How Jeff Vogel Makes Games

Tell us about yourself – Who are you? What do you do?
Hi! I’m Jeff Vogel! In 1994 (not a typo), I founded Spiderweb Software. For the last 25 years, we’ve been writing low-budget, indie, retro, deep, epic, turn-based, huge, story-heavy fantasy role-playing games for Windows, Mac, and iOS.

If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try? 
Avernum 3: Ruined World, probably. It’s our biggest game, both in size and sales.

One fact that we probably don’t know about you:
I don’t enjoy writing games very much. It’s a compulsion and a profitable job, but I don’t have fun. After doing it this long, it’s just a grind. But I’m not good for anything else, so I keep doing it.

What games are you playing most right now?
I’m going through a ton of indie games. I’m doing a lot of Subnautica and Beat Hazard 2. I’ll also try Celeste when Epic gives it to me for free.

What are your all-time favorite games?
I’ve been playing video games for as long as they existed, so it’s such a long list. I loved Rock Band. Ultima IV. Dragon Age: Origins. Space Invaders. Adventure for the Atari 2600. The Witcher 3. Did I say Rock Band?

What draws you to make games?
Compulsion. From when I was 5 years old and spent all my time in my room drawing mazes, I have always been compelled by puzzles and games. No matter what I do, I will also be making games. It’s an obsession.

How did you get started making games? Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product?
When I played my first video game in 1978 or so, I immediately knew that this was my thing. This was just before personal computers in the home became a thing. As soon as I could take local classes to learn how to program, I learned BASIC and wrote little games in it.

Now that I’ve been doing it for a long time, I have a process. I spend months just letting an idea marinate in my head. Then I spend a few months writing the story and designing the system on paper. Then I spend 3-6 months working on the engine for Mac/Windows. Then I spend 5-7 months writing the game world, writing dialogue, making dungeons, etc. Then I spend 2 months in final testing, PR, and setting up online store. Then I press the big red ship button. Then I do the iOS port. Then I’m done.

How do you market your games?
Word of mouth, mostly. We’re too small to do a real marketing push. We write games that are addictive and compelling to a small, niche audience, and then we hope they tell other people about our games. We want a small number of people to be super-passionate about our work.

What game-related or game business-related media do you consume on a regular basis?
Not much. I read Gamasutra sometimes. I read r/games. That provides me all the knowledge about the industry I need. I’m not really involved in the industry. I’m just a weirdo off to the side doin’ my own thing.

What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without?
Even since I’ve started, I’ve worked on the Mac, and I use a 4 button mouse. I program 3 of the buttons for Cut, Copy, and Paste. It has been an amazing, amazing time-saver for me.

What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest? How do you find playtesters?
We’re too small to pay for playtesters. We don’t have money. We get volunteer testers (like most indies), and our testers are the most awesome, hard-working people you could imagine. We start testing as early as we can, at least 6 months before release. I want lots of time to get feedback and balance tips. I don’t have time to play my games as much as I should.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them?
Nothing really jumps out at me, honestly. There were times when our sales went down, and we worked harder on the next game to get fresh ideas. We’ve had an easy time of it, compared to many. We keep our costs low and our expectations low, and get a decent middle-class living.

How do you handle life/family/work balance?
Over the years, I’ve become a hugely efficient worker. People in the game industry underestimate the value of practice and experience. It takes me far less time to do more work than it did twenty years ago. I’m super-efficient, which gives me plenty of time to live a decent life.

One of the tragedies of the industry is how it drives its workers out before they turn 40. We are wasting so SO much knowledge and experience, and it’s costing more in the long run.

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers?
Get a chair with good back support. You’ll miss your back when it’s gone.

Who would you like to see answer these questions?
Anyone who can actually make a living as an indie. It getting rare these days. Sales are down, competition is murder. Everyone has to follow a wildly different path, and I bet the coolest story will come from someone I’ve never heard of.

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received?
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

(Meta question: What question did I miss that I should have asked?)
What am I working on now? Our next game is Queen’s Wish: The Conqueror, coming for Windows & Mac, Sept. 11, and iOS out later this year. It’s an all-new, really innovative RPG with a fun story, huge world, and a wild variety of different adventures.
When you write indie games, you always have to hustle for attention.

