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We ask indies: Aaron Steed, creator of Ending and Red Rogue

Aaron Steed knows stuff. His games are always interesting (wow, Ending, such a good game). In this interview he answers about creative process, Red Rogue, Ending, PuzzleScript and the Three Laws of Robotics!

Aaron Steed is a clever guy. His games are great and his analysis spot on (you should really read his blog). He works at Nitrome and make more stuff in his spare time (hey, this includes Ending, Red Rogue, and PuzzleScript games!). Now he answers our questions!

Aaron by Aldeguer!1. How long have you been making games?

I programmed games in Basic on my ZX Spectrum when I was very young. I was more interested in drawing the characters though. Even when I got into RPGs later I just rolled loads of NPCs for games and drew them. I tried to study drawing as a subject at school. Then dropped out, then went back as an adult (I've had to work on my attention span). By then programming computers had gotten easier and I tried making generative digital art and interactive installations. This left me with an odd portfolio that Nitrome decided to take a chance on. I've been working there since for the past 8 years. 4 years in I decided to try prove to myself I could make stuff in my spare time and started work on Red Rogue.

2. Where do you find ideas for your games? Tell us something about your creative process.

A lot of the stuff we do at Nitrome is out of Mat Annal's head. Him and his brother carry "idea books" around and have something of a process for constant game ideas. I kinda don't. There's my sketchbook but a lot of this stuff in my spare time is usually an idea that has been rolling around in my head after playing some other games or after doing some stuff at work - perhaps some particular code or a mechanic. Red Rogue I started developing after wishing Spelunky had more RPG in it (Catacomb Kids still isn't finished whilst I'm writing this after all). Ending was an idea for a mini game in Red Rogue. Flying Kick was based on Terry Cavanagh's Collapse. And so on. An idea gets stuck in there, then I have to get it out. If I was working for myself I would develop more of a process because I'd run out of ideas quicker. For now, I just try stuff and other ideas grow out of that.

3. Ending is really deep (we loved it). Where does its idea come from? Any favourite feedback you remember?

The mini-game was an idea meant for Red Rogue's dream sequences, something simple like Mercury. But the more I thought on the matter, the more it seemed that roguelikes were missing an exploration of combat at its most basic. Even in Zaga 33 and Microgue, there were extra mechanics like spells that seemed to go beyond just movement and position. I got to explore this idea at work in Turnament for Nitrome - it was supposed to be a Zelda-lite that got developed into an exploration of the parity problem in 4-directional roguelikes. I felt that although the puzzles were nice for pacing, the really interesting thing was the combat. So in my spare time I set about making a game like Turnament, but focused solely on fighting. I distanced myself from the template by developing new mechanics and a new engine that was stripped down to the absolute basics. It was keeping everything basic that drove a lot of the design, including the infamous lack of text. I hadn't a puzzle mode in mind when first making it, but the whole exploration of these basic combat truths needed to happen. Even the editor serves well when I have to explain it in person because I can easily set up a scenario and demonstrate with anyone's copy of the game. I've recently been making some more levels for Ending that I hope to add to the mobile version (iOS/Android). There's also scope left in the code to explore other behaviours, so perhaps a bigger version of Ending should be made some day. The best review I received for Ending was in Russian that ranted on about salad for some reason. Nice reviews are nice, but entertaining ones are better.

4. Reading your blog we found an interesting piece titled “In Defence of Candy Crush” (we also played the games you made with PuzzleScript out of “lifted ideas” from the popular match 3 hit.) Where else do you think indie devs could find interesting ideas or mechanics to explore and we are not doing it because of something you called “indie snobbishness”? (Really spot-on concept!)

To practice what I preach I downloaded other King games today. The pattern seems to be poor-man's-version-of-X-with-varying level-objectives. It's nice they try to push the envelope a bit but I think Candy Crush is the one only one that surpasses its predecessor. I daren't try Facebook games because I know how easy it is to scrape data from players. I think a lot of indies are already open minded, plumbing board games for mechanics and playing party games like Ninja and Danish Clapping. I just think perhaps some people need to ease up on the whole The Only Way Is Indie attitude. It excludes people outside the scene who may have something worthwhile to contribute. They might have some dumb ideas, but at least talk to them about it instead of writing them off on principle.

