Intro: Hello everyone and welcome to episode 84 of How I Built It. In today’s episode I talk to Seth S. Scott about something that has always been of great interest to me: video game development. Seth took a big risk by going to NYC and then going to a sort of bootcamp to learn game design. He’ll talk about how he built Membrane, a game for the Nintendo Switch. I played it a bit and I’m a fan! I bit of a mind bender (pun intended). We’ll get to that and more, but first.
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And now…on with the show.
Joe Casabona: Hey, everybody. Welcome to another episode of How I Built It, the podcast that asks, “How did you build that?”
Today I’m very excited to have Seth S. Scott with me. Seth reached out because he created a Nintendo Switch game. I’m very excited to talk to him about that today.
Seth, how are you?
Seth S. Scott: I’m doing fantastic, thanks for having me on.
Joe: No problem. Thanks so much for joining me. Why don’t we jump right in it? Because I suspect I’m going to have a million questions. I’m a WordPress Developer primarily, I’ve never programmed on a console or any medium like that, so I’m going to have lots of questions.
Why don’t you first tell us a little bit about yourself? Who you are, what you do, and how you came up with the idea for the game.
Seth: I guess I am a game developer now, game designer currently. Just released this game, Membrane.
I grew up in a creative family. My dad was an artist, and my mom was a musician, and I grew up doing a lot of art but also playing a lot of games and video games and sports and stuff like that. Games were always a part of my life, it was something that I always did for pleasure, but also was something that I wanted to kind of try and create or come up with stuff on my own as well.
After undergrad I became an educator and a teacher for a handful of years, working with kids in various formats. Whether it was summer camps, or before and after school programs, things like that. That was something I did my entire life, ever since I was 14, my first job. I decided to become an educator, a teacher in grade school, after undergrad.
I think that whenever you’re working with kids there’s this element of play and fun and experimentation and learning, which is something that I love to do professionally but also something I enjoy in games. One of the things I love about games so much is that element of learning and experimenting.
Ultimately, after teaching, I heard about this grad program that I just completed last year for game design. When I saw it and heard about it, the main thing that drew me to it was their approach. Which was different from a lot of schools, where it’s more of a computer science or programming approach to games.
This school was a fine art approach, which was something that I had a lot of experience in. My wife and I, who is the other half of my team, we put all of our eggs in this one basket and decided to make this trip. Uproot our lives from New Mexico to come to New York and go all in on this program and making games.
Ultimately that led us to Membrane, which started as my thesis and then something that we finished after school was done.
Joe: Nice. You moved from New Mexico to New York to join this program?
Joe: Nice. Is it New York City?
Seth: It’s in Brooklyn.
Joe: Nice. Cool.
Seth: But yeah, New York City.
Joe: I grew up about an hour north of the city. Longtime listeners will know, I vehemently say that is not upstate New York. People in the city will definitely say that though. Cool.
Seth: Upstate from them, yeah.
Joe: Yeah, exactly. Cool. You mentioned that your wife is involved in this as well?
Seth: Yeah. My wife and I have been together for almost a decade now, and we met in our respective creative fields of doing music. Each of us were in bands at the time and part of this music scene in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Our relationship has been based around being creative together and trying to do whatever we can to be creative every day, and ideally do it as a career.
I was the one that was going to grad school and stuff, but we always have been working together on this idea of making games. Games is really nice because it combines art, and audio, and design. It includes a lot of things that other mediums maybe just focus on one or two.
We just worked on a lot of stuff together. The final push for Membrane was something that we were working in tandem doing, and polishing up, and stuff like that.
Joe: Cool. That’s awesome. Now, before we get into the research and then actually building it, you mentioned that growing up you loved video games.
What was your first console?
Seth: My first console was the original Nintendo NES when I was 5, in the late 80s I think my parents bought one for me.
Joe: Cool. 1989, NES for me as well. I was 4.
Joe: What is your favorite console?
Seth: Wow, that’s tough. Probably a year ago I would have easily said the Super Nintendo. I felt like that was a golden age of these 16-bit games, and there was so much good stuff on there.
But the Nintendo Switch, their newest system, I think is a really great console and it’s finding a lot of life. Obviously, releasing a game for it, that’s exciting in itself.
But I’d probably go with the Super Nintendo still, then see where we go in a couple of years.
Joe: Awesome. That sounds great. I will say, I got my Switch the day my daughter was born and it has proved to be a really good console for dad gamers. Because it doesn’t require a whole lot of time commitment, most of the games, and they’re fun.
Joe: I don’t have to customize my Call of Duty character in a million ways to be competitive. So I’m a big fan of the Switch.
