Justin Declues and his team of independent developers at Zero Particle have recently released their first two games on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store, and he agreed to an exclusive interview with the Game Creators Vault discussing his history in the video-game industry and career as a game developer.
Parker: Tell me about your history with video games. How did you get started developing? What role has gaming played in your life?
Justin: I really got into gaming when we got the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) for Christmas in 1985. I was completely engulfed in the world of gaming from that point on.
I never thought about it as a career until I started getting real bored of my job working at a bank. I was constantly in trouble because I refused to sell home loans to people who couldn’t afford it. It really opened my eyes to just how uncaring big corporations are. I mean, everyone gets that, but you don’t really get it until you realize that these companies would basically steal a persons home just to be profitable. So, I started to look at a different career. And game art was just starting to become a major in college.
P: Did you go to school for game creation? If so, where at. And how was the experience of game development school? Do you think it was worthwhile?
J: I graduated from the Art Institute of California in Orange County. I found it really different for me.
I had already graduated from USC and had a college experience there. But going back to school heading towards my thirties was a completely different experience. It was more being an older student and having class with twenty-year-olds than the schools themselves that was really different.
And the only thing that really matters in college is the teachers you have. The classes where I had great teachers made the class great, and the classes where I had less than stellar teachers were a drag.
In terms of understanding the industry and meeting game industry people, yes, college is very helpful. Learning the craft, however, is something I think most people could learn on their own.
It is the college loans that make me so hesitant to really get behind college. For some degrees, like studying to become a doctor, you need college, but just about any aspect of games you can learn on your own. Making contacts might be the hardest part for people who don’t go to college.
P: How did you form your company? How big is the team, and what kind of people are a part of it?
J: I started hearing a lot of online stories about how easy it was to make games for mobile devices and started to look into it. Having graduated in game art, I understood the graphics side of a game but had no clue as to how to do any other aspect of gaming.
I was just toying around with the idea when my friend told me I should really pursue it. He was big on not having regrets and the whole you-only-live-once thing. So we joined up, him on the business side and me on the art side.
I started out designing games I knew would be simple to design and code to test the waters and really see what problems would arise from designing that I had never anticipated.
The hardest thing was finding a coder that could work within our budget, as we didn’t have anyone we knew who could program. I was doing the art at home and on the weekends while still working forty hours a week. Any additional money that didn’t go towards paying the bills went to the programmer. It is not the easiest thing to work all week only to turn around and pay that money to someone else and have nothing left for yourself.
So the team is three people: one programmer, one business manager and one artist. It is very much like the beginning days of gaming. Everyone has multiple jobs to do.
P: Tell me about the process of creating a game from inception to completion. What motivated you to do it? What were the challenges, and what parts were actually easier than you thought?
J: In college I learned game design and saw how many drastically different approaches there are. For example, in general, Japanese game designers build game mechanics, and then build up a game and story around that. U.S. designers typically build the world and then fit the game around it.
What you see is that there is no right or wrong way to go about building a game. Each way has its challenges.
Nintendo is the perfect example of this. They always get praised for gameplay, but never their story. It is because their stories and game worlds are built around the game play.
What approach I take really depends on the first idea that pops in my head. If it is really story driven, I take a more U.S. approach and build out the full concept of the world.
My first two games are completely devoid of story. There, I looked at the game idea and built the mechanics of it first.
Each game has its own unique challenges. From budget and time constraints to writing things out that you assume everyone already understands. Often, others see things differently than you or want to change things because they think their way is better. The first time someone tells you the game should play a different way can be jarring. Plus, having to take things out of a game is more difficult than it should be.
The thing that was actually easier than I thought was coming up with game ideas. I always get a new story idea or different gameplay mechanic just by going about my day. It is strange how a news story can lead to a game mechanic, or how watching my nephew play can inspire a completely unrelated game story. It is hard to explain, but of course it works as a double-edged sword. When forced to come up with a game story or new game mechanic it can feel impossible.
P: Tell me about your games. Give me the back-of-the-box description, and tell me why each game is worth playing.
J: The first game is “A War of Words” (Play Store, App Store). The concept actually came about because I was dreaming and playing this game in my dream. When I woke up at 4 a.m., I quickly wrote the game idea down and went back to sleep.
The game is simple. It is part “Tetris” and part “Scrabble.” Letters continuously drop, and the player needs to form up words to both score points and remove the letters from the board. But to add a little ease, fun and strategy to the game the player has special abilities they can chose before they start a game. These abilities are on a cool down and can really help. So, you have to weigh whether it is better to take the ability to remove an entire horizontal line and make you life easier or something like a prefix to help you score higher points and make it easier to form up words. I think if you enjoy word games you will really enjoy it.
The other game is “Super Collider” (Play Store, App Store). It is a game about charging up and managing particles. The idea is that you have to smash two particles of the same color together to charge them up. If the player is really good they can explode them at the right time to get a huge number of screen-clearing explosions. So, it is a balancing act of trying to build up the most combos with what a player can manage on screen. It is kind of an action-puzzle game that leans toward being more action based.
P: How do you feel about game development as a career? If you could advise an aspiring developer, what would you tell them?
J: I think it might be one of the most rewarding careers you can have, but it needs to be a passion. Game developing is only going to get easier and faster. That also means that it is going to be more competitive and harder to get noticed. It is really a high risk high reward thing if you don’t work at a huge company.
The absolute most difficult thing about game creating is getting your game noticed by a large number of people.
The second is getting funding/investors etc. Look up grant programs and find someone that will support your vision. Working full time plus building games on the side can be difficult.
Oh, and don’t start an official company until after you have a game completely done. No need to pay taxes while developing it.
Lastly, plan out everything before you jump into it. Figure out if you think you can get by without college, who you know, how you will sell your game, who is your audience and how large is that audience, how will you feed yourself during that time, what happens if you get behind in your schedule and literally any other question and obstacle you can think of. You want to be prepared.