Tag Archives: Rants

Wrong McGrath: Why Linear Storytelling in Games Matters

This year, Gamercamp invited cheery Mary DeMarle from Eidos Montreal (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) to speak about storytelling in video games and other interactive content. It was one of those talks that made me want to stand up and yell “YOU’RE WRONG YOU’RE WRONG YOU’RE WRONG” in the middle of it, but that would hardly be polite.

Another audience member, Shawn McGrath (DYAD) had just finished giving his own presentation, and apparently sat through Mary’s talk thinking “YOU’RE RIGHT YOU’RE RIGHT YOU’RE RIGHT.” Moments after the talk, Shawn was interviewed by Toronto game mag Dork Shelf, to whom he imparted these nuggets of half-baked “wisdom”:

I think linear story and interactive anything are completely diametrically opposed. They make no sense together at all, and any attempt to put storylines in games, in any traditional sense, is completely idiotic.

A live talk may not have been the time and place to shout “YOU’RE WRONG”, but Dork Shelf has a comments section where any asshat with an opinion and a keyboard can drop vitriolic truth bombs. And so i am, and so i did:

Ryan Henson Creighton says:

i did some soul-searching and thought-formulating during Gamercamp as well, and arrived at the conclusion that folks like Shawn who praise “emergent” storytelling are stuffed with crap. No, not “full” of crap – STUFFED with crap, so that you couldn’t cram a single glob of crap into their crap-packed selves if you tried cramming it in there with a cannon rammer. Blog post to follow.

This is that blog post.

Sympathy for the Devil

Through all of this, please understand that i love Shawn and i think he’s great … stuffed full of crap, and too cocky by half, but lovable regardless. This was the man who, two years prior at Gamercamp, was asked during Q&A how DYAD is actually played, and he responded “oh – you wouldn’t understand it.” Wow! That’s the kind of hubris that makes you very famous, or very punched in the face. Shawn is the former. … for now. :)

i’m going to see if i can restate or frame Shawn’s point of view, because i’ve heard it before: if you have an interactive thing, like a video game, and that thing is constrained by a linear story where the player has no agency whatsoever, and is only pulling levers and dials to advance through that linear story, then there’s no point in the thing being interactive to begin with. Go create a book or a movie – something suited to linear storytelling. Don’t make a video game. (Did i get that right, Shawn?)

i’ve heard a similar argument about animation. So the argument goes: if your movie could have been shot live action, and there’s no “excuse” to animate it, then don’t animate it. i heard this a lot when the uncanny valley poster child, The Polar Express, was released. “Wow! That 3D puppet looks SO DAMNED MUCH like Tom Hanks!” Great. Why not just use Tom Hanks in the first place?

You know, this would be a lot more straightforward if you’d let me wear the conductor’s hat instead of eight thousand tiny motion sensors on my friggin’ face.

There are, of course, exceptions here. Animation can evoke a certain mood – an other-wordliness – which, on its own, can be worth the extra effort. Then there are films like Persepolis and Fritz the Cat which are animated to match the graphic novels on which they’re based. It feels like a better approach than filming a live action conversion, as with Ghost World.

Of course, Scarlett Johansson makes a compelling case for live action.

So the argument, in sum: if your game is interactive, and your interactions don’t impact the outcome of the story (as was the complaint with the maligned Mass Effect 3 ending, then don’t structure your game around a linear story because there’s no point. Shawn even posits that it’s theoretically mathematically impossible to structure a game such that every choice you make impacts the story, because you get this exponentially branching tree. A developer could never create enough content to complete such a game.

The Alternative

So now, what all the cool kids are talking about as a solution to the linear storytelling “problem” (note: absolutely not a problem – see below) are six dollar words like “procedural” and “emergent” storytelling. Emergent storytelling, supposedly, results from building a big toy-like sandbox game (a la Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft) and letting your players run amok, creating their own fun and, consequently, their own stories.



And here’s where that all falls down: call it what you like, but what happens in a sandbox game is not a story. It’s an experience. It doesn’t become a story until you retell it, and in the retelling, it becomes linear, because stories, by their very nature, are linear. A YouTube video of Grand Theft Auto horse mod shenanigans is a linear retelling of an emergent experience. Put another way, it’s not a story until it’s told – until it’s codified as a story in your brain, and then optionally retold via YouTube or fan fiction or water cooler chat.

Let’s say you’re playing Minecraft and you build an awesome lava-filled house with no back door, and at night it’s besieged by a big throng of zombies. You have no weapons, and your house is flooded with lava. But you had built a platform above the house entrance, and you climb up the platform and drop a bunch of gravel on the zombies, killing the entire crowd. Pretty cool.

i’ll be logging out now. Tell me when it’s morning.

