Indie events like the Indie Games Uprising just don’t fall out of the sky. It takes time and passion to run one of these. It’s that same passion for development that led Michael Hicks of MichaelArts to not only help develop Sententia for the Indie Games Uprising III, but also to help coordinate the event along with veteran Uprising organizer Dave Voyles. In the following interview, we’ll dig into both aspects of Michael’s involvement.
Michael, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to talk with us, and congratulations on being a part of Indie Games Uprising III. You’re in a rather unique position in that you’ve not only got a game included in the event, you’re also helping to organize it. How did the latter come about?
Hey! Thanks for having me, I really appreciate it! Around the time I released my first game the Winter Uprising was going strong, I was very excited about it happening and really wanted to help out in some way. I thought the Summer Uprising did very well, and I was so sure there would be another one this year, but when I was finishing up my latest game I realised that another promotion was pretty unlikely to happen; a number of the developers from last time were dissatisfied and the interest seemed to be pretty low. I pretty much said to myself “if no one else is going to do this, I will.” So I posted a thread on the App Hub forums explaining that I had a game coming out soon and noticed a lot of awesome games would be coming out around the same time as mine… then Dave Voyles dropped by and said he’d love to do another one, and the rest is history.
I missed out on the first Winter Uprising event, but I really enjoyed a few of the games that were a part of last year’s Summer Uprising event. However, I know that the last Uprising was not successful for all of the developers and that there were strong doubts we’d see an event like this again anytime soon. How excited are you to be bringing this back?
I am very excited that another Uprising is happening. I don’t really understand why the developers were disappointed last year; if you look at the “Best of XBLIG 2011″ lists they are almost always made up of Uprising games. The complaint is generally that the games didn’t sell well, I believe Cute Things Dying Violently was the only game that had some really nice sales. I didn’t really get involved with this to bring everyone thousands of dollars, but rather to help get the word out about the XBLIG platform and also these games to the best of my ability. I hope the games sell well, but that will only come once we meet the rest of the criteria.
Which are you finding more difficult: wrapping up development on a game for the event or helping plan/coordinate it?
I’ve somehow been able to balance everything, though it’s definitely been hard at times! I think wrapping up development on my game has been more difficult, so far the coordinating has just been a lot of talking to people, and luckily for me all of the people I’ve dealt with so far are super amazing and very easy to get along with!
Can you tell us a bit about your studio? Are you a do-it-all wizard or do you have help?
I do a lot of things myself, I usually need the most help with art. This time, however, I stepped down from doing music to let my good friend Jonny Martyr do the soundtrack. It was weird creatively to let go of the music, but it was a good experience; Jonny is one of the very few people I trust to do the soundtrack justice. I had two artists on board this time, my room mate Adrian drew the sketches, and my friend Gonçalo colored what he did.
Before we get into discussing your latest title, Sententia, let’s talk a bit about your history with the XBLIG platform. You’re the creator of the Honor in Vengeance series which has seen two entries on the Xbox. What made you decide to get into developing for XBLIG, and how did the Honor series originate?
When XNA was announced I was in grade school, I still remember the first time I read about it – I couldn’t believe that I could make something for the Xbox! It was such a magical feeling to think about that. I was always a huge fan of the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series, so my dream game was to make something in that vein. I spent a few years trying to learn enough about 3D math and 3D programming to make it happen and finally had enough knowledge to begin the project when I was 17. After finishing the game I was unable to release it since I was under age… I had to wait until my 18th birthday in January 2011. Releasing that game and the second one changed my life, and I largely owe it all to the XNA community who helped me learn a lot of programming stuff, which is all the more reason I feel like I need to give back.
How did it feel to get that first game out and what did you learn going from the first Honor game to the second?
It felt like a major accomplishment, since it had been a personal goal of mine for many years. But, as much as it felt good, there was negative stuff I had to deal with when my first game came out. I learned a lot about how to deal with the press, criticism, internet trolls and all the other stuff developers typically have to go through. I also learned a lot more about game development through the first release, which helped me improve the second one. I was so excited to release the first Honor in Vengeance that I never had an in depth playtesting session, I didn’t want to hear anyone’s opinion on the game because I was just so happy to have made it. The main thing I learned is that playtesting is key to making games.
Well let’s get into discussing your latest project Sententia. This looks completely different than the Honor series. Can you tell our readers a bit about it?
Sententia is a game that explores the challenges we face as humans to keep our imagination alive as we grow up. Players will progress through life’s forest by using their own words to defend themselves from other creatures, and also by using their imagination to create bridges to progress through the world. I designed the game from the ground up to tell a story through gameplay mechanics.
Why did you decide to make such a radically different game from your earlier titles?
After Honor in Vengeance II, I started to question a lot of game design practices and eventually started to question why video games are not very emotionally involved. Sententia is my response to those questions, and marks a major turning point on my outlook towards game design; I didn’t set out to make a radically different game, but since my entire thought process towards development was different this time it makes sense that this was the result.
What type of experience are you hoping players have when trying your game?
I hope that people will see the game as more than an action platformer with puzzles, because the platforming and puzzle mechanics are in a sense messengers of what I was really trying to communicate. It’s weird, because I don’t want to force people to have a certain experience, so I just hope players will approach the game with an open mind and think about what I’m trying to say. If I were to spell everything out and insist that people look at the game in a certain way, then I’m kind of defeating the purpose I think! If people enjoy the game just because of the platforming and puzzles, then that is fine too.
Speaking of experiences, I’ve noticed a trend with this year’s Uprising games and that’s that they’re all one-player titles. Do you feel like it’s that much harder or riskier to create an engaging multiplayer experience?
Well, when we were getting the developers together we didn’t really have a focus on making sure we had a multiplayer title, we were just trying to get some great games together; It didn’t dawn on us they were all single player until later. I personally am not a huge fan of multiplayer titles, but programming multiplayer games is definitely a challenge that deserves respect I think! Maybe if another Uprising happens the games will end up being all multiplayer, that would be interesting!
You’re still pretty young for having already published a few games through XBLIG. Is this kind of development in line with your career goals or this more of a dedicated hobbyist activity?
I hope to make this my career, and right now it is. Releasing my last game really made me believe that I can do this, but it will be a much tougher road verses getting a job in the industry. Working at a big studio like that would make me miserable, for a while I tried to pretend that I could do it, but I really believe indie games is what I’m meant to do with my life. We’ll see what happens though!
I know it’s really early to ask, but what’s up next from MichaelArts?
After all of this dies down I am going to retreat back into my room and work on a couple of albums, one of which will be for my next video game project. I don’t look to have my next game out until 2013, but I definitely have more stuff planned.
Let’s finish up by bringing the conversation back to Sententia. Why should gamers play this game?
If you’re interested in games that attempt to take different approaches to things, then I think Sententia is something you’ll find interesting. I was influenced largely by Braid, Aether and Gravitation, so if you enjoyed those games then please be sure to try out Sententia when you get the chance!
Thanks a lot for interviewing me!
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