Pirate Software: From Infosec and Blizzard Entertainment to Streaming Gamedev

Pirate Software: From Infosec and Blizzard Entertainment to Streaming Gamedev

‘My main value is to focus on everything that you can do with your community.’

Buckle up for a two-part interview series with Jason Thor Hall, the lead programmer at Pirate Software, the winner of the 2024 Best Software and Game Development Streamer Award, and the creator of Heartbound.

Big thanks to Thor and Pirate Software for taking the time to talk to us and spreading the word about GameMaker. Part one talks about infosec, streaming the game development process, moving from AAA to indie, and the value of community.

Hello! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. I was wondering if you could start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Pirate Software: Sure. I've been in the gaming industry now for almost two decades. I used to work at Blizzard Entertainment. I worked there for about seven years and everything from World of Warcraft vanilla, all the way to Overwatch. I’ve worked for Amazon Game Studios, on the lumberyard game engine as an automation engineer in Python. Then I worked for the United States Department of Energy. 

I'm a penetration test hacker too. I have three black badges from DEF CON! Two for cryptography and one for telefreaking. My last job was hacking power plants for the federal government and, when I quit that, I started my own game studio called Pirate Software and I've been doing that now full-time for the last five years.

I want to get to the game development questions but I really want to ask about the hacking stuff. Can you tell us a little bit about DEF CON?

Pirate Software: DEF CON is a hacking convention in Las Vegas that runs every year and it’s essentially the Hacker Olympics. A bunch of nerds show up, we hack stuff and we compete with each other. At DEF CON 23 I won a cryptography black badge, which is like getting a gold medal. After that, I came back the next year and did it again, and then in the third year of participation they didn’t have the competition so we went for telefreaking.

Man holding a keyboard as if it's a gun. BigStock image
I wanted to use a photo from DEF CON but was told no, so here’s an objectively funny stock photo instead.

And how do you go from that to a government job?

Pirate Software: I got three black badges in a row. When you get three black badges, the government usually reaches out and goes ‘hey, do you want a job?’ and that’s exactly what happened. This was while I was working at Amazon and the Department of Energy contacted me and asked if I’d like to hack powerplants and I was like ‘that sounds rad’ so, I ended up going off and doing that and I would have gladly stayed there. The job was flying around the country for ten weeks of the year and going after powerplants, and the rest of the time I ran my indie development studio, Pirate Software.

We had a team of seven people, some of the best hackers I’ve ever met in my life and they were amazing people, really awesome dudes. 

Four of them quit on the same day to make their own security firm, and that changed my job from ten weeks a year with the rest of the year being focused on running my indie studio to thirty weeks a year and I went ‘there’s no way I’m flying around the country, 30 weeks a year,’ so I quit.

And how do you go from a government job to full-time indie development?

Pirate Software: I figured I was going to go back to Amazon after quitting working for the government, and two days after I decided to quit, Jacksepticeye played our game, Heartbound.

The influence of Influencers.

That video exploded and I went ‘well, I guess I’m not doing that!’ I just stayed working on Heartbound and we had everything set up for the new community influx. A Discord, social media accounts, places for my streams to run, everything like that. It was a little bit of luck and a lot of planning, but it worked out. We made sure that it actually meant something.

Has Jack reached out to you after playing Heartbound?

Pirate Software: I actually reached out to him over Twitter! I sent him a DM and I thanked him for playing it, and he was very nice. Usually, when you think about someone who's famous, you think ‘oh, they're probably not gonna have any time for me’, but, no, he responded to me. “Your game’s cool, everything’s really awesome.” He was a really nice dude. I thought that was pretty awesome, to be honest. The dude’s just really nice.

Do you think your game would have received a similar level of interest from the community if he hadn’t played it?

Pirate Software: I think so, but I also think it would have taken longer. I’ve found a lot of people have joined our community because of my streams. We’re definitely snowballing in the right direction but, yeah, he helped a ton. A massive amount.

Can you tell us a little bit about working at Blizzard?

Pirate Software: I'm so old school. My dad actually worked at Blizzard for 23 years and he was a cinematic director for Blizzard from when they were called Silicon and Synapse. Every day I’d go down to his office from school and do homework on the floor in Blizzard. I always wanted to be a part of that. 

Eventually, I applied there and got the job and stayed there for a while. Eventually, I realized over time that I’d seen it start to change from being less about the player experience and more about the business of games. I think that happens naturally to a lot of large studios over time. I like interacting with players more, you know? Making the best possible game that I can and, if you have enough money to keep operating your studio, then you’re doing it right.

I started giving myself these core values of what I was gonna do when I left. I saw them moving away from that and not having things like loot boxes or microtransactions or anything like that. That just didn't feel good for the player instead, you buy the game, you get the game, right? 

My main one is to focus on everything that you can do with your community.

