Living dream as successful, independent video game developer

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Calgary is known for a great many things, several of which are rooted in oil and gas, the Calgary Stampede and general western culture. What it’s not usually synonymous with, though, is video games.

However, the community is there and those immersed in it say it’s growing stronger by the day. Among one of the several notable talents emerging is Calvin French, a University of Calgary graduate who quit his job as a computer programmer to make video games full-time in the summer of 2012.

The game that made it happen for French was The Real Texas, which, in addition to being recently added to Steam – the world’s largest online game store – also paved the road for French to land a big-time contract with Devolver Digital, a notable publishing company that has produced titles like Duke Nukem 3D and Serious Sam 3.

A second look at success

Calvin French’s story. Produced by Brandon McNeil

That being said, success in the gaming world was never really defined by dollars, but more on quality and achievements.

“There’s an extreme amount of freedom with independent game development,” says Sheldon Ketterer, a University of Calgary student and active member of the game developer community. “You can basically do what you want, set your own goals and define success in your own way. It’s one of the great freedoms of independent development.”

French, who wrote back in a follow-up email, agreed to a very similar degree.

“It’s my observation that people love any chance to delineate things as being black or white, or put them into boxes,” he says. “We do this with other people, which I think is a source of a lot of misery, and also with our own ideas of success or failure.”

He adds that he cannot understand why people grade their success on how much money they’ve made.

French now makes his full-time living developing and selling video games and got pretty successful at it. Ketterer says French one of the most well known in Calgary because of the interesting things he creates.

French works out of his shared office space, located off of 32nd Ave NW and Centre St. The office itself is quaint and modest. With the main room housing two separate desks. French’s space is tucked into a neat little corner, free of clutter and mess.

For the love of gaming

video MG 5025Calvin French develops video games from home and does most of the work himself.

Photo by Brandon McNeilFrench, 34, says his love of gaming was spawned while attending Lord Beaverbrook High School in Calgary. Then a socially awkward misfit of sorts, French would make games on an old Commodore VIC20 — an archaic piece of equipment compared to what we have today.

“There wasn’t really an easy way to do it,” French says.

“You don’t have to be a computer programmer to do games… but when I was in junior high, people that made games then were basically computer geeks.”

Much like other people his age who grew up in the golden age of video games, French looked to classic titles like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. and Ultima for inspiration. French’s favourite game, Ultima VI, eventually formed the basis for The Real Texas.

French’s earlier attempts included Legacy Forest, a role playing game based off the Super Nintendo game Secret of Mana, and Venture the Void, a space-based game that French notes as not doing very well at all.

“The textures are low resolution and everything is kind of jagged, but I actually worked really hard to make it consistent,” he says.

Going solo

Jennifer Dawe, a local pixel artist and affiliate with Calgary Game Developers —
a meet-up group designed to bring that community some unity— gushed over French’s dedication and work ethic in getting out his offerings.

“The way that he’s designed it is brilliant,” she says. “He’s one of those programmers you meet once in your life and if you ever get an opportunity to work with him, you do not say no.”

French does his work almost entirely by himself, in stark contrast to some of the other bigger names in Calgary like Codeheard Studio and LeGrudge and Rugged.

Working alone gives French full creative control. It’s also provided him the opportunity to develop a work-life balance that a lot of developers are still learning. It’s widely agreed that being a workaholic generally comes with the territory in this business.

“I remember he told me ‘You know, it’s really cool to get your game out there and have people play it but never, ever pass up a possibility to hang out with people and have a good time,” Dawe says.

The developer community

That very same aspect of his personality was one of the things that inspired Dawe to become involved with Calgary Game Developers.

In addition to their online groups, developers also host frequent “Gamejams,” meet-ups bringing developers all across the city into one room to share their work and ideas with one another.

Currently, the group has 81 listed members, with French being one of the more successful ones.

“The biggest thing is to stand out because it’s really crowded right now. There’s so many people making games and you’re trying to reach a global audience,” French says.

The future is bright both for French and the video game developer community in Calgary, especially if this kind of light is continually shed on the work that’s being done in the city. That, combined with Dawe’s community outreach efforts, will no doubt bring bigger and better things for Calgary’s digital image.

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