A HOME FOR BUFFALO VIDEO GAME PROGRAMERS
BY JAMIE MOSES
On Saturday, May 13, at the Tri-Main Center (2495 Main St.), local non-profit Buffalo Game Space will be hosting its second annual showcase of video games and board games developed around Western New York. This year’s event will feature over 25 games created by local artists, designers, musicians and developers.
Video games can be very lucrative when you consider the earnings of arcade games as simple as Donky Kong earned $4.4 billion, Pac-Man $12.8 billion or Space Invaders $13.9 billion. Urban legend says Space Invaders caused a coin shortage in Japan when it first launched. Online games can be equally lucrative like World of Warcraft, $8.5 billion.
Curious about this WNY community of game programmers, I stopped in the BGS studio for a look around. Luckily, BGS founder Chris Langford was there and had time to spare for an Artvoice L.A. Noire style interrogation.
Tell me about May 13th
This is our second showcase event, we’re working with local developers people around Western New York that are working on games. We’ll have 20 to 30 video and tabletop games developed by people in the area. The creators will be here to show their games let them play it talk about what goes into it and what they worked on and in addition to that It’s kind of like a party with a cash bar and raffles. We’re just highlighting everything that’s being created in the area.
What’s the level of sophistication of the games?
It varies, some of these are things that were built for Game Jams, small events in which you’re required to build a game in 48 hours under certain constraints to nearly fully fledged released titles on platforms such as Steam or Xbox or PlayStation.
PlayStation 4k videogames are pretty intense right now
I don’t know if we’ve got anything quite as intense as you’ll see from Triple A
, just because a lot of people that work on this stuff are small teams, independent developers. But it’s still some fairly impressive stuff, there’s a lot of work that goes into making these.
Does a game always involve a team?
Usually, yeah. When you’re developing a game there are some people that can do it by themselves but they’re few and far between. A lot goes into building a game, you’ve got to have someone that can do all the programming on it, someone to do the design–who can figure out what’s fun what’s not and build up things like levels and interface so on and so forth. You need someone to create the art for it. If it’s a 2D game they need to make illustrations or pixel art, you need characters, backgrounds, and the levels component. If it’s a 3D game you have to have 3D modelers, you need someone to do the texture work, someone to animate the characters, people to do voice acting, record sound effects, create music for it. It’s a very multidisciplinary field; it takes a lot of people to make a good game
What is the size of an average team?
For a lot of the stuff you’ll see at the showcase, anywhere from 3 people to 10 people, possibly more. Some of the bigger industry titles you see come out like the 4K games on PlayStation could be teams of 300-400 people easily. It’s a very big industry
What are the equipment requirements?
Nowadays it’s pretty easy to make a game from the hardware perspective. It used to be you had to have dedicated equipment that was very specialized. Nowadays you can get a lot of software tools that are available for free to work on your games. There are a lot of popular game engines available now that are free or very affordable. The same goes for 3D modeling tools, or other graphic tools or audio recording tools. At the showcase you’ll see some Virtual Reality titles, too. VR gets a little cost prohibitive. One of the things we try to do here BGS is provide the community with access to those tools they might not be able to afford. We have things like VR headsets and a sound booth, equipment that’s normally very expensive but we try to make it easier for people to get access to.
What’s all this equipment I see here; is it for anyone to use?
A lot of the equipment is here for people to use. We’re a member based nonprofit organization so we like to encourage people to sign up as members. It helps us keep the lights on and provide more equipment to people that want to work on stuff. In addition to VR sets and the sound booth sound booth we have workstations people can use. Then we have just the general co-working space. During the day people can actually use this as their office space and work on whatever projects they might have.
Tell me about the workshops. What are you teaching exactly?
Like I said there’s a lot that goes into making games so we try to do workshops that cover it all. Right now we’re in the middle of a series of Unity workshops, which is a very popular game development program that’s free. We’ve also done intro to programming workshops; workshops on 3D modeling and virtual sculpting, and pixel art; we’ve done a few on audio production and music creation; we’ve got a few coming up on level design; intro to augmented and virtual reality. These workshops are all focused around game development.
Are there out-of-the-box programs available for building games as there are for building websites?