Thank you so much for your insight, Jeff! You can check out more of his work at SpiderwebSoftware.com, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

If you’re interested in how tabletop games are made as well, check out out tabletop game dev interviews at AndHeGames

How Jan Willem Nijman Makes Games

Tell us about yourself – Who are you? What do you do? My name is Jan Willem Nijman, I’m a game designer, co-founded indie studio Vlambeer, and recently also helped make Minit together with Kitty Calis, Jukio Kallio & Dominik Johann.

If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try? 
That’s a tricky question! I love designing very different games for each new project, so depending on the type of games someone likes I’d give very different recommendations. If you like exploring interesting worlds and going on a tiny cute adventure, I’d recommend Minit. For hardcore people into super difficult but dense and rewarding roguelikes, I’d say Nuclear Throne. If you love more casual games and like playing stuff on Mobile, Ridiculous Fishing is the one to go with!

What games are you playing most right now? I recently made my way through Far Cry: New Dawn, that series will always be a guilty pleasure of mine. Besides that, I like to play loads of smaller experimental games on itch.io & I’ve been playing Michael Brough’s excellent P1 Select.

What are your all-time favorite games? My absolute favorite game is probably Samurai Gunn. I really love local multiplayer games, you can’t beat sitting on the couch and having a good time with friends. 

What draws you to make games? Being able to give players a new experience is something awesome. The fact that anyone around the world is able to play these strange little worlds we build is something I’m still amazed by, and super grateful for.

How did you get started making games? Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product? When I was 11 I was reading a children’s magazine called CompuKids, and in it was a short blurb about a tool called Game Maker. I thought that sounded cool, and decided to give it a shot. To be quite honest, I’ve never looked back. Nuclear Throne, Minit, etc. are all still made in Game Maker.
Regarding process: it all starts with doodles on paper. I’m not great at writing design documents, so I just try to get my thoughts sketched down as quick as possible. After that it’s important to just jump in and get started, especially making sure the game is playable right away. If you can’t play it, it’s not a game yet, and I don’t trust myself to make something without being able to test & see people having fun. From there on it’s just a slow uphill ride to the end!


What game-related or game business-related media do you consume on a regular basis? My twitter timeline is filled with amazing artists, designers, creators, journalists, PR people. That’s a great way for me to dive in and find cool new projects happening.

How do you market your games? Marketing is a super difficult skill, and there are people who are much better at it than I. Collaborating with those who understand this is key: games need marketing or no one is going to see them.

What are some tools/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without? Pen & paper, my trusty Game Maker, and notepad. I need something low key to write down notes.

What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest? How do you find playtesters? Ideally I’d playtest as much and as often/early as possible. It’s usually less painful to find out what’s wrong with your game early on, when you can still make easy changes. It gets tricky when you make a game like Minit, that’s very spoiler heavy. We had to be very careful not to playtest too often, because we’d run out of un-spoiled people.
For playtesters, I prefer people from all walks of life. It’s sometimes much more useful to have someone with little gaming experience make loads of mistakes, than to see a seasoned gamer avoid every issue with ease. I think it’s important to look your games flaws in the eye, and make it as accessible as possible!

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them? Making games is always hard, but luckily I’ve had the fortune to work with loads of awesome team members and collaborators. I think by working together you can motivate, inspire, and learn so much.

How do you handle life/family/work balance? It’s important! Work is fun, but I need life to be creative. I do much better work either way when I can live a full life on the side, so I just make sure to always stay on the safe side. I’d rather be happy and slightly less productive, than burnt out and extremely unproductive.

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers? If you can: make as many games as possible! Just get started, whether it’s on pen & paper or using simple tools such as Twine & Bitsy! Finishing games is the hardest part, so making (and completing) smaller projects is gonna get your more experience at first. A lot of my first games were little 3-hour jams.

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received? Be kind to people but don’t worry too much about what they think!

(Meta question: What question did I miss that I should have asked?) I’m glad you asked: my favorite food is lasagne.

