Gamepulse: Sawblade Software Developer Profile Originally Posted at

July 18, 2005

1. Could you give a brief history of yourself and Sawblade Software? (How long running, previous software etc.)

Sawblade Software dates back to my college senior thesis project: as an art major I got sick and tired of oil paint fumes, and I decided to see if I could channel my love of hand-drawn pixel art into a very simplistic 2D action game. I was expecting it to be a difficult project, so I set my sights pretty low; I thought that just loading an image and displaying it as a sprite was a major accomplishment. But by April of 2002, after five months of programming and one month of rushing to finish a bunch of animation frames, I ended up with Greenland Invasion, a fairly sophisticated albeit short side-scrolling platformer that is now bundled with every copy of Power Game Factory. After college I started peddling a user-editable version of Greenland Invasion, under the monicker The Green Machine. I hadn't created a graphical user interface for designing levels, but I was already taking baby steps down the path that led to Power Game Factory.

2. So, Sawblade is just you? Wow. How have you coped? That's an awful lot of work for one person.

Sawblade Software is mostly me. Along the way I've gotten plenty of free help and advice from people who specialize in areas like business, marketing, and sound engineering, and my friends have been standing with me the whole time. Early on it was pretty easy because I felt a kinship with a couple friends from college who were working on similar projects. Honestly, I didn't feel like I had many other options; getting a normal job was proving difficult, and I couldn't enter the mainstream video game industry without any knowledge of 3D Studio Max. And I didn't enjoy competing with hundreds of other recent college grads for the privilege of testing games for minimum wage.

3. Have you always been a gamer?

I started playing games after my parents rewarded me with an NES for scoring a 100 on a fourth grade spelling test. My interest in gaming remained high right on through the days of the Nintendo 64. Lately I've been playing my friend's PS2 a bit, and I've enjoyed Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Katamari Damacy. I can't get enough of the music in each of those games. GTA gave me a new respect for Dr. Dre's 1992 album The Chronic, and the Katamari Damacy soundtrack features a mesmerizing chorus of Japanese guys singing "nah, nah-nah." For what it's worth, the "Radio X" station in GTA has all my favorite music. Helmet, Soundgarden, Rage Against the Machine... my heart is stuck in the early 90s.

4. What is your favorite game and system?

My favorite game is Super Metroid, and my favorite system is probably the SNES. I remember Star Fox seemed really exciting when it first came out. I played F-Zero endlessly, and later Stunt Race FX. In 1994, polygon graphics were still an exciting novelty, and I was all over any new technology. I also got a lot of use out of Mario Paint- my friend found a way to connect the SNES to a high-end VCR; we used Mario Paint to create title screens and credits sequences for our action movies.

5. Are there any Dev Cos that you particularly admire, and if so, why?

I loved Bungie Software because, like Nintendo, they had a creative vision that was perfectly suited for their platform of choice. Bungie's decision to self-publish gave the company a strong identity, and they didn't spread themselves too thin by developing multiple products for multiple platforms. They put out one game per year for nearly a decade, and each one was superb. As with Nintendo, their vision involved a particular platform, and they focused on doing their best work without regard for the direction in which the industry was headed. One thing that was interesting about the early Bungie games is that each was a response to the deficiencies of an existing genre. Pathways into Darkness and Marathon gave us intellectual stimulation within the first person shooter genre; Myth offered real-time strategy without the tedium of mining for resources. I'm not sure exactly what Pimps at Sea offered, because Bungie has always been pretty secretive about that project. Another good thing about Bungie is that they had (and still have) a great sense of humor.

6. Do you think small Dev Cos can survive in today's market?

I don't know; it's tough for a small developer to make a game that offers both technological innovation and many hours of gameplay. Games that fail on either front are rarely successful. Part of the reason why I made Power Game Factory is because I knew that if I made a straight-up game, it wouldn't be able to compete with all of the bigger, better games out there. Instead of going up against the industry directly, I made a product that has far less competition. I think small developers can succeed if they have good ideas and explore new genres that others haven't already perfected. Many established genres are represented by quintessential games like Doom, Super Mario Bros., and Grand Theft Auto. A category that is not yet represented by a quintessential game is one in which an independent developer might be able to gain a foothold. Even so, small developers have to make a lot of noise in order to be noticed and taken seriously, and it's not easy without an advertising budget.

7. What do you think will be the future of gaming?

I haven't really thought about the future of gaming, because during the past few years I've been mired in the history of gaming. The next few years should see some great GTA clones. Physics accelerator cards will eventually become mandatory equipment; you'll be able to destroy everything in a level and then walk to the top of the pile of rubble that you just created. That will be fun, at least the first few hundred times! Whatever labor-intensive design process is made possible by upcoming technology will probably be exploited until analysts detect that the industry is running out of money. I don't think the customer base will grow fast enough to support the expanding crews of artists, programmers, and marketing experts that will be needed to bring lots of big new games to market. First the global economy would have to develop to a point at which the people of India, China, and Africa could become consumers. A more likely scenario is that the industry will consolidate while adopting methodologies that allow the growth of development teams to stabilize.

