Kelly and I just got into Solar 2 (Xbox 360 Indie Games, Steam), a fun action/tactical game that starts you off as a humble asteroid and allows you to become a mighty black hole, complete with the ability to swallow the entire damn universe. Sound epic? It is. I got to interview Jay Watts, the one-man army behind the developmental magic and we discuss the game, how he got to be a full-time indie developer, and the industry at large!
FleshEatingZipper: First off, Solar 2 has been a supreme treat for us. Is this something you were able to do full time?
Jay Watts: I was working on Solar 2 full-time for the last 10 months. What allowed me to do that was Solar 1, which sold 30,000 copies on Xbox LIVE Indie Games, giving me the savings I needed to complete the sequel. Solar 1 was just a casual thing though, in the holidays of my Uni degree at the time.
FEZ: How well has Solar 2 done for you so far?
JW: I can’t release any Steam sales data for Solar 2. However it’s been on the Top Selling list ever since release, so as you can imagine it’s doing really well.
FEZ: What’s your background in game development? There’s a lot of kids going to schools now for this sort of thing, do you think throwing $20k at a community college for a degree is beneficial, or is it a matter of just learning and doing?
JW: My background into game development is absolutely nothing. No school, no work experience, not even any education in programming. I am 100% self-taught from the ground up, and I only started making games as a hobby along-side my university degree in genetic engineering around 2007-2008. For indie development like what I’m doing just learning and doing is what you need to do. Skills are handy, but self-motivation and ability to sit down for months and months on end working on the same thing with no boss and no one telling you what to do or helping you with anything is far more valuable. However if you want to go mainstream game development and work for a big studio, then going through education is the right way to go as they will be looking for qualifications and a wide range of skills that only a proper organized education can deliver.
FEZ: The look of the game sold me early on. I’m a huge fan of the original Master of Orion and that style of game just doesn’t exist anymore. If you look at the sea of indie games, particularly on Steam, you see a lot of sci-fi quasi-strategy game with busy, gaudy interfaces. What inspired you to go with a more elegant looking game in the first place?
JW: Because I am a terrible artist (I mainly focus on programming) and a simple, clean art style is all I can do :) The Solar 2 interface used to be less elegant, but I couldn’t get the background how I liked it, so I just removed it entirely and kept it like that!
Yeah, I don’t think the big floating interface slate would’ve done all that well. (Click to enlarge)
FEZ: When I play Solar 2, I think a lot of Osmos, another recent indie darling in this ‘start infinitesimally small and grow infinitely large’ genre, and I think a lot of flOw/Flower or to a grander scale, Spore. Were these games inspirational to you?
JW: Okay, I keep hearing that so allow me to clear it up once and for all. The Solar series predates both Osmos and Spore. Solar 2 is the 2nd game in the Solar series and the first game, Solar 1, was released March 2009, 5 months before Osmos was released. And development started on Solar in July 2008 back when it was a Flash game, which was before Spore’s September release. There are some early threads about it on the Newgrounds forums around August 2008. Those great elements in Solar 2 such as the infinite sandbox, collecting life planets on star systems and crashing through a physics sandbox were all developed with Solar 1. However, flOw was indeed an inspiration. I loved the simplicity of the game and the ambiance.
FEZ: But Spore had a pretty protracted development cycle as well. It ended up a bit different when it finally shipped, but I do remember being amazed by the ‘cell to space’ action/strategy involved. Are there game developers, like Will Wright, that you draw inspiration from?
JW: I’ve never played Spore, so I can’t really comment on it. There aren’t any game developers I draw inspiration from, except maybe Tom Fulp of Newgrounds/Castle Crashers/Alien Hominid fame. He has a great intuition on what makes a fun game and has a wonderful attitude towards gaming and game development as a whole.
FEZ: Let’s talk about Newgrounds for a bit, it looks like you were a regular there. I was big into Flash animation back in 2000/2001 and Newgrounds was my haven back then. While the site’s had a handy repository of great Flash games, do you the format is past its prime? Would you do a free-to-play, Flash version of Solar 2?
JW: There’s no point. I don’t want to waste time dumbing down the game just so I can make no money! However I MAY make a spin-off Flash game, so if there is a great idea in Solar 2 that would work as a mini-Flash game, then I may develop that just for fun. We’ll see. I think Flash games are bigger and more popular than ever, it was just never really my market. I like spending a lot of time on a single project and doing some technical things, whereas Flash games are just short, simple and casual, which doesn’t suit my development style.
FEZ: Do you think there’s space for indie developers to get into the Facebook scene? Obviously Solar 2 is a fast-paced game that Flash probably wouldn’t handle in most cases, but do you think there’s a place for games on there that aren’t built by big teams at Zynga?
JW: I don’t play Facebook games, so no idea! However in general, I will say that if you make an original enough idea, unlike any other, then there will be a market for you.