Made In Australia: Affable Games

One of the games that took not only the WellPlayed crew by surprise at PAX Aus 2018 but everyone in attendance was a comedy game by the name of Speaking Simulator from Brisbane-based studio Affable Games. It provided players and onlookers with a good laugh in an environment that can feel rather hectic and overwhelming at times.

When prototyping game ideas, the Affable Games’ brain trust of Jordan Comino and Jed Dawson noticed a lack of comedy games on the market, and instead of throwing their hat into a saturated ring such as the platforming genre, the duo ultimately chose to embark on a journey down a more unique path.

The twosome, who met at Halfbrick Studios in Brisbane, had been working on Jetpack Joyride and other projects for a couple years before deciding to branch out on their own to live that ‘sweet indie life’ Comino laughs. Although Comino admits that he owes a lot to his time at Halfbrick.

‘Halfbrick was a great learning experience. I was able to work on and ship a whole variety of games, and gain a really foundational understanding of the game development process. I think I learned more in my first two months at Halfbrick than I did in my entire university degree’.

Jed Dawson and Jordan Comino

Comino, who is Victorian-born but Brisbane-raised, studied programming at SAE in Queensland (when it was called QANTM) but reveals he learnt a lot by simply making games while in high school, something he says gave him a leg up at university.

Dawson, on the other hand was born in Newcastle but now calls himself a proud Brisbane local. His pathway into game design differs slightly from that of Comino. Dawson started out studying a Diploma of Games and Digital Media at TAFE Southbank. After that he enrolled in a Bachelor of Animation at QUT before pulling out, giving up on creativity and enrolling in law at QUT, only to quit that six months later. After rediscovering his passion for creativity he completed his honours in game design, also at QUT.

While Dawson may have questioned becoming a game developer before completing his honours, Comino admits that there have been some tough moments along the way that made him wonder ‘what if?’, however he clarifies that these thoughts were only fleeting and he’s never wanted to stop working in games.

‘It’s hard to say if that’s because of having the stamina to pull through, or just being stubborn and proud’, he adds.

So what drew the pair to want to work in games?

‘I’ve loved games for as long as I can remember, so it only seemed natural that I’d try and make a career out of it’, says Comino.

‘Games are this great medium where it feels like you can do whatever you want; tell a captivating story, create some chilled out experiences, or, take the Speaking Simulator path, and make something totally ridiculous just because it’s fun to make people laugh’, Comino adds.

Comino has been making games professionally for about nine years now, and he reveals that even if he wasn’t involved in the games industry directly he’d still be a programmer of sorts, sneaking tiny games as easter eggs into serious apps – he just loves it too much to envisage a life without making games.

‘I love how easy it is to connect with other people that enjoy the same games as you. Meeting other people that you would likely have never met before, and then instantly having something in common is just great’.

‘As a developer though, I really enjoy being able to create experiences for other people to enjoy. The reception to Speaking Simulator so far as been fantastic, and I can’t wait to release the finished product’.

Comino’s earliest memory of video games is playing a on an old DOS computer with his brother, trying to beat games together.

‘Being three and five we didn’t get a whole lot of say as to what games we owned, but the ones we played the most were Prince of Persia (which was a little beyond our skill level) and Secret Agent (a lesser known 2D platformer). Secret Agent was the first game we both 100%-ed’.

Games are this great medium where it feels like you can do whatever you want; tell a captivating story, create some chilled out experiences, or, take the Speaking Simulator path, and make something totally ridiculous just because it’s fun to make people laugh

Jordan Comino – Affable Games Co-Founder

Affable Studios currently works out of a quiet room in the TAFE office at Southbank, a luxury that has come as a result of their prior teaching commitments.

‘We were previously working part-time teaching game dev (surprise, surprise!) a little bit each week which we actually really loved’, explains Comino.

‘Even though it’s all game dev-related, teaching is wildly different to actually making something. It’s a really rewarding experience to see students solve problems and grow into budding little developers’.

Working on Speaking Simulator is now a full-time gig for both Comino and Dawson, largely thanks to funding from Screen Queensland, which has also allowed Affable to bring on additional support when required. While Comino reveals that they do have to use their own savings to keep the studio going, the funding has been a massive boost for the studio.

For Comino, Dawson and Affable, Speaking Simulator isn’t their first rodeo, with the studio developing Astro Crash, a 60s retro-style arcade game for Android and iOS devices that launched back in 2017. What Astro Crash did teach them was that working in a small team is hard work.

