I recently sat down with Mike Lasch, creator of Paragon and Paragon Infinite, to get a good idea of the solo-Indie development landscape and see where his individual path has taken him. Warm and jovial, he is easy going and deeply dedicated to making gamers happy through his creations. It is somewhat difficult to find genuine concern for the player and the love of creating, but Mike has this quality.
His story is not an unusual one but that does not depreciate its importance: a man setting out into the world to program and code as his whims take him. He has participated in game jams such as Ludum Dare, fundraising events such as A Bundle of Love for Brandon, and works diligently to integrate into the wide community of game dev.
Let's see where our conversation takes us.
Of Two Minds
Cameron: Explain a little bit about how you got into development and why you wanted to make games.
Mike Lasch: I got started making games long before I realized it was possible to do so digitally. When I was a kid, before I ever had any video game systems, I made little table-top games out of cardboard, and pinball machines out of K’nex pieces and shoe boxes. Eventually I was given a SNES for Christmas, with a game titled Sunset Riders, basically Contra but in a cowboy/western style.
After familiarizing myself with the SNES, what really got my head into creating digital works would have to be Mario Paint and the GameBoy Camera. I used Mario Paint to create my first animations and digital art, and GB Camera to make very simple adventure style games. There’s a feature called “Hot Spot” where you can link pictures together via buttons on the pictures, and I used that with photos of my house or drawings made in Mario Paint to link together exploration style adventures.
C: How did BipolarDesign get started?
ML: A couple years after my GameBoy Camera experiments, I received a Learn To Program BASIC CD with tutorials and a very simple mini-development studio, which I used to create some simple Pong, “Catch The Bomb,” and adventure games. I started using Clickteam products after that (Games Factory, Multimedia Fusion) and I've stuck with them ever since. My family was pretty supportive from the beginning, for which I am grateful.
I think what’s motivated me the most in making games is the ability to share them with others. Now that sharing online has become so simple, it’s really easy to get my games out there in some form, and get comments and support from the indie community. I don’t get out a lot (other than working in retail), so it’s nice to have interactions with people that way, especially when they enjoy themselves with what I’ve created! It truly is the best feeling watching someone play/talk about/write about your games.
C: What's the story behind the names Bipolarmike and BipolarDesign?
ML: The [-BipolarDesign+] name/logo actually came about from me messing with symbols on my keyboard while I attempted to make an "emoticon" that represented a battery. Ultimately I stumbled upon [- +]. I liked the design so much I decided to try to make a logo out of it. The name "BipolarDesign" came out of a brainstorm that included these other ideas: Battery/Electric/DC/Recharge/Charged + Games/Productions/Design/Digital. I just simply liked BipolarDesign the most!
C: What has your process been like?
ML: I don’t really have a particular process in creating my games. Mostly, I just mash the keyboard and mouse until my computer pops something out.
One thing I try to do with every idea I have is create it jam-style: give myself just a day or a weekend to create something basic and simple to see if the idea turns out to be any fun! Other than that, I honestly just kind of wing it with each game. I think this method makes development a bit more difficult.
Generally, I don’t consider organization or nicely formatted coding until it’s too late and I have to navigate through ugly code and nests of folders all across my hard drive. I often have to start from scratch to get a manageable project going. I am getting a bit better at that though.
C: Can you tell me about some of your biggest challenges?
ML: One thing I’ve found most difficult is testing and marketing. It’s hard to get people to test your game and give you real solid feedback. Understandably, they have their own things going on and don’t have time to write an essay on your work. When you don’t have any “blockbuster” games under your belt, it’s difficult to get people excited about your projects and willing to share their thoughts on it.
Marketing, on the other hand, I find to be a huge chore. It really bores the hell out of me. When it comes to marketing, mostly I just send a few e-mails out, post on a couple forums, tweet a few times, and call it good. The amount of press coverage and very low sales I’ve achieved is really telling that I need to get better at this.
C: And what about your biggest success?
ML: I think my biggest successes so far are getting any coverage at all! When someone makes a video, writes an article, or even just shares a link to my game, I chalk that up as HUGE success! Just recently, I randomly decided to make Paragon Infinite free for 24 hours, and I had more shares and downloads then I’ve had in quite a while!
The only other projects that have been shared as much are an early music project I made based on Nine Inch Nails and released for free and when Paragon was shared by Mike Bithell on Twitter which resulted in I believe 1600 views… and zero sales. But, lots of people saw my work, and I think I gained a few Twitter followers!
C: How active are you in the dev community?
ML: I really wish I could be more active in the community. Mostly I stick to Twitter. In the past, I've shared and posted on the Clickteam forums and TigSource. If I ever get to the point where I can quit my day job, or at least step down to a part-time position, I want to dedicate time every day to try and comment on other Indie’s works. I feel really guilty that I don’t do that now but still expect others to comment on my projects. There just aren't enough hours in the day for a hobbyist dev like myself to participate as much as I’d like.
C: Do you have opportunities to collaborate?
ML: Thankfully Twitter is quick and easy to post and share gamedev related stuff, and it has led to a few collaborations. I’m especially excited about the collabs I’ve set up for my next project Space Jelly, which you can read a little about on my website.
Positivity is Paragon
C: What were your goals for Paragon?
