mock1.jpg[Our new series of ‘Road to the IGF’ interviews profiles the nine recently announced winners of the IGF Showcase at Austin GDC - with the local Southern U.S. indie developers to be showcased at the Texas game development show later this month.]

In this instalment of 'Road To The Austin IGF', we talk to Mockingbird Games' Troy Gilbert about his firm's user-generated games website Mockingbird.

The entry takes a rather different approach to indie development to the other Austin showcase winners, inviting “everyone to make their own games”. It “takes the pain out of game making and helps people tell stories using casual arcade games” using “a simple, intuitive set of tools”. Gilbert describes the site as reaching for the goal of becoming the “YouTube of games” by emphasizing the ability for anyone to make their own title – not just those with programming ability.

What is your background with video games?

Troy Gilbert: I’ve been playing video games for as long as I can remember, starting on my older brothers’ ColecoVision and Commodore 64 - the C64 is where I got my start programming. Video games and programming have been all-consuming hobbies of mine ever since.

In 2001, when I graduated from college, I finally got to make a job of the two when I joined Criterion in Austin. I spent the next several years flying all over North America trying to convince game developers to use RenderWare and then helping them make their games. This afforded me the opportunity to meet hundreds of game developers and see how dozens of different games were made.

Criterion was then acquired by EA and I was relocated to Vancouver where I helped game teams make their technology decisions.

When was Mockingbird formed?

TG: In 2006, Andy first suggested the idea to me: how would you do a 'YouTube of games'? We dubbed the project “Atticus” and began working on ideas. We both relocated back to Austin at the end of 2006 and kicked off our new startup: Mockingbird Games.

What inspired the site, and why did you decide to develop it?

TG: I think YouTube was the original inspiration. The two of us had been thinking about games from a AAA commercial perspective for a long time. Looking at YouTube - and other social media sites like Flickr - we wondered how you could apply the concept to video games.

Some would say that portal sites like Miniclip or Kongregate represent the 'YouTube of video games'. But they miss the critical feature of sites like YouTube or Flickr that makes them relevant: people. Miniclip, Kongregate, etc., feature games made by folks who know what they were doing: professionals, hobbyists, independents.

We wanted to see video games made by everyday people, games made casually, like one would shoot video with your camcorder or snap a pic with your cell phone. In the end, our idea has evolved quite a bit from where it started.

I wouldn’t personally call it the 'YouTube of games' because it’s not just a dumping ground of any and all game content on the web. But I think we’ve successfully extracted out what made YouTube different than video sites before it: people.

What were your expectations from your project, and do you feel the end > product lives up to those expectations?

TG: We wanted to give people an opportunity they hadn’t had before: we wanted to make it as easy to make a casual game as it is to play one. And I think we’ve succeeded at that. It’s passed the 'Mom test' - that is, both of our moms have made games with Mockingbird – and my mom hadn’t even played a video game before!

What do you think the most interesting thing about your site is?

TG: Its character. We like to think Mockingbird is 'charming'. One of our mantras while building Mockingbird was to “making games should be as fun as playing games.”

To that end, we worked very hard to make our core application not feel like a tool, but for it to feel like a game. That’s one reason why you’re playing your game while building it, what we call “live editing”. That’s also why the website looks the way it does.

Originally, we had a black-and-white, very web 2.0 looking site. It was clean and functional, but devoid of personality. We then had our artist create a banner for the homepage using some of our game characters and backgrounds. We liked the banner so much we redesigned the site to reflect it’s look and feel.

How long did development take, and what was the process like?

TG: We began development on Mockingbird full-time on January 2nd, 2007. The company only has two employees, myself and my business partner. I was doing all of the coding, while we worked together on the design and testing. We hired contractors to build artwork, sounds and the website. Our process is pretty informal.

Initially, I did a lot of experimentation with the user’s workflow as well as the look-n-feel of the app. Because I was the only programmer, I also spent a lot of time initially experimenting with the core engine that the games run on. Once we had a working app, Andy served as our representative user: he’s not a programmer nor a video game geek.

He’d spend a lot of time making games and pointing out the things he wanted to do but couldn’t. We had our first demo-ready build two months in and showed it off to some investor-types. The app was still really early and not entirely functional, but it showed how quickly you could make something “game-like” and how much fun the live editing was.

By mid-summer, we had what we considered to be an “alpha” version of the app. We took it around to a lot of game industry contacts from our former jobs. We were surprised by the feedback. Many asked, 'Do people really want to make their own game?'

Some thought the app wasn’t simple enough, while others thought it wasn’t complex enough to make the games people would want. We went back to the drawing board for a few months. What resulted was what we called the August Beta. I built a rudimentary website to host the app and invited friends and family to log-in and make their own games.

We showed the app to more people and solicited more feedback. We still had similar complaints, but it was easier for people to see our vision for the final site. We headed back to the drawing board for the fall. In December, we released the Christmas Beta. We got more good feedback. We were getting closer.

