Whisky Biscuit – Interview

An interview I did with an independent video game developer Whiskey Biscuit for www.square-go.com

Whiskey Biscuit is an independent game studio based in Scotland that recently released it’s first game, WarPath. We spoke with Stuart Gray, one of the founders of the studio, to discuss his game and independent gaming in general.

Board Game Inspirations

We started by asking just how does someone end up making a tank based strategy game for the iPad. Stuart told us, “Ever since I first saw larger touchscreen devices like Microsoft Surface and the iPad I wanted to make games for them. The article ‘Apple has created the Jumanji platform’ stating that the iPad was the perfect platform to take board games to the next level really pushed the right buttons for me, along with the fact it’s the first such device I could own and develop for it was too great an opportunity to pass by.”

We then asked Stuart about his previous development experience, “I have had a bit of experience developing for various devices while studying Computer Games Technology at Abertay University. While I was there I developed software for PS2, Gameboy and Mobile.”

This seemed a good time to ask about his experience with video game university courses and he would recommend them. “Provided you do your research beforehand then yes,” Stuart replied. “Some courses are simply Computing with a few Flash game modules tacked on and some others (like Abertay) are better formed teaching networking, console programming, graphics programming and other relevant skills.  If you are in the UK a good place is probably to start with the Kitemarked courses because then you know you are getting taught relevant skills. Also, most people I know in the industry are from my experience at University, so it is a great connection into the games industry.“

Remember To Network

Stuart also then mentioned the wealth of help available outside of the university courses, “There is another part of me however that thinks with the vast amount of resources online with the right self discipline you can learn these skills outside of University. Combining that with going to gamejams or similar events would give you vital feedback and networking opportunities.  Not having the piece of paper stating you are qualified might be a disadvantage when job-hunting but I’m sure 4 years of games/demos might help you a lot. And if you went down this route, I believe you would probably consider making your own games commercially rather than working for an established company.”

This reminded us of the ‘bedroom coder’ that was prevalent during the beginning of the video game industry, so did Stuart think that this was still viable or do you need a larger business behind you? “Well I certainly hope so, because at the moment Whisky Biscuit is just me and Paul so we are probably more in the ‘bedroom coder’ category.” Stuart then described the difference between the two, “Having a business behind you would definitely help, they generally have more experience and resources available to them, but their definition of success might be far greater than for a bedroom coder. Success to me is getting to the level that I can pay myself and anybody working with me and have a bit left over so we can experiment or expand for our next game. Other people may define success as having a big hit like Angry Birds.

The other thing is the difference between games you get from a business and from indie developers. Chances are if it’s came from a business it will have been pitched, planned and analysed for potential before it was produced, but from ‘bedroom coders’ it’s a much more organic process that came from a quick prototype or creative idea. One way isn’t really better than the other, but do you think games like Minecraft would have got through the process in a business?”

That was a fair point but in a recent interview industry heavyweights Epic Games put forward the idea that 99p apps are killing the traditional video game industry, Stuart countered this by saying “I think killing is a bit strong, considering Call of Duty was still breaking sales records last year I don’t see them dying anytime soon. I think it may be causing some change in the games industry, but change is always happening. If we look at pricing alone, in the arcades we payed per play, consoles we payed for the game outright, MMO’s we pay a subscription and now we have freemium with micro-payments.”

Stuart then summed things up nicely, “Deep down though it’s two different experiences, it’s best summarised by Nicholas Lovell in one of his blogs, Apps/Social games are like Television and traditional triple A titles are like Blockbuster movies. I think the audience for triple A might shrink a bit, but it’s definitely not dying.”

We then moved onto WarPath, their first released which is to be supported with future updates. This is something that seems to happen quicker with the smaller games which seems to be the best way to keep your audience interested in the always updating App Stores. Stuart agreed with this, “I find it quite funny it’s that way around, you would think the more expensive game would be more supported but the nature of the content probably makes it less affordable to do so.” But while this was very good for the business side of things, there was more to it than that as Stuart continued. “I personally just want to make great games, and I think it would be arrogant of me to think I got it perfect first time. The App Store can cater for a more iterative model for games, you start with the core game experience in the first version, and then you iterate based on feedback rather than making one big game based on what you assume players might want.”

