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From indies to indies: Space Pirates And Zombies (SPAZ)

Interview with MinMax Games, the indie studio behind SPAZ.

MinMax Games is a two-man (Richard Cliff and Andrew Hume) game studio from Canada that released SPAZ back in August 2011. Their story is one of great risks and great rewards. Not everyone would be able to get through this and remain sane but they did it. Sure they both had experience in the game industry before diving into MinMax Games (like working at Radical Entertainment) but it's a whole different world when you don't get a steady paycheck.

Before leaving your day job to work on games I suggest to pay great attention to what follows. You really need to know what you're getting into.

Before getting to the interview

I invite you to read this thread on Steam in which they shared a lot of their experience. I tried my best in this interview to avoid what is already covered in this thread so if you skip the thread you're missing a lot. So go read it right now!


One week after the release of SPAZ you noted that "the press has hardly covered SPAZ's release". Before being sure that Steam, Impulse, GamersGate, etc. would accept your game what was your worst case scenario to promote the game?

Both: We didn't really have any options aside from hoping to get whatever press coverage we could, advertising was definitely out of the question due to the expense.  Our big mistake was not approaching the press much earlier in development.  We just kind of arrived out of no where, which was really stupid on our part.  Reddit provided a lot of good advice and some initial exposure as well.  This is what got Total Biscuit's PR manager to notice us.  That was critical.

What would you say is THE most important thing indie devs should pay attention to when working on their next game to make sure they don't end up being on the wrong side of marketing stories?

Both: Demo versions, public forums, let's plays on YouTube.  Free copy give aways or AMAs on Reddit.  Anything and everything!  It's been a real struggle for us to get noticed.  You should talk to anyone who will listen, no matter how small they may seem.  Good PR can some from some unlikely places.  Our biggest PR days have been the result of replying promptly to customer support emails, which then get posted to Reddit.

When you both left your jobs what kind of savings did you have? Was it "oh I can last for the next year without worrying about anything" or "it better work otherwise I'll be flipping burgers soon?".

Both: We had about 6 months worth of savings banked up.  The project took 2 years, so there was definitely a point where we thinking about our best burger flipping techniques.  We put so much into the game; failure would have been a life crushing event.  We knew the risk, but we just tried not to dwell on it too much.  We had to just stay focused and do our best.

And if your situations were very different did it ever created conflicts? What gave you the ability to carry on with your project?

Both: We had both worked together at Radical Entertainment for five years.  We know we are different people, but we also know we complement each other.  We don’t do the same things, so we are able to work with great autonomy while still being able to rely on the partner to do their half well and on time.  We're both highly technical and do all design collaboratively, which is the common ground.  Beyond that, we have a coder and artist relationship.  All tasks that need to be done can be done by at least one of us.

Two men with huge creative power. How do you make this work? How do you come to trust the other one with some idea he had while you initially disagreed strongly? What's the dynamic of 2 guys who didn't want to be run by someone else working together?

Both: Like before, we’ve worked together for many years.  We’ve already had the big arguments before we started this project, and we learned how to work together better.  In reality, we wanted to make the same game, so most of everything just fell into place.  Beyond that, we do our best to respect each other.  When conflicts did arise, we dealt with them quickly and did not let them sit and fester.  Most conflict was due to money and release stress instead of creative design stress (such as in AAA development)

All game developers believe that their game is great. Or at least they want to believe it is. What was your way of actually "knowing" it was ready? I mean the difference between "well let's see how it turns out" and "I can't do better than this" or were you always in the dark.

Both: We knew from day one that SPAZ wasn’t going to appeal to everyone.  It’s a bit backwards compared to normal game development, but we just wanted to make a game WE wanted to play, hoping others would feel the same way.  For a long time we were in isolation, wondering if anyone else would enjoy this.  When we started to show people, we got a lot of positive feedback, and some negative as well.  We did our best to fix up the negative with what little time we had left.  We felt the game was as solid as it could be upon release, but we knew we’d be adding more and improving it for a long time afterward.  SPAZ will have been available since May 9th 2011 (one year as of tomorrow) and we still have not closed the lid on it.

Quitting everything and betting on a single project is the kind of pressure not everybody could take. Would you have seen yourself playing it safe instead? For example keep your day job and work on SPAZ on your free times. If not why? What did you get that really helped you by taking such a risk?

Both: There is just too much work to make a game like this on our free time.  Working at a big studio we were already working weekends and late hours.  Needless to say, we sure didn’t want to spend even more time in front of a computer.  We needed our souls back, before we could really make this game.  There was just no other way.  It was a scary risk, but living our lives wondering “what if” seemed worse.  We just had to try.

