Meet the Team: Matt Heinzen

Matt Heinzen has a big role as lead developer at Big John Games. What does that mean? Well, a lot of programming. We chatted with Matt to find out more about him -- and how badly he'd like to make a sequel to Thorium Wars.

What is your history with the studio?

I started during the summer between my first and second years of doing a masters degree in computer science at the University of Minnesota. I started part-time and became full-time after I graduated. My first project was Trophy Bass 2007. At the time it was going to be Trophy Bass 2006, but it got pushed back.

I have a pretty strong math and physics background, so my first job was to work on the fishing line physics. After I did that I worked on a lot of fish physics and AI for that project.

Is this the first time you've worked in the industry?

Yes. Before then I didn't have any games experience. I hadn't actually intended to go into game development but this opportunity came up.

What's your favorite game that you've worked on?

Definitely Thorium Wars. That's our futuristic, sci-fi vehicle shooter that we put up on DSiWare. It's a game that is most like the type of game that I like to play in my own time. It's one of the few true action adventure style games that we've done.

Do you have a favorite game series or gaming experience?

My favorite game series is The Legend of Zelda -- I love almost every entry. I'm also a big fan of Metroid. They both cover a lot of the aspects of combining action with exploration and adventure. Those are the things I enjoy most in gaming.

What are you playing right now?

Xenoblade Chronicles. I started playing that last year when it came out, took a bit of a break once the Wii U came out, but then I decided I should get back and finish Xenoblade before the next big crop of Wii U games comes out. It's a huge game. I don't have as much time to play games as I used to -- probably a few hours a week.

What advice would you give someone seeking the a job as a lead developer and programmer?

Everyone has a different path. A good university degree program is a good idea. There's obviously been people who are successful programmers without that, but if you really want to get in a high development role where you can do not just game coding but things like engine coding [it's important]. We have to do a little bit of all of that here at Big John Games because we're a small studio. For our work on the DS and 3DS, there aren't a lot of commercial engines available which take care of a lot of that core engine code for you. A combination of a degree focused on math and physics and programming experience, whether that's working on your own projects, open source software, internships, or other types of jobs during school are all great ways to go.

What have you learned working at Big John Games?

Some of the business aspects and game design. I've learned more about what goes into making good gameplay, and good game mechanics, learned the value of respecting the mechanics that are in place. Some times it's easy to say that you should try something original. But without really understanding why certain mechanics get used regularly, you don't necessarily understand what diverting from those mechanics might do that might make a  game worse.

When you're a lower profile developer the name, the marketing, the screenshots -- those are the types of things that really sell the game.

What do you do in your free time when you aren't playing games?

I like reading fantasy and sci-fi. I have two small kids, so a lot of my time is spent with them.

What do you think about the industry right now?

I think it's a very exciting time in the industry. It's hard to see all of the studios that are closing down as it happens pretty regularly. I'm not as pessimistic as some people are about the industry. I don't see Triple A going away. I don't necessarily think that the big budgets are healthy for the industry, but at the same time we see very similar things happening with movies where budgets keep getting bigger. And while, at times, it may compromise the integrity of the art in the industry, it hasn't hurt the movie business in terms of making money or stopping people from wanting to see movies.

I think we'll see a continuation of big-budget, Triple A games, but maybe not as many.

If you could make your dream game, what would it be?

The games I've been dreaming about for quite a while now would be a sequel to Thorium Wars, or a spiritual successor. We've come up with a lot of ideas over the years since we've done Thorium Wars, and we have a lot of ideas for how to expand on the universe or create a universe with similar mechanics but expanded gameplay. I have ideas both for the 3DS and Wii U that I'd like to explore in terms of mechanics and controls.