Competition and Exposure

We then said that the main problem here would be getting the game into people’s hands in the first place. Stuart then discussed the power of word of mouth when it comes to making a popular game. “It’s getting the game to the right people who love the game and tell everybody about it,” he said. “Probably the amount of games being released everyday is one of the obstacles. Due to this I am in competition with lots of other apps to get coverage, reviews and obviously sales. So without having a great game that stands out immediately or having some good contacts in relevant places I miss out on these opportunities. Exposure for my game basically relies on people trying out my game and enjoying the experience and recommending it to other players.”

With his current focus on WarPath we asked if there were any other ideas he wanted to explore, to which Stuart agreed with. “Like any game developer we have a few ideas floating about that we want to explore. However WarPath isn’t really where we want it to be yet and I think we should try and reach its potential before putting too much effort into a new game. Although I do have one small idea in my mind that I want to prototype and if it works out it will probably turn out into a nice little game for the iPhone. It’s at such early stages so I don’t want to say much about it but lets just say it’s a very Scottish game!”

The design of WarParth was inspired by board games, so we asked if there was anything else about board games that inspired Stuart to which he replied in the positive, “I’m quite keen on board games, when down in Surrey a group of us met up every few weeks and spent the night playing boardgames. There is something nice about gathering in person to play games together, and the real fun of board games is the social interactions that occur. To me the true fun in Monopoly is the interactions that happen when people are trying to buy properties off each other or wiggle out of paying up to other players. They have inspired me that way, teaching me that game rules help frame how the interaction will take place. So in WarPath the interaction will be heavily based during the moments when all the action is underway, although there is the odd moment when people try to peek at what the other players are planning.”

Stuart then continued, discussing his other inspirations in game design, “My inspiration comes from a large variety of places, some from everyday life, some from games and sometimes just other companies in general. In terms of games companies, one that might not show who inspires me is thatgamecompany. I totally admire how they are trying to push the boundaries, and are doing something completely different in the games space.”

Playtesting

With the positive iPad experience we then asked Stuart is he had any plans to work on any other platforms. “Yes, I always have been fascinated by new technology and the new opportunities it opens up for gaming,” replied Stuart. “I can imagine given enough resources I will expand onto the other mobile, tablet and desktop devices. We could possibly do some work on console stuff but the barrier is a bit higher on them other than the Xbox Live Indie Games section.”

Stuart’s main stumbling block to this was the resources available. “As there is just two of us, and I am the only one who works for Whisky Biscuit full time we have to weigh up our options and make sure we are making the best use of the time we have. When we have a bit more resources available I definitely would like to create something for the Kinect.”

With Whiskey Biscuit’s first game available to buy we asked what his best piece of advice wold be for anyone else looking to move into independent video games development, “Keep your game simple, prototype it early to make sure you have a fun game in place and then polish it,” was Stuart’s main advice. “Playtesting is definitely another important thing, people play games differently than you do, and will most likely uncover bugs and issues you have never seen before.”

Also Stuart made sure to mention that people should keep their feet on the ground, saying “To avoid disappointment, keep your expectations of success low, or at least lower than a big hit like Angry Birds.”

As we were getting to the end of the Interview, we asked where Stuart where he thought Whiskey Biscuit would be in a year’s time. He replied “I hope this time next year all our titles fill up all the iOS charts worldwide and we are universally loved for our games, that are not only fun but break all conventions of what a game should be and how it makes the players feel.”

It was good to see Stuart taking his own advice about keeping his expectations low, but of course this was to be taken with a few grains of salt! “Joking aside, I hope we will have put in most features for WarPath that we wanted to and have been asked to do, have a few more titles released,” he continued. “And I would hope most of all we have enough income to support both me and Paul to work at Whisky Biscuit full time so we can continue doing what we love.”

Stuart then finished off the interview with these final words, “If you are reading this and have any feedback on anything we do, no matter how small, positive or negative that would be great. And I’d also like to say thanks to everybody who has supported us so far.”

WarParth is available now from the iPad App Store.

Originally published May 10th 2011

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.