Corey Martin on Indie Game Design

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into game development?

I’ve been programming mostly web applications and websites for 15 years. And 5 years ago I realised it was an option to make games, and figured I’d much rather spend my time doing that. So I’ve spent the last 5 years pivoting – doing less and less web development and more game work.

I’ve gotten to a point where I’m now working in games fulltime.

That’s fantastic. Why don’t you tell us about some of your latest projects?

In the last couple of years I’ve shipped grid-based puzzle games that owe a lot to Stephen’s Sausage RollA Good Snowman is Hard to Build, and even to games like The WitnessAlms Crown was a game jam thing that I would like to develop into a commercial release.

The other game I was talking about is Pipe Push Paradise. That’s the most ambitious thing I’ve finished. That’s recently come to PCPS4Nintendo Switch, Xbox OneiOS and Android. So I’ve really made it available in a lot of places.

Can you tell us about your process? You’re a solo developer. What does that functionally mean – do you do everything from graphic design to programming? 

On Pipe Push Paradise, I worked with a good friend of mine Teo Zamudio, who is an excellent illustrator. He made all the art for that game, as well as the music.

I’d say he spent maybe a couple of weeks on the game. I spent over a year. So I still feel like it’s my baby, but he definitely is the face of the game. No small part. I make sure I mention that any time someone is like, oh this is your game.

What does the development of something like Pipe Push Paradise look like? Something like 9-5 or less than that, more than that? 

More than that. I was also working on another project, which was just enough to keep my bank account afloat during development.

It was a lot of constant crunch, not very healthy. But just being unreasonably obsessed and excited about this project, so it was always a joy, but still I didn’t get enough sun in 2017.

Actually, I just started working with a team at Alice & Smith. We make Alternate Reality Games. These games are almost akin to an escape room experience, where there’s a roleplaying factor. There will be some objective in the game that requires you to actually google stuff outside the game.

Right now we’re working on a hacking simulator where you’re trying to get some contact at a company. And they’ve made a fake website for this pretend company, and LinkedIn profiles for all the employees. So you’re actually just digging around on the internet in order to solve puzzles.

Where are you based, and what is the creative scene that you’re in like?

I’m in Montreal. The community is super vibrant, but I’m not that well connected to it. For a long time, I was a struggling musician and DJ. So I’m more connected to the music community here than the games community.

Do you feel the local, state and national governments are helping you at all? Are you accessing anything that they’re offering?

It’s impossible to say no, given how strong our healthcare system is. That alone – when you’re neighbors with the United States – is something you can’t help being grateful about. And there’s strong arts funding with different organizations in place that I haven’t taken advantage of, but that’s just my own failure.

There’s a pretty substantial budget allotted both provincially here in Quebec and federally for the arts.

How would you describe the state of the games industry in 2019?

Pretty discouraging. Again though, coming from struggling in music… music is way more discouraging. The way of being a successful musician is just paying your bills based on music-making and performing. It’s way less likely than surviving as an indie developer.

Having that perspective I feel has helped frame this.

But for sure, I have thoughts all the time that if I had started this five years earlier I probably would be doing better. And that’s a normal outcome of just over-saturation because making games has become so accessible. It goes both ways, good and bad.

Do you feel your titles are out there competing with the likes of Red Dead Redemption?

Absolutely not. They’re different beasts.

I heard not too long ago that AAA studios are most threatened by other AAA games being really good. They’re threatened by big content.

Indie developers feel like they’re threatened by a sea of bad content. Like shovel-ware, noise. There’s a couple of hundred games coming out on Steam every day. It’s a lot of noise to have any chance to cut through. The big challenge right now is not only getting your game out there and people like it or don’t – it’s that almost nobody is hearing about your game.

When I first came across Steam, it was what you had to click on to open Counter-Strike. What is Steam now? 

Steam is a platform. Leading up to the 2000s, games were just sold in stores. And then Steam was the first big platform to start selling games on the internet, digitally.

Largely because they were the pioneers in that sense, they have the biggest market share. They’re this monolithic platform where all PC games are really bought and sold in this day and age.

So from your perspective it’s the Spotify or the Apple Music of video games?

Yeah. Except in music streaming there’s a lot of competitors and people have Spotify or Apple Music or whatever else. Steam is really untouchable, or seemingly so, in the PC market. Although there are some new contenders, like the Epic Games Store.

A lot of people are rooting for that, because Epic owns Fortnite and the Unreal engine and a lot of franchises and games. They have a pretty sizeable audience because Fortnite is the biggest game in the world, and it isn’t available on Steam. So they’ve made this store where developers get a much larger percentage of sales. That’s made a lot of developers hope they can succeed with the store.

itch is awesome. itch is a platform that anyone can publish games to, and sell them, and they can take any percentage they want. itch is the friendliest to developers of any online store. And as a result there’s even more stuff getting published on itch than Steam – but it’s all got a lot of heart. Steam is getting filled with people trying to just game the system, and make cheap shovel-ware games to make a quick dollar.