Seth: Yeah, it’s great. It’s a great on-the-go console and I think it’s just a lot of fun. It’s finding a lot of support and financial success which I think is ultimately allowing Nintendo to really double down and make it a great console, which they weren’t able to do as much, maybe, with the Wii U. I don’t know.
Joe: I think that after the N-64 there was a bit of a lull. The Wii was still a great console. The Game Cube, that came after the N-64. But I think that the Switch is Nintendo’s return to greatness.
Seth: For Sure. I totally agree.
Joe: With that in mind, I’d love to ask you, what kind of research went into this? Were you trying to choose between different consoles, and you settled on the Switch? What about the idea and putting a game together? There’s a lot that goes into it.
Seth: I think one of the biggest things in terms of where we decided to shoot for, console-wise, was going back to growing up. Getting a Nintendo and growing up in that era when it was Nintendo and Sega, and there was only a couple of these bigger consoles, and that was just what kids did. It was super fun and a great age of video games.
So, it’s kind of a lifelong dream, I guess, to release a game on Nintendo console. It was something that as I was applying to this program, I was thinking of what would be the ideal goal afterwards. There was maybe two or three things, and one of them was for sure just the idea of releasing a game on a Nintendo console. I was like, “If I could do that, I would feel like this whole process would be a success,” and something that the younger me just couldn’t even dream of doing, in a way.
As I was finishing Membrane and getting it to a place I was really proud of it and felt it was a solid build, not done yet, but something that I thought was beyond the initial prototype or initial design stages and felt like it was rounding into form at least gameplay-wise, I decided to push and go for Nintendo.
This was right when the Switch was coming out, so I knew that they were probably looking for games and developers and I know that their interest and appreciation of indie devs has been continuing to be more and more prevalent. That led me to think this was the perfect opportunity to go for Switch, and go for them as an indie developer.
Joe: Great, that’s fantastic. Did you talk to anybody about this, like the concept? You mentioned that this was your graduate school thesis. I know going through graduate school myself, I had an adviser, and I had to present to the class, and stuff like that.
How much influence did your class’ feedback, your adviser’s feedback, have on the game?
Seth: I can remember back to the first day that I came up with the very first prototype for this game. Something that my classmates, and good friends, and colleagues at the school were– One of the number one things was just, play testing, play testing, play testing.
If you’re making something, or you have an idea for a game, you should put it in front of somebody else within the first hour just to see what they say or see what their initial reactions are and continue to just do that. Maybe not every hour, but as often as you can, and any piece of art whether it’s a game or anything.
As the creator-designer, you have this idea of it in your mind what it’s going to be like when it’s done. It can be really hard to put your stuff in front of people, and put it out there before it’s the polished perfect little object. It’s difficult, but something that the school, and the colleagues that I was working with was saying. Especially for games, this interactive medium. Like, “If you’re not getting people to play it and find the fun in it right away, that you’re going to struggle later on with the core design or just with other stuff.”
I was showing it to people within minutes, or within an hour or two of the first prototype. Those initial reactions, I was super surprised with how differently each player played these first couple levels, which ultimately led me to double down on this creative and experimentation element that is the core of Membrane’s puzzle design and game design.
Joe: Man, that’s really cool. I love that, because being a coder myself I could easily get into the habit of putting hours and hours in something, and not releasing it until I felt it was ready. But again, hours and hours for me. I could have a working prototype in a couple of hours probably, in MVP even.
With game design you have art, you have code, you have whatever. But there’s a lot more facets than just me writing a web app, I imagine. I don’t want to diminish writing a web app, but it’s not writing a game.
Seth: Right. Yeah.
Joe: Cool. So– Oh yeah, go ahead.
Seth: I was going to say, I think the beauty and also one of the hardest things about building games is all of those elements are coming together and trying to find this balance between all of them. Obviously, depending on what the game is, or what you’re trying to do there may be more or less you need in art, or audio, or even game play.
It is a beautiful thing that’s super intriguing to me in terms of game design, as it incorporates all these different elements, artistic mediums, as well as that interactive side. Which is the best and coolest, but also hardest thing to perfect and get to feel and play really right.
Joe: Absolutely. So, let’s do this. I’m going ask you the title question, “How did you build it?”.
First why don’t you give us a synopsis of the game. You mentioned it’s a puzzle game, it’s called Membrane. What’s the goal of it? And then can you go into maybe, if you can break the game design into stages? You know, “Here I wrote the code, here we came up with the art, we combined it here,” whatever the process is like.
