IndieGames Blog | Best of Features | Interviews | Reviews

Interview: Mat Dickie (Hard Time)

DECEMBER 25, 2007 - Article by Paul Eres

MDickie is the author of dozens of unique games, and probably needs no introduction for most of this audience so I'll get right to the interview.

1. One thing that's notable about you is how fast you complete games, often in three months; did you ever have problems with procrastination, or is working so fast natural to you? Do you use any productivity tools such as to-do lists or schedules, or do you just work on things as you feel like it?

MD: Well, let's not fly that flag too hard because time is gushing away from me like water at the moment! I estimated it would only take 3 months to turn Reach into a wrestling game, but the project is heading into its 6th month and I'm still working 12-hour days. Of course, 6 months is still pretty astonishing for a game of that size and sophistication. My closest counterpart, "Pro Wrestling X", has clocked up a good 3 YEARS in production - and that's a team effort! As you say, 3 months is the standard for me now though - so my fans get restless at anything longer. After all these years, I guess I just know what I'm doing. I instinctively know exactly WHAT needs to be done, WHEN it needs to be done, and HOW I might best achieve that. It's a lot like a puzzle - I just know how to put all the pieces together as quickly as possible. One of my best tricks is dividing the day into art work and programming work. I create media in the morning and then bring it to life in the afternoon, so there's a nice flow to what I'm doing. Other than that, it's a race against the clock that makes me work so fast. I don't really have a choice! It may be a clich?, but time is money. The longer I spend making a game, the more money it has to make. For instance, if I had spent all year making World War Alpha I'd be out of business now because it didn't fly. Game over. I'm only here because Hard Time arrived and picked up the slack. My scattergun approach makes me failure-proof. If one concept doesn't work, another one is right around the corner to take the next shot. And on and on it goes, evolving towards perfection. The weak concepts die out and the strong concepts live to fight another day...

2. You've said on your site that you believe that making a game as a team is a bad idea because it dilutes the creativity. But couldn't each team member be creative in their own part of the game? For example, the musician with respect to a game's music, or the artist with respect to a game's graphics. It's not necessarily true that having a team means that every decision in a game has to be decided by committee, each person could have full dictatorial control over their particular part.

MD: Well, let's qualify that by pointing out that it doesn't work for ME. Other people are free to do what works for them, and they'll no doubt have more success in certain areas. All I know is that everything people love about my work is down to me doing it single-handedly. There's not a soul who can tell me what I can or can't do, or what is or isn't possible - not even at the level of publishing. That's how I tackle concepts and add features that would never get past committee. I simply find it more fulfilling too. When you rely on somebody else to bring your vision to life then things get lost in translation. With this new wrestling game, for instance, I can't countenance how many hours I would have wasted explaining why an animation needs to follow certain rules or why a texture needs to have a certain structure. All of these things I understand instinctively, so not one second is wasted in error and not one pixel is lost to compromise. That's true of any profession. People usually rely on others because they HAVE to - not because they want to. It used to drive Woody Allen crazy that making a film was a team effort. He lamented that "every day a truck pulls up full of fresh compromises"! Likewise, Michelangelo was criticized for working alone - but he insisted, "How else can I hear God's voice?". Only in solitude is a man true to himself and his vision. Anything less is a counterfeit version of creativity, born out of necessity rather than will. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself whether you're Michael Jackson or "that guy from The Jackson Five"...

3. The first time I played Hard Time, I walked a few steps, caught some type of sickness, walked a bit more trying to figure out how to cure myself or find a doctor, walked a bit more, started falling down and coughing and looking like I'm about to die, a police officer came up to me, I tried to talk to him but accidentally hit the kick button, and that was when he then killed me. This strikes me as getting the spirit of exactly what prison is really like (at least according to my aunt who spent a few years in it, she tells some pretty crazy stories, like how they had to work for long hours or get no bathroom paper).

So the question is: how much research did you do on prisons before making that game? Did you rely mainly on how it's portrayed in media (like that HBO "Oz" series), did you watch documentaries on it, did you ever visit one, and in general, how important do you feel it is to research subjects relevant to your games?