On itch, even though a lot of the games are rough around the edges, there’s clearly a lot of passion in that community.

And there’s the Nintendo marketplace now, and consoles generally. People can buy indie games through their consoles, can’t they?

Yeah that followed maybe a little more than 10 years ago. Consoles started selling games digitally. Mostly that’s because there were platforms like Steam doing it.

I don’t know if this is the case, but it seems to me that it’s in everyone’s best interest to move away from the physical production of media, and dependency on big box stores. So it seemed like an inevitability that things would move to digital. I would guess that even most AAA games are sold digitally now.

I came across this article a couple of days ago. It’s called Operation Tell Valve All The Things, 3.0 which is a survey of game developers and their thoughts on Valve. The statement was “Valve is earning their 30% stake” that they take from games they sell. In 2017, 32% of people either disagreed or strongly disagreed. In 2089, 69% of people either disagreed or strongly disagreed.

Basically the dissatisfaction with Valve, who are the company behind Steam, doubled in the last year. Why is that?

Steam now allows anyone to publish to their platform. You just need to pay a $100 fee – which is still more of a barrier to entry than itch has, but anyone is allowed to publish on Steam now.

Five or maybe a bit more years ago, if you were on Steam you were able to pay your bills to varying degrees of success. But now it means nothing. Anyone can get on the platform and a lot of people are just publishing 99 cent games that are full of ‘achievements’.

I think the fact is it’s so hard to have your game found on Steam. The platform isn’t offering you anything any more. In fact, it’s taking $100 from you and some games don’t make much more than their $100 back. On top of that you’re giving up 30 cents on every dollar.

There was a time when just being on the platform was of value, and that isn’t the case any more. So it’s not surprising if a lot of developers don’t feel that Valve is earning their share.

When the iPhone came out, you could sort of get anything onto the marketplace and it would make money.

Yeah. It’s really exciting, there’s more ways than ever to make a creative project of any kind, and to get it out there. But it’s harder to monetize than ever, and people have got to pay bills.

So if people want to make games or be creative for a living, unfortunately these are things that often people have to do in their spare time while they’re working some fulltime job that isn’t that.

In Hiding Spot you: “cope your way through dozens of elegant puzzles; push and pull your furniture around; manage your anxiety; and make a judgement call about whether you’re depressed or just in need of some alone time.” What draws you to indie games? What are some of the cool things going on in the scene at the moment? 

That’s one of the nice things about when games became this accessible thing to make. It sprouted these communities of people making weird, small games that don’t cost much to make. So you can make something weird which, when you have a team of a thousand people working on a giant AAA game, you can’t take too many risks. You can’t make a small puzzle game about managing your anxiety.

It’s probably been a good 10 years now where indie games have been a strongly established thing. It’s like outsider art or whatever. There’s a lot of cool stuff getting made all the time.

Some of the people whose work I really admire…

Stephen Lavelle is definitely a name that stands above everyone else. He is best known for Stephen’s Sausage Roll but he’s incredibly prolific. He makes a handful of games a month, and every game is worth your time – which seems impossible. His output and just how creative each game is, I’m really a huge fan of his.

Alan Hazelden also is an incredible game designer. I’ve learned more from Alan than anyone in terms of what makes an interesting puzzle game. And I think a lot of that applies more broadly to games in general.

This is obviously a trick question, because all of the game people I know don’t have the time to play video games anymore. Do you set yourself homework, like have 30 minutes at the end of the day to play something?

I don’t have anything structured like that, but I should make that time.

I have found that I’m playing less games now than I would like to. Like I played a bunch of Red Dead Redemption and that’s like 50 hours for the main story. Who has that kind of time?

Mostly I tend to lean towards small indie games, not only because I think that’s where the most exciting stuff is being made, but also because they tend to be these more bite-sized things. And by that I still mean a 10 hour experience, so not short compared to other media. I think that way you can consume more ideas than you can just playing these AAA games that are much more expensive and ask for a lot more of your time.

If you were to come across a young, starting out game developer who wanted to get into indie games, what is your advice to them? 

Don’t wait.

A lot of people are like, oh, it’s really irresponsible to make games because financially it’s not viable, and you have to be extremely lucky, and so on.

But my biggest regret is not starting sooner. I’m 33 and I’ve been making games for only 5 years now. I just wish I’d started sooner. If you have any desire to make games, you can do it. Just start.

What’s next? Where can people follow you?

Well I’m working fulltime with Alice & Smith on some secrets, and I’ll surely have more small puzzle games that I’ll publish in the near future.

If you like puzzle games, you can follow my stuff at toboggan.itch.io and I’m on most social websites as mytoboggan.


Corey Martin is a game developer & musician in Montréal, QC.

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