That’s a thing that happened to you while playing Minecraft. It was an experience, not a story. It doesn’t become a story until put story parameters around it – isolating that one 12-minute experience from the rest of your 5-hour Minecraft play session – and then you’re at the office water cooler the next day and you optionally recount your story-forumlated tale.

In that recounting, you’ve put a structure around the experience – a very familiar storytelling structure: the premise (house besieged by zombies), the conflict (zombies gonna killya), the crisis (nowhere to go cuz lava), the climax (triumphant zombie-gravelling) and the denouement (presumably picking up a whole lot of dead zombie loot outside the house). Every aspect of your experience that doesn’t fit the story structure (ie the 3 hours of gathering materials for your house) doesn’t make the cut. That’s because you’ve edited it out in your brain – decided it wasn’t story.

The story only exists in the telling – whether to yourself, or to others.

Sharing is Caring

This zombie victory story is the same story – one of only a handful that humans ever tell – that you’ve been told in books and movies and other video games. And the telling is likely successful because it’s relatable. In fact, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever recount an experience from Minecraft as anything other than a relatable story to your listeners’ ears, because if they don’t get it … if they can’t empathize … they’ll stop listening. And then you’ll become that guy at the water cooler.

If your listeners are Minecraft players, so much the better. There are only so many stories that humans tell. We repackage them, remix them, and retell them, but they have the same core themes and structure. Other Minecraft players can relate, because they’ve all had similar (not identical, but similar) experiences: the narrow escape, the lucky shot with an arrow, the hours-of-building-only-to-be-undone-by-an-exploding-creeper. The storytelling is pleasurable or edifying because we’ve all had the same, or similar, experiences.

Observational humour is funny because we’ve all been there.

Water cooler retelling is also very pleasurable if we’ve had the exact same experience. Back when scheduled teevee viewing was more of a thing, everyone would go to work the next day and talk about who shot J.R., or did you catch that crazy movie The Duel about the guy facing off against an unseen murderous truck driver?

The Point of a Shared Experience

A game with a linear story affords us that pleasure. In the past few months, i’ve heard different people describing the LucasArts time-travelling classic Day of the Tentacle, and each person has used the same example to convey the game’s brilliance: “There’s something stuck up in a tree, so you go back in the past and cut down the tree so that the object is freed up in the future.” And then someone who has played the game chimes in “I remember that part!” And it feels good. Human beings have made a pleasurable connection through storytelling and the remembrance of a shared experience.

(and WHAT a shared experience!)

Co-operative linear games like Journey, Battletoads and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time enable players to be told the story together, much like circle time in kindergarten, except with more jumping and punching. (Okay … so maybe exactly like circle time in kindergarten?)

Where can i find the brass knuckles?

Games with a linear story are interactive like crossword puzzles are interactive: the game designer has set up this elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that the player has to connect together to get the whole thing working. In the end, multiple puzzle solutions notwithstanding, the whole contraption functions identically to my friend’s completed contraption, but we can meet up the next day and compare notes and talk about the completed contraption and how it came together, and how we solved each piece and in what order, and where we needed help, and where we got stuck … and we tell our stories to each other about how we made it through that game, or crossword puzzle.

And we don’t, generally, feel badly that we both finished the game with identical contraptions – in fact, that was the whole point of the exercise … and indeed, we have less in common and less to talk about and to delight in if we both finish the experience, and my crossword puzzle solution is completely different from his. That’s not as exciting to us humans, who like empathizing and retelling the same stories. We want the solutions to be the same. We want to have ended up in the same place.

Even in a series like Mass Effect, where despite which of the three paths we interactively chose leads us to essentially the same place, we tell a story to each other about how bogus that story was. And we revel and delight in agreeing with each other that Mass Effect’s ending was shite. (or not! And in THAT case, we delight in disagreeing with each other. But in either case, we delight in the fact that we’re connecting over a shared experience.)

Who’s ready to waste 120 hours of their lives?

