Indie game news, reviews, previews and everything else concerning indie game development.

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On One’s Own: Focusing On Design

slamboltscrappersOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

There’s something from my high school days that applies rather well to game design, especially when you compare an indie product to, say, something from Activision or Electronic Arts. It all reminds me of my Economics class in junior year. That’s right; it’s time for an anecdote.

In the class, we were required to form teams and then attempt to sell an imaginary product in order to, uh, win. Something. Anyway, we even had a program that factored in our costs and how much we were producing and the like. Our immediate thought was to punch it, push production to 100% and let it run until we were raking in the dough. We lost because of it.

The reasoning behind this was simple: 80% production was the magic number. Pushing it to 100% would saturate the market, meaning you would not sell as many, and all the costs accrued for producing the extra 20% simply went to waste. Essentially, more units actually were not better in this case.

slamboltscrappers2So how does this relate to game design? Well, bigger companies tend to have the outlook that bigger is better. Games that are longer, packed with features and have multiple modes are all the rage. But are they really that effective when they spend valuable assets and time on odds and ends that don’t actually end up being used?

Jim Sterling briefly touches on this kind of mainstream mentality on page 24 in the July 2010 issue of GamePro. In the article, he argues against the inclusion of multiplayer modes in games if the only reason is because it is what is expected of a studio. For example, if the company is focusing on the single-player then perhaps they should scrap the multiplayer entirely and put all the focus on what they want to do well.

The smaller, littler guys tend to have a much different outlook on things. I have touched on this before but indie companies don’t exactly have the funding that the mainstream ones do. They are required by necessity to think, plan and build smaller than they might otherwise want to do. Instead of complicated design schemes they end up producing a much, for lack of a better word, simpler plan of action.

slamboltscrappers3Simpler does not equate to worse in any way. It simply means that the game has fewer moving parts to it. Less of those mean that there are fewer chances for something to go horribly, incredibly wrong. That does not mean that they won’t mess up somewhere between design and implementation but that is another story entirely.

It is probably easiest to explain this concept by taking an indie game, like Slam Bolt Scrappers, and breaking down exactly what the game attempts to accomplish as far as design goes. I’d wager that it won’t take more than a few paragraphs, max, to explain the entirety of the game and why it works as well as it does.

By now, anyone who follows the indie scene should be well aware of Fire Hose Games and Slam Bolt Scrappers. They had an impressive showing at PAX East this year and followed that up with an even better one at E3. They were even nominated by Kotaku for Best Gameplay Mechanic.

slamboltscrappers4The game has Tetris-like gameplay of completing lines of blocks in order to build towers. Different color blocks make different towers. Purple, as an example, builds a laser turret. The bigger the squares of color you complete are, the bigger the towers. These towers then attempt to blow the heck out of your opponents’ towers.

It also allows up to four players, two to a team, and you can even beat directly on another player if you so choose. This almost seems like an afterthought of, “Oh, huh, they fight monsters to get their bricks. I guess they could hit each other too if they really wanted.” The only reason to beat on another player would be to attempt to kill them and steal their blocks. It’s diabolical, sure, but pretty straightforward.

That’s it, pretty much. Well, you can also put a small number of different hats on your characters, like a sombrero or Viking helmet. The game doesn’t aspire to be much more than this and, when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t need to. It is what it is because of its lack of fluff and has turned out to be an incredibly enjoyable experience.

Bioshock-2Slam Bolt Scrappers does well for a number of reasons. Most of them are subjective but it seems that people can come to agreement on the fact that the product is just plain fun. The reason it’s so fun is because the small team, with limited funds, were able to focus on exactly what they wanted to achieve and then they did.

Some games lose sight of their original goal as time goes on. BioShock 2, for example, almost feels like two different games, one being single-player and the other multiplayer. This is partially due to the fact that two separate companies worked on either side of that line. In the end, they attempted to marry the two factions together but it still comes off as a forced fit; it resembles a square block pushed through a triangle hole.

When mainstream game designers are given a choice between doing one thing well and doing a bunch of things decently, it often seems like their response is to attempt to do a bunch of things well. It doesn’t always work out that way. They sometimes finish up with a smattering of mediocre decisions scattered throughout the final product. Indie game designers don’t have that luxury.

fire_hose_logoTitles from larger developers also run into the problem of having far too many cooks in the kitchen. At some point, they push past that 80% saturation and find themselves spoiling the broth. Between publishers, programmers, designers, producers and the marketing team, any game is liable to reach a hundred different iterations, each one further from the original vision than the last, before it ever reaches the shelves of your local Best Buy.

To return to Fire Hose Games, as of E3 they were still in single digits as to the number of people on their team. That isn’t counting all the people involved in bringing their game to the Playstation Network but it seems that Slam Bolt Scrappers has been left relatively unchanged since the announcement. There were fewer hurdles to be jumped as there were simply fewer people involved in the process.

Sometimes it really is true that less is more. With more of, well, everything, design can be bogged down and often loses focus, dilutes the vision and expands the scope to the point where nothing is clear anymore. Indie games manage to nearly constantly get this dichotomy correct simply due to their definition. It’s hard for an indie studio to lose sight of the original vision or focus when that’s all they really have the budget to do.


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On One’s Own: Where Indie Ends, Mainsteam Begins

ShankOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

As anyone who reads our illustrious website is probably already aware, the definition of the term “indie” is a bit muddled and difficult to decipher. Does it refer to the style of the game, like hip-hop or rock with music, or does it refer to the conditions of the developer? Does it matter if they have a high-profile publisher with some major bankroll that can push their product to exceed normal limitations for a small company? All of these are good questions that, arguably, require different answers from situation to situation.

Possibly the most interesting of recent ones to crop up is that of Klei Entertainment’s indie darling Shank. Or maybe that should be former indie darling Shank. No, it has not been cancelled, but the status of its indie credibility is up in the air after a number of increasingly mainstream announcements. The question is, do these things change the nature of the game or are they simply fortunate circumstances in a post-Braid gaming scene?

shank_2First off, EA Partners signed on to publish Shank. At the time, this was announced along with the decision to publish Hothead Games’ Deathspank but even with the two-part news, it’s kind of a big deal. EA Partners isn’t some small division of Electronic Arts; these are the guys who sealed the deal to publish Epic Games’ Bulletstorm from the developer People Can Fly. Not impressive enough? Add Valve, id Software, Double Fine and the most recent addition of Insomniac Games to the list of developers that have seen publishing deals go down with EA Partners.

EA Partners has taken the stance of allowing developers to keep their own intellectual property and develop further on it in the future. In many ways, they have been dabbling in the business of laissez-faire economics. They keep their hands off of the development side and just try to market the game to as wide an audience as they can as best they can.