5. You've made lots of games with PuzzleScript. Why? Any favourite PuzzleScript game you've played?

Procrastination really. I should be learning Unity or C++ but I'm a bit worn out after holding down a game dev job and then going home and doing it all over again. PuzzleScript seemed like a welcome break from more involved coding and a chance to talk about something other than Ending. Once I got the hang of it I really liked the speed I could make stuff and the retro styling. My favourite is definitely Tunnel Rat. I sat down with it and couldn't stop playing. Cake Monsters is pretty good and of course all the Heroes of Sokoban games are very good. I like a lot of Alan Hazelden's experiments in PuzzleScript, you can find them on the PuzzleScript forums.

6. You've also made some Twine games. How was the experience with this tool? Any advice to someone who doesn't know Twine yet and/or want to start writing interactive fiction?

Ah Twine. Twine, Twine, Twine. I wanted to be a writer around the age of 16. I think after being Dungeon Master for tabletop RPGs so many times I felt I had a talent for it. I made a few attempts at novels, almost half a novel once, then I got a crappy job and never had the stamina to persevere in my spare time. I quit and went back to drawing. Twine seemed like a nice change of pace after Ending. I could relive a part of my youth and learn a new tool. My first game was a sort of read against the clock deal for Ludum Dare, not that fun. My second was for the Boob Jam game jam, based on my friend moaning about uncomfortable bras. I struggled with this one because I decided that I enjoyed Twine games with good writing as opposed to flashy game mechanics. I feel fine asking people to play a puzzle I've made but I struggle to ask someone to read my jokes about women's clothes shops. I submitted it. Made some macros for solving a few Twine problems I had and then put the Twine editor to rest. I think that if I have a really good idea for a story then I might give it another go. Twine remains the easiest way to make games I've ever tried. However writing a decent story and coming up with great sentences is another matter entirely. Play Porpentine's games, that lady does things with sentences I'll never have the wit to compete with. I honestly think that decent writing is at the heart of a good Twine game. So if you want to make Twine games then write your heart out, just keep words coming out, even if they're bad. Get your first draft done and then go back and start making it better. A page full of bad words is better than a blank page. And by all means go to workshops - even if you're not a people person like me. You need people to react to your work so you can do that next draft and make it better.

7. If you have to choose three and only three game developers to follow their work closely, which ones would you choose and why?

Well. First off, I probably wouldn't do such a thing. Secondly, I think I would just pick a few prolific developers that would be able to keep me entertained. So I think Droqen, Terry Cavanagh and Michael Brough would do. I certainly don't like all of their games. I didn't like Super Hexagon or Vesper.5 but I can rest assured that at least once a year I get to play a new game by one of them that I quite like. That would be my tactic. I do like big developer games as well, I just don't have a console. If I did I'd list Nintendo in there. They might make some horrible decisions at times but they have this amazing attention to detail. If you want to make a really good platformer then you should really look hard at what Nintendo does with the genre - the camera work, the physics, the level design, all of it. Just things like the camera gently tracking ahead of the direction the player character is looking - a lot of indie platformers I've played don't understand these subtleties or how they benefit the player.

8. Are you a heavy gamer? What games are you playing now?

Not especially. If I get hold of a really good game then I'll get sucked in but mostly I'm a bit of a casual player. The new Candy Crush update is interesting. It reduces the amount of colours for a few turns, leading to a flurry of specials. Implementation is a bit clunky. Worth stealing the idea however. Still having a go at 868-Hack now and then. I'll play 10 on my phone a fair bit when I'm in waiting rooms. I've had a lot of false starts with games lately - I can't figure out how to win a normal level of Desktop Dungeons so I gave up on that. MirrorMoon I got lost and then a bit bored in. Impressive though. Teleglitch I couldn't get into. Monaco neither. Fez I was enjoying until it became one massive backtracking festival. I'm a bit of a grump when it comes to what games I like. Every now and then though a Grimrock or Hotline Miami comes along and I can join in with everyone else saying how great they are.

9. One last random question. If you could rewrite the Three Laws of Robotics, how would they be?

The Three Laws were plot devices. They created problems and dramas for Isaac to write about. I feel that a living thing's purpose is to preserve and adapt its identity. Once you're aware that your identity includes those who came before you then perhaps that's enough. If we had robots, they would preserve us, adapt us if necessary, and do the same for themselves. By the time we have autonomous robots I think that the line between us and them will already be too blurry to be concerned about what adaptation might entail.


*We Ask Indies is an initiative by Beavl, an Argentinian independent game studio putting some teeth into videogames. You can check all the interviews here (caricatures are made by amazing artist Joaquín Aldeguer!).

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