8. So, what made you choose the Mac platform? It's not exactly known as a games machine...

I never made a deliberate choice; the Mac is the first computer I ever used, and it's still the only platform that I'm any good with. With that said, I think that the Mac has a lot of soul, so I'm happy to stick with it.

9. Why did you choose to produce a development program and not a specific game?

As I mentioned earlier, if I made a game, it would compete directly with the establishment's offerings, and it would probably fail. Even the relatively small Mac games industry is big enough to cast a shadow over unknown first-time developers. I could put a solid year of work into an original Mac game, but my only customers would be those who were so on top of things that they knew about all the games, not just the ones that were appearing in magazines and Apple Stores. A few of them would probably buy my game out of sympathy for my hopeless plight. Actually, with a lot of brainstorming and careful planning, I think it would be possible for Sawblade Software to make a game that would be well received and financially successful; I don't know if I have enough experience working in this industry to be able to make all the right design and marketing decisions at this point.

10. How hard was the development process, and what help did you have?

It was hard, but I went at my own pace. It wasn't nearly as hard as some things, like high school honors classes, where new material is being shoveled into your head faster than you can absorb it. Throughout the development cycle, I kept switching between tasks, making sure that every aspect of the application was up to par. I realized at the end of the process that the music I had composed for the bundled game was pretty bad, so my friend stepped up and submitted some great tracks. There are other aspects of the program that would have been weak if it wasn't for the help that I received from the 20 people who volunteered to beta test the program. And I'm very fortunate to have had the use of certain plug-ins and frameworks that made it easy to do some really complex stuff with just a few lines of code. The roughest phase of the project came before I quit my day job; using a computer at work and then developing Power Game Factory during the weekends made me feel a little burnt out. To anyone who wants to follow the path I took, I would recommend a low-stress day job that doesn't demand your full attention. For example, my friend works in the mail room at a small college, except it's the summer now and there aren't any students sending or receiving mail. So he can work on his PowerBook for eight hours. I read about this other guy who works the 3rd shift in a subway token booth, late at night when nobody's riding the train. Sounds a little lonely, but otherwise ideal.

11. Was there anything you wanted to incorporate but couldn't?

In retrospect, there's nothing that I wanted to add but couldn't; it's just that the stuff I did early on (when I was a crappy programmer) didn't lay the sort of groundwork that would have made it easy to add particular features that I now wish to incorporate. At this point, I don't see anything as an impossibility; I just think that certain features would be very hard to implement atop the existing foundation of source code. On the other hand, occasionally I'm surprised by how easy it is to add particular features- the transition to hardware accelerated graphics took only three or four days.

12. Will these features make it into future versions of PGF?

There are some things that seemed like they would be too difficult to add but now seem very doable. In fact, I just added a new feature to version 1.0.3 of Power Game Factory that I had previously given up on (anchored level resizing). But there are other things (like multiplayer network games) that will never happen. At some point I will want to direct my efforts toward new, more exciting projects. Endlessly tweaking Power Game Factory would make some customers very satisfied, but after a while I'd see diminishing returns; a few customers might be unhappy that Power Game Factory still didn't support some particularly arcane feature, but other people would be disappointed that after several years Sawblade Software still hadn't moved on and completed its next project. I respect 3D Realms' decision to spend an eternity perfecting Duke Nukem forever. Likewise I trust that Axl Rose has spent every minute of the past decade fine-tuning the upcoming Guns n' Roses album. But as Steve Jobs said, "Real artists ship."

I can answer this two different ways. First, I was hoping to make an application that I would have loved ten years ago, when all I could do was draw game ideas on paper. If there are kids who are doing the same thing now, I'd like to think that they now have a lot more creative freedom. But I also tried to accomplish something else. Once, I saw a program called Auto-Illustrator. It was every bit as advanced as Adobe Illustrator, but whenever you used one of the drawing tools, it would produce ridiculous shapes and patterns... rectangles would have misshapen corners; straight lines would become bent; little black bugs would come crawling out of the cursor and scurry around the canvas. I thought to myself "Wow, someone made an incredibly complex, polished Mac OS X application and completely f*cked it up." I wanted to make an application that was similarly polished yet esoteric, so that in the end, people would appreciate the program as much for the work that had been put into it as for its utilitarian value. To draw a parallel, a while ago I read about how the members of the heavy metal band Cradle of Filth have often spent months holed up in a studio, carefully engineering their compositions, slowly realizing their vision of perfection. But the finished music is full of screaming, bombastic drumming, and thick layers of guitar, keyboards, and orchestration, making it sound horrible to almost anyone who listens to it. I think what I'm saying is that the value of art lies in the process, as much as in the product. I wanted to know what it was like to make a huge, bug-free Mac OS X application that did something- anything, successfully. And I think it is a success, mostly.

