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SA Game Creatives Spotlight: Dan Freer of Pond Games

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SA Game Creatives Spotlight: Dan Freer of Pond Games

25 November 2022
Dan Freer of Pond Games at PAXAUS, creator of the game RITE.

From large indie studios to solo developers working across desktop, console and mobile, to creatives working in XR, animation and robotics, South Australia is home to a thriving independent games industry with high international impact. In the SAFC’s new SA Game Creatives Spotlight interview series we explore the diverse range of talent and skills in South Australia’s growing game development sector, and meet some of our best and brightest game developers.

Award-winning developer Dan Freer is Pond Games, a “team-of-one” game studio based in Adelaide. We spoke with him about the immense success he’s experienced with his first release, RITE, which launched on Steam and Itch.io in mid-2020 and this year on Nintendo Switch, as well as his time at PAX, tips on breaking into the industry and what’s on the horizon for Pond Games.

Can you tell us a bit about RITE and what inspired you to create it?

RITE is a pixel art platformer where the goal is simply to collect the key and reach the exit while avoiding various hazards in every bite-sized level. I began developing RITE in 2019 while living abroad – I had wanted to make games for years and decided to finally go for it. I knew that I needed to keep the scope small for my “learning project” to have any hope of finishing it, but I also knew that I would likely give up on it if I wasn’t making something I wasn’t passionate about. As someone who’s always loved playing platformers, it seemed like the perfect choice of genre.

RITE launched in mid-2020 and this year was added to Nintendo Switch. Has your opinion on the game changed at all in those two years?

Of course! Though I think it is quite natural to look back on a project from a few years ago and contemplate all the things I would change if I were working on it now. I know that I am a much better designer now and could make RITE a whole lot better, but I am still immensely happy with it as a released game and proud to have it as my first project.

What skills have you learned through creating and launching RITE

Too many to name! As RITE was my first real attempt at making a game, I learned so much during early development about how video games function and are put together. Creating RITE has made me a better artist and level designer, and publishing taught me a bunch of new skills involved in launching and promoting my own product. I learned just how big of a gap there can be between a “mostly finished game” and a “finished game” – finishing a game is a hugely important skill.

The biggest challenge was having no initial development experience; I had done pixel art as a hobby for some years but had bounced off programming the few times I’d tried to learn. Thankfully there are loads of free tutorials for most game engines and software, so starting development was just following along with YouTube videos and adapting code to suit my needs. I asked people for help when I was stuck – I think learning by doing is a very viable path in game development.

RITE trailer

What do you like most about working in the game development sector?

Designing games is such a fun and satisfying thing to do for me personally, but that aside I really love chatting with other developers. There’s always such a diverse range of opinions on every aspect of video games and what makes them good/bad/fun/interesting; no two people think about games the same as each other, but everyone is so passionate about them. I love getting into the nitty-gritty of game design with other developers.

What do you think are the benefits of making games in South Australia?

We have such a great game dev community here in SA; everyone is so supportive of each other. Having regular events such as Unwind, and the talks and demo nights that Game Plus hosts are so great because they give us all a chance to catch up and connect with new people. 

What do you think is in store for game development in South Australia?

In the few years I have been making games here, the scene has grown dramatically with so many new indie teams and hobby developers. I really hope to see this trend continue; it’s so great seeing more and more people come to events like Unwind and chat about what we’re all working on.

Aside from the game’s soundtrack, RITE was created entirely by yourself. What are the pros and cons of working solo on a project?

I did have some help on the code side of things during development and around launch time from some friends, however the great thing about working on my own project by myself is getting to focus on everything I think is important to the game, and not having to compromise on creative decisions. On the flip side, not having others to bounce ideas off can result in decision-making being pretty tough at times. Staying motivated and on task can be quite difficult when working solo.

You recently attended PAX Aus with a group of other SA developers, and got to showcase RITE. How was that experience?

PAX Aus was an amazing experience! It was so great to see so many people enjoying RITE, especially when young kids had a go. PAX was very full on and exhausting, but a lot of us who were there from South Australia helped each other out where we could. Special shout outs to SAFC Game Development Executive Patrick Webb and Claudia Watson from the Department for Trade and Investment for their support.

What advice would you give to other indie developers who would one day like to showcase their games at PAX, or any other convention?

Definitely give your booth setup some thought. It doesn’t need to be over the top with huge dollars spent but a smart and clean set up with a couple of suitable decorations can go a long way. I’d recommend having two playable set ups for your game if possible, and even better if you can easily switch to a trailer or gameplay footage when people aren’t playing. Definitely print some kind of business card or postcard for your game, and probably print more than you think you’ll need. Having QR codes to your Steam page or wherever you’d like to direct people to is very worthwhile and easy to set up.

Did you always want to be a game developer?

I’ve wanted to be a game developer since childhood! As a young adult, I got distracted by the world of coffee, and eventually opened my own coffee shop that I ran for three years before selling it. It was a fun part of my life, but I am glad that I am finally pursuing a career as a game developer, and can’t really imagine myself doing anything else now.

What advice would you give to budding developers wanting to follow in your footsteps?

I am still a budding developer myself, I think. But for anyone hoping to one day make games, start now with whatever skills you have. Start with small projects, the smaller the better, or even just start by doing the part you’re interested in most. The best way to learn is by doing, and you’ll have a much better shot at finishing your big dream game if you’ve developed (and finished) some smaller games first.

So, what’s next for Pond Games?

I have recently started a new project. It is much more ambitious than RITE – I am looking to secure funding for it soon so I can work on it full-time and hire a programmer. Hopefully I will have something to show at PAX Aus 2023!

The SAFC supports video game development and game businesses as part of its commitment to championing the South Australian screen industry. Learn more about it at safilm.com.au/games

Interview by Patrick Webb

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