Profile #1: Andy Hall – Tilting at GameDev Windmills

Paul: Andy Hall is an indie game developer, originally from the US. Now living in Kawasaki, Japan, Andy and I met in early 2000, when Andy joined a Tokyo-based IT staffing and services company that I had started at a few months earlier. While I hustled and bustled through the heat of the Tokyo summer trying to help people find jobs, Andy sat in a nice air-conditioned office, hiding from Management and playing with computers.

One of the smartest and nicest people I know (and I know a lot of people), Andy’s been working on a self-funded indie game for the past 5 years. In his spare time, he enjoys knitting and being the DM for the night D&D game that takes up most of my Friday nights.

Andy, give us a little intro:

Andy: I think of myself as a creative coder. My whole career has been software, but for me, programming is only fun when it’s design, animation, games, music, or the like. Right now I’m building an indie game, as yet untitled, which is almost ready for alpha release. Honest! It’s really close!

Okay. More on the game later. Let’s start nearer the beginning. How did you end up in Japan?

I’m here entirely by accident. I originally came over in 1997 to teach English for a year, because that seemed like a good way to put off graduate school. I didn’t know a thing about Japan, but a friend recommended it and it seemed like as good a place as any. 

Then once I was here, an IT boom was happening and tech jobs started falling like summer rain. I spoke a little Japanese by then, so I realized I could find a better job here than back home if I stuck around a bit longer. Then a couple of decades passed while I wasn’t paying attention, and here I am.

Time does fly. How did your IT career here start and what kind of work have you done?

I began as a Flash developer, back when it was just starting to eat the world. My first real job in Tokyo was doing IT helpdesk support but around 2001 the company I worked for started an in-house boutique web agency (as was the style at the time). So I wriggled my way onto that team and spent five or six years making promotional sites and mini-games for car companies and hotel chains.

In those days everything interesting on the web was happening exclusively in Flash, so it was an exciting place to be. I didn’t have any formal training as a programmer, but in the beginning Flash’s scripting was quite primitive, and as it developed into a real language I grew into a programmer along with it.

When that agency went under, I randomly bounced into Adobe Japan. This was an utter fluke – I went to a tech event and randomly met an Adobe employee who happened to be desperately looking for someone with my exact resume. I had a few different roles at Adobe, but I spent the most time as a Creative Evangelist – which involved going to events, giving presentations, meeting users and generally being the public face of the creative tools. It was a great gig and I enjoyed it tremendously, but after nine years at Adobe, I realized how long it had been since I’d made anything, so it was time to move on.

So now you’re making a game. Do tell…

For the past five years or so I’ve been holed up and working on an indie game. I’m the sort of person who learns a new skill by making all the mistakes you can possibly make, and that’s what I’ve been doing with gamedev – planning too big, building your own engine, working in 3D, targeting HTML as a platform, etc. So the going has been a little slower than I anticipated. But it’s been hugely fun and educational, and the game really is getting close to a tech alpha release.

You haven’t released your game yet, but some of your work has made it into ‘the wild’, right?

Yes, there was a weird episode where Mojang used my engine. My game is voxel-based – i.e. the world is made of blocks, like Minecraft – and for various reasons, voxel worlds need a custom rendering engine to run well. There weren’t any existing engines I liked, so I’ve been making my own voxel engine, named NOA, which is open-source and free for anyone to use.

So one day about a year ago, somebody from France emailed to say “congratulations on Minecraft Classic!”. I had no idea what they meant, but it turned out that a week earlier, Mojang had released a web-based version of Minecraft as a marketing gimmick for the game’s 10th anniversary. And sure enough, if you poked around the source code their Minecraft game was built on my voxel engine.

So that was a big surprise. I’d been working on the engine alone, with no idea that anybody else was paying any attention, and then one day the world’s biggest game franchise releases a game built on it. (Editor’s note: for reference, Mojang is a company that was bought by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014.) 

Nice to be discovered and have your work recognised…

It was! Sadly there’s no punchline to the story –  Mojang never credited the engine or replied when I reached out, and the game they made is largely forgotten, since its multiplayer servers stopped working a few days after launch, and never came back. It’s odd – you’d think that an official Minecraft game would be a huge deal for an indie voxel engine, but apart from a few sleepless nights the whole episode might as well never have happened.

