Profile of a Game Developer: Conor O'Kane
by Deborah M. Fike · 11/13/2009 (5:55 pm) · 11 comments
Since I'm in charge of entry level hiring on the Torque team, I meet a lot of passionate people who want to make games their career. These future developers, artists, and marketers often ask, "How do I break out into the games industry?" It's a tough question with a variety of answers. I know professionals who work for large video game companies, entrepreneurs who are striking it out on their own, and still other developers who learned the ropes as part of their secondary education. There is no set path on making games your career, which can be both exciting and frustrating to aspiring game developers.
Enter Conor O'Kane, long-time Torque community member and video game professional. He's one of those enviable people that's always doing something new and interesting. If he's not developing a game protesting Japanese whaling, then he's entering shmup (shoot 'em up) dev contests, working on his next iPhone game, or teaching video game development courses. He has over ten years of experience and has tried just about everything at this point. The following is a quick Q&A with a guy who has "tried it all" and is thinking up new ways to create games all the time.
Can you give us a brief description of your video game dev experience?After studying animation at Dun Laoghaire College in Dublin, I initially worked as a special effects animator, but I was always more interested in games. My first attempt at games development was creating custom characters for Quake 2. My entry to the games development profession was in 1999, working as an artist at Funcom, developing Playstation racing games. I've been working primarily as an artist and technical artist since then, but in 2007 I began developing my own games using Torque Game Builder.
What was it like working at Funcom and what did you learn?Working at Funcom was great, as it was my first game development job. However the main lesson I learned was that there are no secure jobs in the games industry - the entire console division was shut down after I'd been there for two years and everyone was laid off with no benefits. Perhaps I was lucky to experience my first company liquidation early in my games career. :-)
What games have you made recently, and how do you measure their success?Go Beryllium is a 2D bullet-hell style shoot em up which was created for a competition at Eegra.com. With this game I wanted to take the traditional scrolling shoot-em-up in a different direction than usual. Bullet-hell shmups typically feature either anime girls or space-craft, whereas the theme of Go Beryllium is sub-atomic particles. You play an atom of beryllium and must defeat other elements as well as exotic bosses such as giant neptunium atoms, Higgs bosons and micro black-holes.
Harpooned is also a shoot-em-up, but one in which you play a Japanese whaling ship tasked with performing research on whales around Antarctica. It's a satirical game, designed to highlight the hypocrisy of Japan's "scientific whaling" program. Harpooned has been very well received and is recognized as a novel use of the video game medium as a means of communicating an important message. It has been featured on American and Australian television and is a finalist in the 2009 EnhanceTV ATOM awards.
Harpooned has been making news since its debut onto the indie games scene in 2007.
What's your development process like?My development process always begins with a sketch of an idea. Whenever I get an idea for a game, I draw some concepts and experiment with backgrounds, weapons, level designs etc. on paper first. I then create an initial gameplay prototype in Torque without any artwork. Using this prototype I try to finalize the elements of gameplay that are essential to the game and define the scope of the project. Once I'm happy with how it plays, I produce artwork, music and sound effects to plug into the prototype. As the game nears completion I will usually post a preview on the internet - usually on the forums at shmup-dev.com or other game development websites to get feedback and help find any bugs. I then implement any useful feedback, test the game for a few more days to remove any last bugs, and then put it online for people to download.
How do you market your games?I like to post previews of my games on forums (such as shmup-dev.com, thepoppenkast.com and of course the TorquePowered forums) to get feedback and suggestions, but also to build some publicity about my game before it launches. When the game is done people are more likely to post about it on blogs and game review sites as they've already heard of it and are interested to see the progress. Sites like Kotaku and The Independent Gaming Source do a great job of publicizing small games. Bill at the2bears.com and Tim at indiegames.com have been particularly helpful by writing about my games.
YouTube is also indispensable when promoting a game. Most people don't have time to play all the games they read about, so they just watch the YouTube trailer to see what's worth downloading. A good trailer will really increase your downloads.
Getting user feedback early and often is built into Conor's game creation process.
On game education and training, why are you using the iPhone platform to teach games at RMIT?Most consoles and handheld platforms have a high barrier to entry, meaning that developers are required to spend a lot of money on tools, software, development kits and staff before they can begin creating their game. The iPhone offers a unique opportunity because it relatively easy and cheap to develop for. This, combined with Torque's low cost and ease of use, makes it a great platform for teaching. Students are normally restricted to developing mods for existing games and only on computer platforms, but this course will allow them to develop their own ideas from scratch. They can put their game on an iPod or iPhone and show it to their friends, or, more importantly, to prospective employers.
What are the challenges of teaching how to make games rather than just making them?When you're working on your own you will encounter problems occasionally that will stop your progress and require some lateral-thinking or inventive work-arounds. When you're teaching, you encounter problems like this every few minutes! Students are constantly finding new ways to break things or push software in unexpected directions. This means that when you're teaching something you have to develop a deep understanding of the subject and also a familiarity with all the things that can go wrong and how to fix them quickly.
What is the most important thing you hope your students will learn from your course?The point of a course like this is to demonstrate that you really can make a game entirely on your own. Lots of people have great ideas for games, but think they'll need to get a big team of programmers and artists to make the game so they never start. I hope this course will give people the confidence and the direction they need to stop wishing they could make games and start making games.
Do you have any advice for aspiring game developers?Don't just be an aspiring game developer - be an actual game developer! Download some tools and start making games right away. The best way to learn something is to do it and do it repeatedly. All the resources you need are available online, but if you really don't know where to start, then a college course or a book is a good idea.
"Don't just be an aspiring game developer - be an actual game developer! Download some tools and start making games right away." - Conor O'Kane
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Conor. We look forward to seeing updates on both your teaching and personal game projects.
For more stories like this, check out the Torque Developer Interview series.