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Seth: Sure, yeah. Membrane is a creative action puzzle game where you get to build, bend, and break the world around you while experimenting to create your own solutions to puzzles of the game. The key design element of it was allowing this creative space for the player to experiment and come up with their own solutions, and engaging the player’s imagination, and rewarding that experimentation and imagination while embracing failure as this important part of learning.
I guess, going back to the initial stages, originally the game was built in Unity, the program Unity, and it’s all coded in C Sharp. It started as this single-level room with the first tool of the game, where you get to shoot these little blocks to build stuff. That was the very first initial prototype, just putting players in a blank space and allowing them to build and seeing if that was fun and in and of itself.
Which, like I was saying earlier, I showed it to a handful of colleagues and it was great to see how different people built and interacted with just that single space, one screen. That seemed exciting enough for me to move on to the next phase, which was to curate and design four to five levels, so that each one instead of being a blank space they had some kind of puzzle aspect to it.
Then that was my focus for the next little bit, was to build these puzzle rooms and see how people played with those. If it was more or less fun than the single room, and kind of going from there. At this point I still hadn’t worked on audio, or a ton of detail on the art. This was where I decided on this simple color palette for the game, which is a little more expanded upon in the final game now, but it’s still pretty simple in terms of using only a couple of colors. Because I wanted to design a space that was easily scannable for the player as they first stumble and see the room, they’re not confused what they can’t interact with and what they can.
I wanted players to be thinking about how to solve this stuff and not thinking about like, “What even is going on here, and what can I do?” That was within these first levels where that color palette started to turn into what it is now. After that I continued, those first four rooms went over pretty well, they were working together. Players were enjoying them, so I continued to just design levels and figure out what other stuff I could put in this game, and what other environmental contraptions or interactions I can make for players to play with and learn about.
Then I just worked on that for a couple months and really figured I needed a handful of levels to see how this arc to the game started to form, and how players would play it over a longer period of time than like, five minutes.
Joe: Cool. I have a couple of follow up questions there.
Joe: First, as far as elements for putting a game together, we’re looking at graphics, we’re looking at audio, we’re looking at the code, of course. What am I missing? Those are the big three I can see. What else?
I know you have different images and stuff like that, but you’re animating the images with code, right? You’re not creating animated GIFs, or whatever, to throw in the game, probably.
Seth: Right. I mean, you have this element of visuals, audio, and code or programming stuff. Using Unity, like I said earlier, there’s a lot of tools within that for you to do animations or to do lots of different stuff. Whether it’s UI, or how just the general game flow is, how you scenes interact with each other, how the audio works, how the animations work, all of that type of stuff. Which is a great tool to use for that.
I think besides it being widely used, and there’s lots of documentation, you can use it and then export your projects to multiple platforms which is one of the best things about it, in a way. Where you’re not just making “This,” and it can only be playable on “This,” it’s the ability to release in multiple outlets, which is very nice.
Joe: Awesome. OK, that makes a lot of sense. Because that was my next question, is you can export this code to multiple platforms. How do you how do you test that? Can you test it on your development machine, and then once you feel it’s ready to export to the Switch, you do that? Or is there some other testing environment that you set up?
Seth: Yes. One of the basic things, if you just go download Unity and start working on something, you can export it straight to an executable or build that you can play on whatever PC or Mac you’re using to use Unity. That is a quick way to build prototypes quickly and then export them. I mean, obviously you can play them within Unity itself, but sometimes you need to build it out for certain to test certain things.
I have done some mobile game development as well, and you can hook up mobile devices, iPad’s or phones, or Android, stuff like that directly to the computer and then test those within Unity as well, which is really nice. If you’re going a step further and developing for consoles and hardware-specific stuff, like Nintendo or Sony. Other consoles, Xbox, stuff like that. You can get specific tools and steps that are specifically just used for that hardware, to be able to test or implement certain elements to make sure it runs on those consoles or devices.
Joe: Gotcha. You should probably have the console, but do you necessarily need the console to test?
Seth: I mean, once everything was settled with Nintendo and we knew we were going to be developing for the Switch, I was able to get access to tools to make sure it ran on their hardware and stuff like that. But I still did a lot of the development to finish the game within Unity itself, outside of those tools, and then once I knew that the game was pretty solid, then I could work to make sure it specifically worked and interacted with Nintendo stuff.
Part of that was my own mindset in terms of like, “Hey, I might want to release this on Xbox or Sony in the future, or on Steam, and so I don’t want to finish the last 30 percent of the game specific to one piece of hardware.” So I was working with the game within Unity to make sure it’s design and feature complete, for the most part, and then taking it a step further for each individual branch off of that. If I wanted to make it work for this, or that, or stuff like that. I think it’s a good practice. You obviously don’t want to, if possible, design something that’s only going to be able to be used in one outlet. You’re limiting yourself from the forefront which can be can be good or can be bad, depending.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. That was testing, we talked a little bit about development. I know if I have a side project that I want to code up, I’m very inclined to just jump in a code editor and start laying down code.