Game-by-Numbers

Shawn and i shared the experience of hearing Mary DeMarle talk about linear storytelling in video games, and Shawn thought one thing and i thought another, and now we’re delighting in the disagreement and revelling in the connection we have over the fact that we’re both opinionated and sentient and we both think things, and through our blogs and Dork Shelf interviews and chats at parties and Shawn’s inevitable refutation, we’re telling each other the story of how we arrived at our disparate conclusions. Here’s mine:

A video game with a linear story does not defeat the purpose of interactivity, because the purpose of interactivity in that case is not for me to be a rare and precious snowflake and to discover my own unique path in life. It’s that the game developer is telling me a story, and i’m jumping through fun and interesting interactive or thought-provoking or muscle twitch-challenging hoops to reveal more and more of that story, until i’ve heard the whole thing (or as much as i’ve been able to hear based on my capability during the interactive bits). By then, i have shared the experience of that story with the game developer who told it to me, whereupon i can retell bits of the story to others and we can revel and delight in our shared experience of it.

Remember that part in Monkey Island 2 when you get the guy fired from his job? Never played it? It’s hilarious! Let me tell you about it…

Just because the solution to the crossword puzzle will be the same no matter how i go about solving it, it’s not to say that i should just seek out a completed crossword puzzle to read instead. The solving, the grinding, the platforming – these are the pleasurable interactive bits that justify our medium. The prefab story is pure reward, and it’s one that players like me value far more than points or leaderboard rankings.

Shawn admits that even his dirty hippie psychedelic game DYAD has a story. Whether he admits it or not, he as the game developer has structured that experience, the same as any other game with linear storytelling. You progress linearly through DYAD’s levels, as Shawn the storyteller doles out new moves and goals and new bits of interactive capability, which are all pleasurable activities that lead the player down the game’s foregone conclusion: completion. Shawn leaves more to the player in terms of interpretation – allowing the player more freedom to explain away what it all means, man. *toke* Some games afford players less room to interpret and creatively retell their story, but that fact does not deserve Shawn’s harsh, unnecessary and incorrect value call: that a more rigidly-told story is “idiotic” and has no place in an interactive medium.

Remember that part in DYAD where there’s this purple swirly thing, and the tunnel turns orange? Never played it? Let me tell you about it … AND BORE YOU TO FUCKING TEARS.

Sometimes i want the freedom to paint my own picture. Sometimes i want to follow a pattern, as with a paint-by-number or knitting a sweater or building a papercraft model from print-outs. The process in both cases is interactive and enjoyable. In the end, it’s not accurate or fair to say that the sweater i knitted from my imagination is more valid or worthy than the sweater i knitted while following a pattern, which was idiotic and pointless because it left no room for interpretation. That kind of attitude, my friends, is just pure snobbery, and HE’S WRONG HE’S WRONG HE’S WRONG!

Via XKCD.

Further Reading

6-Year-Old Girl Gives a TED Talk

You can complain about the weather, but few things are more unpredictable than a 6-year-old girl. My daughter Cassandra has earned the nickname “Hurricane Cassie” around our home, both for her passionate mood swings, and for her habit of upending the living room to build increasingly elaborate furniture forts.

Last year, Cassie and i made a video game together, and it struck a chord with many folks. This year, Cassie and i were invited to give a talk at TEDx Toronto about our game Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure, and i took the opportunity to get people thinking about how technology is being taught (or not) to our kids, and at what age.



When it came to the line “My hope is that one day …”, our speaker coach Chris Tindal suggested i add the word “soon”. i couldn’t do it, in good conscience. It feels like we’re light years away from a world in which people are on top of technology to a point where they’re in the driver’s seat, to cop a metaphor from Douglas Rushkoff. It may sound laughable for a grown man to be worrying about the advent of Skynet, the fictional computer network from the Terminator movies that one day suppresses all of humanity, but i really am concerned that we’re headed for a future where we’re controlled by our machines (or, at least, by the corporations that create them).

“Consume” is a Con to U and Me

Forget heady theoretical thinking. Here’s how this stuff plays out in everyday life: just yesterday, our Cisco Linksys router stopped pulling an IP address from our modem, after some repairmen were working on the lines outside. We called Cisco, and after a series of rather invasive and unnecessary questions (eg “At which store did you buy the router?”), the overseas support agent told us the device was too old to troubleshoot (we’d bought it two years ago). He gave us two options: we either buy a new router, or we pay for support – the cost of which is equal to the price of a new router.

Hmm. Sounds like a fair shake to me!

In turn, i gave the Cisco support agent two options: he can take ten minutes to troubleshoot the perfectly functional device and prevent it from going into a landfill, or i could mention the incident to my thousands of Twitter followers and blog readers. He said there was nothing he could do. i asked him to escalate my support request to his supervisor. He put me on hold. The call disconnected.

And here we are.

This poor customer service anecdote has been about Cisco. Please shop accordingly.