It was amazing because I got to learn so many different things. I got to meet so many amazing and passionate people. But the more that I stayed in AAA game development the longer that I realized it's not so profitable or fun to mow somebody else's lawn every day. 

I'm very happy I went indie. It's much better when you mow your own lawn. I left AAA game development specifically for that reason. It’s a great environment but it didn't pay very much and I could do cooler things outside. 

An Orc! Please do not ask me to type /played.

What was your favorite thing about working in AAA?

Pirate Software: When I worked at Blizzard, I eventually became the lead on application security, which is all of Blizzard's websites globally and then after that, I was a senior Red Team specialist.

Editor’s Note: A red team is a group that pretends to be an enemy, attempts a physical or digital intrusion against an organization at the direction of that organization, then reports back so that the organization can improve their defenses.

Pirate Software: Part of my job was to find ways to catch people who were cheating at games. I spent a lot of time building detections that could lead to people getting banned, and the thing that was really funny to me about this was I found bots that were just running rifts in Diablo 3 all day and then at night they’d switch to doing greater rifts to climb the leaderboard. I was very competitive in Diablo 3, and I was like, ‘I'm done with this! We're gonna find a way to catch these guys!’

We ended up having to find what's called a heuristic detection, where you're catching them doing something that a player should not be able to do. Eventually, I caught them and the way that I caught them on this was so stupid. 

Bots would read the memory of the game, find the X and Y location of buttons and then click them. It’d go back to town and try to click the salvage button, but that button isn’t drawn on the screen yet. It’s actually stored off-screen but the bot was clicking it anyway and all of a sudden we have to ban 64,000 people in 24 hours. I signed into my account the next day and 98 out of a 100 people in my clan were gone. 

Eventually I brought my clan leader into the office for a tour around. He was one of the guys that got hit in banwave and I took him to risk management and I ask the risk guys, ‘Hey, can I bring him in?’ and the risk guys go ‘yeah, just give me a minute.’ Minute later, the risk guy goes ‘oh, we banned him just now. He was botting while you were giving him the tour. The whole time, his character's online botting right now!’

Just- Goddamnit. 

Don't cheat at video games!

Good advice! Your Twitch streams are really popular! How did you get started on that?

Pirate Software: I’m partnered on Twitch and I’ve been on there for five years, so it’s a core part of interacting with the community that we’ve been slowly building over that entire time. In the last year Twitch has created a software and game development category? We had to push them really hard for a long time to get that. Now that we have that category on Twitch, we’ve managed to get streams from nothing to an average of about five hundred viewers. It’s the top of the entire category now which is huge, and I think that at least some of that is because of Jacksepticeye.

Do you think that Twitch streaming is something that all developers should be interested in?

Pirate Software: I completely think so. Game development used to be under ‘science and technology’ and for a long time that category had no visibility. No one knew it existed. No one could find any game devs in there, because if you were looking for a game dev you’re not looking for science and technology, right? Ever since the category change there’s been a ton more streamers showing up and there’s a ton more visibility.

The stream can make you a little bit of extra money. That helps fund the studio, especially if you're like a smaller studio. It’s been very helpful in our case because the studio actually runs off the stream. It pays for three full-time employees, including myself. On top of that, our translators all come from the stream.

Then for every hour that I'm streaming, Heartbound sells four times as many copies as when I'm not streaming. It’s the best advertisement that exists for your game because you have so much visibility on that platform. 

I don't think this is special to our game or studio in any way. I think this is absolutely repeatable. That’s part of why I built develop.games as a site that’ll tell you ‘go do this, go do these things.’ This is not special. You can go and do these things.

PirateSoftware on Twitch

Can you tell us a little bit about develop.games?

Pirate Software: A lot of people show up to my Twitch stream, and they want to know how to make games. So many people kept coming by and saying that I ended up making develop.games! 

Most of the time, when people come to the Twitch stream they’re like ‘hey I'm a programmer in whatever field. How do I go make games like What engine should I use, what's the best engine? What's the best programming language?’ and those are always really huge questions. 

The answer is always going to be ‘It depends!’ Here's all the stuff you need to think about. Are you making a game that’s 3D? Go find an engine that’s good for 3D. Are you making a game that’s 2D? Here’s these answers? How much money do you have? Do you have a community?

It's like teaching people that the most important thing that you could possibly have is community. It's not marketing, it's not tricking people into buying your game. It's not microtransactions or anything else that goes into it. It’s your community that carries you. No matter what the size your studio is, if you lose the faith of your players you lose and that's it. That's the end of that.

That’s the end of Part one of our interview with Pirate Software! Part two is coming very soon, where we talk more about setting up an Indie company, developing in GameMaker, and the creation of Heartbound

Once again, thank you to Pirate Software!

Written by Kinga Kwapisz

Kinga Kwapisz is a Marketing Specialist at GameMaker and an avid Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast from Poland. She's constantly on the move, looking for interesting game developers to interview and new indie games to play (especially if they feature cats!).