Hi folks, I’m Jordan Heaton, the founder of Skjöld Game Studio (currently working on Battle Siege Royale) and I wanted to share my journey from a first-time programmer just learning on GameDev.tv to launching a full-blown Kickstarter campaign (GOING ON NOW)! The journey has been incredible, and I’ve made a lot of friends and colleagues along the way. So many people have been instrumental in getting me to where I’m at and I want to offer what I have learned about venturing into the indie game industry with the intentions of making games for a living. I still have so much to learn but being a business owner already helped me apply a lot of what I know to build a budding and eventually blossoming studio.
One piece of advice that has stuck with me is “If you do the hard things first the rest will be easy.” It’s something Ben says a lot in the course, and I find it to be true in nearly every facet of life. I have a background in level design and 3D modelling, but rather than start with a bunch of beautiful visuals and build the programming around that, I decided to take his advice and start with the core mechanics. Looking back, I’m very glad I didn’t just start modelling a library of assets. I’m glad because some of it wouldn’t have worked with my programming. Now I can model and design around the foundational mechanics rather than trying to build a foundation under an existing level.
GameDev.tv has a few questions for me that I wanted to address, but first I wanted to share a little bit about how I went from studying programming to launching a Kickstarter.
1) Start a reasonably sized project (especially your first)
From the beginning, I knew that I needed to be careful about how ambitious of a project I would want to take on. I have a propensity towards starting projects that are a bit out of the scope of practicality. As the founder of MERP (Middle-earth Role Playing, a mod project first for Morrowind, then Oblivion and eventually Skyrim) and a few other total conversion landmass mods over the years, I knew what it was like to bite off more than I can chew.
2) Build a community
Almost immediately after I started working on Battle Siege Royale, I started a Discord server and invited a bunch of friends from the modding community. This set the initial foundation for my community because those friends told other people in other communities about the game and invited them to my server. It was easy to invite my friends but I was more reserved about sharing my work with people I didn’t know. I waited until June to start social media pages on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. That was a mistake. By the grace of God, we have almost 1,000 followers on Twitter (at the time of writing this blog), but if I had started sharing BSR with folks three months earlier when I started the game, our community may be well ahead of where it is now. Don’t be afraid to share your work because you think it isn’t “good enough”. Most people in the indie community are very encouraging and will only try to help you get better as well as introduce you to other valuable contacts.
3) Learn to work with a team
I can relate to most programmers, I like to do everything myself and I don’t like relying on other people, but I had to learn to get over this in order to be successful. We’ve all heard it said “…no man is an island…” and it’s true. While some of us are capable of marketing, programming and 3D modelling a game completely alone, even the most solo of solo devs still need contacts, community, fans, players and press to help them put their games in the laps of an audience. I know it can be hard to let go of the “perfect” vision when other people start creating content for your game, but you have to let your partners express the same level of creative freedom you also desire as an indie developer. I’ve learned from past mod projects that if I get too tunnel vision on how a game should be, I’ll lose my partners. Nothing is worse than trying to put together an entire universe by yourself when you have deadlines.
4) Don’t be afraid to ask
The only reason I have to opportunity to write this blog and share with you folks is because I asked! Ask, seek, knock, repeat! Sure, a few folks might get peeved at your persistence, but most people admire tenacity and energy. This ties in with my thoughts above. Again, no man is an island, so don’t be afraid to reach out to other developers, press and entrepreneurs. Even if these people seem “better” or more “experienced” than you, reach out. When I was in the rodeo circuit, some of the best advice I was given was, “Always surround yourself with people who are better than you, people that are already where you want to go. Being around those kinds of people will force you to rise to the occasion.” The advice worked out well for me.
5) Take time to Relax
Be tenacious, energetic, and well informed. Research your butt off! Work hard and keep trying even after a few minor setbacks, but always remember to relax about the things you can’t control. If somebody rips into your project, don’t lose sleep at night over it. If you’re stressed about how your Kickstarter will go, take a walk, spend some time with friends or family, seek out a bit of encouragement. As developers, we’re used to having complete control over the environments that we are creating, but you can’t control how others are going to react towards your creations. So just relax. If you can’t have fun doing what you love, then where can you have fun? At the end of the day, even the worst failure is still an opportunity to learn something.
Here are a few questions that the folks and GameDev.tv wanted to ask us;
Question: What’s your background; was programming something you always wanted to do, were you into gaming as a kid, what were your favourite games?
Answer: I’ve always had an affinity towards open-world games and when Elder Scrolls III; Morrowind was released, I was drawn to the open-ended nature of that game. I had played several open-world games before Morrowind, such as; Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Pokémon Red Version and Everquest. Morrowind; however, was the first game I was able to mod extensively. The developers delivered the same tools with the game that they used to create the game. This extended the amount to which that game could be modified. I had toyed with modifying other games in the past, but nothing had come close to the level of freedom that Morrowind offered with its developer mod tools. I used that tool (The Elder Scrolls Construction Set) to learn some of the basics of level design. I then taught myself Blender and began importing my 3D models. My goal was to recreate all of Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe in the Gamebryo engine. My mod, called MERP consistently made it to the top 10 on ModDB.com. As the years went on, I became an adult and went to work and college. I had kind of forgotten about mod making. Years later, after finishing college and getting married, I fired up Blender just to have a play around with some 3D models. I had forgotten how much I loved this stuff, so I dusted off some old files that had been stashed on a hard drive from 11 years earlier and resumed work on the very original MERP mod for Morrowind.
