You probably will not recognise the name Chris Condon. You may not even have heard of his highly-respected Australia-based games studio Con Artist Games. But, if you have taken more than a passing interest in Flash gaming in recent years, you are bound to have come across some of his games.
For Chris - or Con, as he prefers to be called - is responsible for some of the most popular games on the web. His two most famous games are The Last Stand and Warfare. The Last Stand and its sequel The Last Stand 2 are zombie-themed defend-your-base games, while the Warfare titles (Warfare 1917 and Warfare 1944) are highly-polished war strategy games. Con has also created some lesser-known titles such as action RPG Sin Mark and futuristic survival game Juggerdome.
He has also partnered with other game developers on blockbuster titles such as catapult game Crush the Castle, on which he worked closely with Joey Betz of Armor Games. His latest game - Last Stand: Union City, a sprawling RPG zombie slash and dasher - is currently nearing completion, and will be released shortly.
Compared with the huge number of games churned our by some developers, Con's oeuvre might not look that impressive. There are, after all, only a handful of games in his portfolio. But, as the old saying goes, quantity is not as important as quality, and when you measure Con's games by the quality of their graphics and game play mechanics, you quickly realise that they are among the most polished and in-depth Flash games on the web. They are so slick that they wouldn't look out of place on a console.
If you haven't guessed by now, Con is a perfectionist. He wouldn't dream of publishing a game before it was ready, and if that means he releases fewer games each year than many other developers, that's fine. It is not after all proving a commercial hindrance. Far from it. In a sea of mediocre Flash games, Con's games stand out like shining beacons of quality. People flock to them.
Con recently asked a fan to tally up how many times his games had been played. The figure came to well over 100 million plays. To put that into perspective, famous sporting teams like Manchester United or the New York Giants would have to play a match each week for around 20 years to achieve that many live views of their games.
Con kindly agreed to answer some questions for us:
How did the name Con Artist come about?
It was a long running joke from my old job that when I started a company it would be called Con Artist Productions. We speculated that I would have trouble with banks and the tax office with a seemingly unscrupulous name.
How did you get into game development?
Long story. First console at 10, started programming text adventures at 12, spent my teens making maps for Doom through to Unreal. It was the map making that actually led me to where I'm now. It started with a chance meeting with Cliff Bleszinksi (lead designer at Epic) on IRC. He'd dropped into the semi-official Unreal map making channel to chat with the community of mappers. I fronted up to him and asked him if I could send him some work to look at and he actually said yes! After a few emails back and forth it turned out he liked my work and he hired me to work as a community content creator. That was the point where I thought "Hey I can actually make a go of this".
After that I spent seven years in advertising, working as team lead with a very talented group of Flash artists making some great commercial Flash games. During that time I learned enough and went out on my own to make The Last Stand. I ended up winning an Armor Games competition with that game and they offered me a contract. So I've been making Flash games full-time for nigh on three years now.
You appear to take a different approach to most Flash game developers. Rather than releasing lots of games over a year, you seem to focus on releasing only one or two and spend a lot of time making them really polished? What are your reasons for taking this approach?
People are very discerning these days when it comes to content on the web, even if it's free. I believe that the extra time spent on polish and presentation in my games is what manages to carry them so far. Because when it comes to brass tacks, the game designs aren't amazingly revolutionary. There are so many games out there that get passed over (by me included) because the extra time hasn't been spent on making them look just that bit better. If you look at big mainstream games, it's the same way.
On your upcoming game Last Stand: Union City, you have involved loads of gamer players and testers at an early stage in the development process. What were your reasons for getting people involved so early, and would you do it again?
It's been... interesting. It was a combination of things. I started development back in November 2009 and announced the game's release shortly after. As production went along, it dawned on me that the game was going to be huge and would take a lot longer than I'd originally intended as I'd announced a Q1 release for 2010. So it was a combination of the game potentially being so large I couldn't test it on my own and satiating the masses a little until release.
