Ajmal Rizni is a pixel artist and independent game developer. Ajmal was born in Dubai but has lived in Sheffield for the past decade, and is currently studying Actuarial Science in Colchester. He has just released a mobile game called Nano Golf. In this interview, he talks about making games as a hobby, game jams, and game development communities.
How would you describe your game, Nano Golf?
Nano Golf is a mobile mini golf game with puzzle elements, on iOS and Android. It takes the core fun of mini golf and adds wacky mechanics, taking the player to interesting worlds.
How does it get wacky?
The game starts off very simple, just introducing the player to the basics of mini golf with slopes and well-angled shots, but soon you’re dealing with portals and exploring pyramids with clones and cart chases.
Why did you decide to make the game?
It was initially made for a small game jam within a community that I’m in; a slack group for game developers that use Game Maker Studio. It was the summer of 2016, around the time that the Olympics were happening, and someone had the idea of doing a week-long casual game jam around the theme of the Olympics, but with a twist. So I thought it would be fun to make a mini golf game. Afterwards, when the game jam was finished, I posted a gif of the game on Twitter, and that got some traction, which led to a message from the game’s publisher, Nitrome, where they first expressed interest in publishing it. I thought, ‘Yeah, I enjoyed making it, and people seem to like it,’ so I decided to flesh it out a bit more and make it a fuller game and see where it went.
Do you think social media plays a big role in game development nowadays?
I guess it depends. I think it’s more important for indie game developers, but for AAA game developers probably not so much apart from being another avenue for word of mouth. But there’s a nice game dev community on Twitter, and everyone’s sharing each other’s work and that kind of thing, so yeah, I think it’s useful. I get inspiration when I see other indie game developers on Twitter sharing their work and progress. It’s also useful for building a sort of audience of people who are interested in your work, and it can help get it in front of the right people.
Why did you decide to move from pixel art to making video games?
Actually I started working with pixel art intending to make games, because I liked the idea of doing the game design and art for a game, without having to program it myself, which didn’t appeal to me back then. Initially I worked with a series of programmers, and those projects kind of fell apart, but I did learn a lot about pixel art and the whole game development process. After a little while, I decided to look into learning to program.
What does pixel art bring to a game?
I think pixel art can give a game a more minimalist aesthetic. It conveys something to the player without needing much detail, and can leave something to the player’s imagination. Some games like to use it to evoke nostalgia, but I don’t see pixel art as a necessarily retro art form. For indie developers, pixel art also has the benefit of often taking fewer resources to create.
Do you think pixel art always conveys a particular kind of mood, or is it more versatile?
I think it’s more versatile. Like in other art forms, there’s a lot of range in pixel art, for example you can convey a lot of different moods with just different colour palettes.
Did you study art, or is it just something that you’ve practised?
I’ve been doing pixel art and game development for a few years now, but everything I’ve learned has been self-taught. So that’s learning from seeing other artists and game developers, and also online tutorials occasionally, and of course a lot of practice. But no, I haven’t studied art formally. In university now I’m studying Actuarial Science, which is completely unrelated.
Do you think people respect game development as a hobby?
In my experience, I think people do understand and respect it. I mean, to me it’s sort of just seen as programming and app development. It’s in that kind of field.
Do you meet up with other game developers in your local area?
In Sheffield I went to a couple of game development meetings. That was quite nice. It had a friendly feel to it. I’m doing it more often here in university with the game development society.
Do you think that where you’ve lived has had any influence on your work?
It’s possible. I don’t know, maybe subconsciously, or just through the experiences I have living there. But personally, I’ve found that a lot of indie game development is online, and I’ve benefited from how easy it is to work with others through the internet without being there in person. The guy I’m working with on Nano Golf, Craig Barnes, is a great sound designer who I found online. He actually lives in the US and we’ve never met. So, I don’t know, it’s all very online-based for me.
What about the mini golf aspect? Did you play that locally?
I have played mini golf a couple of times in Sheffield, yeah.
Is the game based on that in any way? Visually?
It’s quite a minimalistic game, there isn’t much detail in the surroundings, I’m not sure you can make much of a visual comparison. The mini golf place that I went to did have different themes, and you do see that in my game, with each course having its own specific theme. For example course four has a desert theme, with a redder palette, pyramids and music inspired by that. So yeah, I guess I might have been inspired by those experiences.
What do you hope to achieve with the game?
Like I said, I’m a hobby game developer, so I don’t necessarily need the game to do well to support myself financially. I’d mainly just like to see that people are enjoying it.
Have you always wanted to make video games?
I think so, yeah. I can remember from a young age discussing video game ideas with my friends and making notes about them in my sketchbooks. It’s only quite recently though, a few years ago, that I decided to make a start and actually make games myself.
What about making games appeals to you?
I enjoy the whole process of designing the game’s mechanics and levels, thinking about the aesthetics and making art, and I’ve come to enjoy programming too, the problem-solving and creative control really appeals to me. And I like the idea that there’s someone at the end who’s hopefully gonna be playing the game and getting enjoyment from it, the same way that I get enjoyment from other games.
What challenges have you experienced working on this game?
The development time has been about one and a half years. If the game was developed full-time, it wouldn’t have taken as much time to release, but it was mostly made in evenings and weekends, and I had to balance it with schoolwork and everything else. And I would take occasional longer breaks, for example during exam periods. So yeah, there was that aspect of time management and slower progress, because I do it as a hobby.
You said the game came from an Olympics-themed game jam. Tell me more about game jams.
I often take part in game jams, and that usually involves making a game that revolves around a specific theme during a set period of time. Often the ones that I do last 48 hours, during the weekend. Game jams help me a lot. The process of fully creating and putting out a game in its entirety, I find really useful. And it’s just a good way to practise my skills. And also, games from jams can often lead to fully developed games. Like I said, Nano Golf originally started off as just a very small game jam game, and it lead to a bigger complete project. I often see that happen with other developers too, actually.
How long have you been taking part in game jams?
I’ve been taking part in game jams for as long as I’ve been programming, so I guess about three or four years. I found them especially useful at the beginning when I was first learning to program and use the engine. So instead of doing tutorials and making slow progress, I would have the whole weekend. It’s like an accelerated development period where I would learn a lot about the whole process, basically. And yeah, I felt that that really helped me improve my programming skills and just general game development skills.
Which jams in particular do you like?
The two main ones I do are Ludum Dare and GM48. Ludum Dare is a 48-hour game jam, where the themes are chosen by the users, and I think it’s probably one of the most popular ones. GM48 stands for Game Maker 48, which is very similar to Ludum Dare in that it’s 48 hours and themes are chosen by the users, except all the games are made in Game Maker. And also I like that, as it’s a smaller game jam, there’s more of a friendly community feel to it, and I often know a lot of the developers that take part.
Are there any downsides to game jams?
It can be frustrating when you can’t make progress. Sometimes I have a hard time thinking of ideas based on the theme, and that can be a little frustrating. And it does take up time. If you do a 48-hour game jam, that’ll take up your whole weekend pretty much. But I think it’s worthwhile, for me at least. I find enjoy them and find them useful.
Do you think you benefit from having someone else choose the theme?
Being constricted in that way improves creativity, I think. And instead of having a vague theme, or no theme at all, having that limitation that you can creatively work around is useful. It’s also made me try and work outside of what I’m comfortable with.