Talking indie game development and chasing dreams with Isaac Nichols

Towards the end of last year, after I reviewed Drone Zero Gravity for Nerd Rock from the Sun (the site is now sleeping with the fishes, alas), I had the opportunity to sit down with the man behind the game – Isaac Nichols.

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This is he, maker of drones, cartographer of lonely, alien galaxies, and composer of deeply compelling music – Isaac Nichols.

Drone Zero Gravity interested me for a number of reasons. First, it was being developed almost entirely by one person. Given how good the game looked I was curious about the amount of effort involved.

Second, I hadn’t seen anything quite like it. It’s a pity that I don’t have a draft of the review so I can reprint here, but the summary is on N4G and I gave it 85 out of 100. The feeling of the game, of exploration in the far reaches of space, is something that has stayed with me long after I played Drone Zero Gravity – if you haven’t played it yourself, I heartily recommend it.

And third, because of how Isaac handled development delays. Along with a press release, he put up a spreadsheet on the website which tracked unfinished items and showed progress. This earned him a fair amount of curiosity and a great deal of respect from me.

Our conversation was both long and good. Here it is, in its entirety.

 

Lizard Lounge: First things first – thank you for taking the time to do this.

Isaac Nichols: You are welcome, thank you for doing this. My first interview.

LL: Really? I’m thrilled it’s with us. I’ve been keeping tabs on Drone Zero Gravity ever since you put up that Excel sheet. Still the best thing I’ve seen a developer do, by the way.

Isaac: [Grins] Thanks. I haven’t gone back to it lately but I think I can complete almost everything on there now. I didn’t think I would be able to get Steam achievements but they work now.

LL: Yes, they do. Were they complicated to set up? I remember music and audio being on the list towards the end, along with Steam achievements as things pending just before the release.

Isaac: Yeah, I wasn’t sure how to do it at first. But I found a bit of documentation and had to go through a lot of trial and error. The hardest thing, I think, was getting sound fx in game to work correctly. I have done sound fx for theatre but it is different with games because objects are moving and they can’t be predicted.

LL: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you worked on Drone Zero Gravity solo? How difficult was that? Because when you mention integrating Steam achievements and adding sound effects, it was just you hunting down resources and trying different things to make it work? What I played looked amazing, sounded incredible, and felt brilliant. How much work did it take to get there?

Isaac: Yeah, primarily it was me. I had one programmer, Rama, who did the AI so that the drone could fly. He exposed a lot of properties for me so I could tweak the drones’ pursuit. And if I had a question here or there he would give me advice.

And yes, most of the time I was hunting down documentation and doing a lot of trial and error. The game started in May 2014 so I have been working out for some time. The sound fx was something I started a bit late. I didn’t realize how involved it was but I got through it.

LL: So about a year and a half of development? Wow. I actually thought it would be longer – 2 to 3 years at least.

Isaac: I think on average maybe 6 hours a day.

LL: And you were working on Drone full time? Or were you on a day job, too?

Isaac: I had lost my job the beginning of the year 2014. Then I started the project a few months later. Then in October 2014 I started working again. After that, I was doing both and still am, so I stay pretty busy.

LL: Was game development something you always wanted to get into? I’m curious about what made you decide to create Drone.

Isaac: About ten years back I tried going to school for it but soon realized that I could not afford it. I remember after maybe a semester or two in the admissions office was talking to me and said your financial aid has run out where are you going to get the rest of the money. So that didn’t pan out for me. In the meantime, I still kept busy. I had a daytime job and would make music, draw, play with Photoshop and other programs.

LL: And your previous (and current) day jobs aren’t related to game development?

Isaac: No not at all. [smiles] I work at a pharmacy doing medical billing. I work with insurance companies and try to find a means for patients to get their medication paid for. Primarily in nursing homes.

LL: Wow.

Isaac: [grins]

LL: I’m a little more impressed with Drone now, I think – now that I see how much of a labour of love it was.

Isaac: Thanks!

LL: Did you have the idea for the game ten years ago?

