A Life of Game Design: An Interview with The Real Texas' Calvin French


With the release of The Real Texas, developer Calvin French—a.k.a. Kitty Lambda Games—has had his first real taste of commercial and critical success. The game garnered positive coverage on Destructoid and our very own site, and while it hasn’t generated, in French’s words, “tons and tons of money,” initial sales have been promising.

But The Real Texas is only the most recent of the many games French has made, and in a recent interview I talked to him about not only the effort and thought that went into The Real Texas’ five-year development, but the lessons of a lifetime of game development.

At 33 years of age, French notes that he’s “a little older than a lot of independent game developers,” and he’s been designing games for almost as long. “I remember drawing maps for games in elementary school,” he says. “I was even programming them back then. I had a [Commodore] VIC-20 back in grade 5, and even before that I had a Timex 1000.” Learning game design on the computers of the early ‘80s was an entirely different experience from the Apple and DOS-based IBM machines of later years. “Back then, learning programming was pretty much what you did if you got a computer. It came with a book of programs, and when you started the computer up BASIC loaded, and that’s how you operated a computer: you typed in a program to do something. The book would usually have examples for games, because that’s a good way to learn programming. That’s how I started to make games.”

He never stopped. In high school he began making his first large-scale game, a Secret of Mana inspired RPG called Legacy Forest, and completed it in college, while regularly producing smaller games for jams or competitions (along with “tons of unfinished crap.”) But none of these even approached his next project, Venture the Void, in ambition or complexity.

Venture the Void gave the player a spaceship in a randomly-generated galaxy and set her off on a vast, non-linear adventure. The website described it as “an MMORPG of inconceivable scale and variety developed solely by one person.” When development began in 2001, the genre was still in its infancy; Ultima creator Richard Garriot had coined “MMORPG” only four years before with the release of Ultima Online, the game that brought online roleplaying out of text-based worlds and into mainstream game development. Yet neither his inexperience with the genre nor his limited manpower stopped French from developing a game of staggering scope. Sold as a “Single Player Massively Multiplayer Online Offline Game,” or “SPMMOOG,” Venture the Void allowed players to join a public game with hundreds of other players, create an invite-only private game, or simply play offline. The game featured a full “main” quest line in addition to side-quests, and modeled the universe in staggering detail. The game contained a full banking and trading system, a variety of NPCs and guilds for automatically generated quests, and ways to customize the player’s vessel. The player could continuously zoom from a planet’s orbit down to detailed cities, populated with automatically generated alien races, each with its own distinct architectural style and unique language.

After six years of development—most of it full time – the game was finally released for sale in 2007. It made $500. “That’s about $80 a year,” said French.

“Technically, it was really sophisticated,” he recalls. “But it was basically impenetrable for people.” Without integrated tutorials, most of the people who managed to find the game amidst a notable lack of press weren’t able to engage with it. The game’s massively multiplayer structure never fulfilled its potential due to a lack of players, and when the server was finally taken offline in 2011, the announcement assured players that they could “continue to play offline…which is not much different than the online experience ever was.”

Starting Again
French didn’t let the failure of Venture the Void deter him from further game design, instead using the lessons he’d learned as the basis for his new project. “When I started The Real Texas, I decided ‘Okay. Here’s what you’re gonna do. You’re gonna put it in front of people really early on, and you’re going to think in terms of what they understand and what they don’t understand, and how you can address that as best as you can.’”

His goal of greater accessibility didn’t curb his ambition. The Real Texas is built upon two of his favorite games, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Ultima VI: The False Prophet, and French sought to combine the best parts of these classics to make his “dream game.” “I think if you’re going to put all the effort in, you might as well make the game that’s like that for you.” Specifically, French tried to combine the exploration and world design of Zelda with the “depths of interaction with objects” from Ultima VI, which famously let the player pick up and interact with anything in the environment.

Like its inspirations, The Real Texas featured next to no overt player guidance. “The big studios can’t make a game without signposts. They have to make it linear, because they can’t deal with the number of customers who can’t get through the game.” As an independent developer, French figured he might as well take the chance and let players figure things out for themselves. There would be clues, sure – but no straightforward instruction.

But the lack of obvious directions made his design job harder. Signposting is simply a way to draw the player’s attention to relevant information, and French had to make sure that each player could acquire the knowledge she’d need to solve puzzles, defeat enemies, and navigate the world without having it handed to them. It’d be all too easy to release an opaque game that sent players scrambling to him for help. To prevent his, he came up with the Game Developer Code of Honour, which stated that he was not allowed to help players navigate the game after its release. “If you’re going to [not signpost], you’ve got to design the game so that it’s at least fair. If I have to tell everyone what they need to do, then I have utterly failed.”

This philosophy led to an unusually open structure in which the entire game was a mystery to solve. Yet in my playthrough, it was the narrative that was most distinct, a strange Texan fairy tale that was simultaneously surreal and reserved. I was full of questions for French, but he remained tight-lipped when it came to the narrative. Explaining his reticence, French said “The game’s pretty symbolic, but not explicitly symbolic. If I say ‘what I really meant was this’ then I think it takes away from people’s enjoyment, and from people’s ownership.”

The Indie Game Lotteries
Making The Real Texas more accessible than its predecessor was only one half the battle. Marketing was equally important, but the chances of achieving mass exposure amounted to “winning the lottery.” “There are three lotteries available for an independent developer right now,” explained French. “One is that you could get tweeted by Notch.” He laughed. “That’s probably the easiest one to win.”

“The second would be the IGF. And I think a lot of developers treat it like a lottery. I felt that way when I first entered the IGF. I was like “Oh yeah, I just need to get nominated and everyone will know about my game and it will have a chance to do well….The problem is you can’t bet on that.” Nor could he bet on the third, and most famous, lottery: achieving exposure on Steam. French submitted The Real Texas to Valve’s monolithic marketplace, but it was rejected.

French found himself in the same boat as most of the people who had ever tried to sell a self-made video game without a publisher. His advice? Focus on what you can control. “Can you send out a press release? Can you send out two press releases? Can you make a good trailer? That’s probably the most crucial thing inside your control, to make a good trailer.”

But ultimately, French designs games because he wants to design games, not as a path to wealth. “I’ve seen a lot of new indie developers say things like, “These are the number of man hours I’ve put in. Therefore, my game needs to make $50,000 in order for me to be properly remunerated as a computer programmer. I just think that’s a bad way to look at it,” he said. “If sales keep up long enough to make another game—not in six years, but in a year or something—then I think I’d be real happy.”