Interview: Metanet Software’s Mare Sheppard

From flickr user jeriaskaAs one of the co-founders of Metanet Software, Mare Sheppard has created games like N, N+, and Yeti. As one of the driving forces behind the Hand Eye Society and the TIFF Nexus Difference Engine Initiative, she’s also been one of the leading organizers in the video game community in Toronto.

Now, Mare has been invited to keynote the Freeplay Independent Games Festival this week in Melbourne, Australia. Speaking to a theme of Chaos and Grace, she’ll be discussing the struggles of indie developers generally and Toronto developers in particular, detailing what life is like in one of the most vibrant game development communities in the world.

Before departing, she took the time to give us a preview of her presentation. It’s a little late to book a flight to Australia, but one of the great things about Toronto is that there’s always another event on the horizon, so keep an eye out for Mare’s next project.

Dork Shelf: When you first got into game design, did you ever think you’d be invited to give a keynote presentation in Australia?

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Mare Sheppard: The thought never crossed my mind! It’s one of those awesome opportunities that pop up in life that could never have been predicted. I feel very honoured to have been asked to give this keynote, and am very excited to attend the Freeplay festival. It’ll be a fantastic opportunity to see what the indie game development scene is like in Melbourne, to meet some new people and especially to see what they’re working on. We’re so far from each other geographically, and we often don’t hear about all the cool things that are going on.

DS: How is Freeplay different from other conferences?

MS: I’m not quite sure yet. [Ed. Note – This interview was conducted prior to Sheppard’s departure.] Based on what I’ve heard, Freeplay is a blend of IndieCade, GDC and Gamercamp: a friendly celebration of indie games and their creators, some talks and panels about the ins and outs of development, plus the opportunity to play and enjoy some great games.

DS: You’re giving a talk about the life of an indie developer, and particularly about the life of an indie developer in Toronto. What is it about Toronto that makes it unique relative to other cities?

MS: That’s another reason I’m looking forward to checking out the scene in Melbourne: it gets easier to see what we do differently here when you’ve seen what others are doing. There are so many really exciting events going on in Toronto, and so many inspiring and creative people: there’s a real energy in the city and I find it infectious. It’s interesting to see how the community is growing and evolving. I think the small-ish size of Toronto contributes to the feeling of closeness in that community. So many indies are working within a few blocks of each other, and sometimes right down the hall from one another! It makes everyone very accessible and helps strengthen our relationships with each other.

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DS: The theme for this year’s Freeplay festival is Chaos and Grace. How does your keynote incorporate those ideas? Do you have any particularly chaotic stories?

MS: I try to describe how my life — and all our lives — has been filled with random opportunities that pop up sporadically, and we are faced with the choice of seizing each opportunity or letting it fade away. I do go into a bit of detail about some of the struggles Raigan and I have faced making games — the kind of stories I’m sure we all have lots of, because doing any kind of creative work is incredibly difficult and fraught with all kinds of perilous unknowns.

DS: Any graceful ones?

MS: Plenty! That’s what keeps me going. Between the hardships and failures there are these wonderful little moments of enjoying what you’ve created or what you’ve learned that make it all worthwhile.

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DS: Since most of us won’t be making the trip overseas, could you give us a quick preview of your talk? What’s an example of an obstacle that you’ve had to overcome during your career in game design?

MS: The biggest obstacle to overcome is probably coming to terms with struggles and repeated failure — games that aren’t fun, concepts that don’t work — and moving past them, recognizing the value in creative work even if it isn’t what you’d consider successful. Or even if it is! There’s always something you can learn, something positive you can take from that experience on to the next. Staying motivated during the hard times is so difficult, but so important.

DS: What makes all of those struggles worth it?