Overall, this seems to be really working out for them as they continue to pick up bigger and bigger developers. There were even some rumors floating around that Bungie might go the EA Partners route but, as we have seen, Big Daddy Activision’s pockets are awfully deep. So how is that a developer like Klei Entertainment—no offense to them, of course, as they might eventually read this—secures such a deal?

shank_3They do a damn good job, that’s how. You connect with the right people, pitch the right kind of game and have a little star power in your pocket. Though it may have only been recently revealed, Marianne Krawczyk, the dynamo writer behind God of War, has been onboard the Shank train since near the beginning. Some have confused the recent reveal with EA bringing in more talent to pump up sales when in reality Krawczyk and Klei Entertainment’s fledgling partnership goes back to 2008.

Jamie Cheng, CEO of Klei Entertainment, and Marianne Krawczyk met at Game Developers Conference in 2008 at the Speaker Party. According to Cheng, the two began talking about how they would love to work on an independent game where they could tell whatever kind of story that they could want to tell. When Klei was ready to begin development on a new title, Krawcyzk and they were reconnected and so they began to cement down what we know today as Shank.

And let’s be honest, keeping this somewhat startling information fairly close to the chest is a sound business decision on their part. An indie developer revealing that the writer for God of War will be working on their newest intellectual property reeks of overstatement and has a touch of vaporware to it. To phrase it another way, the big boys sitting in the penthouses may have considered Klei to be putting on airs, as it were, and biting off a bit more than they could chew. There’s probably room enough for another charming colloquialism but I’ll leave it at that. With a writer like Krawcyzk, and her professional history, expectations are naturally set high.

shank_4But to once and for all settle the rumors, it has been said numerous times in a number of places that Krawcyzk has been working with the team since very near to the beginning. So we have a few strikes against Shank’s indie credibility, what with the publishing deal with EA Partners, and now we come to find out that they have a big A-list writer with them who happens to be fresh off seeing her latest brainchild, God of War III, do extremely well on the market. It seems like all signs point to ditching the indie moniker entirely and becoming a mainstream game.

And so this brings us to the real question. As stated above, does it matter if a high-profile publisher signs on with an independent developer? The answer, at least in this specific instance, is… No. Just because Klei Entertainment has sketched out a deal with EA Partners doesn’t preclude Shank from continuing to be the indie darling that everyone knows and loves. Sift through all the muck and mire and you still have yourself a wonderful little gem of a game developed by an independent company with their own unclouded vision present in all aspects.

The way I see it, Klei just got lucky. They started a game with the right people and pushed it in the right direction long enough to interest someone who could fulfill the necessary monetary obligations of their operation. This way, Klei does not really have to worry about publishing, marketing and all those things that indie developers traditionally flub up in the process of getting their games to the masses.

DSC00973Instead they can focus on what they do best: make games. If the creative direction, art, writing and overall vision isn’t compromised by the addition of a publishing deal, it’s merely a win-win for everyone involved including those that will later be playing the game. Braid would still be Braid, Flower would still be Flower and so on even if they were under the same conditions. It just so happens that more people would have known about them from the beginning.

Which is part of the issue as well. There’s a sense of “getting it” in the community that is disdainful of the general public. Anything at all attached to Big Brother is bombarded with suspicion until folks conclude that it must be so because everyone else is saying it is. Even if it could and should be considered indie, we’d rather wash our hands of it altogether. Well, I say, not this time. This time we should be thankful that someone decided to pick up an rock—a nice rock but still a rock—and help polish it into a jewel.


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On One’s Own: The Byproducts of Adventure

MachinariumOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

It seems like over time there are just some genres of gaming that fall by the wayside. Either new genres rise to take their places, old ones meld together to form an abomination or people just plain stop playing the games released in a specific one at which point developers finally realize it and stop making them. This is a normal cycle of things, really, and it should not surprise anyone when developers stop making games that do not sell.

Up until recently, this is, more or less, what I figured happened to the adventure game genre. The evidence was all anecdotal, sure, but even as an avid gamer doing freelance journalism the last true adventure game I had played was back in the middle of the 1990s. While I was playing Doom 2, networked with my brother, I would also occasionally dabble with Hugo’s House of Horrors.

HugoHugo’s House of Horrors, and its sequels, ran via DOS, had a command line interface and required knowledge gathered outside of the game to complete. If you weren’t aware of the name Bram Stoker, you were plum out of luck. Looking back on my experiences now, I’m a little surprised that it didn’t bother me that I had to jump through all of those hoops. Considering that I barreled through the original plus sequels, I suppose I’m even more stubborn than I previously thought.

But Hugo and his little misadventures would never see any similar titles join my ever-growing collection of games. Well, not until recently at least. As I have become more involved in the independent gaming scene, I have slowly rediscovered my apparently ageless love of the adventure game thanks to a little title called Machinarium by Amanita Design. You may have heard of it.

Not only has Machinarium been kicking around my PC, Telltale GamesSam & Max series has joined in the fun as well. To be fair, Sam & Max actually started the party but much like the cute girl you just can’t bring yourself to talk with I avoided it at all costs. I purchased the first and second seasons of Sam & Max back during Christmas, as they were on sale for the criminally low price of $14.99 or thereabouts. Machinarium actually came much later to my attention but was also picked up during a sale.

MachinariumMachinarium was, however, the first of the two that I booted up. This all came to a head less than a month ago when looking at the various games I owned yet had never played. After compiling my incredibly huge list, I began making mental note of which ones were and were not considered indie. Have to build up my street cred, you understand.

Booting up Machinarium for the first time was like opening a box hidden at the bottom of your closet for years when you move: full of memories and cobwebs. The cute little robot inexplicably reminds me of Hugo, thus bringing on the nostalgia, and my return to adventuring form could charitably be referred to as “rusty” at best.

Though it scratched an itch that I no longer even realized I still had, Machinarium is still an adventure game. This might just be my own preferences talking, but logic and/or puzzle games still leave me rather unsatisfied when playing for long bouts of time. I am prone to becoming frustrated with a puzzle and just giving up rather than trying to work through it.

SamMaxOfficeI would argue that’s a fair response to a puzzle game. Somewhere along the line, it stops being fun for me. Why play a game, especially if you’re looking for entertainment, when it’s just not fun any longer? And yet, I continue to play! Both Machinarium and Sam & Max see playtime, not much but some definite chunks, during my typical week. It certainly seems that both have something going for themselves that defies my somewhat irrational hatred of the perceived tedium inherent to adventure games.

Reading that last sentence is a bit of a puzzle in itself so let me attempt to clarify further: the game manages to make me want to play even though I don’t like the game. This effect is somewhat baffling to anyone who has never played either title. It’s akin to looking someone straight in the eye and explaining how much you hate how hard some of the puzzles in Braid were or how difficult you made them by not making the right jump at the exact right time in the correct loop of time. At that point, your hypothetical listener should look at you and respond, “Then why play?”

