Hi Lloyd, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you tell us about yourself?
Sure! As a caution, I like to talk. I am a bit of an anomaly – I don’t have any real formal education and have spent my entire life changing jobs every few years. I am very much self-taught and began my journey in the pre-internet days (when a help page with white text on a blue screen was our only learning resource).
I was raised at a young age to be an analytical thinker and problem solver. I actually got in trouble when I was really little (around 8 or 9, and believe me I deserved it) that resulted in me being grounded for an entire month with nothing but encyclopedias and writing essays (moms, #amirite?). Later into the punishment, my mom began bringing home old electronics, typewriters, those kinds of things to keep me busy. And I had nothing but time to learn to take them apart, understand how they work, and try to reassemble them. It was one of the most pivotal moments in defining who I would become. I still dissect every failed piece of electronics, carefully avoiding capacitors (aka zappy shock sticks) to try and find out if it was a mechanical failure or a burnt resistor that killed some device. I was even a paid writer for the Internet of Things and Arduino for mobile nations for a while. Thanks, mom!
Anyway, as a result, technology has always come easily for me. I’ve had a much harder time with social interaction and understanding people. And things of an artistic nature are also challenging. So I spend a lot of time learning as much as I can about these areas and sometimes avoiding people.
This also changed how I approached careers in my life including being a medic (this did indeed require some training), on a hazmat team, head chef, salesperson at a telecom, roofer, general contractor, tech support, senior technical analyst, project manager, and 3D software lead before launching our own company. It was a lot of critical learning that defined who I am…
On a personal note, my hobbies and de-stressors are programming and 3D modeling, so I’m pretty much always relaxed and happy in life. It took me a long time to understand how to achieve this goal. To anyone struggling with this same journey, I think it is important to find what makes you happy and then (to quote HIMYM) “…every decision you make from here on out should be in service of that (goal)”. In other words, every change you make needs to help you move towards a happier life. Wait, how did I get on this topic again?
What got you into game development and how did that turn into creating Red Iron Labs?
It has been a long and incredible journey – and a very long story that spanned my entire life. I started making my first games back in the Apple IIe and Macintosh Classic era before creating my first cohesive RPG at age 12. By age 14, I had my first software development contract (and would do my second that same year). And got very lucky to have positive role models and mentors throughout my life.
Much later in life, I had been creating game mods, small games, bots, and utilities before trying my hand at a game competition for a Linux handheld called the GP2X-Wiz (I did not win but learned a lot, and absolutely loved what other people created). And then in 2011, my amazing partner gave me a BlackBerry PlayBook tablet for my birthday. I fell in love with the device, but quickly noticed it didn’t have applications that did what I wanted it to do.
For the next six years, in the evenings and weekends, I created over 200 mobile apps and games on all kinds of platforms while changing jobs frequently to learn startups and the industry. Around the time the DK2 came out, my partner and I had begun assessing the risks, had VR headsets already and decided it was time to found our very own AR/VR company focused on horror games (we would later expand our vision a lot).
Finally, for the last 3.5 years, we’ve been fortunate to work both on some amazing client projects (specializing in rapid prototyping) as well as developing some really fun games. It has been an incredible journey.
Late last year your VR game, Abduction Episode 1, released on Steam. Is there any chance we’ll see an Abduction Episode 2?
Oh man, this was a huge learning experience. Abduction was by far the most ambitious project I have ever taken on, and went into it prepared for a huge learning experience. At the time, there was really very little for VR frameworks (we finished the first beta for Razer before the HTC Vive had launched and when the VRTK was still just a concept – we actually had to write the entire VR interface from scratch).
I learned an incredible amount from working on that initial title. We were still developing it while locomotion, teleportation and all of those concepts were still being developed and we were going to conferences and experimenting on people. The very first Abduction demo was actually a rooftop running demo hiding form realistic UFO’s using a gamepad to play!
Anyways, we’ve almost completed development of the next iteration a few times. We have been doing some experimentation though in crossing traditional comic style media with games, and have been extremely impressed with the result. This had us rewind again to begin reimagining the game from the bottom up. It has been a long creative process, but we’ve learned we need the next edition of the game to be absolutely incredible and we are excited that we don’t have to make some of the sacrifices we did the first time around. I feel like Abduction is one of those passon project games that means more to me than the gamers, and it has taken a long time to get right.
Are there any future plans for Red Iron Labs you’re able to share?
Yes, absolutely. We really value experimentation, and we have a lot of projects that are in some stage of development. We’ve begun a couple of commercial user applications as well as games and added lots of new team members over the years :).
However, focusing on games specifically we are on the cusp of launching Shipping Dock Tycoon, which will be releasing on mobile. It focuses on simple gameplay and a quirky storyline, and is a perfect time waster while you are waiting for transit, food, or just need a time waster to help clear your mind.
We recently announced ‘Project M’ at Sled Island, which is an interactive music experience application for AR and VR. We are still deciding what we want to actually do with the project, but hope to use it to create more reactive AR/VR environments.
We also have another super secret project that I’ve been teasing about on social media. I can’t go into too much detail on that one just yet, but it is ambitious and would be the most violent video game I’ve ever worked on.
Do you have any advice to a game developer looking to create a studio?
This could be a lot in one sitting.
