Game Development 101: Ben Boles Shares His Story

Ben Boles is an accomplished editor, motion graphics designer, and VFX artist. His production company MoonShot Studios is based in Los Angeles, where he presently lives and works. His resume boasts employers as legendary as Disney and projects as diverse and exciting as Piranha 3D. But film and television only scratch the surface of Ben’s interests, and he recently began his first foray into the world of making video games.

I’m a huge gamer myself, but I have an insanely limited/basic understanding of what goes into making a game—even on a small scale. I figured it would be interesting to chat with someone who recently got in on the ground floor of game design, and Ben was the perfect fit. I reached out to him to talk about his production company and his experience so far in developing his first video game project: a space-themed arcade shooter called Moon Shooter 5000. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

Connor Strader: Hey Ben! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, I’m excited to learn some more about your company and basic game design!

Ben Boles: Hey Couch Bandits!

CS: Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your brand and production company?

BB: Well, I created this brand, MoonShot Studios, in 2003, mostly to encompass all the things I did, and everyone needs a production studio, right? I had just graduated high school and purchased a new video camera to shoot and produce wedding videos. I wanted to seem more legit and professional, so I started thinking of company names. One night, I was shooting some footage and took a shot of the moon. Having always been interested in sci-fi and sci-fact, this grabbed me, and I came up with MoonShot. Upon trying to register the domain, I found was already taken, so I added the studios at the end and there we go! 

Since then, I’ve moved away from shooting weddings and have gotten more into post production and VFX, working with everything from stop animation to After Effects, and now moving to 3D rendering with Maya and Blender.  MoonShot Studios also co-produces short films, and I’m actually in pre-production on a feature and about to start post on a web series.

CS: That’s awesome! We’d love to check some of that stuff out once it’s released! Transitioning into game talk now—as you’ve put it, you’ve recently “kicked off your exploration into video game development” with Moon Shooter 5000. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in game development? Where did you start? What sort of challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

BB: I recently made the transition from 3D modeling and animation into game development. I’ve always been interested in video games…not surprising, as I am an American boy, who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, and wasn’t sports-oriented. I’m sort of a nerd and introvert, so as a kid, I didn’t like to spend a lot of time outside. I found an escape in video games. And unlike watching TV, video games offer you the opportunity to use your imagination and interact with many different worlds and characters. Whereas TV is passive, video games are truly an immersive and interactive experience.

However, I had no idea what even went into a video game, how to make it, or what you needed to start to make one. It was a huge mystery. I was happy just playing them. Throughout the early 2000s, as video games became more in-depth and complex, making a video game just seemed like an unattainable “that’s for someone else” thing to do. I didn’t really consider it something I’d want to do—or even could do. I ended up focusing more on art and eventually video production and animation.

Moon Shooter 5000 stage
A level in the design stage from Moon Shooter 5000.

Fast forward to now, there are tons of games on the market, many (if not most) are by independent developers. There are so many great games these days, it’ll make your head spin, but there are still a few games from my childhood that really hit the spot for me that I can’t seem to find in newer games.

One such game was a relatively unknown game called Escape Velocity NOVA. In EVN, you play a space pilot who’s just purchased your first small freighter ship! You have a ship and the entire galaxy at your fingertips. You fly from system to system, planet to planet, trading goods and doing courier and passenger missions. Similar to Elite Dangerous or EVE Online today, but in a top-down, simple view. Eventually, you find yourself on one of the six main storylines, and you wind up becoming a powerful military leader or rescuing your people from the clutches of the federation.

This game fascinated me, and I spent countless hours exploring and upgrading my ship and buying new ships and fighting pirates—it was just amazing and really got my imagination firing! I even started a fan-fiction novel based around one of my characters in the game, although it didn’t get past the first chapter…probably because it’s more fun playing the game.

EVN came out in 2003 and has not really been updated since. A few patches but no new version, no sequel (it was the third game in its line), nothing. I was really hoping it’d be ported to iOS, so I could play it on my iPad or iPhone, but so far, nothing. I still have it running, albeit through a hack to allow it to run on newer OS X builds, on my older 2011 MacBook. And it is still available for Windows 7. But I’m afraid it’s on its way out and going to be forgotten forever, and this made me sad! That’s when I decided, hell, I can model and animate in 3D, why not just make my own?

Using Blender 3D, which I already use for modeling and animation anyway, I decided to teach myself how to use the game engine and write code in Python. I did this for about a month, programming very simple games, like a first-person shooter, called: “Don’t Touch the Monkey.” I also started working on a prototype of a game that would be a lot like EVN, mostly just trying to figure out what the graphics engine was capable of and coding the physics.

Funny story, the Blender Game Engine has its own physics engine built-in to mimic gravity, friction, and things you don’t find in a space game. I actually had to write code to break the laws of physics, so it could be more accurate…which was ironic. I soon found limitations with the Blender game engine, however, as I wasn’t able to actually publish my game to be played outside of Blender. I did some research and stumbled on a game engine called Unity. Whoa. It’s free, and it’s AMAZING. I saw Unity had many, many tutorials online and even code you could copy into your projects—and what’s best is Unity recognized Blender files natively! I could build my game assets in Blender, then just drag them into Unity and start writing the code. Very simple. I started learning the program and the coding language, C# (C sharp), and found it very intuitive!

