Today we chatted about his experiences as an indie developer, his thoughts on his projects, another prequel to A Dark Room, and his next game Sasha.
Amir: The game started as a web game and I (I'd like to say) "re-envisioned" it to a mobile medium. The web version didn't have any of the builder commentary or the slave transition. The builder was simply an NPC that was used to build stuff. Mentally I really connected with the builder, and wanted to answer my own questions: Who was she? Why was she helping me? So the emotions in the game were definitely deliberate and vocalized through the builder.
It's funny actually, someone reached out to me on twitter about the slaves transition and how "it wasn't his choice". He was pretty angry about it. His Twitter profile background was that of Fallout New Vegas, where you can literally [be] part of a slave driving army.
I think the emotions are exasperated by the fact that there aren't any pictures. In fact, these kind of emotional responses (specifically not having control) were what drove me to create the moral events in The Ensign, where you had a direct choice of whether you would "take food from the family" or not.
...the emotions... were...deliberate and vocalized through the builder.
Amir: Yes on both accounts. Michael and I did that deliberately so that the experience wouldn't be spoiled. After we hit the number one spot, and did an update to the game, [one] of the people on the Apple app approval process actually rejected our update because our description was "too short". I was really, really pissed about that, but we got it overridden and [were] allowed to update. It's tough balancing the "business" aspect of selling games, but we had faith that word of mouth recommendation would trump a long drawn out sales pitch on our app description page. We have a few accolades on there now. Still trying to find a good balance. [Having] good reviews certainly helps.
Brian: What did it feel like to see A Dark Room hit #1 in the App Store? Did you ever think it would gain such popularity?
Amir: When it hit the number one spot I was in complete utter shock. Definitely was not in a good state of mind, surprisingly.
This expert from my blog explains it well:
"This is the best way I can describe what I’m feeling right now: I’ve bought a lottery ticket, and the lottery commission has revealed 5 of the 6 numbers. And so far, I’ve gotten those 5 numbers right. I know I’ve got at least the winnings for those 5 numbers in the bag. But now I’m waiting for the 6th number… that jackpot number that changes your life forever. The lottery commission hasn’t revealed the 6th number yet, they haven’t even told me when they’ll show the 6th number. So I’m stuck in this weird limbo, where others see success and all I can do is temper expectations, be “responsible”, and move forward as if that 6th number will be wrong…. still number 1, just checked."
I didn't sleep well for almost a month. Every hour or so I'd wake up and see if I were still number one. Still never got used to it
When [A Dark Room] hit the number one spot I was in complete utter shock...I didn't sleep well for almost a month.
Amir: Pacing and the builder's commentary/storyline. I felt that's what put the game over the top. The mobile version is about 3 times faster than the web version. The game is a bit more challenging too. The DPS for soldiers, snipers, and feral terrors was nearly doubled in the mobile version... rage inducing I'm sure. I didn't expect the builder's interactions would be so powerful. But I do feel that's what "made" the game…Your thoughts on this?
Brian: Pacing is so key in gameplay, and I find that in a mobile experience players would have struggled with a slower pace. As for the difficultly, I actually found it to be rather well balanced, but I tend to enjoy a bit of a challenge. For me, "dying" wasn't too frustrating, but more so, I blamed myself for venturing too far, too soon.
Amir: The Ensign was definitely an extension of that "your fault" mentality. I wanted to make sure it was 100% fair. And yea, the early moments of the game when the forest opens up was key. Didn't want people to play for 30 seconds and leave a bad review. That plus the ability to pick it up, play a little bit, then put it back down was extremely important too.
Amir: The fire going out when she left was deliberate. Not sure how many people caught that.
Brian: You mentioned how you have never actually met Michael Townsend, the original creator. Do you think you two will ever meet?
Amir: If Trump becomes president I may move to Canada.
Brian: Not a bad idea.
Amir: He said I'm welcome to his couch :-) Hopefully we'll meet soon, but definitely haven't met yet. It's on my bucket list ^_^ Do you find it weird that we haven't met? Maybe it's poetic that we never do :-P
Brian: Actually, not really, not in this day. I collaborated with an artist on a web-based project I created, and we haven't met yet. We follow each other on Instagram though.
Amir: Cool, cool. The composer I [worked] with for ANC is in Brazil. Haven't met him either. But yea, I agree with you. Don't find it too weird personally.
