This week we are joined by Ian Stocker, also known as Magicaltimebean, creator of the hit Soulcaster series and also the recently released Escape Goat on the Xbox Live Indie Marketplace. Ian’s games have become quite popular on the marketplace, and he is quickly becoming one of the most preferred developers there. Ian took a moment to chat with us about the recent success of his new game and about developing Indie games.
Ian Stocker: My first game credit is for a Game Boy Color game. I was the sound designer/composer for an RPG called Mythri. Though it was never released, it got me a foothold in the industry in 2002 as a contractor for handheld audio. I did a ton of contract audio work for GBA and NDS from 2002 through 2010.
Ian Stocker: While running this business, I learned to program in C# to develop some tools so I could automate build processes and handle cross-platform games without so much grunt work.
Ian Stocker: In 2009, the economy took its toll on the big game developers, and a couple projects I was gearing up for were canceled suddenly. So I found myself with several free months. I took the time to start a new game with XNA, which eventually became Soulcaster.
Josh Knowles: Awesome! So you not only creating games, but also the soundtracks to them?
Ian Stocker: Yeah, I did a range of things from original music to arranging existing music to work on the limited hardware of handheld platforms. Because of the hardware limitations, I had to learn a lot of technical things, and this helped me transition into the programmer’s lifestyle.
Josh Knowles: With your current games on the market, there is a certain old school vibe to them. What type of games inspired your to create the Soulcaster series and eventually Escape Goat as well?
Ian Stocker: You can tell my roots as a gamer are in the 8-bit and 16-bit era. The most influential games for me were Metroid, Kid Icarus, Legend of Zelda… those games not only pioneered a lot of the concepts we take for granted these days, they were also totally immersive with their limited graphics.
Ian Stocker: For Soulcaster, the biggest influence was Gauntlet. I applied design concepts from RPG’s and tower defense games, but the core framework was the overhead dungeon crawler.
Ian Stocker: For Escape Goat, it started as a challenge to recreate the DOS classic Jetpack. Within the second week, the project took on a life of its own, though it has been compared by others to Sokoban and Solomon’s Key. I think Escape Goat is a bit more platform and action oriented than those two, though.
Josh Knowles: Soulcaster was your first game on XBLIG right? It was met with quite favorable reviews. Were you expecting the initial fan reaction?
Ian Stocker: Not at all. The project was intended to fill time for me, and for me to see if I could put together a game entirely on my own. Friends seemed to like it during testing, but I had no idea that it would be so well-received. I started to consider indie game development as a full-time career, and starting at the beginning of this year, that’s the move I made.
Josh Knowles: Congrats on making it a full time move! Since you have experience in the industry, has anyone reached out to you for larger projects?
Ian Stocker: Not really, nothing concrete. I haven’t looked for any audio gigs this year. There have been some chats about doing design work for larger companies, but nothing has really materialized.
Josh Knowles: Ok. Now, Escape Goat has recently hit the market and I’ll have to be honest with you, something about it really sticks with me. How has the game been recieved so far?
Ian Stocker: So far, even more positively than with Soulcaster.
Ian Stocker: I find this even more surprising than Soulcaster. Escape Goat was very experimental and I wasn’t sure if many people would connect with it. Not many games are made in the 8-bit graphical style, and I think some companies fear it’s not popular with anyone outside of its nostalgic value to the 30+ crowd. So far, Escape Goat’s reception defies that…
Josh Knowles: I absolutely agree with that, while playing the game, it takes me back to the days of playing these nameless NES puzzle platformers. With that being said, any plans on a sequel?
Ian Stocker: There are plans, but work hasn’t begun yet. I’d like to do something like a level pack with all new rooms, region graphics and music. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the puzzles that can be made with the collection of gadgets in the current game.
Ian Stocker: So, the next Escape Goat might be kind of like what I did with Soulcaster II: a slight upgrade, all new content, but core mechanics the same.
Josh Knowles: Certainly looking forward to it! Since the games have done well on Xbox’s Marketplace, any plans to port over to Steam?
Ian Stocker: Yes, I’m working on porting all of my games to PC. Distribution platform (e.g. Steam)isn’t figured out yet. But it would be fantastic to be featured there.
Josh Knowles: Now as far as XNA has gone, how was the process of learning the system? What are your recommendation for those that want to get started with it?
Ian Stocker: If you are comfortable with programming in C#, it’s a blast. It makes a lot of 2D and sprite stuff way easier than it was with DirectX. I made the core engine components for player input, drawing, updating actor positions, etc. in just a week or so for both the Soulcaster and Escape Goat engines.
Ian Stocker: They each had a really difficult component that took a lot longer: physics for Escape Goat and pathfinding for Soulcaster. But the basic stuff was really straightforward in XNA.
