Hugh Monahan

Designer, Stellar Jockeys

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON October 28, 2015

Discussion

Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
Hello! I'm Hugh Monahan, game designer and founder of the 4-man team Stellar Jockeys. We just released our first title, Brigador, on early access after several years of work and having built our own engine. Personally I split my time between running the business, designing gameplay, and building maps. I'm excited to share my experiences with everyone and am happy to answer any questions you might have. Thanks for coming!
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
What was the biggest difficulty you faced when building your own engine? What were some of the biggest advantages once you had it built?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@jakecrump Personally I'm not a programmer, so I can't speak to the difficulties of actually building the engine, but I'll respond to that from my standpoint as a designer. The downside is that it took us years to build up good enough tools to be able to work on the game in any kind of timely fashion, and that was an extremely painful process. You can't build good tools until you know what you're making, but without good tools your work progresses at a crawl. So the early days of development were a massive quagmire that took over a year to get any kind of real traction with the building the game. The difficulty was exacerbated by the fact that for 3 of the 4 of us Brigador is the first commercial game we've ever built, as well as the first project we've worked on together as a team. Now that we've survived that however, we're reaping the benefits of a custom engine. Practically everything in the game can be live edited, all my tools are more or less how I want them to be, and if something goes wrong with the game or engine we have the ability to just dig into it and figure out / fix what's wrong.
Harry Stebbings@harrystebbings · Podcast Host @ The Twenty Minute VC
@hughsj thanks so much for joining us today. I am fascinated, does the fickle nature of the gaming industry not concern you? we have seen titans like Angry Birds hit the wall, does that not show that the industry is so in tumultuous it is very difficult to have a sustainably successful career in the industry?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@harrystebbings I think it all depends on what sphere of the game space you live in. As with any industry there will always be periods of fluctuation, but there's no question in my mind that the games industry is a now permanent fixture of modern society. I don't think I'd ever want to be at the helm of a large game company because of the risks involved and the nature of development at that scale. When building a AAA game can represent an investment of $100m or more your margins for risktaking and experimentation naturally have contracted far more, and personally I prefer exert a greater degree of authorial control on what I'm building than is possible when the number of people working on a project is in the hundreds. Plus I like my full head of hair. At the scale we're working at I think there will always be a market, and that particularly right now it's a golden period for this type of development. The prevalence and ease of digital distribution combined with early access allowing development to be a more open and more financially supported process for the final stretch means that it's easier than ever to get your game out to buyers. The problem is that everyone has that idea right now so you're seeing a glut of indie games come into the market. However, I don't think it's the 'indiepocalypse' as many are toting right now, at least not for serious developers. Thanks to ready-made engines and the other points listed above, the threshold required to make a game is much lower which is why you're seeing this huge spike in the number of games being made, but the vast majority of those don't go beyond a hobbyist level. Good content always gets noticed, it just might take longer than it used to.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
Hi Hugh thanks for joining! Did you always know you wanted to get into designing games? What has been your path to Stellar Jockeys?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@ems_hodge I've tinkered with game design from a very early age but didn't start seriously considering it as a possible path until halfway through getting my industrial design degree in college (something that has proved invaluable to me by the way). Even then, I only really started getting to development thanks to a fortunate serious of coincidences, like living with my older brother for a few months after graduation while he was working as a level designer on a game, and connecting with an old friend who needed someone to do art for his programming project. Those initial experiences whet my appetite and from there I began to actively pursue and explore the game design world, which would eventually lead to me meeting the two programmers I work with now and to starting Stellar Jockeys.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Community and Marketing, Product Hunt
What are some of your favorite games?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@ems_hodge ooooh, that question always gets me because there's this large core of games from when I was growing up that I love and which I still come back to from time to time. X-Com, Doom, Masters of Magic / Master of Orion, Crusader: No Remorse, Syndicate, Wing Commander, Diablo... I could go on for a while. I didn't get into consoles until I was much older so my core experience with games growing up is almost entirely PC based.
Russ Frushtick@russfrushtick
@hughsj Hey Hugh, what were some of your biggest inspirations when designing the gameplay in Brigador?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@russfrushtick In building Brigador, my brother (Jack Monahan, did all the art and he and I always collaborate on design) and I had a handful of guidelines and philosophies that we'd always come back to. A small one is the "Doom Rule", which is that if you just hammer the 'enter' key in Brigador it'll take you straight into the game. That's a smaller facet of an overall idea to never waste the player's time. We don't have any long intro cutscenes, there's no stat grinding, and a run in the game can last as short as 5 minutes and still be a self-contained, satisfying experience. For people who really want to dig in we're building up longer and more complicated sets so that a single run could last over hour (provided you survive), but we wanted to make that be an optional element that people can approach when they have the time and energy.
Jake Crump@jakecrump · Community Team with Product Hunt
Were there any games that initially inspired you to want to design games?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@jakecrump There's two games that have always been with me as design inspirations and which I'll never tire of: Star Control (particularly SC2) and X-Com (original Julian Gollop version). Star Control is one of the most brilliant examples of asymmetrical gameplay I've ever seen, with simple controls and a tremendous skill ceiling. Some of my earliest attempts at design as a kid were drawing my own ships and coming up with rules for them. As for X-Com, I think it's one of the greatest games ever made, and is the only game I've played continuously in some fashion since my family first bought it when I was growing up. My love for that game made me want to understand not just how everything worked but to understand *why* it was such a good game to me, so year after year I'd come back to it to dissect it a little more and think over its structure. One of its greatest strengths is the continuity of gameplay-- there are no cast off elements of the game or pieces that exist in isolation. Every piece of that game is interconnected, and as a result little decisions or mistakes can ripple out into all different areas of the game. It also made me truly sympathize with anyone who has to work with budgets, hahahah.
