Sometimes we get so focused on our love of games, it’s easy to forget the people who actually make them. These hard working developers, programmers, artists, designers, sound technicians, animators, writers and more all have their own thoughts and feelings on games, but how do we find out what they are? Easy… We ask them!

Name: Rohan Harris (Flat Earth Games) Location: Sydney, Australia Games: Towncraft

Name: Rohan Harris (Flat Earth Games)
Location: Sydney, Australia
Games: Towncraft

What is your current role and what does it involve?

You know, I don’t have a role description, other than co-founder. My brother and I started our studio, and respectively he does design/business/marketing/general admin and I do programming/project management/design.

I suppose, if our company grew a bit, I’d officially take on the role as Chief Technical Officer or Technical Lead or… something like that. In short: I’m the programmer and he’s the business guy. The rest of the work is outsourced to various contractors.

What drew you to the Games Industry?

It’s easy enough to say “I love games” and have it be true, but I think the only real way to answer that would be: I love games, but the kind of games I specifically wanted to play seemed to be in increasingly short supply. Plus, I was tired of my (then) day-job as a “normal” programmer (that is, making applications & database-driven boredom-fests). I figured I might find myself more passionate about my day job if I didn’t hate what I did 9 to 5. I was right.

What sort of games did you love playing when you were younger?

I loved any games that let me explore a world in some capacity. Early on this was adventure games, because when I was young (the late ’80s) adventure games were really the only way to explore a visually interesting world.

I became more interested, as I grew older, in games that let me affect the wold in some way. As a result, I found myself playing what we’d now call management & sandbox games. Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, Sim City… that kind of thing.

I love films and books and even radio plays, too, but to me personally, a video game that doesn’t really let you explore and inhabit a huge fictional world and do things you’d never be able to do in real life (either because it’s impossible or dangerous) is, frankly… kinda missing the real strength of the medium.

Films are often set in the current day and, geographically, wherever the filmmaker lives or works. This is just because the sets and outfits and world exists. So it’s cheapest to do this. But with a video game, it’s generally no cheaper or more expensive to create a modern setting than a historical, sci-fi or fantasy one. Either way, you have to create the art and sounds for a whole world.

So, games can be – and often are – a way for us to really explore brave new worlds as imagined by other people, in a way that (in my humble opinion) is far more visceral and personal than any novel or film can ever be.

It’s what drove me to play games as a kid, and it’s what drives me to play and make them now.

So while I did mostly play sandbox & adventure & RPG games, I did and will still play more or less anything that lets me experience a totally new or different world.

What’s the most significant change you’ve seen in games in your lifetime?

I could say, rightly, that it was the rise of huge AAA games, the slow death of tiny team, and then the semi-reversal of this to where we are now, but frankly that doesn’t matter too much to me.

What I have seen I think is the most significant to me personally is the way the internet and, before it, bulletin boards let gamers connect with each other, and where it’s led us to today.

We don’t have to be that one awesome freak who bores their friends by nerding out about the realistic physics in the latest obscure simulator, or over-analyses the ending of an indie adventure game while their friends nod and smile. We can find others who are as geeky as us about our specific interests and just run with it.

In short? Games can be more niche than ever, and they’re finally starting to be so. In the ’90s niche games appeared and vanished as they failed to find a market. They were rare. Now we get crazy, awesome things popping up all over the place. We have niche sub-genres of sub-genres spawning whole industries. It’s awesome.

Just look at the rise of “bizarre sims” for proof – who’d have imagined, fifteen years ago, that there’d be a market for serious construction or farming simulators? Or subway simulators? Trains were niche enough, but… driving through mostly strait tunnels?

We’re basically at the cambrian explosion of games, and it’s awesome!

What inspires you most about modern gaming?

This actually leads on pretty well from that last question – it’s the variety of awesome things people are doing now.

The most exciting and fascinating games I played last year were probably Grand Theft Auto V – the most immaculate, detailed and fascinating sandbox world yet created… and Papers Please, a pixel-art game where you play a border guard and have to vet and stamp peoples’ immigration papers! The fact that something as insane as Papers Please can not only exist, resonate so strongly with me that it sits beside the most expensive video game ever made… AND that it can find an audience and win a bunch of well-deserved awards? That’s excellent.

It inspires me to try and be more creative. How can you NOT want to make games in this day and age? It’s the best time to do it – all the tools are available for free or close to, and you can find communities both online and offline full of help to get you going.

I don’t feel I can just dismiss random game ideas any more.

If some (talented) designer can be stuck in line at an immigration line, think “I’ll bet this’d make a good game” and be proven 100% right, none of us have any excuse not to carefully consider every cool idea we get, no matter how weird.

What infuriates you the most about modern gaming?

It’s friggin’ awesome that today we get AAA projects like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed which show us brilliant, expensive-to-make worlds. It’s even more brilliant that we get to experience these along-side the most plentiful and unique indie games made by tiny teams.

