• Larry Kilgore III

PixelSmiths Ep. 4: Trackless w/ Aubrey Serr

Updated: Feb 28



A long time developer talks about the transformation of the indie game scene



On this episode, Larry & Clinton talk with Aubrey Serr, an indie developer with more than a decade of experience, about his time in the industry, and going solo to create his game Trackless, an atmospheric, first-person, text-based exploration and puzzle game set in the distant future.


Aubrey also spent the early years of his career at Wolfire Games, where they were one of the first teams to pioneer what is now considered 'Early Access' as a way to develop their games.


In this conversation, they talk about Aubrey's variety of experience in the gaming industry, the challenges he faced creating his own game, the growth of the indie game scene over the past 20 years, and his experience giving a talk at GDC.

Other gaming topics include: Wolfire Games, 1992 Nintendo World Championships, LAN arcades, Overgrowth, Humble Bundle, Receiver, developer blogs, Shadowgate, Zork-----------------------------

Find Trackless on Steam: https://store.steampowered.com/app/586660/Trackless/

Visit 12 East Games' website: https://12eastgames.com/

Follow 12 East Games on twitter: https://twitter.com/12EastGames


Transcript:


Larry Kilgore III:

Video games are an art form. From the bits and bytes of the old school arcade cabinets to the technological advantages of the modern era, video games have been a way for creators to tell stories and an interactive environment that can be shared the world over.


Clinton Bader:

Developers, designers, visionaries and storytellers, like the artisans of old, it's their blood, sweat and tears that go into crafting these unique and innovative experiences for players. But oftentimes, the independent artists get lost in the overwhelming space that is today's hectic gaming market. And on PixelSmiths, it's our goal to be a platform for those artists to celebrate their drive, their vision, and the work it takes to create their art.


Larry Kilgore III:

On this episode, we'll talk with Aubrey Serr, a game designer with over a decade of industry experience about his time as an indie developer, being part of the team that pioneered early access and going solo to create his text-based adventure game, Trackless. This is PixelSmiths. Hello and welcome to PixelSmiths. I'm Larry Kilgore, podcast creator and video game enthusiast.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton "Paperthin" Bader, Esports broadcaster and commentator. We're here to really highlight a space that can oftentimes be overwhelmed with choices and we strive to bring you some of the best and brightest creators to keep an eye on.


Larry Kilgore III:

Today, we are joined by Aubrey Serr, industry veteran, designer, programmer and CEO of 12 East Games. Aubrey, thank you for joining us.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. Thanks for having me here.


Larry Kilgore III:

So, Aubrey, you've been in the game industry since the mid to late 2000s. You spent almost a decade at Wolfire games, another independent studio, before you struck out on your own in 2015. What drove you to want to work in games in the first place?


Aubrey Serr:

Like a lot of people, I just loved video games. I played enormous amounts of video games as a kid. I was homeschooled. So, while most people were at school, I was playing video games. It's like homeschool, meant no school essentially. So, for example, when Nintendo did their World Championships in '92, I think, I was a semifinalist in Dallas.


Larry Kilgore III:

That's pretty cool.


Aubrey Serr:

I made it to the big stage. And I think I would have won it except my controller had one of the direction buttons was messed up. And I didn't realize the problem until I was playing

Tetris. The down button wouldn't work. So, I couldn't sink my stuff fast enough.


Larry Kilgore III:

No.


Aubrey Serr:

So, I was pretty obsessed, pretty obsessed with video games, sort of the only outlet I had. I mean, I would read books too, but at home, not a lot to do. This was pre-internet. And I would just play every video game I could get my hands on. I'd play it to death. I would go out and spend all my allowance at the arcade as soon as I got it. And video games weren't sort of my first career choice. I thought at a pretty young age, oh, maybe I could be a comic book artist or something. I didn't really understand how to make a video game. I went to college. I got a degree in economics. Never used it.


Larry Kilgore III:

Yeah. I have a similar story. I have a bachelor's in philosophy.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. A lot of people want to do something game related. But their parents don't have the kind of artistic background or creative background that makes it seem possible. I didn't know any game developers. I knew very few creative people at all in my life. And it just seemed impossible.


Aubrey Serr:

But I tried to keep kind of close to gaming, kind of my very first business in 1999 was LAN arcade. I was actually working at a game store. And part of my jobs at that game store was running their LAN arcade. They would charge people by the hour. And then, one of the guys that I was working with, he's like, "Hey, why don't we just open up our own?" And I was like, "Sure. Let's give it a shot." So, that was my first business. And that was a massive failure. I mean, you see any internet cafes around like now, those were only a thing for what, maybe three years.


