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Saturday, 16 March 2019

It's been five years!

I started messing around with games development in 2014, having given up programming 20 years previously. I returned to games because in 2009 my mother became unwell and I was unable to work. Being stuck at home, I was stuck for something to do alongside my duties as a carer and stumbled across Game Maker Studio on Steam in late 2013.

Game Maker Studio... At first I sort of dismissed it as I thought it would be just another one of those "make you own games" things that promise a lot but deliver very little, a bit like the old Shoot 'Em Up Construction Kit or that one where you could make text adventures (the name of which I've forgotten). I kept looking at it, thinking "It looks interesting... Maybe it's worth a shot!" and eventually bought it when it appeared on sale for 50% off.

My initial impression of GMS was that it was okay, but not really something I'd use for any long space of time. But I quickly got to working with it, finding the GML language to be very easy to pick up, and started working on a game called Blokker.

Onward and upward news
I intended to release Blokker through IndieDB, but I never actually completed it. The game was going to be a Breakout clone and feature 40 levels of increasing difficulty. It was going well, but I got bored with it about three quarters of the way through development. I decided that I didn't really want to go back to making games and uninstalled Game Maker Studio.

Fast forward a few months and I was thinking of making games again. Being a full-time carer is fine, but it does mean very long stretches of time where I'm in the house for days, weeks or months on end without a break, only getting out to do shopping or pay bills, and this can lead to some frustration. So I was wondering whether it'd be worth trying to start a small games studio that I can run from home in my spare time when I'm not otherwise engaged. Something to do to stop me going stir crazy. And then perhaps turn it into a proper business later on.

BritBitGames Logo
BritBitGames (all one word with weird capitalisation) was what I came up with. I started working on Blokker again and designed a small website to go with it. However, I quickly realised that I still didn't care that much for Blokker and shifted focus to a thing called Project Prototype.

early BritBitGames website
Project Prototype was an idea I had where I would release demo versions of games I was working on and people could offer feedback and suggestions as to what they'd like to see added to the game before the release as a final product. The first, and only, game that came from this was UTS-187. It was released for free on Desura as a 4 level demo and was featured in their Freedom Friday promotion. It was downloaded over 1000 times and got some really good reviews from the people who played it, but the actual feedback I was looking and hoping for to drive development of the final game never came. Desura shut down due to funding issues (I think) and nothing else really came of Project Prototype. I thought that maybe the 1000's of people who downloaded UTS-187 would have led to more followers and people interested in my stuff, but it really didn't work out like that and I limped along from one aborted project after another feeling a bit frustrated with things. I foolishly thought that it'd be like the past where some small success led to an audience who were interested in your stuff and further success from there. The success of things like Super Meat Boy and other indie titles tend to give the impression that it's easy to get spotted and have a hit, but it doesn't really work that way.

UTS-187 banner
We get to late 2016 at this point, and I was feeling a bit pee'd off with the whole games development thing. Even though UTS-187 was a minor success in terms of downloads, I was still messing around with freebies and not really making any headway towards turning BritBitGames into a proper company. So, with Brexit on the horizon, and financial uncertainty in the air, I decided it was time to call it a day once and for all. Getting a foot on the indie games ladder was proving to be a lot harder than I'd originally thought it would be, especially since it seemed a lot easier to get people to play your games 20 years ago, and I was in a situation with being a carer where it would be very hard to actually make any money from games development because I couldn't really put in the required hours to make it work, and there are lots of stupidly complicated reasons why I couldn't really make a profit from it.

Early ACOB logo
Then came A Collection of Bits... It was originally going to be a blog with my opinions of games and games development. However, I'd recently started reading Retro Gamer magazine and I'd noticed that there was quite a following for old games and gaming hardware. This really clicked with me because I'd been happiest as a gamer and a programmer when I was messing around with my Atari 2600, Sinclair ZX81, Commodore 64 and Amiga. I thought it might be an idea to make games based on retro ideas with the emphasis being on the gameplay and the fun rather than on flashy visuals and what top notch celebrity we can get to play the angst-ridden antihero in our next Hollywood-like-open-world-MMO-FPS-shooter-rehashed-sequel-20XX-hype-em-up!

I started looking at old Atari VCS games, and games from developers who were around at the same time as I had my C64, and seeing how they were put together to extract the best gameplay from the limited hardware, and proceeded to plan out the next game I was going to make along these lines. Even though it was going to be developed on modern hardware, this game was going to be retro!

early Retr0ids banner
This game became Retr0ids. It's a 2d Asteroids meets Robotron shooter with a few nods to the style of Jeff Minter (including camels) designed to look like it's running on a BBC computer (sort of). It was released on on Jan 18, 2017 and was surprising popular with a small group of people. It's not going to set the world on fire, by this time I'd given up any grand ideas of becoming something big in the indie scene, but it had grabbed the attention of people who enjoyed if for what it was. It helped that I'd just finished doing some graphics for Clive Townsend's Saboteur re-release and I was able to use the ninja character in that game as a villain in my own. I was also regularly hanging out in Dino Dini's Twitch stream and he helped me out by playing the game on there in between working on Kick Off Revival, which really generated some interest.
I felt that I'd re-found my niche as a developer, and this led me on to creating Hyper-Galactic Spider from Mars, which pushed the retro game idea even further with a look inspired by the old Atari 2600 video games from the 80's. Sure, I still wasn't making any money and ACOB is just a very small fish an a gigantic ocean of games developers, but I was starting to enjoy it more and I think that's what really counts.

Hyper-Galactic Spiders from Mars
I admit, I would still like to make ACOB into a proper studio and become really established as a games developer with releases on Steam and other stores, maybe even physical releases, but my current situation as a carer makes that a very difficult prospect at the moment. It's not really the amount of time I spend caring that prevents me from making this grow, it's more the systems around being a carer and having to deal with certain people in authority that make the whole thing harder than it really should be, but maybe I'll go into detail on this at a later time. It's not that I want to become the next Notch and earn billions from my games, I'd be quite happy earning a modest income and enjoying the process of making what I enjoy. Enough to buy food, pay bills and carry on gaming, and I'd be happy.

new ACOB logo
In the mean time ACOB is continuing to move forward, slowly but with purpose. I've now released three full games and two demos over on, and I'm looking to start working on new projects soon. I'm still aiming towards the retro-inspired theme, though I may start looking towards a more 16-bit inspired style soon. I'm also intending to start up the daily development streams again, but in a more casual manner than the previous ones I did last year. I just have a few things to work through at the moment, the biggest one being my mothers ongoing battle with cancer, so things are going to be progressing slowly.

However, if I keep working at this, I may one day create that proper games studio that I'm aiming for!

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