There are a ton of mobile game developers out there working single-handedly — trying valiantly to be all things at once — but there is a better way. That’s the message from Charles Cox, a seasoned industry professional who’s worked at Zipper Interactive, Microsoft and Sierra Studios across multiple platforms and who’s now heading up his own indie development team at 4gency, creator of the PC space strategy game Habitat.
Cox recently spoke at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, sharing the message that indie game devs should team up to better cope with a crowded development scene.
I spoke to Cox over Skype to ask his thoughts on the lone wolf developer and why he passionately believes that sharing makes you — and your game — a whole lot stronger.
The “lone wolf” developer
Cox understands that there are a lot of mobile game developers who are going alone, and he’s always amazed to find people that do all the code, art, sounds and music for a game. But he thinks they’re missing out on so much that could improve their chances of success.
“The issue is that, as single creators, we have what I would call a pillared depth of experience,” said Cox. “We’ve lived one life, we’ve been in however many places we’ve been, we’ve grown up with one family — or in some cases a small number of families. We are a little blind. In fact we’re a lot blind to a lot of other disciplines, a lot of other ways of thinking.”
Cox is amazed when he considers the depth of specialization in the science of making games. He’s worried that lone wolves just can’t nail every aspect of development — something that’s essential when you’re creating for such a competitive market.
“It goes miles and miles deep,” he said. “For one person to pretend they have the time, the energy, the real transformative ability to nail 100 percent on everything — from code, to art, to music, to story, to characters … I have a lot of respect for people who do that, but I believe they’re missing out on a depth of all of those qualities. If you only just trust yourself, [think of] the things that you won’t be able to do.
“The things that you’ll miss out on would stun a team of oxen.”
Team up for success
Cox has built a team that passionately believes in the game they’re creating. This passion and belief is absolutely essential when it comes to finding collaborators, he says.
“You need your team to believe in the game, to believe in you and to believe in each other,” he told me, “because there are times it is going to suck so bad.”
Getting the right team together can only make you stronger, reckons Cox, despite concerns mobile game developers might have of diluting their personal artistic vision.
“People will say they don’t want to compromise their artistic vision,” said Cox, “and I would say to them, ‘You don’t have to,’ because being with other people is actually going to make the product stronger. It always does. Always.”
“More is expected of games every day,” he added. “Games need to be bolder, games need to be more experimental, games need to be bigger. [By working alone] you’re holding yourself down, and the bar is rising and rising.”
Finding people to work with — or even just fellow mobile game developers to run ideas by — can be tough, especially if you’re new to the development scene. Cox talks highly of the value of Game Jams. These are events that bring people together for intense, focused mobile game development sessions over 24, 48, or maybe 72 hours.
Such events can even help more introverted developers cut through the “social bullshit” and make instant connections.
“If we’re game developers and we know we’re game developers, we can cut the crap, and we can just start working on stuff,” said Cox.
Some mobile developers are scared of sharing their game ideas at such public events, though, for fear of others stealing them, but Cox says they really shouldn’t be afraid.
“I want to be respectful of that,” said Cox, “but i will say this: It’s not about the idea. It’s about the work and love and dedication that you and your team put into the game to really make it shine. I’ve got lots of ideas and I’m perfectly aware that they’re worth a dime a dozen.”
“The telephone was invented by three different people in three different places. One of them got to market and got famous,” said Cox. “It’s really about the execution of the idea.”
Publishers—friend or foe?
Developers should think of publishers as an extension of their team, reckons Cox, and not just an evil corporation out to take a cut of their revenue. Of course, you’ll connect with some better than others, but if you find a publisher that shares a passion for your game, you’ve got it made.
“Having a publisher in your corner means you get that additional slice of consideration, time, and expertise,” said Cox. “I don’t know a damn thing about seasonality of sales, and I know very little about marketing, but i know that they know what it is.”
“It really fits the team mentality if you think of a publisher as being part of your team,” says Cox. “Together you’re stronger.”
A final message to the lone wolves
I asked Cox what he’d say to game developers who are still working by themselves, trying to be every part of a multi-discipline team.
“’It doesn’t have to be this hard,'” he said. “I would tell each person who’s doing this — just because they might not know, just because they think this is the way it has to be — that it’s not the only way.”
Cox’s passion for the game industry really came across during our chat. It’s clear that he just wants as many mobile game developers as possible to succeed, and he thinks that collaboration is the best path to success.
“I’m doing this because I want as many people as can — as physics will allow — to be successful in this arena,” he said, “because the more ideas, the more great games out there, the better off we’re all going to be.”