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MadMinute Games Developer Diary - Norb Timpko

MadMinute Games Developer Diary - Norb Timpko

Information - posted by Jason on Fri 26 May 2006, 03:15:02

Our Indie Experiment
Norb Timpko, Lead Coder, CEO, Web Master, ........
MadMinute Games, Inc.

I do know other Indie developers, but I haven't really had many casual conversations with them. It's mostly business. I don't know if what we do or how we work is completely typical of an Indie Company, but this is how we do it.

I consider myself very lucky, I work at home full time. I never get to leave the house. I wake up, see the kids off to school and start my “day” job. This is the job that pays the bills. I am one of two programmers (me and my boss) at a sports game company. In my “day” job I write five games a year. I end that job around 5pm, sometimes a little later, sometimes a little earlier, but I typically work 8:30am-5pm, except during those 5 times a year when we go into the testing phase and ship products, then it's a little later. Then it's family time, dinner, go over homework, go outside, for a walk, play some Super Monkey Ball with my 3 year old son, or hop into Maple Story with my daughters. Kids are all in bed about 8:00pm, then I start my second job.

From 8pm to 1am I work for MadMinute Games. I am the only coder on a core team of size two. My partner, Adam Bryant, manages the outsourced artwork, creates the maps, sounds, all the creative stuff. I handle the logical, web pages, business, forum, server, etc. You get the picture. We have a team of 10 volunteers that do research, scenario design, manual writing, and lots of forum help. On the weekends we work whenever we get a chance. We will typically put in 10-20 hours on the weekends. It's hard to balance family with a work at home job, the computer is right there waiting for you to solve it's problems. My wife makes sure I put in enough hours to still be considered a Dad and a Husband.

We've been doing this since May 8th, 2001. That's when I bought my first 3D engine and decided to try and teach myself how to use it. Many people have come and gone in that time. We used to be three people, we had an artist, but the pressure of creating a product when you never knew if you were ever going to have an audience got to him. He left and took his artwork and website with him, 8 months before we shipped our first game. We ended up contracting out the artwork to a great art team. And yes, the art team realized that they may never get paid if we don't make any money.

Our first handling of business didn't go so well. We signed a stupid contract for our first game, it never ends. We never get the rights to publish the game back. I don't think they're publishing it either, because it's becoming a collectors item. I asked and they won't give us the rights back. Lesson learned, we hired someone to handle the contract for our second game.

Adam and I have fought like crazy. I'm a mean son of a bitch sometimes. Adam takes the brunt of it. We don't agree on a lot of stuff. We've been arguing for years about calling something “Quality” or “Experience Level”. Adam is a Gandhi like beach bum from California. He wouldn't know an ftp server if he tripped over it. Recursion is something you do when you drink too much. Me, I knew nothing about the Civil War, now I know nothing + 3 Shaara Novels. I think as long as the guys look different and the ground is green that the art is excellent. Well it's not, their canteen is the wrong style, their guns weren't invented until 2 years after this battle, they didn't wear white straps, and that bump in the ground used to be a unfinished railroad that figured prominently into the battle. So I'm not the stickler for visual details. I make sure the code doesn't crash, Adam handles the visuals. We compliment each other well. I yell, he has a sit in.

But somewhere in there we created an awesome game. We don't have big company meetings or pounds of documents. Decisions are made with one phone call or email. Whoever is most passionate about their point wins. They give the most effort, so they get their way, discussion over. You can't run away home either, we use Yahoo Messenger when the heat is on. It's as good as being in the same office building. Bonus is that I get a kiss goodnight from my kids and wife, couldn't do that at an office.

There's no politics. I worked 9 years for non game companies and worked in a game company office for 3 years, there is always politics. We have non of that. Everything is up front and worked out right away. It has to be, because even though we are as different as Roy Batty and Frodo, we both have something in common that you can't find in everyone that you have to work with at big companies. We have both given up a major part of our lives to make this thing succeed and are undeniably loyal to the product. It's like being in a dysfunctional marriage, but divorce is not an option.

In order to really understand the scope of what developing a game takes, you have to look at the credits of a major title. Take a look at all the different jobs and how many people they get to fill them. Then take that list of titles and split them between two people. If you are lucky enough to get volunteers, you can split them up a little more, but not too much. You're going to have to get some testers if you want to ship a solid product, it's impossible to test well with just two people. Usually the designers are too close to the product to really give it a good workout anyway. We've been lucky enough to get a great team together. On “Take Command - 2nd Manassas” all of our new scenarios were written by our team, as well as the manual. You've got to show some serious dedication yourself to get that from others.

MadMinute Games is an Independent Game Company. We've made some money, but barely enough to pay two salaries for one year. We contract out our artwork, we have a volunteer testing and scenario design team. We often joke that if we had taken all of our development hours over the past 5 years and worked at McDonald's instead, that we would be rich. It's not about the money though, it can't be because the odds of making it big are too small. It's about creating something from nothing. It's about seeing something that you created in your own home sitting on a shelf at EB Games. It's about running some comment through BabelFish because someone in Germany just bought a German version of that game that you created at your own home. It's a lot of pride when people choose to play your game with no budget rather than games that cost millions to make. It's about all the people that come on our forums and thank us for our dedication. It's about meeting a great publisher like Paradox that understands what we have done and is willing to risk their money to bring our game to the world. It's about all the people that have helped us in some way to get where we are, which is only 2 steps above where we started, but those are damn big steps!

Adam and I had never worked in games until 2001. We both got jobs with a game company and were exposed to the industry for the first time. We were both modders. I had written Quake II mods, QFL and KOTS, and Adam had drawn uniforms for Gettysburg. One thing I found interesting is that game companies are a lot like normal companies in that there are a lot of people thinking that they could do things better. People with better ideas that just needed the chance to make their own product, or game. What Adam and I knew was that you have to make that opportunity yourself. Talk is easy. Just close your mouth and do it. Find someone else that wants to do it too, it's pretty hard to take this sort of thing on yourself. Then work for many years and maybe nothing will happen. But maybe something will. I bombed vectors when I first took it at the Naval Academy, then I bombed it again when I took it at Penn State. Neither time did I care enough to really apply myself to learn. But when I realized that I had to learn vectors to make the little soldiers move realistically, I applied myself and mastered them. I wrote some C++ classes and immediately forgot them again, but the point is that when I finally had a real goal and application I was able to finally learn something that had eluded me twice before. I just took a little motivation.

I think that somewhere in here I'm supposed to talk about some of the advantages to being an Indie developer. It's turned into a regular pep talk for aspiring game designers, pep talks are Adam's job so I'll stick to some more facts. We set our own hours. We work for us, not some unknown corporate entity. We have no health care. We have no salaries. We do get bonuses, and we get cool baseball caps made when our games get published. We get too little sleep. The big stores barely have PC titles let alone Indie games, only non-US countries seem to want to carry PC games in their stores anymore. Our first game got into some big stores, our second game doesn't have a chance. Unless you have millions, it's hard to get in. We get to write off a lot of stuff on our taxes. Our wives dig being married to game entrepreneurs. My kids think it's real cool to play a game before the rest of the world and to even get their names in there. We have to buy our own tools.

As you can see there are a lot of good and bad about being an Indie Developer. It all depends on what works for you. My thoughts are that innovation starts with the Indie PC developer. But I'm biased.

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