Maybe it is just me but my answer invariably comes out something like, “Because there is so much more here than just the game.” The game is just the mechanics beneath the surface. The game is how it communicates progress, the way in which we determine when we are done and how well we did. In the most common sense, the game can also be considered to be the humorous dialogue, the charming characters and the incredibly cute graphic design decisions. I would argue, however, that these actually function secondary to the mechanics of the game. Like water seeping from a tailpipe, they are a byproduct.

Sam&MaxHughBlissIn Machinarium, I could not care less about fixing a little bucket designed to drop something I’d rather not contemplate too long down a chute or into a cart. In Sam & Max, I often get frustrated with the tried-but-true steps of speaking with Sybil and Bosco, two characters often important to solving whatever caper’s on the menu. Those are just samplings from both games where the mechanics, the means by which the game progresses, bogs down everything else that I like about the game.

I push myself through the tedious dental-related psychosis analysis—you read that correctly—because of the dialogue between Sam, Max and the various characters and props scattered throughout the scenario. Machinarium’s art design is simply a wonder to behold. There’s a reason it’s won awards for art direction—it’s simply gorgeous to look at. Any given screenshot is worthy of being a wallpaper of its very own.

Perhaps my problems, as illustrated above, are why the adventure game genre became synonymous with action/adventure and sometimes just plain action. God of War is a fun romp, mechanically and aesthetically, and doesn’t suffer the same pitfalls. Of course, it has its own Achilles’ heel but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the adventure game evolved beyond Machinarium and Sam & Max’s brethren to something engaging in more than just a single aspect and has left behind, well, leftovers.

SamMaxDinerAnd leftovers are great! Even though my father refuses to eat them, leftovers remain a staple in my diet. Sam & Max (as well as a number of titles in Telltale’s catalogue) is a holdout from earlier times. It harkens back to the days when DOS was a common way to begin a game. The same goes for Machinarium. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just not for me.

You’ve probably been there too. Ever seen a movie where you absolutely despise the protagonist, antagonist and female lead but love the characters playing out just to the side of the action? That’s how I feel about modern adventure games. It parallels the hilariously-bad movie Twins. God of War and the like are the Schwarzenegger’s of the gaming world whilst Sam & Max is the Devito: it uses humor to compensate.


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On One’s Own: Casual Gaming Concerns

Critter_CrunchOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

There are some things that people just were not meant to understand. Jell-o, for example, is one of those things that continue to be amazing as long as you do not try to figure out exactly how it works. The stuff is delicious, bouncy, satisfying and gelatinous. If you ever want to turn yourself off of Jell-o forever, read up on gelatin. Scary stuff there, I’m serious.

This is the realization I have come to over the past couple weeks as I have had some time off from DIYGamer: I enjoy some kinds of games only when I am not thinking about it. This is sort of a shocking realization for someone who has spent the past two years looking for deeper meanings in videogames and sharing his criticisms with the world.

Critter Crunch vomitImagine my shock that this kind of enjoyment, the mindless, pointless enjoyment of gaming, extended to indie games that some of my peers had long protested were amazing and worth the effort to purchase and play extensively. By peers, I don’t just mean random people my age that attend classes with me or fellow coworkers, but other journalists in the field.

Luckily, in both cases that I will mention below, I received the games for what I would call “more-or-less” free. Best Buy stockpiled some coupons for me which I then turned into virtual cash via a Playstation Network card and the Nintendo DSi came with points that I had neglected to spend until recently.

In the same little shopping spree, I finally picked up Critter Crunch by Capybara Games on PS3 and Fieldrunners by Subatomic Studios for the DSi. Critter Crunch is one of those games that a number of people were quick to inform me that I absolutely had to play. Fieldrunners was not exactly recommended by folks I know, but goodness did I hear a lot about it in general. Besides, Desktop Tower Defense is a frequent addition to my rather normal day job, so I figured I would give it a go.

Critter CrunchThis is where the bad news starts. Critter Crunch has thoroughly failed to impress me. Other than being amusing to try to describe to someone—you eat the jewels inside bugs and then attempt to vomit enough into your child’s mouth—and very, very pretty to look at, my stint with Critter Crunch has been largely spent with a frown. It’s gorgeous, goofy but just is in no way substantial enough.

Perhaps this is all a matter of perception, though. Bejeweled, for example, is not exactly marketed as having a wonderful narrative, gripping plot and engaging characters. The same goes for any of the various games within the genre that Bejeweled has helped make so popular. Going to Panera Bread and expecting a steak dinner might leave a person dissatisfied but maybe they should try a sandwich, soup or salad. Results may vary, of course, but the principle remains the same: misguided expectations are only that; misguided.

Part of the problem is a lack of time in general, sure, so games like Mass Effect 2 or even Machinarium have been shelved in favor of more accessible titles for me. Even Valkyria Chronicles, a game that has recently entranced me, is not exactly the best to try and pick up for some quick playing before heading off to work.

Desktop Tower DefenseCritter Crunch has the exact same downfalls for me, though, being relegated to console play, but is a type of game that is entirely meant to be played while waiting in line, during long stints in the bathroom or in the backseat whilst carpooling. Someone, somewhere, clearly was not considering that a person might actually sit down on a sofa and attempt to give it an extended play. I refer again to Jell-o, as it might be delicious and you can eat a whole lot of it, but there sure isn’t any substance there.

Even ignoring Critter Crunch as a “possibly better if it were mobile for me” kind of game, I still have my handy-dandy Nintendo DSi and Fieldrunners. Unfortunately, it just so happens to be a tower defense game and, as everyone knows, there hasn’t been any real innovation in the tower defense genre since, well, people started calling it a genre.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I actually have a weakness for Ye Olde Tower Defense. I thoroughly enjoy every single minute I spend plotting out my building structure in order to cover the most ground in the best way. I have only recently been turned on to the whole idea of selling outlying towers in order to bolster defenses where you need them most. If you thought that your MMO of choice required micromanagement, pick up Fieldrunners and get back to me.

FieldrunnersAn epiphany occurred to me the other day however that has since tainted each and every time that I play the game. I thought to myself, “I really should get to working on my column… right after this level.” When I did finally put it down, I considered the meaning of this decision process.

What, exactly, did I accomplish in my time? At least with some games, there is a bigger picture to consider. While playing Grand Theft Auto, I might struggle with the comic depiction of violence in our daily lives. While playing Braid, I might consider the entire concept of perception among other things. While playing Fieldrunners, on the other hand, I usually consider how to better stop the little guys from getting to the other side of the virtual field. Especially those damn helicopters, pesky things that they are.

