When we last spoke with Michael Hicks in 2013, he had just graduated from Full Sail University’s Game Development program and was eager to begin developing a game idea he came up with while in school. Nearly two years later, that game has arrived.
Pillar is a uniquely thoughtful indie game that challenges players to lead a team of different characters through a series of mini games in an intimate, snowy town. At first glance, the game may just appear to be a collection of puzzles, but the thought process behind the characters and concept of the title itself goes deeper than what appears on the surface.
“I wanted to express how a relationship I had in real life felt. I thought words could never do it justice, and believed I could express it through gameplay mechanics, showing how different characters interact with each other,” says Michael. “As time went on, the game grew into more. I started adding ideas from the Myers-Briggs personality test, eventually covering all of its main traits. I was also inspired by the film Magnolia. From there, Pillar became a bunch of mini games that add up to the expression of a bigger message.”
The backstory behind Pillar has been one of the reasons that the game has garnered attention from gaming publications since its PS4/Xbox 360 release in February. And while most game developers have a more passive role with media coverage and promotion once they’ve finished coding the game, Michael has been fully hands-on with Pillar every step of the way.
“Marketing and public relations is really a full-time job. I currently only rely on word of mouth, so there’s no paid stuff. So it’s a lot of keeping up your relationship with the press, meeting new people, researching new writers that might be interested in your stuff, and going to conventions to show the game,” he says. “Being an independent game developer is definitely a huge work load, but I feel like it’s rewarding in the end because everything has a personable touch.”
While Pillar’s art was done by Portugal-based artist Gonçalo Antunes, Michael handled every other aspect of the game, including the composition of the soundtrack. Inspired by the ambient music of Brian Eno and groups like Sigur Rós, Michael aimed to create a soundtrack that was enjoyable yet nonintrusive to the game’s intense puzzle-solving.
“I’m proud of the soundtrack. It’s the best music I’ve made,” he says. “I can actually listen to it for enjoyment. Usually listening to old songs is like looking at embarrassing photographs.”
Working in a completely independent operation may have its advantages, but Michael is quick to dismiss any misconception that it’s an easy path filled with immediate rewards and financial prosperity.
“If you’re making independent stuff solely for money, you should probably rethink what you’re doing. I think the goal of sustaining myself financially off of independent gaming is realistic, but it takes a lot of work to get there,” Michael says. “I get a different type of reward from doing this. Pillar has impacted a lot of people and there’s been some really wonderful feedback and reviews that have been validating to read. To see people take away the things I hoped they would is a special thing. On the flip side, there’s been people who don’t understand the game at all, but I’ve learned a lot from their comments that I hope to incorporate into my next game.”
Making games has been a part of Michael’s life since before he even attended Full Sail, and if he’s learned anything along the way, it’s that the path to success – especially on an indie level – can only be built upon a strong foundation of hard work and diligence.
“The formal training at Full Sail helped me learn the proper ways to program and save time on repetitive programming tasks. I also learned to understand code at a deeper level,” he says. “I love the creative process – discovering new things about myself and game design as I make new projects. It’s also a beautiful thing to see people have a relationship with your project and to watch it affect their lives. It’s why I do what I do. I think the most important thing in life is to find your passion. If you’re truly passionate and never give up, you will succeed.”
For more info on Pillar head over to the Steam website.