Ideas, Programming, and Everything Else: Game Design with Austen Mesaros
Austen Mesaros is a 24-year-old programmer and game designer from the Kansas City area. You might recognize his last name from another Everyday Creator I spoke to a few months ago — this is Erin’s brother, so yes, he’s mine, too. I wanted to interview Austen for a number of reasons beyond annoying-big-sister levels of curiosity. First off, because I’m also a game designer (though of much lower technical caliber) and want to feature more creators from this particular field. But also because I believe Austen embodies a particular subset of game designers: those who hack away at their craft for years, learning every facet of the development process in order to complete projects, start-to-finish, all on their own. Creating games by this route definitely takes discipline and patience, but I believe the result is an extremely valuable set of skills that can lend themselves well to numerous projects and fields. Austen himself has created a dozen app-scale games and other programs, with his most recent project on the cusp of being released in the app stores — his first to be available for anyone to download. The details are under wraps for now (you can find out more below), but in the meantime, check out his lessons learned and other thoughts on indie game development!
How did you fall in love with game design?
I’ve enjoyed playing video games for as long as I can remember, so my interest in game design is pretty much just an extension of that. I would also say that having an active imagination, along with my love for problem-solving, helped push me in that direction. I was around 12 when I became particularly interested in game design, because that was when I discovered that making a video game was possible to do on your own, as opposed to working at a company with hundreds of employees.
What do most people not know about your type of work or your personal creative process?
When I tell people I make games, I usually get the same response, which is something like, “That’s amazing, I wish I could do that!” They’ll usually cite their lack of math skills as the thing that kept them from learning. For that reason, I have two things to say: first, game development isn’t necessarily as math-intensive as most people assume. It’s a bit like Sudoku — you work with numbers, but you solve the puzzles using logic. Obviously, it’s a case-by-case basis, but if you can do basic algebra, you can make a game.
Secondly, game development is probably easier to do today than ever before with tools such as Unity and Unreal Engine, not to mention the extensive documentation these programs have online. If you want to get into game development, we’re living in a golden age as far as I’m concerned. [laughs] As for my personal creative process, I guess people wouldn’t know how ugly and convoluted my code starts out before I return to clean it up.
You’ve been a one-man show for your games so far. What aspects of building a game do you like most, and which jobs do you like least?
I love the programming. I love getting “neck-deep” in code, trying to get the basic functionality of the game up and running. I also really enjoy the planning stage of design, since this is where you get to run wild with your ideas. The jobs I like least are the ones I’m least good at, which is almost everything pertaining to asset development. This is where having a team would be most helpful to me, but for now, I get to practice being the jack-of-all-trades.
What helps you recharge your creative batteries?
Simply taking a break from whatever project I’m working on helps to recharge my creative batteries. Some of my best ideas came to me after returning to a project after a few days off. It probably has something to do with the fact that you’re coming back with a fresh pair of eyes, and can more clearly see what is and isn’t working in your game. Also, just living life with your game in the back of your head can sometimes give you ideas at the most unexpected times.
What always gets you excited about game design?
Video games. More specifically, seeing the enthusiasm, creativity and technical-prowess that comes from developers both big and small. Game modding also gets me excited about game design for similar reasons.
What is a daily or otherwise regular discipline you’re following right now, related or unrelated to game design?
Right now, it’s setting goals for myself, which is both related and unrelated to game design. Every day I try to knock out a few objectives in my project, and make mental notes for objectives I can handle the day after. Sometimes I meet those goals, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes new problems arise and end up taking all day to solve. What’s important is that I keep plowing through, little by little, and not let setbacks destroy my enthusiasm.
In what ways have you improved over the past few years? What do you still struggle with?
That’s a tough question, because I don’t really notice myself improving. That’s not to say that I haven’t improved, but it’s just so easy for me to get more caught up in what I can’t do than what I can. I think my workflow is more streamlined, I have a greater grasp of the languages and software, and I can more easily navigate common programming problems that would have slowed me down in the past. But again, much like bodybuilding, it’s hard to realize how much you’ve improved since you first started. So my advice (as cliché as it may be) is to never give up, because you probably won’t notice that you’ve improved until you have something new to compare with the old.
Even if you never “succeeded” in your field, whatever that would mean to you, what would keep you creating anyways?
Well, I suppose the hope of success is one thing that drives me, so as long as I have that, I’m good. The other thing would be simply having an idea that I would want to see become reality. I mainly develop games for my own enjoyment, so if I can make something that I’m satisfied with, I’d consider that a success in my book.
What are some of your specific creative goals right now?
I don’t like to talk too much about my projects until they’re finished, mainly because I find it more satisfying to under-promise and over-deliver, as opposed to the reverse. However, I can say that right now I’m trying to find the balance between realistic and fun, which is a creative goal of sorts. A game’s number one priority is to be fun. Realism can make a game more fun, but too much realism can make a game boring, annoying, or a chore to play. I guess another creative goal would be figuring out the proper aesthetic for the game I’m currently working on.
Are there any tools, books, or other resources you would recommend to others starting out in game design?
Well, again, Unity and Unreal Engine are a godsend for those who want to get into game development. Both have extensive documentation, steady support, and tons of users who share their problems and ideas with the world. They also have asset stores, which are incredibly useful and affordable for those who don’t want to worry about every single aspect of the development process.
I’ll also mention freeSFX, which has been my go-to for royalty-free sound effects. Photoshop and Audacity are pretty useful, too. However, I think the best tool of all would be your favorite search engine, since it will answer virtually all of your questions if you know how to use it effectively.
What other advice or words of encouragement would you give to other creators in your field?
As with everything in life, just stick with it. If it’s something you want to do, then don’t give up, because giving up would mean that it’s not something you really want to do. If you need to take a break for a while, then take a break. Just make sure you never stop coming back to learning and practicing. Don’t get too caught up in the details; if something doesn’t make sense right now, believe me, it will magically come to you later when you have a better understanding of everything else. Sometimes you won’t even need to fully understand something to be able to use it. Don’t worry about memorizing everything either — I learned that the hard way. Some of it will come naturally, and for everything else, just get good at searching for it on the internet, because even the pros do this. Don’t be afraid to dive right in. I feel that I learn the most (and have the most fun) not from reading and watching tutorials, but from trying to develop my own ideas step-by-step. Finally, just remember that if other people can do it, there’s no reason you can’t, too.