Hugh Monahan is the founder of independent game studio Stellar Jockeys. Brigador is the team’s first game and they went all out coming across many challenges along the way including building their own engine from scratch.
I’m Hugh Monahan and I’m one of the four members of Stellar Jockeys, we’re an independent games studio making a game called Brigador. We’ve been working together for the last 5 years and this is our first commercial title as a team together.
Jack Monahan (my brother) who is the lead artist on the project, and I grew up together obviously. I had just finished my undergrad in industrial design and came back to Illinois and I’ve always had an interest in making games, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that it was a viable thing to do. So in the meantime I started doing stuff after hours with the game builders club and that’s how I met Harry Hsiao and Dale Kim who are now the programmers of Brigadors.
We collaborated for about a year on little student level projects and eventually we decided that we should have a go at it together. So Dale, Harry, and I started working together and planned to make a company. Jack then joined at the end of 2012. We’ve all been working together since then.
As much as I would love to say that the game spawned fully formed, it was very much one of those projects that needed a lot of time and iteration. By the time we ended up with Brigador, it was our 7th prototype so we had done a lot. Originally we were doing 2D pixel art, like a four player arena game, until we realized that none of us really liked four player arena games.
Jack and I are huge fans of Crusader: No Remorse, an old 1995 combat game. And we were interested in exploring the space of something that was an action game, that wasn’t a schmuck. For example, I enjoy The Binding of Isaac, but it’s too fast and frenetic for my taste. So we wanted to build something slower and much more deliberate in how the player plays. It is still a relatively fast game, but in terms of the player interaction, the aiming is much more granular, and the combat itself is much more involved and less twitchy – not to use that pejoratively, most of those games are awesome, just that’s not what we wanted to build. I don’t know a lot of games that occupy that slower, more deliberate style.
Three Space Aiming System
Yes, that took a very long time to prototype [laughs]. What we said to ourselves was that we’re in this isometric space and we started doing the art and one of the programmers, Dale Kim, is a huge Counter-Strike player. His main point was, if we’re to build this game the aiming needs to be a skill. It has to be something that requires precision and is very deliberate. So pretty early on we knew we wanted to do something that was more than just choosing a direction to fire, especially because as we started building up more of the art, we realized we could really vary the height on objects such as the environment and for player vehicles. What we realized was that we needed a means to shoot over or under those things, and that is what kind of got us to realize we needed to do a three space aiming system.
It was months of prototyping before we even had something that we felt was in the right direction, and even then we felt that there was a lot of problems to solve such as: visualizing the reticles and how much information do you provide to the players because we didn’t want to just give them the exact point of impact. That’s why you ended up with a holographic thing that we ended up with. I think it was the fifth reticle prototype that we finally ended up settling on.
Yeah [laughs]! Jack and I are huge MechWarrior, BattleTech, fans. I remember playing games like Stellar 7. I like the kind of western style for the bulky, slow, mechs as opposed to the much more anthropomorphic and high mobility Japanese style. Between MechWarrior and MechCommander
Growing up I saw the movie Robot Jox and I didn’t understand that it was a terrible B movie. I grew up with a great love for that wonderfully cheesy sci-fi movie. There’s a lot of different games that we pulled from between gameplay and aesthetics, but MechWarrior was definitely a big one in terms of trying to build vehicles that felt weighty the way it does.
Again, it was one of those things that evolved over time. Jack and I have been collaborating for years just on everything from design to art, coming up with stories. We definitely are coming from similar territories such as Alien, BladeRunner, and that space of older sci-fi prior to the explosion of computing, particularly the handheld stuff. I find that a much more appealing space to explore.
We wanted to be in the John Carpenter territory with synths, but very spare. That was the vibe we wanted. Last year we were at GDC and bemoaning out loud about not being able to find a musician who fit that niche that we needed. And one of the guys I was talking with said, “you can stop your search now, I know exactly who you need to work with.” He ended up hooking me up with Matt Pusti, and it has been a fabulous collaboration. Working with him has been effortless. We basically would point and say, “Here’s what we’re interested in. Go.” And he doesn’t need anymore instruction than that. He did nearly the entire score for the entire game.