ML: My goals for Paragon were to simply finish my dream project. I’ve been wanting to make my own version of the 1994 original since I played it as a kid. I’ve made now a total of four versions of the game, finally releasing this last one this year. The reason it took 3 years to develop were mostly based on motivation, or lack thereof. Once or twice I completely stopped developing for several months.
I think it was a combination of Ludum Dare projects, and the idea for my previous game Neon Snap which “snapped” me back into development. Also I felt kind of bad for letting down my partners, Ex Machinae who provided the music and James Shasha who created the artwork. They put in the hard work and effort so I felt the need to do the same.
C: Long development periods are nothing new. Once everything was said and done, what did you learn from this process?
ML: I learned that it really pays to be organized, to not bite off more than you can chew, and that I really need to do more testing. There were some issues that have arisen since release, some fixable/avoidable, and others have to do with the gameplay as a whole. If I had forced myself to do more testing early on, this might have been avoided and I could have skewed the gameplay to A) differentiate itself enough that I wouldn't need to sign a contract with the owner of the original game, and B) made it infinitely more enjoyable by today’s audiences!
C: You mentioned that you released Paragon Infinite to additional platforms since the original. Was going multiplatform the goal all along?
ML: Yeah I originally really wanted to publish Paragon on mobile, but for various reasons I couldn't make that happen. Infinite was a nice way to put something out there on mobile platforms, and hopefully market Paragon, "Prime" as you've called it, a bit more. I took that opportunity to recode the movement from scratch, and actually did it in a much cleaner, nicer way than “Prime.” If Infinite becomes popular enough, I might actually take that code and make a mobile version of Paragon with new levels and better gameplay!
Why Steal That Which is Free?
C: As a solo developer has piracy impacted you?
ML: Honestly piracy has not affected me too much. I have found the Samsung Apps version of Neon Snap on dozens of torrent sites, but the download count on all of them appears pretty low. I did have a scare when one site I investigated listed it as having been downloaded thousands of times. That being said, I believe it was just bait to have a person think it’s a popular app and then download something that turns out to be malware or the like.
C: Recently, you were given the chance to have Paragon included in A Bundle of Love for Brandon. For developers to participate, all proceeds go towards the Brandon Boyer Cancer Treatment Relief fund. Do you think this is a better way for people to get Paragon “for free”?
ML: The Bundle Of Love for Brandon was a great experience! The Humble people are really great, especially Alex Ting, who I was in contact with throughout the project. It was super easy for me, all I had to do is submit the game and they took it from there. I just wish they had posted the results of their charity campaign publicly, as I’d like to see how much the bundle actually raised. I believe the bundle is still available, and yes I’d love to see more people buy Paragon through the bundle and help donate!
C: Piracy is often times actively fought by large, established studios with the rationale that it directly and enormously impacts revenue. How does this affect a single developer? Do you think that piracy can be used to positive results?
ML: Piracy’s effect on single developers is very… well I think it’s different for every case. I’ve heard some awesome stories of devs posting a comment on a torrent of their game on The Pirate Bay. They say that appreciate that people are playing the game, and if they have the cash to consider buying it, and that’s turned out very well for them.
Also, the Game Dev Tycoon story is amazing. But, in my opinion, instead of punishing users with a game altering “bug,” we should be making special pirate-specific versions of our games. For example, the next game I make I’m planning on releasing a shareware version with splash-screens. These screens will thank the player for downloading, as well as ask them to share the game and consider buying or donating to help fund more games.
Another example would be if there happen to be billboards or graffiti in any of my games, maybe the pirate version could show an “ad” for purchasing the non-shareware version of the game in place of whatever graphics would be there otherwise.
C: You bring up a largely disused term, "shareware". Back in the 80's and 90's, many games would be distributed as shareware, but the the closest analogue today would be an ad-supported or "lite" version of a game. Although ad-supported games are a practical way to monetize a game, in some instances that process can be easily abused to the detriment of a player. What are your thoughts?
ML: I really like the idea of Shareware, and I think it's great that it's come back in some ways on mobile platforms. I agree that the ad-supported model is often abused, with ads near a part of the screen that you might accidentally tap, or having full-screen ads pop up right as you're about to interact with something. I think that if done honestly, ads are perfectly acceptable, and a valid business model for many apps and games out there now. Personally though, I prefer the demo or lite model, where you get a taste of the game for free and pay once to unlock the rest.
I Ludum Dare You
C: We've touched on Ludum Dare a bit, what were your experiences participating in that event?
ML: I have absolutely loved every Ludum Dare I’ve participated in! Having a set theme and time limit allows me to focus my creativity and makes coming up with ideas much more fun than during “normal” game development. I wasn't able to participate in Ludum Dare 29, unfortunately. They mostly seem to fall on weekends that I am busy for one reason or another. Like I said, I try to create something for them whenever I can with my own personal quick-coding sessions.
I think it’s a wonderful idea that every dev should participate at least once. It’s such a great learning experience, and that looming deadline really pushes your creativity to its limits. Who knows, maybe you’ll stumble upon the best idea you've ever had!
Even big developers such as Double Fine host game jams of their own. Some are open to the public while others are internal. A couple of those games, Indie and studio hosted, have gone on to receive full development treatment, which is amazing. All original game ideas, at the very beginning, use basic concepts that one can hammer out in a weekend. Everything else is just expanding the idea and adding polish.
Don't forget all of the other Here Are Words interviews.