Clinton Bader:

I live in a country where they're still pretty popular.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. That's true.


Clinton Bader:

That's a whole different category of a topic. I wanted to ask you a couple questions because I had very similar experiences growing up so I wanted to kind of pick your brain. First of all, with you and Larry, my degree is in physics. I'd obviously did nothing with that. I'm now an Esports broadcaster. So, nothing to do with any of it. But when you were growing up, you had the video games, you were homeschooled. What did your parents think about your video game being something you really like to do?


Aubrey Serr:

They were sort of supportive to a point. I mean, obviously, when your kid is playing video games 12 hours a day, you're maybe thinking that something's wrong, but I don't know. I don't know if they really thought that.


Clinton Bader:

I think we all had similar ideas there with our parents. They didn't know what to make of it because it was such a new thing.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. But they tried to keep me acquainted with the technology at least. My dad worked on computers for a long time. And so, he's like, "Oh, we need to have something like this in our house. This is the future, whatever." So, I at least had access to, not usually the newest stuff or something. My first computer was given to us by some friends of his that was like a little Atari. One of the weird Atari computers. That's not the ST. It's worse and had a few black and white games. But we got an NES and never had a Genesis, never had a Super Nintendo. We got a 386 Pentium PC.


Larry Kilgore III:

When you did your first, the LAN company, and then when you decided to go into game design, were your parents supportive or the people around you supportive when you're making that decision? Or what were the reactions that you had when you were like, "No, I want to work in video games. I want to work in the game industry. This is what I want to do."


Aubrey Serr:

They were pretty supportive, not materially. When everything kind of fell apart, they were more materially supportive. It's like helping me put my life back together. But yeah, I started the company when I was 20. I really didn't have any idea what I was doing. And I think they didn't think I had any idea what I was doing. And they figured like, well, that's a phase probably. He'll figure it out. So, yeah, I kept trying to get into games because I just have this call it a need, a need to make a video game. I need to make more video games. I don't know why.


Larry Kilgore III:

I feel like when you have conversations with entrepreneurs or people that love what they do like that, that there's kind of the same thing where it's just like, it's not work for me. This is what I love to do. And I needed to find a way to do it. It's in their bones. So, that's kind of what you're saying. It's just, it was really in your bones like it was what you needed to do.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. What I tell other people is like, "Yeah, don't make video games." If you can literally do anything else, don't do it. It's extremely competitive. And at the end of the day, what you're just hoping to make is something that people can engage with and enjoy with their free time. Like something that just you're not changing the world. Even if you try to make a good game that what it does is entertain people, make them feel good after a long day of work. You're not like curing cancer.


Larry Kilgore III:

Curing cancer.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah.


Larry Kilgore III:

But I think there's something to be said about wanting to bring joy to other people's lives.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. I think in indie games, that's fairly common. We want to connect other people who love the games. We want to create experiences that are meaningful to people in a medium that we feel like we can talk in. And a lot of people making video games, that's not what they're trying to do. They're trying to get you addicted to some sort of slot machines, but for children. I tell people, "Yeah, if you can do anything else, just don't. But if you have to do this, do it."


Larry Kilgore III:

So, you spent like eight years or so at Wolfire. And then in 2015, you decided you wanted to strike out on your own. What really motivated you to decide to start your own company and eventually start 12 East Games?


Aubrey Serr:

So, we were very successful at Wolfire. I'm not sure how familiar you are with them. But when we started Wolfire, people were saying things like the PC is dead. Steam was just sort of starting to gain traction. We worked with people who said, "Yeah, you're going to fail." There's just no way a few people can compete with these other game companies. I was still pretty young. The other three guys were even younger, four guys. Sorry. We tried pretty hard. We sort of helped popularize the idea of like, early access. The only other people who had done anything like early access before had been Mount & Blade.


Aubrey Serr:

And then after we did it, then Minecraft did it. They sort of changed the wording a little bit. I guess you can say they came up with the phrase early access, but we were doing open development. We were doing weekly builds and sharing them with everybody. You could buy it and play it in its development state.


Aubrey Serr:

And yeah, it was pretty successful. And then, kind of in an attempt to help fund what was obviously a very slow going development of Overgrowth, a couple of the guys, Shawn and Jeff started some promotional ideas. And the first one was a bundle with the guys who eventually went on to make Subnautica. And that was a huge success. I think they called it the organic bundle or something. And it was what their game Natural Selection 2. So, Overgrowth Natural Selection 2, you buy them together, you pay a little bit less. And then they were like, "Wow, that was really, really successful. What else do we have to sell?"