Yeah. The tool I just mentioned, Unity is one of those. There are others out there as well like Unreal Engine and Gamemaker Studio. Basically what these do is remove having to build games from scratch. It used to be when people wanted to build a game you had build an engine which is all the code that draws everything to the screen, handles movement, builds sound, etc. These tools do that in advance for you. Let’s say you want to make a game where you run around a space and jump on enemies. All you have to do is make some models for your characters and enemies, come up with the basics of how you want them to move around and then the Unity engine will handle all the rest of the under-the-hood work for you. That’s kind of an oversimplification because there’s still a lot of work that goes into it but the barrier for entry is a lot lower now.
And what’s the end goal for some of these game makers?
Some of them are doing it for a hobby and for others it’s how they make a living–so they’re trying to get them finished and released and out the door and sell them in major storefronts and online in hopes that it will fund them, feed them, and give them enough money to work on the next project.
Is that happening?
With some people, yeah, there are actually a few people that are fairly successful independent developers. It’s very hard work. Because the barrier for entry is so low now it means anyone can make a game so you’re competing with lots and lots of other people so you’ve got to make something really special. I would argue that we’ve got quite a few people in the area making some very special games. So yeah, I think that a lot of people are reaching for what they dreamed of doing and are doing fairly well with it.
When you finish a game, and how do you start marketing it?
There’s a lot of ways to go about that. You could do it all by yourself, which is very challenging or you could go through a publisher, and they’ll do it for you but they’ll take a certain cut. You can hire a marketing firm to do it if you have the money to do that, a lot of developers don’t. You’ll see a lot of stuff really gets pushed on social media, posting on Twitter or Facebook.
Getting games on certain storefronts like Steampowered.com and building up hype in advance around the release of it will help in increased sales and the more it sells the higher the profitability will show on the front page. It’s very challenging.
Do web storefronts like Amazon carry it?
Yeah, you can put your games on Amazon, I don’t know if anyone here has done it. The big one is Steam, and Itch.io is popular with developers, too. If you can get it onto consoles [PlayStartion, Xbox, Nintendo, etc.] that’s always good.
Tell me about some of the games that are being made.
There’s a game called Bruisin Cruisers that we were actually showing yesterday at the Buffalo spring comic book garage sale over at the Marriott on Millersport. That’s from Neon Diety, a three man team that put out a game last year called ShutShimi that involved a cigar smoking goldfish with beefy arms that shot other fish – it was a pretty goofy game. This new one is a racing game kind of like bumper cars. It’s all about this guy trying to get his epic sandwich back from the villain who stole it. It’s fairly silly but it’s got a kind of cool retro 8-bit aesthetic – it’s very polished.
There’s another game we’ll be showing – an online multiplayer shooter game called Shotgun Farmers that’s being developed by one guy with a few things outsourced. You play a farmer and your guns are actually crops. The main difference between this and other games is how you reload your gun. Because they’re crops when you shoot the ground it plants a seed and the seed grows a new version of that gun so you have to harvest the crops to get more ammunition. It’s a lot of fun. He’s been demoing and developing it publicly; he live-streams its development on Twitch [an online video platform and community for gamers] so people can watch, he also lets people beta test it online, as well.
I’ve seen game artwork that’s influenced by anime, others are sci-fi or the cartoony Mario Brothers type, and then there’s the realistic Grand Theft Auto art style. Is there a prevalence of where WNY gamers trend with art?
It’s kind of all over the place. Whenever somebody starts working on a game they bring their own personal tastes to it. A lot of people come at with in a sense a nostalgia for the kinds of games they played growing up, other people like to pull things from shows or movies they enjoy, some people come really out of left field and take their general design from things they see in everyday life. One of the great things about the tools becoming so much easier to use and so much more affordable is that people from all walks of life can bring their perspective to a game so I wouldn’t say anyone in Buffalo is steering in one particular direction visually than another; people doing all kinds of different things.
When you look at a game and there’s some wow factor for you, is it the concept of the game, the artwork, the mechanics, what?
