Russ Morris: How I became a games developer
Making video games sounds like a dream to many. Rabble member Russ Morris is basically living the dream, working as a freelance games developer and getting to spend each day geeking out – and getting paid for it! We asked him to share his story.
How did you develop a love of video games?
Some of my earliest memories are related to video games. I remember getting a Master System for Christmas around 1989-1990 and watching my brother play Alex Kidd in Miracle World and Wonder Boy. A few years later we got an Amiga 500 with Lemmings, Bart vs The Space Mutants and Captain Planet.
To me, playing The Simpsons and Captain Planet games was just like making my own episode of the TV shows. I’d sort of ignore the goal of the levels and create my own stories while attempting to do the voices of the characters! From then on, video games have been an everyday part of my life.
When did you realise that making video games might be the job for you?
It probably wasn't until I was about 20. I’ve always been interested in computers, not only for playing games but also the technical aspect of how a computer works. We got our first computer at home when I was about 15. On the first day we got it, I took the side off the tower to see inside and work out what all the different parts were. I always felt that a career in ‘computers’ (as my mum would say) would be my likely career path, but that it would probably be something like IT support for a council office or something creative like web design.
Maybe it was because I grew up in a small town in Pembrokeshire, but a career in video games always felt like something for people who lived in London or the USA. It was only when I moved away from home that I understood that if you want to do something you should just try to do it, regardless of where you are living or where you need to go. I started thinking about a job in games around that time and started looking at what the options were.
How did you start your video games career?
I had just moved to Cardiff after living in Leicester for a while and was working in Game on Queen Street. I’d done retail jobs since I was 15, so working in Game was a natural fit. It was fun, but I wanted a closer involvement with games and the industry itself. I felt that what I really wanted to do was design and make games.
I decided to look at courses based around game development and design and found one in London. A few months later I moved to London and started a course in Game Culture – a 50/50 split between designing games and the cultural impact of games as a medium. At that point I only wanted to design games and had no interest in programming, but the course introduced me the basics of programming and I soon realised that if you wanted to make your own games, you’d probably need to do it yourself!
It was then that I started using Unity, which is a programme you can use to make games. I can probably pinpoint the moment I first opened Unity as the moment that shaped my career up until this point. It’s been open on my computer every working day since then.
What games have you worked on, and what did you do on them?
My first job out of university was as a junior developer at a new start-up. There were five of us working on small games. I worked on design and programming of an online game called Super Springbreak Speedboat Hero. You could make your own courses and race on them against your friends.
After that I spent some time working for Unity as a Product Evangelist. During that time I visited and worked with some of the biggest companies in the industry. Being exposed to the day to day runnings of companies like Rovio (Angry Birds), Remedy (Max Payne, Alan Wake), EA and Sony was incredibly valuable and there’s probably not a day that goes by that I don’t make use of things that I learned from my time working with them.
I also worked on a mobile adventure game for iOS called if..., set up by industry legend Trip Hawkins (EA Sports, 3DO, Digital Chocolate) and produced by Ben Geliher (Moshi Monsters). I was involved from pretty much day one until release on that project, working on everything including prototypes, tools, design and handling deployment of builds. That was a great project to work on and a chance to learn from the amazing talents involved. Since then I’ve mostly been working freelance on multiple projects. I’ve done a few projects based on kids TV shows (Teletubbies, Boj), real-time architectural visualisations, doing consultancy and training and working on my own projects.
What surprised you most about the games industry when you started?
It was probably the community. I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world with my job, and wherever I went there was always a passionate, engaged and welcoming community. There’s a thirst for knowledge, a desire to share and a willingness to support other developers that seems to permeate through the industry. It’s not that I didn’t expect that to be part of the industry, but I didn’t appreciate how much the industry relies on the community.
When did you decide to go freelance and why?
It was shortly before moving back to Cardiff in 2013, when I was living in St Albans and working in London. I decided to go freelance, mainly to make it a bit easier to move as I wouldn’t be tied down to long-term contracts or have to leave somewhere in the middle of a project. I also felt that due to my experience working on a variety projects and my involvement with the development community, I was in a positive position when it came to looking for freelance work, which thankfully worked out.
What does a typical day (or week if that’s easier) of work look like for you?
When I’m on a project, a week usually consists of sitting down on a Monday and working through all the tasks and goals for the upcoming week, as well as evaluating whatever happened the week before. That’ll either be on my own or with other members of the team if I’m working with other people.
Planning is hugely important for games development and I’m of the mindset that I’d rather take a full day to plan the rest of my week so I know exactly what I’m doing day to day rather than working ad-hoc and forgetting the bigger picture.
I try to carve out a chunk of time, usually on a Friday to work on my own projects, just to keep them moving forward and step away from the main project I’m working on. I find taking a short break from a project helps you see it a bit clearer when you go back to it; even a couple of hours can make a big difference.
I’m quite strict about my working hours, so I don’t like to work late in the evening. In my experience, if you don’t stop working and keep going into the evening it very quickly becomes 2am. You very quickly tire yourself out. I’d rather work during office hours then allow myself to relax in the evening and spend time with my family and friends. I’m definitely more productive that way.
How do you think the video games industry has changed between now and then?
When I started my career the second wave of the ‘bedroom coder’ was beginning, which is what we now call ‘indie’. The arrival of accessible tools, such as Unity, to create your own professional product at home and the ability to self-publish to exciting new platforms like iPhone and Android devices happened at the same time. People really engaged with that from both sides of the market. It was a perfect storm and changed the industry.
There were three or four years where most of the big indie games were created by either individuals or teams that were between two and four people in size. These days ‘indie’ is a much broader term, and the quality levels and budgets have hugely increased. You still get some great breakout hits from individuals or small teams, but you really need a professional team of specialists to make an impact in the mobile space.
The really positive thing, however, is that it’s even easier to get into making your own games these days. There’s a huge amount of choice for software and massive amounts of learning material. The path between learning to make games at home and getting into the industry is now much smoother, too. The bespoke engines that large companies would develop in-house at great costs are a rare beast these days, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a games studio that doesn’t use Unity, Unreal, HTML5, Game Maker, Defold or even a mixture of engines you can get your hands on at home. Being able to use the exact same tools at home that some of the biggest companies in the world use to create their games offers an amazing opportunity for people to work on their own games at home and use it as a stepping stone to industry.
Which new game are you most excited for in the next 12 months?
Super Mario Odyssey on Nintendo Switch.
Finally, we know it’s going to be a tough one, but what are your three favourite video games of all time?
Final Fantasy VII – I regularly replay this game. I can basically play it with my eyes closed now. Just hearing a few notes of the music sends me back to spending sunny days playing Final Fantasy VII with the curtains closed!
Pro Evolution Soccer 3 – I’m a big football fan and my friends and I would spend hours every week playing the ISS Pro and Pro Evolution Soccer games. Pro Evo 3 was one of my favourites.
Portal 2 – I loved the original Portal. I thought it was pretty groundbreaking in terms of game mechanics and that it told an interesting story. The production values in Portal 2 were astounding. It’s a fantastic example of how to build on a core mechanic and wrap it up in a really engaging story, fantastic level design and brilliant voice acting.
Russ Morris will be talking about his journey into becoming a video game developer later this month at Rabble Talks Games.
For more information, head to our events page. It's gonna be a good (albeit geeky) night!