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

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10 More Seconds of Raitendo

experimentalRaitendo’s flash games are known for controversy and commentary. Most recently with his “10 Second Trilogy” he’s turned the mirror on game development itself by pointing out the absurd nature of some of the things indie games are praised for. And what better angle for commentary than from a developer themselves.

His latest effort called Experimental Gameplay in 10 Seconds skewers simplistic twists touted as innovation. The previous two entries in the series are: Passage in 10 Seconds and An Abtract Art Game in 10 Seconds which showcase hilarious reactions to two other types of games.

(I also recommend checking out his older games Doeo and You Only Live Once for some other interesting and more traditional games he’s made.)

That monocle dropping at the end of Passage gets me every single time.


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The Hands of Time [Editorial]

jill I keep noticing the parallels between the modern indie scene and the old shareware boom from the early 1990s. For those who missed that train, in the period after the Great Crash of 1984 and before the PC was powerful enough to run much more than King’s Quest, there was a sort of DIY phase in the Western game industry. Even the biggest PC developers, like Sierra and Origin, were a bit provincial, and in the arcades Atari Games and Midway were struggling just to be noticed amongst the flood of Japanese imports — so from a mainstream perspective there was slim opportunity for a young designer.

Much as with modern indie games, the answer was to skirt the mainstream, and distribute games through dial-up bulletin boards and word-of-mouth. There are a few differences, though. For one, the shareware boom happened in an era when one or two or a small handful of people could still produce a major, mainstream game. It was getting rarer, but for context the average Sega Genesis game had only half a dozen key staff. So for aspiring game designers, it was not unreasonable to look at shareware as a sort of a potential back door into the industry. Indeed, that’s where we get id Software and Epic Games.

Fixing a Hole

Another thing is that around the turn of the ’90s the PC was sort of a blank slate. 256-color VGA was still fairly new, and Sound Blaster digital sound was a revelation. A 33-Mhz processor was a firecracker, and extended RAM was a luxury. So suiting the geography, most PC games were either simulations or slow-paced adventure games. When Carmack and Romero found a technique for smooth scrolling, it was a breakthrough worth pitching to Nintendo. Yet much as Atari was uninterested in Nintendo’s hardware, Nintendo saw little potential in the PC game market.

With mainstream developers slow to take advantage of the platform, it was also not unfathomable for a handful of clever young coders to be at the forefront of technology and design. So it is that within about five to seven years a bunch of industry outsider nobodies dragged the platform, and along with it the entire medium, up by its bootstraps. The explosion in graphical accelerators comes entirely out of do-it-yourself designers trying to make a name for themselves, trying to be just like the big guys who they admired in the 1980s.

This, of course, created a culture clash. The PC gamers who had been there the whole time reacted poorly to the insolence and the brashness and the overall style of these upstarts. They liked PC games just fine the way they are. The PC wasn’t just an open-platform game console; it naturally lent itself to a different, slower and deeper, psychological space. And the aesthetic that these newcomers were injecting — sure, it was making the PC more popular for gaming. Yet in its Miyamoto-fueled reverie it was also drowning out demand for the kinds of games that attracted PC gamers to the platform.

There are exceptions, of course, but broadly the shareware boom was an attempt by North American designers to answer the mainstream success of Nintendo and Sega using the only available tools — which meant bending the tools to make them work more like the game consoles of the day, and using those tools to mimic Japanese design aesthetics. Though the movement started small, the best efforts were so revolutionary and so popular that they attracted competition like a four-star restaurant in the bad part of town, gentrifying the PC, driving up development costs, and making the platform much bigger than Shareware’s original form of distribution.

Just around this time the Web took off, further putting the PC in the cultural focus and effectively killing off the dial-up BBS. Even if community-based distribution had still been appropriate to the scale of development and the level of sales and cultural saturation enjoyed by a game like Quake, the communities themselves were vanishing in favor of direct distribution. So the whole shareware concept kind of died off around the time that its children found the success they were after, and the West had its healthy design platform again.

The Information Age

Modern indie games are kind of the next generation of shareware. You still see a bunch of people hoping to “break into” the “industry” by making their own games, or just trying to recreate their favorite games from their childhood — that’s all still there. But, well.

On the first point, it’s nice that there’s a support structure and a place to go for people motivated to take their art into their own hands — and maybe in the long term the influx of original, developed voices will do the industry some good. (Arguably, we’ve already seen some of the effects in games like Portal.) Yet now the industry does exist, and there are several routes into it. And it’s unlikely that an individual developer will abruptly jerk that industry in a new direction, as they could in the early ’90s.

On the second point, tribute games are fine and well but it’s unlikely now that imitation of familiar forms will have the same effect as it might in the days of Commander Keen. So indie games serve a bit of a different role than they used to. A developer might charge a few bucks, and might make a few bucks. He or she might find a job, or a popular following. But the focus is far less on the objective, on overt success, than it used to be. And this is, I think the biggest difference.

