Interview: Tyler and Spencer Owen discuss creating Random Seed Games, Indie Gaming, and Game Development in Iowa

"Game development is expensive and difficult and there is no guarantee of a return on your investment. It’s risky. We have taken some huge risks and we don’t know yet if they will pay off for us. But we do it because it’s what we love. "

Founded in 2009, Random Seed Games is made up of two brothers – Tyler and Spencer Owen – and is located in Iowa. After first creating Protobotic, the studio created the critically acclaimed game TIMEframe. Fascinated by the reality of interplanetary exploration, Random Seed turned to Kickstarter to raise the funds for their current project Lacuna Passage. To learn more about this studio, its games, and its future, Tyler and Spencer allowed me to interview them for ScifiPulse.

To learn more about Random Seed Games, check out their homepage and follow them on twitter @randomseedgames.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some games you two loved playing?

Tyler Owen: We were Super Nintendo kids. That was our first console. So lots of Mario, but as we got older we started spending a lot more time on PC games that had custom map editors like Starcraft and Warcraft 3. I think I spent more time in the editor than playing the actual games, which really started my love for making games.

Spencer Owen: When we got into playing PC games, we only had one computer so we often spent time creating custom maps together. Even then we really enjoyed bouncing ideas off of each other and so we became really comfortable communicating and expressing our ideas. I even remember playing Time Splitters 2 and creating custom maps for that.

Yanes: When did you two decide that you wanted to make your own videogames for a living? On this note, why did you decide to found Random Seed Games instead working for another company?

Tyler: For me it was when I was starting to think about what colleges I wanted to attend. I realized that game design was a real job. I think I knew that someone had to make all the games I loved playing, but I had never really considered it a serious career option until just before college. Now games are as big as movies and tons of kids want to get into making games.

Screenshot from TIMEframe

Screenshot from TIMEframe

In college I studied 3D art and thought I would eventually get a job working for some Triple-A company. Then I attended the Game Developers Conference out in San Francisco as a college student and was exposed to the world of indie games for the first time. I saw so much creativity and freedom that I knew it was what I wanted to do.

Spencer: I think I seriously started looking into game development during college. I also attended with a major in 3D art, but I thought I would want to work for a visual effects company. After participating in some game art classes I found that I really enjoyed the aspects of 3D modeling relevant to gaming, and when Tyler wanted to make a game for Kickstarter it seemed like a perfect opportunity.

Yanes: Tyler, you are located in Burlington, IA. Spencer, you are located in North Liberty, IA. What do you think the state of Iowa could do to promote game development in the state? In regards to the specific areas you both live, what more do you think these specific areas could do to build and attract game studios?

Tyler: Eastern Iowa is just starting to position itself as a technology center in the Midwest. I think that bodes very well for the future of game development in the state. I think the state schools could do more to provide classes for game development however. It is difficult to attract talent from outside so it might be best to try and foster more talent from within with really strong educational programs.

Spencer: We actually just attended a meetup in Iowa City for local game developers, and it was a great chance for us to share our game with others and build connections with other developers in the Midwest. I think to be successful here developers need to join groups and reach out to others to build these kinds of relationships. I’m not sure any large game studios will be cropping up in our hometowns anytime soon, but Indie companies can form anywhere – you just need the resources and connections to build your knowledge.

Yanes: Lots of people dream of making videogames for a living. What are some of the biggest challenges you two encountered trying to make this dream come true?

Tyler: Game development is expensive and difficult and there is no guarantee of a return on your investment. It’s risky. We have taken some huge risks and we don’t know yet if they will pay off for us. But we do it because it’s what we love. Thankfully we both have very supportive families and friends who help us out a lot. When you love doing something you will do whatever it takes to make it happen, and if you have a positive attitude you can attract the right people to help you along the way.

Spencer: Ditto. I don’t think I could have joined Random Seed without the support of my wife and family. Also, getting the resources to start development can be the hardest part, but Kickstarter really helped us in that regard.

Yanes: One of Random Seed Games’ more recent games is TIMEframe. What was the inspiration for this game?

Tyler: TIMEframe started as an entry for a game jam. The theme was 10 seconds so we thought to flip that idea and have a game that was in slow motion where you experience 10 seconds stretched out over 10 minutes. I was also inspired by other artistic games like Proteus where the player just explores and experiences a world without any real conflict. It’s a very relaxing experience, but it also has a story to tell that you can discover.

Spencer: I actually wasn’t involved with the original game jam, but I did help revisit the game when we were improving it for the release. I think games like Journey come to mind, and I know that style of exploration and visual appeal was inspiration for TIMEframe.

