Tim Wicksteed ‘It’s just win win win win win.’
Tim Wicksteed, discussing Unity engine.
Thomas Lashbrook Told you I’d quote it, Tim.
Tim Wicksteed is a very understanding man and a man I had to learn about in the space of 12 hours for an interview. Taking pretty much everything about game development into his own hands with Twice Circled, his one-man studio he has produced two games: Ionage and Big Pharma, and is currently working on his third: Megaquarium, as well as being named a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit.
I tried to figure out a way to make this interview more interesting than I could possibly do. So with my rather boring and mediocre array of questions, I contacted Tim and we went through them in as fun a manner as I could manage. As per Tim’s request, I have made him sound like the ‘smoothest talker’ (got your back buddy.)
So after Tim dealing with my incredible lack of preparedness for two minutes we actually got onto some questions:
Thomas Lashbrook – let’s start at the beginning. Mechanical Engineering, it’s not exactly gaming [development.] So what pushed you from mechanical engineering to ‘I want to make a game.’
I’ve actually been making games as a hobby since I was quite young. So even actually pre-teenage I was already experimenting with analogue games, like board games, pen, and paper type things and starting to learn a little bit of basic programming, and this continued all the way through my teenage years. I didn’t think at the time that it was something I could really go into you know? It wasn’t something really that schools or the people that do have influence on children really talk to you much about, you think games just come out of nowhere when I was already making them, I didn’t realise it was a career I could actually do. So following the advice of my dad I decided to become a mechanical engineer and do a proper job, and I did that. I got a degree in it and I did it for a couple of years and then there was this indie developer renaissance with the likes of Phil fish and Mike Bithell and Johnathan Blow, and I was inspired like countless other and decided that I could chuck in my day job and start my own company and become an independent developer. I guess the slight difference between what I did and what a lot of people did is that I didn’t make just one game and go ‘oh this is too hard I’ll stop.’ I freelanced to make sure I had an income and my first game, Ionage, was a flop, it was an android exclusive (laughter) you might be able to guess it was a flop from that. But the thing is I didn’t stop and that is the key: I made that but I learned an awful lot from doing it, and because I had this freelance background doing programming for other people I was able to carry on going; and that got me through to the Big Pharma moment when I struck a publishing deal with Positech games and I guess you could say the rest is history at this point. It’s pretty clear what happened at that point: I made Big Pharma and I’m making the game afterwards.
So how difficult is it… (poor attempt at relatability removed for my dignity but related to the questions) how difficult is it to bounce back
It is very difficult. There definitely was a period where I concentrated on the freelance stuff because I felt… yeah, I felt demoralised and it makes you think ‘am I just wasting my time?’ And obviously, no one likes that feeling. But I couldn’t help it. I got an idea for a new game, which was Big Pharma, and I just decided this is what I’m going to make next and the way I was gonna do it is I was gonna get publisher funding so I could afford to make the game the way I wanted to with a decent artwork spend. So there definitely was a period where I had to take a little break but that break was only about three months and then I got back on the road and going to all these events looking for publishers and I struck the deal for Big Pharma six months after Ionage launched.
Impressive stuff I think you’ll agree. Humans are not good at returning from failure but Tim managed a pretty impressive U-turn with Big Pharma, managing (at the time of recording, although Tim disputed it was more) around 230,000 sales. But back on point, we delved into the success that is Big Pharma.
So what gives you the idea to go ‘I want to make a game about producing drugs.
My original idea was to make a game about a factory, the key concept is the production line and it hadn’t been done before. It’s interesting, there’s this other game you may be aware of, Factorio, huge game, really popular. I came up with the idea independently and we both started the games at a similar time. I think we both had locked on to this persuasive mechanic about laying down production lines and mixing ingredients together in these automated factories. The root I took was adding this other theme because I thought I’ve got two things to work with: the factory and the pharmaceutical theme which I thought people would find interesting.
So the game is built on Unity3D, and I’ve been forced to ask by a friend, as Unity had developed a reputation as a cheaper game engine but now much large games have taken it up, Cities: Skyline for example. So why is Unity your engine over something else?
For me, Unity is a fantastic cross platform graphics engine and that is how I use it. I don’t use it beyond its graphics capabilities. I have my own code base I use on top of it which runs my engine and user interface. I do use the Unity interface but I have my own framework and toolset built on top of that. The reason why is Unity is a very graphical intensive engine in terms of encouraging ‘programming by drag-and-drop’ where as I prefer to program by code but credit to them you can do everything by code. They’ve exposed all of the functionality by code as well as the graphical user interface and so if you do want to use it as a well optimised cross platform graphics engine you can. I made my own engine for android but Unity cuts out around six months of development and it is much better than what I can do on my own.
The timeframe is important, especially as a one-man band.
Tim did say that he did use freelancers, and very much enjoyed using them, as this quote explains:
I love working with freelancers because of the independence, and generally, people become freelancers because they are happy with their degree of independence. So when I create a brief and they come back with something really novel, really awesome and I get to pick my favourite and I love that. Whereas if I had an artist in house I would have a much greater degree of managerial control.
Freelancers take note.
It is a novel change, and it has made a game that Tim is (and should be) proud of. It is a unique game and he convinced me to buy it, and I am enjoying it very much at the time of writing.
So after some more chit-chat about various topics such as freelancing and releasing into early access, we moved on to the next big thing for Twice Circled
So Big Pharma, big success (pardon the pun, not intended) and off that we ride into the next big thing: Megaquarium. Summarise it for me.
Megaquarium is a game about running your own public aquarium. It’s kind of like Rollercoaster Tycoon but with fish. So it’s taking the classic genre of theme park management and what I’m doing is… we’ve done roller coasters a lot of times, Planet Coaster came out recently and it looks great. But we love this game about running a theme park as it’s got really nice aspects: You’re trying to keep guests happy but at the same time get as much money out of them as possible. Then you have the creation of the exhibits. All those things are great but I feel like it needed mixing up. I can’t recall any other public attraction that has been done except rollercoasters.
The second he finished that quote we remembered Zoo Tycoon. But it’s no fun repeating games over and over. Tim wanted to make something new and interesting but familiar and without a direct competitor. Smart business practices.
Now to save the obvious question which comes with animal management games I did ask: Yes, you can kill people with sharks. The idea is that the mechanics are a little freer, so fish can begin battling with each other, people can fall in tanks, but experimenting wrong will ruin your park. The idea is to allow people to go a further than Big Pharma, which was very rigid in terms of structure. A quote here stood out about this style of development when I mentioned Sims and its ability to murder families by removing the pool steps which seems a great summary of the idea of the bigger freedom in Megaquarium.
It’s about asking the developer indirectly ‘if I made people stay in this pool forever would they drown?’ And the answer is yes and that is what is kind of fun about it. It’s the player trying to find the constraints they’re in and finding out they are not as constrained as they thought they were.
I may have just set many future aquariums to death with that quote. But doesn’t that freedom sound fun?
Megaquarium is due around March 2018. But if you cannot wait and want to learn more Tim does weekly video blogs on his YouTube channel, talking about the game, bug issues and design decisions, taking input from the comments section (a risky move) and has taken 2 ideas already.
So with Megaquarium on the horizon things are looking good for Tim Wicksteed this year. I mean I certainly am convinced into buying it, and not just to satiate my desire to murder consequence free. Tim Wicksteed is a good example of hard work and capital thinking getting you through thick and thin. Truly something admirable in an industry with a yearly Call of Duty.
Do you know what isn’t admirable? After a 30 minute interview with him, I realised I hadn’t told him my name. Sorry, Tim, I’ll be better next time.