What happens when you merge an artist and a game developer? You get Matej Jan. We had the pleasure of interviewing Matej recently where he spoke to us about what drew him into the field of game development and what he hopes to see newcomers in this industry think about.
One of his own game projects was also started via crowdfunding. LiveEdu is using crowdfunding via Indiegogo to help expand our premium project tutorial catalogue. The success of this campaign will hopefully lead to more developers who think about game development in the same way that Matej does.
Matej Jan is a game developer and artist, known for his pixel art illustrations, and his blog Retronator, where he writes about pixel art and indie games. His own game Pixel Art Academy—an adventure that teaches you how to draw—got funded on Kickstarter in 2015. With it Matej advocates for learning with video games, as well as lifelong learning in general.
Real Name: Matej Jan
Alter ego: Retro
Location: All over the world (lately United States, originally from Slovenia)
Power/Abilities: Saturated colors
Profession: Game developer, writer/editor
1. Hello Matej “Retro” Jan, it is a pleasure to have you here. Can you tell us more about yourself?
Thank you for having me. I’m a 33-year old game developer from Slovenia. We had a computer since I was 2, so as soon as I could read, write, and type, I started making games with my older brother. He taught me how to code, while I learned how to draw on my own. I ended up studying Computer Science but continued to do art in my free time. 5 years ago I moved to the United States, to work as an illustrator and coder at University of California, Berkeley. After a couple years in the San Francisco Bay Area, I decided to go back to school, this time as a graduate student in Education.
2. What motivated you to pursue a Master’s degree in Learning, Design and Technology from Stanford?
As much as I love playing games, as an adult, I have less patience for the ones that just pass the time. Games, as an interactive medium, have this great capability to facilitate rich learning experiences. What most games have you do though is fighting and killing, neither of which is useful to me outside game worlds. I went to Stanford to study how to best design video games to learn real-life skills.
3. Creating art is something you like to do, can you tell us more about that?
I couldn’t live without creating things, my own happiness is measured by it. If at the end of the day something exists that didn’t when I woke up, I’ve had a good day. I value creative output and progress above all else. I learn all the time, because a more powerful and diverse skillset will enable me to create things that nobody’s done before. By being a creator, when I see something that’s missing in the world, I can go out and just do it.
4. What else do you like to do other than “creating art”?
I balance it out with sports. With physical activity you don’t create anything per se, but you increase your own ability. I’ve done rollerblading, skateboarding, and breakdancing in the past. At 29 I started seriously practicing gymnastics every day. This year I did the same with surfing for 2 months. When I do sports I forget about everything else in life.
5. We see you also have some teaching and developer experience, can you briefly tell us about your experience as an instructor and as a developer?
It all started in the early 2000s when it was popular to make Photoshop tutorials online for things like “fire letters effect” or “rusty metal texture”. It was a new field so everything was yet to be invented. The internet democratized knowledge and teaching—if you had the skills, you had a place to share it with others. I was teaching game development in person as well at the university, but most of my educational content goes online. There’s no reason in the post-YouTube world for (non-interactive) lectures to be repeated every single year. I’m all for the flipped classroom. Right now we waste so much time that could be spent in discussions and practical work.
6. Tell us more about Pixel Art Academy. Are you working on other projects as well?
Pixel Art Academy is an adventure game where your character joins an art school to learn pixel art—think of it like Harry Potter, but with drawing instead of magic. It’s very early in development and plays like an 80s text adventure. Eventually it will be more like Monkey Island or The Sims, but for now, I’m focused on developing the underlying technology and storylines.
I’m a solo developer so it’s taking a lot of time. I basically live and breathe this game—my friends only see me when we go to the gym. But I do switch it up by also writing for my blog Retronator.
7. We also found out that you have a Patreon page? Do you think getting crowdfunded ensures proper growth as a professional?
Completely. Crowdfunding basically means you’re getting paid directly from the end users. It’s just you and the people who (will) enjoy your product or service. If they find the exchange and relationship valuable, you’ll get paid. I think that’s great for professional growth—much better than being paid a fixed salary as a cog in a big machine where responsibility gets lost in layers and layers of management.
8. Game Development is a big industry. Do you think that crowdfunding also plays an important role in its overall growth?
Yes, it’s been the catalyst for innovation and diversity, in the face of ever-increasing budgets and copycat designs that we see from most AAA studios. It enables game developers a better chance at bringing their ideas to life.
Getting money in advance does have its problems, however, and not every crowdfunding story has a happy ending. It’s based on promises and expectations, which is a recipe for bad breakups when they’re broken. That’s why in general I’m a more inclined towards Patreon than Kickstarter. You’re giving support for what a creator is doing right now, instead of an outcome years in the future.
9. What is your career advice to intermediates on LiveEdu.tv who are interested in improving their practical game design skills?
I wrote this at the end of my editorial “Where did all the good games go?“:
“The majority of today’s indie games, what we see are derivatives of Super Mario Bros. and Diablo over and over and over again.
Is running and jumping the most essential mechanic to what your game’s theme is? Is fighting through a slew of enemies really what your world is about?
My real life involves 0% of fighting and shooting. Instead, it is full of creativity, exploration, learning, relationships, ambitions, athleticism, fears, love, art, technology, space, inspiration … Can you help me tackle these topics?
And so I urge you, game developers. Don’t just default to designing a game where you fight bad guys as you make your way from point A to point B for its own sake. Dream bigger! What is your game about? What are you trying to tell? What is the player taking away from the experience?
When you have that figured out and your game mechanics match, the world will be richer for it.”
10. Last, but not the least, is there anything else you want to say to conclude this interview?
My top 10 life wisdom:
- Don’t listen to your parents
- Don’t listen to me either
- Never stop learning
- You’re never too old
- Talent doesn’t matter
- Do what you love
- Never give up
- Money doesn’t matter
- Be open
- Help others
There’s a story behind each of these, but that’ll have to wait for another time.