Gameluster’s J.J. Evangelista had a chance to talk with Matt Bitner, from Hitcents, about their company, the work they do in the industry, their process behind creating games, and working with talented individuals.
J.J. Evangelista: Hello, my name's J.J. Evangelista, and I represent Gameluster.com. Thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. Can I please have your name, and what you do at Hitcents?
Matt Bitner: I'm Matt Bitner, and I'm a programmer and lead game designer at Hitcents.
J.J. Evangelista: What made you decide to get into this industry?
Matt Bitner: For a couple years before I started at Hitcents I made flash games on my own. I've loved video games my entire life. Creating them is something I've wanted to do ever since I was old enough to actually want to do something with my life. However, when I applied at Hitcents it was for an app development position. I was working retail at the time and had no experience with professional development. I just knew programming would be better than working stock at 3 AM. I assumed I'd be working on client projects... business stuff. But, during the interview Jon, our senior developer, ended up asking a ton of questions about XNA and game development. It turned out they wanted to make a game, and that game turned out to be Draw A Stickman: Epic.
J.J. Evangelista: How did Hitcents come together?
Matt Bitner: Hitcents was started by two twin brothers, Chris and Clinton Mills, and their dad Ed Mills back in 1999. At the time the focus was mostly on web advertising and building sites for local businesses. It's steadily grown over time and towards the end of 2011 --beginning of 2012-- we started making mobile apps and games.
J.J. Evangelista: What is it like working at Hitcents?
Matt Bitner: It’s a really good experience. You learn a lot working with other people who want to do the same thing you do. So far, all our games have been made by really small teams. There's about ten people doing all the art and programming, so you know everyone. You know the people in charge that are paying you to make this game, and you get to talk to them directly. If you have an idea and bring it up, someone is going to hear it. When I started we were working out of this office in an old strip mall, but now we’ve got our own building with a parking structure and everything. We’re in this strange limbo between indie and triple A right now. Its not like a studio with 100+ people all working on a triple A game for 3 years, but its not working out of your parents’ house eating nothing but ramen either, which is nice.
J.J. Evangelista: Aside from video games, what other projects does Hitcents work on?
Matt Bitner: All kinds! When I first started, I actually worked on an app for the boy-band One Direction. It let you make this scrapbook page for your favorite band member, and then put photos of yourself and little hearts and kisses all over it, near the boy of your choice. Before I worked there, they'd worked on software for those self-checkout machines you use at the grocery, and they made the software for a smart-house that responds to speech commands for an episode of Extreme Home Makeover. So kind of anything and everything. Definitely web pages, games and apps, but not just web pages, games and apps.
J.J. Evangelista: What inspires you, and your team, to create?
Matt Bitner: For me it's mostly other games. Just the whole medium of video games in general. It’s a really great way to convey an idea or an experience to someone and have them truly engaged in it. I think for most the people on our team it’s just incredibly cool to be able to create art and have people interact with it on the level you do in a video game.
J.J. Evangelista: I've had the pleasure of playing Draw a Stickman: EPIC. How did your team come up with the concept?
Matt Bitner: Draw A Stickman was originally the idea of our former lead designer*, Phil Williams. He's always pitched it by enthusiastically posing the question, "what if you could draw a stickman, and it came to life?" It started as a project the he and our Senior Developer, Jon Peppers, worked on in their spare time between client projects and became drawastickman.com. The website went on to win a bunch of webby's and other awards, and just before I started working at Hitcents, they had begun toying around with the idea of a full fledged game. The website was a kind of animated mad libs with drawing, and the logical next step was to give people even more control when it came to bringing their drawings to life.
*Phil recently left Hitcents to persue his other dream, becoming a minister down in Texas, leaving a rough outline for us to follow as we start on Epic 2 that we hope to live up to.
J.J. Evangelista: Are there any plans on expanding the Draw a Stickman universe, via DLC, sequels, or prequels?
Matt Bitner: We actually just announced via Draw A Stickman's facebook page that we've been working on Draw A Stickman: Epic 2. We've started from the ground up with this one, and overall it's going to be a much bigger game than the first one. This time you'll have the ability to save and share the stickman and tools you draw, letting your friends play as characters you've drawn and vice versa. The game world is going to be more cohesive as well. Instead of just having a different set of pencils to work with at the start of each level, you'll amass a collection of pencils as you explore and get to use them throughout the game, on any level, after you find them. Whether it's a sequel or a prequel is difficult to say. For the user, and for the stickman they draw, it all definitely takes place after the events of the first game. It involves your stickman entering another book, this time to stop their friend who's been corrupted by this evil ink. But, how this new book relates to the book from the first game, is a little more ambiguous.
J.J. Evangelista: On your website, there's a link that says: You have a game you want to publish? Let's Make it Happen. What kinds of people/developers do you work with --would you like to work with--?
Matt Bitner: With Draw a Stickman: Epic, we went through the incredibly daunting process of releasing the game on multiple app stores in the US, localizing it for 12 different languages, and then releasing it again in China where they have over 50 different stores that all have their own requirements, etc. We later integrated the Steam APIs into Epic and released it on Steam. We’ve worked to get it into game bundles, and now it’s going to be on kids tablets like the Tabeo. We’ve done all this without a publisher, and in the process hired new employees and even opened an office in China. Not every developer, especially a two person indie teams, has the means or desire to do that kind of work themselves. They just want to make great games. So now that we have this whole publishing infrastructure from Epic, we’re looking to use it to make other great games by other developers visible.
J.J. Evangelista: Do you have any advice for anyone trying to break into the game industry, or create their own game?
Matt Bitner: I'd advise anyone wanting to make games professionally to try and make a very small --as small in scope as possible--, simple game, from start to finish, at least once before pursuing anything bigger. This means title screens, UI, sound, music, the whole shebang. Games involve a lot of things (programming, game design, art, animation, sound, etc.) all coming together and working with one another. No matter what aspect of creating a game you're interested in, having at least a rudimentary understanding of all those things will make you easier to work with and better at what ever niche you fit in. If you can't program and don't want to learn, you can seek someone else who can, or try your hand at something like GameMaker: Studio. Regardless, if you can showcase what it is you want to do in a fully realized game, even a super simple 3 level platformer, it will go a long way when people you want to hire and evaluate your work. If you're not looking to get hired, and want to stay indie, I'd say it's even more important.
J.J. Evangelista: I really appreciate you taking the time for this interview. I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future! Thank you very much.