It was about this same time that I started my own construction business. I wasn’t sure if I would be successful as an entrepreneur, but I knew that I wanted to have the freedom of being my own boss. After two years of being a successful business owner, I considered, “Why not start a business that I’m passionate about?” I figured, I already know the ins and outs of running a business and I had learned a lot over the past two years. So, I dialled my closest friend and fellow entrepreneur and pitched the idea of launching a game studio. He had expressed to me in the past that he was interested in learning to program. I suggested he learn to program and I would use my 3D skills and together we would take over the world. He was a bit interested, but after doing some research decided it was too challenging of a task and in his words, “If you’re such a genius Jordan, why don’t you learn to code yourself?” I took his sarcasm as solid advice and decided I would start looking into learning programming for a game engine. I did a bit of research on Unity and Unreal (the two most widely used engines) and settled on Unreal as the obvious choice for a battle royale game. And that brought me to GameDev.tv and their course on C++ for Unreal. Sorry for the long-winded explanation!
Question: How did you end up on a Udemy course? Did you do any programming at school? Did you take the course instead of a college course?
Answer: I know many game programmers have an engineering background and went to school for this, but I chose to study Elementary Education in the hopes of making it as a teacher overseas doing mission work (a long-term goal that continues to emanate in my mind.) Ironically enough, when I graduated high school, I was immediately accepted to Westwood College of Denver for their Game Art program based almost entirely on my portfolio of 3D models; however, my uncle dissuaded me from pursuing such an “unrealistic” profession. Life took many turns for me before I embarked on launching a game studio. I did everything from being an auto mechanic to a fruitful career as a rodeo cowboy (no joke, go look at my Facebook page!) but I would always find myself circling back to these open-world games and a yearning to bring my ideas to life as well. Having practically zero prior background in programming, I might have been a little overconfident, but I wasn’t daunted by the task of “teaching myself” how to code C++. Unlike teaching myself Blender though, I decided this time I didn’t want to waste time bashing my head against the wall. I needed to seek out some resources that would expedite the learning process. I was getting older and the ol’ noggin just wasn’t what it used to be (could have been those concussions from the rodeo circuit)! I stumbled on GameDev.tv’s Udemy courses and I figured the $12 or so that a course was going to cost (It was discounted at the time.) was a relatively low risk. I figured the course would probably take me a week and give me a good launchpad into coding for Unreal. The course ended up taking me two months! I was more than pleasantly surprised to find the scope and depth the course offered. It is not an understatement to say that the C++ Unreal course gave me 90% of the resources I needed to get my game off the ground and playable.
Question: How did you find the experience of the course? What stuff did you like / not like about online learning, Ben as a teacher and the GameDev.TV community?
Answer: GameDev.tv courses are very effective for my learning style, but more than that, the course was a lot of fun. Most people play video games because they enjoy overcoming a challenge and receiving a reward for it. I found Ben’s style of teaching programming to play off the same desires. Ben would do a bit of demonstration/explanation, but then would encourage us to pause the video and complete a challenge. I always took time to do this because it was the bread and butter of the course. I would scour over documentation, forums and the discord channel brainstorming solutions and trying to solve the challenge Ben presented to us. The reward was watching a static environment come alive through my efforts. We know that online courses have limitations but there aren’t any limitations that can’t be overcome with a little tenacity and the team at GameDev.tv works very hard to help students overcome the hurdles. Overall, it would be no understatement to say that the Unreal course was a true delight. I liked it so much that I purchased four copies for other aspiring game developers I met over Discord and offered them jobs when they finish.
Question: How much time did you spend on the course, ie a couple of hours a day, a few times a week?
Answer:I run a construction business, I’m married and my wife and I had our first child in December so you can imagine I’m quite busy; however, I knew that in order to develop my skills as a game programmer it would require a solid commitment, so I set aside 2-4 hours every night after work to dedicate to the course. I also made extensive use of weekends. My wife has accused me of being obsessive at times, but I enjoyed learning from Ben and Sam in the C++ course. My wife has been an incredible support through all of this. Starting any business is tough and starting a game studio is the toughest. I wouldn’t have even tried if she hadn’t been on board.
Thank you folks for taking the time to get to know our small and emerging studio. A big thank you GameDev.tv for all you’ve done to help get us here, and thank you to all our followers on social media. If you like what we’re doing at Skjöld, you show the greatest support by donating to our Kickstarter, following us on social media and sharing with your friends and family!