Yanes: With TIMEframe behind you both, what have you learned from this game in regards to marketing and meeting development milestones?

Tyler: We really pushed ourselves to put TIMEframe out on Steam in a reasonable development period. I think beginning to end the updated version for Steam only took us three months. I think that was a very valuable experience for us to be able to get familiarized with Steam’s publishing pipeline. More importantly it has taught us a lot about how to deal with customers.

If you are an indie developer on Steam then you do every job of a publisher, including dealing with customer support and community interaction. That experience has been invaluable to us and we hope to apply what we have learned to our other projects. I wish we could say that it has given us a good handle on the financial side as well, but unfortunately it’s extremely difficult to estimate if something you make will be successful. TIMEframe has performed lower than we expected financially, but the experience alone has been extremely worthwhile.

Spencer: Deadlines are always tough with a small team, but I think on TIMEframe we were able to successfully meet a lot of small deadlines instead of a few big ones. This really helped us identify progress and it kept us from feeling overwhelmed. I think that has carried over to Lacuna Passage development nicely.a08

Yanes: You both are developing a game called Lacuna Passage. What is the origin of this game?

Tyler: We started Lacuna Passage well before TIMEframe even. It was something that I had been messing around with in my free time soon after the Curiosity rover landed on Mars. I was so impressed with the images that it was sending back that I couldn’t help but imagine exploring the red planet myself. I figured that the only way that was going to happen in my lifetime was if I made my own virtual approximation. I was also heavily influenced by movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. I wanted a narrative force that encouraged you to explore the world of Lacuna Passage, so we settled on a survival experience that has you investigating the disappearance of the first manned mission to Mars.

Spencer: When Tyler first came to me with the idea for a Mars survival game I thought it was pretty cool. But I really became interested when we started talking about the story elements and narrative. We like to say that you play as the “space detective,” and that’s really what drives the player to explore. So I think the origin of the game was centered on trying to create a game with those elements. We wanted it to appeal to space enthusiasts, survival gamers, and mystery lovers.

Yanes: For Lacuna Passage, Random Seed turned to Kickstarter to fund the game’s development. Given how demanding a Kickstarter campaign can be, what insights can you offer to others who turn to crowdfunding?

Tyler: Lots of developers who have turned to Kickstarter say that running a campaign is a full time job, and they are not exaggerating. You really have to commit to it and push it everywhere you can. Just launching a page isn’t good enough. And a lot of that work comes before you even launch the campaign. You need to have something very tangible before you try to pitch the idea, and we might have even done our campaign before we were really ready. Showing your backers that you have what it takes to deliver on your promises is really important.

That being said, our backer community has been an awesome resource for us throughout development. Managing that relationship can be difficult at times and certainly can feel like a lot of extra work, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. They are the reason we are able to do what we are doing and that’s true for lots of other developers like us.

Spencer: Tyler handled most of the Kickstarter campaign back then, and I can attest to the work he put into it. Being prepared and doing your research beforehand seems like the best way to approach crowdfunding.

More recently, we have been sending out newsletters and devlogs twice a month to our backers. I think this is really important in order to keep the backers aware of the progress of the project they put money into. I really think that the extra time it takes to be transparent with our development pays off when people are commenting and sharing because they are still interested and excited about what we are doing.

Yanes: It was mentioned that in addition to producing Lacuna Passage as a standalone game, it might be spun-off into programs that can be used to educate people about Mars and space exploration. If this is still the case, what are some of the changes that would have to be made?

Tyler: I think there is a lot of freedom that we can take with the general mechanics of the game and the possibility of other game modes or standalone content. We have put a lot of work into the game’s systems like our terrain models taken from real NASA satellite data so I would love to see how we might apply those features into separate educational content. We are also really excited about the future of virtual reality devices so that might be a good fit for us as well.

Spencer: There really are multiple ways we could use Lacuna Passage to appeal for different applications. Right now we are focusing on the survival and narrative elements for our release, but I think we are always thinking about other ways to utilize Lacuna Passage.

Yanes: Finally, what long term goals do you two have for Random Seed Games?

Tyler Owen: We have always hoped that this will turn into a long term business for us. We are doing what we love doing and we love being able to do it in our home state. If our games are successful I can see us opening up a physical studio and making games for a very long time.

Spencer: We are both very happy being Indie developers and we want to keep doing it. I know in the long term we would like to expand our business and tackle even larger projects. But right now we have plenty of work to complete on Lacuna Passage and we really want to put out the best game we possibly can.

Remember, to learn more about Random Seed Games, check out their homepage and follow them on twitter @randomseedgames.

Remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Scifipulse on twitter @SciFiPulse and on facebook.

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