Aubrey Serr:

So, Overgrowth is technically a sequel to an older game called, Lugaru. And they're like, "Well, maybe we can sell Lugaru in a bundle." So, they found a bunch of other people that hold indie games, and they bundled them together and they call that the Humble Bundle. So, Humble Bundle went on to be a big deal for a few years. It's still kind of a big deal. But kind of after they went to do Humble Bundle, we released one of our jam games called Receiver. Receiver was also very, very successful. We released another jam game called Desperate Gods, which was open sourced and greatly inspired Tabletop Simulator, which went on to be its own success.


Aubrey Serr:

So, it's really cool in that era to be making stuff and being successful. From our perspective of what we were trying to accomplish, which is like this whole indie games thing. We felt like, "Yeah, we were independent." Humble Bundle was sort of like, "Yeah, they're getting all this money for charity. They're doing all of these big courses." And then we're like, "Oh, we're doing jam games and we're releasing jam games. And we're kind of pioneering this even lighter form of game development, we're making a living off of it and we're influencing other people, people who are playing our stuff."


Aubrey Serr:

And kind of there are two reasons why I wanted to leave to do my own stuff. I kind of got to the point where I felt, I just wasn't able to make the games that I wanted to make. I've been in this industry a while at that point. And when you're not the person coding the game, you're not really making the game. You think about a game like Sonic or Super Mario Brothers. And it's like, the person who's actually tweaking the values for that jump, that paddle, the person who's setting up the hooks for the sound and the feedback, that's the person who's making the game.


Aubrey Serr:

And when the player plays it, they're getting to experience all that. And essentially, all of the games that I worked on at Wolfire, I think were successful, because David's basically a genius. He did a GDC talk. And it's like, currently, the ninth most successful GDC talk on YouTube, and it's about Overgrowth. It's cool. It's really cool to work with somebody who's brilliant, who's all their ideas are massively successful. But you always wonder, could I do it? If I was the one in the driver's seat, could I do it? I just couldn't live with the question of not knowing. I had to know if I could do it.


Larry Kilgore III:

You had things that you wanted to create. And that was the motivator?


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah.


Larry Kilgore III:

Just to be able to do your own things. Create your own ideas.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. With Trackless, David would never make a game like that. In part, because he's never played any of the games that inspired it like he played other games. And so, I sort of wanted to make a game like this. And nobody else is going to. I mean, the game didn't do very well.


Aubrey Serr:

So, it's obvious why. It's because it's not commercially viable. There's some part of their brain is like, "Oh, maybe we shouldn't do like a text-based game that kind of calls back to stuff that's 30 years old that people haven't played." But yeah, I wanted to make that game. And I wanted people to play it too.


Clinton Bader:

So, Aubrey, I'm actually super curious about where the ideas for early access and early development kind of showing it to the world? Where do those ideas came from and how that all came about at Wolfire?


Aubrey Serr:

So, Wolfire is a San Francisco company. I can't remember what year I moved to San Francisco, but I think it was 2007, or 2008, right at kind of the peak of Web 2.0 like apps, companies like Facebook, it was just becoming obvious that they were going to be extremely successful and rival like AT&T and General Motors. And it was a really heady time in San Francisco. And part of their rise, the rise of all of these companies was fueled by certain ideology of growth mindset. So, there was this feeling in the air, this kind of ecstatic feeling that wow, technology can do anything.


Aubrey Serr:

And so, okay, how do we bring this to video games? And part of this ideology is fail fast. Fail fast, they say. So, John and Jeff, we had a problem, we needed to make money. We didn't have a game. And they wanted to if it was going to totally tank, they wanted to know sooner rather than later.


Aubrey Serr:

So, part of the idea of selling it right away was just to test the market, to see if there was any interest. And you see that idea is still central to early access now. Like, why do people go in early access? It's like, well, they want to make some money because they need it to develop the game. And yes, they want to know if anybody's going to play it. They want to know how much more effort they should put into this or whether they should just release it as soon as possible. So, those were the basic motivations.


Aubrey Serr:

But also, I had been a really huge fan of these actual forum posts. They didn't have a blog, they had a forum. Moon Pod games, and they hit on some very, very early indie games, kind of the very first hint at indie games. And they would have these forum posts where they would talk about game development. The kind of trials and tribulations, nuts and bolts of game development. And I was just addicted. They would only do one post a month. And I just could not wait to read it because there was just nothing else out there on the internet at that point.


Aubrey Serr:

It's hard to imagine now that nobody was talking about how do you make a video game, but part of making a video game at that point was making your own game engine. And so, there was just way fewer people who were doing it.


