interviews with makers

interviews with people who build great things. new posts every monday.

Cary Walkin, Arena.xlsm

Cary Walkin is the creator and maintainer of Arena.xlsm, a full-length RPG written and coded entirely in Excel. Yes. Excel.

A screenshot of Arena.Xlsm

Can you give some general background info about yourself? Origins, education, etc.

I’m a 25 year old chartered accountant from Toronto, Canada. I completed a Bachelors of Business Administration at Wilfrid Laurier University, then I completed my chartered accountancy though five years of financial auditing and tax work, and a Masters of Business Administration at York University.

I’ve always been passionate about games — I hope to continue to make games and be a part of the games industry.

So, the obvious question — what inspired you to make such a massive game out of Excel of all things?

As an accountant, I use Excel every day. As part of my MBA, I was taking a course called Advanced Spreadsheet Modeling that covered Excel macros. I quickly realized that the concepts being taught could actually be used to make a game.

In hindsight, making the game in Excel was actually the most critical part of it being completed at all. I’d previously attempted to make a game using more traditional game making tools, only to give up when the pace of progress would slow due to significant technical challenges. By creating the game in Excel, I chose a tool that I was comfortable with and as such the technical challenges seemed surmountable.

This created a great feedback loop as I watched the game grow throughout development.

What exactly does an Excel game development cycle look like?

Game development in Excel differs significantly from working in a traditional game development environment.

When you’re stuck in a traditional environment, you can usually search your problem online and find a community of game developers who have posted solutions, sample code, and tutorials to help guide you through your challenge. When you’re stuck in Excel, the solutions you can find online are largely technical in nature rather than shed light on a particular game mechanic.

I’m working on changing that through a series of Excel game development tutorials called VBA4Play.

My personal development cycle with Excel was one of trial and error. All of the code, balancing, and game mechanics was a result a result of me making a guess as to what it should be, testing it, and assessing whether it was fun. I’d then iterate to get it closer to whatever felt the most fun.

The public response has been huge, with a wide variety of reactions. What surprised you the most about how people responded to your project?

The most surprising thing has been the sheer scale of the public response. The original intention was to release the game to a very niche audience, with the expectation that very few people would actually “play a spreadsheet” regardless of the game’s quality.

I didn’t expect that the people who first played and enjoyed the game would try to share it with as many people as they could, or the overwhelming support of an online community of people to help make improvements to the game. I wrote a blog post soon after the game’s release that outlines some of the initial reactions and how I was completely unprepared for them.

What does Arena.xlsm’s future look like?

[The game] has been a phenomenal learning experience for me. The Excel game is complete and I am very satisfied with it; I’m currently learning to use Unity in an effort to bring everything that made Arena.xlsm awesome, outside of the spreadsheet to a proper game.

The main arena.

*Awesome! Besides the obvious — using new technology and tools — is there anything you’re going to try and do differently when working on the new project? *

While specific features are subject to change and everything is still very preliminary, my focus is on learning from Arena.xlsm to make it better. This includes:

  • Streamlining the user interface so that a significant portion of screen real-estate is not dedicated to statistics.

  • Adding more variety to enemy encounters: such as enemies that spawn other enemies.

  • Adding more variety to items: such a new item crafting system that will allow the player to customize their items with modifications that serve a strategic purpose.

  • Adding more variety to arenas: such as new puzzle mechanics and new points of interest that impact game play in procedurally generated arenas.

  • Multiplayer Co-op… I definitely could not do that within Excel!

What do you think you learned from the entire experience of making the game?

I’ve learned a lot of great technical skills: programming, game design, level design, story writing, public relations, quality assurance, and marketing.

However, I would say the most valuable part of the experience was to reinvigorate my ability to be creative. As an accountant, I rarely have the opportunity to be creative and I had begun to lose that ability after years of neglecting those creative skills. I learned about myself and what I enjoy in life. That alone made this a worthwhile experience.

  • 5 August 2013