Swap Fire is available on the Wii U eShop in North America for $14.99
I’ve always had an inkling that maybe I wanted to develop games for a living. During the late 80’s NES boom a favorite pastime of my friends and I was to develop game levels using graph paper at school. It was decidedly low-tech but something about using one’s imagination to craft a world and more importantly a fun experience for others was a powerful motivator to use the otherwise boring checkered parchment.
It was around that same time that I first started to dabble with actual computers. Up to that point my Speak & Spell, Atari 5200, and NES were the only computational instruments I had available to me. A friend had a Commodore 64 though and although it took what seemed like an eternity to load the most mundane thing, it was really compelling to me. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t really convinced of the computer revolution and so I would be forced to wait another 5 years to get one of my own.
When I finally started to get more time with computers, it was an exercise in frustration. As a child I imagined myself like Matthew Broderick in War Games, hacking into systems with my fingers flying over the keyboard. In reality I could barely hunt and peck my name. Most of my career has felt like this, a great love for something I wasn’t particularly good at. Was it a blessing or a curse?
Swap Fire being played at That Game Store, a local hub that combines retro game sales and eSports
Although, I had various “game programming kits” for various PCs throughout the years it wasn’t until kids started passing around games on graphing calculators that I got hooked onto programming. Sure, I had written my fair share of BASIC in programming introductions at school but the bug didn’t fully bite until one day in after school detention. I’ve always had a nasty habit for being late, something I attribute more to my inability to let go of whatever task I’m working on than for lack of respect for the next task. Anyway, I had after school detention for being late umpteen times but I also had a half-functional BASIC "guess a number" game on my calculator. I was really into my car at a time so the logic followed that I would learn how to program from this guessing game and make a drag racing game. Makes perfect sense right?
Long story short, I never made the drag racing game. That said, by the end of the weekend I had crated a choose your own adventure game on my calculator complete with graphics and a kooky story. I was completely hooked and I have never let go since. From calculators I moved on PC indie games having created one the first titles published by Garage Games, and from there I got into mobile where my small studio had several #1 games categorically in the US and achieved nearly 10,000,000 downloads. Of course, none of that was really why I got into making games.
The NES was a huge phenomenon in the US. It seemed like everyone had one in the 80’s or early 90’s whether they were a kid or not, a boy or a girl, every size, shape, race, everyone had an NES. As a child of the 80’s we still mainly played outside but if we weren’t outside, we were playing the NES. Or, if it was somehow an inappropriate time to be playing the system, we were reading about it in Nintendo Power. It was the all consuming force of my childhood, I loved it, and I started wanting to pay those good feelings forward very early on starting with those graph paper games.
Students at CNU having a blast playing Swap Fire after a Midnight Status presentation on Game Dev
As I got older and began making the transition from player to developer though I started to learn that Nintendo was not necessarily the same when one was making the sausage. Many developers complained that Nintendo was a very procedural, top down company, and by-and-large developers would be competing with Nintendo’s own content, which of course is the best, especially to Nintendo fans.
Still, when I examined the landscape, Nintendo was still the pinnacle for me. Every other outlet was merely a stepping stone to get there. There were really a lot of stepping stones. In addition to the aforementioned calculator games, PC games, and mobile games I made infrastructure games, diplomatic training games, medical simulations, VR games (some a decade before its big revival), and so many more I cannot possibly repeat them all here. Needless to say, it was a lot of games.
Finally, in 2012 after winning space in a swanky incubator with a secure office (and falling in love with the Wii U) I applied to be a Nintendo developer. In stark contrast to other companies but right inline with their reported company culture Nintendo had a long standing policy posted on their developer website that you needed an office with security as a minimum prerequisite to apply. I finally had it.
It took quite a while for Nintendo to get back to me after my initial application. During that time we developed a lot of other things at Midnight Status such as the Unity3D Video Chat Asset, The Kishi Bashi game, and Tunnel Traffic. I also co-founded the first options trading platform for Bitcoin, “bcause”. One could say a lot had changed since first applying to be a Nintendo developer. I was definitely carrying more responsibility.
Students at CNU waiting to talk Game Dev
Once I had jumped through all the hoops and actually sat down to create something with my new Wii U Dev Kit, I found quite a bit of paralysis and fear in addition to my aforementioned responsibilites. You see, as someone who had always wanted this moment to come, I really didn’t want to screw it up. So, I tinkered with porting one of our existing games onto the system while learning the ins and outs of it all. Aside from the technical hurdles of learning a new SDK, Nintendo also had a lot of other hurdles associated with it. There was a lot of documentation, keywords to be used appropriately, and details about how the hardware could be utilized that had to be memorized and accounted for before really designing a game.
Analyzing player interactions at Super Smash Con.
After over a year of “tinkering” I had a version of Airspin running on the Wii U with a cool two-player mode with one person on the GamePad and another on the TV but not much else, certainly not the belief that this was the product I really wanted to make for the Wii U. It was around this time that a recent college graduate named Henry Meredith got in touch with me and wanted to learn about making video games. Here in Norfolk, VA where traditional entertainment game development is overshadowed by serious game and simulation development, a lot of young people find me to ask for advice, intern, and sometimes I even give them jobs.
Henry doing the "Tony Powell" (of That Rock Paper Scissors Game) at Norfolk Collegiate School
On this particular occasion the first question I asked Henry was what sort of games he was into. I was pretty sure he looked like an “Xbox Bro” so his answer surprised me when he said he was Nintendo fanboy, and not only that but a hardcore one, the type that has statues of Link and Ganondorf. From that answer forward I started to get pretty excited about the prospects of working with Henry, and over the past 16 months his efforts have been critical in ensuring not only the release of Swap Fire for the Wii U but the success of PixelFest last April, which had nearly 5,000 attendees. That’s another story though.
Playing Swap Fire with my son at PixelFest
After meeting for coffee a few times I had Henry over to my office and we played Airspin on the Wii U. After playing for a while we both felt pretty meh about the experience. So, I said hold on and set up the original Swap Fire, which was created for the 2012 7DFPS (7 Day First Person Shooter game jam). This was a networked FPS created in 7 days (actually 5 ‘cause I’m a busy dad) in which, one would have to get into harm's way before firing as opposed to hiding behind cover first like most FPS games. I had shown this game off at summer coding camps I taught, as well as at a the midnight opening of Injustice: Gods Among Us at a local GameStop. In both instances people were really into the game, at GameStop the poor clerks had to kick two guys out who wouldn’t leave! Needless to say, we had a lot more fun playing the old 7DFS Swap Fire than we did with Airspin and so the switch was made.
Swap Fire on the "mean streets" of Norfok during NEON 2015
From that point forward it was Swap Fire all the way and whatever we had to do to get the game done. This meant taking on contract work, creating PixelFest, selling sponsorships, teaching coding classes, selling ads and expanding our Tunnel Traffic monitoring and reporting system, maximizing Video Chat for Unity with lots of updates, creating Mario Made as a gateway to Wii U players, and oh … we had to actually work on Swap Fire too. This was an outrageous amount of work, culminating with a 3 month end-crunch of 20 hour days, no sleep, and no showers for me. As much as possible we made sure this game was 100% and it was a ludicrous amount of work.
I never had any illusions that we were making the next big game with Swap Fire. I just wanted to make something that people could have a good time with on the couch, like we used to in the N64, Dreamcast, and Xbox "4-player glory days"; a good old hootin’ hollarin’ local multiplayer experience, that was at least memorable, if not a great direction to continue building on. I think we succeeded.
Swap Fire couch multiplayer fun with the crew from Popped