my expectations against other games i’ve played, notwithstanding the staff, budget, or development time those games enjoyed.

It wasn’t until i sat down and pieced it together that i realized my mistake. If each level took one hour to build, it would take me 25 hours – over half a work week – to build all those levels. If levels took two hours to build, I’d be spending well over a week on them. To my horror, i realized it took upwards of FOUR HOURS to compose even a simple level. That worked out to over two straight 40-hour work weeks of building levels, which wasn’t sustainable for the project’s timeline and budget. Thankfully, my client is totally cool and agreed to reduce the workload to a more reasonable 12 levels. With a less understanding client, i could have lost a huge chunk of cash on the project. And I need that cash, you see, because apparently you can’t pay a hooker with a cheque.

Asking a prostitute if you can run your credit card through her slot is usually misconstrued as innuendo.

QDuring the past year or two we've seen a huge changes in the "smaller" games industry: Facebook games are everywhere and mobile games are hot. Over the next 3-5 years, and ignoring the obvious trends, where do you think the industry will go next?

Technically, Facebook games aren’t everywhere. They’re in one place: Facebook. NEWS of Facebook games is everywhere. The press really goes nuts whenever anyone makes boatloads of money on something many consider frivolous or fun. Their coverage conveniently ignores the scads of people who aren’t making money, so we get a real blockbuster mentality. Cityville is HUGE! Great. What about all the other developers who are making games and earning nothing? Iron Man is HUGE!! Super. What about all the people making indie films about people and their feelings?

To predict trends in the game industry, you really only have to look to film. People – especially old people – are going to try to shape and mold the games industry into something with a studio system, where five or six very large entities control all the developers, and in order to get your work seen anywhere, you’re going to have to go through gatekeepers. They say “content is king”, but it’s a ruse: content is peasant. Content is only king if you’re an aggregator of content; without the content, you’re not in play. But the sneaky thing about saying “content is king” is that it implies the people who make the content have some sort of power. They don’t. The people who squeeze the content out of the creators and use their dominance to wrestle rights and control out of the creators’ hands have all the power.

So many people are trying to get into game development now that developers themselves have become a commodity. Companies now “have” developers, and they wield that power like a stick. That’s why Adobe is finally organizing a game team – they want to try to control the community of Flash game developers as “their people”, just as Apple has its throng of iOS devs that it touts. Whenever a new device comes out, the developer incentives are getting sweeter – just take a look at RIM’s free Blackberry Playbook give-away, the Google Nexus One and Xoom give-aways at GDC. All these companies will increasingly dance and shimmy and wiggle their jiggly bits in order to attract developers to their platforms.

Hey, big boy … our platform is well-developed.

Once they have developers in their snares, though, the treatment gets a little rough. Check out the stink Amazon caused with its app store. After tanking the casual downloadable market in its price war with Big Fish Games (dragging the average price of a game from $20 down to $6.99), they developed absolutely vicious Terms of Service for their new app store that turns developers’ hard-fought work into collateral in another high-level price war. (Thankfully, the IGDA and others grew wise and are warning developers away from Amazon’s predatory practices.) Apple famously drove the price of mobile games down to 99 cents, which makes sense perhaps for songs, but is absolutely deplorable when it comes to something like a game.

For the future, I see a continued cat-and-mouse game of gatekeepers vs. developers, where gatekeepers and conglomerates try to snatch up developers in their net, and hurl those wads at each other in a fight for dominance, while clever developers slip through the holes in the net and find new places to have their work seen, heard, and purchased. They almost had us with the console publishing model, and then digital distribution came about. Now, publishers are trying to lock up that market with publishers, but some of us will escape. And escape we must.

I’m lifting a lot of what Dan Cook from Lost Garden has to say on this topic. Go check out his blog, and his excellent GDC’11 presentation on platform power.

Another prediction: at the end of the next five years, I will be surprised to find myself paying for any tool that enables me to develop games.

QYou've talked in the past about how TV guys just don't get game developers -- they're very naive, and just want a number for their budget -- is the situation improving?

Not. At. All.

The situation in Canada is a little different than elsewhere. We have a number of funds that teevee production companies can tap into. In fact, one of the largest funds for teevee actually requires the production company to create an “interactive digital media” component, which can include games. (Often, the teevee prodcos produce “webisodes” to take the easy way out on this.) Since teevee people really don’t understand games or how to profit from them, they see the IDM arm as a necessary evil – a marketing expense. They often try to spend as little money as possible on the IDM component of a show. They can sell the show to broadcasters, but they don’t know how to sell the IDM aspect, and many broadcasters expect them to throw in the mini-site, games, webisodes, etc. for free with the show license. And in the case of preschool and kids’ entertainment, which is where Untold Entertainment specializes, it’s even more difficult, because you essentially have to rule out the advertising model. No parent wants their four-year-old kid playing a game with a big-ass McDonald’s logo slapped on top of it.