As a graduate from Indiana University, perhaps I could better utilize my time. It’d be like constantly playing Solitaire. I relate the entire process to a concept from food: empty calories. Sure, Fieldrunners might taste great going down but jeez, is there anything in there that actually nurtures my thoughts at all?

FieldrunnersThe casual gaming scene screams of fast food to me. And yes, I did just personify an entire section of entertainment. To repeat myself, there’s nothing of substance to be found but most people can agree that they’re enjoyable. The problem is not that they are not enjoyable but that they hold no meaning beyond that. Solitaire might be a fun pastime but there’s a reason why it’s called that: it is meant to pass the time.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. Muddled definitions and various ways of describing videogames have existed since the medium’s inception. Is it video games or videogames? Are they more like games or more like interactive movies? How do they relate to traditional literature?

These are all questions that I have considered from time to time and take a toll on how this argument is viewed by any given reader. Depending on what you make of those questions, you might agree or disagree vehemently with me.

If nothing else, I propose that the casual gaming sector be relegated to being a pastime while all others are referred to as hobbyist. There’s a reason baseball isn’t a national hobby.


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On One’s Own: Videogames Will Always Be Videogames

FlowerOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

Roger Ebert is a widely respected film critic but his opinions on videogames leave most videogames critics puzzled. Ebert is no stranger to this kind of discussion, either, as he’s made the same accusation multiple times over a number of years: videogames are not art. As has been pointed out, multiple times and by many people more experienced in the industry than I, Ebert is a film critic; not a videogames critic.

That isn’t to say that some of his points are not valid or somewhat accurate. The problem does not stem from his conclusions. It stems, instead, from his premise. I do not dispute that games, as he defines, do not necessarily constitute art. What I dispute, however, is his definition of games in general. It seems that Ebert lumps all games into having goals, being about winning and involving the attempt to get to those goals.

In this way, he brings things like chess, checkers and golf (as well as a number of other sports) to the same table. This is where his premise strays away from the actual area that games exist in: Some games are about winning and goals but not all of them. As an example, some rectangles are squares and all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares.

flOwEbert chooses in his most recent article to pick on one kind of square particularly: thatgamecompany’s Kellee Santiago. Given that his contention is that games can never be art, it is not all that terribly surprising to see him pick a bone with an independent game developer, especially one associated with games like Flower or flOw.

Even more specifically, Ebert responds to Santiago’s TED conference presentation. He begins by acknowledging that she is very intelligent, charming and able to get her points across effectively. He moves then to explain that she had to give the talk live while he has the luxury of responding at his leisure and with numerous edits. Well, he actually uses the word “extemporaneously,” but that’s rather big and serves only to obfuscate the situation. (See, Ebert, I can do it too.) This is mostly just a smokescreen that will later allow him to attempt to tear her argument down, brick by brick, and make broad sweeping generalizations about videogames.

IcoBut, again, it’s not that I disagree with the notion. What he describes, I, too, might also concede is outside the realm of art. He just does not seem to actually describe the medium that we have all come to know and love. He, instead, focuses on a minute window that he’s been made aware of through others instead of attempting to explore the field on his own.

Kellee Santiago has even gone so far as to write a response to Ebert’s criticisms, where she states that she’s deeply flattered by his attention but a bit disappointed as it seems he doesn’t actually engage with the topic and instead commentates from a lofty position. In fact, she notes that it doesn’t seem that Ebert has played any, “if any” videogames. The “if any” accusation is a bit meritless, but his experiences all seem to be limited to many, many years ago. Technology, and just about everything associated with it, changes rapidly, far more rapidly than Ebert has been able to keep up with it seems.

There are a number of equally amazing responses out there, ranging from IGN to G4 and beyond, but it does make one wonder whether Ebert truly did his research. If so, how does he discount more recent stabs at serious journalistic endeavors in order to more thoroughly explore the subject? I feel as if his bold challenge and mentality of “Show me if it exists, then” is much akin to a blindfolded man telling his friend that he can’t see when all he needs do is remove the cloth in front of his eyes.

Sleep Is DeathEven barring these secondary sources, there is a plentiful supply of primary ones. Where is the competition in Flower or stated goals? Ebert makes off-hand commentary about short clips of the game he has seen but never played. I could, in like, make judgments about Citizen Kane but will instead leave that to those who are obviously more knowledgeable on the subject.

An even better comparison might be made to Jason Rohrer’s most recent game: Sleep Is Death. Santiago mentions both Jenova Chen’s huge involvement in Flower and Jonathan Blow’s self-development of Braid as examples of what Ebert seems to seek in art, as they are “usually the creation of one artist.” Neglecting to even get into arguing about the collaborative nature of some art forms—Hello? Films have hundreds of hands in them, plays have half that, if not more, and the list goes on—no other developer so easily fits the mold of “artist” described as Rohrer.

While his Passage game might also challenge Ebert’s statements, his most recent, Sleep Is Death, does so more effortlessly. Sleep Is Death is an improvisation tool cleverly disguised as a videogame. You are meant to tell a story through the medium, to evoke emotions through it and, ultimately, craft an intensely personal experience for yourself and another. This is, more or less, the Mecca of game design: this game is just a vehicle for the experience and the vehicle is minimalistic at best.

Pete & James play Sleep Is DeathPeter Eykemans, our fearless Managing Editor, and I had a chance to play with it recently. The design of the game allows you 30 seconds to react to the actions of the other. One is, ostensibly, the player and one the controller. The controller is, arguably, a more difficult role to play as the player merely responds to the objects in front of them but both are equally responsible for the engagement presented.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the lack of a win condition. Or a fail state. Or any real tangible goals. I suppose finishing a scene before the timer counts down might be a goal but there are no true consequences to failing to meet it other than disappointment for both involved. Seeing as this has no goals, no fail state and no winning, what is this concoction that Jason Rohrer has cooked up for us?

Ebert would probably say that it isn’t art but it also isn’t a game. I’m not so sure he’d know what to do with this artifact of our times. I’m not sure it even matters, though, as the experience is the important part. Defining it as an experience puts the medium in an entirely different strata. We don’t need someone else to validate our experiences.


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On One’s Own: Machinarium, XBLA and Why It Matters

MachinariumOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

Machinarium from Amanita Design recently made some waves because of word getting around that they had been refused from Xbox Live Arcade. While this statement may sound like hyperbole, it actually is not. Jakub Dvorsky, the lead designer for Machinarium, has confirmed that they were refused from being published to Xbox Live Arcade. Cue shock and awe from the major outlets as they pick up the story and syndicate it.

The original quote from Mr. Dvorsky, via XBLAFans, which has a wonderful interview up as well, that seems to have stirred up so much controversy in the gaming world is as follows:

“Microsoft just refused Machinarium for XBLA after a half year of talking with them. They like the game and know it would be very successful on their platform, but they don’t want to support games which aren’t Microsoft exclusives. Machinarium isn’t, since we’ve also released versions for Mac and Linux. We have another option to approach some big publisher to bring the game to XBLA, which is quite absurd to do and lose maybe a large part of revenue because of that.”

