Becoming a #GamedevInterview

Becoming a Game Developer: lessons from the creators of Happy Chess!

@maxxgolbraykh writes regularly for IndieWatch. He’s the guy who wrote some of our best articles since we decided to give a go to blogging on game development. You might find it interesting what he has to say about how difficulty settings are bad design in games or his thoughts on why narrative does not define your game. With so many provocative ideas about his own field, Maxx is currently working with his team on a game of their own called Happy Chess. We interviewed him for learning more about his project and his team now that they are getting things ready for a future Happy Chess release.

Happy Chess Team
Maxx Golbraykh (second from the left) and his game development team.

IndieWatch: Could you tell me a bit about yourself? 

Maxx: My Name is Maxx Golbraykh, president of Replayable Games. I’ve wanted to design and develop video games since the very first day I was introduced to them at the age of 6 in Soviet Russia. Back then, and in Russia the concept of video games or any kind of interactive media simply didn’t exist. I was fortunate in that my mom’s sister in law ran one of the only computer schools in the entire country.

I got to visit her lab when I turned six and was immediately blown away by how exciting and intoxicatingly free it felt to control a character on a screen. How the level design added depth and nuance to every moment of those early games. I knew on that day that this is what I wanted to do (previously my ideal job was astronaut, cause that was big in Russia at the time, but this effortlessly superseded that dream).

Since then I’ve been working towards that dream job every day. Making mods, TI-82 games, custom FPS levels, newgrounds games, one off interactive projects and the like. I saw all of it as practice towards what would eventually become my very own gaming company.

Today I still work in software development (the not exciting sort), but it gives me a lot of room to expand my coding skills and keeps me on my toes. I worked for a shooting sim company for a few years and quickly decided that making games under other people’s direction was not for me. I would need to do it on my own terms.

Concept art for Happy Chess

IndieWatch: What are your hobbies? What did you do before going to the game industry? How did you meet your team?

Maxx: Most of my hobbies revolve around coding or playing video games. I was into audio development briefly but ultimately wanted to focus on game design.

Since starting Replayable Games, we’ve had some exceptionally talented and committed individuals join our passionate pursuit of game development. Most everyone on the team is someone I’ve worked with in the past and someone whose abilities and commitment I admire.

IndieWatch: How do you usually come up with your game ideas and how do you test them to know they’ll be fun and will work as expected?

Maxx: I’ve been working towards this point in my life since I was six, so there has been no shortage of ideas to work on between then and now. Happy Chess was originally conceived years and years ago during chess sessions where I felt the board could be more readable than it normally is. When we started Replayable Games, it was an easy choice for a first game based on the market research. We’re not reinventing the wheel because Chess is already a well-established game that people like. We’re simply adding some context to it, which we hope will draw in a fresh audience and introduce them to the timeless game.

Testing for fun is an interesting topic all its own. I think when game ideas come to me, I have to evaluate how long they stay interesting to me, personally. I have had the benefit of not starting work on them as soon as they develop, which provides some room to sit on them and see whether they stay fresh or just start feeling gimmicky.

Testing Happy Chess

IndieWatch: Why do you think your game is better than what’s been done so far with the digital counterparts of the chess game?

Maxx: Before starting on Happy Chess, we did a good amount of market research to see what else was already out there. There’s quite a few chess apps, but only a handful of cross-platform ones that allow android and iOS users to play with one another. Emotive Chess on the other hand is a brand new concept, so we’re hoping that will interest new players and perhaps some seasoned pros looking for something slightly new in this thousand-year-old game that simply wasn’t possible on a physical board.

The other thing our research revealed was that most Chess apps were very plainly designed. This makes sense, as it is a pretty serious game, so many of the representations of it are very monotone. We wanted to change this, however. Add some solid color contrasts, usability features and a UI that would focus more on players than individual games.

IndieWatch: What do you read or have read and you now recommend for beginners in game development?

Maxx: I read a lot of articles on sites such as this, as well as StackOverflow questions and answers. I’m a very hands-on developer, so I usually start by trying something and then researching from there, rather than reading about it first.

Having said that, anyone starting with Unity should certainly read what Unity itself puts out. Those guys do a phenomenal job of documenting not just facts and features, but best practices, tips and just very elaborate and well-written information about the software. They have a bunch of tutorial videos up as well. I would venture to say that anyone who completes all of their excellent tutorials is basically going to be a Unity master.

Happy Chess’ characters

IndieWatch: How do you think free software can help game developers nowadays? Are you using any free software for making Happy Chess?

Maxx: We’re using Unity to develop, which is free-ish. We pay for the subscription because we feel it is worth it, but for anyone just starting out or learning game dev, the free version of Unity is more than enough. I believe the Unreal engine has some pretty solid free development software as well, but we haven’t explored that avenue yet.

My biggest advice would be to do your best to not be intimidated by all of it. Don’t get bogged down by how overwhelming all of it can seem when you’re just starting out. Force yourself to download the free software you can get your hands on. Do some reading and tutorials. Stick with it. Before you know it, you’re already working on your very own video game.

IndieWatch: What advice would you offer the high school student who wants to pursue a career in the game industry if he/she was to follow a path similar to yours?

Maxx: To be honest, I dropped out of High School, and while that has worked out for me, I’m not sure that’s the kind of advice I should be handing down. Schooling aside, if you’re interested in development, just do it. The hardest part is getting that initial start, but mostly just because it feels so intimidating. Most people have the impression that it takes years to get started — and in some ways it very much does — yet in a more real way, it takes just hours.

Start programming, designing, or anything else that you enjoy doing, or even just enjoy the idea of doing. Practice and practical application of that practice is what it’s all about. Getting a job in the dev industry helps too. Especially if that job is boring and doesn’t burn you out on playing or developing video games on your own.

IndieWatch: What would you have done differently in the past in your career if you could? What do you intend to do now to achieve the goals you wish to?

Maxx: I think I’ve been pretty lucky to end up where I am today, so I’m not sure I would change anything as that might jinx things. It feels like I’ve met all the right and the most excellent people and have been given some really great opportunities to work on projects that advance my skills in the areas I needed to. I’ve certainly had some hardships here and there, but getting to this point is what I’ve always wanted, so I can’t say I would change a thing.

From here on, the way forward is clear. We’ll release Happy Chess for free and with the help of our fans, careful marketing and feature updates help our community grow into something substantial. We’ll keep supporting the game directly for at least one year, after which point the support required should work like a well oiled machine. At that point I’m very hopeful that I can find someone to work on it and continue improving it as I start on our next project Danger Dance.

Happy Chess art

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Fernando Telles

A PhD in Instructional Technology, a psychologist, an entrepreneur, and editor for!

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