Um …

Mobile is budging that a tiny bit. Many of the kids’ teevee companies here in Canada are diverting large portions of their tiny IDM budgets to mobile, because they’re just tickled that they can charge money for those products. Even if it is only 99 cents, that’s 99 cents instead of the ZERO DOLLARS they’d normally have earned. i’m not convinced these investments will necessarily pay out for teevee companies, though. Teevee people love to talk about the “pass-back” phenomenon: the classic example is in the car, and the kids are screaming in the back seat, so mom quickly queues up some kids’ app on her iPhone and passes it back to the little brats to shut them up for a while so she doesn’t send the SUV screaming off a cliff.

Teevee prodcos have a distinct advantage in selling their apps because they have a teevee show, which has the potential to drive a lot of awareness for their apps. But they face the same problems as any other mobile developer: namely, marketing and discovery, and since games aren’t their bag (but, insultingly, they think they understand the industry just fine), the teevee companies risk throwing all their money into ventures that are often more expensive than developing Flash web games, where we know kids are spending time. Teevee is gambling on mobile, where we think kids might be spending time.

QWhat are you working on at the moment?

Untold Entertainment is a funny company, and it must be frustrating to watch us crawl along in relative obscurity. We earn money by completing fee-for-service projects (mostly Flash web games for Canadian kids’ teevee shows and broadcasters). Once the overhead is paid – office rent, phone and Internet, and my obscene cocaine habit – we may or may not have a little money left-over, depending on whether or not we agreed to develop 25 G-d levels for that bloody game. This mark-up is often eaten up by me writing vapid blog posts that i string together with stolen LOLCat pictures and dick jokes. After that, the remaining money goes towards sending me to international conferences like GDC and Casual Connect, where i don’t have any actual products to market because i was so busy writing those blog posts. And then – THEN, if i have any money left at all, it goes towards developing an original Untold Entertainment Inc. game.

(obligatory Untold Entertainment ganked LOLCat picture)

We have three big projects in development, which have been in development for a very long time. Two of them are Interrupting Cow Trivia, an online multiplayer Flash game; and Spellirium, a post-apocalyptic puzzle adventure game. Each of these projects, i’m convinced, has been cursed. Production difficulties, staff rotation, lack of cash-flow and trademark issues have held them all back. But i have established a do-or-die mandate to finish them all this year, which has nothing to do with my stalwart perseverance, and everything to do with a government-imposed deadline on each project. The Canadian government is my project manager. God save the Queen.

i continue to struggle in vain trying to drive traffic to my game portals, including i detail my futile efforts in a funny series called Pimp My Portal. In the coming months, i will unleash Formerly Earl Peterson on the world. He is a puppet, and puppets are awesome. Formerly Earl is an articulate zombie who remembers what it is to be human. He acts as a liaison between the living and the undead, and is an avid zombie rights activist. He’s going to star in some games (like the Are You a Zombie? quiz), and will perform video reviews of zombie games. He’ll also answer your burning questions about zombies, including “What do brains taste like?” and “How do zombies do it?”

We’re still steadily improving UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System. We built and initially deployed UGAGS on a client project called Jinx 3, and then used for the quickie weekend jam game Heads (which is available for the Blackberry Playbook), and then again for Summer in Smallywood, another client project. With Smallywood, UGAGS now supports proper branching dialogue, along with nav meshes, which give the player more freedom to move around the game screen. The next two games we’re building with UGAGS are Panda, which is about a welfare-dependent panda bear trying to raise abortion money for his artificially-inseminated ex-girlfriend, and Excuse Me For Living (But the Graveyard’s Full), which is a graphic adventure game involving zombies.

Finally, there are a few smaller projects we’re developing, including the notorious Bear in a Sombrero. This year at TOJam (the Toronto indie game jam), i’ll be working with my five-year-old daughter Cassandra on a platformer called Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure. She’s doing the pictures and the voices.

Cassie FTFW!

(Editor's note: in case you missed it, Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure was made and released in May, and has been very succesful!)

QWhat will people learn from your book?

You will learn the very best way to part with $30-50 dollars.

If you’re new to coding, you’ll learn a lot. i tried to make the book non-coder friendly. That doesn’t mean there’s no code in it – that means that the book gently explains each line, trying not to leave anyone in the dust.

If you come from a Flash background, you’ll get a real quick crash course in Unity to whet your appetite. You’ll learn a lot of stuff that you could eventually hunt down online, but the nice thing about a book is that it lays out a comprehensive course of study for you, and saves you from doing a lot of running around.

The book teaches about starting small, about separating skin from mechanic, and about the difference between features and content (which is where we get into trouble over-scoping our projects). By the time you finish the book, you’ll have built four small games in Unity 3D, and should be well equipped to pick a new, small game idea and run with it.

And with any luck – and I’m not making this claim officially or with any air of scientific or medical authority – but I’m pretty sure that reading Unity 3D Game Development by Example will cure cancer.

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