Making video games: Lessons from the master
WHAT does it take to succeed in the game development industry? Grace Yew spoke to Firemint founder Rob Murray at Game Masters and uncovered the secrets.
Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja, and Minecraft.
These little games which have made it big were on display at the Game Masters exhibition’s indie hall of fame, and in their illustrious company was Flight Control, developed by Melbourne’s own Firemint studio.
Naturally, Robert Murray, Firemint founder and recently senior producer at Firemonkeys (the company just merged with IronMonkey), was at the exhibit. His unassuming, sweater-clad demeanor made him easy to miss but belied the steely determination of a successful CEO and developer.
Rob’s single-mindedness and passion for games have served him well through the years. His interest in game development started at a young age because he did not have the latest technology at that time.
“I actually got interested in making games when I got my first computer, at 14,” Rob reminisced.
“I liked playing games, and then I realised I could start making them. The computer I got wasn’t very good for playing games, so that was what really started it all – the fact that I couldn’t get the coolest games on my little home computer.”
Rob’s desire to enter the game development industry had him pursue a degree in computer engineering. On the cusp of completing his course, an advertisement in The Age led him to employment with Torus Games, and the abandonment of his formal education.
“I was really, really lucky because there was no Internet back then – or it wasn’t significant. I saw the ad, applied, and got the job. But I’d done a lot before that. I tried to start a business when I was 17, to make games, so that was my first effort in the industry. I had very little idea if I could get a job.”
Rob later left Torus and formed Firemint which specialised in mobile games and Nintendo GameBoy Advance commissions. He went on to work on a number of impressive games, including Madden, Fast and Furious, and Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
In 2009, Firemint published Flight Control for the iOS and quickly followed with more award-winners such as the Real Racing series and Spy Mouse – which knocked the wildly popular Angry Birds off the top of the charts.
Rob displayed remarkable foresight, jumping onto the mobile games bandwagon even before the advent of smart phones.
“Mobiles were a seriously exciting next frontier,” he recalled.
“At the time you could see that mobile phones were just beginning, and computers get twice as powerful every 18 months. I didn’t have to look too far ahead to realise that mobile games would be progressing well beyond what consoles were at the time.”
It was also a pragmatic decision as Rob realised the dangers of being overambitious.
“Back then, mobiles were small enough that I could get into it myself and develop my own games. Trying to build a big studio from day one, to compete on the consoles…that would have been really, really hard,” he laughed.
Firemint then recently merged with another Melbourne based studio, IronMonkeys, forming Firemonkeys, currently Australia’s largest game development studio.
According to Rob, the key to his success was perseverance.
“It’s the only thing that I’ve required in the past. I kept pushing at it until I got there. You obviously need to combine that with self-reflection skills, and know when you’re there.
“A more market-focused answer might be: you know you’re successful when everyone you know wants to play a game for its own sake, because it’s fun, not just because it’s your game and they’re being nice to you. You tend to get a feel for when something’s got potential.”
Although Rob’s route to game development greatness was unusual for his time, it is much less so today with many engineering students looking to enter the industry. Rob, however, reiterated the importance of creativity in extracurricular endeavours.
“You’ve got university education and that’s great, but it’s not enough. It’s what you’re doing in your spare time, your own passions and projects, which really become your form.”
Rob cautioned against youthful hubris when entering the industry, saying too many people get caught up with producing the next big thing. Would-be developers, he said, should start small.
“Learn to make games,” he advised.
“Make accessible games. Don’t try and make the biggest, latest console. Just finish a simple little game, until you understand what it is. Make a little Flight Control, just for yourself. Finish it, and it’ll become a foundation for greater things.”