Thank you so much for your time, J.W.! You can see more of his work on Vlambeer.com, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

If you’re interested in how tabletop games are made as well, check out out tabletop Game Dev interviews at AndHeGames

How Justin Ma Makes Games

Tell us about yourself – Who are you? What do you do? My name is Justin Ma.  I founded the game studio Subset games with Matthew Davis in 2012.  Our released titles was FTL: Faster than Light in 2012 and Into the Breach in 2018.  I do the majority of art on the games and roughly half of the design. 

If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try? 
FTL seems the obvious choice.  The gameplay revolves around making the player feel like Captain Picard, giving high level orders and trying not to get his crew killed.  It’s brutally hard but the setting and role as a captain of a space ship seems to resonate with a lot of people. 

What games are you playing most right now?Right now… I’m currently playing a lot of Mordhau, going through FF7 again and Cadence of Hyrule.

What are your all-time favorite games? The games that made the most impact on me might be – Final Fantasy Tactics, Super Metroid, Baldur’s Gate, and Spelunky.

What draws you to make games? I’ve been clearly obsessed with games and their design since childhood and that naturally lead me to want to make them.  I think what draws me the most is the fact that they’re these little experimental worlds where systems are coherent and explicitly designed.  The real world is overwhelmingly complex but games can be pleasantly straightforwards – 10 health until you die, this armor increases your movement speed, etc.  Figuring out how systems work and how best to exploit them is one of my favorite aspect of games… plus they’re just fun. 

How did you get started making games? Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product? Originally I just made a lot of small flash prototypes.  I’m not a great coder so they never got particularly far, but they were great learning processes.  When Matthew and started working together on FTL, our development process was pretty similar to my old mindset.  It’s a constant balance between coming up with fun mechanics and fitting into the restrictions of our small team.  Our lofty game ideas are heavily constrained by our limited skill sets – we won’t tackle a 3D game for example. 
Reaching a final product is always a challenge.  There’s always more you can add to a game so eventually you just have to figure out what would be a reasonable amount of content to ship – and then just polish the heck out of it.  It takes a lot of self restraint to give up on ideas you want to implement in favor of shipping earlier, but honestly it feels so much better to just get it out of the door.

How do you market your games? Not particularly well – our marketing strategy was largely built on being in the right place at the right time (aka luck).  We did a Kickstarter right as Kickstarter blew up in the games press with Double Fine’s Adventure Game.  Other than that, it has been largely word of mouth of fans and the happy coincidence that a lot of people in press just like our games and want to talk about them.  Into the Breach was largely just marketed on the back of our previous games – “From the makers of FTL” and all that.  We have a lot of contacts we try to reach out to but we don’t actually spend any money on marketing.

What game-related or game business-related media do you consume on a regular basis? I listen to game OST’s all day.  I watch twitch streams for atmosphere rather than specific personalities.  I watch a lot of GDC and other design talks online.

What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without? We rely a lot on Slack for communication and I use Photoshop for art. 

What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest? How do you find playtesters? For gameplay I mostly just prefer testing myself.  Every few months I like to get feedback from designers I trust to see if we’re on the right track or not.  Rather than making a game for a specific audience, I try to design things that I find fun… with the assumption that someone out there will agree with me.
UI and UX are the things that we playtest a lot – figuring out where people get confused and how to more clearly convey the games rules and systems.  This happens throughout development but most strongly near the end.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them? Puzzling through design problems and the early stages of game development are the most fun for me.  Some of the hardest are related to business – managing the company, interacting with distributors, finding contractors, communicating with press, conventions, and so forth.  We can do these sorts of things ok, it’s just not really where our interest or skills lie.  Beyond that, managing motivation and connection with others while working alone from home is a persistent challenge.

How do you handle life/family/work balance? When you work from home on a passion project it’s really easy to get lost in work.  After years of constantly thinking about game development even when away from the computer and not really knowing how to truly relax, I’ve started to actively set times where I try not to think about work.  Giving myself permission to focus on family and other things might be the hardest aspect to internalize, but it’s critical.  