MD: The way you opened that question, I thought you were going to criticize it for NOT being realistic! I'm not sure what kind of prison your Aunt ended up at, but the one is Hard Time was supposed to be fictitious in its barbarity. You obviously don't live in the UK! We live under a liberal regime, so our criminals are treated like royalty. Their only concern is which game they'll load onto their en suite PS2 or which TV show they'll watch on cable, so it wasn't exactly a fruitful source of inspiration. I did suddenly start taking an interest in how prison was portrayed on TV (Oz was already fresh in my mind and Prison Break had just gotten big), but I'd be lying if I said there was anything structured to it. At the end of the day, a game was always going to be fictitious and exaggerated - so any realistic details would have only fallen by the wayside anyway. Making a game is a lot like writing someone's life story - you play down the things that aren't interesting and dwell on the things that are. The closest thing I did to research on this project was to follow a discussion that I had stumbled across on By coincidence, they happened to be talking about how a prison game could possibly work from a design point of view. All the problems I eventually had to tackle myself - such as how do you keep it realistic without it being as dull as a real regimented lifestyle? Some might say I didn't actually succeed in sidestepping that landmine, but I did my best! It was a very difficult concept to hold together - as most of mine are - but I pride myself on being able to turn anything into a game. Not necessarily a good one, but a coherent game nonetheless...

4. Because this is a blog for other independent developers and I'm one myself, I should ask this question. Like Introversion, the self-proclaimed "last of the bedroom programmers", you're a bit separated from the rest of the independent games community: you don't post on forums for example, and say things like "If you look around, I'm the only person in the history of this business that's doing what I'm doing." (Said in a March 2004 interview.) You've called them (us) embarrassing, insecure, out-of-touch, bitter, jealous, and so on, and you've called yourself the most reviled man among independent game developers.

I'm not saying that the current state of indie development doesn't have flaws, but do you still feel that *not one* other independent game developer even comes close to your level (either in talent or outlook) enough that you could call them a kindred spirit? For instance, take the finalists at the IGF ( for this year, or the winners from previous years, do you truly have nothing good to say about any of those games or the people who make them?

MD: It's funny you should bring this up, because I just posted a commentary on my website about this very subject ("The IceMan Thaws", 16th December 2007) - acknowledging the quality of some of this year's entries and endorsing the efforts of my fellow independent developers in general. Even going so far as to say I'm not worthy of being a part of it. I've never really had a problem with individual creations (I've been playing an independent pool game for the past 5 years!). My argument has always been that I simply don't see anybody else doing what I'm doing - whether that's for better or worse. At the end of the day, there's a difference between what I do and what the average independent game developer does. I single-handedly make big, sophisticated 3D games that kids get excited about - the average independent developer makes quaint 2D games that appeal to a niche audience. I churn out a rich variety of concepts at the steady rate of a mainstream corporation - the average independent developer forces out one title every year or two. I publish my own boxed products and run a profitable business - the average independent developer is resigned to it being a hobby. Now, when you're asked to articulate those differences as often as I am, the rhetoric is bound to get a little ugly from time to time. Especially when I constantly have to defend myself against a loud minority who resent all of the above and see me as a threat. I know how hard I work and I know how special what I do is, and anybody who has the audacity to dispute that is going to be chastened. At the end of the day, there's a limit to how much I can apologize for stating the truth. I've never said anything that I can't back up 100%. When Wrestling MPire 2008 drops next year, you bring me one human being who could even begin to make anything of that size and sophistication. He doesn't exist - not at the independent level or even the mainstream level. I don't take any pleasure in saying that. My fondest wish is to create an army of people who ARE capable of that. At the moment, that's simply not the case. And until it is, I'll be bridging the gap between independent creativity and mainstream success - proving that the impossible is possible and the unthinkable is thinkable...

5. You once said something that I've always thought was a very inspirational quote: "People assume I'm quite courageous for starting my own business, but there's actually a lot of cowardice involved. I'm just as scared of NOT achieving something as other people are about going out and doing it." I wish we had more cowards in that sense.

One of my favorite movies is Ikiru, which is about this old Japanese guy who worked in a bureaucracy for all of his life and then was diagnosed with stomach cancer; suddenly realizing that he'd done nothing with his life he spends his last few months doing one last worthwhile thing. I think for a lot of people it takes some drastic event like that to make them realize the importance of their life, and how short it is. So this may be a difficult question, but what do you think is the best way to get people to be afraid of wasting their life (short of being given a few months to live)?