The Geeks Shall Inherit

What does Cisco’s lousy customer support have to do with helping kids to become creators, not consumers? While many are predicting the collapse of the middle class well within our lifetime, not much is being said about the emergence of a new class – a technological elite class. This is a class of people who are wise to the machinations of corporations and their methods of control. These aren’t people who know how to use software -these are people who know how to write software. They aren’t people who buy hardware. They’re people who build hardware. They’re the programmers, hackers, makers and NERDS who can see the Matrix for what it is, and the world could use a lot more of them.

Whoa.

The way we increase this class of people is by teaching kids how to control computers. Not how to use computers – how to control them.

Think back to the pre-1990’s, if you’re of sufficient years. When you bought a car, you used to be tasked with the care and maintenance of that machine. Keep it gassed up, well-oiled and clean. And if a part broke down, you could either bring the car into the shop, or buy the part and replace it yourself.

Cars today are black boxes. Many of their systems are computer-controlled, and without the expensive diagnostic equipment and know-how, people are at a loss as to how to repair them. We have no choice but to bring our cars back to the dealership. Auto repair used to be a common hobby, like gardening. Today, modern cars can’t be easily tinkered with. By and large, the corporations that design and build the machines are the only people who have access to their guts.

Far From the Tree

The first six drafts of our TEDx talk were far more critical of Apple. i’ve owned many gadgets in my life, but with Apple, never before had i paid so much for a device that died so quickly. Two years into owning a 2nd generation iPod touch, which ran me close to $500, the battery died. The device was built so that i could not simply open it and replace the battery myself (as i’ve done with every other piece of battery-powered technology i had owned throughout my lifetime).

Dead man walking.

When i brought the device back to an Apple Store (as i was programmed by them to do), the “genius” there said in a very patronizing tone “Well, the batteries in these devices ARE consumable.” Since the warranty had expired, they said i could pay them eighty dollars for a new one. i said there was nothing wrong with the original device – it just needed a new battery. Could they just charge me eighty bucks for a battery replacement, and give me my original device back?

Nyope.

My perfectly functional Nintendo Entertainment System, purchased in 1987.

Gotta Fix ‘Em All

Cassie has been playing an iPad game called Mino Monsters, which is heavily inspired by Pokémon. It’s a freemium game, and a bad implementation of the model. That means that Cassie has to wait a prescribed number of hours to heal her monsters after battling. So i thought “nuts to that”, and charged up an old GameBoy Advance so that she could play an actual Pokémon game. i described it to her like Wilford Brimley describes the alien planet in Cocoon: “You can collect HUNDREDS of monsters, you don’t have to wait to heal them, you never get old, and you never die.”

Unfortunately, the battery in the game cartridge had died. Cassie could still play Pokémon Ruby, but the special timed events would no longer run.

A drained Pokémon Ruby cartridge, manufactured sixteen years after the NES pictured above. The NES’s battery-reliant cartridges still function.

i could easily have saved time and money by throwing the game cartridge in the garbage. But don’t you see? THAT’S HOW THEY WIN. A little more consumption, a little more waste, until one day we’re scavenging for food and supplies in the landfills we created while the slave-master machines soak up their energy from an exploded sun.

Today, i throw out a functional game cartridge. Tomorrow, Skynet.

So instead, i damn well got a tiny screwdriver capable of loosening the proprietary tri-head screw that Nintendo doesn’t want me to open, and i used a soldering iron to melt off the metal strips that metallurgically (and unnecessarily) bonded the battery to the circuit board. Then i bought a replacement battery at an electronics supply store and used electrician’s tape to hook it up to the game. i hammered it all back together with thumbtacks and spit, and when i turned the game came on, the “depleted battery” message was gone.

When i was finished, i stood dominant over the device with my fists raised to the sky and bellowed my terrifying man-ape alpha male father-of-the-year YAWP. Machines may one day rule my life, but i’ll be God-damned if i’m going to lose the first skirmish to Pokémon.

Keep It Unreal

Like any green-blooded video game nerd, i was excited to hear that 2KGames was remaking the X-Com series. One of the very best games i’ve ever played, the original X-Com: UFO Defense enabled me to play out an Independence Day-esque scenario, leading my underpowered soldiers into battle as we slowly researched and stole alien technology to defeat the invading extraterrestrial horde.

X-Com: UFO Defense

The gameplay of the original title was so good, and the visuals were so charming, that when Warballoon appeared on Kickstarter with Star Command, which had a similar aesthetic and tactical play style, they got funded. Twice.

X-Com: UFO Defense

Fund me once, shame on you …

X-Com’s visuals are so distinct that you can take one look at an original X-Com screenshot and immediately say “that’s X-Com.” But take a look at a few screens from the upcoming remake:

X-Com: Enemy Unknown

… euh?