There are so many elements involved in a game, just from a purely analytical standpoint, it’s easy to get impressed by one particular element or all of them. It depends on what the person is bringing to the table, what they’re focusing on when they’re building it out. Some people like to focus strictly on developing the mechanics of the game, how it plays, what the rules are involved, other people are focused purely on “I want it to look amazing.” Some people just want to make a really good audio production. It’s tough to pin down one particular thing that wows me.
A lot of video games are really violent. Is that true of Buffalo programmers as well?
I don’t think so. I think there are a lot of very popular violent games but I think there’s a lot of focus on those because they’re kind of shocking. And there are a lot of games right now out there that aren’t violent, that are kind of all over the place. There’s room for everything. There aren’t any particularly violent games I’m aware of being developed in Buffalo. I wouldn’t frown upon it, as an organization or me personally. I think that games are a creative outlet. These are things that people like to focus on. A lot of people that are developing games are big on sci-fi and political climate, and the social critique kind of feel.
I was looking a game last night, Battlefield 1, set in the trenches of World War I and the rendering was so real you could almost smell the corpses and the diesel fuel of the armored tanks and I was thinking about kids playing at video war–but people actually did this in real life and died doing it. Do you believe there’s some kind of disconnect here?
I think there’s definitely a disconnect – and this is me personally speaking – with the glorification of violence in some games–the disconnect to reality is very prevalent. I think though there are a lot of games out there that don’t necessarily get as much coverage as some other titles that deal with that in a very real perspective. There’s games that try to give the player a sense of understanding of what it what might be like to be in like a warzone or an area of conflict and not even from the perspective of the guy with the gun, they’re not glorifying the guy, there’s no hero worship. There are a lot of really terrible things happening out there and games are another art form for people to express what these situation are actually like.
There has also been a lot of accusations of sexism in games. Do you have any opinion on that?
That’s a serious hot button issue. The best answer I can give is that I think there needs to be more people of different genders, different ethnicities and different backgrounds involved in making games. I think that the more diverse the field becomes you’ll see more expression from different types of people that is more open and inclusive.
If you’re a member of BSG do you still have to rent space?
What you get with a membership is co-working access. I guess “rent” is not the best term to use for this. Depending on what tier you sign up as a member you can come in here and work during the day and use this as your office.
There are three tiers of membership [paid monthly], and the big thing that comes with that is discounts off our workshops. We have workshops on every aspect of game development here on a fairly regular basis. At the $10 tier you get 40% off all workshop costs. At the $50 tier you get 50% off workshops plus you can come here and work during the day. Just bring your laptop and set up at a table and work on your project. The $200 top tier lets you pick a desk and say this is my space and I’m going to work here and it’s basically your space and no one is going to touch it. You also get 75% off all workshops
We also offer discount to students through certain schools. We have a list on our website. If you’re a student at one of those schools you get 50% off all those fees
And you’ve been doing this how long?
BGS has been together as an organization about 5 years, we’ve been at the Tri-Main center almost three years and a lot of our members have been doing this stuff – I don’t know a decade or more.
And how long have you personally been making games?
I’ve been playing around with making games 10 to 15 years. It started out as a hobby for me as a kid cause I just liked playing games, but I was really more interested into what went into making them so I started to teach myself how to program. I’ve been tinkering with it off and on ever since. But that tinkering has gotten me a job as a professional software developer.
How many people does it take to run this place?
Between 5 and 12 people I’d say is the official count of people that run things around here
How many are paid staff?
Yeah, it’s voluntary.
How do you eat?
I work out of here and use this as office space for my day job
Which is what?
I’m a software developer for another company. The time I spend helping take care of things around here is basically like having a second full time position.
Does anyone ever surprise me with the games they come up with?
They surprise me all of the time. Everything I see is always kind of amazing. People from all walks of life come to do this. Seeing everyone else’s fresh perspective, getting to play a game made by someone else, you’re kind of getting to see how they feel about things, how they see different things. The experience of playing something someone else created is always is very exciting.
Tickets are $15 presale (until May 8th), $20 at the door (and online starting May 9th). Each ticket includes two drink tickets and one free raffle ticket. For further info and purchase tickets online visit http://blog.buffalogamespace.com/2017/02/08/the-2017-bgs-showcase/ – Or purchase directly at Buffalo Game Space. Attendees must be 16 years of age or older, or accompanied by an adult.