MD: If you want to get deep about it, I had a cousin who grew up alongside me at practically the same age - only to pass away before he was barely a teenager. You'd have to be pretty cold not to be haunted by that! One of us is living the life of his dreams, the other isn't living at all. That'll get you on a "gotta compensate for the chance they missed" kinda vibe. Subconsciously, it's probably why I spend every waking hour achieving something or other. It's practically a sin not to. As for the particulars of getting into this profession, it's not my place to preach because I got into it when I had nothing better to do. I had no stable source of income to sacrifice and no mouths relying on that income, so I would be remiss to advise a family guy to follow my example. It's like what Jesus said about rich people, except it's "easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle" than it is for a man with responsibilities to pursue his dreams! The more baggage you've got, the harder it is to travel. That's why the Buddha spoke of "detachment". The more nerve endings you put out into the world, the more painful it is to live the extraordinary life that many of us yearn for...

There are two ways to be happy - to have everything you want or to want nothing! I'd lean towards the latter if I was to counsel a man of responsibility to pursue his dreams. The trick is to enjoy the process rather than the end result. For instance, it's impossible for me NOT to be a game designer. It's not something I "do" for a purpose, it's something I "am" instinctively. Banish me to a cave and I'll conjure up some form of entertainment involving rocks - just as my younger self had made games out of cardboard. If you're doing something for the right reasons then you can't fail at it anymore than you can "fail" to play tennis - you can only fail to WIN! And so it's by divorcing oneself from the result that one guarantees he'll enjoy the process. Pay attention the next time someone gives up learning to play the guitar or some such, and you'll realize that's what's going on. They weren't enjoying the "process" of making music - their mind was focused only on the end result. Recreating the tunes of their favourite musician, playing to an appreciative audience, getting a deal, etc. The sponsoring thought was counterfeit, and their efforts could only follow suit. As Bart Simpson conceded, "I wasn't good at it right away so I gave up"...

6. You've mentioned that even though your games are violent, they treat violence much more seriously than other games do, they you don't romanticize it, but instead they show its harmful aftereffects; you've said that your war game was really a game about peace. I agree with that viewpoint myself, for instance in one of my games there was a point in the story where many players told me they felt guilty about killing so many enemies (which was exactly the intention). But this type of thing is rare. For instance, last month I played through Jets'n'Guns, which is a wonderful indie shmup but as anyone who has played it knows it absolutely romanticizes violence almost every aspect of the game. Why do you think that type of thing is much more common in games?

MD: I attribute it to something I've often criticized the industry for, which is our bizarre fascination with Hollywood. Despite all the success, we've somehow reached the point in our evolution where we're "ashamed" of being game designers! We want to make movies instead. The problem is movies already exist, and they don't need us. And so we have this awkward dance where a game designer steps outside of his comfort zone and makes a fool of himself. It's like a mechanic and a chef switching roles for the day - your car won't work and your kitchen will be a mess! I cringed when I heard they were making games of The Godfather, The Sopranos, and Reservoir Dogs - because I knew they'd miss the point and screw it up. Handling that material isn't where a game developer's strengths lie, so it's like giving a loaded gun to a child - quite literally! If you've ever been in the company of a child once they've accidentally been exposed to those images, you'll notice that they're preoccupied with what doesn't matter. "Wasn't it cool when Tony Soprano shot that guy? The gun went bang! And there was blood! And the blood was red!" From what I can gather, game developers seem to respond in the same way. Out goes everything that does matter and in comes a fascination with what doesn't. The same is true of (relatively) original material such as Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt. It's very much from the childish school of thought that states "anything naughty is cool". They're the kind of people that listen to rappers and say, "He just swore! Did you hear him swear?!" - blissfully unaware of all the sentiments that were articulated in and around the swearing. I can only attribute that to the industry's infancy, and the fact that we're not used to having this much creative power. If you give a starving man a meal, he doesn't eat it with much decorum. Take a socially inept man and give him power, he'll make just as much of a mess. That said, my games are as violent as any out there - so who am I to talk?! I'd like to think I'm a bit more articulate about the whole thing though. If I was embroiled in controversy, I'd be explaining myself via every media outlet in the country. These guys tend to run away like kids that have let off a stink bomb. When there's no method to your madness, you cease to be an artist...

7. You mention that when you're not working on games, you're working on self-improvement: exercise, studying philosophy and politics, and so on. Do you have any strong views on those subjects? You don't often speak about those types of things on your website, so it'd be interesting to know who your favorite philosophers or political thinkers are, and what type of exercises you use and recommend (I favor complex isometrics like this for example), and any other self-improvement tips or practices you've picked up.

