Interview with Nick and Chris Sha of Epic Pixel, Makers of RPG Clicker
Epic Pixel is a two-man indie mobile game studio based in California. Their recent release RPG Clicker got us thoroughly entertained, so we thought an insight into indie developers' working process and life would be interesting to our readers, especially those of you who are still on the fence about making mobile games. Chris and Nick are brothers who quit their full-time jobs to make games. They had to compromise a lot to pursue their dream - move back in with their parents, sleep little, work hard, be responsible for their own ups and downs.
Without knowing or understanding much about the mobile industry, their parents showed great wisdom in supporting their decision because they saw the passion and dedication their sons were investing in their common cause. I believe Epic Pixel's is a story of persistence, hard work and steady progress, and wish them the success they certainly deserve.
Who are the people behind Epic Pixel? How did it all start and when?
Chris: My name is Chris Sha and my co-founder is Nick Sha. It’s just the two of us, and if you haven’t guessed yet, we are brothers. We started Epic Pixel in late 2010. I had just graduated college a year earlier and was working as a firmware engineer when I started to make an Android game as a hobby.
Coincidentally, Nick was visiting me after quitting his job with the idea of starting a game company. That is when I decided to quit too and join Nick. The game I was working on turned out to be the prototype for Epic Pixel’s first game, Grow.
At first, people thought we were crazy since the economy was still recovering from a recession and so many people were getting laid off. But we knew we had to give our dreams a shot.
Before you started Epic Pixel, did you have any background in developing games, education in programming or are you self-taught?
Nick: We graduated with degrees in computer science and I took a senior group project that involved making a game. But Chris had no previous game development experience and we still had a lot of on the job learning.
What games inspired you to plunge into the mobile gaming?
Chris: I got my first Android smartphone, an international version of the HTC Hero, in 2009. At that time, Android was still relatively new and not as popular as it is today. There were a lot less games on the market, and even less polished games. There was one popular jumping cow game I played a lot, where you jump higher and higher from one platform to the next. The game was pretty simple and the art was just rudimentary. I thought to myself, I can make this! So, in an odd way, that game inspired me to start making mobile games.
Nick: We work at Epic Pixel full time and we don’t take side gigs. We feel strongly that if you want to have a successful game studio, you have to give your best and your all. We’ve both tried side projects while having full time jobs and it didn’t work out well; the progress was painfully slow and the constant context switching wasted a lot of time.
Being a team of two brothers, how long did it take you to start earning from what you do? Was your family supportive of your decision to go all-in with the mobile games?
Nick: We kept our expectations low going into this and it took a year before we started earning something. Our family was surprisingly supportive of us trying to do our own thing, especially when they didn’t understand mobile games or where it was headed. I think they understood that developing games is our passion and it’s something very important to us.
For how long have you been developing mobile games and what have you learned in the meantime about the industry? Has it changed a lot within the past 5 years?
Chris: We found out that it’s definitely not all fun and games. We would love to just concentrate on developing and making games all day, but creating a game, while a big task, is just the start. There’s so much more to be done, and it’s not the case that if you just make it players will come.
Mobile gaming has definitely changed within the past 5 years. While the barriers to entry are lower than ever, game quality and complexity are higher than ever.
Nick: We’ve released about 20 games in past 5 years. It may sound like a lot, but most are small arcade games that we’ve become good at creating.
How do you split the workload? What are your skill sets?
Nick: Generally, the person with the game idea becomes the de facto lead and has the last say on things, but we both contribute to programming, art, design, and marketing. It took us a few years to get a good split because Chris and I have very similar skill sets. The biggest overlap in skills is programming since we’ve both graduated with degrees in computer science. But over the past few projects, I’ve started leaning towards art while Chris has a knack for game design.
What is the hardest part about the game production – development or promotion?
Nick: They’re both tricky and require creative solutions. But for me the development is a solvable problem; make incremental progress and keep grinding. Promotion is less of a guarantee and the one I feel in least control of.
What engine do you use and why?
Nick: We use an engine we’ve developed along with our first game. When we first started, third party engines weren’t as robust and easy to use as they are today. Ironically, we wanted to keep things simple and have a specialized engine that did exactly what we wanted to do. It took a lot of time and it turns out it wasn’t so simple to make your own game engine.
What monetization system do you use?
Nick: Our very first game was a premium game, but the market was quickly turning freemium. We went where the gamers are and our games are free to play and supported by ads and in app purchasing
Have you accomplished your goal with any of your games?
Nick: With our first game Grow, we got exactly what we wanted. It was a stepping stone, a proof of concept that we can develop games and learn how to start a game studio. With Grow, we also developed our own game engine and it’s what we’ve been using for all our Android games!
Tell us a little about your latest release RPG Clicker – it is so addicting I almost feel guilty spending the amount of time I do playing it.
Chris: RPG Clicker is a super casual game with some serious RPG elements. The gameplay is simple, just tap the screen to kill monsters, gain experience point and gold to get stronger, find unique gears to equip, then face bosses in a fight to the death. There’s not much of a backstory to the game, but if I had to make one up, you play a warrior on a journey to realize your true potential and travel the lands seeking out worthy foes to face.
