Full disclosure – Benjy Bates, the developer of The Outpost Nine is a friend of mine. He is an indie developer based in Ireland whose work has been picked up by publisher Sedoc LLC, and his innovative point-and-click/visual novel game is being released this week on Steam. I sat down with him over pizza, garlic bread and Tuborg, and we discussed the game, how he works and how anyone can break into developing their own games.
Tell me a bit about yourself!
My name is Benjy Bates, and I am a game developer. I live in Dublin, I was born in England. Durham, northeast, underneath Newcastle and Sunderland. I call myself Benjy because there are two pro golfers called Ben Bates and one DJ called Benjamin Bates.
You’ve recently put out a game called The Outpost Nine, and this is the first episode of the game, right?
The game’s about a year old, but it’s just got a Steam release now, which is exciting.
Tell me about the game.
It is kind of an amalgamation of a lot of different things. It is part-text adventure, part-visual novel, with kind of point-and-click elements to it. If you’ve ever played a game called Snatcher or if you’ve ever played really old Hideo Kojima games, it’s very evocative of those.
It started as a lot of different things. I don’t know what you’re like creatively, but for me, I have a million ideas at once, all trying to be something and burst through onto a screen. So, originally, The Outpost Nine was a cowboy game and then – THEN – it somehow became a game about kings and knights, and it just kept going and going until I sat down and I had something that I thought looked nice? ‘Cos it went through so many different art things, and the original build was this text adventure in which you had to avoid being eaten by an alien. Based literally off Alien. So that’s what I had.
People played the demo, they thought it looked great, they thought it played great, they liked it, which I didn’t expect at all, and then I decided ‘Tell you what, I’ll make a whole thing of it. If this gets as much popularity as it does, then yeah sure, I’ll go along with it.’
So gimme a quick plot synopsis for The Outpost Nine.
It’s a game that follows the skeleton crew of an outpost on the moon of ‘Cobalt Paradise’. They get a distress beacon, they go into the ship and they find that they have an extra guest, who is a horrible monster. And that’s kind of what the basic outline of it was, but now that I’m going into creating more content for it, what I’m focusing more on the character side and less on the horror elements. I want more world-building flashbacks in there too.
The aesthetics are pretty distinctive. What inspired the look of The Outpost Nine? I see a kind of ’70s vibe with the colours.
The colours are saturated. It’s a VHS-style look, but instead of being more muted, I wanted it to be more vibrant. To catch the eye a bit more. Alien is my favourite film in the whole world and I wanted to make something that I could put my love of that film into. I’m also a huge fan of Halloween and I wanted something that felt like that. There’s a lot of different things in it. I’m a huge fan of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, the Italians of gore. Some martial arts aesthetics. I wanted something that felt kind of grindhouse. Something that looked like a horrible-arse film that you’d see at a grindhouse at two o’clock in the afternoon in some horrible cinema.
What are the challenges of making a game by yourself that end up making the work different from big studio games?
Well, you’ve got to consistently put work in. You’ve got to have a lot of self-discipline. I guess that’s the same with everything. I can be very lazy, and there are days where I just don’t feel like I want to do anything creative. But the more effort you put into something, the more consistently you’re putting effort in, that’s what makes it stand out from everything else.
I don’t know if the constraints necessarily make for better storytelling. I’m not under the same pressure as someone in the AAA industry, I don’t have the same creative limits, I mean. I can tell, literally, the story I want; I am my editor; I am my writer. Actually, if anything, I think that freedom can make a project worse. Limits on creative projects can make something really interesting and make something really fun. I had my own limits and that helped The Outpost Nine.
So what kind of advice would you have for someone looking to develop their own game? How can they use the constraints to their benefit and avoid the pitfalls?
Well, there’s always gonna be constraints anyway, because for instance, I’m not a coder. I don’t code. I know very basic ‘My First Coding Language’ kind of stuff. That’s my real constraint. That’s why this is a point-and-click game. But I love point-and-click games, so that’s not really a bad thing.
If anyone’s getting into the industry and they’re thinking ‘I’m gonna make this game, and I’m gonna do everything,’ – you’re not gonna be good at everything. I understood that a visual novel has a visual aspect to it, and so can a text adventure, and so can a point-and-click.
How did you get into making games?
