Alexander Winn has had a passion for telling stories across various mediums for nearly his entire life. In high school he created The Codex, a well-received short film based on the Halo video game franchise. And after receiving an education from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Winn expanded his talents by learning programming and app development. One of the games he would make under his company Edgeworks Entertainment is the well-received game, TerraGenesis (Android and iOS). Wanting to learn more about his background and TerraGenesis, I was able to interview Winn for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: What were some of the video games you loved playing as a kid? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Alexander Winn: I played the usual spread of classics growing up, from Mario Kart to Battletanx to Goldeneye to Halo, but my passion was always in strategy games. I probably put thousands of hours each into Civilization and Alpha Centauri and Homeworld and Master of Orion. I loved the experience of building a civilization, watching it grow and evolve, and telling a story that emerged from between the actions of my faction and the computer. It was never the same each time, you never knew where it was going, and by the end you had not only enjoyed a compelling game but you had also gained pride of authorship in a sprawling epic adventure.
At the time I was focused on filmmaking as my dream career, but looking back I can see that I was learning the basics of game design by making custom scenarios in Civilization, exploring the different faction play-styles in Alpha Centauri, etc. I definitely revisit those from time to time. Some of them are still my favorite games to this day!
Yanes: While you were in high school you created the incredibly popular Halo fan-film, “The Codex.” Not many high schoolers would (or even could) direct a fan-film of this quality, so what inspired you to take on a project like this?
Winn: I was a big fan of the comedy Machinima series Red vs Blue, but it always struck me as kind of a waste for the HALO game engine. Comedy is great, but HALO tells an epic and sweeping story of drama and action and the fate of humanity. It seemed so obvious to me that someone ought to tell a story like that within the same game engine, and who better to do it than me? It was a huge undertaking, alongside many of my best friends from school, but I learned so much about storytelling and building a community, and the payoff was more than I ever could have imagined. I still have friends to this day that I met as fans of The Codex.
Yanes: You were educated at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, which is one of the best film schools in the country. Yet, you’ve pivoted from film to game development. What is it about video games that attracted you?
Winn: I’ve often said that my real passion lies in telling stories and creating worlds. I used to joke that if the Great Future Fairy came down and told me that my destiny was to revolutionize radio dramas for the modern world, I’d be all for it. The specific form the stories and projects take isn’t as important to me as creating something that entertains people and transports them into a new experience. For a while I thought movies were the best way for me to do that, but even shorts and independent movies are incredibly expensive and complicated to make. As I learned more and more programming in my spare time, I began to realize that independent developers can make incredibly polished and successful products without any budget and minimal outside help.
I do still hope to get back into filmmaking eventually. (There’s a reason my company is called “Edgeworks Entertainment” rather than “Edgeworks Interactive.”) But in the meantime, games allow me the freedom to tell the stories I want to tell, without a giant Hollywood budget and a crew of thousands.
Yanes: Given that you are a self-taught programmer, what advice do you have for people currently learning how to program? For those interested in game development, are there any programming languages people should specialize in?
Winn: For programming languages, I highly recommend using Unity with C#. It’s cross-platform, so you only have to make the game once and you can export it for iOS, Android, PC/Mac, Xbox/Playstation, everything you need. You don’t want to get stuck making a game natively for one platform, having it take off, and then being stuck having to completely remake it from the ground up to bring it to another platform. (That’s what happened with TerraGenesis!)
As for advice, I always share the same trick that worked so well for me: stick with the skill, but don’t stick to any one project for too long. TerraGenesis was my 25th app on the App Store, and some of them I made in a weekend or even an afternoon. Make apps, make games, but focus on finishing them and moving onto the next. If you take two years making your first game, it won’t be nearly as good as if you spent the first year making 15 games and then spent the next year on that passion project. You learn so much from taking a project to completion, if you keep cranking stuff out you’ll rapidly find yourself taking on more and more ambitious projects, and knocking them out of the park.
Yanes: You are currently based in Los Angeles. What are your thoughts on the indie gaming scene in L.A.? Given the cost of living in the area, do you think it is hospitable to indie game developers?
Winn: The thing is, in the age of the Internet you don’t need to live anywhere in particular to be a developer. Sure, living in Silicon Valley could help you with your commute, but you can live almost anywhere in the world and still publish your game through the App Store and Google Play. If you’ve got a reason to come to LA, it’s a cool town and you should go for it. But never let where you’re living get in the way of become a developer, it’s just not that much of an obstacle anymore.
Yanes: I learned of you and Edgeworks Entertainment by playing TerraGenesis. What was the inspiration for this game?
Winn: I was hugely inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) and Andy Weir’s The Martian, along with games like Alpha Centauri and TV shows like Firefly. I’ve been saying for years that someone should make a game about terraforming, where you had to balance all the different factors against each other, and simultaneously develop the local culture into a thriving society independent of Earth.
At a certain point, after I’d made 24 apps in my spare time, it occurred to me that “someone” might as well be me!
Yanes: You clearly put a lot of thought into how a planet would react to terraforming. How much research did you conduct? Were there any specific sources you turned to for information?
Winn: A lot of the research was really just me being interested in the topic, and learning about it because I found it interesting. I did have to do some specific research for the nitty-gritty stuff, like surface temperatures of different moons or the equations that went into calculating heat retained by an atmosphere, that sort of thing. But yeah, I’m enough of a nerd that a lot of the stuff I’d just picked up along the way of following my interests!
Yanes: I deeply enjoy many of the little touches in TerraGenesis, such as the mysterious humanoid seen walking outside of the domes and the stone sculptures/carving spotted during storms. Why did you add these elements to the game? Are there any plans to connect these elements into a larger story?
Winn: One of the really important things I wanted to convey was that you aren’t just transforming a planet, you are transforming a society. Just as the people who came to America may have started out as Europeans or Africans or Asians but eventually became Americans, so will the people who settle Mars start out as American or Russian or Chinese, but they’ll eventually become Martian. It will be a new society, separate from Earth with its own fashions, cuisine, movie genres, history, music styles, accent, maybe even language.
I tried to add elements into TerraGenesis that hinted at this process, with the development of local folklore and urban myths. In the same way that people have imagined Bigfoot and Yetis and other half-seen figures in the forests of Earth, maybe people on Mars will imagine a hiker out on the surface, always seen out of the corner of the eye and never quite recognized. It was a way to try to bring people into the world of this new evolving society.
As for bringing it together into a larger story, you’ll just have to stay tuned!
Yanes: When people finish playing TerraGenesis, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Winn: I hope people walk away with a sense of excitement and optimism for the future of our species, and a passion for the science and ingenuity that we’ll be using as we reach out among the stars. It’s going to be bigger and more challenging than anything we’ve ever done, but the opportunities are beyond anyone’s ability to imagine. Science and exploration aren’t the domain of a few stuffy old men in white coats, they belong to everyone. If TerraGenesis can convey even just a glimpse of what we are capable of, both as a species and as individuals, this whole endeavor will have succeeded.
Yanes: Finally, what are some other projects you are working on that people can look forward to?
Winn: Right now we’re focused on TerraGenesis 5.0, which will bring a set of seven playable worlds called Historical Earths, ranging from the Time of the Dinosaurs to the Ice Age and even the future, along with a new system for managing indigenous alien populations called Natives. We’ve got a ton of fantastic features in 5.0, many of which we haven’t even announced yet. It’s going to be a huge update, and I can’t wait to get it into the hands of our players! Beyond that we’re playing it close to the chest for now, but I think our fans will have a lot to be excited about for a long while to come!