Erik Torenberg@eriktorenberg · Former Product Hunt
What's next on the schedule for you guys?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@eriktorenberg Well we've got at least another 6 months of work fleshing out Brigador, getting it to where we'd be happy stepping away from it. If it does well we're interested in porting it to consoles and building out post release content-- it's taken us 5 years from starting the company to shipping a game, so we want to explore that space as much as possible. Past that, none of us want to take on a project of that size again any time soon, so after Brigador we'd like to do a serious of small projects to experiment and figure out where we'd like to go next. I've already got a notebook of ideas though that I'm chomping at the bit to start working with though, so there won't be any trouble making that transition.
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@eriktorenberg Well we've got at least another 6 months of work fleshing out Brigador, getting it to where we'd be happy stepping away from it. If it does well we're interested in porting it to consoles and building out post release content-- it's taken us 5 years from starting the company to shipping a game, so we want to explore that space as much as possible. Past that, none of us want to take on a project of that size again any time soon, so after Brigador we'd like to do a serious of small projects to experiment and figure out where we'd like to go next. I've already got a notebook of ideas though that I'm chomping at the bit to start working with though, so there won't be any trouble making that transition.
Andrew Ettinger@andrewett · PMM @Twitter // Previously @ProductHunt
How has the experience been publishing a game on Steam?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@andrewmettinger Steam itself has been great to work with, and since we have a developer working remotely we just use it to distribute internal builds as well. I've had an almost entirely positive experience getting Brigador onto that platform, and their internal tools for data tracking and other analytics are extremely useful. The biggest thing is that now the game is in the hands of players and they're letting us know what's good and what needs work, a conversation that would be much harder to foster without the built-in forums for every game. As a developer it's been invaluable, particularly with Steam Broadcasting now allowing us to just pop in on someone playing and watch.
Andrew Ettinger@andrewett · PMM @Twitter // Previously @ProductHunt
Having a small team and it being your first game, what mediums (communities, methods, etc.) do you plan on using to get Brigador out to the everyday gamer?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@andrewmettinger Good question. Twitter has been invaluable, though in ways I didn't expect. The most important thing I think was how it allowed me to casually connect with other developers; emails are still used but I'd say the majority of my correspondences with other devs were created and maintained via twitter. We're fairly isolated in Illinois so we didn't have access to local events that are prevalent in cities that are hubs for indie development like Boston, Seattle, Austin, and Vancouver. Connecting with other developers was tremendous both from a morale standpoint as well as a practical one. Thanks to those friendships I was able to learn from many mistakes other developers had made and avoid them myself, which taken as a whole over the last several years has made a tremendous difference. Twitter of course is useful for connecting directly with players, but I use it far more often to connect with youtubers/streamers who've played the game and to respond to points/issues/questions they might have had. The most powerful ways that word has gotten out about Brigador so far hasn't come from me but has come from our slowly but steadily growing player base and from courting as many youtube/twitch types as we can. Their approval of your product carries far more weight than anything else.
Alex Carter@alexcartaz · Operations @ 60dB. Ex-PH Podcasts 😻
Where did the look and feel of Brigador come from? It looks amazing!
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@alexcartaz Thanks! Jack gets most of the credit for that one-- he's been rather singular in his artistic drive on the project. Fortunately he and I share very similar tastes so it's very seldom that we disagree on aesthetics. To actually answer your question, the biggest inspirations came from the original Alien film, Blade Runner, John Carpenter's works particularly Escape From New York, and Kow Yokoyama's work with Maschinen Krieger. There's something especially appealing about that 80's concept of future tech-- very lived in, very bulky. Personally I find it to be one of the most appealing fruitful spaces to explore. Ultimately whatever we ended up building we wanted it to be very grounded, and bear the same kind of accumulation as real world spaces. We cycled through a few different ideas and aesthetics but landed on what you see now.
Ryan Hoover@rrhoover · Founder, Product Hunt
Hey, Hugh! What's on your podcast "home screen"? 😀
Jacqueline von Tesmar@jacqvon · Community at Product Hunt ⚡️
What's the coolest thing about working on a smaller game vs. the worst thing?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@jacqvon It's the same thing, which is that you get to / have to do everything yourself. Personally I'm responsible for designing the game, handling everything business related (contracts, payments, marketing, website etc), handling half of the community management, and building some of the maps as well. At times I love all of these things, but it can be really frustrating to not be able to focus on a single thing that you really want to work on or which really needs to be worked on because by necessity you're dealing with 4 other things at same time on top of that. Ultimately though, self-determination is the trump card for us. If we sink or swim it's by our own hand and no one else's, and we all want to keep it that way.
Bryden Keks@brydenkeks · Account Coordinator, Evolve PR
@hughsj In what ways does Stellar Jockeys plan to support Brigador through Early Access?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@brydenkeks We're just going to keep pumping out content. I'm probably as excited about it as anyone else because enough of the other elements of game development that I'm responsible for are finally taken care of (at least for a while) so I can for once devote a majority of my time to just working in the game itself. There's reams of vehicles, maps, text etc that I've been waiting to work on, there just wasn't enough time, and now I'm finally getting it.
@hughsj The people want to know: How are you so gosh darn sexy?
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
@zzelinski hahahah, I've found an active regimen of never leaving the office, sleepless nights, and long arguments does wonders for one's complexion.
Hugh Monahan@hughsj · Designer, Stellar Jockeys
Since the work I do is so numbers heavy I rarely listen to podcasts as they require too much of my attention to be meaningful in any way. That being said, I quite enjoyed Gimlet Media's Startup series (unsurprisingly), and if I do have a lot of grunt work that doesn't require a lot of concentration then I like to listen to lectures from the Teaching Company on various subjects.