X-Com: Enemy Unknown

Ugh.

i see generic space marines fighting through generic-looking environments. The gameplay mechanic may be the same, but gone is the brand recognition and, more importantly, the visual charm that X-Com had in spades.

Zel-out

Wind Waker

Duh na na NAAAA!!

Similarly, when Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker with a bold new art direction, many game fans balked. When the company succumbed to fan outcry and returned to a more “realistic” depiction of Hyrule in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, i had far fewer moments of awe. i remember just sitting and staring at certain Wind Waker scenes because they were so breath-takingly simple and gorgeous. But with Twilight Princess, eye candy had become eye broccoli.

Wind Waker

Duh na na … nerp.

While there’s no accounting for taste (unless you work for Accounts Receivable at a restaurant), i’m not a big fan of the video game industry’s relentless pursuit of photorealism. Give me charm, character, and unique eye-pleasing visuals over faithful representations of boring old real life any day.

McClone

My more mature colleagues warn me not to be too “precious” about my work. i get my back up at that, because to me it’s akin to saying “don’t be too passionate” about it. But i’ve seen preciousness in the capital-I Indie scene lately, and i now feel i have a better sense of what my colleagues are warning about.

This week, yet another capital-I Indie game developer – one of the Elite – has had their game “cloned”, and the community has become butthurt on their behalf (as i write this, the developers themselves haven’t officially commented).

The game was Johann Sebastian Joust. In it, each player holds a Playstation Move motion controller and must move through the physical space in time to a Bach piece. If a player moves out of time with the music, his controller blinks off and he’s “out”. So the game is a challenge to swat at each others’ controllers to send those players out of the game, while still moving in time to the music yourself.

Johann Sebastian Joust at Indiecade 2011

Joust co-creator Doug plays his game at Indiecade 2011 while i sit nearby with Ponycorns, butthurt and criminally un-awarded (not pictured)

i Hate All the Things

Here’s a bit of disclosure: i didn’t particularly like Joust when i saw it at IndieCade (after it beat out my own game for the Community Impact award), but it was clear that lots of other people did. When i played JS Joust at GDC this year, i waited a long time for a turn, and then was swatted “out” almost immediately by someone who had been in for a few rounds. i don’t like a game where i instantly fail my first time and then have to wait a long time before i can try again. As a day camp counsellor in my youth, i tried to avoid playing eliminate-and-wait games with my group, where kids would get killed early and would wait around starting small fires while everyone else played and had fun. Remember that our own games press absolutely destroyed Silicon Knights because of Too Human‘s overlong resurrection sequence. “Just let me play again already!”

Johann Sebastian Joust at Indiecade 2011

Sitting out: the very definition of unfun. (Photo by Amanda Summerlin)

While i’m at it, i didn’t enjoy World of Goo, i was bored by Fez, and i thought the writing in Braid was utter tripe (although i did enjoy the rest of the game … except for the special stars, because they were so much bullshit). i didn’t play past the first chapter of Sword and Sworcery because it didn’t grab me, and i felt The Graveyard and Passage were supremely pretentious. But that’s okay. The fact that i didn’t go nuts for these games doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy them, and it shouldn’t taint your own view of them. Feel free to dump on my upcoming game Spellirium if it’s not your cup of tea. Different people like different things, and that’s fine: media is never objectively good. i hope we can agree to that, at least.

Rushmore

The exception, of course, is Rushmore, which is OBJECTIVELY the greatest movie ever made.

The Slimiest Form of Flattery

What we may not be able to agree to is my opinion on the fact that there’s a new game on the iTunes store that is similar to JS Joust, and that that, too, is perfectly alright. What’s happened is that a game that i’ve only ever seen at festivals and conferences, being closely overseen (or downright babysat) by one of its creators, with a setup requiring special equipment that not a lot of people own, AND a laptop, AND an external sound system … a game that don’t think i can even purchase ? (i checked the developers’ site, and their store is closed. Let’s say i buy 16 Move controllers and get all my friends together and hook my laptop up to an external speaker that i’m inexplicably lugging around … can i buy Johann Sebastian Joust? i don’t think i can. Please let me know if i’m mistaken here.) Anyway, what’s happened is that a game similar to THAT game has now been made available on the iPhone, a device that magnitudes more people own than they do Move controllers. These players can now access the similar game and play it wherever they want, and it’s far more likely their friends can join in with them … and when they’re finished, there’s no special tear-down. Just put the game back in your pocket.

iPhone in pocket

i got the festival game! i put it in my pants.

