A near-death experience made an indie dev out of this race car driver

Mike Bushell is busy. For what seems like forever, he's been working as a mechanic at his family's garage. He's been building a name for himself as a now multi-championship winning race car driver for years, and for several months he's been preparing for the arrival of his first child. Yet somehow he's also found the time to not only learn to code, but also to develop his own game, a collection of shoot-'em-up arcade modes by the name of Arena 3D

Well, I say he found the time, but really the time found him. 

"The winter's always cold here, and my workshop is freezing," Bushell tells me over Skype from his home in Kent, England. "We had a particularly cold winter in 2015. And you know, you feel cold and under the weather and things. But I got home one night with terrible shooting pain down my shoulder. You never think something's going to be wrong with your heart, but I took myself down to the hospital and they hooked me up to the machines. And they're like, 'oh god, you're having a heart attack!' And I'm like, no, what? I'm having a heart attack? 

"It was a complication of pneumonia, and the funny thing was I hadn't started coughing yet. But a piece of the infected tissue got around into my blood and somehow got back to my heart, and it left me in a really bad way. It was one of those things where I was told I'd never be able to race again. So that left me with a long recovery period. I was in hospital itself for 10 days in the intensive care unit. Then after that, once I got home, it must've been eight weeks. 

"To give you an idea of how bad it was, there are some shops half a mile away. And I used to walk there all the time to get my groceries and things. On the first day I had to walk with friends, and we had to stop three or four times, and they finally had to carry me to the shop. Then, on the end of the eighth week, I managed to jog to the shop. I had real pressure since I was going to race in the British Touring Car Championship, and I just wanted to make sure that, not just for now but also the rest of my life, I was going to be fit and healthy again. Over a year it's taken—to actually be fully healthy again."   

Mike Bushell.

 A little red square 

Bushell has since resumed racing, going on to win the Renault Clio Cup for the second time earlier this year, but his life changed dramatically following his hospitalization. He was totally out of commission for months and, while looking for something to kill time, he accidentally found a whole new career. 

"I was at home with nothing to do, and I was playing a game on my phone and thought I'd just love to know how it was done," he says. "I started looking into it and just went from there. I started off making a little red square move around the phone if I tilted it, and that was cool. It was actually something I made on a phone. You pick up a new bit of information everyday, and then every week you learn a bit more and it becomes more complex. Then suddenly, two years later, you've got a fully playable game on your PC and you're wondering 'how did I get here?' I started with no knowledge whatsoever of the game industry. It's a tough one, I have to say." 

Before that red square, Bushell's only game design experience was tinkering with Half-Life 2's level editor when he was a teen. From what he remembers, the levels he made were crap. But powered by a gut feeling and plenty of software tutorials, Arena, not yet Arena 3D, gradually took shape.

Arena started as a twin-stick shooter built for mobile devices. Bushell adapted that red square into a geometric ship—the same simple design he uses today—and added in crude jpeg enemies. It didn't take him long to build something functional, and he kept working on it long after he started feeling better. As months became years and the scope of the game expanded, he thought it might be fun to bring it to consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One, and from there it was a logical jump to PC. So, last month, he launched a Kickstarter for Arena 3D. 

Some people might balk at the idea of a race car driver turning to crowdfunding. Especially in the US, racing leagues like Nascar have a lavish reputation, and many racers are incredibly wealthy. But the fact of the matter is, Bushell is not filthy stinking rich. In fact, he has to go out of his way to race. 

"Me, my mum, my dad, we work to make ends meet," he says. "I take a minimum wage, I don't earn a lot of money at all. And me and my girlfriend, we're saving up, we've just bought our first [stroller]. We saved up and borrowed some money off her mom and dad to go and buy that.

"There are those there because they've got the money, and there are those there because they're good and always manage to get to the front. Little bit arrogant, but I like to think I'm one of those. Like to believe it myself, anyway." 

At the time of writing, Arena 3D's Kickstarter has raised $1,612 of its $26,245 goal and has 10 days remaining. Its success would be a huge boon to Bushell's efforts, but no matter the outcome, he's not stopping. 

 One way or another 

"I thought to myself that I'd like to dream big with Arena," Bushell says. "I've had lots of people play it and I always get good feedback, so I thought, wouldn't it be great to turn this into a console game in the future? Also one thing I really do struggle with is time. It would be good to have other people on board to help me do multiplayer. I'm not an octopus, I can't use all my limbs to control multiple computers. So the Kickstarter, really, was to help get the multiplayer side of things as good as it could be."

Apart from multiplayer, as well as an original soundtrack, Arena 3D's Kickstarter is mainly about time. If it's successful, Bushell may release the game as early as 2018. But even if takes a while longer, he says he will finish it. 

"The Kickstarter isn't the be all and end all. I've gone on a gut feeling and had a lot of people say 'yeah, do the Kickstarter.' But one thing I've come to realize is how good Steam is with their Early Access program. A lot of people say it's terrible, but some fellow developers stand by it. If the Kickstarter wasn't to be successful, I'd certainly go down that route. Multiplayer development can happen through the Early Access program, and get a bit more of public input to it." 

As a solo and independent developer, getting feedback has been important and difficult for Bushell throughout the development process. He says it's dangerously easy to fall in love with your creation and overlook its flaws, and that it can be jarring to have a third party point them out. Even so, he's always been hungry for input. That's why he put out a free demo showcasing three of Arena 3D's game modes, which you can find on Steam. It's also why he hooked up with the makers of one of Arena 3D's biggest inspirations, Geometry Wars.

"I got a message one day from a guy called Mark Craig, who was one of the original guys who worked at Bizarre Creations, who did the original Geometry Wars," he says. "It's good to get that feedback from people who made arguably the ultimate twin-stick shooter. They gave me a long list of feedback, what I should do and how to make it more responsive, things like that. It's quite surreal, really. One of the big games that I've played for years, and now I'm speaking to the guys who made it. It was quite an honor to have that. And their bit of feedback has helped step up the responsiveness for the other game modes I'm developing." 

The demo covers three game modes, but there are six in all. The headlining mode is classic, neon-lit shoot-'em-up action on a 3D sphere. The second is a maze partly inspired by Pac-Man where you go around collecting fragments and hiding from enemies. The third, which Bushell describes as a cross between "Gears of War horde mode and Geometry Wars" smacks more of tower defense than anything. Even at this early stage, they're all good fun, but the wildest modes are yet to come. 

Arena's fourth mode will be an endless runner set in a rotating tube. It's fundamentally a score attack mode: the longer you live, the faster you move and the higher your score. You also have to kill enemies and snag powerups, but dodging around the tube is the focus. Bushell is also working on 3D dogfighting and "first-person missile defense," and says all six modes will feature several unique levels. 

"I like to think of it as an ultimate arcade arena," he says. "I had this vision to myself of playing the old games I used to, like Descent, or even Asteroids years ago. I'm trying to make a collection of different arenas."

Bushell's future as a game designer is still up in the air. Learning to make games has been "extremely rewarding," he says, but even he admits that what comes next is a mystery. That said, flying by the seat of his pants has gotten him this far, and considering a heart attack couldn't stop him from driving race cars, I don't expect he'll ease up on games any time soon.