‘While we were at Halfbrick we had much larger teams, and I think that really helped the creative process’, says Comino.

‘It’s a lot easier to brainstorm when there’s more people to bounce ideas off. I think I’ve also become a lot better at switching up the roles I perform as a developer’.

Astro Crash 

Comino admits that both he and Dawson have clashed creatively a number of times. However, he says that’s simply par for the course when working with any other creative.

I don’t think you there are two people in the world that could make a game and not disagree on something’.

‘It’s kind of boring actually, usually we quiz each other about whatever we’re disagreeing on. What are you trying to achieve? How will this feel? How well does this satisfy those goals? How long is this going to take to implement, instead of a different solution? “Clashing” sounds way more exciting, maybe we’ll get some swords or something’.

Dawson explains that the idea for Speaking Simulator came to him while teaching facial animations to students at QUT while completing his honours.

‘I was thinking about how the mouth works, and also thinking about how amazingly fun and hilarious QWOP is’, he says.

‘The idea of hilariously gamifying something that every human intrinsically understands, like walking or speech or using your hands, is cool to me’.

There’s no shortage of laughter in the office according to Comino who says they are constantly laughing at whatever silly feature they’re working on.

‘I think there’s just going to be heaps of funny moments when you’re making a comedy physics game’, laughs Comino.

But by far the funniest has been all the strange looks we get from other people in the office as Jed and I pull and contort our faces into all sorts of weird shapes while making ooOOo-ing and aaaahhh-ing noises’.

Speaking Simulator creates some hilarious fun

Despite all the laughs, video game development can be a stressful and difficult time thanks to a number of challenges associated with being an indie dev.

‘I think one of the biggest challenges has been with how much more management is required’, says Comino.

‘When you’re trying to manage contractors while putting together some marketing materials, at the same time as making plans with different platform holders, but you also need to decide which publisher you should be targeting (if any at all), it can very quickly become difficult to find time to make the actual game. It turns out there’s a reason management is a full-time position’.

When it comes to marketing Comino admits that he skipped over it a bit earlier in his career, but has since learnt that it is never too early to market your game and you’re probably not doing enough of it.

Comino at PAX Aus 2018

‘Marketing your game is more than just talking to game journos, and running discord servers’, explains Comino.

‘You start with market research, and make sure that there are actually people out there that want the game you’re making. You do play tests as often and early as possible with those people and see what they think of the game and the direction that you’re taking it in.

‘You’ll need to revise and revisit this often to keep you on track. This lesson only really applies to games you want to be commercially viable, but it’s a big and difficult one to learn’.

Marketing your game is more than just talking to game journos, and running discord servers

Jordan Comino – Affable Games Co-Founder

Speaking Simulator in the hands of the people at PAX Aus 2018

It’s one aspect that he encourages upcoming developers not to ignore, however his parting advice is for young developers is to finish something and ship it, explaining that the last 10% of a game is often the hardest.

‘I see a lot of people decide that they’ve essentially finished the game, so they just stop working on it’, says Comino.

‘It’s not the same thing. Once the game’s done, just “shipping” isn’t as easy as it sounds either. There’s a lot to do, and I think you have a better understanding of everything involved in game dev if you follow it through to completion’.

Comino believes that although Australia’s video game industry is growing we still lack enough senior developers able to help the junior and mid-level developers to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. Instead many get disillusioned and leave the industry, resulting in a high turnover rate.

‘I’d love to see some more government assistance, perhaps focused around training and mentoring younger and more junior developers so they can stay around long enough to pass on everything they learn too’.

As for the future of Affable Games Comino keeps mum about what else the studio is working on, simply smiling and saying that we’ll have to wait and see. Right now the studio is focusing on getting Speaking Simulator ready for release this year.

When he’s not developing games or marketing them, Comino enjoys the great outdoors – hiking in particular – and after GDC he went and climbed a snow-covered mountain in Colorado. It’s rather fitting given that like climbing a mountain, both Comino and Dawson have worked their way up from game design students to fully-fledged games developers. While their journey is far from finished, they are happy to pass on their knowledge to young developers to help them achieve their dreams and reach the summit.

Affable by name, affable by nature.

Co-Founder & Managing Editor of WellPlayed. Sometimes a musician, lover of bad video games and living proof that Australians drink Foster's. Coach of Supercoach powerhouse the BarnesStreet Bois. Carlton, Burnley FC & SJ Sharks fan Get around him on Twitter @tightinthejorts