Interview: Jonathan Mak

TheSixthAxis recently got the chance to speak with Jonathan Mak, author of the recent PSN hit Everyday Shooter but craftsman of several other vector-based titles and a general all-round good guy.

TSA: Hi Jon, thanks for spending the time today to talk to us. Let’s start with the obvious: Everyday Shooter. It’s visually and mechanically very similar to your earlier titles ‘ToJam Thing’, and to a lesser extent, ‘Gate 88’, which gives your games a consistent yet distinct aesthetic. Is this something you aim for specifically, to allow the game and music to breath?

JM: Actually, gameplay wise, Gate 88 is almost the exact opposite of Everyday Shooter. It was a complicated game built on top of many rules, and a fifty screen tutorial! Part of the goal for Everyday Shooter was to simplify while still creating compelling gameplay. Aesthetically, I use the vector style mostly because it interests me and it’s something I can do. However, there are some nice side effects since vectors can be generated realtime which means that you can tie visual parameters with gameplay parameters, thus creating a much more lively visual that matches the actions of the player. You can also morph them in slightly pseudo-random ways (even random based on player actions) to give what I call the “snowflake effect,” where you can create infinite variations of one type of visual. This is in contrast to a lot of games that use pre-baked animations, which I’m not a big fan of.

TSA: Can you give us an example?

JM: The explosions on the first level [of Everyday Shooter] are iconic and have a very distinct characteristic, but like snowflakes, no two explosions are the same.

TSA: What was it like working with Sony on Everyday Shooter, from the initial meeting at the IGF right through to seeing the finished game on PSN? What are your thoughts on Sony being so pro-active at working with independent game developers?

JM: Picture this: me, some skinny little kid that nobody’s ever heard of, standing in front of the gigantic corporate offices of SONY COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT AMERICA. I stood there because the offices were so damn big that I couldn’t find the entrance, and neither could my sherpa, Warren Currell. So there, enveloped in the shadow of those gigantic corporate offices that is SONY COMPUTER ENTERTAINMENT AMERICA, I began to contemplate life after death…

TSA: That good, huh?

JM: Well, of all the scary monsters I’ve met, this one turned out to be the friendliest of them all. In fact, I like to think of them as more of a friendly giant than a scary monster. No wait, how about a friendly giant PANDA BEAR! Because, like panda bears, they’re warm and fuzzy, but decapitation is just one swipe of the arm away. For the record, they haven’t decapitated me yet.

TSA: [silence]

JM: You’re not writing this down are you?

TSA: Of course.

JM: Then yes, my first meeting with them was eye-opening.

TSA: Did Sony want to make any changes?

JM: Having met a few of the other publishers, I had a pretty good idea of what sort of pain a publishing deal might bring. “Will I need to change the music? Do I need to change the graphics? Will you force me to make it networked multiplayer?”, etc. Sony’s answer: “No, no, and no.” Then, expressing a very slight impatience they added, “Listen: we like your game. That’s why we’re talking right now. We don’t want to change your game. YOU make the game.”

TSA: So that opened your eyes a little?

JM: Actually, my eyes didn’t open at all. Intead, they narrowed into slits because I was skeptical that Sony was going to give this skinny little kid the freedom to do whatever he wants. But apparantly life after death is pretty great. I mean, just look at the game! That is exactly the game *I* wanted to make! How many publishers do you know would release that as is without adding some generic techno-bullshit music or shiny, next-gen graphics because “our focus groups think it’s trendy?”

TSA: Well, none. There have been some recent bad examples of exactly that happening.

JM: I haven’t talked to a lot of the other folks dealing with Sony, but I really hope that they’re getting the same treatment. I mean, this is the ideal relationship right? The game maker wins because they get to follow their uncompromising vision. This keeps the game maker happy and motivates them to create the best game possible, which is what the publisher wants: a great game to sell. The caveat of course is that the game maker must actually want lots of people to play their game or else they might create something that is not saleable, but I mean, if that were the case, why would the game maker be seeking a publishing deal in the first place? Anyway, I really hope that Sony Santa Monica, and the rest of Sony will continue this artist-centric approach to publishing.