On the surface, players tap the screen and things die. But delving deeper there are some strategy involved in choosing which of the three stats to upgrade and figuring out the right gears to equip.
While there aren't different classes, choosing to concentrate on a particular stats will ultimately determine how people play the game. For example, I heard one very effective strategy is to concentrate on upgrading intelligence and spells so players don't even have to keep tapping to kill.
What is the max amount of “moneys” you can tap in RPG Clicker?
Chris: The hard limit set in the game is somewhere in the magnitude of 10^85 digits long. In layman’s term, it’s one-hundred million quadrillion vigintillion. It’s a number thats bigger than the estimated number of atoms in the universe, and hopefully a number no players will reach.
How did you come up with the idea of the RPG Clicker?
Chris: We both started playing incremental/clicker games recently and thought an RPG clicker game would be fun to play. RPG is already very well suited for incremental progress, so we knew the mechanics would be perfect. Also, we thought it would be great to make an RPG for casual gamers since roleplaying games normally tend to be geared towards hardcore gamers. We started off with just the basic clicking mechanics and started adding more and more RPG elements, until we knew we had a great game.
I would like to add, there are quite a few RPG clicker type games now, but there weren’t any when we started development. Also, I believe RPG Clicker is truer to the RPG genre than other similar games with more traditional RPG elements.
Is there any new project in the works at Epic Pixel?
Chris: Currently we are concentrated on improving RPG Clicker and porting it to iOS.
Are you planning to explore any other genre? RPG Clicker proves you have a knack in RPGs. What is your favorite genre?
Chris: Two of our favorite genres are RPGs and zombies, so we might see an RPG with zombies in the future. Also, casual games are much quicker to make so we'll probably make some casual games on the side.
Any words of encouragement and advice for the beginning indie developers who go solo or in small family teams like yours? A small team is limited in resources, and yet, you have substantial results to showcase – what are your productivity hacks? Also, what are the classes you would suggest aspiring programming students take while they can if they wish to make mobile games?
Nick: If you want to make a game, don’t wait for the perfect idea, it’s important you get started as soon as you can and aim to finish. Start small and keep the mechanism simple. I think getting over the hurdle of making your first game is paramount to becoming a game developer. It’s also very important to be persistent. As an indie developer, you’re going to face a lot of problems and you’ll have to break them down and solve them a piece at a time.
Being a small outfit can be a good thing, embrace the benefits of being agile and move quickly. Don’t go buy new hardware and tools if you don’t have to, make use of the ones you already have. Set aside a big chunk of time for uninterrupted work. Everyone’s opinion matters but create ownership for features or different parts of the development so you keep conflicts and arguments to a minimum.
If you’re currently taking programming classes, the best thing you can do for yourself is to have a good grasps of the fundamentals (data structures, memory management, object oriented designs, and some algorithms), it’ll go a very long way. If you’re looking for more, take graphics programming classes, it’ll really help you to understand 3d spaces and the technical aspects of visuals for computers.
Chris: A trick I often use to come up with ideas is to combine a specific game mechanic with a theme that is unique. As we develop the idea further, the theme lends itself to new mechanics and we either end up with a game that really suck or something that we think is decent enough to play.
After we got the main idea for the game down, we start off mocking it on paper and flushing out the different UI's for the game. Especially with mobile games, sometimes the limiting factor can be the user interface, like not having a gamepad really makes some games hard to play on mobile.
After paper mocks, we would try to prototype it in code and implement the main mechanics with minimal graphics to see if the mechanics is actually fun to play. If all that works out, then we would continue developing the game.
What games are on Chris' and Nick's top mobile/console/PC games list?
Nick: There’s literally too many to list but here are a few of my favorites for each.
Mobile: Tiny Tower, Pixel Dungeon, Jetpack Joyride, Monument Valley, Game Dev Story.
Console: Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VI, Earthbound, Secret of Evermore, Zelda for SNES and N64, GTA series, Red Dead Redemption, The Last of Us (pretty much anything by Naughty Dog)
PC: Wing Commander, Mech Warrior, Starcraft, Warcraft, Sim Tower, Sim City, Civilization, Grim Fandango, Days of the Tentacles, Half Life 2, Mass Effect 2... I really want to keep going but I should stop.
Chris: Since Nick already have an extensive list, I’m just going to say ditto instead of repeating bunch of the same games.
Nick: Haha. We used to work till we drop, and we’ll revisit those days when we’re trying to get something critical out. While we don’t have a strict schedule, we work hard during the weekdays and we try to reserve the weekends for other things and people in our lives.
Do you disconnect from the tech sometimes? What are your hobbies?
Nick: It’s hard to completely disconnect, but we do enjoy the outdoors and try to get out every weekend. Some of our hobbies include hiking, biking, climbing, and playing board games with friends.
Have you tried crowd-funding any of your projects, yet?
Nick: Seeing some of the great results for crowd funded projects it has certainly piqued our interest, but as a mobile game studio it’s something we’re not ready to pursue.
What is your ultimate goal as game developers?
Nick: Simply to make games and share an experience with others. After that, we want to make it sustainable so we can keep doing it.
Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
We’re extremely grateful to be able make games our living, something we’ve dreamed of doing for a very long time. Thanks for playing!
Thank you Chris and Nick for this honest and inspiring interview!