Q&A: Everyday Shooter creator Jonathan Mak

The indie developer behind Sony's latest downloadable PlayStation 3 game talks about his indie hit, from its start as a puzzler to levels that didn't make the cut.

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Although Microsoft was the first of the console makers to the downloadable gaming party, Sony is trying to make its own entrance into the market stand out. In addition to retail-caliber games such as Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection Online and Warhawk, the PlayStation Network is building a portfolio of distinct games culled from the indie-development scene, such as fl0w and Everyday Shooter.

Released earlier this month, Everyday Shooter is the console debut for the one-man studio Queasy Games, also known as Jonathan Mak. An unapologetically "arty" take on the resurgent dual-analog-stick shooter formula, Everyday Shooter is a conceptual album of abstract shooting games. Each level of the game is a different song, with its own unique enemies and combo chaining rules, and each dispatched adversary explodes into a new beat of the interactive soundtrack.

"Ultra combo!"

Everyday Shooter raised its profile at the Independent Games Festival in March when it earned awards for Design Innovation, Excellence in Audio, and a GameTap Indie Award. With the game freshly available on Sony's PlayStation Network, Mak took time out to speak with GameSpot about the process of making Everyday Shooter, as well as what tomorrow brings.

GameSpot: What previous experience in the game industry do you have?

Jonathan Mak: In the industry? I guess none. But I've been programming games on my own since about '97 or '98. And about two years ago, I was working for some guy as a game programmer on contract. I don't know if that's "in the industry." Probably not, but I've never worked for a studio or whatever.

GS: Did you ever have that as a goal?

JM: When I was a kid, that's when I was sort of disillusioned. Then I met a friend in university and he started showing me this whole indie scene I'd never seen before. And I thought, "Why would I want to work for a game company when I could be doing cool stuff like this?"

GS: What disillusioned you?

JM: I don't know. When I was a kid, my only outlet for seeing games was through magazines like PC Gamer. So the only games I had access to were the big, huge mainstream games. I wanted to make games, and for me the definition of games was these big, huge megagames. I'm not saying that blockbuster games are bad or anything. I just think the indie space is where I feel more at home... I'd rather just put out my own games and get a day job [than make a game for someone else].

It's like blowing up a Rorschach test.
It's like blowing up a Rorschach test.

GS: Did you have any art or music experience? There are pretty strong elements of both in Everyday Shooter.

JM: I might have started writing music when I started programming, but in a much smaller capacity. I've made music on my own in the past, separate from games, but they're not very good songs, I don't think. I hate to admit it, but I think I'm a much better programmer than I am a musician. My experience is just [messing] around with synthesizers and guitar.

GS: What are you going to work on next?

JM: Here we go again. I have this rule that I developed when I was in grade school. I met a friend and we used to talk to each other about our projects. "My game's gonna have this feature and this feature." But after talking about it, we'd never end up finishing it. So we came up with this rule that you just don't talk about it until it's done, until you can actually show whatever it was you were going to say. And that was great motivation to finish it. Also, it sort of loses its magic once you start talking about it. The idea's just not ready for any dialog yet.

GS: Are you planning to work with Sony on that one also?

JM: Well, dealing with Sony so far has been pretty great.

GS: Have you had to break the rule about not talking about it to explain to Sony what your next game will be?

JM: Oh no. I haven't told anybody. The thing is, I could tell you now, but in a year from now, it's probably going to be something completely different.

Ever feel like someone's watching you?
Ever feel like someone's watching you?

GS: Was Everyday Shooter the same when it was in that phase before you could talk about it?

JM: It used to be a puzzle game. [Laughs.] As silly as that sounds.

GS: How'd it make that evolution?

JM: I tried to make a simple puzzle game with chaining, because I was really into Every Extend and Lumines. But I couldn't figure it out, so I just decided, **** it, I'm just going to make a shooter, because clearly I don't know what I'm doing. Let's see if I can make a good shooter, back to basics.

GS: Most art games borrow from cinematic conventions for its arty elements, narrative especially. Everyday Shooter seems to borrow from abstract paintings and music with its album structure more than film. Is either approach to pushing forward games as art easier or better suited to the medium?

JM: It's not a scientific thing. What really makes games art is when people start to find their own meaning in them. For me, games have been art since years and years ago. That's the only reason I'm doing what I'm doing. It's all about people being able to deconstruct the work to find meaning on their own terms... It's not that the creator creates art; it's that the audience makes it art for themselves.

GS: Every album has a couple of tracks that don't make the cut. How many levels did you start for Everyday Shooter that didn't make it all the way through?

JM: One, two, three, four...at least four. A lot. At least four. Some start off where I might have an idea... Oh. Five. Sorry. So there's an idea and it just keeps evolving. It's hard to pinpoint a time where I said, "That could have been a song." It could have evolved two or three times in a day or a week. I think it's safe to say that for every enemy you see on the screen, there's one or two iterations before it, or maybe three.

Take to the
Take to the "skies" in level four and shoot down "birds" and "suns."

GS: Could we see any more remixed, or new levels, or B-sides as downloadable content?

JM: I don't know. I really want to work on my new game.

GS: Is there any interest in doing a sequel?

JM: I don't know. I really want to work on my new game. [Laughs.]

GS: Could you see ever releasing some sort of soundtrack for Everyday Shooter for the people who like music?

JM: There was an idea for it back then, which was more than just releasing the songs, but again, I want to work on my new game. [Laughs.] The songs are also kind of old now, and to release the background music by itself doesn't really make sense. They only make sense in the context of the game, so that's a tricky one.

The game's later levels get awfully hectic.
The game's later levels get awfully hectic.

GS: Why no online leaderboards?

JM: There are two reasons. I was sort of uncomfortable with leaderboards. I looked at leaderboards for other games and I noticed all these weird names, sometimes offensive names, and I thought that was like the bad kind of graffiti. I like graffiti, but sometimes there are very offensive ones. I thought it would give a wrong impression of the game and move it away from what it was trying to be.

I also didn't want people to use the game as a way to be superior to someone, like, "I'm number one in Everyday Shooter so ***** you all!" That's not really the point of the game here. Though I have to admit [that] when you do play the game for score, that's fun. It opens up all these strategies, and that's why I included my high scores. I also included them to show that there's a lot to the game, that there is a way to score 1,000 points on the first level.

Also, when I was working on Everyday Shooter, before I was finished, I was already burnt out. This has been an ongoing battle to make a game that I like since '97. I was burnt out from working on the job and also doing the game. After signing on with Sony, it felt like I was finishing the game twice. I went through the process on the PC, and then doing it again on PlayStation 3. My energy level was fairly low. I can't justify why it took three months to port it. I look back and wonder what the hell I was doing.

GS: I know you're excited to work on your next game, but is there any inclination on your part to move on to team-supported development and larger projects of the sort that originally got you into gaming?

JM: I do have fantasies of making a big game, but it's not in the realm of reality right now. I still feel like I have so much to learn in terms of making these small games. There's a lot to learn before you blow a million dollars. But it's not a goal or anything.

GS: You won't talk about your next project, but can you at least say if it's going to be another one-man operation?

JM: I think so. I have a pretty clear vision of what I want to accomplish on it. I'd be too stubborn to work with someone else on this.

GS: Do you think the stubbornness is what scared away other publishers from Everyday Shooter?

JM: Yeah, totally. Mind you, it's easy to trash-talk publishers, and some of them... Yes. But you have to respect that they employ hundreds of people and they can't just lose money, because not only does the one guy at the top lose money, but employees lose their jobs.

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