As an aside, i see shades of piracy justification in this story. One of the most common excuses people provide for justifying stealing movies and music is that the content has not been made available by the rights holder in the time and place and for the price that the consumer so chooses. How many of us have watched “Game of Thrones”, vs the number of us who are legit HBO subscribers or (one-year-later) iTunes purchasers? People have heard about JS Joust, and likely want to play it … but for lack of a vast pile of Move controllers, or airfare to California or Cologne to attend a conference or festival where the game is being played, they can’t experience it. Thanks to Papa Quash, now they can, and with stuff they already own. People want to experience media they’ve heard about and that critics are lauding; Die Gute Fabrik has garnered a lot of press and many accolades for their game. Now, people want to play it. But Joust is not convenient (or possible) for them to play.

Fight for Your Right to Parlay

To be clear, this is not an issue of legal rights. Game mechanics or styles of play cannot be copyrighted (though frighteningly, like the ghost racer from Hard Drivin’ or the compass arrow pointing to your destination in Crazy Taxi, they can sometimes be patented). A trademark infringement would have the iPod clone being called Johann Sebastian Fight, or Ludwig Von Joust, and that’s not the case here. Some of the folks i bickered with on Twitter today said that while the “clone” was not legally infringing, it was morally infringing. Again, i disagree, and that’s where being too precious comes into it.

Someone asked me how i would feel if another developer cloned Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure on some platform other than the web, the iPad or the BlackBerry Playbook. My answer? “Litigious”, because that would be an infringement of both my trademark and copyright. But i didn’t invent the point n’ click graphic adventure game genre … (in fact, i “cloned” it for Ponycorns) … so if someone wanted to team up with one or more 5-year-old little girls and make a game using scanned crayon drawings and adorable voiceovers, how angry could i possibly get? As has been proven time and again, it’s the execution, not the idea, that matters.

Ponycorns

Alright: who wants to be the first jackhole to release Suzie’s Mystical Horseyhorn Escapade?

McExecution

It’s possible that Henry Ford would have been precious and felt butthurt if he’d lived to see Ray Kroc apply Ford’s concept of assembly line efficiency to assembling hamburgers at McDonald’s. It’s more likely that Kroc himself was butthurt when the likes of Colonel Sanders, Dave Thomas, and John Fitzsimmons Burgerking had success with their operationally identical fast food chains (Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy’s, and Fitzsimmons’s Meaty-time Corral, respectively). Burger King is a “clone” of McDonalds, from the concept of franchised food, down to the signature sandwich. Rather than decry Burger King as a rip-off, sometimes i’m happy to have the option, and i can really go for a Whopper.

Whopper

Clones are bad! (nom nom nom) i’m (glorm!) so offended right now! BRAAPPP!

Pepsi is a cola drink. Coca-cola is another cola drink. So is Cott’s cola, for times when i’m feeling frugal. These are similar expressions of the same concept. And i’m awfully glad that they all exist.

Imagine that only three McDonald’s restaurants existed before Burger King franchises swept the nation and became available everywhere. And those three restaurants were in Illinois, far from where you live. (Illinois people, you’re going to have to use your imaginations here.) You could hold out for that McDonald’s experience, because you believed the hype and the press, and you think that Burger King is a moral abasement and that they really screwed over McDonald’s when BK went nation-wide with the franchised fast food burger concept. OR, you could STFU and go get a Whopper. Perhaps you could enjoy something from McDonald’s if you ever happened to swing the airfare to Chicago?

OR, if you’re McDonald’s, you could finally get around to building restaurants where everyone can access them, and spin your marketing to position yourself against your clone as the original, best experience. (Count the number of times Coke used the word “original” in its ads during the cola wars of the 1980’s.)

OR you can keep McDonald’s to those three restaurants in Illinois, and continue perpetuating the elite mystique about your product with your nose in the air. Looking at a print of the Mona Lisa is fine, but true art fans have travelled to the Louvre to see it in person. Die Gute Fabrik has lots of options here, and they’re all marketing related.

The Choice of a New Generation

The tack i hope they don’t take is to rally the captial-I Indie scene troops to their cause, and blacklist the developers of Quash Papa as if the indie community is the goddamned Illuminati. Yeti Town is a clone of Triple Town, but being a reluctant Canadian, i don’t like winter – and i DO like teddy bears, so i can make my choice as a consumer to play Triple Town. Dream Heights is a clone of Tiny Tower, but i don’t want to play either of those games, because the clone Lil’ Kingdom has adorable baby dragons and i’d rather spend my money on them. i don’t care that Nimblebit, the concept’s progenitor (arguably), isn’t getting my money, because Nimblebit didn’t give me the baby dragons that i so richly deserve as a consumer.

