Aaron Chapin is one of the best video game developers in the city. Most recently, he had been employed as Lead Developer at Cipher Prime, and Chapin has also worked at Burst Online and was one of the original founders of Space Whale Studios (and is now the full owner). Chapin is a prolific developer and an avid gamer, and Philadelphia is lucky to have him. I got a chance to ask Chapin some questions. Even though we’ve been friends for years, I learned more about him once again, as I do every time we have a talk.
So what did Chapin do at Cipher Prime? What does Lead Developer mean? “At a larger company, that would mean that I’m in charge of a bunch of people, but there were only four of us at Cipher Prime. Out of those four, two were my bosses, and one was me.” In the smaller environment of an indie studio, “what it really means is that whenever something needs to happen with our games that involves code, I’m the one that has to do it.” But he got to do more than just “ports and fixes” – “I’m usually the lynchpin for code architecture and design,” he said about new projects.
Before Cipher Prime, Chapin was at Burst Online Entertainment, where he started as an intern, working full-time once he graduated from Drexel. Before he left in 2012, he was “working on all aspects for WarMage Battlegrounds,” which was Burst’s main game. But before he was working at Burst, he had a smaller project that he started while doing his undergrad: Space Whale Studios. “Working with the Space Whale guys was honestly one of the smartest things I’ve ever done with my career,” Chapin said about the indie group that brought the world Return All Robots. “That is an impressive feat by itself,” he said about shipping the game. They worked their butts off, not just working on the game itself, but also going to many local events (Gamescape, Too Many Games, and MAGFest) to show the game off and to see “if anyone else thought it was actually fun.” Chapin also walked away with some important lessons: “I also learned about the types of people that you can and should work with, and what to look for in potential business partners.”
Chapin is also really into doing Game Jams, and has an impressive resume of games that have come out of them. What has his experience been like? One of the most important things he’s learned is that “you get better at something by doing it a lot, and not getting too hung up on imperfections. Imperfections go away the better you get.” So he’s been making a conscious effort to work on more games outside of work, and specifically he’s been focusing on what the artists do. “For game jams, I usually work solo, so I have to do the art as well as the code…I’m not a great artist, nor do I expect to be. By working on that side, though, I’m learning how artists get things from their heads into the game. So later, when I’m working with an artist, I can use their vocabulary, and we can work together a lot better.”
What’s one of the best things about doing Game Jams? “You have a hard deadline. Especially with personal projects with no end-date planned, it’s easy to get mired and lose focus. With a jam, though, you need to get it playable, and fun, and fast. Plus, once the jam is over, you can walk away from the project and never deal with again. This realization lets you stop caring about perfection, and start caring about just getting it done.” Return All Robots, Shimsham (one of Cipher Prime’s most recent games), and Chapin’s “personal project that’s closest to shipping,” DragRace, were all made during Game Jams. “Games are all about finding fun, and Jams make you find fun quickly. So if you’re someone who wants to get into developing games as a hobby or a career, I have no stronger recommendation than to start jamming.”
So where can you find all of Chapin’s games? I’m glad you asked. The latest Cipher Prime game is Intake (which you can now get on iPad!). Chapin has a personal website (“It’s awful, but it’s mine,” he said), and he’s also started posting his Game Jam games to itch.io at http://realtalk.itch.io, though it’s not a complete list of his games. You can play:
Return All Robots (recently re-released for free on PC!)
DragRace (currently in Alpha)
ARE (made at Global Game Jam 2014 with Andrei Marks, Parker Whitney, and Jake O’Brien)
Ghost Bird (made at Philly Game Jam 2013 with Andrei Marks and Jackie Grubner, and my person favorite)
Pathei Mathos (made at Global Game Jam 2012 by himself)
ShovelNose Screamer (made at Philly Game Jam 2018 by the Space Whale team, and would later become Return All Robots)
Which games is he most proud of? That is, of course, a trick question, because he’s proud of so many: “I’m proud of Shovelnose Screamer because it became a full game (RAR), and because it was the largest jam team I’ve ever worked on. I’m proud of Pathei Mathos because it’s the first jam I ever did by myself (and finished!). Power Jacker Defense was the first jam I did where it was all 3d assets I’d done by myself that actually worked. With ARE, I finally got to start playing around with Procedural Level Generation, which is super fun. I could go on, but those are the ones that come to mind immediately.”
And he doesn’t have any real favorite game that he’s worked on, either. “Return All Robots was a total trial by fire, and I wouldn’t know half of what I know if I hadn’t done it. Intake and Splice are by far the games that I’ve worked on that have achieved the most commercial success, and that’s a great feeling. Shimsham was a game that we shipped in a month, which is just nuts. WarMage is so massive and complex, it’s impressive than anything got done! Your games are like your kids. They’re a lot of work, they’re all great, but you can’t pick your favorite, and occasionally when you’re trying to get some sleep, they sh*t the bed and you have to drop everything to deal with their problems.”
So what’s next for Chapin? He’s currently working as a contractor for Cipher Prime at the Philly Game Forge. He also wants to finish up DragRace “before the holiday season.”
Aaron Chapin is amazing. If you ever want to meet him, all you need to do is show up at Dev Night, and you can watch him perform his magic live.