Joe: I suspect any good software project– Like, I shouldn’t do that for my side project, I should plan it out a little bit more.
But I suspect for a game you’re going to want to plan that out a little bit more. Is that right?
Seth: Yeah. I think that prototyping, and quick iteration on ideas or designs is probably one of the most fun things to do in game design. It’s like, “Oh, I have this random idea about making a game about ‘blah’ or ‘this.'” And then jumping into Unity or into any other program or any other kind of way that you can make something, and just spending a couple of hours and throwing it together. Might not be the prettiest code, or might not be the best art assets, and just seeing it that’s fun. That’s the best thing to do, it’s the most fun because you’re not just stuck on this one project and focusing on this one thing and making it perfect.
I think there’s benefits to creating. One thing that a lot of us and colleagues at the school would do, is create these scripts and these packets of things that we knew could be used in multiple formats. Like, “Hey, this is a player-controller script, and I can write this, and then I can use it for quick prototyping and I don’t have to rewrite this code over and over every time.” Since Unity is a graphical interface to work with games, you can write stuff in code that then you can use within the Unity editor itself to fine tune those scripts.
It’s something I think is really good to do if you’re going to want to prototype and try out ideas, is create a set of scripts that you know you’re going to use for player-controller, or camera interaction, or item collection. There’s lots of little things you can do to save a lot of time down the line, and a lot of bad code errors that you’re going to do when you’re rushing stuff.
Joe: Absolutely. These tools kind of let you, “Fail fast,” is something I heard recently. You have an idea, you want to put it to the test, and then the sooner you find out if it’s not viable the less time that you waste.
Joe Casabona: Exactly. Failing fast and finding the fun. Those are ideas I think, creating something in general, but especially with games or interactive media, that is one of the key points that I think is important. Because if your game is going to fail, you want to know it sooner than later. Or if this interaction, if people are just not going to get how to use it, you want to know that soon before you spend 10 hours making it look great.
Joe: Gotcha. We’re coming up on time, and I want to ask this one question before I get to the last two.
Seth: Sure, yeah.
Joe: It has to do with the ratio between gameplay hours and game development hours. People will talk about how 10 hours isn’t long enough per game play, I think 10 hours is fine. It’s how you play it quickly, and I feel good completing it. But I’m also playing Super Mario Odyssey right now, I’ve had to have sunk hundreds of hours into that game and I’m not even remotely close.
With your game, about how many hours of gameplay are there versus how many hours you spent developing it? Roughly.
Seth: Right. This was something I’ve been talking about with a couple different people, both just friends and also some other people I’ve been talking to online, and the idea of games having a lot of their worth based on hour-count is something that is obviously prevalent in the gaming industry right now. Some people are like, “Oh yeah. If games aren’t this long, it’s not worth $60 dollars. If games are this short it should only be $10 dollars.” I think a lot of, maybe not all big Triple-A game companies, but a lot of games nowadays are being designed around this idea.
They’re just going to make the game endless, and have all this weird content, and these things, and impossible collectibles. Because it’s a developer being like, “There’s no way that players can complain about the game length. There’s no way they can say it’s not worth $60 dollars because I have 1,000 pieces of paper you got to find in our world!” Or something like that.
Joe: Right. “You want a lot of hours of gameplay, I’ll show you a lot of hours of gameplay.”
I’m going to show you so many hours of gameplay that you’re never going to beat our game. It’s something that, let alone as a designer or gameplay designer, like as a fan of games and whatever, I’m just against that. I like a game like Breath of the Wild or Mario Odyssey, where there’s lots of content and things to explore. But I also love beating a game and being like, “This was a fantastic experience. I can move on from it and go play something else.”
I find myself, especially getting older, having a harder time playing games. It’s something that I don’t get to do as often and I think there’s something satisfying about beating a game, or finishing a book, or finishing a TV series, or something and being able to appreciate it and see its full complete form and move on from it. Something I wanted to do with Membrane specifically, was create this experience that was a nice little book-ended thing that had a beginning and an end, and wasn’t going to be something that players were going to be lost in, and hopefully they can beat and complete.
There is this element of creative puzzle solving in the game, so sometimes the player hour-count can vary from player to player pretty well, but it seems like it’s somewhere between 7 to 12 hours, something like that. Depending on if you want to go for everything, get all the little collectibles in each level, could be a little longer. But in terms of development hours I don’t even know.
