Welcome, everyone, to another Learner Success Story! Today we’ll be chatting with Matt McDill from Dark Stranger Studios, a game development division of Express Alles Productions VFX studio.
To get started, Matt, can you tell us a bit about what got you into VFX and programming?
Telling stories has always been important to me. From a young age, I was always writing. My cousins and I would torture our family with plays that we wrote, usually conveyed through crudely made puppets. In my late teens and twenties, I spent a lot of time writing short stories and satirical articles about current events but never really pursued having them published.
Growing up in the early 80s, I was lucky enough to have a dad who was a programmer. And one day an IBM 5150 showed up, and I never looked back. But while I always had access to a computer growing up, I never thought it was capable of producing professional quality results (graphics cards did not enter my life until the 21st century). However, given that I made a replica of my neighborhood complete with the interiors of my friends’ houses using the Duke Nukem 3D game engine and editor tools from Shadow Warrior in the late 90’s, this was likely a misperception.
While in high school, instead of paying attention in class, I started learning how to program on my calculator in what I thought was Basic, but was more likely Texas Instrument’s proprietary version of something similar called TI-BASIC. I began with creating simple animations and setting the calculator up to answer all my test questions with a couple clicks of the button and eventually progressed to remaking old Atari games. I started with Pong and then progressed to Frogger. I was working on a remake of Moon Patrol when I graduated and, well… life happened and that project was never finished.
It sounds like you’ve really been at this a while. How did you progress from those beginnings to creating an entire VFX studio?
Around 2009, I jumped back into programming and started a new Frogger project, this time in some odd combination of C++ and Dark Basic, if I remember correctly. I’ve always found Frogger to be a relatively easy concept to translate to the screen and it has been my go-to whenever learning a new language. This time, however, I added a little twist and put someone resembling Chuck Norris on patrol in the little grassy knoll between the street and the river.
One of my friends was really into the Chuck Norris jokes at that time (google it), and I thought it would be funny to put him in there. The only reason anybody would play this game is to satisfy the desire to find out what would happen if Chuck catches the frog, and to what should not be much of a surprise to anyone, he roundhouses the frog off the screen and the level starts over.
The game was never released, because it was just for fun and I did not own the rights to any of the art used in the game (although it was freely available in the public domain). It should also be mentioned that the game contained the likeness of someone whose permission I did not have to use their image, and, it must be noted, could most certainly kick my ass.
Since then, I have dabbled in video and special effects along with rediscovering my love of art (portfolio at Dark Stranger Studios). While working on one of my film projects, I discovered that I could use scripting to automate a lot of steps in my workflow, such as applying filters, adjusting colors, distorting features, etc. When you’re shooting at 60 frames per second and making adjustments outside of video software (think photoshopping each frame individually), it certainly helps when the machine does most of the work for you. Once I discovered this, it opened a whole new world since it was now incredibly easy to apply my favorite techniques across multiple projects without having to repeat each step over and over along the way.
Your parent studio, Express Alles Productions, started with art and film VFX, as you just mentioned – so what inspired you to create the Dark Stranger Studios division for game development?
It allows me to engage in storytelling and apply my animation and VFX skillsets towards a project, while simultaneously having fun putting together the puzzle that is coding. One thing that is unique to game development is that the player creates (or at least enacts) most of the story for you, so the dialogue needed is, in many cases, far less than if I was developing a television series, which requires constant writing to keep it going. While I do enjoy pretty much anything creative, be it artwork, animation, creating GUIs for a database, or knocking out the next great FPS, writing fiction is not my greatest strong suit (or at least it didn’t use to be).
… and now there is Unity, a powerful game engine that is accessible to anyone thanks to it being essentially free for anyone not pulling in $100K per year in sales. For those just getting started, such as myself, it means that making a professional-looking game is actually feasible on a relatively small budget if you’re willing to put in the time. Add in the fact that video streaming is now practically everywhere and the opportunities to learn how the pros do it from the comfort of your own couch are endless.
Thank you for sharing your inspiration, and we truly hope it inspires others to get into Unity development!
Despite the shift in focus, we know how important it is to apply what you’ve learned from past experiences in new ways. Are there any significant VFX projects that you’ve completed which you think will help with future game projects?
Working on my movie, The Treatments, (TheTreatmentsMovie.com) is really one of the major catalysts that got me back into gaming. It started with my GoPro and a simple green screen sheet I ordered online. Next thing you know, I had moved out of my master bedroom with the vaulted ceilings into a spare bedroom and converted the biggest room in my house into a sea of beautiful, chroma key green. I then had to learn how to make virtual sets, which led to me gaining the skill of 3D modeling using Blender. After that, it was a natural progression into animation given that I was already using a poor man’s version of cell shading on my somewhat live-action film.