This then prompted Joystiq to do a little digging as well, which received this response:

“They told us, ‘It’s not Microsoft-exclusive, we don’t want it.’ They didn’t cite the Mac and Linux versions but it’s quite clear that’s the reason.”

machinarium_04_bigger2The details, as many responses have indicated on the various stories, point out that they were only refused publishing by Microsoft. In effect, Microsoft said, “Hey, no dice, you have already published your little game elsewhere and we do not deal with such nonsense. Good day!” But that does not stop them from being released on the service; it merely restricts them from having Microsoft publish them. There is still the slim chance that someone, somewhere, will pick up the title and bring it to the platform. That does not seem to be the case in the minds of the developers, however, who predict that nearly all profit would end up going to the publishers in that scenario so they won’t be seeking it out themselves.

None of this, however, is the truly baffling part of this little debacle. What really boggles the mind is the fact that Microsoft has passed on a game, a winner of multiple awards, simply because it also has a Mac and Linux version available. Not that any of this behavior is news to people who have followed Microsoft for any length of time, but the strict application of the same old paradigms is incredibly archaic. It feels like Microsoft has taken two steps backward for every one forward.

It’s not even that Microsoft should be forced to publish bad games that also have competitor versions; nobody’s forcing them to publish anything they don’t want to publish. Where is the sense in denying Machinarium, though? If Sony has Product A and Apple has Product A, shouldn’t it stand to reason that Microsoft should also want Product A in order to better pitch their merchandise to consumers?

MachinariumApparently not, though. Instead, it looks as if 360 owners might go without being able to play Machinarium, which is a damn shame. It seems Microsoft is focused on adding exclusives to the ever-growing list of titles it supports. It just doesn’t make sense, though. Having a complete exclusive is great. That draws attention to the platform of choice. Denying an existing brand simply because it decided to branch out seems similar to shooting yourself in the foot: all you are ultimately doing is hurting yourself.

Not only has Microsoft shot themselves in the foot, but they are shooting the feet of their fans at the very same time. Not publishing a game simply because it’s already been published elsewhere does not exactly breed confidence in continuing to bring the best of the gaming industry to the Xbox 360. It’s not like this is the first time this has happened either, as Golgoth Studio was also denied publishing for Toki HD. This is just the first time, in memory, such a popular game has been given the cold shoulder.

To be fair, Toki HD is a remake of a 1989 platformer from Tun Corporation, which was, prior to announcement, completely unknown to at least one Destructoid writer. Adding me to the same list, that makes two writers. Microsoft giving them the big N. O. to a publishing deal certainly doesn’t raise many eyebrows. Not to say that Toki HD is not a game worthy of being published by Microsoft or anything, but Machinarium won ‘Best Visual Arts’ at the 2009 Independent Games Festival. If they will not publish an award-winning game, what will they publish?

Toki HDThis seems to be the point that the majority of those commenting on the related articles seem to miss. Sure, they have the right to deny publishing and Machinarium could always seek another publisher, but this appears to hint at a developing trend. Microsoft will pay for exclusivity but heaven forbid you reach beyond the borders of Bill Gates’ reach. For such an offence, you will surely pay the price.

The entire debacle sets the stage for yet another generation of platform exclusivity battles where only those companies developing consoles come out as winners. For such a consumer-based industry, consumers themselves are probably third or fourth on the list of priorities. First come the platforms themselves, then publishers, then developers, then consumers and possibly last come the developers.

To reiterate, it is not shocking that Microsoft should deny a game that has already been published for its competitors. Strictly in terms of the overall goal of business, it makes sense. On the details level, though, the entire thing stinks and paints a stark portrait of the future of downloadable games, content and especially anything indie. Independent developers that are not willing to bow to the will of the almighty Microsoft will instead have to seek out publishers who will suck them dry or just give up on the whole idea altogether.

So begins another decade of the same old business model, delivered in a new way, is on its way. We, as consumers, can look forward to continued exclusivity of downloadable indie titles simply because Microsoft has the gall to demand it. Well, that and the backing to pay for it.


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On One’s Own: Kingdom of Loathing

cow00On One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

This week is a bit of a departure for On One’s Own. Instead of discussing broad, complex topics in and around the indie gaming scene, this particular piece will be focusing on a single indie game: Kingdom of Loathing. Hopefully, this will become a pattern and future editions will look at other games.

So, with that in mind, let us say that you and I, Constant Reader, were to meet while waiting for a bus. We’d get to talking about this and that, begin to explain some of our interests to the other, and generally enjoy the good company. What if, in the course of explaining my interests, I told you that I regularly play an online game that revolves around stick figures?

You might think less of me but then you would definitely be missing out. I would say that I should know, considering that come December I will have been playing for a grand total of six years. As of writing this, I’ve played for approximately 1,920 days and have managed to spend 192,496 turns traversing the Kingdom. Divided out, I have spent an average of about 100 turns per day, which is impressive considering that a character only gets 40 a day naturally.

What is it about the game that drives me back? That’s the most important question. But almost as important, if not as important as, is what makes Kingdom of Loathing such a good, successful independent game? Well, I will get to that, but first, some background information.

KoLMainScreen.previewThe game was officially launched in early 2003 by Zack “Jick” Johnson. Early in the game’s lifespan, he was joined by Josh “Mr. Skullhead” Nite. Though the original game was nowhere near as massive as it has grown to be, it was still enough to have them reach over 300,000 accounts a year later. As time has gone by, they have recruited heavily from the playerbase. Nearly the entirety of the development team, which helps test new content as well as suggests tweaks, were first players and then developers of the game.

With their indie credentials securely in place, it is time to move on and give the big reveal as to what keeps bringing this sad sap back day after day after day: clear vision. Though the updates to the game are spotty at best—try asking someone who has been playing for years about pre-Ascension, for example—they never cease to update. It could be months before they get around to fixing something, but by golly they are going to fix it at some point.

But even that is not the heart of the matter. It is as if they bought a large whiteboard the day they started up the servers and wrote “Mission Statement: Humorous content for all player types” on it. The game’s funny. Hilarious, even. But to different players, different things are amusing. You know what they say: “You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time, but you can never please all of the people all of the time.”

And yet they still definitely manage to get close. They owe a major portion of their success to Richard Bartle who, among other things, managed to fairly accurately describe the majority of player types in an article of his titled “Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDS.” Bartle is no stranger to MUDs, or MMOs, as he helped design the original multi-user dungeon, accurately called MUD.

loathing-bigIn the article, Bartle discusses the essential player paradigms. In the course of a long discussion, some trends arose that, when summarized, those involved agreed were the key ideas. There are four typical characteristics of any given player that they may find fun about a game: achievement within the game context, exploring the game, socializing with others or imposition upon others. Players either want to break a record, find somewhere new, talk to some close friends or kill a bunch of rivals. Most fall into multiple categories.

