Michael Todd is a Toronto-based game designer known for his unique artistic sensibility and approach to gameplay. His independent one man studio, Spyeart, produces games that are as much about experimenting with new mechanics as they are about provoking an emotional response from the player.
From the terrifying simplicity of the survival-horror Scourge; to the frantic first person jet-packing of Spirit Guide; and the stark, surprisingly deep real-time strategy of Broken Brothers Deluxe. Every new game by Michael Todd makes us wonder what interesting experience he’ll create next.
Zack: Tell us about yourself and what you do.
Michael: I like building the games, mostly. I enjoy the difficult process of programming and designing and building levels and all the many pieces. I am a one-man studio, I’ve worked with other small studios before. I’m a solo developer, I don’t want to hire a team. I’ve hired contract work before but personally I’ve found, through trial and error, that I’d rather making the project myself. For most of my games I do the art, I do the programming, I do the level building, I do the PR, the marketing and the quality assurance. Inevitably you end up contracting some stuff, so I don’t do music, I frequently contract out QA, because professional QA studios do an amazing job.
Zack: Is it good to be indie? When it’s only you is there more control or do you suddenly only have yourself to blame?
Michael: I like the fact that, when it’s only me, it’s my fault. I’ve had a couple of times where people have, for whatever perfectly reasonable reason, backed out, or just decided to quit or whatever, and I found it very annoying that it wasn’t me. I’m left in the lurch, I want to continue but I can’t. So I’m going to work all day now, because if I don’t I can’t pay my rent. Because my studio is smaller, the way I do wages is more casual, but still I have to work every day, because it’s all on me.
Zack: If you have a sick day the entire company comes to a halt.
Michael: I missed a deadline once because I was sick for two, three weeks, larger companies, one person gets sick for three weeks, 99 percent of the company still moves along. But with the full control also means I care about it. With more team members I find you end up diluting it. Even with one additional team member, I feel you end up diluting everything. You have compromises. Sometimes that can be a benefit, if you have a large enough project, or a project that benefits from multiple points of view, if its simply too big for one person to do. But I find the weirder indie games, the more unusual ones do come from one person, just as a rule. I started doing indie games when I was 15, probably even earlier, I started doing serious eight hour days when I was about 17 and actually started to build and finish larger projects. I’m not an industry veteran, a lot of indies are, have been in the industry, have been on these teams, have said, “Oh my god, this cubicle farm is sucking my soul” and then got out to do their own thing. I’m one of the younger people who have come in from the bottom as an indie.
Zack: You leave the house to work, which, as a freelancer is very impressive.
Michael: I didn’t for many years, I can’t quite yet afford my own office and I don’t want to sign a five year lease. If I want to move to San Francisco, Paris, Sweden, I want to be able to do that. Five years is a long time. Five years ago I was not where I am today. Things change.
Zack: So as a single-person-company, especially a virtual one, you can really take your business with you anywhere.
Michael: In the last five years I have lived in a couple parts of Africa, Sweden, Brazil, Nova Scotia and now Toronto, and serious thought to San Francisco. Unlike many people, who are part of a hundred person studio, then when they move to another country they have to quit and find another studio to join, it’s a huge deal that I can wander.
Zack: What’s special about the Toronto indie gaming scene?
Michael: The Toronto indie gaming scene is incredible. I’d say that Toronto has roughly the same level of roots, with its own IDGAs, student populations and AAA studios. I can name cities with better IDGAs, AAA studios and student populations, what Toronto has is this level of indies that are amazing. Toronto has this huge coordinated group, San Fran has more indie people, but less coordination between them, less outreach.
Does Hand Eye or Gamercamp make the Toronto scene what it is?
Michael: I think Hand Eye is the backbone to everything, Hand Eye is the center of the web. It is not in and of itself a huge thing, but because it’s frequent enough and because it’s relaxed enough despite having a board of directors and an official structure to it, everything else can use it as a connecting form. Gamercamp can connect to it, so can ToJam, can connect to people. Everyone can go and everyone will know each other, get to meet and know the people who organize these things. I think the Hand Eye and Jim Munroe are a good 50 to 70 percent of why the Toronto community is so amazing, he really nailed it on the head, we needed to be connected. I think Gamercamp is more organized, not that Hand Eye socials aren’t they are just smaller events, with one speaker and demo, whereas Gamercamp is a lot more designed content in one place. It’s also once a year, so they can do that. A lot more time and money to making it a higher quality event.