MD: I get accused of going "off topic" when I talk about creativity, so there's no way I could pull off a rant about politics! I do know a lot about it and have some considered views, but I'm not arrogant enough to believe that my opinion is more valid than anybody else's. That pretty much sums up my political views to be honest - the belief that there are no right answers. People often like to criticize politicians, but I seem to spend a lot of time defending them. The whole "George Bush is stupid!" and "Tony Blair is a liar!" angle seems very childish to me. People tend to have such passionate views to compensate for the fact that they don't know what they're talking about. The reality of politics is that you spend 18 hours a day going blind on paperwork, trying to make as few mistakes as possible. The whole "I hate him for this!" and "She's stupid for doing that!" line of thought doesn't quite do the balancing act justice...

As for philosophy, for me that tends to be a by-word for religion. "Religion" is a very loaded word nowadays, so you have to wheel it out carefully. It conjures up images of a brainwashed zealot who believes in following rules. The reality is that religion is simply passionate philosophy. If you think about, these guys are just philosophers who were so incredibly popular that people built up institutions around them. They're victims of their own success. That's why militant atheism bothers me a great deal, because - as with politics - it doesn't get to the heart of the matter. 90% of atheists are simply annoyed by religious people and religious practices, and know no better way of articulating that annoyance than by disregarding the whole thing. They quite literally throw the baby out with the bathwater! They would do better to acknowledge that Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad - and thousands of others like them - were great human beings first and religious icons second. And so would religious fanatics. It all boils down to the human ego. The atheist's ego says, "I'm intelligent and you're gullible!" - whereas the fanatic's ego says, "I'm close to God and you're not!". If they were detached from ego, they would each see that they're arguing about the same thing. The scientist has a profound respect for life, and the spiritualist has a profound respect for God. The thing is the words "life" and "God" are interchangeable - two ways of viewing the same energy that permeates every atom in the universe. In that sense, science and spirituality are growing closer and closer together - until we realize that they were never apart...

And so my interest is in developing an all-encompassing world view - which understands every religion in the history of mankind and cross-pollinates that with science, politics, and the arts. The role of exercise is to create the perfect vehicle within which that world view might travel and be expressed. People think I'm going off topic with that too, but I can't stress enough how important it is. Where do you think I get the energy to work 12 hours a day without going crazy?! It's true what they say about "strong in body, strong in mind". I shudder to think where I'd be if I didn't sit a fit and healthy body in front of this laptop. People assume that fitness is an egotistical pursuit, born out of some deep-rooted insecurity. "Who are you trying to impress?" was the snide remark of one woman I recently argued the matter with. "Nobody" is the answer - it's all about YOU and how you feel when you wake up in the morning. There's no better metaphor for human achievement than a bar of metal that weighs more than you, which you'll eventually lift over your head! The mental strength that's required to confront your notions about what is or isn't possible. The confidence that comes with setting goals and achieving them. It's all life in its many permutations - mind, body, and soul...

8. You've written once in an interview that you have a retirement letter already written, and may give up independent game making because it's not as rewarding and you aren't able to make a good living at it. Have things improved since then, or are things still on the down-turn for you? I hope it doesn't happen personally, it'd be great to see you continue to make your 'seasons' of games for many decades to come.

MD: The irony is it's the fact that I've got everything going for me that makes me feel that way! I'm as well-publicized as it's possible for an underground artist to be, I work with genres that have mainstream appeal, I have a huge catalogue of products, and I pocket every penny of the proceeds. And yet here I am barely making a living, so I have to ask myself is this as good as it gets? Is this what I'm telling kids to aspire to? When you first get into the entertainment industry, you hear tales of 50 Cent selling one million albums in a week and figure it must be child's play. With hundreds of millions of people owning computers and playing games, how hard can it be to reach just 0.01% of them? The reality is for all those millions playing, not ONE will part with their money unless you give them a reason to. And I mean that quite literally! I was once being shown around the premises of a publishing house and the guy was pointing to each game poster saying, "That one has sold, that one hasn't, that one has...". He wasn't talking about whether or not they had sold "many" copies - he meant whether or not they've sold AT ALL! That's what independent artists are up against. Whether it's films, music, or games, the little guy is struggling to find ANY one to put ANY value on what they do. But that's just the mortal in me talking. The human ego thinks it needs recognition, and the human body thinks it needs food and shelter. The immortal, on the other hand, seeks only to experience things. He's the one that can't sleep at night because he's so excited about what he's going to achieve the next day. The one that enjoys spending every waking hour doing something creative. The only "paper" that one cares about is the fan letter from a kid who considers you to have made their favourite game, or the guy who's been inspired to hold his head a little higher and chase his dreams a little harder. When you hear me switching from positive to negative, it's the latest battle in that endless war between yin and yang. How long it remains balanced in favour of my games is anybody's guess!

