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

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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: An Exploration of Indie Art

kirbysadventureOn 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.

Indie games are fun to play but, more than that, they are interesting to look at. This might sound trite and a bit underwhelming, but the fact of the matter is that a game that looks good and appeals to our senses is therefore more likely to be played. Unfortunately, what many these days consider to be pleasing to the eye is merely a constant race for the highest quality, best definition and the better number of… well, everything. The struggle for high-definition is one that large, corporate developers and publishers fight on a day-to-day basis.

Even back when Mega Man was first released, it was on par, if not exceeding, the expected graphics at the time. While, technically, Kirby’s Adventure or Super Mario Bros 3 might be the most colorful and best uses of sheer computing power from the time of the NES, Mega Man was pixelated, bright and just unrealistic enough for a man with a light bulb as a head to be used as a boss. Part of the allure might have been the challenge but hand-in-hand with that was always the art design.

500x_megaman10_01This is why for Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10, direct descendants of their old NES relatives, both utilize those same characteristics. One of the interesting conundrums, however, of these releases harking back to the franchise’s beginnings is simply why? Why would Capcom go back and put out a genuine sequel to a game with NES-era graphics? Especially now?

The answer almost certainly rests in the continued prominence of indie games. Indie games continue to sell well despite constantly getting the short stick on graphics. Many of what gamers seem to consider the best indie games have incredibly simplistic graphics. Partially, this is due to budget concerns but is also linked to the rise of minimalism in gaming.

Minimalism, like so many styles of art, is hard to define. Thank goodness for dictionaries! Essentially, minimalism is a style wherein the artist strips whatever they are creating down to the absolute bare-bones essentials. Illusions, decoration and what mostly amounts to fluff are thrown out the window. These kinds of designers look for the bare necessities, those simple bare necessities. (Must… resist… Disney joke.)

Another fairly recent title from a bigger publisher to head down the rabbit hole of minimalism is Echochrome, the 2008 title published by Sony for both the Playstation Portable and the Playstation 3. Echochrome utilizes an engine called the Object Locative Environment Coordinate System, which is just a fancy way of saying that it determines what happens in the game based on the current camera perspective. Depending on how you have the camera view titled, different things might happen on the screen.

echochromeTilted one way, your character will start walking and then end up on the ceiling when you tilt it back. Overall, it is a very confusing experience and obviously reminiscent of M. C. Escher’s artwork. But while the gameplay is a bit confusing, the artwork is incredibly simple. The character you control is pretty much what many designers might first craft in order to place a more recognizable skin on. It’s basically a skeleton. The areas you walk around on? Platforms created by straight black lines with white interiors.

These kinds of games do not have huge art budgets; they don’t need to send out casting calls for voice acting and any number of other more traditional elements are completely thrown out for what they might call the essential experience. Echochrome is a puzzle game where a wire character traverses different platforms at different angles. Mega Man 10 is a platformer where you run, jump and blast your way to the final boss. They both have roots in the simpler times of gaming but the reason they have come to light most recently is the prevalence of this style in games that do very well and cost very little: indie titles.

Part of this has to do with limitations, of course, but at some point a designer has to actively decide to use simplistic graphics. Somewhere along the line, thatgamecompany decided that Flower would only use the controller’s tilting functions to simulate the movement of the wind on the petals. It’s true that the limitation is sometimes forced, like with Jason Rohrer’s Passage, but the majority of the time it is left up to the developers… who then typically choose to be simplistic as a cost-cutting measure.

passage2But the reason that the art of indie games work so well, and why bigger publishers are starting to pick up on this too, is that removing a number of defined elements allows the player to construct an environment of their own choosing. This may not make a lot of sense at first, but then think about how a piece of fiction might use understatement. The things that we do not know, cannot know or are not told tend to be the most important part of the experience.

They leave it up to our imagination. Of course, it’s a fine line between imaginative and dull. Most games rely on gameplay to keep the experience fun just in case the art, at least in this way, fails. That is not to say either one is more important than the other, just that the essential gameplay and art work together to craft the experience. Both are understated in an attempt to make you extrapolate further meaning. At least, this is what a number of designers do.

