After discovering that award winning games writer (and my favourite influential taste maker), Simon Parkin, had recommended a little known twin-stick shooter by the name of Bezier earlier this month, it wasn’t long before my initial curiosity led me to discover that the game took 8 years to make. And whilst this unabashed revelation certainly did intrigue me, it wasn’t until I learnt that Bezier was largely the product of a single individual that I wanted to know more.
As a society, we cherish the idea of the underdog. Someone who has to overcome insurmountable odds in order to carve out their own path and achieve success. It’s what heroes are made of, and the kind of individuals who inspire us to be greater than our own (self-imposed) limitations. And with it becoming increasingly difficult for developers to have their content stand out in an over-saturated marketplace, where only the most creative and / or well resourced of gaming products get any notable attention from major websites (like Eurogamer), it’s encouraging to learn of a lone one man programmer who can take the well-worn idea of a twin-stick shooter and fashion it to become “a glorious carnival of neon particle effects, subtle tips of the hat to arcade classics and enthralling, if riotous, game design“. And it was with this in mind that I sought out Philip Bak in order to find out more about him as well as his 8 year labour of love – Bezier.
Why did Bezier take take 8 years to develop, even though 90% of its development had already been completed by 2010? Why did the fine-tuning take another 6 years, and what is the reason for the game’s immense 6 year delay?
Like the joke goes, the first 90% takes up the first 90% of the time and second 90% the rest. The last 10% was hard to do because I didn’t know what it was. I tried lots of things. Most of them felt wrong. I threw a lot in the bin. I guess most people would just ship and move on. The game was made part-time too so real life poked its nose in. We had kids. I got incredibly ill. Then better. But it was mostly down to finding what the last 10% was.
Even though you have worked for companies such as Sony, Gremlin Interactive, and Argonaut, and have over 30 years of experience in videogames development, why do you consider Bezier to be your first properly developed videogame?
Because in the past I was always making games for other people. I’ve taken to comparing a videogame to a painting, and whilst the programmer is the one holding the brush, there is almost always someone stood behind telling them what to paint. Not a brilliant way to advance our art form.
Bezier is the first of 9 personal projects. What led to you establishing such a goal, and can you give any details on what the other 8 projects will be about? Will they all be related to videogames?
Yes. I think they will be games. I tried to give up games programming in 1993, 2001 and 2005. In 2008 I gave in giving up. My Dad’s side of the family is very technical. He was a Games Programmer. My Mum’s side of the family are all storytellers. She was an English Teacher. To me making games is to walk both paths.
I have 9 stories to tell. The second project will either be the God Game, the Action Puzzler or the Open World Military Science-Fiction Shooter. I haven’t decided yet. I’ll throw paint at the canvas and see what sticks.
Given that you are 42 years of age, and your first personal project took 8 years to develop, how long will it be before the second project is released? How old do you think you will be before all 9 projects are completed and what steps are you taking to achieve your goals?
I don’t know when the second game will be released. Unlike Bezier I hope to show it a lot more people along the way. Steps to get them done faster? I’m not sure. Games are in a different place to where they were in 2008 when I started Bezier. Hopefully that means they don’t take so long. We’ll see.
Working in the creative space can be extremely lonely and isolating for some, and game development is no exception – especially for lone one man developers. What steps have you taken to ensure that you don’t suffer from the effects of social withdrawal and what advice can you give to others so that they don’t start suffering from loss of motivation and cabin fever?
We had kids. You’re never bored, there’s always something to do and they ground you like nothing else. Before kids I’d watch a lot of stories (films), listen to a lot of stories (music), and play a lot of stories (games). You have a lot more time before you have kids. I think motivation is all about working on an interesting story and forging the discipline of a craft you do every single day. A small enjoyable step. Every day. If you don’t enjoy it, go do something you do enjoy.
Bezier uses the bespoke 2D engine BezierSynth in order to utilize “genetic algorithms to create a look based on evolving curves. This allows the visual look to change based on the character’s actions, story parameters and spectral analysis of the [now 80] minute score”. What difficulties did you have in creating BezierSynth and why did you decide to take the bespoke approach as opposed to working with an engine that was already tried and tested?
Regarding third party engines… back in 2008 the only things that were truly tried and tested were incredibly expensive and built for big teams to use. I’m a straight forward games programmer. Despite how long it took, when I’m in a state of flow, I think I can come up with things and iterate really quickly in code. I design things in code. I had used this brush to paint for years and knew it well.
Of course, today you have a lot more choices. Starting from scratch with code is still viable I think, but it is a tremendous amount of work. Especially if you’re making a 3D game and you want to look half decent.
What technical difficulties did you encounter in developing Bezier, particularly as a lone one man developer, and how did you overcome these obstacles?
Starting out I knew I couldn’t create all the visual content myself by hand. And I wasn’t working with an artist. So I built procedural generators and ended up using them for pretty much everything. I guided these with lots of “data seeds” and captured the output when I found something relevant, beautiful or interesting. I started using them for shapes at first, but this leaked into movements and sounds too. The power of programming. When there’s too much stuff to create, write a program to create it for you. The challenge then is writing a program that creates something interesting. That’s the tough bit because there’s nothing more lacking in human warmth than a basic procedural generator.
What inspired you to “blend together orchestra, synthesizers and many ethnic instruments” for Bezier‘s 80 minute soundtrack and how did you come to determine its stylistic theme?
The story… A bezier curve is a way of representing a smooth analogue curve as a set of digital points. The story is this. Humans injecting themselves into a computer. The visuals all come from this too. So it was obvious to me that the music had to follow this and be a composite of live instruments and digital sounds.
What audio production software and hardware did you use for the making of the soundtrack?
It was written 2008-2010 in Cubase which I had used since its first version way way back on the Atari ST. Lots of live snippets, sample libraries, famous synths and a few virtual instruments I coded myself.
I wrote about how this was mixed, mastered and fit into the game here.
What advice would you give to those who also want to create their own games and soundtracks but have little experience in the field?
It is finding a balance between “submerge yourself in the awesome online gamedev communities” and “lock yourself away in a room without these distractions and just do to it”. It’s a tough balance because you need elements of both to get your game finished. Shipping a game is really tough. Bonkers tough. Even for people who have done it lots of times. I still struggle with that.
The game is only available on PC at the moment. Any plans for bringing Bezier to consoles or handhelds in future?
Not at the moment. I’m not ruling it out, but I’m also incredibly tired right now.
According to your bio, you took up programming at the age of 6. What inspired you to do this, and why do you continue to harbour a love-hate relationship with games development even though you’re obviously good at it? And in an ideal world, if you could forsake your talent in games development to be good at anything else in life, what field would you like to excel and carve a career in?
It wasn’t anything planned. My dad became a Games Programmer when I was 4. Back then you’d type in magazine listings to play a game. The first players were developers and most never realised it. Some did though, they figured they could do better and that’s how the generation of “bedroom coders” was born. So I grew up in a house with a Games Programmer and so it was just natural for me to do it too. Even when I tried not to, it would come back.
What field would I like to do instead? Somewhere I can tell stories in a technical way I suppose. Film-making? Photography? I have no idea. I honestly believe I didn’t choose Games Programming. It chose me.