[In this interview, Nicholas Vining of Gaslamp Games offers an in-depth look at the day-to-day life of an indie studio, breaking down the development of the team's tongue-in-cheek roguelike Dungeons of Dredmor.]
Tell us about the founding members of Gaslamp studios.
Nicholas Vining: Gaslamp has three founders: David Baumgart, Dan Jacobsen, and myself. I'm the Lead Programmer slash Technical Director, which means I'm responsible for doing most of the day-to-day programming work on Dredmor, as well as setting the overall technical direction that we move in as a studio. Most of the code in Dredmor is mine.
David does anything that involves pixels, because the rest of us aren't allowed to go within forty feet of Photoshop any more. Interestingly enough, he also designed most of Dredmor's combat system.
Dan's role in the company is that of the wandering samurai - he moves from town to town, attacking the things that need attacking. On a given day, that can be anything from mild programming tasks, through to designing complex systems, all the way to running internal playtesting and sorting out the nightmare of badly written contracts that Gaslamp's employees and contractors operate under, most of which were written by disbarred lawyers from somewhere in Nevada. He picked up the nickname "Citizen Daniel", and I don't really know why. I think it's a reference to Citizen Kane. So that's the three founders.
On top of that, the capable Derek Bonner runs our servers, and Matthew Steele is responsible for all of our fabulous sound effects and music. We are extremely fortunate to have recently taken on Chris Dykstra as our director of business development; together with Citizen Daniel, they form the business acumen department, and are collectively responsible for hustling deals, nailing down distribution, and hopefully making us all fabulously wealthy.
Has Gaslamp Studios worked on any other games prior to Dungeons of Dredmor? What about individually?
NV: This is our first project as a studio that has actually reached a state of near-completion. Gaslamp, as a company, began its existence trying to do another game; at that time, the group consisted of Daniel, myself, and two other artists. The two other artists didn't work out, and neither did the game; it ended in blood, sweat, tears, and chaos.
We ended up bringing David in after one of our artists went AWOL, leaving a supply of vegetables hoarded in strange locations in the building. The other artist with the company had to go back to Japan. At this point, we decided to abandon the game we were working on, agreeing that it wasn't something that we could do -- this was probably the best decision we ever made as a company. Instead, we chose to focus on Dredmor, which I brought to the company as a project that was started with another bunch of independent developers, and elected to take it to completion.
Now in terms of us as individuals, this is Daniel's first game development project. Well, first that we know of. He may have done others.
I have been in game development for eleven years now; my first job was at the age of sixteen, working for Loki Software and porting games to Linux. Since then, I've worked with a bunch of game developers, some small and some large. I have to be careful what I talk about here; I don't want to be libelous.
Some career highlights include... ah, let's see. I worked on a game for Piranha Games that was so bad that it inspired the first ever appearance of the Fruit F*cker 2000 in Penny Arcade. I'm quite proud of that...the comic, not the game. Interestingly, Piranha is now one of the studios now signed on to Duke Nukem Forever; I think Gearbox subcontracted them to do the multiplayer work and the console ports. I was at Penny Arcade Expo when I found that out, and I decided that the only thing to do under the circumstances was to get very drunk. In some ways, I suppose it's karma.
I also worked on a few games by Derek Smart. Derek is controversial, to say the least, but he pays his bills on time, takes absolutely no guff from anybody, and ships his games via sheer force of willpower and caffeine abuse working in the direction of whatever his internal vision is at the time. That's pretty respectable, really.
Somewhat more glamorously, I spent some time building an OpenGL renderer for the Unreal Engine. My understanding is that the OpenGL renderer ended up being used as the starting point for the iOS version of Unreal Engine 3, which powers things like Infinity Blade. So that's pretty cool.
As part of the Unreal work, I also ended up contributing to a handful of OpenGL extensions, which got absorbed into the OpenGL 3.2 specification. I'm listed as an official OpenGL contributor, which is pretty nifty. I also occasionally write for books, magazines, and whatever; I recently got an article published in Game Developer Magazine. So, yeah... let's just say that my career is checkered, and leave it at that.
David has done a lot of stuff, not all of which I know about. I know he did all the art for Starfarer by Alex Mosolov, which has recently hit alpha. Actually, our sound and music guy ended up putting some stuff together for Alex, so that's been a pretty fruitful relationship. Dredmor is currently stopping him from making any progress on his game whatsoever; it's sort of like how Notch is spending all his time right now playing Terraria. David has also done a bunch of work for Neils Bauer, Smugglers 4, and I think some other stuff -- and he has generally made a bunch of art for a bunch of smaller indie projects.
Chris Dykstra, interestingly, spends his time divided between Gaslamp and his other, main gig, which is working at Playboost. Playboost does...some sort of thing that helps you monetize your Facebook games. It's pretty interesting, but not really something I know that much about. If you have a Facebook game and you want to monetize it, though, check them out.
How was Gaslamp Studios founded and why? Did you receive financial assistance? Was there an allocated budget or a venture capitalist?
I had some money and decided to start a company with it; then the money ran out. The company survived, though, which means I must have done something right. I think everybody else got suckered into it.
Starting Gaslamp, for me at least, was the result of a combination of things. A lot of it had to do work reaching a point in my life where I was burnt out and deeply dissatisfied with the way that the AAA game industry does things. Major studios survive on a cycle of ritualized abuse, violence, and stupidity. You work on a game for 24 to 48 months, spending at least a quarter of that time in crunch mode, and at the end of it, you have no guarantee of success or failure. If the game fails -- and sometimes, even if the game succeeds -- the studio lays everybody off, and the entire studio staff heads off to the other twelve studios in town in order to repeat the cycle. That's no way to live your life, and it's no way to build a company.
The other consequence to the major studio development model is that it makes developers risk-averse. If a game costs thirty million dollars, then you're going to make a game that you know can make that thirty million dollars back, which is why the industry as a whole suffers from a lack of innovation and from sequelitis.
If you want to make games, and you don't want to work like that, you have two choices. You can find one of the few decent studios left in the world -- Valve is certainly the best one out there in terms of creating a hospitable, nurturing, and creativity-inspiring culture; id is probably a close second, and I think Bethesda and Media Molecule both seem like decent places to work -- or you can go your own way. I chose the latter for now. If Gaslamp crashes and burns, who knows? Maybe I'll show up at Gabe Newell's doorstep with a sign saying "Will Code For Food."
The other major factor, and this is going to sound arrogant but what the heck, is in seeing people do awful things and make money at it. At a certain point, when you see company after company doing things that are incredibly stupid and awful, and making money at it, you say to yourself "Well, if these people -- who are morons -- can succeed at running a company, surely I can?"
We haven't taken in any venture capital. We're just bootstrapping ourselves to success or failure. This is the trendy thing for startups to do these days -- in particular, I kind of like the idea of Eric Ries's "lean startup" movement. Ries has a bunch of core principles that he has been pushing for startups to adopt: get product out to your customer as fast as you can -- he calls this the "minimally viable product" -- and then iterate based on what your customer wants. We're starting to see folks do this in the indie gaming scene -- Minecraft comes to mind -- although it's not clear what a minimally viable game is. We haven't done this with Dredmor, but I'm wrestling with how best to do this for our next title, whatever that may be.