What’s not great is that in the past half dozen years or so, the B-grade game has all but died. People are fine with games being kinda ugly, pixel-art affairs. But if you go 3D and target big gaming platforms these days, people won’t forgive you for being half-way.

Games that cost a few million dollars these days aren’t given the “But it’s an indie!” kid-gloves, they are simply called ugly or un-fun or un-polished or what-have-you.

It’s part of why so many big studios in Australia have shut down (along with our rising dollar). The first casualties of the AAA squeeze aren’t the best and biggest AAAs – it’s the teams, however talented, who were trying to do a AAA game on a B or C-grade budget. You can have brilliant coders, designers and artists, but if you have just thirty people it’s hard to, say, make a sandbox or action game which looks on-par with the likes of Mass Effect or Bioshock, made with teams manifold bigger.

So, while it’s important to me to focus on the positives, the diminishing middle-ground kinda sucks.

What’s your dream project?

Well, I love sandbox games with emergent gameplay. Walking around a game world and finding random events, co-incidendences and awesome things happening purely because the simulation of the world and your behaviour cause it… that’s awesome.

While this kind of thing has happened in a ton of great games of many genres – from early RPG/sims like Ultima VII all the way up to recent massive-budget crime games like Grand Theft Auto, I still think we’re skirting the edge of what’s possible.

So, my dream project would be given the chance to create some kind of game which lets the player really go nuts in a world, and do whatever they want. Not just simple, violent acts but complex ones.

What if you went into Liberty City and decided to become a politician?

Or what if you entered the world of Far Cry 2 and decided to become a professional gun-runner?

I don’t see why those kind of things need to be limited.

I’d love to give a player every choice in the world to play a game there way – doing whatever they find interesting or challenging.

Yeah, okay, so that’s a big dream. The ultimate sandbox game. Probably won’t ever happen but boy, it’d be fun!

What has you most excited for the future of game development?

Time was that if you wanted to be a game developer, you had to be a programmer. That was just it.

That’s not true any more, but it still helps. And even if you aren’t that programmer, at least one person on your team has to be pretty good at it.

However, what has changed is that you don’t have to be John Carmack any more to create a bloody great looking game. Middleware and accessible engines exist to do almost everything from adventure games to first-person shooters.

The trend is toward making this easier and easier, too. You can download Unity and slot in physics and graphics modules to create a wide variety of things, without ever once having to fully understand how an A* pathing algorithm works, nor what back-face culling or binary space partitioning is.

You have to know enough to put the pieces together, and that’s no mean feat, but it’s still easier than it’s ever been – and I think it’ll only get easier.

While the old man on his porch in me grimaces a bit at the concept, good games are already being made by people with little or no programming skill – and this will be more and more common as we progress.

It may take a while before we can do the Star Trek holodeck thing of “Computer – show me Paris in 1953 and give me aleins that’re invading and let me control the armies defending the city using period-accurate weapons” happens. But we’re still moving more and more toward people being able to make unique games happen without requiring a degree in computer science before starting.

So, while I plan to keep coding as it’s enjoyable for me, I’d love to see more non-programmers making or leading their own projects – to bring their own world experiences to make games richer.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into the games industry?

Well, given how I got into the industry, I think giving advice about schools or how to end up working at Ubisoft Montreal on some huge AAA game would be just me talking out my arse. So I’ll talk about doing it the indie way, like we did.

(Oh – and I am NOT trying to belittle AAA game development. It’s just as valid and awesome to actually want to work on huge teams on epic projects that take 5 years to complete – I just have no idea how you’d do that!)

So, if you’re going to try to do it on your own, without courses or schooling, three things:

Firstly: Despite what I just said? Learn to program. Or, at least, be technical. You may not need to code in future, but if you’re going to even manage programmers you’ve hired using cash you’ve saved from your home business selling frozen squid-ink sculptures on etsy… you need to talk the talk. That way you can give better directions, help out on occasion, not ask for totally insane things (often) and also tell whether the person you’re working with is totally clueless or not.

It even helps managing artists, believe it or not. Understanding what file formats you need, what technical requirements you have (“I need a sprite sheet in a 2k power-of-two PNG file, with six animations with 12 frames each”) will make your life a bit easier.

Secondly: Learn to manage people. Almost no games are truly made by just one person any more. So unless you’re already a programmer and you’re just planning a tetris-like game with no art to speak of and you can do it all yourself… learning to get along with people, to deal with competing opinions… that’s important.

Thirdly: Jeeze this is boring, but… learn some stuff about business. Learn what taxes are, what companies are, what shares are, what contracts look like, and how ugly and unpleasant a BAS statement is (assuming you’re in Australia). It’ll help to have some idea what you’re in for if you actually start selling games and suddenly find yourself doing that crap every month.

If you have any of your own questions for Rohan, you can ask him on Twitter: @ExpectProblems