I was an artist. I studied film, but I’d never made a film, I’d never written anything. Like I have housemates who are working in film, and they used to shoot films when they were teenagers, so I don’t know what lofty dream I had. I think I just wanted to get into games.
When I was between about 8 and 10 years old, for Christmas I got a charity boxset game. It had Road Rash 2000, a Myst and a Broken Sword. I didn’t know any of them, the only game I wanted that year was WWF Attitude because I was like a little normie baby. When I got Broken Sword I sat down and it blew my mind, cos it was like looking at a film but you controlled a character. Everyone was just living their life and you could go up and talk to them. I’d never seen anything like that before.
So, I wanted to make games like that when I was a kid. I always drew them down, in copybooks, where the character would walk to if I clicked something. I thought it would be a pipe dream because I didn’t know how to make a game and nobody really told me. So that’s what attracted me to film. Then I got into a coding class because I couldn’t get a job, and then that coding class went from one place to another, and I eventually got into the game dev whole thing. It all just fit cos I’d been raring to do it since I was a kid, so I hit the ground running.
What personal strengths do you have that you think benefited developing The Outpost Nine?
I’m an artist, so I know how I want it to look. Also I guess, my interest in creative writing. I’m not the best writer in the world, and I don’t think I ever will be, but I can tell when something is bad. Gaming dialogue is the worst, I don’t know if you know this, Cora –
Metal Gear Solid?
Yes! Dreadful. Gaming dialogue is quite possibly some of the worst dialogue in the world. If gaming dialogue was in a film, we’d laugh at it. What I was trying to do with The Outpost Nine was trying to write it in a way where it already felt tongue-in-cheek? So, the characters all use ’70s vernacular, which I think is something that I’ve never seen before. I have three vernacular dictionaries up all the time when I’m writing. Because I want you to play The Outpost Nine and feel like ‘This is Ben’s game because they all talk like this.’ I wanted to make something where the dialogue felt not-terrible.
What is the best way for somebody to get into game development?
Well, YouTube has become a fantastic resource for getting into game development. First of all, you have to pick an engine. There are loads. Picking the right one for you is the tough one, it just depends on what you want to work in more. I would recommend Unity, out of all of them. There are so many different things you can inject into Unity if you don’t know anything. I made The Outpost Nine in Unity, using really simple drag-and-drop tools. So there’s that.
If you’re making something very specific, there are engines specifically for those, and none of them are bad. What you wanna do is look at a game engine before you look at language, because if you’re going to code from scratch, that’s insane. That’s something that an intermediate person would do.
Once you pick an engine, watch YouTube tutorials. I used to teach a course, it cost 6 grand, that’s insane money. You don’t want to spend that much before you’re sure that it’s something you want to do. There are really dedicated people with YouTube channels that you can put a quid in on Patreon, and support them, or actually a tenner, that’s more fair. When I was making The Outpost Nine, I looked up a Youdemy course for Unity, cost me about a tenner (I got it half-price) and even then, that was so valuable. Look at Youdemy, look at YouTube.
If you would prefer a more hands-on approach, you could always do a course.
You worked at Pulse College, right? Did you find it good discipline to teach as well as learn?
100%, yeah! Everyone was great, too, it felt really nice to do that kind of thing. Pulse is a really good college, it’s really great. The price can be expensive for some people, but that’s how colleges are. And nothing forces you to learn more than being in that kind of environment. If you put money into a course, you’re going to finish that course.
So, the kind of gamer who’d like The Outpost Nine. What other games would they be fans of?
Older Hideo Kojima games, adventure games. But it’s so heavily based on Alien, I think that it could kind of fight itself into people’s Steam libraries even if they haven’t played this kind of game before. There’s a lot of people who really like the aesthetic of it, which is very strong. People see the ad and then they want to play it. I don’t think it’s for any specific type of gamer really.
Finally, Ben, what’s you favourite lame line from any game ever?
Oooh it’s… ‘Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?’
Is that Time Crisis?
No! It’s Bad Dudes.
Oh. I should have guessed. Thank you Ben!
Chapter Two of The Outpost Nine is in the works as we speak.
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Let your pals here at GamEir know – have you ambitions of game development? Have you made anything or do you have anything in the works? There’s so much talent here in Ireland, and all you have to do is want it and work hard! Support small developers, my dudes.