We talk to Mad Fellows Creative Director Paul Norris about upcoming musical rail-shooter Aaero, being an indie developer, lying down in darkened rooms and the spacious accommodation offered by the original Xbox.
What inspired you and your team during the development stage?
The music is the heart of the game and listening to thousands of tracks to find ones that inspire compelling gameplay ideas is where the process for a new track starts. I also play an embarrassing amount of games when I’m not developing. Even if it’s just a clever little trick someone has used in the UI, a sound cue or a visual effect, there’s always something you can learn from playing other games of all genres. (At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m playing The Division and ARK when I really should be working on Aaero).
"A cult classic indie game is likely to be very lucrative… a cult classic AAA game is likely to be an IP that gets canned due to poor sales."
Can you tell us about your team at Mad Fellows?
We’ve been a team of 3 people for the majority of the development. Myself and Dan Horbury founded the company in 2013 and made a mobile game called SineWave. We then brought Kostas on board to produce the art for Aaero. I’ve worked with Dan for about 15 years now, first at Codemasters and then at FreeStyleGames/Activision. We’ve worked on lots of racing games like Colin McRae Rally and Race Driver then on Guitar Hero (from GH:III Legends of Rock onwards) and the DJ Hero games.
How difficult is it for indie developers in this current market? Can you take artistic risks and still make a profit?
It’s not easy. If you take your foot off the pedal for a second you’ll get left in the dust.
It’s certainly the case that indie teams take more risks with the sort of games they produce, the reason for this is two-fold in my opinion:
1) AAA games cost tens of millions to produce and therefore there isn’t much room for innovating too much and risking it bombing. Indie teams have smaller budgets and therefore can afford to release something that is a bit more niche. A cult classic indie game is likely to be very lucrative… a cult classic AAA game is likely to be an IP that gets canned due to poor sales.
2) Indie teams have to do something innovative to get noticed at all. I’m sure there’s a load of indie developed Call of Duty and Warcraft clones but you don’t hear about them, they don’t have huge marketing budgets and they just get lost in all the noise. The first Slenderman may get noticed but the thousands of clones that follow will likely not, unless they do something really special to the formula. You can’t compete with the big studios on their own ground so the only option is to think outside the box.
What advice would you give to someone looking to work in the video gaming industry?
I think there’s a lot to be said for working at one of the big studios for a bit. You get to learn all sorts of things from them in relative safety and you take home a steady wage in the mean-time. It’s been a trial by fire founding a company, securing funding, marketing etc. etc. Trying to do that while also learning to actually develop games would probably be a bit too much. I mean… “How the hell do you register with the IRS to sell games digitally in the U.S. and also these polys go weird and the mapping breaks when I use Boolean union” would have broken me. That’s probably just me, though.
My actual advice is be very honest with yourself, be realistic but also don’t listen if people tell you that you can’t do something that you’re pretty sure that you can. What they’re actually telling you is just that they couldn’t do it themselves.
"Don’t listen if people tell you that you can’t do something that you’re pretty sure that you can. What they’re actually telling you is just that they couldn’t do it themselves."
Where do you think the industry is heading - is VR the future in your opinion?
Even though I had to lay in a dark room for about 2 hours to recover from the DK1 rollercoaster demo, I’m really excited about VR. I’m not sure how much it will replace standard gaming but I’m sure it has a very important place alongside it. It’s like anything new, first we need to put absolutely everything we can find into it, then we’ll work out what is actually better in VR and it’ll be another exciting option for developers. We’re excited about getting into it and have a few of the dev kits here ready to go (we need to finish Aaero first though so they’re just very fancy hats for the time being).
What game(s) have had the biggest effect on your life, and why?
I’ve been trying to write this for a while now but there’s too many to list… bullet point time!
If my life ever flashes before my eyes it’ll have a HUD and a mini-map on 98% of it.
What does the future hold for Aaero & Mad Fellows?
We hope to get to a point where we can do more game dev and less ‘biz dev’. We’d like to grow a bit in terms of team size but still keep everything small, indie and super-efficient so we can afford to take risks and try new stuff.
If you were on a desert island (it has power) and could only take one console, what would you take, and why?
The original Xbox. It is the only console that can provide both heat and spacious accommodation.
Thanks to Paul for talking to us! Aero currently doesn't have a release date, but keep an eye on PTC for updates.