Spotlightor Interactive’s studio in Beijing is a modern, double floor office: half-workplace, half-exhibition of game awards, diplomas and pop cultural artifacts. It is an environment of innovation, and creative forward movement. Gao Ming hands us a carton of green tea-drink each as we sit down by a long table at the second floor. Meanwhile, one of Ming’s colleagues are filming us with a sizable film camera. “We are making our own documentary now, in fact”, he explains.
Ming himself, who is a 30+ father today, has been making games since as far back as high-school. As a young student, he set goals for himself to develop, and game development was the perfect choice for him, since it allowed him to get an outlet for both his knowledge in computer science and his talent in art. Well, that, and his absolute love for games of course. In university he started his company, reading computer science as an undergraduate, art as a graduate while prototyping games all the while in his spare-time (and famously participating in various game jams).
Soon however, prototyping in the spare-time was simply not enough. He started doing it full-time and honing his skills. The love for playing games shifted to the love of making games. He had a passion for every part of it: design, art, programming - like cut out for indie development.
His original intent, however, was to go big. Really big. Like Ubisoft-big. However, the need to get to realize his own game ideas and hands-on creation steered him towards choosing a more intimate relation to game development, one that would not be possible if he would have to administer such an enterprise. Today he believes that if the studio would exceed ten members it would result in too much management.
So today Spotlightor is a small team, and what I would judge from Ming, it will remain so. To some, simply being small-scale is indie, I sure know in the west it does, so I have to ask him: what constitutes as indie?
Ming thinks for a bit before replying, “honestly, I don’t think a lot about that, but I believe that we are classic indie. What is important is the room for creativity. I need to get an outlet for my creative drive. In turn, that brings quality to our games - and that is what is most important to us in our work. So in the end, indie would be a focus on quality.”
What is quality then, I wonder. Wouldn’t a non-indie company with a huge budget be able to breed quality?
“There are many values that contributes to quality”, Ming explains. “Quality is an objective standard, however. If there are a lot of bugs, for example, its poor quality. For myself, I wish we polished even more on candleman. But the most important value is innovation. It is important to deliver something new by focusing on innovation, as opposed to a business mindset, where your primary focus on sales.”
So if you fail to bring something new to the market, you would not be indie? Do indies have to bring something new?
“Well, it not necessary that you do, but you would not be interesting. Not to me at least. While some say copying is ‘showing respect’, I can only disagree. Actually, I think it’s a waste of life.”
(To read more about Ming’s thoughts on indie and copying, check out this article)
Quality really seem to be the focus of the studio, as their slogan, “Less, but Better”, might indicate. Thus, the studio focus on one project at a time, as quantity is expendable, and quality is not. In the same way, he rather focuses on one mechanics and explores it fully rather than packing the projects with half-done content. This is just what seem to have been the basic principle behind Candleman, where the player gets to explore the 10-second mechanic to its fullest (a mechanic I still strive to master!). On this quality over quantity aspect of game content Ming comments: “It is not easy for indies to make loads of content for their games. Their choice is to focus on the quality of the games design instead. Thus, the gameplay becomes the most important part of the game. It must be fun to play.”
One way to ensure this quality for Candleman was a lot of playtesting. Ming thinks that they maybe playtested more than others. They realized how important it was because of the difficulty of judging the quality of your own game. So the players were brought in to test and have their say about the game and their experience. After that, the team made their decision, as to protect the integrity of the game, which Ming think is important for any art piece. And after playing Candleman, I can only say I think that was a good strategy, as the game seem to be both well-balanced and unique.
Even if there are things left to do with Candleman, and “one project at a time” is the general rule to follow, we end up on the topic of discussing another project Gao Ming has been working on on the side lately. Yet Another Exhausting Day is a smaller project available online in its current format. The game allows the players create their own characters. As the title might indicate, the theme of the game revolves around the very fact that exhaustion is something that is very common in our modern society - both in China and in the west.
The idea came from pictures that Gao had come across on internet that was portraying exhaustion. Though the theme might have been an initial source of inspiration, Gao did not build the game from story/theme alone - he never does - but had a very distinct idea about the mechanics. He wanted to make a game without jump, because he sees a problem with the excessive jumping in modern 3d platformers. But the story is important too. He wanted to let players tell their own “exhaust”-stories, hence the possibility to create one’s own character. Check it out on itch.io!