Vic Davis recently announced he was retiring from making digital games after spending the better part of a decade making esoteric self-published indie games. Starting with the expansive Armageddon Empires and the cunning and conniving Solium Infernum, Davis has achieved the impressive task of wrangling Adobe Director into helping him produce his games, helped along by hiring some excellent artists to spruce them up once he's done laying the foundations.
Throughout his career as an independent game developer, Davis only sold his games directly through his own website, forgoing Steam or any other digital distribution service. While this may have contributed to his decision to cease making digital games, it wasn't the only factor.
I talk to Vic about his choice to leave the digital space, as well as what went right and wrong for him and his model as a solo-dev publishing and selling his games all by himself. We also look forward to his new venture, as a board game designer.
Primarily, what was the reasion behind your decision to retire from making digital games? Was it due to the shifting environment for indies, economic difficulty or just because it was getting to be too difficult to actually make games in Adobe Director any more?
It was actually a combination of all three of those factors. The biggest issue though was that when I sat down to code my next game, it was a chore. Yeah, Adobe Director isn't ideal but I could have probably trudged through and made another game. I have a lot of design patterns for UI elements that I could pull out of my tool box....pop up windows, scrolling menus etc. I realized though that I was starting to bend my designs to fit the tools that I had built over the last 10 years. That was sort of a wake up call.
I'm not a great programmer and I also realized that doing good coding work required more passion than I had. There was a time when I was doing the AI for Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum that I couldn't wait to get up and start messing around with my code. I had blast tinkering with finite state machines, goal based systems, influence maps and even genetic algorithms. But I guess that I changed sometime along the way. I'm almost 50 now and silly things like eye strain are becoming an issue.
"I guess that I changed sometime along the way. I'm almost 50 now and silly things like eye strain are becoming an issue."
I also made some serious mistakes along the way. One was shifting my design from turn based strategy games that involved a hex based board and some type of military conflict to pursuing other genres. This was in part because I had burned out a little bit. My first two projects were each years in the making with hundreds of thousands of lines of code, huge financial risks in investing in the art and project management headaches all over the place. The scope of my first two games suited a 3+ man team and not just me.
So I thought I would make a coffee break game and reduce the stress a bit, but Six Gun Saga was anything but relaxing. I had been playing a lot of board games that centered on multiple uses of the same card so I thought I'd design and build something similar on the computer after another design failed and I had a bunch of art images for a western game. So I jumped into a new genre and then compounded it by making a horror rogue-like game right after that. I can't blame my customers for being confused. In retrospect I should have just taken a yearlong sabbatical and then tried another hex based strategy game. But like I said, I don't think you see many of those being created by just one person for a reason. Like the Machine from The Princess Bride, they will suck years of your life away.
The second big mistake was not trying to jump on Steam right away. I had come from a background where I sold physical products through retailers and I was really certain that this new internet thing was going to mean that I could cut out the middle man. So fueled by my arrogance that the middle men were goners I said some disparaging things about middle men and pushed on to the bitter end with the idea that I could sell just from my website and make a living at this. This turned out to be incorrect. I'd like a Nobel in economics someday for Vic's Law:
The Middle Man will always own the customer and have the last laugh. It's what they do best so don't try and fight it.
Over the past few years we've seen a huge explosion in both the popularity and availability of indie games. Was the increased attention on indie games a benefit to you, or did it become more difficult to stand out from the noise?
I think I was a modestly early indie. But I was in a different space from the clever art games or even Cliffski's simulation games. Things like Rock Paper Shotgun, Penny Arcade, Quarter to Three and other message boards really drove traffic to my website and turned AE into a modest success when it would have otherwise been a complete failure. I even had some nice print coverage. My biggest problem is that I am a huge introvert and I'd much rather design games than run a business. I have to say there are a lot of nice people out there who for whatever weird reason liked my games and were very supportive....both in the games media and just regular customers who posted on gaming forums.
As far as the noise goes, I didn't really even notice it. The space is really crowded in general but there are a lot of niches that are still rather empty with just a few candles still trying to flicker in the vast darkness. Turn based strategy gaming is one of those.
You're moving into board games, itself an industry that's been growing over the past few years. Did that chance of environment make the decision to switch easier? Do you think it's a viable option for other developers?
"My board game is going to be just a few notches up on the scale above a vanity project."
It's growing but I don't think in any way that is going to help me. My board game is going to be just a few notches up on the scale above a vanity project. Now if you are Fantasy Flight or Days of Wonder, you are loving the renaissance that has sprung up in the last couple of years. I chose to try a board game because a one man computer game project needs a coder first and foremost. A board game needs a designer and a project manager at its core. I can't code any more. I think I can do the design and I can bite my lip and muddle through on the project management.
It's definitely much more viable than it used to be. There is a huge array of options now to print and distribute physical products like board games now more so than even 5 years ago. I can even try and disprove Vic's Law again and sell just from a kickstarter or my own website. Probably not the best idea but it's an option.
Along with the increase in indie popularity the past few years has also seen an abundance of game engines rise in popularity. I'm going to assume you considered switching to one of them, so what was it that made you decide that this wasn't an option?
I thought about switching to Unity 5 or so years ago after I finished Solium Infernum but I was already in my spiral of not enjoying the coding. I don't think it would have made a difference really. But if you are a young developer with ambition I would recommend that you try Unity.
Similarly, what made you decide that hiring outside help to aid you in programming your games wasn't the right choice? I'd argue that the success of games like Solium Infernum was despite Director, so your ideas and design is definitely something that should persist outside your programming.
"If you are not going to sleep thinking about what you want to code tomorrow and are excited about it then think about what you are doing and why."
I contracted out for the art and music for all my games. It was a tremendous success and you can see by the art and music in my games that it was top notch. The art and music sells the games as much as the design. The UI design and programming is a net negative. But with a computer game project, the whole thing revolves around the code. Art and Music can have placeholders until the end but the code has to be there and be hammered out over and over every day. I thought about outsourcing but I just couldn't see managing that given my personality and my need to push the projects forward just through the strength of my own will. It's hard to explain but the projects would likely never get done if I didn't take accountability for them and do certain work myself. I didn't want to be a code supervisor either. I did ask around and got some horror stories as well about poor work and missed deliverables. Cost was another issue. It was something I could do myself so I did.
Do you have any advice for single-person developers who want to develop their games with minimum outside help?
Yeah, learn to code. Pick a solid language/environment that looks like it will grow with you. If you are not going to sleep thinking about what you want to code tomorrow and are excited about it (most of the time as some work can be tedious no matter what) then think about what you are doing and why. Develop people skills even if you are an introvert. Don't let things just sit there because you don't have the social energy to respond. Learn to put on the happy face mask and get the work done. Sadly no man is an island, and even if he were, the ocean is teaming with people on jet skis.