Seriously. Why bother? Discuss. Brandon Boyer, director of the IGF and tireless campaigner for Indie Games chairs a discussion that gets down to the basics with an illustrious panel. Adam Saltsman, Jonathan Blow, Chris Hecker, Paul Taylor, Keita Takahashi and no doubt a lot of other opinionated developers eat, argue and bare their souls for you at GameCity 5.
Brandon, Adam Saltsman (Canabalt etc.), Chris Hecker (Spy Party, worked on Spore and indie before that), Jonathan Blow (Braid and mysterious “hovertank” game), Paul Taylor (Mode7, Frozen Synapse), Keita Takahashi (now gone freelance; Katamari Damacy/Noby Noby Boy).
Rambling but highly interesting insight into the why of making indie games, and how too. Railing against jams (at least when it isn’t beginners, and I’d give them credit for doing some of the first ones), against trying to work in large companies and why depth is necessary (but all of them want different types of depth).
Only thing: I wish this wasn’t a mere lunchtime panel. This deserved a full room of people being able to ask questions without mouthfuls of food or interruptions from waiters (and so I could type proper notes 😉 ).
Brandon: Going on from Keita saying he has gone freelance, it is important to realise you can do that and still make games for yourself. Can you talk about the moment that you chose to be an independent game developer?
Adam: Two options was to do the 50 hour job and neglect my family, or rearrange things to remove what takes up the most time in my week to supplant it with something I am passionate about. Has a ritual every Sunday of staying up until 4AM to figure out how to pay the bills, but things always came up.
Brandon: There is that threshold in your personal savings where you have to go and get a normal job.
Adam: At that line I have to go do something more responsible since I have this contract with another human to survive and live in some level of comfort. It reduces my flexibility but I like the tradeoffs I get from that.
Chris: I was laid off so I didn’t need to make the choice, but I was going to quit in around 3 months since I worked on Spore for 6 years. It was soul destroying – so many cooks, but at the same time no cooks, and it totally didn’t live up to the potential. It could have been as interesting as the creature creator. Not surprised I was on the chopping block. Ass in chair productivity is totally hard to do as Jonathan says. Had an experience in 1990’s for 3 people in a company, with $90 thousand, can burn through that but cannot pay people. Shits more serious with a 7 year old child. Definitely need to make it work this time. Laid off last August/September; it just moved up my schedule since I’d have left in January. Ass in chair is the most unglamorous part of indie game design. Typing art and code into it every day is the biggest obstacle every day. Now without 14 levels of producers can make the game I want as long as I can feed myself.
Jonathan: Out of college, 1996 and some friends wanted to make a game company; wrong time to do it since it was going to be unfeasible to have two or three guys making games. Now smaller games are acceptable; can sell over the internet. None of that was true in 1996. Didn’t know anything about games, only loved games. Had arguments, very few people had played the game – don’t want to talk about it. It was a multiplayer only 3d team on team hovertank war-game, which was very technically challenging in 1996, worked several years on it. Very good on the tech side but not on the business side. In school was never taking the classes I needed, I was working on my own stuff. Became a consultant for a while, and in normal jobs, but not motivated and not a very good consultant for things that were not interesting. Got kind of depressed working on things I didn’t care about; if I didn’t though I’d not be working now on things I really do care about. I wouldn’t take back any of it even though several years were very bad.
Paul: Started contributing creative sound and music to a project; saw the person not being able to direct it well, completed it before the end of University. Went and made a go for it as a company since making the game was the most fun thing at University. Made a load of mistakes on the first game; absolutely the best things to do. Don’t really know why you’ve done it if it was done well, but if it is bad you can look at what went wrong. Getting loads of experiences at a young age and wanting to carry on with them really.
Keita (though translator): Keita left because he wanted to make not just a game but something fun.
Brandon: Was it hard leaving Namco or was it easy? (The wife left after him).
Keita: Yes it was hard; money. She was pregnant!
(Kind of roundabout way of asking now: Why make games?)
