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From Gardener To Game-Maker: Charlie Knight On Reaching Scoregasm

Gamasutra's Simon Parkin caught up with Charlie Knight, who left his job as a gardener in 2006 to make games for a living, just as his fourth and most ambitious title, shoot 'em up Scoregasm nears completion.
[Gamasutra's Simon Parkin caught up with Charlie Knight, who left his job as a gardener in 2006 to make games for a living, just as his fourth and most ambitious title, shoot 'em up Scoregasm nears completion.] In 2006, UK independent game developer Charlie Knight gave up his job as a professional gardener to fulfill a childhood dream of making video games. Five years on and his fourth and most ambitious title, Scoregasm, is nearing completion. In contrast to Knight's previous three games -- all shoot 'em ups that were written and completed in a matter of weeks -- work has been progressing on Scoregasm for close to two years. In a new indie-centric interview, Gamasutra's Simon Parkin caught up with the developer to find out what life has been like working on an indie game alone for such a stretch of time, and what Knight's aspirations are for the future. Simon Parkin: How did you get started as an independent developer? Charlie Knight: It started as a hobby. I’d bought a computer and didn’t really know what to do with it, so I thought I’d try to fulfill my childhood ambition of making a computer game. It’s kind of spiraled out of control since then... SP: How did the idea for your first game, Bullet Candy come about? What was the reception like? CK: I’d seen some website that was running a competition for the best clone of Jeff Minter’s Llamatron, which I’d really enjoyed on my Atari ST, and thought I’d have a go at making something in that style, but with added fireworks. The reception was pretty good actually. Lot’s of positive reviews on the web and in print and nice feedback from various people. This was quite a while ago though, I don’t suppose I’d fare as well these days with that game. I think timing played a pretty important part in the game's success. SP: Is game creation your sole source of income? If so, how is that working out? CK: Pretty much. I have a part time keep fit job that stops me turning into a gelatinous blob, but doesn't pay much. The rest comes from my games. How does it work out? Ok, there are some pretty scary moments sometimes, but I can afford to eat and pay rent most of the time. SP: What has been your most successful titles to date? CK: Bullet Candy in terms of sales. Last time I checked I’d sold more copies of that game than I’ve had downloads of Space Phallus, which is free! SP: How have you been working to make your titles stand out? Where do people primarily come across them from? I try to make my games uniquely me, in whatever way is most appropriate for the game I’m working on, if that makes sense, which it probably doesn’t. Visuals count for a lot before people actually play, so I try to make my games stand out in this way, and then surprise people by making the game itself super fun once they’ve downloaded it. Of all my games, I guess Space Phallus is probably the best example of this. People come across my games from all sorts of places. When I launch a new game, I don’t exclusively aim for gaming sites, not all gamers read these. In fact, I don’t tend to particularly, so it seems daft to only go with games sites. Which has been the most successful distribution channel for you to date? Steam by a loooooong way! Those guys are great! After them, I’ve worked pretty hard to make my own website my second biggest source of income. My last two games I’ve released as donationware, which has helped with this. Plus, it lets people from countries with weaker economies buy a copy without breaking the bank and there seem to be far fewer copies of Irukandji on torrent/download sites than Bullet Candy had. SP: Why have you decided to focus on shoot 'em ups exclusively? CK: Mostly because I like playing them myself. It’s important I think to work on something you want to play; personally I don’t think I could make a good game in a genre I don’t completely love. I don’t think I could write a great strategy title, or RPG, I’m just not into that sort if thing as much as arcade games. Also, I find i can be more abstract visually speaking with visuals in shooters. I’m not a great character artist, and I like making effects in code (it’s how a lot of my games start out!) so I guess shooters are a good fit for me! SP: Two years is a lot of time to sink into an indie game. Why have you decided to invest so heavily into this one project? CK: Two years is ages! Especially given my previous 2 projects, Irukandji and Bullet Candy Perfect, were short 2 to 3 week things. I’d been wanting to make a bigger game for a while, and I’d had several aborted attempts at making something that would scale up well before starting Scoregasm. Much of the reason it’s taken so long, and the reason that I struggle to make big projects stick in general, is that I don’t tend to plan things in too much detail, and instead try to work from a mental idea of how the game should feel. For some games, this is quite a quick process. With Irukandji, my idea was to take some of the ethereal sea creatures I’d seen in the BBC documentary Deep Blue, and add lots of lasers. This idea didn’t even have a set gameplay style when I started, but I went with a vertical scrolling shooter as it seemed to be the best way to showcase the enemies I’d programmed already. Looking back, I think some of the reason Scoregasm has taken so long is that I started off on the wrong foot. I’d been teaching myself to program 3D graphics, and as a kind of testbed, I’d loaded in the enemies and player objects from Bullet Candy and started to play around with things. I’d got the whole game running in a couple of days, and though ‘wow, this is great! I should spend a couple of months making some new levels and enemies for a Bullet Candy 2 game!’