Anna Marsh talks mobile dev, indie and AAA games

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The lovely Anna Marsh has 13 years of experience in the videogames industry and has a most impressive gameography. This lady has worked for Sony, Creative Assembly/Sega and Eidos as well as Crystal Dynamics. She is the former Creative Designer of the Tomb Raider franchise and has worked on brands such as Hitman and Alien. Needless to say she is legendary! I had the tremendous honour of being able to do an interview with her.

Marsh has done a whole bunch of other incredible work in the industry and is currently the Project Manager/Game Designer at Lady Shotgun Games. In this interview I asked Marsh about developing for the mobile platform, the importance of indie games and her views on AAA games.

Enjoy the read and give this amazing woman some love!

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Tell me about your current project.

We’re working on an iOS game called Buddha Finger.  It’s our first project as Lady Shotgun and we’re just in the final Beta to Gold stage, so we’re appreciating that whole “90% of the effort goes on the last 10% of the game” thing, ha ha 😀 

It’s a fast fun action game – a mix between beat ‘em up and rhythm action. At the start of the game Shifu, a master of ancient martial art technique Buddha Finger, reveals your separated-at-birth twin brother Logan, an Interpol agent tracking down shadowy nemesis “The Man”, needs saving. Shifu teaches the player his secret technique just in time as the enemies start attacking thick and fast!

I wanted to make something that anyone could play, so basically if you can count up to 9 you can play this game 😀  Its lots of fun, we’ve put depth into the scoring system so more skilled players will get better scores and fused it together with an excellently funny narrative written by our multi-talented writer and audio designer Katharine Neil. 

One thing we all believe in is that a strong project is one that’s “joined up” – all the gameplay, narrative, graphics and audio link to a central core “seed” which in our case is cheesy 1980’s kung fu action movies!

Why develop for mobile devices?

The barriers to entry are very low for a small indie dev like ourselves – we don’t need expensive dev hardware, we don’t need to go through a long approval process, we can just get cracking on making the game.  And on the flip side it’s easy for players!  No messing about – with your Smartphone or tablet wherever you are, if you have a couple of minutes to kill you can just go browse for a new game, download it for less than a quid and 30 seconds later you’re playing a game!  As someone who grew up going to buy games in shops on physical media, I find this pretty magical and awesome!

I have to say, I’m a total convert to the touch screen as an interface for controlling a game too.  If you nail that bit just right, it feels so natural and intuitive – I reckon going back to designing for a controller would seem pretty clunky!

What is your take on mobile and social gaming versus hardcore gaming? Many people view AAA and hardcore games as the foundation of the gaming industry, do you think that mobile and social gaming will replace it? Elaborate on your answer.

I reckon the term “Hardcore” has become a bit meaningless to be honest. Most so called “hardcore” games use all kinds of tweaks “under the bonnet” so they’re actually very easy to play.  And who’s to say that someone who plays hours of social games on Facebook every day isn’t just as dedicated a gamer as someone who only dusts off their console each time a new Call of Duty comes out?  There’s such a proliferation of interesting stuff on all platforms and genres these days the lines have become very blurry- I mean, where would you put Hotline Miami?

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To me a great game is one that I enjoy playing.  If it’s got focused game design and excellent communication with the player, perfect – who cares what format or genre it is.  Some mobile and social games have been fairly ruthless about how they extract money from their players but I don’t think that’s a reason to tar them all with the same brush – besides, is that monetisation really worse than churning out sequel after sequel as some “hardcore” franchises might be accused of doing?

There can be this snobbery amongst certain gamers and developers who consider core games as “real gaming” but I personally think that’s a load of crap.  Triple A really just refers to production values – just because it looks glossy doesn’t mean it’s a better or more “worthy” game.  I think there’s an element of sour grapes there – for years the console industry has been ploughing huge budgets and effort into making games into big experiences aping Hollywood films in the belief that that’s what players want, and suddenly all these casual and social game companies become hugely successful with games that couldn’t give two hoots about being like Hollywood films because apparently there are whole swathes of people that simply like playing fun games without all that gubbins – who knew? :D.

Which is certainly not to say I’m writing off so-called “hardcore” games, because there are some brilliant studios doing excellent titles that I adore playing – but at the same time I see my young teenage nieces, nephews and cousins playing more Minecraft and mobile/social games than traditional console or PC games. I do wonder if the core games as we know them have had their time in the sun.  

2012 has definitely been the year of the indie. What is your take on indie games/studios and the importance thereof in the industry today?

For ourselves, being independent gives us freedom to work flexibly, rather than standard office hours, and the freedom to work on projects we genuinely believe in, and I think these two aspects are what makes indie studios so vibrant and agile.  You don’t have to be “risk adverse” or put monetisation first in your projects if you don’t want to, because you don’t have big overheads to cover each month. If you’re loving what you’re doing and managing to feed yourself, any else is a bonus! And I think that natural passion for working on stuff you believe in shines through to game journalists who are brilliant in being extremely supportive ofIndies. 

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I think indie studios are essential to the industry right now.  The old school PC and console market seem to be concentrating on polishing a few tried and tested old genres rather than innovating new ways to play, and big studios can struggle to change their ways and keep up with the pace of change. Indiesare bringing games to new audiences and new platforms and keeping it interesting!

You, Sarah van Rompaey and Gabriella Pavan all work around childcare, how does this: being a parent and working around childcare influence your work and what does it add to you as developers?

In fact, our children are part of the inspiration for staring Lady Shotgun – we wanted flexible jobs that would let us work around part time childcare and that’s so difficult to find we decided to set up ourselves as indie devs. It’s certainly a challenge, but the flip side is that it makes us very organised and efficient – we have to make every moment we get count.  We plan out quite precisely what we’re going to do before we go ahead and do it.

We’ve all seen how inefficient traditional development can be, sometimes the attitude is to stick a team of people together, give them a vague gameplay direction and hope they work out something fun by the time the game ships.  I’ve honestly sat in a meeting where the publishing exec dismissed the game design of a project as “just putting a bit of shooting in”.  So we don’t tackle things that way, we have a good think about what we’re trying to achieve and work out a lot on paper before we dive in.  That’s not to say we never make changes, we’re doing that right now in making lots of little tweaks to the game to add polish, but our pre-production sure minimises the changes we need to make and the impact of those changes.

I think being a parent has also made me a better designer because it’s opened my eyes to the lifestyle of the majority of my potential audience. When you’ve been a “gamer” all your life you can lose sight of the fact that there’s only minority of people with the leisure time to sit engrossed in a single game for hours on end. For years in traditional dev I considered the term “accessible” to be synonymous with making a game easier but I now think that approach is fundamentally wrong.  Accessible is a game which you can play in short bursts, dip in and out of without having a great load of stuff to learn first, and where you can see very clearly the fruits of your progression.   Even a game that’s bonkers nuts hard in its game play challenges can be accessible if you make it that way.  I’m loving the challenge of learning all these new ways to design games! 

Last Updated: September 6, 2012

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