An interview with Danny Day – aka – ‘Dislekcia’. Co-founder of QCF Design, and ‘Indie’ Game Developer, Day is known for his multitude of games, inlcuding the ever-popular ‘Desktop Dungeons’. In a recent visit to our Cape Town campus, Day offered our young and aspiring Game Design students a rare insight into the pros and challenges that form part-and-parcel of this fast-growing industry. Here’s what he had to say:
What was the main motivation for you to enter the game design industry?
“I pretty much just always made games whenever I could, because it was fun. Eventually I realised that school and university don’t actually help you figure out what the hell it is you should be doing with your life, so I decided to stop letting misconceptions get in the way of my dreams. Been working towards them ever since.”
What did you study to be able to enter into this industry?
“I have a computer science degree. Half way through the process of earning that, I realised that I could get more useful knowledge out of university that I wanted to have to make stuff with right now, so I took a whole bunch of additional courses: Art history, visual communication, human-computer interfaces, psychology, literature, film, could never manage to get into the music courses.”
“That said, I feel like I wanted to do CS and all the rest because I was already trying to design games all the time anyway. The real topics of study that seem to inform what I do are things that I did ever since I was a kid drawing mazes for my classmates: I’d watch people, because they’re fascinating; I’d try to take apart any system I came across; I’d always play “what if” scenarios in my head; And I loved asking a billion questions all the time, but I’d never degrade into the pointless “Why? Why? Why?” loop of annoyance.”
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome in the South African game design industry?
“My own misconceptions about work, creativity, code, art and entitlement. I was spending so much time when I was young making everything harder for myself than it needed to be…
Recently we’ve overcome a bunch of business obstacles, stuff like PayPal being available locally, better internet being there if you can afford it, making contact with indies overseas and going to large industry events, etc.”
Do you think game design in South Africa is significantly more difficult in comparison to other countries? If yes, why do you think that is?
“Not really. Game design is game design. I think locally we tend to assume that there must be some difference that’s actually responsible for the difficulty, but the truth is that it’s just hard in general, no matter where you are. I feel like this tends to come from the feelings we have when we play games, because they’re all about mastery and improvement, so we assume that building them should be similar when that’s not the case.”
“I do think that AAA game design (the traditional approach of working for a large studio that’s being funded by a top-flight publisher for millions of dollars) isn’t possible in SA right now, but that’s due to publishing and economic realities, not any inherent difficulty. I prefer to see that as a good thing, pushing us towards indie design and digital distribution, which doesn’t care where you live.”
What specific skills do you think game designers in South Africa must have to distinguish themselves?
“The only thing that matters is the ability to produce games and experiences that people want to interact with again. Everything else comes from that and there are a vast number of ways to create your own style and vocabulary as a designer. As long as we’re building games, we’ll do fine.”
If you look back at your career until now, what was the biggest achievement as a game designer?
Winning the 2011 IGF Award for Excellence in Design at the GDC in San Francisco. Watching studios like Introversion win at the IGF had established them as personal heroes while I was fumbling around trying to make games at first. Going on to meet hordes of those personal heroes as a direct result of the game I was working on (including Mark and Chris from Introversion) was so incredibly overwhelming that I have a hard time remembering it actually happened to me, not someone else.
Do you think schools like Friends of Design help to give the local game design/development industry a boost?
As long as people are making games as a result of these courses, then definitely. There’s still a gap in terms of the business skills required to survive as a studio, but that will come eventually too. Right now, we need great games that people build because they want to play them, not because some random client wants something kinda like Angry Birds but with their product instead of pigs.
How do you think the game design industry will develop in the long run in South Africa?
I think we’ll start seeing more and more indie studios establishing themselves and eventually cross-pollinating on projects. Teams will form for a specific game, release it and work on other things as they earn royalties. I doubt that we’ll have ever be dominated by large publishing houses like Ubisoft does with the Canadian games industry. I hope that we’ll be a source of interesting games with different flavors to those coming out of the rest of the planet, I also hope that we step up and use the power of our medium to impact our country for the better. Games can and do teach, and that’s one of the largest holes in our local institutional framework: Education.
Do you have aspiration to work on bigger game projects?
Here’s one of those misconceptions: What makes indie projects “smaller”, per se? Every day I run a team of 8 people, spread out across the globe. I write code, maintain backend systems, manage customers, direct art/sound/music, run a company and sometimes sleep. I’ve been on the same game for nearly 3 years now!
I dream about working on smaller projects!
What advise would you give to future game designers who want to work in South Africa?
Start building things right now. Just keep doing that until you get good at solving design problems. Read up about everything and develop a broad cultural understanding. Have fun with your life and your games will echo that.