Isaac: No, back when I was attempting school, I had no idea what kind of game I would make. I think I would have tried to apply for a job with a game company. Back then, I probably wouldn’t have planned to make one of my own.

LL: That was actually going to be my next question – what made you decide to strike out on your own instead of working with a studio? Must have been incredibly daunting.

Isaac: It was daunting at times. In the beginning I had no fears but later, they started to surface. A year before losing my job I had been playing with Blender 3D. It was free so it was a means to learn 3D modeling.

A little bit later, the game Assetto Corsa [Steam link here] came out on early access. I always loved racing games so I bought it. They had the option to add your own racetrack. I was really interested in doing this but I never completed it. But that is what got me into game development.

I played around with UDK, Unity and CryEngine and then settled on Unreal Engine 4.

LL: It certainly paid off, I think – Drone is gorgeous. God knows I’ve commented on the lighting an umpteen number of times. What made you settle on Unreal Engine 4? Was it easier to use?

Isaac: Yes, Unreal Engine 4 had an interface that worked for me. I could get objects interacting with each other fairly easy. I think it works well for an artist.

LL: So did you have the idea for Drone before you were selecting the engine? I’m curious about how the idea of a drone floating through rocky levels came about.

Isaac: I stumbled upon this game really. It wasn’t until the character was created that I figured, I should make a game. Actually now that I think about it, I was trying to make something to add to my portfolio because I had no portfolio.

Initially I tried joining groups on the UE4 forums for free, but that was even hard to do. There are a lot of talented people out there. So I figured, I should make something and see if that helps. Here’s my first video.

That’s where it all began. The character was inspired by the movie Oblivion with Tom Cruise. I like watching any movie with some element of sci-fi in it.

LL: Ha, I remember the drone from Oblivion.

Isaac: [laughs]

LL: You know, I love that the game began with the drone itself. Reminds me of the histories in the Lord of the Rings – Tolkien began with the languages, the story around it came after. And I just watched that video – the drone stayed the same throughout the development process, didn’t it? Funnily enough, the drone was also one of the first things I liked about the game – it felt incredibly charming.

Isaac: Yes, if anything I optimized the polygons but it never changed. Interesting now that I think about it.

LL: I imagine you could have gone a lot of different ways with a sci-fi universe. With a lot of those pretty combat heavy. How did the focus on exploration come about?

Isaac: Well after making the drone, I started to think about the world that the drone would be a part of. What would its purpose be? Then, it occurred to me that people usually make drones to do work, to assist them in some way. And that the things we create sometimes backfire on us later.

So the game is exploration but doesn’t become combat heavy until midway through the 2nd chapter. At first the game was going to go puzzle based only with very short levels but I really wanted to tell a story and make an adventure game that focuses on exploration at first.

LL: Yep, I noticed that. And exploring was probably what I enjoyed the most. I mentioned that in the review, it felt a lot like the movie Gravity. I was captivated by the stillness of it all. Even the soundtrack never felt intrusive. Was that a vibe you aimed specifically for or was it a happy accident?

Isaac: The soundtrack was intentional for sure. I wanted it to feel good alone but not get in the way. I actually waited a week before release to finish the soundtrack. I think anxiety, excitement, worry all those emotions make for better music.

LL: Hahaha, there’s no better inspiration than a looming deadline. Was the soundtrack something you composed? I remember you mentioned earlier that you make music.

Isaac: Yes I made all the music.

LL: Nice. The soundtrack was the biggest surprise when I played it. I had seen videos, but I don’t think any of them had audio. The soundtrack just felt … right … for the game. Was it tough to work up? I have precisely zero idea of what it takes to compose music, just so you know.

Isaac: It surprised me too! I didn’t realize how much people would like the soundtrack. I have been making music for a long time now so it isn’t to difficult for me to create something fairly decent. Maybe 3rd grade. I played a dunun drum later a guitar and bass then electronic software.

My cousin would rap and I would make beats. Did that for some friends, too.

LL: Ah. It shows, I think – the soundtrack’s been well received. Everyone who put up a Steam review commented on it and one person actually wants the OST to listen to on their way to work. So congratulations there.