What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers? Just keep making things.  Expose yourself to all aspects of development – a little about programming, a little about art, a little about design, a little about UX, etc.  You don’t have to be able to perform those jobs, but it’s critical for communication to be able to see from another team member’s perspective.  Understanding in principle how the code of a feature is set up will make you that much better of a designer, for example. 

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received? Life is full of experiences you don’t have complete control over – successes, failures, provocation, accidents, etc – The only thing in life that you have control over is your reactions to those experiences. 

Thank you for your time, Justin! Find out more about his work at SubsetGames.com, and follow Subset games on Facebook and Twitter!

If you’re interested in how tabletop games are made as well, check out out tabletop Game Dev interviews at AndHeGames

How Anthony Giovannetti Makes Games

– Tell us about yourself – Who are you? What do you do? My name is Anthony Giovannetti and I am a co-founder of Mega Crit Games. We are a very small studio that made the game Slay the Spire. I worked many hats, but primarily did development and design. 

– If I’ve never played your games before, what’s the first one I should try? Slay the Spire is my first professional game. 

– One fact that we probably don’t know about you: If computers didn’t exist I would have likely gone into Philosophy or History. I maxed out on Philosophy elective classes in college because I had the most fun with them. 

– What games are you playing most right now? Honestly, Slay The Spire. 😉 I have very little time these days, and nothing stands out as I have not really gotten hooked on anything. I would say various tabletop roleplaying games as I still try and make time for them. 

– What are your all-time favorite games? In general I rather dislike trying to think of favorites. For instance, I usually think of Planescape Torment as a game that had a large impact on me, but it’s almost the exact opposite of how I think about and play games today. I suspect that card games like Magic: The Gathering and Netrunner are some of the games that had the most staying power as “favorites”. 

– What draws you to make games? Games are fun! I think many kids that grew up loving games have at least thought about making their own. For me, I am also incredibly picky and always see things that I want to change in other media – so trying this out for myself just made sense.

– How did you get started making games? I met Casey (my co-founder) in college and we started making some simple hobbyist games while attending classes. After we graduated we went our separate ways and got “real” jobs in the software industry. After working for several years and saving up money, we reconnected and decided to try out this independent game development thing for real this time. We left our industry jobs behind to strike out on our own. 

– Describe your process (or lack thereof) when making games. How do you reach your final product? The process is basically generate a hypothesis game idea, sketch out a loose document for it, and then iterate like mad on the concept to see if it is any good. At each step along the way, iterate and test and challenge your assumptions. 

– How do you market your games? Poorly? We relied on Twitch/Youtube as vectors of marketing, and that was successful for us. It was more about making a great marketable game that saw constant updates. We did not pursue much “active” marketing efforts. 

– What game-related or game business-related media do you consume on a regular basis? I frequently play new games to see if there is anything I like about them. I like to analyze a game after trying it to see what I liked or did not. I also just consume all kinds of media though, as ideas can come from anywhere. 

– What are some tool/programs/supplies that you wouldn’t work without? Git is of course invaluable for anyone in software. Slack/Discord are also vital tools that we make use of in our day to day. 

– What’s your playtesting philosophy? How often/early do you playtest? How do you find playtesters? Playtest as early as possible, and try and get data on it if you can. Finding people is hard, so ask everyone you know, and have them ask people as well. Go to events to find even more people. Set up a Slack or Discord for your playtesters. 

– What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced in your work, and how have you overcome them? No good answer, things went really well for us. 

– How do you handle life/family/work balance? Work is OP. Devs plz nerf. 

– What one piece of advice would you give aspiring game designers? “Good” advice is more optimized for sounding nice than really delivering insight. Don’t look to advice, just go get experience. 

– Who would you like to see answer these questions? Jonathan Blow. Derek Yu. 

What’s the best advice about life that you’ve ever received? Nothing. Advice is usually surface level stuff, and often times contradictory or requiring caveats. See my previous answer on advice. 

Thanks for your time, Anthony! Check out more details about his work on megacrit.com, and follow Mega Crit Games on Facebook and Twitter!

If you’re interested in how tabletop games are made as well, check out out tabletop Game Dev interviews at AndHeGames