A number of other designers, however, take the same approach as Capcom and Sony have taken. They see this return to an older style of graphics and, logically, conclude that this is a return to the roots of gaming and what some might think of as a “retro revolution” of sorts. In reality, the original thought of some indie developers has been photocopied so many times that it has lost all of its artistic meaning and depth. Not all indie games work this way and certainly not all of them are good. Sometimes, indie is actually just a moniker for a cheap production by one guy that doesn’t mean much of anything.

It is the games that do mean something, that stick to this original emphasis on minimalist principles, that are the best indie games. It doesn’t really matter if they’re popular or if they sell well (although their developers would like you to support them, as would I) but only if they cause people to well and truly think. That’s what any good book, game or any other piece of art will do: stimulate thought.

platosCave copyIn a lot of ways, the divide between mainstream games and indie games resembles the difference between those seeing shadows and the freed prisoner in the Allegory of the Cave. In this ancient allegory, people are born strapped to a wall so that they see only shadows being cast from a fire behind them and hear only echoes from the noise above. They come to believe that shadows and echoes make up the sum of the world, as it is all they have seen and heard. The shadows are reality versus shadows being a reflection of reality and so on.

At some point, one prisoner is freed and comes to learn the truth of the situation. That prisoner then attempts to inform those still trapped to the wall about what it is the freed one has learned but those still kept prisoner see only shadows. In a world where meaning is often deeply personal and hard to describe to another person, how can a person explain a meaningful reaction to an indie game?


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On One’s Own: The Innovation of Limitation

rohrer_sleep_deathOn 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.

One thing that does not differentiate between your regular developers and the more independent developers is the limitation of resources. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, there will always be something that needs to be cut, refocused or rethought in order for a game to progress from idea to reality. Though it might seem like an entirely negative process, considering that it is by definition cutting back, it can lead to some interesting design decisions in order to compensate for lack of sufficient time, money or technology.

Many of the qualities that are often associated with indie games are simply remnants of a limited budget. Crude artwork, obscure music and simplistic control schemes have turned out to be qualifiers of indie games for just this reason. The lack of a big publisher or developer hinders the design process in the worst way: lack of available resources. Resources being broadly defined here as time, money and technology. To be fair, an indie developer consisting of, say, four students at Digipen have all the time in the world to make their game. Even so, they are still limited by the sheer amount of work ahead of them with such a small team.

Silent_HillIn a way, this limitation becomes the inspiration for innovative thought. As an anecdotal example, it’s often claimed that back during the development of Silent Hill, the developers at Konami had wanted an open game world. However, the hardware at that time just could not handle rendering such an expansive environment; the technology just wasn’t there to realize their vision, regardless of how big a developer they were. Instead of eliminating an open world, they added a layer of fog to the mix. And so the foggy environment of Silent Hill has since been dreary and bleak due to limitations imposed on the original. It’s pretty much a series trademark by now.

So how is it that indie games continue to be produced, even on their much lower budget of limited time, limited money and the ever-present limits of technology? One look at the amount of sheer garbage in any given indie games section offers a pretty good answer. But a better question might be, how do indie games of such quality continue to be produced under these conditions? Braid, at least the Xbox 360 version, is sitting pretty at around 92% at GameRankings while the WiiWare version of World of Goo has a whopping 94%. Apparently, it’s not as if these so-called limitations have actually hindered them critically. At least not all of them. But it doesn’t answer the question of how.

To put it simply, indie games aren’t actually designed to be fantastic games. Instead, the majority of them seem to be designed to provide a distinct and unique experience in order to make up for that fact. The game is just a vehicle for the experience. Much like films or books are intended to convey experiences, games are only a means to an end. Arguably, almost all games tend to work toward this outcome rather than rely entirely on visuals or gameplay. Developers tend to strive to be more like the Steven Spielberg, as opposed to the Michael Bay, of the game-developing world.

IcoDepending on what sphere of influence you are in, all of these limitations can either be a frustration or joy. Or a bit of both, as is the case for Fumito Ueda, the man behind Shadow of the Colossus and the cult-hit Ico. Speaking with Level, a games magazine, Ueda said, “If we don’t have any limit to work from, it becomes hard to make anything good out of an idea. But if we on the other hand have a very distinct technical limit it’s impossible to go beyond it. It will put the bar in a certain place without any way to raise it.”