Ian Stocker: If you are new to programming, and have a game idea you want to prototype, I would recommend using a higher level platform such as Unity. You’ll spend more time on game design and less time reinventing the wheel.
Josh Knowles: Now, you brought up Unity, this is something we personally have had some experience with. Have you worked with those tools as well?
Ian Stocker: Only a little. I haven’t completed anything in it, but I have poked around to see about porting my games over to it for release on other platforms.
Josh Knowles: Our on-site games are actually made with Unity 3D. I understand though that XNA has a pretty solid community behind it, how was it working with them when you created and released your titles?
Ian Stocker: When I’m working on a game, I actually tend to withdraw into my own little world and only emerge towards the end of the project when it’s time for testing. So my connection to the XNA community is pretty tenuous. I like keeping in touch with them via Twitter though.
Ian Stocker: The community is really good about answering technical questions though. Just about everything I’ve struggled with related to XNA, I’ve found answers in the forums.
Josh Knowles: We have had some chatter about games like ‘Swashbuckle Your Seatbelts’ on our Facebook page. After checking it out, it certainly wasn’t what we expected. What are your favorite and even least favorite games on the marketplace?
Ian Stocker: I have lots of favorites by people who’ve become my friends since I started participating in XBLIG, so I’ll leave those off my list for now–a lot of them are already in the top lists.
Ian Stocker: There are a couple I like to give props to: Coral’s Curse, an exploration game where you play as a half-woman-half-snake, and For Glory, a distillation of RPG grinding in Groundhog Day style.
Ian Stocker: As for least favorite games, I’m not going to name anything specific, but I don’t like to see shabbily-made clones of existing games. If you’re going to go through the trouble of programming a game, why not experiment a bit and make it your own? It seems like such a waste.
Ian Stocker: As a side note, I notice a lot of games that seem like they could have been much better with just a bit more testing. I make sure my games run through dozens of playthroughs before they go out the door–I miss all kinds of things, and these little details mean a lot to newcomers.
Ian Stocker: So I find it tragic when there is a game with a cool, innovative concept, but has been hamstrung by poor control or bad interface design.
Josh Knowles: So, since you are a gamer at heart, what is your favorite game of all time?
Ian Stocker: This is a tough question to answer because there are so many rolling around in my top 10. Right now, I’ll just say Dark Souls because it really is a masterpiece.
Ian Stocker: I know I’m supposed to recall a classic or something, but I think Dark Souls is a great continuation of the design ideas started by Legend of Zelda and other classics.
Josh Knowles: Dark Souls absolutely is a special game! Since the storm of AAA releases has passed, what title are you looking forward to next?
Ian Stocker: Skyrim should be a blast, but given how addictive Oblivion was, I really shouldn’t get it until I finish some of the pressing tasks, like porting my games to PC.
Ian Stocker: I actually use games as a reward/motivator for completing my own projects. Bayonetta was for Soulcaster I, and Dark Souls was for Escape Goat.
Ian Stocker: I got myself Castlevania: Lords of Shadow as a reward for Soulcaster II, but was so disappointed with it that I traded it in for Deathsmiles. Very happy with that trade.
Josh Knowles: Ah, Castlevania is one of the series that has always been one of my favorites. Truthfully, Lords of Shadow doesn’t exist to me. Are you going to get your hands on Deathsmiles 2?
Ian Stocker: Yeah, I’d love to check it out at some point.
Josh Knowles: Ok, I have two final questions for you. First off, where did you get the name Magicaltimebean from?
Ian Stocker: The real answer is so anticlimactic that I’ve chosen to keep it secret. It was basically supposed to be a throwaway name I could release my first games under, while I cut my teeth. Again, evidence that I did not expect people to like my first game.
Josh Knowles: Alright, finally, any thanks or shout outs you’d like to give?
Ian Stocker: First of all, to my wife, Mary, though she hates being publicly called out for her awesome and ongoing support of my new enterprise. My games really would not exist without her.
Ian Stocker: Second, I have to recognize my friends and family, who take the time to test out my game and offer design advice. It’s like I have a board of directors to consult whenever I need feedback. I’m fortunate to know people who represent every gaming demographic, for example those who value story, character development, challenge, self expression, etc. I’m really thankful to be in a position where I can make games. I try my best not to take that for granted.
Josh Knowles: Great! I thank you for taking time out to talk with us today.
Ian Stocker: It’s my pleasure. Thank you!
Once again, we appreciate the time Ian took to talk with us. His games are most certainly the type that you probably played back in the NES games and it is refreshing to see these type of entertaining games available to gamers again. If you have a few extra dollars to spend, we absolutely recommend that you take a a look at Ian’s games on the Xbox Indie Marketplace!