TSA: Us too. It’s working so far. You’ve said in other interviews and on your personal site that games should focus more on the input/output theory – simple reward-based gameplay as a priority – which can be extremely beneficial with rehabilitive medicine.

JM: Well, my input/output theory is fairly basic (I can convey it in just a few minutes) and it is just a model or tool for thinking about video games. And like all tools, it has its weaknesses and strengths. So it’s not that I think games should focus on this more, it’s more like “here’s an interesting group of ideas that might explain a few things.” For example, it helps me better understand games like Rez,Rhythm Tengoku, and some aspects of Guitar Hero.

TSA: Do you think you could take this style of game further with regards to mental illness?

JM: It seems the trend in video games theory is to look outside the box and see what video games can do with real world issues like emotions, education, and yeah, medical implications. My thinking actually goes in the opposite way, zooming in instead of zooming out. I’m not sure about everyone else, but personally I don’t feel like I know enough about video games to talk about them in such global terms. I mean, what the heck, I only just discovered the effects of outputs a few months ago. As someone who’s JOB is to write video games, that’s pretty embararssing!

TSA: Perhaps via more haptic interfaces?

JM: I honestly don’t think I can give you a good answer to this question. I feel like any attempt I give would be a gross simplification of the issues at hand. But I also feel that a better model for talking about these things is one that sits on top of my basic input/output ideas. I’m really kicking it off the top now. Perhaps input/output is like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs where the initial interest is simple outputs like explosions or whatever. At a higher level, the outputs become less physical and more mental, for example you see your ammo counter reaching zero which is a physical, on-screen output, but the real importance of this output is in your mind: “if I keep shooting I’ll run out of ammo.” The output is a condition that affects progress.

TSA: But in the real world –

JM: Yeah. Perhaps it’s these “progress outputs” that are important for real world applications because if you link game progress to real-world progress then the game becomes more relevant. So broken down, I guess that means the inputs are realworld, the upper level outputs (progress outputs) are realworld, but the lower level outputs (physical on-scr
een outputs) are completely abstract. A concrete example for a case where someone suffers a leg injury and needs to undergo rehabilitation to walk again: a shooter in which moving the ship requires you to walk left, right, up, down, and shooting requires you to stomp on the floor. So the lower level outputs are the explosions that you see when you shoot things. The high level outputs are the movement of your ship and the enemy AI in response to that. The enemy AI response/output causes the player to think “uh oh, I might get stuck in this corner of bullets if I don’t move away,” an output that affects progress but also has a real world linking because he as to actually learn to walk for that output to have any relevance to him… I dunno, I guess that’s pretty stupid and obvious…

TSA: It’s fascinating. Let’s talk about your game development. Your programming tools are fairly modest – Visual C for coding coupled with Soundforge and your own guitar for the effects. Is there any chance of a remixed Soundtrack to the game, complete with fuller versions of the tracks featured in Everyday Shooter?

JM: Originally I had the idea to do a separate soundtrack with fuller instrumentation, but now I’m not so into that. The thing is, if you take each individual part of ES, the visuals, the music, the programming, it wouldn’t stand on its own because doing those indvidual things aren’t my strength. My strength is taking all those things and putting them together so that the whole is greater than the sum. In that sense, I don’t think it makes any sense to seperate ES like that. As for fuller instrumentation for the game itself, I think that would detract from the original vibe of the game. I’d rather try fuller instrumentation on a new game where the vibe/vision and the implementation coincide.

TSA: So you’re now (hopefully) making money creating games – can we expect to see further collaborations with Sony in the future, or will you opt to release the occasional Windows game too? Everyday Shooter would be a perfect match for the PSP, too.

JM: Well, to answer part of your question, of course I’d look into dealing with Sony again given our great relationship. As for the other stuff: hehehe…

TSA: We’ll look forward to it! Thanks again for your time, Jon, and good luck for the future.

Jon’s first PSN title, Everyday Shooter (prefixed with Riff: here Europe) is available now for download from the PSN Store on your PS3.