Aubrey Serr:

So, when we went to do Wolfire, I was like, "Let's talk about what we're doing. Let's share our knowledge and talk about our problems of making a video game and sort of the nuts and bolts of the technical aspect." And so, for a very long time, we did five blog posts a week. That's sort of what got us on people's radar. That blog was very successful.


Aubrey Serr:

When Google stopped their RSS feed stuff, it cut the legs out of our blog like it did everybody else's blog. And we switched to doing videos, which are a lot more time consuming to produce and sort of change the dynamic, but we were able to do that for a while too.


Aubrey Serr:

But eventually, it's just game development content doesn't win the algorithm on YouTube. It just doesn't. So, yeah, that was sort of the early days of how is basically desperation. We were trying to make money. We were trying to get visibility. And it just happened that, especially in the blog era, we just had the right team. We just had the right mindset.


Larry Kilgore III:

This has been a great conversation so far. And we want to talk more about Trackless. But first, we're going to take a quick break. And we'll be back with more from Aubrey Serr when we return here on PixelSmiths.


Larry Kilgore III:

This is PixelSmiths, the podcast that gives a voice to today's indie game developers. I'm Larry Kilgore III.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton "Paperthin" Bader and we're talking to Aubrey Serr, CEO of 12 East Games. And Aubrey, before the break, we kind of started to talk about Trackless trying to kind of move into your game that you started on your own here and really kind of took off and were able to pull yourself in that direction. You were talking about how you felt that need to do that, what brought Trackless about? Where were some of your inspirations for it? We talked about some of the games that maybe you were looking at that were old, but still inspired you.


Aubrey Serr:

So, I mentioned before that I was a huge fiend for the NES. And one of these early games that I got that I didn't fully understand at the time was this game, Shadowgate. And Shadowgate is a first person point and click adventure game.


Aubrey Serr:

Unlike a lot of early games, in that genre has verb buttons, I don't know, five or four or six verbs, like take, read, that kind of thing. And the game has a really good soundtrack. And I just sort of fell in love with this game as a child because I couldn't beat it. It wasn't clear what you're supposed to do. And I sort of fell into trying to brute force every puzzle that I got stuck in with just try every item with every verb.


Aubrey Serr:

So, I eventually beat it. It left a big impact. I wanted to capture this feeling of being in a place. And I also sort of got that from the original Zork. Zork starts off and it's has some sort of really evocative description of you're on the road, you see a mailbox, there's a picket fence, and up on this hill, there's a white house. But Zork and a lot of those games quickly kind of break down because kind of modern interactive fiction, people have a name for this. They're called guess the verb games.


Aubrey Serr:

And now, I liked that I was sort of trying to guess the verb. And in fact, also intuitively grasp that those games are about guessing verbs. But my problem with them is that they didn't do a very good job of it. Guessing the verb just at random isn't any fun. And also, the text parser implies that there's this bigger possibility space, like a standard text parser, the verb applies to an object. So, you're not just like, I'm not just going to kick, I'm going to kick the can or whatever. It's often not very clear what you're supposed to do.


Aubrey Serr:

And kind of the evolution of those games, there's kind of been two sorts of evolutions. And one very early on was to turn into a game like Shadowgate, which eventually they dropped the verb buttons entirely and you just get a use button. Or you just have items in your inventory.


Larry Kilgore III:

So, it just kind of picks the verb for you.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. So, it just picks the verb for you. And the language part is totally lost. And I like words. I think words are cool. I think verbs are cool. But in the interactive fiction space, they sort of also collapsed all the verbs. They just do look it up in a dictionary or whatever. They add a ton of verbs that sort of mean similar things and they all collapse down to one option, so that you're not guessing verbs for so long.


Aubrey Serr:

And I think that's also sort of not what I liked about those games because Zork had problems, but there were other games that were like Zork that were a lot of fun. They weren't commercial games though. They were just like hobbyist games that people were making in the early days of that scene.


Aubrey Serr:

And those games especially really made a big impact on me. I was like, "These games are cool. These games are interesting. I wanted to make games that I could make. And I wanted to do something that I felt kind of pushed game design forward." That was important to me. It has to innovate in some way. It has to solve some sort of problem.


Aubrey Serr:

So, I'm like, "Well, here is a design problem that I can fix in a genre that I find interesting. And this is kind of a game I want to see, I want to play." I think other people should try it so that they can understand where these games came from. Why did anybody enjoy this? Because it's kind of tough to go back to Zork and be like. "People play this stuff?"


Larry Kilgore III:

Sometimes going back to those older games, it's like, I remember loving this, but does it really hold up?