I was talking to somebody about this, and I was like, “Man, I wish I had some way to keep track, like your video game consoles.” Like, “You’ve played this game for 98 hours.” I wish that I had somehow kept track of this. But it seems like working on it full time at least 40 hours a week for a year, and probably way more than that, I don’t know. Hundreds, or maybe thousands? That’s kind of depressing. Definitely a lot of time.
Seth: It’s ridiculous if you compare the two.
Joe: Wow. Yeah, I mean, that’s wild. Obviously you learned stuff that you can now take and put towards new games that probably won’t take you as long, but it’s just interesting to see that. It reminds me of this Parks and Rec episode. Do you ever watch Parks and Rec?
Seth: Oh yeah, I love it.
Joe: Ben, when he gets laid off he makes this claymation thing that’s like, two frames.
Seth: Yeah. He shows it to them and then it’s literally four seconds, or something.
Joe: Right. He’s like, “I thought this was so much longer.” It’s just funny to think about because you do have these endless games, and you wonder how long they took to develop. Of course they have a lot of reusable objects, probably. But anyway–.
Seth: And a larger team, probably, too.
Joe: Right, yes. You have man hours versus personal hours, and stuff like that.
Joe: Very cool. I will say, to your point about, you like completing a game. There’s nothing I love more than completing a game. It would be like if I finished reading a book and I closed the cover, and then all of a sudden the cover opened again and there was more book to read. I’m like, “No. I just finished you.”
Seth: Yeah. You get the last page and then on the back cover, on the inside, there’s a tiny book with another 100 pages. It’s like, “Dang it! I thought I finished this book!”
Joe: Right. “Well, now I’ve got to read this now.”.
Joe: Awesome. Well, I’ve had a great time talking to you today, Seth. I want to ask you my favorite question, which is, do you have any trade secrets for us?
Seth: Any trade secrets, that’s a good question. Man, I’m going to say one thing that maybe sounds cheesy, but if you want to make games just keep making games. You’re not going to make the best game your first game, which I think seems obvious, but you’ve got to make a lot of stuff that is good and a lot of stuff that’s really bad. But if you’re not making that good and bad stuff and showing it to people, there’s no way I think you’re going to make it.
Because it’s still something that I think myself and even probably, I know for a fact people that have been making games for 10, 20 years still struggle with and do. Make a lot of stuff, show it to people, don’t just make it and then play it yourself and think it’s good or bad. Get other people’s feedback, because people will tell you if it’s bad right away. But they might also tell you like, “Hey, this is awesome.” And you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t realize ‘this’ or ‘that’ was cool.” And that’s good too, and helps you continue to make stuff even on a small scale.
Also, kind of in regard to that, is try and make weird, cool ideas that you have and don’t be like, “Oh, well this is something, but it’s not a stereotypical puzzle platformer, so nobody would play it.” A lot of the best games come out of that, so just keep making weird stuff.
Joe: “I want to do a shooter, but it’s not a World War II shooter, so I shouldn’t make that.”
Seth: Yeah. Just make whatever game you want to play, and if you have an idea run with it and see where it goes.
Joe: Sweet. That’s great advice, that reminds me of advice that my track coach– Well, I was on the field part. Clearly, you can see me. I’m not a runner. I was on the field part and he said, with shot put, he was like, “If you want to throw far you’ve got to throw far. If you want to run fast, you got to run fast.”
Seth: Nice. I like that. That’s good.
Joe: Yeah. If you want to do something, do it. And fail, and then win, and then, very cool.
So, where can people find you, and where can people get Membrane?
Seth: Membrane is available right now on the Nintendo Switch. It’s $9.99, $10 dollars, and the Switch is not region locked but it’s currently available in North America. We’re in the final stages right now of releasing it in Europe and Australia later this month.
You can find us on Twitter @membranegame, also on Instagram at Perfect Hat Games. On Facebook as well, “Membrane Game.” Feel free to reach out, we love talking to friends and fans and anybody of the like.
Joe: Great. I will link all of that in the show notes and I’m going to go download Membrane at the end of my day and I’m going to play for the Switch.
Seth: Nice! Awesome.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I kind of have to, I’m talking to the game developer, I got to give the game a shot. It sounds like it’s right up my alley, so I’m very excited to give it a try.
Seth S. Scott, thanks so much for joining me today, I really appreciate it.
Seth: Thanks Joe, it’s been a pleasure. I appreciate it.
Outro: What a fantastic story – I wish Seth all the best! I would strongly encourage you to check out Membrane if you have a Nintendo Switch. It’s a fun and unique game!
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Thanks for joining me, and until next time, get out there and build something!