Aside from an old Pong machine his parents kept buried and unplayed in the attic, Joe Mirabello grew up in a household with few gaming options. It wasn’t until he got his hands on a Gameboy and began playing the first handheld FPS, Faceball 2000, that his life took a serious turn into the world of gaming. After graduating from Richmond University Joe got into the industry pretty quickly and worked on major titles for both Iron Lore Entertainment and 38 Studios before taking the indie plunge.
When did you start making games professionally?
When I was in college, I got into modding things, like Dark Forces and Counter-Strike levels. I never published anything because I was doing terrible stuff, never anything that actually looked good or played well, but it was good to learn. I had my direction by the end of college, but I didn’t have the skill set quite yet. I’d learned a lot, but really, none of us did because no one was teaching that stuff then. Nowadays, you could probably find someone to teach you, but not in 2002.
After graduating, I was in a very good situation where I basically sat down with my mom and dad and was like “Look, give a me a year of working on my portfolio, let crash at home for a little bit.” It took some convincing that I could make a living in games, but they gave me a year and I got a job within 8 months after I started entering online contests and participating in a lot of forums, like Polycount.
It was an exciting 8 months, working on art contests from the time I woke to 3:00 a.m. There was a flip side to nobody teaching this stuff because when nobody knows how to do it, you are in demand the second you begin to learn it. Back then, all of the companies would watch these contests. Once I figured out that this was how you came up in the ranks, it was like I had my path. I know I lost a bunch of contests, but I might have won or come in second in one of them, because that was what got me noticed by Iron Lore Studios.
Why did you decide to leave the AAA Gaming scene and go Indie?
I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do it. We’d been saving up some money and I had been thinking about going indie for awhile. I had to look at it pragmatically. I was in a position where I had a mortgage but I didn’t have kids, my wife has a steady job, and we had a little bit of savings set aside, and I was already in a position where I didn’t have a job when 38 Studios closed. So, if i was ever going to do it, it made sense to do it then. In a another two years, maybe I wouldn’t have had all those openings. It certainly taught me a lot. It’s been a stressful road, but it’s also been really fun and exciting. I wouldn’t trade it.
Why make video games?
I’ve always enjoyed making stuff. Actually, I could probably be just as happy making comics or writing books. I wrote my own ebook, The Armpit of Evil, and I really enjoyed writing it. It was really silly but it was a learning experience. I just enjoy creating. When I decided I wanted to do something on my own, I thought “A lot of people know how to write and draw. The option that probably has the least competition is games. Let’s focus on the one that has the least competition and see where it goes.” I enjoy the idea of making something and it’s really more for me than for anyone else. It’s the stuff I want to read, the stuff I want to see. I could do that and have a fulfilling life.
What is the best / worst thing about running your own studio?
The worst thing is learning because you’re doing it all the time. When you’re learning something new, you can get discouraged very easily. You have to get used to running into walls like every single day. On the other hand, when things start coming together, it’s self-feeding. You can make snap decisions and turn the game’s direction on a dime really easily because it’s just you. You know exactly what needs to be done to make a change technically. The best thing is being super agile.
What is the biggest hurdle to making games professionally?
It’s not just one hurdle that you jump and you’re done, the tech hurdle is actually a thousand little hurdles. The industry is changing really fast and you’re constantly facing hurdles. Everyone gets discouraged, but it’s important to be able to be adaptive and be with OK with knowing that tech hurdles are going to get you down. You have to be resilient and recognize the difference between being discouraged for a day and being discouraged entirely. Technology may bring you down, but that won’t bring you down very long. You have to be constantly optimistic.
While a lot of games take themselves very seriously, you went with a comedic, self-aware tone in Tower of Guns. What made you decide to take this route?
When you see there’s a gap in the market, you can look at it two ways: either everyone else is chasing a different goal and no one sees it, or no one wants it. I feel like a comedy FPS can work just fine; I played No One Lives Forever and loved it! You can get away with making crazy decisions easier in a comedy. You couldn’t let the player get 100 double jumps in a serious game, it wouldn’t make sense. Plus, in most serious games, the seriousness is turned up to 11, which is the polar opposite of what I wanted to do with TOG. I wanted the action to be turned up to an absurd level, so therefore the story had to be absurd too. I think comedy is a good solution for games that have a lot of over-the-top action.
Tower of Guns is available digitally on PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and is free for PSN subscribers this month on PlayStation 4. While Joe was tight-lipped about his next project, he hinted towards another FPS that was “smaller and more focused than Tower of Guns.” For more information on Tower of Guns, or on future projects from Terrible Posture Games, check them out here.