For the most part, the flash and bang is over — and the only thing that can fill that space is actual discussion. I don’t mean to get too precious about it, but it strikes me that the standard of the indie scene hits squarely in the rarely-met ideals of the shareware movement: a community, talking both more closely and more broadly than ever before, sharing and demonstrating their observations about game design while trying to use game design to demonstrate their own observations. The distribution channels are more reliable than ever. If you get your game up on Xbox Live Indie Games, or on Steam, or even if you just have a decent website and you spread the word enough, people can find it. If it’s any good, chances are people will talk about it and make an effort to find it.

It’s not a way to get rich, but it’s a way to gain respect. And broadly speaking, the games that get the most respect aren’t the clones and the tributes — the first episode now freely available on the machine you use to do homework — but the games like Passage and Seiklus, that express a remarkable perspective in a remarkable way.

Today, I think the DIY movement is about as healthy as it has been. And now that the grandeur is out of the way, it’s on the right track. Each generation learns from the mistakes of its forefathers, and with the Internet we now have all of time at our hands. And a whole lot of time on our hands, at that.


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Passage vs. Machinarium [Tournament]

PassagevsMachinarium

The last week for the first round of 32!

Here we are, another new tournament match up. But, as usual, before we begin let’s run through a quick update to one of last week’s tournaments. It would seem that Braid has, somewhat, narrowly beat Runman: Race Around the World meaning that Braid will be heading off to the round of 16 where it’ll face off against the wildly popular N.

Anyway, now that that’s out of the way let’s move on to today’s match up. Once again I’ve decided to mix things up a bit. Instead of going down the line we are featuring the Passage vs. Machinarium bout.

Up first, we have Jason Rohrer’s incredibly deep, and surprisingly short Passage. This is a game that’s been lauded by critics everywhere as being deep in meaning and emotion. Despite it’s relatively short game life, most people seem to continue to recommend it.

Not to be counted out so quickly, however, is Amanita Studio’s brilliantly creative adventure game, Machinarium, which was released last year. The game has been well received by both fans and critics all over the world for it’s amazing artwork and unquestionably hard puzzles.

So which game will take the cake? Cast your vote now!


Check out the Bracket!

Other Match-Ups running right now!

Spelunky vs. 5 Days a Stranger
Dwarf Fortress vs. Trine
World of Goo vs. Iji
Cave Story vs. Torchlight


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Alt-Play: Jason Rohrer Anthology announced for DSiWare

gravitationSo continues the slow drift of indie games to the mainstream download channels. Following the high-profile Wii ports of indie heavyweights such as Cave Story and La Mulana (and indeed the announcement of Diamond Trust of London for DS, several of Jason Rohrer’s early opuses will soon be bundled for play on the Nintendo DSi.

The Latin America based Sabarasa is publishing an anthology of 2007′s influential-yet-controversial Passage, forced-cooperation game Between, and Passage semi-follow-up Gravitation, the latter two both from 2008. Available separately will be Primrose, his iPhone puzzle game from last year.

To editorialize a bit, anthology releases like this, rather like a collection of short stories or short subject films, may soon be an important consumer model for showcasing unusual design concepts. Witness the success of Valve’s Portal, a critical darling (itself based on an indie game project) that many would have overlooked if not for its inclusion in Valve’s Orange Box. With the strict pricing models and content expectations of the commercial market, it’s hard for a small, original title to hold its own. But arrange several games around a theme, or an individual voice such as Jason Rohrer, and you’ve got the basics of an intriguing package.

Sabarasa has yet to confirm a release date; for now the Anthology is simply listed as “upcoming”.


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One More Week to Preorder Sleep is Death

Sleep is Death 1Jason Rohrer’s next game Sleep is Death is heading towards release in just two weeks time.

If you’re a fan of his prior work, you may already be amped for this next game, which pits two players against each other in a creation / reaction versus match. One player weaves the story and the backgrounds while the other both acts and reacts to their surroundings. While it’s currently only going to work with local multiplayer, if you have any creative minded friends, it is sure to spawn some interesting combinations of stories.

Rohrer has made the game available for preorder for $5 off its launch price. So until April 9th, you can go ahead and order the title for just $9. Once the April 16th launch hits, the price rises to $14.

If you’re curious about what the fuss is about, Brandon Boyer wrote a great in-depth preview of the title over at Boing Boing.


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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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Jason Rohrer Puts Player 1 under Player 2′s Control

Sleep Is Death Jason Rohrer has a new project called Sleep Is Death. Unlike Rohrer earlier game, Passage, this game is longer than 5 minutes and requires a second person to play.

From the slideshow on the game’s website, Sleep Is Death seems to be a game where one player controls the main character and the other player controls everything else in the game. That sounds crazy, and it probably is, but it’s also pretty exciting.

The players trade 30-second turns. The first player just has to move a little and type, treating the game as an adventure game. The second player has a simple editing suit at their hands to react to whatever the first player types.

You can preorder the game for $9 or wait till it’s released and pay $14. An order comes with two copies of the game, because Sleep Is Death is a two-player game.

[via Jason Rohrer's worklog]