We came back from a much needed Christmas break and did a lot of brainstorming. During the next three months we went through at least two major re-designs of the entire app and site before settling on what we released publicly on April 30th, 2008.

Since we released publicly, we’ve re-designed the website twice and we’re on the second major revision to the app. For the most part, each change has moved us forward. At the least, we’ve learned something from each change.

How much creativity do you expect to see out of the site’s users in time?

TG: We’ve already seen some really surprising stuff. One of our earliest games was about Mexicans crossing the US border. We’ve had other games about the presidential race, about free market economies and about Indiana Jones.

What’s more exciting, though, are the games people have made about their kids or their friends. We’re going to keep expanding the possibilities of what Mockingbird can do, and I expect the creativity in the games is only going to get better.

And that was really a big part of our original dream for Mockingbird: to somehow shatter the mold of what people expect in video games, much in the same way that blogging platforms have given people a voice on the web that they would have never had otherwise.

mock1.jpgWhat’s the scene in Austin like? Is there a feeling of community?

TG: I’m not as involved in the Austin scene as I’d like to be – a wife, two kids and a startup does not leave a lot of free time. I think Austin has an incredibly strong independent scene and a lot of opportunity for startups. The cost of living, which is the biggest expense for any indie, is way lower than on either of the coasts. Austin also has a community that is very supportive of indie efforts, whether they be in music, movies, business or games.

What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry?

TG: I think indie games are stronger than ever. Much of this is thanks to the web. Developers talk to each other more, there are more blogs that devote space to indies, and with social sites like Digg or Kongregate, a good indie game can get propelled into the spotlight. The growing popularity of the “casual” game format has also made indie development more feasible. There’s a huge audience that enjoys short, simple games in 2D.

Much like the short film - and music videos and commercials - is where a lot of feature film directors get their start, I think the “short form” game can do the same for our medium’s indies.

Finally, improved tools make a difference as well. For those indies aspiring to do AAA 3D titles, options like XNA and Torque allow them to skip the drudgery that was the bread-n-butter of indie game
development just 5 years ago. And for those who are wanting to experiment with the medium without having to learn any special skills, there are options like Mockingbird.

Where do you see the site going from here?

TG: The site’s going to continue to evolve. We’ve got a – seemingly - never-ending list of features and variations we’d like to try. A big part of this is hearing from our users and finding out what they want in order to most quickly, and completely, express their ideas as games.

What kind of feedback have you received so far?

TG: Feedback has been great. Since the release of our game kits in early August, visitors are making more and more games everyday, staying longer, and coming back more often. Businesses are talking with us about integrating our game kit functionality into their online worlds and communities.

How important is solidifying a community to the site?

TG: Community isn’t critical to our business as we hope to generate the majority of our revenues through licensing the Mockingbird platform to other brands and businesses. On a personal level, though, we’d love to see a thriving community that can help us evolve Mockingbird organically.

Have you checked out any of the other Austin IGF games?

TG: I haven’t had the opportunity yet...

I’m lucky if I get more than a few hours each week to play any games, and most recently I devoted that time to Braid; an incredible indie title, congrats to Mr. Blow. I look forward to spending some time with the games at the Austin GDC as well as speaking with the developers.

Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?

TG: Like I said, I found Braid to be pretty incredible. The gameplay, like any good puzzle game, is simple to learn, difficult to master. I know I definitely got a few new wrinkles from that game. And its aesthetics...wow...the art and music are beautiful, perfect compliments to the game.

I’ve been a little put off by mainstream titles recently - usually by their length and/or their complexity. I’m lucky if I can devote two or three hours total to any one game, so some of the recent favorites of the mainstream have simply been too big to be satisfying.

As a result, I end up playing a lot of web and Xbox Live Arcade titles. While not too recent, I liked the art direction of Bioshock, the overall production value of Call of Duty 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV, and I thought Assassin’s Creed did some really interesting things in the way
they contextualized their gameplay.

Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?

TG: First, never give up. That’s probably the most common answer to that question but for good reasons. We’re lucky to be working in a medium and marketplace where one person (the true “indie”) can actually make not only critically but commercially successful titles.

But to get there, indies need to keep their focus on quantity over quality - it’s more important to finish five mediocre games than to “almost” finish one perfect game.

Second, try to drop the angst as soon as you can. Like most indie scenes, ours is filled with a lot of folks who are angry at AAA titles and consider all commercial game development to be selling out – which, of course, it is to a certain degree.

But that’s okay. Those AAA titles will blaze a path for our platforms into the mainstream and ultimately fund, either directly or indirectly, our indie efforts. Angry tirades at publishers look juvenile and naïve, while accusations directed toward specific titles discount the hard work of folks just like you and me that work on those teams.

Not everyone is lucky - or foolish! - enough to work independently!