Published on January 1st, 2013 | by John Fuller2
Why Games Can Matter So Much: Alex Norton and Visual Outbreak
Many indie developers claim that creating video games is their life, and Alex Norton at Visual Outbreak will make similar statements. However, this 25-year-old from Brisbane, Australia, can actually claim that making games is a matter of life and death. Norton nearly died while working on his game, Malevolence: The Sword of Ahkranox, but he has remained committed to finishing the game despite any obstacle.
“They said that it wasn’t likely I would survive.”
Norton’s brush with death happened a few years ago, right after he started working on Malevolence. He had become so ill that doctors had given him an 85% mortality rate, and Norton remembers, “they said that it wasn’t likely I would survive.” His illness is something he has been battling with since his childhood, and it is that same illness that led him to become a video game programmer, designer, and developer.
When Norton was young he was an avid athlete, playing many sports and attending a school that had a sports period every day. Norton then developed a rare illness that left him unable to participate in any of the athletic activities at school, a depressing fate for an active child at a sport-focused school. With a free period most days, Norton spent his time in the library, which had an old Macintosh computer. On the Macintosh were old games like Prince of Persia, and Norton quickly played through the small collection. He wanted more games, so he found a book in the library on making video games and went to work making his own under the name Visual Outbreak.
“I just unlocked this amazing technology before the surgery, and I was given this sort of a new lease on life after the surgery…”
Growing up, Norton loved both playing and making video games, but he was always disappointed when a story had to end. For Malevolence, he had figured out how to make an infinite world with an endless story that was also completely persistent. Play can literally continue forever, and the world and story will keep going. Norton may have figured out how to make a game last without end, but it was at that time that his illness took a major turn for the worse and doctors were trying to figure how to make his life last to the next month.
Despite the seriousness of the illness, Norton survived, and he continued his work on Malevolence with a renewed sense of purpose. “I just unlocked this amazing technology before the surgery, and I was given this sort of a new lease on life after the surgery, and I wanted to make it my big piece.” Now, almost three years later, Norton is just mere weeks away from delivering the finished game.
Norton isn’t the only member of the Visual Outbreak team, and his wife, Nyssa, has been crucial to the successes of both Norton and Malevolence. He remembers sitting on a cruise ship for his honeymoon, coding away on a laptop while his new bride worked on the writing for the game next to him. She’s been there with him through the development of the game, and she was by his side when he almost died. Norton remembers the awful experience of having to say goodbye to his wife before going into surgery with the thought it was the last time he might see her. Since then she has been instrumental to Norton’s success, and he says, “she’s been my rock. I certainly wouldn’t have made it this far without her.”
With 2012 over and the game almost ready to be released, Norton looks back at the ups and downs of the last year. As the game approached completion, Visual Outbreak went to the Kickstarter community to raise funds for polishing the game. The team had asked for $6,000, but the game was so well received it raked in over $33,000 from 1,060 different backers. Those who donated were then invited to the closed beta of the game, and the response was more than positive. Norton remembers, “I actually got quite emotional reading through the forums and seeing just how much fun they were all having with it. It was a big moment for me.” Malevolence was also in the running for the Upcoming People’s Choice award on IndieDB.com, another sign of the loyal and positive fan base Visual Outbreak has developed.
Unfortunately, not everyone liked the game, and early versions of Malevolence did receive some negative reviews. Norton doesn’t want to call out anyone specifically, but he remembers one community “well known for being quite savage internet trolls.” The feedback was harsh, and the morale of the Visual Outbreak team was shaken a bit.
“I love it, and I wouldn’t have my life any other way.”
The positive reviews for the game outnumber the negative ones, though, and Norton and the Visual Outbreak team keep moving forward to create the best gaming experience possible for their customers. While Norton would like Malevolence to be financially successful enough to make game developing his fulltime job, he’s not making video games for the money. “It’s from sheer passion and love of video games as an art form….I simply love to make them so much.” This passion is shared by the entire Visual Outbreak team, which, in addition to Norton and his wife, includes artist Rachel Birchnoff, who has been working on Malevolence from the beginning.
Malevolence: The Sword of Ahkranox is scheduled to be released in January, 2013, and finally being done with a project that almost died along with its creator is a very emotional experience for Norton. Making video games alongside of the woman who has stuck with him through sickness and health is the life of Alex Norton. He sums it all up by saying, “I love it, and I wouldn’t have my life any other way.”