Now would you recommend to other indie devs to take the same path? Is there anything your learned that you could tell them to make this experience a bit less stressful?

Both: Make sure you have a tight team of dedicated people.  Don’t double up on roles if you don’t have to, because these people need to get paid.  You don’t need 4 sound engineers for Tetris, for example.  Make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to make.  Most importantly, make something you can finish.  Making a massive super project is so much work.  It doesn’t have to be huge; it just has to be fun.  Prove that fun aspect as soon as possible.  If it takes a year before you can play and enjoy the game, there is something wrong.

As you mentioned in your post on Steam Richard does not have an art background yet he handled everything art-related? How did you come to this decision instead of maybe working with other artists? Richard, for all poor indies unable to pay for artists out there are there any tricks you can share about your experience of having to handle how your game will be judged on first sight?

Richard: It’s true, I didn’t have any formal art training, but I sure did play a lot with Photoshop before I started SPAZ.  I knew I wanted to do all the art, and we couldn’t really pay someone else for it.  Even if we could, so much stuff changes over time.  It’s great that I can change not only how a ship feels in-game, but also how it looks all on my own.  This makes the work flow very fast.

Best advice I can give is to find way to make your art go a long way.  I’ve become a master of recycling.  We also do some procedural art tricks to keep the asset count down.  The game is still under 160 Megs because we make the computer do some work for us.  It comes down to bang for buck.

What's the biggest mistake you made while living this adventure? What do you wish you would have handled differently? For example do you think you spent too much time on design documents, did not release a playable version earlier, anything?

Both: We don’t really feel we didn’t anything wrong given the variables available, at least game design wise.  We made a game that we enjoyed playing and were proud of, and that was always the goal.

There were technical aspects like multi threading support which would have been great, and we would have loved to incorporate multiplayer, but that is a pipe dream that would have bankrupted us.  Having a localization solution ready from day one would have been smart as well.  Whoops.

We are very proud of our game.  There are obviously mistakes we made along the way, but its part of the learning process.  Sometimes you don’t know what is right, until you’ve explored all the ways it’s wrong first.  We were never afraid to throw away bad ideas, even if we had spent considerable time working on them.

And on the other hand what do you consider the best move/decision you have made? Looking back what makes you think "oh we definitely did this right otherwise it would have been one great disaster story"?

Both: There was a point where we realized our GUI wasn’t up to par.  We reworked just about every screen, and it set us back nearly 4 months.  It was really worrisome to throw away and rework so much, but it really helped our users understand the game better, which is a huge win for us.  Without this change, SPAZ would have been inaccessible to much of the audience and may have failed.

You were quite upset about SPAZ being pirated. What did you get out of this? Do you now consider it just part of the way things are or did it get you to maybe reconsider plans for future games? Maybe having some online feature? Anything to "help" people buy your games instead of pirating them or you just don't bother with this?

Both: Pirating is a truth of the entertainment industry because you are dealing with something mostly intangible so it becomes a grey area for some people.  The truth is, by purchasing a game, you are voting for a company to continue to make games.  You are paying for future titles.  Enough people purchased SPAZ that we know there will be a SPAZ 2.  For this we are very grateful!

We did our best to make purchasing SPAZ as appealing as possible.  Small 2 man indie company, good support, lots of patches, low price, accessible to community, very light DRM, and a demo.  All those things you should need to remove any logical reason to pirate, but we don’t really think it made that much of an impact.  On the other hand we will do this all again next time, since it is good for our customers and they are the ones we want to spend our time on.

In all honesty, we just ignore the piracy of SPAZ entirely.  We have no idea how many torrents, and websites exist with SPAZ content.  We have yet to issue a DMCA request to google for example.  It all seems like wasted effort that we could instead spend on making SPAZ better.

A lot of people ask "how they can get in the game industry" but here I'd ask you "how do you get out of it" instead. What would you tell "Joe the new game industry enthusiast" to look out for before the "game industry" chew him and spit him out?

Both: If you are getting into the big development side of things, it’s important to understand that it is a business above all things.  The bottom line is making money.  This means you end up sometimes working on games you don’t like, or really understand.  If a multi million dollar project doesn’t make money, your job is at risk, along with a hundred other people.  With us, we left that kind of business to do our own thing, but there is huge financial risk in doing so.  We could only do it with the knowledge we learned from big studio development.  Learn what you can, and then get out before they eat your soul.  :-)

You can check and buy SPAZ here: 


Note that I am not a journalist and do not pretend to be one with my From indies to indies posts. I am simply an indie dev who enjoy reading what other indies have to say and think that other indies might be interested as well.

This post also appeared on my blog:

Follow me on Twitter: @Over00 

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