Dragon in Lil Kingdom

Dragons up! Skyscrapers down!

Pepsi tastes better than Coke, in my subjective opinion, and i prefer a Whopper to a Big Mac. Two Snow White films are being marketed simultaneously right now. i’m more interested in watching “Snow White and the Huntsman” than “Mirror Mirror” because i don’t care for Julia Roberts in the latter, and the dramatic treatment – the execution – of Huntsman is more appealing to me than the comedic treatment of Mirror Mirror. Marvel Comics has better heroes, while DC Comics has better villains.

Kangaroo

Spider-man fights a guy named Kangaroo? Srsly?

Dear capital-I Indies: welcome to the world of creating media for worldwide audiences. You’re not fourteen any more, and while some of you may still live with your parents, you need to stop listening to them when they tell you you’re a rare and precious snowflake. You’re going to get ripped off – that’s bidness, baby – and sometimes audiences will prefer the clone to the original. Your excellent and once-unique ideas can and should and will be spread far and wide – tinkered with, reconstituted, explored, and backwards-engineered. Just as Braid is Super Mario Bros. with time reversal and Machinarium is Gobliiins with different artwork, you have hacked and cloned and explored game mechanics and ideas throughout your careers. If your game gets ripped off, don’t bitch. Be flattered, be angry, and execute better.

Manufacturing Alexes: The Secret of Indie Game Success

Alex approached me, wild-eyed, at an IGDA meeting one night. We had never really carried on a complete conversation, but we were acquainted with each other. On this particular evening, Alex had something very important to say to me. Judging from his expression, i could only surmise that the Russians had bombed Princess Diana.

Gasp

What’s that, Alex? Archduke Ferdinand is stuck in the well??

But my predictive powers had failed me. i was wrong. When Alex opened his mouth, with a little foam forming at the corners of his lips – possibly rabies, i thought – it was to say the following:

“You have to play SpaceChem.”

He wasn’t kidding. Alex was just making a game recommendation to me, but the fervour with which he said it made me know he was serious, and that my family was quite probably in danger if i didn’t listen to him.

“You have to,” he said. “It’s BRILLIANT.”

He went on to describe SpaceChem as this smart little puzzle game that had you, essentially, programming solutions to problems. It sounded right up my alley. i couldn’t speak for the other people in our little group, but Alex wasn’t being selective with his recommendation – he was spraying it like a gatling gun, hoping to take a few of us out in his frenzied fire. Okay, okay. i told him i’d check it out.

When i got home after the IGDA event, there were incoming tweets from Alex. “Did you try SpaceChem yet??

Fatal Attraction

The Power of Christ Compelled Him

i didn’t buy SpaceChem that night. i didn’t buy it after i met one of the developers in person at a conference in Seattle. i didn’t buy it until months and months later, during the Christmas sale on Steam.

But in the end, i bought SpaceChem. Sight unseen. And i bought it because of Alex.

Alex was an evangelist. We used to reserve that word for Protestant Christians who, by feverish word of mouth and big revival tents pitched in the desert, would win people over to their cause. Today, tech companies like Adobe have carved out actual job descriptions for evangelists to ballyhoo their brand message worldwide.

Revival

SpaceChem can HEAL yeh. Be HEALED-a!

As an indie gamer working on a new title, i’ve been thinking back to Alex’s recommendation that night. i want guys like Alex to run into a crowd of people at an IGDA event and rant about how amazing Spellirium is. But that’s impossible, right? Alexes happen because someone tries your game, and likes it a lot, and decides to tell other people about it. It’s a grassroots thing. It’s like a game or a video going viral. You can’t exactly manufacture that kind of thing.

OR CAN YOU??

Dramatic

Spreading Your Seed

i’ve read some articles and have attended some lectures that purport to teach you how to generate virality, and they all came off as hokum. (Matter of fact, i think i’m GIVING one of those lectures at GDC this year) But i’m a bit of a dreamer, so i decided to do a little legwork to find out how Alex, this usually mild-mannered and affable fellow i’d see at IGDA meetings, caught SpaceChem Fever.

