Aground Developer Interviews Part One - New Ground (David)

edited July 2018 in Aground
Welcome to Part One of the Aground developer interview series! Ready to dive behind the scenes of Aground’s development and see how this 4-person indie team makes their magic? Let’s go!

New Ground

Today’s interview features David Maletz, the lead developer, programmer and designer of Aground. An Arizona-based cat lover with two computer science degrees, he has been making games since middle school. He is the founder of Fancy Fish Games, which has released over a dozen games of all shapes and sizes. His online alias is terra0nova, meaning “new earth” - and making fascinating new worlds within games is what he enjoys most.

What do you do? Give us the details of your role and responsibilities, and everything you do to bring Aground to life.

My main roles are programmer and designer, but as is common with small indie developers, I wear a lot of hats and do a little of everything (except art and music... you don't want to see my art). As the designer I came up with the original idea and feature lists, and I plan new updates and what assets are needed for them (including taking suggestions from the community for what should come next and designing out the islands, items, monsters and loot). As a programmer, I implement all those features and integrate all the art and music and story into the game. I also coded the game engine basically from scratch (because I'm crazy like that). I'm also responsible for tasks like self-publishing the game, managing the communities that have sprung up around the game, plus some outlining and writing for the story, and sometimes marketing (but that's definitely not my forte).

What would you say to someone interested in entering the game programming or game design fields?

The best way to learn how to make games is to make games. Participate in game jams or the one game a month challenge, design games that you think can be made in a few days, and get experience not only designing and programming a game, but actually finishing games (and what it takes to really go from nothing to release). If you really want to start with your epic 10 year MMO idea, try turning the idea into a small, one month proof of concept that boils the game down to its simplest form, and see if it's fun. If the core of the game isn't fun, chances are no matter how much you add to it, it still won't be fun.

How do you stay motivated over the course of a longer (1 yr +) project like Aground?

That's a tricky question... it's easy to stay excited and motivated during a short project (like a game jam), but it's impossible to stay 100% motivated and excited on a project that takes several months or even years. My best advice is to break the project into small chunks, each chunk taking a month, tops. That way, you're never overwhelmed, and you’ll get that feeling of accomplishment with each chunk you complete. For example, Aground is broken up into updates, where each update has its own development cycle (from design to release).

What are your inspirations for your work on Aground?

My main inspiration came from the text-based idle game "A Dark Room" - I wanted to emulate that feeling of wonder when something new you didn't expect unlocks, and you never know what will come next. But I'm not a huge fan of idle games, so I wanted to give Aground more gameplay elements (and graphics). I also took a lot of inspiration from sandbox games like Minecraft, Starbound and Utopian Mining. I loved that you could move straight up in Utopian Mining so I blatantly copied that. I'm not very skilled at platformers, and I remember many times just being frustrated in these types of games because I was stuck deep down and couldn't get back to the surface.

Finally, I took inspiration from many different RPGs, like Stardew Valley and Pokemon (okay, Aground has very little in common with Pokemon other than the enemy capture system, but I like Pokemon a lot). I definitely wanted the game to have a strong story and progression (which was one of my main themes for the game), as while true sandbox gameplay can be fun for a while, I often get bored when there's nothing in particular I need to do and I already tinkered around with what's possible in the system. I want to know why I'm mining or gathering resources - what's it all for?

What is your workflow like? How do you move from an idea to final in-game form?

For programming, I typically break the new ideas into a list of required features and changes to the game, then order them in terms of priority. I then work my way through the list, tackling one piece at a time until the list empties. Sometimes I have to break bigger features/ideas into smaller chunks that I can implement. Every piece should be completable in a day max, since I never like having a piece unfinished at the end of my work day, as that breaks the flow. After the implementation is done, I usually do many tests around the new piece to make sure it works as expected - although sometimes a bug slips through, especially if it breaks something that has nothing to do with the feature I just added.

What is your favorite thing about working on this project?

The flexibility of the project. While I had a basic feature list and overview of where I wanted the game and its story to go at the beginning, unlike all of my previous projects, I didn't plan out many of the details. This allows us to change plans for future areas of the game easily, based on feedback or what we saw worked or didn't work while playing the current sections. This allows a lot of freedom and brainstorming about the game and also keeps it fresh and exciting, as even I don't know exactly what will come next until it comes.

Bonus Question: What is the most adventurous or bravest thing you have ever done?

Honestly I'm not very brave or adventurous. Sometimes I decide to walk down paths I've never gone before... and I also learned to like brussel sprouts... yeah, I got nothing. But, maybe making games and working with people I've never met over the internet is pretty adventurous in itself.

You can read more about David's adventures in game development on his blog, or follow him on twitter!

Part Two - Pixel Perfect

Part two of the interview series, coming next week, will feature Aaron Norell, the artist and animator for Aground. Look forward to it!

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