. I spend a couple of weeks on this, made about 15 new levels with different enemies for each one, and sent some test copies out to some friends. What was their feedback? I got some nice feedback from that build, and people seemed to like it well enough. But after giving it some thought I couldn’t see myself wanting to finish it. It was just Bullet Candy with different shaped levels, with all the same power-ups and score mechanics, and the counter intuitive suicide-survival thing that confused everyone the first time around. I decided that if I was going to do another top down game I’d do it properly, and make something that I wanted to play and that I’d enjoy making and that would address the issues I had with my previous attempt. It was about this point that the timing of the project took a backseat! What were the issues you'd had with Bullet Candy? I got to thinking about what I wanted from the game, and how I could improve on Bullet Candy, and I ended up with a list 2 pages long of things I hated about Bullet Candy, and how I could change it for the better. While a lot of this was fairly nit picky, the list ended up dictating how Scoregasm’s world would be constructed, and how you would flow from space to space as you progress through the game. One of the big problems I had with Bullet Candy, and also other similar games, was how you always started on the easy levels, and worked you way up to the hard ones at the end. While this is fine when you are learning the game, after you’ve got the controls nailed, it becomes tiresome to have to wade through all the easy stuff to get to the good bits. Bullet Candy had a continue option, that let you start the game from later levels, but it shortened your game and also made it so that you couldn’t get a good high score. I considered having a starting bonus that would bump up your score, but it still didn’t address the issue of shortened play time. With this in mind, I decided a good course of action would be to have multiple paths through the game, with each level offering up multiple exits to different levels with greater or lesser difficulties. Initially I had the exits leading to the same level with the difficulty adjusted, but it felt like a bit of a cop out, so I made each exit lead to a totally new level. This worked great! It added a cool exploring element to the game, as well as allowing players to dictate to a certain degree what sort of a game they wanted to play, i.e. A relaxing easy game, or a hard game, or just their favorite levels and so on. It also tripled the number of levels I’d need to create, and tripled the amount of levels I’d need to make flow into one another. Time++; Another thing I was keen not to repeat was the constant pace of the levels. Bullet Candy’s levels were all the same, just with different enemies. You never really needed to approach a level in a different manner to the last, so I wanted to have a really good variety of different levels that would make the player change strategy in order to do well. In Scoregasm, I’ve got a pretty cool range of different level styles in the main game, going from the traditional player in the middle of a large arena with enemies spawning from the sides survival style areas to very claustrophobic areas where your movement is more limited, horizontal and vertical scrolling sections, levels with puzzle elements, vortex levels that suck you into the centre, obstacle courses, boss areas and so on. Outside of the main game, I wanted to do more with this idea, so each level also has a challenge mode. Some levels lent themselves pretty well to being riffed on and being made sufficiently different, such as the asteroid levels which have been made into endless high score mini-games, or levels which could be turned into a time trial, or being shrunk down in size or whatever. Some levels didn’t work so well being adjusted in this way, so I made totally new ones, which range from target practice, to vegetable collecting, to invisible mazes whose wall only become visible when they are shot, pig rescuing, coleslaw making, and also nods to some of my favorite games, so there’s a Breakout themed level, Space Invaders, Bangai-oh, Cave style boss levels, a Magnetic Shaving Derby stage, where you need to shave a huge face with a spinning disc that chases you around and lots of other fun stuff. SP: What else did you want to achieve apart from variety? CK: I wanted excessive amounts of stuff filling the screen for the player to blow up. The problem with this was the defensive gameplay style I had. Normally, you’d have to run away and shoot from a safe distance, but if the screen was filled with stuff there wouldn’t be anywhere to run to! So in order to allow for lots of exciting things going on, I had to change the game style to allow for the player to be able to cope in a way that didn’t require god-like reflexes. After several attempts to solve this problem, I finally settled on the close range attack; a metered melee style attack that works in a short radius around the player ship, which contrasts the shooting action to give a nice balance of aggressive and defensive play. Aggressive in that you can use the attack to ram into swarms of enemies and cause huge damage, and defensive so that you can use it to blast otherwise un-killable enemies and bullets aside and create space to maneuver. While you can use this attack almost at will, there is an energy bar that decreases as you use it, and which increases over time and as you kill enemies by shooting them. You also score more points by using the close range attack, so having to recharge by shooting before heading back into the more enemy-dense areas further exaggerates the aggression/defense balance, as well as adding some risk/reward! So in a way, Scoregasm is Bullet Candy with the benefit of hindsight, but at the same time it’s not Bullet Candy at all, it’s a completely different game. It’s not a sequel. It’s also a huge game, with a lot of content. Completists will get their money's worth, casual players can dip in and out without having to repeat anything, and it’s varied enough to stay interesting. That’s why it’s taken so long! Plus, it’s really bloody good :D SP: What's your primary aim with your games? CK: My primary aim is to enjoy what I’m doing. I love art and music, and games let me combine the two with added fun mixed in in the form of gameplay. Ultimately, if I can continue enjoying making things, and earning enough to live, I’ll carry on. SP: What's the biggest challenge currently facing you as an indie dev? CK: I guess the biggest thing for me is letting people know I’m here, and that I make games. It’s as much effort to do this as it is write the game in the first place. Maybe more-so! SP: Where would you like to be in 12 months? CK: On more platforms! I’ve always worked on home computer platforms so far, but I’d like to try my hand at making something for iOS, and maybe other mobile platforms. Once I’ve finished Scoregasm I’m going to start researching this.

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