This is The Escapists, made by one person, Chris Davis, who gave up a career as a builder to become a developer. He's done what many can only dream of doing, turning a hobby into a job. I chatted to Chris recently about the new game and making the transition from game player to game maker.
Prior to releasing his first game, Spud's Quest, Chris was a builder. But he left that behind after a modest but successful Kickstarter and "decided to go with the game development thing and quit roofing". That's led to The Escapists and a publishing deal with Team 17 that'll sees his new baby hit Steam Early Access soon.
For many people this is the dream. They're spurred on by stories of critical and financial success, or simply job satisfaction. In recent years it's become less of an exclusively 'professional developer' thing. For every Mike Bithell or Lucas Pope, both former industry devs turned indie, there's a Tom Francis, an ex-game journalist. Or Chris, whose pre-game development history consisted of putting the tops on houses.
So how's that work?
"I was just doing it as a hobby," he explains. "Since I was young I was always interested. Making little games here and there. When I was a kid it was BASIC, that was the language. I used to just do little things, muck around, but I never really made a proper game". Now he uses Multimedia Fusion (also used by Roll7 to make OlliOlli), one of the many programs like Game Maker and Unity making development accessible to anyone.
Those last two are responsible for games like Spelunky, Gunpoint and Nuclear Throne (Game Maker), or Volume, The Forrest and Hearthstone (Unity). These are powerful tools available to anyone, and they are increasingly ensuring that development isn't locked away in a tower, its access restricted by specialist training, equipment or retail models.
For Chris the transition was all about "just taking that step". While his first game was initially a slow-burning hobby project for eight years, the successful Kickstarter enabled the move into full time development. "You've got to be in a position to be able to do that, because you’re not going to be financially supported that much [at] first," he explains.
Chris puts his own escape down to two things. Firstly, he didn't ask for a lot; a £5,000 goal ultimately saw over £6,000 pledged. Secondly, the game's heavily Dizzy-influenced look caught not only the attention of the press but also that of the original creators of the series. "Halfway through my campaign The Oliver Twins started their own Dizzy Kickstarter and that brought a lot of traffic on to my game and helped it cross the line".
But the move into professional game development wasn't without a sacrifice. "I basically skimped on my lifestyle while I built it", says Chris. "I've not got a lot of responsibilities so it was enough for me to live off on while I developed it, get a bit of sales and move on to the next game."
It's a model he's followed with The Escapists, asking for an even more modest £3000 on Kickstarter and receiving £7000. However, successfully being Greenlit on Steam and signing a publishing deal with Team 17 means his new title has far more potential reach. Working with a publisher also allows him to focus purely on the development, letting someone else get on with the boring stuff. "To be honest I wasn't the most organised person when I did Spud’s Quest. One of the things I learned from [it] is that marketing your games is 50 per cent of the work. I realised that if you you’re not good at marketing or you don’t like [it] it’s going to be difficult. So this is where the publishing side helps me personally, because they do all the marketing and I was never any good at that sort of thing."
What's most encouraging for any hobbyist developers out there is Chris's complete lack of training or background in development, bar those early BASIC experiments. "Anyone can make a game these days compared to what it used to be [like]. There are so many tools. To do decent stuff you need a little bit of a mathematical brain I guess. Sometimes you need a formula to do certain things but I usually tend to just Google, find similar formulas and adapt them to something I need to do."
Chris's main advice is to "just keep it simple and then add to it. When I add features in my game I start really simple, check it works and then add stuff to it until it’s the feature I want it to be". It's also important to let people play your game. "Just put it out there and see what people think of it", he explains. "Put playable versions out, send it to people, get impressions of it. I think if an idea's good you don’t need too much pushing it around before it comes to the top of the pile. People will start showing an interest in it". It helps if your game has a bit of an angle to it as well: "With The Escapists people saw the idea was pretty unique and there's nothing too similar going around these days".
The Escapists is going to keep Chris busy for a while after release as part of Steam's Early Access program and it's already benefiting from audience interaction. "I've watch people stream early versions and I've got ideas from what they've tried crafting. They've had ideas and I've added them in. I like getting ideas from the audience because they have good ideas and they make the game better."
Much like Maia's Simon Roth, Chris agrees that audience involvement is increasingly becoming a part of development. "They are part of the process now. Especially with Kickstarter: if they've helped fund the game then they've got a right to say how it works. I think it’s good because it betters the game if you’re taking feedback. Obviously not every idea you're offered will be good. But the ones that stand out? You put them in".
Whatever the audience might contribute and whatever success The Escapist might bring, Chris is happy with his current set up. "I quite like how it is at the moment. I do the game and then people give me ideas and test it for me. I like that, it suits how I like to work". It's a great example of how now, more than ever, bedroom coders seem to making a return. That old '80s image of kids knocking out games in their rooms, those early days that created the industry we have now seem to be making a return and there's nothing stopping you from joining it.