For shame, Mojang. An email ‘thank you’ wouldn’t have cost them a penny.

You told me you’ve been working on procedural music for the game. What’s that all about?

Yes, my other big time-sink is playing with procedural music. I have no background in music and I can’t play any instruments, but years ago I got the idea that it would be cool for a video game to dynamically create music as it went, and I’ve been a bit obsessed with that ever since. A few years back I spent one December creating a different piece of procedural music every day, leading to stuff like this jazz chiptune and this procedural fugue.

I should add, creating stuff like that is absolute insanity for an indie game developer. These days you can buy high-quality game music from real musicians for incredibly cheap, so spending a year teaching yourself music theory is not exactly value for money. But it’s fantastically fun and interesting, so, unfortunately, I wound up doing it anyway.

What does your typical working day look like?

This will be a bit cringey, but as a solo developer, I wake up at the crack of mid-morning and go to a coffee shop and program all afternoon. Then I have dinner, and either program or waste time until the wee hours. I’d like to say that this schedule is caused by the pandemic, but if I’m honest the only real difference is that now I wear a mask.

There are worse ways to spend a day. You could have a real job. What’s the dream for the future? I’ve been waiting five years to play your game. Will I be waiting for another five?

One of these days (soon™) I’ll release an alpha tech demo, but past that I have no idea. My options will be either to target Steam Early Access and sell it to fund more development, to try and take donations from Patreon or similar, or to get a regular job and continue the game on weekends. But I have no idea which way to go, which as you can imagine causes a bit of uncertainty in my household.

I bet. I’d hate for you to have to rejoin the workforce. How much would you need to fund the kind of development you need to finish it?

The numbers are tricky for a freelance developer. On the one hand, if I ate cup ramen and moved to Saitama then any meagre income could fund development indefinitely. But as a developer it makes more sense to think about opportunity cost – a month spent on gamedev is a month not spent at a FAANG-sized company, after all. 

So considered in those terms, very few indie games earn enough to compete with typical programmer salaries, so rejoining the workforce is probably what will make economic sense. (It would be fun, as well – after working solo this long there’s a lot I miss about working on a team!)

That’s the long answer. The short answer is that a few million dollars would do it!

(Editor’s Note: If you have a few million dollars to spare, you can get in touch with Andy via the website that he updates once or twice a year.)

Quickfire questions:

– the advice you’d give yourself if you could go back in time to your arrival in Japan?

Join some clubs. Social life in Japan revolves around “in-group” relationships, but if you come here as an adult then the only groups you’ll be inside will be job-related. Joining clubs is a great way to hack that system and make real friendships outside of your job.

– how do you learn new skills?

For me the only way is to have a project you’re obsessed with, that can’t be done without that skill. E.g. to learn an instrument, find a song that you really want to play. If you’re obsessed enough with the end result, I find the learning takes care of itself.

– favourite or most recently read books, movies, podcasts, games?

Games are where all my time goes, but most recently I’ve gotten back into “No Man’s Sky”. So beautiful, and expansive, and fully-realized. And so procedural!

– favourite place to visit in Japan?

A resort town called Yufuin, in Kyushu. Easily the best vacation I’ve ever taken.

– the best thing you’ve spent 10,000 JPY on in Japan?

Hmm. A 24-pack of Yona-Yona Ale?

– Will my elf-ranger be levelling-up on Friday?

That’s a very optimistic question, considering how close he came to dying last week!

Indeed. But I had to ask…

Thanks for joining me, Andy. I’ll let the readers know via the newsletter when you finally name and release a playable version of the game.

Questions for Andy? Drop a note in the comments below. Thanks.

And if you enjoyed this profile, please consider signing up for my newsletter on my homepage.

1 thought on “Profile #1: Andy Hall – Tilting at GameDev Windmills”

  1. Nice interview Paul.
    Looking forward to checking out your game Andy. maybe you should call it “gecko” – as a hint back to the good old days. 🙂

    Reply

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