On the flip side, many of those in the indie community see these sorts of limitations as more of a challenge or puzzle that needs solving in order to adequately and accurately convey whatever experience they intend. In an interview with Indiegames.com, Wan Hazmer, the guy behind Ballistic Wars and The Last Canopy, said, “The more limitations, the more creative one gets!” Designers are required to constantly rethink and rework things when they encounter an immovable limitation.

And it seems that many in the indie game community agree with him. A member of Kokoromi, what Wired refers to as a collective of experimental game designers, Damien Di Fede was quoted back in 2007 as stating that “[t]he hardest thing in the world is to decide what to do when someone says, ‘You can do anything.’” It’s the age-old problem of the blank page—where to start. Being given absolutes, as in you have to be finished in this amount of time or have to be able to fit it in 256 pixels, leads to creative design solutions. Don’t believe me? Just check out Jason Rohrer’s Passage.

PassagePassage is and was Rohrer’s entry to the competition called “Gamma 256″. It fits in 256 pixels, can be played with an Xbox 360 controller, and has a 5 minute span of playtime before the game is considered ‘over’ and completed. It’s simple. There are not a lot of visual accolades that can be crammed in with the limitations imposed. And yet, people still thought an awful lot about his game and Ian Bogost, a rather prominent name in the field, even praised it outright in an article of his own.

“But James,” you might say, “what does this have to do with the majority of indie games out there and why should I care?” Well, theoretical reader, here’s why: indie games will lead the way in terms of original ideas and innovation. And it’s because of, you guessed it, the limitations they handle. Lack of huge payrolls might mean that there’s no massive backing for any project, but it also frees a developer to create games that may never have seen the light of day otherwise.

Jason Rohrer’s newest project, titled Sleep Is Death, is a two-player story-telling game that involves using one player as the actual player and setting the other up as a “game master” of sorts where they respond to all the text-based shenanigans of the first player. In order to pre-order the game, you just need a measly $9 or $14 if you purchase past the release date. Clearly, it’s not marketed like a regular videogame, so that takes some of the expenditure off, but there are still resources tied up in it and it does represent an investment. Even so, if the game is absolutely horrid and nobody understands it or how to play, it is only a drop in the proverbial bucket overall.

Too_HumanThat is not to say that companies like Sony don’t have the capital to blow on these kinds of projects. They do and at times make the leap of faith to a place that isn’t a sure bet. (Heavy Rain, anyone?) But you have take into consideration the sheer amount of money spent on developing a AAA title in this day and age. Too Human, a AAA game that ended up being a massive disappointment in sales, cost over $60 million dollars to make. Part of the problem with Too Human was a lack of limitation. They even built their own engine after deciding that the Unreal Engine 3 was too confining for them.

Rohrer’s projects, on the other hand, are financed and developed on his own. The same goes for Wan Hazmer’s games. Being that their design team is composed of only a single person, themselves, they are allowed to set their own goals and only use as many resources as they care to expend. In a similar fashion, many iPhone applications have incredibly low production costs, sell for less than a dollar and finish it up by reaping major profits—even when they don’t sell all that well. This has also caused a massive influx of games that are, well, garbage. But that’s for another column.

Heavy_RainWhat it comes down to is that companies like Sony are more concerned with ensuring that they will make money off any given venture. They want a game that sells. In fact, more than simply wanting a game that sells, they need a game that sells. Their investors demand it. Rohrer and Hazmer want a game that people will play and enjoy. Sure, there’s money involved, but it’s not the ultimate goal of either of them.

In short, they design to design. They approach it as a puzzle and, like Gregory House, enjoy the thrill of it. Basically, they are the kind of people who think inside the box. In this way, they seek to change the way we fundamentally approach gaming. Somewhat ironically, that’s why indie developers will continue to be the ones to push the boundaries. Not because they have unlimited resources or because they have access to all the best tools, people and public relations but because they have limited resources and tools.


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On One’s Own: The Rise of the Mainstream Indie

World of Goo On One’s Own is a column about, you guessed it, independent gaming. Specifically, nothing specific. The wayward wanderings of DIYGamer’s James Bishop might lead to probing art, gameplay, reception or a number of other aspects related to independent games. He might even talk about general gaming as it corresponds to the independents! (Henceforth referred to as the Browncoats) But you can rest assured that all things indie will be carefully considered on a weekly basis.