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. It's kind of like, I don't go back and watch movies without sound. Why would I do that? But I think there are compelling reasons to play a game like this. I think it's actually fun. So, I tried to solve it. And I tested Trackless a lot to try to get all the verbs that people might enter. But basically, the solution is you only enter one verb, and you specify it on an object in the game world. And the verbs are supposed to sort of make sense. You're given a clue of what you're trying to do. And then you just pick the correct verb.


Aubrey Serr:

And I think what's interesting about this is this evolution of games, where the verbs all get collapsed down into the use button. Like, press F to pay respects. You have one button that does all of the things and they have to tell you what the thing it's doing is because it doesn't make any sense anymore. And I was like, "Well, what about a game where you could do every verb?"


Aubrey Serr:

And so, I think when you kind of explore the space, it's really fascinating how specific the language is. To use an example from Trackless, you're on a pilgrimage, you come up to this bronze statue. The bronze statue has people have been rubbing its feet, what do you do, right? And it's like, well, we have verbs, like, burnish. And it's a weird word, but it's specifically for rubbing brass or bronze. And it's kind of cool to me that it's not the only solution. There's a bunch of other solutions.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well I’ll say, too, in playing Trackless, that's one of the things that I found interesting about it was that there wasn't just one word to solve it. But there were variations in scores because the verb you had was more or less precise.


Aubrey Serr:

Right. And that's kind of like a hint, this kind of like, oh, there's other things out there. Have you thought of other words, right?


Clinton Bader:

Yes. I found it to be surprisingly intuitive. When I first opened the game, I found it to be jarring, but in a good way. Because I quickly adapted. I was like, "Okay, wait, what am I doing here?" Well, there's no menu. I don't want to spoil too much here, but there's a lot of things that initially are going to be very jarring. But if you give it just a little bit of time, it becomes very intuitive. And I found that I was all of a sudden progressing really fast. And I could kind of take my time with it. But I love what you're saying because I actually found it really fascinating to start the game in particular.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. So, I come from the generation of people who hated tutorials. I learned making Trackless that people love tutorials now. In fact, if you don't give them a tutorial, they feel like very, very uncomfortable. And I'd probably feel the same way. I'm so used to playing tutorials, I expected this little warm up. There's a whole ritual of starting a game and Trackless has very little respect for that, for better or worse.


Larry Kilgore III:

I'll say too, as a gamer, I feel like that's kind of been a shift too, where if something doesn't have a tutorial, and you just kind of get pushed into it. Sometimes that can have a negative effect on the way it's received. But at the same time, no, life doesn't come with tutorials. So, it's also interesting to put you in a space and can you figure out what's going on.


Aubrey Serr:

From my design mindset, from the games that I played and kind of my attitude towards it is that it's sort of like the Hollywood maxim, Show, Don't Tell. If your game can't tutorialize itself within the game, there's a problem with your game. Your game is really about teaching people how the game works for the duration of the game until you beat it. It's not some tiny part that you put on the front end.


Aubrey Serr:

A good example of a game that doesn't really have a tutorial or is either that or is like mostly tutorial is Portal. Portal, I think is kind of just one of the best games ever designed. And they're just sort of like, "Yeah, the computers always telling you what to do." And you're sort of always expected to be hostile. The game expects you to be antagonistic towards anything it's telling you. I think that's great. I wanted to make a game that cut out anything that didn't need to be there.


Aubrey Serr:

I think my next game is also going to have a playable setting screen. Because I don't think that the current setup is ideal. A lot of people just go through this stuff without any thought. I still play video games. I still play this stuff. And I'm like, "Wow, it really sucks to start a game, change your graphics settings and not know what the framerate is going to be inside the game." There's no test option.


Aubrey Serr:

And I don't want to start the single player game without knowing how my settings are, especially if I'm going to stream the game. There's all of these little problems. And I'm like, the stuff is still not very good in my opinion. There's still room for improvement.


Larry Kilgore III:

When starting games, yeah, you'll have those settings, but even in the first few cutscenes or the first few minutes of interaction, I'm pausing it and tweaking it, because you don't know what it's going to look like or sound like or feel like.


Clinton Bader:

It's never right.


Aubrey Serr:

Right. And that's like the first 45 seconds of the game are important. You don't want to have to be tweaking your settings when they're trying to get you hooked in this world. If you have to use the setting screen in Trackless, you know that it wasn't a priority. It's sort of like designed around the idea of a mid '90s phone interface. And it's terrible on purpose, more or less.


