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Interview:  Dyad 's Shawn McGrath On Making Games Without Art
Interview: Dyad's Shawn McGrath On Making Games Without Art
May 10, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche

May 10, 2011 | By Andrew Vanden Bossche
More: Console/PC, Art, Design

[In this interview, Dyad creator Shawn McGrath discusses his unique upcoming PSN tunnel racer, his rivalry with Everyday Shooter creator John Mak, and how Sega's Rez taught him that artists aren't necessary to make good looking games.]

Shawn McGrath brought a stationary roller coaster to the recent PAX East, a machine called The Machine. The homemade peripheral is a delivery system for Dyad, to be self-published on PlayStation Network.

Heavily influenced by Kenta Cho's free Windows game Torus Trooper, Dyad is racing game mixed with shoot-em-up. In this interview, McGrath shares his solution to his inability to draw and the problems with game design in racing games.

Can you talk about Sony's involvement with Dyad? When we spoke at PAX East, you said they were very kind to indies.

I don't know if I can speak to all indies, but they've definitely been awesome to me, and everyone I know that's dealt with them has had the same experience. They're interested in cool stuff and if somebody's making something cool, even if it's far outside the norm, they've been quite receptive to that.

And they're very supportive - if you have questions they'll answer you right away and give you advice. They're actually interested in your project and think it's cool, even if it's really weird, and I don't think there are many other large corporations that do that.

Tell me about your start in the industry.

When I was in second grade, my mom bought me Tetris for my birthday, and I was furious that these people were blocking my Tetris playing because they wanted to eat cake. So I knew then that video games had some meaning to me.

I was into Dragon Warrior-type games at the time so I started making RPGs; they were terrible. Little stick figures and things like that, but I was moving characters around and that was kind of neat. I just kept making crappy little games until about high school, and then I sort of got out of it. I can't draw or anything like that, so I tried to work with people who could do graphics and find this now still: people are really unreliable.

There was no money at stake so people had other interests. That actually got me out of games, because I thought that I'd have to learn how to draw. I stopped around 16 because I couldn't draw and I couldn't get graphics into the game.

So I started working at large companies because I was good at programming. I did that for a couple of years and it really felt empty for some reason but I kept doing it, and then I played Rez on the Dreamcast. What Rez showed me was that -- and I do know that they had actual artists on staff -- but it got me thinking that I didn't have to draw things to make video games.

Maybe I can do things through code and make pretty graphics. Rez was the game that showed me that I didn't need to hand draw or rely or other people to do things. So I ended up quitting my job and trying to make games, and then I ended up failing miserably at that.

Then I got a job programming for a cell phone game company in Toronto. They went out of business and then I got a job for an advertising/flash game company while working on my own stuff on the side and I started getting to the point at which I was releasing freeware games that were doing pretty well, and then when I started working on Dyad I thought that I could actually take this somewhere so I started doing that.

How did you end up creating art without drawing?

I went to high school with Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter) for one year. We were enemies because we were both making games at the time, and apparently when you're 14 years old and making games with somebody else at the same school there's a rivalry that exists for no reason at all.

When I was first playing Rez and thinking about doing this whole game thing again I thought about looking up John, and he showed me this game he was working on called Gate 88 and I was like wow, you're doing exactly what I wish I was doing and you've got no graphics. It was really neat to see that he was doing something without drawing or Photoshop skills or whatever and so I was like "I'm going to do this too then." So I learned how the OpenGL renderer works to make pretty animations and things in code and develop a visual style that way, but it also came from seeing that John could do it too.

Can you tell me about how the visual style evolved?

I can send some screenshots of how it used to look, and maybe you'll change your opinion on that. The very first thing to do was just to straight up copy Torus Trooper. It started out with just a tube with squares around it, and then as you turned around you would get the Trooper graphics. We hooked it up to curve function so you were riding through a curve the whole time, which is still what it is now, though the graphics are a lot different.

When we first started, we were still figuring things out, design-wise. At first it was unplayable because everything was happening so quickly. Things would be flying and you'd die and you wouldn't know why you died and then you would be going fast but you wouldn't know why you were going fast. So we stripped it down, took out the enemies and took a more traditional racing game approach.

We took the game and made it so that there was an optimal line that you raced on and that would be drawn so you could see it. Every time you got on that line you would speed up and every time you got off you would slow down. It was exactly what a traditional racing game is, just presented in a slightly different context. I had an epiphany: "racing games are bad, this is all they are, and I didn't realize it because they layer so much stuff on top of it that you don't realize it."

Then we looked at how we could use choices to be the source of your speed. We were looking at how you could gain speed through actions that required choices and decisions, more puzzly type models for how you gain speed, like picking up things and combos and a whole bunch of weird things.

Tunnel games are really hard to make. They're hard to make in any way that's more complex than your most basic idea of what a tunnel game might be. One of the thing that's off about these games is that a tunnel is not particularly interesting.

Finding a way to make a tunnel interesting and non-claustrophobic, like you're in a real place that's not a confined tube, and have players have the ability to quickly discern the position of enemies both in the distance and how long it will take for the player to go from one enemy to another or from one place to another while things are flying at you. Figuring out a graphics system to communicate that to the player was a very large challenge, almost impossible. I can't believe we pulled it off, looking back at how many different things we tried.

Did you ever consider pulling in a graphics specialist at some point?

I never really considered it. I don't even know how you would make something like this with something that's not abstract. I like abstract graphics. I like the fact that I can draw things with code. I like the fact that you can create a very tightly coupled relationship between the actions that are happening and the visual stimulus that is happening. If you're not doing it with code you have to prescript a whole bunch of things, and if you have to prescript a whole bunch of things then it can never be right.

What's your experience of being an indie and the indie community?

I'll say experience before talking about community because it's much more negative this way, and the community's so great [laughs]. Experience-wise, I'm not good at working with people and don't like working with people or for people or whatever so I don't know any other way I would really do it. I have ideas I want to get out and I have the ability to put those ideas out. So to me there is no other option.

But it's hard, it's incredibly stressful. While working as a computer programmer for the past eight years I made a lot of money, and now, working on this game, I've been spending that money and it's scary and stressful because it has to make back what I put into it. If it does that I'll be able to keep doing what I'm doing and keep making games, but if it doesn't I'm in a really shitty situation.

Now as for the community, I'm in Toronto and if people are following the indie game scene it's a pretty happening place to be. Everyone around you is making awesome shit; being in Toronto is the best. I've had a lot of issues making this game and Nathan Vella (Capy Games) has been unbelievably supportive.

If it wasn't for Nathan, I'd be screwed, I wouldn't have been able to get anything done. Everyone's helping each other out and everyone is super positive and loves each others' work and gives each other feedback about each others' work, and we all go celebrate when somebody does something good. I think a lot of the reason why I say I could never do anything other than this is because how awesome the Toronto community is.

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