If you were to ask your average gamer to name an indie game, they would most likely name one that has been brought to the marketplace sometime in the past five years. That might be generalizing a bit, but there’s truth in it. We, as consumers, are constantly bombarded by a steady stream of indie titles, which is in no way at all a bad thing. But what has suddenly gotten into us that we are paying so much more attention to indie games? Why indie and why now?

Independent games are not exactly new by any standards. There have been a great number of independent games developed since the introduction of the console era and before that the original PCs. They just were not what some might typically think of as independent. That Drug Wars game for your calculator that it seems like everyone played eight to ten years ago? Technically, that’s an independent game. There were a large amount of shareware games that made their rounds via floppy disk back in the day as well. But that is not what your typical gamer these days might associate with the indie game scene.

Another_WorldWhat, exactly, has pushed indie games to the forefront of the mainstream audience’s mind since then? Especially considering that it is not like they did not exist and then suddenly did. We’re not looking at an entirely new art form, it’s just more visible. Somewhat ironically, the answer lies in the exact same reason we ended up with gaming in the first place: the ever-onward march of technology.

It used to be that to reach a large enough audience to be even barely noteworthy, a developer would need to team up with a publisher that could then get them some marketing and retail space. This is, of course, a generalization again but the basic idea of it is there. If you were some no-name developer, without the backing of a well-known publisher, it was unlikely that you would ever see your particular box with those zany characters you worked so hard on ever see the fluorescent light of a store’s shelf.

But like any good tech person will tell you, progress will eventually find a way. Or maybe that’s the guy from Jurassic Park… who is, technically, talking about life. That’s what happened, though. Eventually, consumers as a whole outgrew the antiquated notion of buying things by going out and getting them. Call it Westernization or whatever you want, but we’d rather have someone bring things to us over purchasing them for ourselves. I mean, come on, that requires effort! It’s just so darn convenient to order something. Less expensive, too.

It didn’t take long for games to make the jump either. Once people started ordering goods of any kind from the Internet, it spread like wildfire to all different markets. You still had your huge publishers with the marketing budget to spend on commercials and other attempts to garner attention, but the word of mouth sensation that is the Internet can’t be stopped. In a lot of ways, the Internet is one big never-ending chat room. Even if you leave, there will be people mucking about on the tubes in some fashion. Think 4chan but even worse. Or better. Either way, there’s a lot more /b/ out there than anybody will ever admit. In any case, you can’t stop the signal and someone, somewhere, is talking about the newest indie game to come out.

FlowerThis perceived renaissance in independent games is not simply because we have suddenly started making better games either. Sure, there are a number of great indie titles out there but the movement did not start with Flower or even Braid. These were just the heralds of the real reason. We actually have digital distribution to thank for the abundance of indie games that we now have at our fingertips.

Where we before may have needed to know a developer personally, or develop our own games, in order to get our hands on something that might truly be dubbed with the dubious honor of being ‘indie,’ now all it takes is a quick jaunt to the Xbox Live Marketplace or Playstation Store. Or WiiWare, if that’s your thing. All of these services, plus platforms like Steam, provide easy and immediate access to almost any game that a person could desire to play. With the ease of access, came an ease of publishing, thus the huge influx of what we refer to as indie games.

This, as stated closer to the beginning of this column, is not a bad thing in and of itself. The easy accessibility has led to the increased attention paid to all things indie, if not directly then at least tangentially. But the rise of the mainstream indie has also produced growing pains in the scene as a whole. The definition of what exactly makes a game independent has become broken and not easily explained.

The Misadventures of P. B. WinterbottomAs a recent example, The Misadventures of P. B. Winterbottom, a game released on Xbox Live Arcade just this past week, was originally intended to only be Matt Korba’s graduate thesis but was then picked up and published by 2K Play. With the rise of social networking sites, we’re also being inundated in an entirely new way with quick-start casual Flash games that many might, and do, classify as independent games. It is almost like a brand new world out there filled with hybridizations of all our old definitions. And that is why asking your average gamer what an indie game constitutes will consistently end up with varied answers. I mean, heck, even Mike Capps considers Epic Games independent.

Regardless of definition, it is clear that independent gaming has certainly hit its stride. More and more games seem to be coming out of the woodwork daily. Unfortunately, without clear guidelines it could all lead to disaster as well. But there is always hope for the future and as long as people continue to get together and share interesting ideas, there will always be changing definitions and new developers to inspect. And new developers mean new games. And I like games.