Clinton Bader:

It reminded me of Gemini Rue. I felt a lot of Gemini Rue coming through with that little device. So, I really actually did appreciate that.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. So, what I didn't realize and probably should have is that kind of the modern interactive fiction people seem to hate this idea of this game. They hate the idea of the gameplay and they mocked it. Trackless is in their mind the worst possible game you can make because it is like a guess a verb game. And I was really hoping that they would buy my game and enjoy it, because I thought that's who I was making the game for, people who loved text adventures.


Aubrey Serr:

And ironically, the people who seem to like the game the most are the ones that have no idea what any of those old games were like or point and click adventures. And they're like, "Oh, this is an adventure game. And you write some text, and that sounds cool. I'll try it out." They're like, "Wow, this is really intuitive. It works really well." Some of these puzzles are could be better, which is true. But the people who play it seem to like the game. I'm personally very pleased with the game, still. I still listen to the soundtrack occasionally.


Aubrey Serr:

I was saying with Shadowgate, to me, the music is such an essential component. And I wanted a game where you could just be in the space and then absorb the music. That's one of the reasons why the game isn't very long is because there's only so much music. There's only like an hour of music. I want you to be able to hear all the music during the course of the game without getting tired of it.


Aubrey Serr:

And I'm very happy with how the game operates on that level is sort of like a music video experience kind of. To me that was again, going back to what were your influences for that. Like Silent Hill is kind of famous for having like Akira Yamaoka as one of the primary creative voices on that team. The Silent Hill series is very different from other video game core creative teams in that they have a musician. And the music on that game is great. And without that, it wouldn't be Silent Hill.


Larry Kilgore III:

Creative Fields in general, like sound design is a very overlooked thing that can do so much for what it is you're creating, whether it's a game or anything like that. And it's good to hear that you acknowledge that too, that the sound is important. The music is important. It's what you want people to feel when they're in your world.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. Those were all high priorities for me. I also needed to make something I could finish. This was my first video game where I was in control of coding. And so, here I am, I'm like, I can sort of code. I've always sort of been able to code. I've been practicing doing small projects. And I'm like, "Well, this is it. This is sink or swim. I'm going to do it." At some point, you have to pull the trigger and say, "Okay, I'm going to be the coder now."


Aubrey Serr:

So, I wanted to pick something I thought I could do. And yeah, I learned an enormous amount. I had no idea of all the stuff I didn't know. Unknown unknowns, they call them. And it was really daunting, even though I think if anybody looks at Trackless, they're like, "Well, this is kind of simple." But one of the things that they say in game development is there are no small games. Every game is going to be a huge undertaking.


Aubrey Serr:

And yeah, it was a challenge. I probably had bitten off more than I could chew. And I still was able to release the game pretty close to when I wanted to. But yeah, it took a physical toll. I was working way too much. And it was extremely high stress because it really was sink or swim. It's like high stress, like drowning is high stress. I had set aside really overly optimistically, I think, eight months to develop the game. And I think it took me 14 months to do it. And I did all the art, all the code, ended up rolling like huge systems just from scratch, like the save system.


Aubrey Serr:

I couldn't understand how existing save systems work. They're like, "Oh, you serialize the data. You write this into these files." But I'm like, "How can I tell what's in the file that's not human readable? Why would you do this? How can I tell if it's working? I'm just going to go with what I know. I know how to write text into like a text file. I know how to do comma delineation." Then I can read it. I can understand what's going on in the save file. And like if I need to, I can fix it. There was one person who broke their game somehow and I was able to like go and edit their save file and fix their game.


Aubrey Serr:

I didn't think I was going to have to write all this stuff from scratch. And I certainly don't know anything about save game systems other than that mine works. Other people release triple A games, and they don't. So, I'm like, "If it works, it works."


Larry Kilgore III:

So, in 2019, you were invited to actually speak at GDC. And you did a talk on nonlinear level design. Having spent the time in the industry that you have and grown your skill set, what is being asked to speak at GDC, the Game Developers Conference? What does that feel like for you as an industry professional, being able to speak at a professional conference like that?


Aubrey Serr:

I lived in San Francisco. I'd been to GDC a lot. And there's this feeling like a lot of people are giving talks and I hadn't really pursued it. You sort of have to submit an application have an idea for a talk. And it's a lot of work. I had seen when my collaborator, David, had done his talk. He had to take about three months off just to work on his talk. It's a very, very good talk, hugely successful talk. It was time well spent. But I didn't want to do a lot worse than that. I wanted to put the time in, deliver a good talk.


Aubrey Serr:

And so, I'd been doing a bunch of contract work after I shipped Trackless. Because Trackless didn't sell very well. So, I needed to make money. So, I was doing level design again. And I worked on a bunch of games that were sort of in this niche that I like, like a modern, nonlinear level design game that I just played is Deathloop.


