Indie developer spotlight: Miika Pihkala

This year has seen a record number of digital conferences emerge, often replacing physical editions for obvious reasons. One example of this is Pocket Gamer Connects Helsinki, which took place earlier this month and provided a great way for us to connect with developers and learn about their craft and upcoming projects. We (virtually) ran into Miika Pihkala (Mlyst) there as well, a part-time indie developer from Finland with an interesting story to tell. We’re sharing it with you here.

Hi Miika, how did you get involved with game development?

I started in the game industry in an interesting way in 2011, when I stumbled into the Humble Frozenbyte bundle. (www.humblebundle.com) The site had live support chat there at the time and through that I decided to ask if they had a job. I figured out that Frozenbyte was looking for a QA tester and got hired. Later I also worked as a game/level designer for Frozenbyte (Trine series) and spent 4 and a half years working there.

What’s your personal background in terms of game development?

While working on QA at Frozenbyte, I showed interest in game design and I worked hard as a QA tester, so I was given the opportunity to switch to game design work. I had some studies done on computer science at university level, so I knew a bit about programming and it has definitely helped a lot later on. I also studied continuing education studies on how to make business out of games while I was working on my first indie game, Super X Chess.

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How did you come up with Super X Chess and your other game, ABC: Audioreactive Beat Circle?

I used to play chess obsessively for a couple of years. Somehow chess is both creative and at the same time exact. That appeals to me. I definitely had a dream of trying to make a more interesting version of chess somewhere back on my mind. And because of that, the chance of me finding something interesting for chess became possible. Once I just happened to think of the idea, I immediately saw promise in it, but I didn’t know if it worked in practice. After a lot of testing, thinking and tweaking, it felt that all the possible problems were not problems after all and the idea worked. So the basic idea was that you could combine your own pieces and they could then move as both pieces that you combined. First of all it wouldn’t make much sense if the king could combine with other pieces, as then checkmating would become very difficult and a great solution for this problem is that the king can’t combine. The hardest part of the design was to design natural movement patterns for the knight+knight, pawn+pawn and rook+rook combination pieces as they don’t naturally emerge from the rules of the game. But I feel I managed to find pretty elegant and natural logics for those.

For ABC: Audioreactive Beat Circle, it was different. At the school where I teach, we made a Super Hexagon-kind of game prototype as a game development exercise last spring. But I always want to bring some kind of innovation to the game, otherwise there’s no purpose and motivation to create the game. So that’s why I started to think about how to improve the basic concept of the game of Super Hexagon. We didn’t improve it this way for the school exercise, but that is when I got the idea. I think that the creative process worked so that you first need to ask a question and then forget the question, but the question will stay in the back of your mind. Then at some point you will stumble upon the answer by accident by just continuing to live a normal life. I found this way a good answer to the question of: “How to improve the Super Hexagon-type of game?” and felt motivated to create the game once I had the idea. So in this game the answer was that the player could listen to any music and the music would affect the movement of the obstacles in real-time.

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What’s it like to combine indie game development with a regular day job?

A regular day job definitely makes the work as an indie very much a part-time job with pauses. Sometimes I don’t work at all as an indie, but if I find some nice idea, it brings me the needed passion and purpose to create a game. Then it’s hard to not move forward on creating it in your free time. Teachers like myself also have around 2 months’ of summer holidays in Finland.

What have been some of the bigger takeaways from your time at Frozenbyte?

I saw in practice one version of how a game studio could function and that is very valuable. I also started my journey of trying to understand more about game design. Game designers care the most about the player experience. But it’s not easy to tell what makes a game designer a good or a bad one. I think that a game designer needs the ability to see problems and also the ability to ask questions about what is still unclear. Game designers also need the ability to find answers and change the unclear to clarity. It’s also a knowledge-heavy job and people can learn practices that make them better game designers. It’s important to be a thinker, but at the same time it’s important to be creatively productive and not get stuck on analysis paralysis. Having courage to voice your thoughts is important too. Some people see problems everywhere and are great critics, they can feel the tiniest problems easily, but might have difficulties in communicating to others what is exactly the problem or how to solve it. Some other people are better at figuring out what the best solutions are once they have been told what the problem is. Some are great at finding clarity, they interpret, make assumptions and imagine a lot. Some others are very confused and see mess where others see clarity, but they might provide great help in the form of asking great questions that help bring clarification and hidden assumptions. Some people can’t imagine anything in their mind, but they might be excellent at abstract thinking as that might be the only type of thinking they know about. So it’s helpful if there are different kinds of personalities and thinkers in the game design team. And Socrates would have been a great reinforcement to any game design team. 🙂

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Miika’s place of work

What are some of the bigger stumbling blocks for you as a solo developer?

One of the biggest is just that I get very easily addicted to playing games and it’s not very helpful for the development work. Hearthstone has been one of the worst for me and probably delayed Super X Chess for several months. And now they have the battlegrounds game mode there and it’s extremely addicting to me. And let’s be honest, it’s very difficult to have all the needed expertise for developing solo and that itself is one of the biggest obstacles for doing it. I don’t feel like I know enough yet about how to make great animations, 3d-models, textures, implementing online multiplayer, 2d art, video trailers, use of new game engines etc. There’s always something to learn more about and you’re never complete as a solo developer, there’s just so much to learn. It feels a bit like decathlon, with you just slowly moving closer to being a jack of all trades, master of none.

What can we look forward to next from you?

I’m currently very interested in storytelling. I find Disco Elysium extremely inspiring and would want to figure out a new angle or improvement to the narrative driven games while using Disco Elysium as the main inspiration. Among Us is also very inspiring. Also audio-reactivity isn’t yet fully explored in games and making a more ambitious project there would be something to consider for me!

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