The article speaks best for itself, and is certainly worth a read or two, as is another analysis of Kingdom of Loathing by Brett Bixler. Sufficed to say, Socializers (Hearts), Achievers, (Diamonds), Explorers (Spades) and Killers (Clubs) are all different styles of play that a person can adopt and experience. They are so important, in fact, that I would argue that they have almost certainly played a direly important role in the prevalence of Kingdom of Loathing.

This is not to say that Jick or Mr. Skullhead somehow have rights to the idea Bartle presented, but they have certainly chosen to focus nearly all updates to the game around his vision of the four major types of players. In any given discussion about game development, you are likely to hear at least two of the four being mentioned casually as reasoning behind this or that change.

As an example, when they were designing the Ascension portion of the game, they realized it catered almost exclusively to Diamonds and Spades. Hearts, however, really had no specific reason to progress any further into the game. To solve this dilemma, they added a Gift Shop that the player could progressively earn more and more items in so that they could purchase and “gift” them to other players.

2008_07_02_kingdomThis is the kind of thought process that seems to go through their minds from time to time. They look at the current game, as best they can from their positions on high, and try to decide what seems to be missing. Did that last update favor the Hearts and somehow disillusion those oft-forgotten Diamonds? Never fear, they know it and are working on pushing something out to correct the balance.

This does not mean that they haven’t been known to avoid certain types of players or completely unbalance things. Jick has readily admitted again and again that he just isn’t a Club and doesn’t understand how a Club operates. The current PvP system leaves something to be desired, and he and the development team know it, but as he’s the one who mostly has to code things the long-sought update is still drifting somewhere in the aether.

The thing is that he knows players want it. They listen to the players and change things, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, in hopes of providing an even better experience. When presented with solid evidence, in say the forums, that showcases an aspect of the design that is either out of wack or somehow outside the parameters of the game, they’re quit to repair the damage. Ask someone about purple snowcones or roofies, if you have the time, as they’re both prime examples of this exact sort of thing.

That’s what I love about the game. Sure, the community’s great, the game’s fun and funny if a bit repetitive and it can be played in a half hour a day if I need to do limit myself. More than that, though, the developers listen. They bend. They’re human and they show it. They run contests, host radio shows and attend conventions. Isn’t that what being indie is about? Being in tune with your audience?


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On One’s Own: The Boston Indie Showcase

DSC01001On One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

This past weekend I spent an inordinate amount of time walking, reading subway maps and fiddling with my Pokéwalker. The first annual Penny Arcade Expo East was held in Boston and I was, of course, in attendance as I cannot manage to keep myself away from these things. And while on the show floor, I considered it my mission, my responsibility even, to play each and every independent game I could get my filthy mitts on while there.

And I so did. I managed to drag my tired body through the expo hall a great many times in order to play everything I possibly could. Before the article goes any further, I’d like to apologize to the creators of Miegakure. When I came past the booth, people were playing, the game was down or I was on my way to another appointment. I was unfortunately unable to play it so I feel like I somehow let the ball drop. But I did watch it for a good deal of time and feel like I got a grasp of what the game was about.

But even though I managed to miss Miegakure, I did find the time and energy to play (deep breath): Slam Bolt Scrappers, Dearth, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, Waker, Turba, Shank, Charlie Murder and The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile. As well as a huge smattering of mainstream titles of which none will be discussed here.

DSC00994But what kind of impression did all these games leave on me, in total? Well, it further cemented the idea in my head that indie games are necessarily quirky and their creators are, for the most part, human in nature. The product of the minds of a very small group of people tends to be more specifically unique than one that requires a bureaucratic entity to govern it and even indie developers want to play the next biggest game.

But those are all broad, general statements. The specifics are of far more interest to you, Constant Reader, so get to them I shall. The first annual PAX East was actually host to their very own Boston Indie Showcase, which collected a number of local indie developers together to show off their games. The first six in my list above, Slam Bolt Scrappers, Dearth, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, Waker, Turba and Mieagakure all sat together in a little circle near the edge of one of the halls. And, besides the previously mentioned Mieagakure, I played all of them over the course of the convention.

Of the six, the first I managed to get some time in with was AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! by Dejobaan Games. If you don’t already know what the game’s about, you’ve clearly not been kept up to snuff on indie game news. Sufficed to say, it’s been out for a bit and has garnered some positive reviews. If you haven’t played already, you really should.

DSC00972In the game, you fling yourself from the top of a building of some sort and try to accomplish a number of tasks on the way down before gracefully landing in a predetermined zone. Hugs, kisses, flipping the bird and giving thumbs up to different sections of the level will net a varying amount of points depending on your timing. Like old-school arcade games, the point is to get as many as you possibly can. It’s fun, has huge replay value and one of the developers mentioned, off-hand, that he must have been drunk when coding one of the levels. I wasn’t actually sure if he was joking, but I like to think he wasn’t. It’s way more amusing that way.

After AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! came Dearth and then Waker. I lump the two together here as they were both developed by MIT Gambit Game Lab. If you can’t already tell, this means that both games have somewhat ulterior motives: academia. It’s all so ingrained, however, that you’d be hard-pressed to know that they were trying to gather data if they didn’t tell you so up front.

Dearth is full of sketched out Egyptian or Mayan imagery wherein you and a partner can control tiny fish people and run around in circles attempting to get the water beasts chasing you to crash into each other. You heard me. The express intent of the game is to reach the next level but the game is actually trying to gather data on how to make artificial intelligence. I’m not entirely certain how it works, but it does. And my playing through of a couple of levels with another human, dubbed Random Stranger #117, further proved to me that having two brains trying to solve one puzzle at the same time leads to confusion, hilarious confusion that has only bad consequences.

DSC00998The second of the two MIT games, Waker, has two versions: one with and one without narrative. Otherwise, they’re exactly the same. The idea is to see if gaming narrative actually helps engage children and have them learn easier. The game follows a little black shadow of a thing with a tail as it tries to make it from one end of a stage to another. Imagine Braid but instead of time puzzles, it all depends on how fast your little creature is moving. The intent is to help kids learn about velocity and all that good stuff on a mostly observational level. See how it works, understand it better and therefore be able to use the concepts more easily later. You run, and drop the orb when you want to solidify the line you’ve created so you can traverse it to the next stage.