Aubrey Serr:

And I like games where you're free to move around the level. You're free to explore it. And it's not exactly clear where the forward direction is. You can kind of cut across it. Anyway, I think that's really interesting. Overgrowth is also like that. Receiver is like that to some extent. So, I started to realize basically, every game I've worked on and done level design is like this, and I could deliver a good talk. I think I could tell people sort of boil it down for people.


Aubrey Serr:

I think before that moment, I didn't really think I had anything to tell people. So, yeah, I was really happy when they accepted the talk. And yeah, I worked on the talk a lot for months, practiced it. GDC is really great in that they set me up with a mentor and some other people who were giving talks in the track and I could get feedback from them. The talk evolved a lot based on that feedback and got kind of more and more refined. And then yeah, I went and gave the talk. And I thought it went well. I thought it went pretty well.


Aubrey Serr:

But the audience score was not very good. It's like, wow. I spent all this time, gave this talk. And I placed like, sort of they stack rank you. I was ranked below the 50% point. There's six or seven talks that people thought were better than mine. They're like God of War. They're like Spider Man. I didn't expect to be at the top. This is not their first GDC talks. A lot of these people had done several other GDC talks. I'm not delusional, but I didn't do as well as I'd hoped. And I was kind of like, "Wow, maybe my talk isn't that good."


Aubrey Serr:

And then two years later, they released that GDC, like, "Oh, yeah, okay, we'll release this talk from 2019." Because I don't know, nobody's going to GDC, because of COVID. And the talk went really well. It's extremely popular on YouTube. So, sort of validating and made all of that effort worthwhile. But there were two years there where I was disappointed with myself, basically. Like, dang, why did I screw that up? I should have practiced in front of a live audience.


Aubrey Serr:

The thing that I kept getting criticized for is that when I did my talk, I basically just wrote out everything I wanted to say like I would if I was doing like a YouTube video. And then I just read the stuff off the cards because I thought what mattered is like, "Well, I've got the slides, and you want to hear what I have to say, the information is important." But it really bothered people that I read it off the cards. They could tell that I was just reading it.


Larry Kilgore III:

I'll say, I find that interesting, too. Because I feel like that's a sign of being prepared and making sure that you know what you're going to say and I guess I don't understand why people wouldn't want you to get the information out that you were prepared to share.


Aubrey Serr:

You have to take an extra step. I'm going to tell you, if you ever give a talk at GDC, totally write everything down. But practice pretending that you don't have it written down. Then, you'll score really well. I had basically memorized it. But at the same time, every time I practice it, I read it, so I just fell back into what I had been doing.


Clinton Bader:

I feel like it's like a public speaking competition more than it is like an actual game development talk in some ways. It is quite fascinating to me that they choose to do that. I think the talk should speak for themselves if the content is interesting.


Aubrey Serr:

Right. And this is the audience score. And I guess the big problem is that they're watching a bunch of talks and they want to be entertained. And if you're reading from cards, I guess they're less entertaining. But the good thing about it when GDC posted the videos, my video feed is very small. The slides are very big and people liked it better. I can totally imagine GDC never releasing my talk. Sometimes they don't release people's talks and then I would have just been bummed out about it forever.


Aubrey Serr:

But yeah, it's a lot about knowing your audience. I've been doing YouTube videos for years, I thought, how can this be very different? Turns out, I made a good YouTube video. So, I don't know if I would really do anything different next time. Maybe. Maybe I would try like I say, pretend that I'm not reading.


Clinton Bader:

Aubrey, I mean, I think we've gone a really interesting route here where we started from your early days and the indie game arrival into the gaming space and where you're at now, what's maybe the biggest thing you've seen change or the most interesting thing that you've seen change since your early days of working in the indie game space?


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. When I was working on Darkest of Days, the indie game scene was just starting out. Jon Blow was starting to give these lectures. He hadn't even made a game yet. And a lot of people were listening to these lectures and saying, like, "Who is this guy? Can he even make a game? Does he know what he's talking about?" But at least, here was a person talking about game design philosophy, game design nuts and bolts in a way that people hadn't done previously, and to an audience that was hungry for it, people like me.


Aubrey Serr:

And another very, very early game developer who was doing indie games was a creator known as Cactus. And Cactus, he made these sort of 2D pixel art, often black and white, little action art games. Sometimes they were visually aggressive. I don't know if you guys have played Cruelty Squad or seen that, but sort of that's a game kind of in the tradition of being hard to look at.


