Games industry veterans Alan Lawrance and Mike Kulas talk indie game development
Hinterland Studio Technical Director Alan Lawrance is reflecting this week on his first years in the games industry. Alan got his start in the business at Parallax Software in 1996 when he was brought on board by Parallax co-founder Mike Kulas.
And those first years at Parallax, and later Volition, have proven to be hugely influential for Alan (pictured right, at his desk in the late 90s).
“I was inexperienced and green,” Alan said, “but I was given lots of responsibility and trust. I’ve carried this same philosophy of empowering and trusting teammates through my career at Parallax/Volition and now at Hinterland. I was lucky to have such a strong mentor like Mike, and I try to live up to that same standard.”
Mike and Alan would go on to work together on now-classic games such as FreeSpace and Red Faction. Alan carried those fond memories with him years later when he chose to leave AAA games for Hinterland.
“Working at Hinterland is much like being a part of Parallax Software back in the late 90s,” Alan said. “Parallax was a small independent studio like Hinterland, and was working on an ambitious new IP—FreeSpace. I do think back on those early years at Parallax/Volition, as it reminds me that it is possible to build amazing games with small teams.”
And after stepping away from game development in 2011, Mike is now back with a small independent team as well—Revival Productions. The studio is currently making Overload, a spiritual successor to the original Descent, the game that put Parallax on the map. Revival is staffed by game developers who created and worked on the Descent series and Mike is once again in the thick of independent game design.
“The first two projects Alan worked on, FreeSpace and Red Faction, I also was part of the team,” Mike said. “Those were the last two projects where I shipped code. Working with a group of highly motivated and talented people is incredibly satisfying. The hard work often has immediate payoff and you get to go home with a great sense of accomplishment—and sometimes failure. For me, part of the attraction of Overload is getting to be part of a team and once again getting my hands dirty.”
Revival Productions is currently running a Kickstarter Project to help fund Overload’s release. A 6-Degrees-of-Freedom shooter, Revival’s new game joyfully echoes what so many loved about Descent—“destroy robots, rescue hostages, blow up the reactor, and escape before the whole thing explodes.” 6DOF games got their name from the unique flexibility of 3D movement and rotation built into the gameplay. Overload continues this tradition with a single-player game that combines the gameplay feel of the original with modern graphics and technology.
“6DOF shooters are remembered—and still played—fondly by a core group, but they never achieved widespread lasting mainstream success,” Mike (pictured left) said. “Overload is part of a new crop of 6DOF games that I hope will bring a lot of new fans to the genre. The flight model is a key part of success. It is the big differentiation from most other games and you have to nail that. Players who are familiar with the genre know within seconds if it feels right. For those who are new, you have to give them the option of a shallow learning curve.”
Even if game development is often about understanding the ways the industry is constantly changing and evolving, Alan marveled at all the fans who still appreciate games like FreeSpace and the original Descent.
“Descent has a huge legacy as it created the 6DOF shooter genre,” Alan said. “The genre has been semi-dormant for a long time, but with Overload and other games it is making a comeback. FreeSpace is fondly remembered by many people, and I’d like to think it has influenced other space sims that came after it. I have a feeling we’ll see a comeback of the space sim genre in time as well.”
And Mike said having a smaller development team has played a big role in preserving the feel of the original Descent for a spiritual successor such as Overload. The team at Revival has also committed to releasing a multiplayer expansion, if its Kickstarter is successful.
“It’s easier to maintain momentum and enthusiasm when everyone on the team is familiar with almost everything going on,” Mike said. “When you put something cool into the game, you can immediately show it to others. It’s so much easier to iterate on gameplay. There are many very successful games that can only be built by large teams, but I’m very pleased to be working with a small group.”
After leaving Volition, Alan has seen a similar shift in his work at Hinterland. Working in a small team can be challenging and comes with its own unique stress, but he said it’s also a far more personal experience.
“Making a game with a small team is different in many ways compared to making AAA games with teams that are measured in the hundreds,” Alan said. “The development process is significantly more nimble with a small team—you can make decisions quickly, rapidly prototype new ideas that come up, and generally iterate faster as there is less communication and management overhead. Your voice and work has a much greater impact, which leads to a greater sense of ownership and personal investment into the project and team. Communication is easier and better, and you can actually get to know everyone on the team.”
— Patrick Carlson, Hinterland Studio Web Editor