What it has done is provide some really valuable feedback. In the past, I'd given my near completed games out to a handful of friends to try out. With a large number of them not being gamers, I'd figured that I was getting great feedback. What I was forgetting though is that my audience is aged between 10 and 18, not a bunch of old farts in their early 30s. With the feedback coming from the actual audience, I've been able to cater to them a lot better.
Would I do it again? It depends on the game. For something this large, it works, because the audience hopefully won't burn itself out on what the game has to offer before it comes out. For a smaller game, I can see players thinking "I've seen everything on offer here, I won't bother playing the final version".
Do you do both the art and programming for your games. Which of these two disciplines do you prefer?
I do. Which I prefer depends on the day. It tends to fall into two types of day. Days where my brain is working, I do programming. Days where it's not, it's art. At heart, I always lean to the art side of things. It's just something I've always done so it's kind of second nature. That said, I am loving the challenge of programming. I really enjoy working out how to do things that I've never done before.
Your games are consistently voted as among the best on the web. Why do you think that is?
I can only put it down to the game themes: war and zombies. These seem to hit a nerve with the people I'm making these games for. They're also big interests of mine, so I guess that shows through.
How does it feel to know that millions of people have played your games?
Recently I had a fan tally the plays my games have had across the major game portals and the number came to well over 100 million. It really blows my mind; the reach of Flash games is enormous and I'd never imagined that I would be creating something for such a huge audience.
Do you think games can be considered to be art?
I'm the wrong guy to be asking. If my games were art, they'd be the art equivalent of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. I make big, dumb, action filled games with not a lot of substance. End of the day, game creation is an art-form that encompasses every creative component that a film does, but you can dictate what happens in your time with it. Are movies art? Sure. Why can't games be.
Which of your games are you most proud of?
Probably the Warfare series. Visually and technically, they feel like the most accomplished games I've completed. They're also the ones that I personally enjoy replaying. If we're talking unfinished products though, The Last Stand: Union City is miles ahead of anything I've done before.
What do you consider your most successful game?
It's definitely the Last Stand 2. It was a culmination of all the things I wanted to put in the first game that I either didn't have time to include or didn't have the technical knowledge to implement. But it really hit a chord with a huge amount of players and still does even two and a half years after its release.
What game are you working on at present? Is there anything you can tell us about it?
I'm eight months of development time into The Last Stand: Union City. It's a zombie survival RPG in a side scrolling open world. Kind of a cross between something like Castlevania and Fallout 3, but with zombies. The core of it revolves around scavenging, guns and wanton violence. With 35 base weapons and 160 variants, there's plenty of ways to decapitate a zombie.
Is it possible to make a good living out of developing Flash games?
Definitely. But it's a long road. I'd been learning how to make different aspects of making an entire game for years before I had the confidence to make the leap from working full time. I took six months of free time, nights and pretty much every weekend to make The Last Stand while I was working as an advertising producer. Once I got that out and I'd made some money, I was able to jump across.
Are their any game developers whose work you particularly admire?
All my idols are game studios who're working on non-casual titles. Blizzard make beautiful and very engrossing games that are some of the most realised works I know. I'm also a big fan of Relic for their real time strategy games Company of Heroes and the Dawn of War series - they're brilliant evolutions of that genre.
In terms of casual games, the rest of the Armor Games team is filled with great developers. Joey Betz is a wunderkind. I've worked with him on both the Crush the Castle games and the man is a programming guru.
What is your favourite Flash game by another developer?
To be honest, I don't actually play that many Flash games. The one that probably stands out most is Warlords by Ben Olding; it was the inspiration for Warfare 1917 so I at least owe him a mention. It's a great strategy game with some serious depth under what is a seemingly simple exterior.
What are your plans for the future?
To keep making games that I want to play. It sounds like a pretty simple plan, but I feel I need to stick to my guns and continue making games that I think are enjoyable. Once The Last Stand: Union City is done, I plan on shifting genres and creating some new intellectual property that's not related to anything that I have existing.