Brian: In playing A Noble Circle and The Ensign, there is a clear, anti pay-to-win, in-app purchase message. In my opinion, in-app purchases, for the most part, replace what was once the designed challenge of a game into something that is now constructed, often purposely, to be purchased for the sake of completion. Which, in turn, taints the experience, removing the fun and entertainment elements for something that feels like it is run by finance people instead of creative folks. What are your thoughts on the direction mobile games have long been heading and do you foresee a backlash?
Amir: I've struggled with this myself. I'm hoping there is a backlash... but it's unlikely. Premium games are a "lost cause". I quoted it because I don't think AAA will go that route. As for indie game devs, it may provide an opportunity to thrive (since we aren't competing with shops like EA). And we also don't need as much money either. I'm happy netting $170 a day. And can live comfortably off of that for the foreseeable future. But I do want to build a culture of "gifting" games and "free to start" games like POTUS and Kung Fury do that very tastefully. So my next game might be "free to start". And maybe ANC will become "free to start" too. You may have noticed that ANC - Prologue is a free offering. But I'm not ready to jump ship yet. We'll see how this year goes.
Sasha, my next game, will be about "unrequited love”.
Amir: I think it works well given the current mobile landscape. Given that most games do exactly the opposite of what I'm doing. When I was a kid, I wanted to get into building video games, simply because it was a way to share an experience. Still remember the shock when Aries died in FF7 (spoiler alert). I feel I have a knack for distilling an experience down to its essence. Which works well for me since I don't have the resources to build a fully 3d or gorgeous 2d game. Only so much one person can do.
When I start working on a game, there is a central emotion theme in mind. For ADR it was "the feeling of loss" (specifically the builder). For The Ensign, it was "cognitive dissonance", that feeling when you go against your ideals. For ANC, it’s "a rush of awe". Sasha, my next game, will be about "unrequited love”.
Brian: I’ve released a lot of free custom maps and levels for first-person shooters, so I can relate to the notion of creating something primarily by yourself. What motivates you when you are devoting countless hours to your craft, knowing it may yield little to no money (what if it gets lost in the App Store abyss)?
Amir: [I] always worry about how long my philosophies will bare fruit. So far I'm keeping my head above water. My general ideals is that I only want to build things that I myself would play/buy. I've been lucky (very very lucky) in finding an audience that operates on the same wave length that I do. There are 80+ million iOS devices out there. If I can capture even 0.01% of that in perpetuity [then] I'm happy. Cause I get to do exactly what I want to do: create.
And yes, I've been called pretentious multiple times XD (I even make fun of it in ANC). So, in short. I'll keep doing it until the well dries up. Then I'll figure things out then. [I] just don't want to sacrifice my ideals too much.
I've been called pretentious multiple times.
I wanted to explore the idea of loving something that doesn't love you back.
The Builder (prequel to The Ensign) will explore the relationship between Builder and Admiral.
Amir: Start small, get something out the door in 6 weeks. Then iterate. [I] did this Reddit post that goes into details about it. [Given] all the choices, you can get analysis paralysis. So start with that [post]... build something text based even :-D
Brian: Other than StarCraft and LoL, what are some of your favorite and most influential video games, books, and movies?
Brian: I was so happy when FF Tactics was released for iOS. The perfect excuse to play it again.
Amir: Yep! I really want a PvP based game around that concept. The storyline of the game was so great.
Brian: I want to finish the interview by just reading you a few, nice quotes from the App Store:
- A Dark Room: “This unique experience will captivate your attention and change the way you think about the world, your life, and the human condition.” 
- The Ensign: “A well thought out prequel with stupidly difficult obstacles, was worth every second.“ [Kanaya Maryam]
- A Noble Circle: “I’ve never been so emotionally connected to a game.” [A Pale Blue Dot]
Amir: Those reviews are the strongest reason for me to keep building :-) It's the best thing in the world I tell ya. And I'm hoping with ANC people will be more receptive to "unfinished games for now but I'll keep working on it" kind of approach to development. Seems to work well for that game at least.
Brian: For me, it worked.
Amir: [I'm Releasing] an update to that today by the way :-) You finally get to slide "bounce" into the lab.
Brian: I'll check it out! Thank you again for joining me for this interview. I really appreciate you taking the time. And I'm looking forward to your future releases.
Amir: I love this stuff...thanks for reaching out Brian, and please gift my games to your friends and family ^_^ and tell them to pay it forward if they liked it.