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Zack: Do you follow through on your initial ideas or are you still building up experience and taking steps?
Michael: I’m always learning, never stopped learning. Learning is swimming, stop learning and drown. No, I find it’s very important and a lot of people are easily overcome with a specific idea early on, and there’s this exciting phase at the beginning of any sort of idea, it can last a day to a week. Too many people start building a game in that phase. I`m fairly careful about what I start. I might be working on it for about a year, if I chose the wrong project it would really suck. If you start abandoning projects, that’s bad. On the flip side, I will go into prototyping phases where I will make quite a few games in a month. They are very small and I don’t show them to anybody, they’re crazy and they fall through, you learn a lot. I’m getting better at anticipating what I will be able to do.
Zack: Are there certain things you are still trying to achieve?
Michael: Yeah, I’d say that’s two major things for me. One, I’d like to have a higher average. Right now, I’ll make a game, it might make some money. Games are far and few between, so is the money. The big thing is that when games are infrequent, it’s much harsher to have a game that fails. You don’t know when the next one will come along, if I could do a game every month or so, Steam or Direct2Drive. Even if they made less money. Unfortunately that’s not how the industry works, not on averages. You work to strike it big then you work to do the same again until the money runs out. The other holy grail is I’m working on a secret project. Normally I’m very open about my projects, I talk about them I post blogs about them, but this one I decided I wanted it to be secret. I’m enjoying it. There are benefits, but there are also disadvantages. You won’t have playtesting it every step, and the advantage is you won’t have people playtesting every step, whining that such is such is broken as if it isn’t supposed to be at that stage. So instead I’m just being very careful about the whole process. I will alert Dork Shelf when the secret project comes out.
Zack: Any advice to aspiring developers?
Michael: If you are thinking of becoming an independent I would say there are three important things. One, be prepared to be poor. I mean that seriously. Lots of indies are quite well off, some have struck it rich. Most are struggling along. I’m struggling along less than I used to. Make plans for your minimum amount of income, expect it to be even lower than your expectations. Don’t do it if you have three kids, a family you need to support, or at least make sure you have enough savings in the bank to take that risk. It is insanely risky. Second thing is use the internet. Lots of people say, “Oh, I’m an indie, I’m a designer” to which I’d reply, “Well what’s your TigSource profile or what small projects have you made in order to get feedback on your style? What’s your blog?” Sometimes they won’t know what these things are, and more often they just won’t have them. If you want to be this kind of developer you have to have access to these resources and you have to use them, so many people don’t do that. They don’t see what other developers are fucking up on, which is a big mistake, and everyone makes mistakes. Most of us then tell the internet about our mistakes. Fill your head with what other people are doing to succeed or fail. I find it silly when indies just don’t, y’know, use Google. Just google it, google indie games, that’s it. Google specific things you are working on. Third one is similar. Go out there and make friends. I was working on an RTS (real-time strategy), having trouble with the design. I knew some RTS designers so I called them up on Skype and we chatted about RTS design. It didn’t solve all my problems so I went online and searched for some of my favourite RTS designer’s emails. A surprising amount replied with full pages of solutions. The guys who make Company of Heroes are very nice, the guys who make Multiwinia are very nice, I still regularly talk with Alex Vostrov who made Attack of the Paper Zombies. Don’t be pests, don’t stalk them, they’re nice people so be nice. They want to talk and a take a shot at your problem.
Zack: This isn’t a position for shut-ins, even though the initial image you have is a cave-troll.
Michael: I’ve been a shut-in for portions of my life, dedicate myself to projects and not go outside, days at a time. Sometimes you move to a different city and it’s hard to meet others. But this is a field that is suicidally hard to succeed in if you don’t meet others, don’t know others, don’t know anything. They will teach you all sorts of useful, simple things.