A project that began as an experiment while attending U of T more than a decade ago has landed Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns a worldwide distribution deal with Sony’s Playstation.
Sheppard and Burns (both BA 2003 Vic) are the creators of N++, a video game in which ninja players must avoid deadly traps and enemies, including an evil ninja twin, as they race to find an exit from each increasingly difficult screen.
According to Burns, the first version of the game, N, released as freeware in 2004, was inspired by the same kind of graphically simple games they enjoyed themselves. “We took bits of different games that we liked and combined that with our own ideas about physics and movement.” They posted their creation at freeware sites and shared it with friends. “We didn’t know if it would be a success until we got feedback from other people,” says Sheppard. “It started snowballing from there.”
Burns describes the new version of the game (the third, following N+, released in 2008) as less of a sequel than a more perfect rendering of the original. “This one is our final vision – what we were always shooting for but never able to accomplish until now.” Adds Sheppard: “You make a lot of mistakes and learn a lot over 11 years.”
N++ preserves the original game’s minimal graphic look (some levels are inspired by the Brutalist architecture of Robarts Library, according to Sheppard) but adds music and a rich colour palette. There are also intriguing new enemies and thousands of new levels of play – 2,360 in total.
Unlike many game developers, Burns and Sheppard didn’t take courses in the subject while at U of T; back then, the university didn’t offer any. To work on N, they had to find time outside of class. Both are pleased that U of T now offers courses on game development, including one jointly with OCAD University. “We would have loved to do that course,” says Sheppard. “It’s awesome! Now there are all these resources and ways for people to learn and get started.”
The community of independent game developers that has sprung up in Toronto also didn’t exist when Burns and Sheppard were creating N. “We started doing meet-ups in 2008 in a small bar with a couple dozen people,” says Burns. “Eventually, we had to move bars because hundreds of people would show up. There’s been explosive growth in people making games.”
With success under their belt, they are often approached by new developers for tips on breaking into the industry. Just go ahead and make a game, advises Burns: “Try to re-create Tetris, because that will give you a taste.” Oh, and “be prepared for a lot of work.” Sheppard notes that the market for games has become extremely competitive, so it’s essential to have a concept that stands out and the passion, and patience, to work on it for the long haul. “Keep trying till you find something that really speaks to you. We were making a game that we loved and really wanted to play. We didn’t know it would be a success. But we were happy with it.”
After being single-mindedly dedicated to N for 11 years, Burns and Shepard say they are now ready to explore new game ideas (“taking small things and sticking them together to see what works,” says Sheppard), though they are not quite leaving N++ behind. They’re polishing additional game levels, which will be released over the next year as updates.
“It’s really hard but really rewarding,” says Sheppard. “You get beaten down a lot. So you have to define success for yourself and love what you’re doing.” Adds Burns: “The main thing is to have fun and experiment.”