Isaac: Yes I better get that ready for them.

LL: And, speaking of the reviews, another thing that’s been commented on is the difficulty. If I remember correctly, Drone was never on Early Access – and I think you tested it yourself? How did you manage that? Wouldn’t your familiarity with the design have made testing kind of strange?

Isaac: Yes difficulty seems to be the issue with the game. I had every intention to make the game challenging but I didn’t want it to be to the point where people give up on it. So I have been making changes to different aspect of the game which were coming across as too random for players. I’ve realized that you can have a challenging game but you also have to be consistent. Throwing curveballs at the player is fine but making sure you are consistent with how objects react to player input seems to be key.

I tested the game heavily to make sure there were no issues. If all else failed, I wanted to make sure I made a solid game that ran well with the least amount of issues.

LL: That was another thing I remember noticing – Drone ran really smoothly. I don’t remember encountering any bugs during my playthrough.

Isaac: [smiles] Good to know, thanks.

LL: And I’m not even sure if the game’s too difficult. Heh. Removing the crystal’s ability to spew lighting would make me a happy man. But there was one level that really stood out – the first time I met an enemy drone, with no weapons, and spent the level running away from it to the exit. It was exhilarating. It was such a change of pace from my more casual exploration in the earlier levels. More of that, would be brilliant.

Isaac: [grins] Yeah the game shifts in chapter two. I wanted to get the player used to dodging things and the movement of the drone before introducing the combat system.

LL: Ah, that explains it. I was wondering how you paced that out. What plans do you have next for Drone? More story missions? And for how long do you plan to add new content?

Isaac: I am currently working on a Warzone mode and The Beginnings mode. The Beginnings tells a story about what the drones did before the bad drones appeared and Warzone is when everything went wrong but right before the campaign starts. Beginnings will be more exploration based and Warzone speaks for itself.

LL: Heh. Yep, it certainly does. Will they be out soon?

Isaac: Hopefully this month or early November. [Note: I interviewed Isaac at the end of October 2015, so these are all 2015 dates]

LL: Pretty quick. And after that? More content, a break, or a brand new game?

Isaac: May chill out for a bit see if the game needs anymore attention. If not I have plans for another game.

LL: I imagine the process of getting Drone out would have been pretty exhausting, both mentally and physically. Where does the energy to work on another project come from?

Isaac: I think it is love. Creating art. I feel like all the things I can do creatively, I can package into a video game and share with the world.

LL: [grins] Excellent answer.

Isaac: [grins back]

LL: Will the new game be another solo project? Heck, should I even be asking about it now, or is it top secret?

Isaac: [laughs] Well the new game is entirely in my head right now; I haven’t even written anything about it yet. I won’t say to much but the game I am visioning is open world exploration with survival elements that has an end goal.

LL: Big leap forward from Drone.

Isaac: [Beams cheerfully]

LL: Heh. I can’t wait.

Isaac: Me too. I’m curious now that I know more about development what I can do.

LL: Before we close, one final thing if I may – you have a heck of a story. Exploring opportunities in game development ten years ago, teaching yourself the tricks of the trade now, and releasing a solo project that’s as engaging and more polished than some AAA games I’ve played. What advice do you have for aspiring developers out there?

Isaac: Go for it. Everybody has a story. Focus on the story you want to tell and make sure you are doing it because you have fun doing it.

LL: Sounds about perfect, Isaac. Thank you so much once again for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Isaac: Thank you, Trevor. This interview was great. Made me look back at things and encourages me to continue on.

LL: I’m glad. This was easily the best conversation I’ve had in a while.

… and, that’s a wrap.

So, folks, if you’d like to stalk Isaac on the internet, you’ll find him on Twitter at @IsaacThreedart. His game, Drone Zero Gravity is here on Steam, and at @Drone0Gravity on Twitter.

And if there’s anyone you’d like us to talk to, about game design, about being a YouTube celebrity, about playing games for years upon years upon years – just drop a line in the comments. We’ll hunt them down and yank the words out of ’em.

Trevor Coelho

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