I briefly entertained the notion of starting a television series, and even wrote 80 pages or so of ideas, but that just covered the first handful of episodes. To keep a series going it would be constant writing, and worse than that, the render times would be ridiculous.
I built a six PC, Linux-based render farm that runs pretty quick for not having GPUs (yet), and I was able to increase my render time production by a factor of 12; Linux pcs will process a single frame in ½ the time of my ‘fast’ Windows 10 machine with a GPU – but, when you do the math, it could take several weeks to render a single twenty-minute episode on my render farm – if I was able to get the time per frame down to 15 minutes for complex scenes.
With game development, I can tell a story while only needing to render short animations and then the remainder of the story is completed real-time as the player progresses through the game.
The biggest takeaway from my VFX work that can be applied to game development was understanding 3D modeling software and knowing how to build my own models and scenes before spending a single minute in Unity. This was a huge advantage when I decided to dive back into game development and I was quickly able to overcome the learning curve regarding the basic fundamentals of level design and focus on learning C#.
That is quite the advantage, and your studio’s portfolio is stunning! We can’t wait to see what you do with games!
Speaking of which – in your pursuit of game development, you’re using several of our curriculums, like the Unity Game Development Mini-Degree, to help you establish the new studio division. What about Zenva’s courses drew you to them, and can you describe how they’re helping?
I do not exactly recall how I discovered Zenva Academy, but I am very glad that I did. The Unity Game Development Mini-Degree was incredibly helpful in getting me re-acclimated to the coding world and provided a good foundation on which to build as I’m learning C#. I especially found Pablo’s teaching style to be engaging, and he provided great examples as to ‘why’ things work the way they do rather than just regurgitating code to be memorized. It allowed me to really learn how everything works together as opposed to just rote memorization. And I appreciate having a learning program laid out that builds on the previous lesson’s gains – versus having to hunt and peck through the search results for the next skill you don’t even know you need.
With that said, as everyone knows, there is a lot of googling that takes place when learning how to code. I am glad that through one of my late-night searches I stumbled upon Zenva, because I have found the lessons to be top-notch and very insightful, and I now know enough to actually query what I’m really looking for as opposed to the layman’s terms I was using previously (well, most of the time, at least, haha).
The next lesson I’m looking most forward to going through is the Multiplayer Game Development Mini-Degree. I’m planning on developing a game lobby and multiplayer element for the game I’m currently working on, Death Parts Us All (deathpartsusall.com).
We’re overjoyed to hear the role our courses are playing here. As we’re on the topic, what are you willing to share about your upcoming game project, Death Parts Us All, right now?
While there will be a lot of Sci-Fi, Horror, and FPS elements to the game, it is not just a traditional FPS, in that I hope to have plenty of levels which incorporate some of the mechanics of old-school space shooters (and another genre or two I’ll divulge at a later date when I’m closer to launch).
The game also takes place over numerous time periods. I don’t feel like there are enough WWI games in the world, so I couldn’t help but find a way to make that happen in mine. The details as to how the player gets there will be revealed during gameplay so I do not want to reveal it here, but the player can rest assured they will experience some good old-fashioned horror and mayhem, with a hefty dose of cyberpunk, spread across several historical time periods.
It has been lovely to talk with you, but we need to wrap up! However, I think we can squeeze in one more question – what is your advice for developers who are looking to switch to game development from a different area of the industry?
Build something for yourself in your spare time before making the leap – unless you have the financial means to sustain yourself during your pursuit – because completing a game does not just happen overnight. A 2D platformer can be knocked out fairly quickly by a novice coder, but major projects can take up ample amounts of time and drain your financial coffers while you are pursuing the dream that may never come to pass for any number of reasons.
Set a project scope before you start and avoid mission creep as much as possible… well…. unless that idea is really awesome, in which case, yeah, go for it! But don’t let it break the bank.
Lastly, consume as many tutorials as possible. If you have a job where you can listen to music at work, be absorbing tutorials all day and then go back and breeze through them later while in front of a PC because you already have a general idea of where the lesson is going.
I have found that Zenva Academy has most of my needs covered while I’ve been getting my feet off the ground, with a structured curriculum that provided a solid foundation on which to go out into the world and start pursuing my dream of making video games for a living.
I mean, outside of winning the lottery and retiring to an island, what could possibly be better than getting paid to make games? Even if I became a billionaire overnight, I would still be creating art and making games because, well… It. Is. Fun.
That’s it for this Learner Success Story, and we appreciate Matt and Dark Stranger Studios for taking the time to share their journey and Death Parts Us All with us!
Want to keep up with the development of Death Parts Us All? Check it out right here and view the trailer!