14. How have people been using PGF so far? Have there been any surprises? I've been on the forum and there seem to be a lot of happy people, are you pleased with the response PGF has had?

People have been learning how to use the software, asking lots of questions on the forum, and helping each other out. It's been great to feel this air of excitement around the program. Some very talented people are using it, and it's an honor to see them devoting their energies to Power Game Factory; to me, it validates game design as a form of creative expression.

15. So, you donate 5% of proceeds to the UN World Food Programme? That's both cool and generous. Do you think that games companies have a responsibility to do more in the way of social matters?

At the end of the year, I'm going to give 5% of Sawblade Software's total, non-adjusted income to the World Food Programme. I'd like to promote the idea of economic equality, because it doesn't sit right with me that so many people are living it up over here while meanwhile there are a billion people out there living on a dollar a day. This year I will be paying taxes, but I'm not convinced that my tax dollars will be spent wisely. So I'm going to balance that expenditure with one that might provide more benefit. The World Food Programme isn't there to just dole out food; its intention is to give people the security and skills they need to take care of themselves in the future. I think all companies should consider the effects of their actions on the world, and then make adjustments if necessary. I'll admit that it's not a realistic proposition though, because many of the world's largest and most profitable companies are lenders; their very business models involve extracting money from those who already have little to spare.

17. What advice would you give to wannabe developers?

Steve Wozniak recently suggested that the most effective development strategy is for one person to do all the work. I think he might be right, because I can't imagine the inefficiencies that would be introduced if I asked a coworker to take over any portion of Power Game Factory's development. With that said, I would certainly recommend looking outside oneself for ideas and inspiration. In fact, look outside the medium of video games entirely. But don't rely on others to do any of your work. If you are a programmer who can't do art, you should start doing art full-time for a few weeks, and you'll surprise yourself at how quickly you gain the needed skills. Approach each task with the same degree of commitment: the seemingly mundane business chores are more challenging than you might expect, so don't take them lightly. Be a jack of all trades, even if it turns you into a master of none. That way when you finally hook up with others who have particular skills, you'll have a better understanding of their roles and you'll be able to work with them more effectively. You might even develop a better appreciation of the production process, and that will keep you interested in this business long enough for your abilities to fully develop. A word of caution: I don't think you need to take that approach if you want a job in the established industry, because it thrives on specialization. It's overseen by managers who excel at getting people with very different skills to work well together.

18. What future plans do you have? Do you plan other products apart from PGF?

Lately I've been devoting a lot of my time to assembling Power Game Factory boxes and mailing out orders, and when I'm not doing that I'm either trying to promote the software or completing little patches and bug fixes. The current version of Power Game Factory is 1.0.3, and it addresses a few minor bugs that were reported by users. Fortunately I got the program in great shape during a long period of beta testing, so there's not that much that needs to be changed now.

In the future, I'd like to collaborate with one or two others and develop more software. We have some ideas, but nothing concrete yet. I want to do something that will be a financial success, so that I won't have to work so much at regular jobs in the future. I think that one way in which we could ensure the success of the product would be to initially write a glowing review of it, as if it had already been completed. Then our job would be to create something that satisfies the description in the review.

19. Lastly, the gamepulse Genie grants you 3 (game related) wishes. What do you wish for, and why?

For my first wish, I'd like it if more concepts were tried once or twice, done right, and then left alone, instead of being duplicated over and over. We should be able to look back at past works and respect the designer's achievements without demanding a repeat. For example, Street Fighter 2 was superb; Super Street Fighter EX Alpha Plus 2 was overkill.

For my second wish, I would hope to maintain a long-term interest in developing, or at least playing, games. I don't want this stuff to get dull. I've noticed that it has been taking more and more to satisfy me lately, and that's kind of troubling. I don't want to get jaded as I age... I wonder what it will take to bring back the excitement I felt as a 12 year old.

Finally, I wish that the game industry would separate itself from show business. Games should be respected as independent expressions of creativity; they should not exist only to support established franchises. The industry should encourage higher standards of originality; if a game is based on a comic franchise, movie franchise, sports franchise, or skateboarding franchise, the game designer might feel like his hands are tied. I don't want designers (or artists, musicians, or programmers) to work like dogs only to realize that they're zombies subject to the whims of whoever is sitting two levels up the bureaucratic ladder.