9. My favorite game of yours is Wrecked -- not for its execution, but for its ideas, just for what it meant. I'm an atheist myself, but even so I still found a lot to like about a game with such religious/spiritual purpose. I felt that there was a lot of potential in it, but that it was marred with a few problems which kept it from reaching it fully. Do you plan on making a sequel to it, or a game similar in style and tone to it?

MD: Yeah, Wrecked suffered from a lot of novice flaws. But if you think about it, it's the first time I had ever tackled a game of that nature. Everything prior to that was industry sims like Popscene, niche concepts like Sure Shot, and of course fighting in its numerous guises. Hard Time is practically the only other step in the evolution of that adventure gameplay, so there's plenty of scope for improvement. The spiritual themes in that game were very much an afterthought. Throughout its production, it just became obvious that the way a player chooses to guide a life says a lot about them. Do you give in to base instincts to get what you want, or do you make life harder for yourself by showing restraint? What I love about the end result is that it's entirely ambiguous. God or spirituality never manifests itself at any point, so you don't know whether the guru was mad or telling the truth! It's just something you're told, and then you decide what it means to you - much like in real life. I like the idea of a player being the "soul" to a game character's "body". That's a theme that I'll being expanding upon in some future games. Most notably one about a game character who doesn't know he's a game character! The nature of existence will obviously be key to that game, as the "created" struggles to come to terms with "creation" - and indeed the "creator". More controversially, I'd also like to make a series of RPG's about religious figures. I don't see why a game need be any more offensive than a movie about those times and places - of which there are many. In fact, you could argue that a degree of interaction would make it even more meaningful. It's just such a thorny issue that I have to hold off until I know what I'm doing and why I'm doing it...

10. You've written things like "Programming is a scientific factor that crushes the spirit, and scares away talented visionaries. The pivotal moment in the life of any art form is when the 'scientist' starts losing ground to the 'artist'." This is why I feel that game engines which allow anyone to make games without much programming or technical knowledge are the future of game development, but a lot of people feel that 'real' game designers write their own engines from scratch and only use C++ or the like, and they look down upon games made in Blitz Basic, Game Maker, or engines like that. Do you think this will change as engines and computers get increasingly powerful, and that we'll see a time when most games don't have a 'programmer', or do you think the emphasis on the graphical arms race will ensure that most games will continue to be made using pure programming indefinitely?

MD: Oh, you'll never see the back of programming. That's what game development IS! It's inconceivable that there'll ever be a time when making games doesn't involve telling a computer what to do, when to do it, and how to do it - and that will always be a technical factor. I'm not calling for that to be eradicated - I just celebrate when it's made more palatable. Like the wires hidden behind the plastic face of your favourite gadget, we're just looking for the unnecessarily complex to be simplified. I mean, playing the piano isn't "easy" - but it's just easy enough that anybody can sit in front of one and work at getting their head around it. I think products like Blitz BASIC and Dark BASIC are already achieving that for game development, and that's all we need to coax our version of Lennon & McCartney onto the stage. I resent the implication that it's not "real" programming though. People talk about them being "game engines" as if they're readymade games, but all I get out of them is a more logical way of loading in and manipulating 3D models. There are still 250'000 lines of code that make my latest project a wrestling game! Like writing music, the talent is in coming up with those lines and inserting them in the right place. We never want to make something so easy that there's no struggle involved. I'm reminded of a story my school headmaster used to tell us about two caterpillars at the bottom of his garden. One emerged from its shell and blossomed into a colourful butterfly, whereas the other made no such progress. In order to make life easier for it, he gently cut its casing and a butterfly eventually emerged - only it was black & white because, without the struggle, no blood had gotten to the wings. Long may game development be hard enough to get the blood pumping!

Exclusive preview image courtesy of MDickie.

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