Makers Spotlight: Zhiming Chen

Makers Spotlight is a series covering people, ideas and projects that nudge the world in the right direction, all from our Surry Hills loft in Sydney.

Today, we’re talking to Zhiming Chen, a programmer and game developer who has released a number of awesome projects. He recently started developing with No Moss Games, and attended his first Makers.

Hi Zhi. You’ve been developing games independently for a while — what’s your favourite project you’ve made?

The favourite project I’ve made would have to be my freshman project at university, called Psyber. It’s a puzzle game about manipulating projectiles. The project took three months to complete. I was the lead designer and a programmer as part of a two man team. What I really liked about the project was the evolution of the game’s design. I remember being unhappy about the game’s design for half the project and always worrying about it. But over time, as we tried different things, we found a core concept we wanted to focus on and the game took a turn for the better. Today I’m very proud of what we achieved with Psyber because I feel like we delivered on our vision of creating a puzzle game with a good balance of discovery and challenge.

Psyber lets you manipulate projectiles & control gravity. Check it out here

Since you made Psyber, do you think you’ve matured in the way you develop projects?

Yes, I definitely feel like I’ve matured in the way I approach game development. I would say the two biggest changes to my process would be in how I give value to work and controlling scope.

In the early stages for my first few projects there would be a lot of talk. I’m talking about hours and hours of discussions every week for a month or more. The post-mortems we do for each of these projects always point back to the early stages of talking as a mistake and a waste of time. I’ve read about it before but the importance of prototyping and playing an idea (no matter how rough) was really emphasized after my experience with how futile it can quickly get when just talking about game design, especially in a group setting. There’s a quote I really like which helps me put into perspective the value of talking about game ideas (which sadly I can’t remember where I read it from) and it goes something like, “you can never know the value of a game idea until you play it.”

On top of the usual being able to better judge scope with experience, I recently developed a new perspective to the reasons behind controlling scope. It’s basically an application of what is commonly known as the 80/20 rule (which states that is it possible to generate 80% of the value with 20% of the work). As game developers the value that we create comes from people experiencing and playing our games. With this in mind, for a developer who has not shipped a single game before, it is a lot better to choose a simple idea with a small scope, execute it well relatively quickly and release the game before moving onto bigger ideas. This way not only are you focused on what really matters, which in this case is getting your game to players, but you also add the valuable experience of shipping games to your game development career. I was exposed to this idea a lot as a part of the No Moss Games team as there’s a huge focus on moving rapidly at No Moss.

You said you were very worried through development of Psyber. Do you still feel worried about the projects you work on now?

Yes, for sure! I think this is something every creator experiences. I come from a technical background and I didn’t get very much design experience with most of my previous projects. I’m working to hone my game design sense and more often than not I end up creating game mechanics which are not cohesive, too complex and leave me with a broken game. It drives me nuts.

What project are you currently working on?

I’m working on a casual mobile puzzle game called Monster Kitchen! It’s a simple yet strategic game about building burgers to feed monsters. It will be released in October 2017.

Monster Kitchen has you making different foods for Monsters. Learn more about it here.

So Monster Kitchen is a puzzle game as well? It seems like you have a bit of an affinity for puzzle games.

I noticed that. I think it’s just the way my mind thinks of mechanics and makes sense of things that causes me to lean towards puzzle games when designing new games. It’s funny because I was never a big puzzle game player. I played tons of MMORPGs, first person shooters, Dota and all the Dota-like games growing up. When I started working on Psyber I remember thinking, “Oh boy, I rarely play puzzle games and now I need to design one.” But hey, here I am now working on my third puzzle game. I promise I’m going to work on an action game next, I need to break this cycle.

I look forward to it! You recently attended your first Makers. What was different about this experience in comparison to a traditional hackathon?

I’ve attended a handful of game jams and only one other hackathon (which incidentally was health themed as well). Obviously with game jams the difference would be how Makers themed the hack. Usually game jams would have a phrase or word as the theme, i.e. “A Small World”. But with Makers the themes came from subject matter experts at the event who shared with us problems faced by the health industry. As for the other hackathon I attended before Makers. It was a lot more structured in terms of forming official teams, creating and presenting a pitch about all aspects of the idea from benefits to business models. Makers allowed for a lot more freedom with what you make, people came in with an idea in mind and worked at it as a solo project while others came up with ideas during the event and formed teams naturally.

Zhi showing off the project he worked on at Makers: Health (June)

It’s good for giving people the room to experiment and find possible intersections between the theme and their strengths. I feel like my development experience is way too narrow, being almost exclusively in game development, to say if one set of conditions suits me better than another.

What’s your favourite game that you’ve played?

One of my favourite creations is Spaceteam by Henry Smith. It’s a small mobile game about cooperation and shouting with friends. It’s one of those games which I loved so much I wished I was the one who created it.

I’m a fan of Spaceteam too — did you know there’s a board game version? I actually own it we should 100% play one time. I’ll bring it into the office!

I did not know there’s a board game version of Spaceteam! Count me in. I’m down to cooperate via screaming anytime.

Zhi introducing the project he worked on at Makers: Health (June).

Awesome! Well, thanks for chatting with us. Where can readers go to keep up with what you’re working on?

You’re most welcome. Thanks for the great questions, I enjoyed answering them. Anyone interested in my work can check out my current game. I also keep a dev blog where I write about the lessons and experience I’ve come across in my game dev. journey. Thanks for your time.

No Moss Makers is a community-guildhouse-meets-incubator with a focus on learning through creating. On the surface, it is a startup acclerator program puncuated with prototyping events every six weeks. Under the hood, it is a vibrant community of people who put their sweat where their ideas are. The results are a rate of five products for every fourteen days of prototyping.

Find out more.

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