Aubrey Serr:

But in a lot of ways, Cactus made these games that were, I thought, mechanically interesting, very sound and also artistically, really cool. And so, I was following Cactus' work. And so, they weren't able to make any money. They were starving. And Cactus started to work on this project that they called the most violent video game ever. They're like, is this going too far? And I play this very early prototype. And I'm like, "No, this is fantastic. This game is going to sell a ton." You need to sell this game. And that game was Hotline Miami. I don't know if you've played Hotline Miami.


Clinton Bader:

Yeah.


Aubrey Serr:

I'm Aubrey. I'm the Aubrey mask. The pig mask, that's me. So, yeah, Hotline Miami. In a lot of ways, that was sort of the birth of indie games. That was a huge change where indie games were just this weird niche hobby. Jon Blow released this game, Braid. Derek Yu, he was another San Francisco developer, and he had released Spelunky as a free game.


Clinton Bader:

Love that game, love that game.


Aubrey Serr:

Yeah. And he wasn't making any money. And then he's like, "Well, I'm going to rerelease it on Xbox. I'm just going to remake it more HD and put it on Xbox." Indie games quickly went from a very small community of people, who were intensely interested in games, often in a sort of academic way. And kind of the focus on retro games wasn't about the nostalgia, it's about mechanical completeness. You see that with Spelunky. That's why when he redid it, he's like, "Well, we'll make it HD." It's not about being retro. It's about how these dynamics are kind of mechanically complete.


Aubrey Serr:

So, all of a sudden, all these games came out. And they were just massively successful. And I just remember going to GDC. And their game awards, I think the normal game awards, I think it was Hotline Miami versus Gone Home. And Gone Home won as game of the year for GDC. And you're just like, oh, we've arrived. This is an indie game made by a few people. People think it's the best game this year. That was crazy.


Aubrey Serr:

Indie Game, the Movie came out with Jon Blow and Phil Fish. And we were hanging out with those people. They interviewed us. They interviewed Wolfire. They interviewed a bunch of indie game creators. In Austin, there was a thing called Fantastic Arcade, which was sort of the epicenter for indie game hangouts for a few years. And all these dudes from Europe would come because they all want to hang out in Texas.


Aubrey Serr:

And yeah, it was unbelievably exciting. Everybody was so young and optimistic and hungry and high energy. And then, things started happening. People started to make money and that was even more exciting. It's like oh, we don't have to starve to death doing this. We can actually make a living.


Aubrey Serr:

When Gone Home won game of the year, I remember thinking like, this is it. We've arrived. It can only go downhill from here. But even in those early days, there were indie publishers almost right away, like Hotline Miami got published by Devolver. And those dudes are awesome. But they're also a publisher. And the idea of being an indie is that you're independent. And they're like, oh, it's more like indie music where of course, you have a publisher. You need some way to get on Steam. Steam won’t talk to individual developers, they said.


Aubrey Serr:

It quickly became a different thing, again, all over. Now, there's dozens of indie publishers, and you really want to consider going with a publisher of some sort. Definitely the international market, and kind of the need to have a publisher and being able to port your games on consoles, that's all evolved and become necessary because now, there's just thousands and thousands and thousands of indie game developers.


Aubrey Serr:

They don't fit in a room anymore. Kind of Unity came along and just open the doors to anybody who wants to make a game, which is awesome, especially for gamers, and games in general, I think. And it's cool that there's all of this new opportunity also.


Aubrey Serr:

The downside of not having everybody go to some event in Austin is that you don't really know who was making the games, You don't get to hang out with them. And there isn't any strong sense of community with indie developers anymore. But the cool thing about that is you don't have to fly to Austin to have a successful indie game. You don't have to talk to these people. It's not some sort of club. Anybody can do it, anywhere. And that's really cool.


Larry Kilgore III:

Well, Aubrey, this has been a wonderful conversation. You've got a great story to tell and it's been really fun talking to you. Aubrey Serr, from 12 East Games, thank you for joining us on this episode of PixelSmiths.


Aubrey Serr:

Thanks for having me. It's been great.


Larry Kilgore III:

The songs used in this episode are from Trackless and were composed and performed by Matthew Pusti. Aubrey's game, Trackless is available now on Steam. Learn more about him and his company, 12 East Games at their website 12eastgames.com.


Larry Kilgore III:

PixelSmiths is brought to you by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production services for businesses, podcampmedia.com. Executive producer is Dusty Weis, associate producer is Gabriel Miller, and I oversee editing and production.


Clinton Bader:

And you can follow me, Clinton Bader on Twitter, @paperthinhere and on Twitch at twitch.tv/paperthinhere.


Larry Kilgore III:

Thanks for tuning in to PixelSmiths. I'm Larry Kilgore III.


Clinton Bader:

And I'm Clinton "Paperthin" Bader.




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