Turba by Keith Morgado was the second-to-last game I gave a go. It’s reminiscent of Bejeweled and a number of other puzzle games that have you match three but it has one little twist: the puzzle moves to the beat of whatever mp3 you happen to have available. Keith was luckily at the station as I began my play to Gorillaz, as I’m not exactly a puzzle game junkie, as he explained to me some of the more specific functions like clicking three of a couple different colors to knock them out at the same time and so on. I’ve never played a single one of them before so this was all new to me. After helping me to actually play the game, he admitted that he’d made the entire game in his room and that, due to using the player’s music, it avoided any copyright infringement. Either way, my time with Turba went entirely too quickly, but the timing just so happened to coincide with the line ceasing to exist in the booth right next door.

And that was rather fortuitous as the line had been going strong since the first day I’d put my eyes on it. Fire Hose Games had brought the best of the litter and the line to play proved it. They’d brought Slam Bolt Scrappers. The gameplay is an intoxicating mixture of a simple fighting game with a large dose of Tetris and some influences from the tower defense genre. You beat up enemies which then turn to a colored Tetris block, which you then drop on your team’s area in order to build up towers of the same color. Red makes rockets, purple makes lasers and blue makes some kind of shielding mechanism. The point of the game is to decimate your opponent’s tower and destroy their gold-rimmed blocks.

DSC01005And goodness, did I destroy some blocks. I was teamed with an odd fellow who only spoke in broken English so we communicated almost entirely through yelps of joy and high-fives. The opposing team was composed of two middle-aged women. I couldn’t make this stuff up. Our first match started and me and my English-butchering partner won within three minutes. Our opponents had thought they were supposed to beat our two avatars up, not build a tower to beat our tower. The developers even let us play another round which wound up being pretty similar.

In the end, each game was quirky, imaginative, interesting, surprisingly addicting and just plain fun. After watching a good deal of Mieagakure, I can safely say the same of it as well. If these are the kinds of indie games we have to look forward to in the future, the future sure looks bright. Here’s to the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle at the end of the year and its, hopefully, equally amazing lineup of indie titles.


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On One’s Own: For the Love of Community

UrbanDeadPlayOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

The community that surrounds the indie game scene is one that leaves most mainstream titles with saliva dripping from their slack jaws. The same can be said of their publishers. But what makes the indie community so, dare I say, special when compared to the more mainstream audience? It is certainly a hard quality to pin down, but the kind of dedication that an indie game enthusiast has is most obvious when taking a look at independent massively multiplayer online games.

Which is a bit of a mouthful. But indie MMOs have been around for a long time, longer even than the term “indie” has been attached to any form of gaming. It all began with programs referred to as multi-user dungeons, or MUDs. They were the precursors to any form of MMO and almost universally designed, implemented and distributed by a single person. There were many variants and some were meant more for other utilities rather than gaming, but derivatives popped up over the years until someone finally made it into a commercially viable product.

But that has not stopped would-be developers from answering the call to make their own versions of whatever fantasy realm they have rocketing around inside their cranium. MUDs were just the beginning, but they showcased the ability of one developer to riff on the mechanics of another. This tradition continues to this day and has bred an entirely new kind of indie game: the browser-based MMO.

udnpWith our subject matter clearly outlined, it becomes only a problem of dissecting the reasons behind the unique community of gamers created around them. It sounds a lot simpler than it actually is. One thing that a number of indie browser-based MMOs do have in common in terms of community is the metagame that surrounds them. Which is exactly as confusing as it sounds.

The metagame is the sphere of knowledge from outside of the strict boundaries of any given game. As an example, if you play chess against your best friend ten times a day and he constantly uses a strategy that ends with a checkmate in four moves and you then deliberately attempt to thwart the same maneuver before there are any obvious signs of it, you are metagaming. Anything used in a game that isn’t expressly from the game, including knowledge, tools and other such things, are considered to fall under the metagame.

Urban Dead is one of the most obvious candidates for both being an offspring from the traditional MUD and for having a compelling metagame. The game is played out in a grid of maps which consist of more grids. Each building has unique names and there only so many malls located in certain suburbs which serve as hubs of activity. Did I mention zombies? The whole idea is that the city of Malton saw an outbreak of zombies which then lead to a quarantine. Not overly creative in terms of premise, but the game continues to be played five years later. Survivors kill zombies while trying to, well, survive and zombies attempt to bring the “barhah” and eat “harmanz.”

In true indie fashion, it was designed, programmed and implemented by a single person: Kevan Davis. If that wasn’t impressive enough, the stats certainly are. The frontpage tells us that there are “1,162,854 dead and rising” and Davis has briefly stated in his online resume that there are 40,000 or more human-controlled characters out there. The first is probably just a counter of sorts with the second being more of an active number, but either way the enormity of it is a bit staggering.

KoLMainScreen.previewPeople have played Urban Dead for years even though content updates have been few and far between. The last actual update to gameplay was months ago and it was almost certainly a tweak to preexisting code. It isn’t all that unusual in the game to wander around and spot characters sitting on thousands of XP because they are already maxed out. To a person new to the game, it might seem incredibly repetitive and not worth the time invested. While it might be incredibly repetitive, the time invested is really only worth what you make of it. The game isn’t that interesting but if you become involved in the metagame, your options expand drastically.

See, Urban Dead has been a simplistic experience since beginning in 2005. It didn’t take long for people to get tired of the old paradigm of shoot, kill, revive and shoot again. As is natural in these kinds of games, people began killing each other even when they weren’t supposed to do so. Player-killers, or PKers, began to manifest in greater and greater numbers. That is, until someone decided to beat them at their own game.

Players took it upon themselves to create a tool to track, kill and then ‘rehabilitate’ PKers in Malton. In a lot of ways, it is just a justification for other players to take part in the PKing but that doesn’t seem to faze those involved. The Rogues Gallery, as it’s called, is a tool designed to allow for players to report the slaying of innocents, their own bounty claims and track the last known locations for any of those on the list. Even though the tool itself is down at current, the forum is still going strong with reports for all such things.

And it’s not like Urban Dead is alone in its metagame. Other browser-based MMOs, like Dark Grimoire or Kingdom of Loathing, share its MUD ancestry and multiple projects being created by fans. The Kingdom of Loathing actually has a multitude of players who have since become developers after creating scripts, sites and various tools for the community. They vary in usefulness but, as an example, if you ever want to know what pop culture references are being made, there’s a site for that.

cow00Kingdom of Loathing is one of those rare sites that allow scripting, bots and other such shenanigans as long as it doesn’t produce any noticeable lag. As long as the bot clicks at about the rate a human would, all is kosher. So a number of amateur and professional developers have taken to building Greasemonkey, Java and Perl scripts to play the game for them. Machines that play games for us sure sounds like progress to me.

This, in a roundabout manner, is how we come to the conclusion that the indie community will often see a game and actually think, “Huh, I could totally do that.” This isn’t at all scientific and mostly conjecture, but I would wager that the majority of players actually have the game designer mentality and a smaller number actually have the ability to implement their own functions. This leads to a certain appreciation on a level that most mainstream audiences don’t have with larger titles: a peer to peer one.

