Interview: Indie Developer Dan Marshall of Size Five Games

Dan Marshall isn’t just your average hand-wringing, coding-in-a-caffeine-fueled-haze indie developer. Oh no. As the brains behind Size Five Games, he already has several games under his belt (one even earned him a BAFTA) and more than a few years’ worth of toil and trouble behind him.

I had the chance to send over a few questions to Dan about what it’s like to develop in an already-crowded independent gaming space, and how he hopes his upcoming title The Swindle might stand out. Check out last week’s article on The Swindle for a quick refresher.

GameCrate: How did Size Five Games get its start?

Dan: I used to be a TV producer, making games as my hobby. When Time Gentlemen, Please!was done and selling well, and the Privates contract come through, I seized the opportunity to jump ship and start making games full time. I love my job so, so much.

GameCrate: In doing my research on Size Five Games, I was delighted to learn aboutPrivates, a game you created to teach sex education, and the resulting BAFTA win because of it. Since that success, have you decided to move onto fictional narratives only or will there be other educational titles from Size Five Games in the future?

dan marshallDan: Educational games are odd, because you go in thinking “this can’t be that difficult, surely?” and you do a design and you write a script but at the back of your mind you’re thinking “I can’t do that, that’s not accurate.” And Privates takes a LOT of liberties with realism, but there’s this awful line of having to get facts across in an interesting way, but not laboring a point or getting preachy.

Privates does that really well in passing moments, but does it badly with chunks of text far too often, because I think the scope of the educational content (“All Sex Ed, ever”) was possibly too large. If you’re focusing on one small thing, I think you can do Educational games better. I’d love to revisit Privates actually. I doubt it’ll happen, but we’ll see.

GameCrate: What inspired The Swindle?

Dan: The Swindle actually came from a game I’d started to make as a teenager called Imperium Britannica. It was this weird Flashback-like game where you had to break into buildings – it actually kind of looked a bit like Gunpoint. But it didn’t get far. After Privateswas done, I was trying to decide what to make next, and that game had always stuck with me; I really liked the idea. So it went Steampunk, and about stealing money because I’d played a lot of Assassin’s Creed 2 at the time and was well into watching my virtual bank account go up.

GameCrate: What do you mean when you describe The Swindle as “Deus Ex crossed withSonic the Hedgehog”?

Dan: Hah, well originally the game modelled its character controls on Sonic. That kind of ultra-physicsy feeling. That’s changed a bit now, but yeah, what I mean by that is that it’s a platform game but instead of just running left-to-right, there’s a building you can approach in multiple ways. You have to avoid guards and hack their systems. Sonic plus Deus Ex was just a nice little descriptor that kind of stuck.

GameCrate: One of the first things I noticed in the press materials for The Swindle is the inclusion of a character who is a woman of color. How important is representation for you in the games you create?

Dan: Well, The Swindle actually randomly generates its thieves. I guess you play as “you”, and you’re just sent this never-ending stream of ne’er-do-wells to do all the thieving. So from that point of view, adding in as much variety in terms of skin tone, gender, hair style was a no-brainer. I don’t think including women or characters of color was ever a conscious decision; it was just a completely normal thing to do.

I’m all for diversity in game characters. I’d like to see much more of that sort of thing, as I think it’s hugely important. I hope to see more devs taking the time to think these kinds of issues through.

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GameCrate: There are a lot of games that fit under the "Steampunk" classification. How steampunky would you describe The Swindle to be?

Dan: Not very, if I'm honest. People can get very uppity about the description of what is-and-isn’t Steampunk, and that kind of concerns me. The Swindle has always been a mix of Steampunk and Cyberpunk, and I think that’s what comes across. So it’s about hacking and body modifications, but in a world of gears and steam. Visually, I’m more interested in doing something unique that feels like a coherent world than I am pandering to other peoples’ notions of what qualifies as Steampunk. Maybe I should think of my own –punk prefix instead!

GameCrate: The artwork for The Swindle is impressive, to say the least. How did you discover the artist, Michael Firman?

Dan: Michael actually sent me some fan art when I first announced The Swindle, and it was gutting because these little characters he’d knocked out were far superior to any of the graphics I’d spent all this time laboring over. So, when it came to re-jigging the game, it made perfect sense to drop him a line and see if he wanted to take on the art. He has such a crazy, unique sense of visual style—everything in his designs just wows me. I’m very lucky to have found him.

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GameCrate: Are you worried that the indie game market has become too crowded of a space? How do you hope to stand out among the rest?

Dan: Yes, terrified. When I first started making indie games, I’d get press coverage with such incredible stories like “This guy has made a game on his own in his bedroom!” or “This indie game is on STEAM,” and now here we are under a decade later and things are so cramped and crowded. The thought of getting lost in that sea is crippling. I think the only thing to do is to just focus on making the best possible game, making sure it really sings, and hoping word-of-mouth lifts it up.

GameCrate: Any plans for multiplayer, online high scores, or anything else for those who enjoy competing against others?

Dan: Ha ha—NO. I made a game called Gun Monkeys, and that taught me to steer well clear of Multiplayer. With ‘indie’ levels of sales figures, it’s just too much of a hassle getting people online at the same time. Everyone expects a game at 3 am on a Monday and get frustrated when the servers aren’t completely full. The Gun Monkeys launch was a stressful, stressful time. It’s possible I’ll introduce a Daily Challenge style thing, but for now my focus is on getting the main game finished and functional. Stuff like that would probably come post-launch.