My first advice is to develop a realistic plan. I recommend getting office space (even a coworking space like Assembly Coworking space) early on for yourself, clients and team members. Try and make sure you have at least 3 avenues for revenue generation. Plan and assess often, document where you can go for funding (grants/contracts/crowdfunding/etc). Get help from industry experts to maximize your time investment (i.e. crowdfunding is far less profitable than it appears). Get your first products out early. And expand very carefully.
At the same time, client work is important to us. Focus on delivering amazing projects to clients. Develop a reusable step-by-step process for each client that answers all their questions every time. They want projects that are easy to start, that they don’t have to manage, that they are comfortable in the delivery of, and clear contracts (discussing everything from IP ownership to project severance). Keep all your contracts, design docs, and the process very simple and clear to follow.
Finally, learn a balance. It is good to spend time on your own projects and client projects. Keep learning and pushing those boundaries.
Some additional random thoughts ….
(per my mom maybe? Or TV possibly…) Don’t be afraid to try new things. Remember that if you don’t have faith in yourself, no one else will.
(per Mick Gordon, Doom Soundtrack). Courage is different than confidence. Courage comes from trying new things, confidence comes from doing the same thing over and over.
(per Heather Eels, one of my greatest mentors). Find people who think different from you. If you hire someone like yourself, you may as well save money and work longer days.
(per my Uncle Tom, and per Heather Eels). Measure twice, cut once. That means you need to plan carefully but you do actually need to launch something.
(me). At some point, you will have to put trust into someone. Sometimes that trust goes into a company. Don’t be afraid to make a conscious decision to trust someone but accept the risks in case it fails.
(me). Don’t be afraid of the bad days. Yes, there are amazing days, great moments, and things that make you happy. But there will be hard ones as well. Have someone to talk to and learn to let go of bad feedback, bad reviews, or difficult clients.
(me). Don’t isolate yourself. It is easy to feel awkward or strange and hide from the universe. Most good hearted people are just as awkward and the only person with power over you is you. It is important to network and build supporters in this industry and to try and encourage others.
You’ve attended many different conferences and conventions. Do you have any recommendations for those looking to showcase their games?
Marketing. Is. Everything.
I’m serious. I’ve made amazing mobile apps with terrible marketing and had single digit downloads. And I’ve made horrible apps with strong marketing and had 10k downloads in a single day. It comes down to developing, refining and building a process. And I think every seasoned developer has watched an ambitious person start their first project, passionately create something, and crumble a bit when they have a hard time getting downloads. Usually, not always, but usually building a user base takes time, consistency and commitment.
For AR/VR companies, I try to remember conferences and conventions are unlikely to generate sales. Most people who visit VR booths don’t have access to VR equipment – and often ask us if we are selling the headsets.
So instead, we focus on two things for events. We treat it as an opportunity to donate time back to a community of some kind, and to put on a show just for people to enjoy. And if we are demonstrating anything serious of our own, we use it as an opportunity to adjust and experiment. In our Abduction days, we did a large number of conferences, and used that to see how people felt about different control methods, locomotion methods, scare elements, and audio and visual effects. It was a huge learning experience.
That said, I recommend early on only attending events close to home. Use it to meet other cool developers, encourage other people, and get local feedback. The best event is the one that gets you some sales and costs nothing to attend. But, we’ve never made our money back on any conference, even those that were mostly funded by others.
I’d also like to add, as a final note, that for us (and probably most studios like us) selling yourself is HARD. Trying to convince strangers that something you made is valuable is tough on a good day. To help with this, we chose to partner with other people and companies that do it better than us. And I feel that hiring out is important whenever possible.
Finally, VR events are not like normal game dev events. You will be on your feet all day, cleaning headsets, explaining, wiping things down. Get two of you, and try and have someone else take care of transportation if you can.
Finally, I’d like to get your thoughts on the future of VR.
VR is an exciting opportunity and I chose to take an optimistic stance. We are already seeing a market split, with games / simulations and education taking the majority of VR experiences. AR has been taken over mostly by exhibitions, marketing, active games and informational products. And MR is still under control of industrial clients such as Amazon.
However, to paraphrase from a letter Mark Zuckerberg wrote to the leadership of Facebook, he pictures the end-game for VR as a slimmed smart glasses that removes the need for other technology. He envisions a world where cell phones, televisions, and most other consumer technology is no longer required (as it can be created virtually and instantly in the glasses). And he urges them to invest in the market, and try to purchase companies like Unity3D, if for no other reason than as risk mitigation.
I see this as a long term outcome but quite probable all the same.
As things continue to shrink and get accessible, lenses for the eyes and displays for glasses are getting more affordable and easier to make. In a world where everyone can afford some kind of mobile device as glasses, coupled to immediate access to AI driven interfaces, and our thoughts and intentions being predicted by devices – it is very easy to picture a world where we don’t need anything other than lightweight XR glasses and our own hands to create a virtual copy of anything.
I see it as companies in this space (like us) are just early adopters at the very edge of a long upcoming technological revolution of personal devices. I relate it to comparing a smartphone to a pager, the full scope of that change and its deep reverberating impact goes far beyond one piece of technology. And is the cohesive whole combined with the technology we haven’t even thought of yet that will bring us to the next level.
I feel we are already at a place in time where we are no longer restricted by the technology or tools, but our creativity in using them. So, for me, I am very excited about the current state of VR, let alone its long term potential!
Thanks for taking the time to be our July 2019 Community Spotlight member.