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MS: Getting a sense that you’re learning and evolving is both motivating and comforting. For example, we thought N was pretty great when we released it, but now when we play it, we think the first levels we made are terrible! They’re not fun at all, and they’re so poorly designed! But knowing that we made mistakes, seeing that there are things we do much differently and much more skillfully today, indicates that we’ve grown as people and as game developers. That makes it worth it, seeing that progress. It really gives me the motivation to keep working on new projects, and those developing skills help ideas come to life in new ways.

DS: What’s it like to have so many other prominent developers living in the city? Do you ever feel like you’re competing for people’s attention?

MS: Hands down, it’s utterly fantastic. I love being surrounded by inspirational people who have worked so hard on their games, put so much love and time and effort into them and watched them come to life — it’s just awesome.

And it’s not a zero sum thing. We all accelerate each other, in part because we’re friends. We share ideas and solutions and advice so it’s a network of support, not competition. When my friends release their games after years of work, I am so happy for them and proud of what they’ve achieved, and I know they feel the same way about what we at Metanet are doing. That makes it wonderful to live and work here, and moreover to have such great friends.

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DS: Are aspects of the city reflected in your work, even if the games aren’t necessarily about Toronto?

MS: Toronto and Tokyo tend to crop up here and there in our designs. Architecture is a huge source of inspiration for Raigan [Burns, co-founder of Metanet] and me in many ways, such as graphics (style, colour) and level design. Two examples that spring to mind: you can see some Toronto and Tokyo architecture reflected in several N levels, and I set Yeti here by quite literally recreating some Toronto streets and locations, then adding some quirky details. Our games really reflect our personalities and inspirations, and where we’re working at the time naturally finds a way to permeate that.

DS: In addition to your work as a developer, you’ve been involved with numerous community projects and organizations, including the Hand Eye Society and last year’s Difference Engine Initiative with TIFF Nexus. Do those initiatives ever get in the way of writing code? How do you find the proper balance between game work and organizational work?

MS: Finding the right balance is tricky, and I’m definitely learning a lot about how to manage my time and use it more effectively. I love programming and making games is the highest priority in my work life, but I also feel it’s important to encourage more people to make games and to help expand the community that supports them. That’s an activity that can consume infinite time, if you let it. This year I’m working on figuring out a better scheduling plan.

DS: Is that a problem that all indie developers should be prepared to deal with?

MS: Not necessarily, but I think the problem we all have to deal with is similar: the balance of work and life. I know for me, it’s hard to take weekends or any kind of break because you either want to be working on your game, or you feel guilty for not working on it. But I have many other interests and I’ve learned it’s important to keep some distance between your life and your craft (for sanity), and also that having variety of interests (art, film, travel, reading, etc.) means you have a variety of perspectives and ideas and inspirations coming into your life. That has a very positive effect on the creative work we do.

DS: How do people in other parts of the world respond when you describe the Hand Eye Society or any of the other groups that we might take for granted here in Toronto?

MS: Whenever I talk about Toronto, I try to do my best to describe the vibrant ecosystem that has grown here and people always seem to be delighted to hear about it. I really love being able to visit other cities and see how they’ve built up their communities as well. Raigan and I recently hung out with a bunch of awesome people in New York, which of course has meetups and Babycastles and lots of other cool things. I’ve heard so many great things about Juegos Rancheros and Dirty Rectangles and SF’s Drink N’ Test, for example, I can’t wait to check them out in person. I love that there are little pockets of indies everywhere, and we each put our own spin on what we do when we get together.

DS: You’re still working on Robotology and Office Yeti, the follow-ups to N and N+. Is there anything you can tell us about either of those titles?

MS: They are still coming!

DS: Do you have any brief words of advice for aspiring developers?

MS: If your game idea is novel, it’s also unpredictable: you can’t be sure it’ll turn out the way you envision, which can be scary and daunting. But in my experience, it’s always better to try and fail than to not try, because at the very least, you will learn something from the experience. You’ll be a better programmer through practice, you’ll have a better sense of what you want to make in the future, and who knows, you may stumble on an idea that works even better than the one you started with.

The Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne, Australia runs from Sept. 19 – 23. 

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