Stage in Moon Shooter 5000.
A detailed view of a stage in Moon Shooter 5000.

I learned to limit my poly counts. The poly count is how many polygons are used to build a 3D object. The more polygons, the nicer and more detailed the object. Coming from an animation and rendering for movies background, this wasn’t a consideration I had, being that I allotted for render time. In a video game, everything has to be rendered in real-time, so I had to now teach myself how to make efficient low poly models that looked nice but also didn’t bog down the computer. This is a constant struggle for me even now, and I find myself studying models in other games to see how they do it.

Using one of Unity’s free tutorials, I created my first game. It’s an overhead space shooter where you just have an endless barrage of asteroids and alien ships coming at you from the top of the screen while you move back and forth, firing from the bottom of the screen. You’ve seen and played this game a million times. The only point is a high score.

This was very inspiring, so I decided to take it further. I swapped out the spaceship models that came with the tutorial with my own, making a rocket-like ship similar to the MoonShot rocket, and I made the alien ships more like classic ‘50s UFOs. I was having so much fun I decided to research how to actually give the game a “win” condition and advance to another level, taking it beyond the tutorial.

Currently, the game has three levels—the third, while playable, is still under construction. The first level is much like the original tutorial: space background, asteroids, UFOs, etc. I changed up the second to make it so you’re flying over a modeled moon surface, complete with lighting effects and cast shadows. I also implemented a new mechanic to the second level: rescuees. Not everything in the level is good to shoot at! Now, you have lunar orbiters to save from the clutches of the pesky UFOs.

Finally, in the third level, you’re flying over a moon base that’s under attack from the UFOs, and you must dodge buildings and infrastructure at this rocket assembly plant. The programming is done for the level; I just need to finish modeling and texturing it.

Moon Shooter 5000 Screencap from Ben Boles on Vimeo.

CS: Having played the game myself, I can attest to it being as awesome as you’re describing it. It’s so much fun to play and inspiring to those who might be interested in taking the plunge into developing games. Where do you see yourself taking the game, and do you have plans to develop more games in the future?

BB: I’m not sure where I’ll take it. I’ve thought about adding more levels, new ships to choose, new locations (including Mars), power ups, a lives system, and a save system—all things I’d need for my next game. An idea I had the other day was making some Mars levels in the spirit of DOOM, where you’re in a ship flying over the surface fighting the demons from above. Maybe even changing the art style for these levels to mimic that of the original DOOM, but it’s just a thought for now. Could be fun!

Doing the tutorial taught me a LOT about the basics of building a game, and now, I hope to move onto the game that started me on this path: a mobile version of Escape Velocity. Since my main bread and butter is post production and film editing, I see game development as more of a hobby right now, but who knows? Maybe I’ll have a Flappy Bird-like idea and put something on the store!

CS: That sounds amazing, Ben! We can’t wait to see what you’ll do with Moon Shooter and hope you reach your goal of making that Escape Velocity-inspired mobile game. What about your dream game to develop; what would that be like?

BB: A dream game I’d love to make but have nowhere near the resources would be a racing game…but all the cars and locations are those of famous films and other games. I had this idea long before I heard of Ready Player One by the way, but it’s similar to that. You’d have the Back to the Future DeLorean, with a special time-saving power up, ALL the Batmobiles, ALL the pod racers, the Viper from Battlestar Galactica, the Munster’s cars, the Barbie Corvette, everything seen in Mad Max…the list of licensing nightmares continues. But that would be fun—and, ideally, each car wouldn’t just be a skin but have its own physics and unique attributes.

CS: I’d totally play that in a heartbeat, that sounds awesome! Maybe we could also develop a survival horror game based around acquiring all the licensing rights for those IPs. I kid, I kid. But seriously, what has been your favorite part about developing a game? What element has brought you the most joy?

BB: My favorite part of developing the game is learning the code and figuring out how to make it do what you want. I’ll be googling and researching sometimes for hours how to code something specific, and when I figure it out, it’s like a whole world of opportunity just opened up, and I can make anything in the game!

Other times, it’s cool to get to the point where I can actually come up with my own code without looking it up—that’s always encouraging! Being able to create a world not just in a still image or an animation but actually make it interactive makes me excited. It’s almost alive at that point.

I’d have to say though, what brings me the most joy is other people’s reaction to the fact that I made a game that’s playable, by myself, for free. It starts off as “Oh, neat” then when they play it, they get excited and can’t believe I made something that’s actually fun and feels like a real video game! Like, I can’t either! It’s inspiring to both me and them, and in this day and age, it’s free to produce your own games. Unity is free, and Blender is free. It really couldn’t be easier.

CS: Can’t wait to see what comes from you in the future, Ben! Thanks for chatting with us.

BB: Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to blab about my game! I hope to finish this one soon and get started on my next one!

Ben’s Moon Shooter 5000 can be downloaded and played for free on both Windows and Mac at the MoonShot Studios official website, where you can also find Ben’s other work in post production and animation.

If you’re interested in learning the process that Ben has described in this interview, please check out these links below:

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