It’s kind of funny because, to be frank, a lot of people are more excited about the soundtrack than they are about the game [laughs]. I mean, as long as they are talking about the game I’m perfectly fine with that.
Engine and Tools Involved
We wrote our own engine in scratch from C++, which seemed like a great idea at first but now that we’re mostly done with it it’s worked out fairly well. I don’t recommend for your first game that you’re making as a team to not only write your own engine, but to also make a real time game that has pseudo 3D elements plus coming up with your own art pipeline and having to design from scratch an entire gameplay mechanic. By the numbers this totally should have crashed and burned a long time ago and it nearly did several times.
The Struggle and Process
Now that we’ve made it through the tunnel, I’m happy with things have gone, but it’s taken us 5 years to get a game to market, and even then it isn’t done. We’re going to need at least another 6 months until we’re happy with what we built. One of the running jokes in the office is that we have to be successful so that we can talk about how ridiculous our early years were as a studio. We did the hacker house, where there’s 3 of us living together along with 2 other friends of mine. We had a bedroom on the second floor that we converted into an office that we worked in for a year. Even right now I live with Harry and our living room has 9 computers in it and it’s functionally our office. It’s close quarters but it’s what has allowed us to go as far along as we have and get this game out.
When you’re working on a project that’s very complicated, there’s just a lot of stuff you have to learn by doing. Even if we did have good guidance, there are plenty of mistakes to be made regardless. For a lot of it we had to muddle through on our own and again it’s one of those, in hindsight I’m glad we did it because of what we know now through the process and the experiences. However, we did come close to this whole thing imploding many times. Realistically we should have done our first couple of projects with a prefab engine and then start learning only a few lessons at a time as opposed to just trying to write the whole book ourselves from scratch for our very first project.
Advice and Tips
The first thing is to stop talking about it and just do it. Then I realize that seems more trite rather than pity, but a lot of people that I’ve met over the years and some of whom I’ve worked with get caught up in either planning what the best way would be to do things and never actually execute on it. It’s very important to be practical with what you’re doing but there’s a great phrase that says, “began as you mean to go on”, and that’s something I’ve sort of taken to heart. What it means is that if you want to start, or you want to be a level designer, start making levels. It doesn’t entirely matter what you’re doing it in, whether it’s a 2D game or a 3D game, there are skills that are isolated to certain specific elements, like a sculptor isn’t necessarily going to be a good painter and vice versa – however, there’s a lot of connective tissue there, and as long as you’re in the same ballpark, you’re going to be getting better. That’s the way you’re going to start to get involved whether that’s building a team or starting to get people’s attention is by actually having something to show.
That used to be something I would get indignant about for the first 2 years where we were working together trying to build a game. I got all huffy and thought that people should be paying attention to me and my ideas and that I know what I’m doing. The thing is, I had nothing to show for it and practically speaking, there was no reason for anyone to listen to me. I was untested and I hadn’t created anything that would be worthy of someone’s attention. It’s like claiming you’re a great painter then never actually showing any pieces.
Having work to show is what makes all the difference. If you want to get better and start building stuff, you just need to do it. And find the path of least resistance for you to be able to start doing that. So if you want to be a level designer, and you’re not interested in a lot of the other stuff, don’t start an indie studio. If you want to be a level designer, just start making maps and mods, work within that specific sphere, and then maybe find some guys and start an indie studio or do it yourself. Just get immediately to where you can start exploring that space. Before we even built anything in the game, I spent about 6 months working in the StarCraft 2 Editor just figuring out what things worked, what didn’t, what I was interested in building. It was some of those early prototypes that influenced us a lot on what we ended up spending the next 5 years making.