So it’s not really a quality of the players but more of a mindset. They don’t view it entirely as a producer-consumer relationship but instead view it as one colleague would the work of another. This is also why there are so many derivatives of these games out there. Urban Dead certainly has its share of knockoffs, even though it is fairly derivative of an older vampire game itself, and Kingdom of Loathing actually has a number of fan-made games that experiment in the same style. Even if one out of ten is a success, the unique relationship will continue. And that’s what makes the indie scene what it is.


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On One’s Own: The Developer-Publisher Problem

shankOn One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, design, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

As discussed before, a major problem with coming up with a definition for “indie game” really comes down to the single fact that larger non-independent publishers will occasionally pick up what some might have previously considered an indie game. Is Shank any less of an indie title now that EA Partners has teamed up to publish and promote it? Games like this continue to be indie titles, arguably, but have a major push in the public relations department.

But how does this relationship actually work? Is it really beneficial to both parties? It’s an excellent question that your average gamer might not even ponder about twice. In a way, it is comparable to how most goods tend to be made overseas and then packaged wherever they are going to be sold. For example, the shoes on my feet were made in Vietnam. The box, however, was made in the good ole United States of America. I have absolutely no idea how that all actually works, but I’m sure someone in Vietnam is getting the short end of the stick on that deal. (I paid forty bucks for these!)

Of course, the particulars are all different. I wouldn’t necessarily compare independent developers directly to sweatshop workers, exactly, but the situation is analogous. Your average indie developer signs a deal with the metaphorical devil in the shape of a publisher in order to fund and promote their game. This isn’t always the way that these kinds of games come to the attention of the general public but it certainly constitutes the majority.

icon_game_callofdutyThis is not just an issue for indie games either as the entire industry battles with this sort of thing regularly. The recent hubbub at Infinity Ward stemmed partially from the fact that Activision publishes the games they develop. Per their agreement, it seems, the Call of Duty franchise essentially became an Activision franchise. All developers, mainstream or indie, need funding to either continue to work on their games, start work on a new games or promote their games in general. Which is typically how indie games become affiliated with larger publishers.

As briefly mentioned above, Shank from developer Klei Entertainment recently entered into a publishing agreement with EA Partners. And though this column is mostly about the negative aspects of the developer-publisher relationship, Jamie Cheng, Klei Entertainment founder, had nothing but good things to say about the partnership with Electronic Arts. Speaking with 1Up, he was quoted as saying, “We had a clear vision of what we wanted to do with the game, so we had an opportunity to partner up with [EA] and have their marketing muscle.” Perhaps his tune will change in the future but he certainly seems to be happy to be letting someone else do that pesky marketing.

And it is not just Klei Entertainment that holds this opinion. Other developers seem to share this same kind of hands-off approach to marketing with Jamie. If a super-giant publisher wants to promote it, that’s on them to do all the dirty work. Instead of a much smaller company funneling every last dime into a marketing budget, larger firms like Electronic Arts can step in and do that for them. That way the developers can focus on what truly matters to them: the game.

Which is partially the major disconnect between publishers and developers. The developer wants to create an interesting, fun game while the publisher wants to get as many people to buy said game as humanly, and sometimes inhumanly, possible. In a recent panel at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, a number of student and independent developers sat down with the stated goal of helping explain how to make a successful game like they had previously. It included members of the development team for Portal, The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom and flOw. Noticeably, it seems not one spoke of publishing agreements during their brief panel.

flow_ps3_heroPicking up student games, or most indie games for that matter, and getting them out there is a no-brainer for publishers. In terms of monetary investment, would you rather spend five years or more developing a game and a total of two years promoting it… or just promote a game for two years that already has a niche audience but certainly has the potential to grow beyond being only niche? Keep in mind that the game that has been in development for five years might not pan out or meet the expectations set for it.

The choice is fairly obvious. In a world where iPhone games developed by a single person can make a profit of $250,000 in just two months with little to no promotion, cutting a deal with a student showcase winner or other game festival entrants is akin to planting a money tree or two. A small investment is likely to bring in large profits. Investing in games festival winners is about as sure a thing as it gets in game publishing.

It is not always love and sunshine in this relationship, though. There are the horror stories about publishers dictating design to developers, the obscene amounts of money that publishers make off the creative assets they manage and, of course, the ever-present worry of groupthink in the community at large. Don’t just take my word for it, though.

Timothy Ryan’s blog on Gamasutra includes an entry talking about just this sort of thing. Specifically, he looks at the way in which publishers can either be far too hands-off or become too involved in the minutiae of development. He focuses in on publishing producers and the role they play in development. Is it really so hard to imagine this happening in an indie developer situation? The answer: Not at all. In fact, it probably happens often.

pixeljunk500As for the obscene amounts of money that publishers make, we need look no further than the president of Q-Games, Dylan Cuthbert. Speaking with Develop back in January of this year, he made a pathetic appeal (derived from pathos, people) in what may seem like an effort to demonize publishers who bankroll smaller developers. He notes that he could make the entire PixelJunk series over again just on bonuses that some executives at these publisher make on top of their salary.

The groupthink worry is best summed up, albeit unintentionally, in an article by Jim Sterling about art games and innovation. Though he criticizes indie games and innovation in general, the nugget of his argument seems to be that innovation and indie games are not innately good or bad. They can be one or the other, sometimes both, but it all comes down to the effort put in the end product. This too stems from the complicated publisher-developer relationship. Though Sterling seems to be hit-or-miss for me, this one is definitely worth a read and really speaks for itself.

Hope is not lost, however. It is not as if this problem has existed within a vacuum and gone unnoticed by those with the power to change it. A number of developers have actually gotten together to form the Indie Fund. In theory, it will function in much the same way as a larger publisher would by bankrolling initiatives but skipping the whole signing in blood part.

CritterCrunchNathan Vella, president of Capybara Games, spoke with Ars Technica on the subject saying, “The end goal of a publisher is to hit sales targets, make a return on investment, and generate profit for their shareholders… In literally every way possible, this can, and normally does, conflict with the end goal of developers. Especially indie developers. Sure, we all want a return on investment, but we want that ROI to come off the back of a project we are passionate about and a final product we love. Developers want to make games that, on a small scale or big scale, push the medium forward. There’s a really big conflict there.”

2D Boy’s Ron Carmel added, “Developers often don’t get publishers and vice versa. Neither is evil, but both are too caught up in their own needs to really see things from the other’s point of view.” Sure, some households might agree that Bobby Kotick is evil or EA is where developers go to die, but it is ultimately a two-way street. Maybe the Indie Fund is the first step toward building more of these streets and stimulation for more introspection on the subject within publishers and developers alike.