After my lazy-ass sleuthing (Columbo could have saved SO much time with Twitter and Wikipedia), i pieced together this timeline of events:

  1. SpaceChem developer Zachtronics Industries emailed Valve to try to get the game distributed on Steam. It didn’t happen.
  2. Zachtronics handled their own distribution and began to sell the game directly on their own website.
  3. Zachtronics (presumably) emailed a number of game industry publications about SpaceChem. One of these was Rock Paper Shotgun.
  4. Then-RPS writer Quintin Smith reviewed SpaceChem, calling it “an incredible game”.
  5. Valve approached Zachtronics two days later, and agreed to distribute SpaceChem on Steam. Fancy how that happens.
  6. Quintin wrote another SpaceChem article, in which he said this:

    Anyone who hasn’t yet tried the demo should physically drop what they’re doing to do so immediately. Yes, even if it’s tea. I don’t care if it’s tea and you’re drinking it directly above your child.

  7. An impressionable Alex read that article, was infected by Quintin’s ridiculous enthusiasm, and downloaded the demo.
  8. Agreeing with Quintin’s assessment, Alex stormed up to us at the IGDA meeting, and attempted to infect us with his enthusiasm.

28 Days Later eye scene

Note: it helps that Zachtronics is behind Infiniminer, and that Infiniminer inspired Minecraft. This is analogous to AMPAAS overlooking Cuba Gooding Jr. for his performance in Jerry McGuire one year, and then giving him the Oscar for Snow Dogs the next.

Snow Dogs

“I’d like to thank Dog … ”

(i don’t mean to say that SpaceChem is the game equivalent of Snow Dogs … i only mean that Quintin may have felt that in addition to building a brilliant game, Zachtronics deserved a little more attention for their general briliance, Infiniminer included.)

This all confirms something that i learned about the indie game dev scene a few years ago at GDC. i was getting tired of listening to the Casual crowd year after year – same speakers, same topics, same takeaways. i had never sat in on the Indie Games Summit because i mistakenly thought it would be a room full of students sharing tips on where to find cracked copies of Maya. It wasn’t until i actually broke down and attended the Summit that my eyes were opened.

It was there that i learned the secret to Indie Game Success.

The Secret to Indie Game Success

The indie game scene is a club. If you’re in the club, you get certain opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise – namely, you don’t get to attend the parties. So getting into the club somehow is the first step.

What’s so great about the parties? The parties are where the indies rub elbows with the games journalists. (And let me be clear, because i absolutely hate that designation: there’s a vast difference between a reporter exposing genocide in Malaysia, and a college student complaining about the drift mechanics in the latest Mario Kart game. In most cases, journalists they ain’t. But i’ll use that term here for ease, if nothing else.)

Call of Duty

There’s a massive difference between reporting from inside a war-torn country, and reporting from inside Call of Duty.

Here’s the thing about those journalists: they’re the king-makers. They are the love that covers a multitude of sins – and by “sins”, i mean complete lack of a marketing budget, a lousy distribution plan, and no localization strategy to speak of … all the bush-league errors that we indies make because we are, quite literally, three guys in a garage, and the garage is rented.

i’ve become convinced that it’s the journalists who make the most successful indies fabulous amounts of money. That’s partly because games “journalists” have this characteristic penchant for hyperbole that you don’t find in mainstream media. You’d never hear Roger Ebert say “OMG n00bs I JUST SAW HOWARDS END AND UR GONNA FILL UR PAMPERS OVER THIS ONE”, but it’s not out of place in a games magazine. If Roger Ebert ever told me “get ready to drop motherfucking TEA on your baby’s FACE because Tree of Life is AMAZING”, i’m sure my impression of Tree of Life would be higher than if Ebert hadn’t said anything. And i’m sure Ebert’s silly enthusiasm would be infectious, and i’d HAVE to run up to a group of people and scream “GO SEE TREE OF LIFE RIGHT NOW OR i’LL SHANK YOU IN THE KIDNEYS!!”

Roger Ebert

Listen to the man. Ebert will mess you up.

Games journalists are the vehicle by which mainstream gamers hear about (what they think are) worthwhile indie titles. They have an incredible amount of power. That’s how Ponycorns made the rounds. i never would have seen the same amount of success with that game if the journalists hadn’t run through the streets with it impaled on a flaming stick.

Take This, Brother – May it Serve You Well

So the secret, once more, if you want to be a successful indie developer:

  1. Get in the club.
  2. Make something excellent.
  3. Buddy up with journalists and convince them to talk about your game as enthusiastically as possible.

THAT’S how you manufacture Alexes. Organic word of mouth is great, but the effort you’d need to expend to personally seed enough people with infectious enthusiasm to make that fire catch is immense, and it’s probably an impossible task. You need a firestarter log. You need to spray butane on it. Games journalists are made of butane.

Spellirium is a great game, so i’ve got that hurdle out of the way. Now i just need to run up to a group of games journalists at a GDC party and splatter my enthusiasm all over them … Alex-style.