Adam: You might end up with 4000 boring answers to “Why make games?” – better to ask “Why not make games?” – maybe not a good question when you can’t answer it.
Chris: you want to do something meaningful with your life. Is art and entertainment important to society? Yes; but it is different to being a doctor, even when games are quite crappy right now. I see games like early era of films, films could have missed in 1905; filming a dude sneezing. Still at the cave paintings stage; so could still fuck it up. There’s an internal motivation to express yourself with interactivity. There is extrinsic and intrinsic motivations to doing it.
Jonathan: To translate the leverage into English…
Chris: Jon and I hang out a lot…
Jonathan: So I know what it means, being that it is how many people you can reach out to people. Braid got played by a million people. You can’t really write a short story and have a million people read it, you can’t make a film unless you have lots of money or are not making a film you don’t want to make. If you’re not working on that small of a thing, Braid being 3+ years, with no feedback or positive reinforcement from outside. Why not to do it would be that I guess. Someone starting at the start of Braid is still working on it from 2005, so perhaps he wants to stop and it is hard to continue. I want to also go away from entertainment into education games. All games teach; more natural and more human then in a school is, and teaches more naturally.
Chris: On the leverage point, there are multiple definitions. There is fanout which you were on about. There is moving the medium; Giffif’s work, moving it more then Spielburgs work, small fish in a big pond.
Paul: There are a lot of compelling reasons not to make games; but one reason to do it is to have it tighter control over everything, which is very hard to do.
Keita: Bad things are waking up early in the morning.
Brandon: Jonathan said he makes games to reach more people, is that true for you Keita?
Bradon: What and why are you trying to express in games?
Adam: I want to teach, but not have a teaching job. Games do it in a better way, in a way I enjoy making. However I don’t know, I don’t approach it with a message or with a set of things I want someone to explore and that is our modern idea of good game design; not have something tell you something but it ask a question you answer in different ways. Nothing I’ve made has a clear message up front. If I only find the focus half way through I think that is pretty good. The thing I am making now doesn’t have a message, model or system I want people to explore but the idea is you living in a thing that you can change, but changes on it’s own. It’s an interesting idea to start from, and can hopefully be explored in interesting ways. I am not religious which might not be odd here, but the Grand Canyon was a strange thing where there is a impossibly huge thing stacked with detail. As humans we think as static since it is way easier to visualise. Just watching the sunset on the walls, the walls look different every 5 seconds. If you’re in a boat in the middle of it, it’s sitting in the middle of it, when you see the motion in Braid and it is changing and flickering it is a bit like that but blown up to 5000x, in all your senses in a week. That’s a comfortable middle ground between a system and a message – interesting, good things happen and interesting bad things happen, and you don’t have total control over it. Usually in games you have total control and imposing order on chaos. This game is still only 0.05% started and mostly in my head. It’s held my attention for a year, which is amazing.
Chris: Got really confused about this question. Need mass marketing like films, not like pop music, and all this kind of mixed thing, mixed up with my own opinions on it. The way I become creative is programming; I think game design and programming is inseparable. It’s systemic; a game is about systems, like Go the best game ever designed. Understanding systems and I hope that the power of the computer to do that really fast will enable use to do it really well to speak to the human condition, but I don’t know and I hope to figure it out. It’s our moral responsibility society speaking to work this out. I don’t know if they will or not.
Adam: I want it to ask questions, not just with one answer but with 300 more questions.
Chris: Only The Sims does something similar to Spy Party with the interactions between people for instance, lots of threads to pull on.
Jonathan: The first part is easy; for any particular game I am trying to do something different. There is not something I am totally trying to do. I can’t give the reasons for working in videogames, all just rationalisations to me. It’s because I know how to do things in the form of a game – I’m down that path now. If I went somewhere different I’d be doing different things.
Brandon: What was your driving goal for the hovertank game?
Jonathan: With that I was more a game designer in the industry liking videogames; now I don’t like games as much, perhaps having played a lot, perhaps now being older doing a lot of things and having higher standards.
Paul: Games are good at exploring someone else’s idea. Providing a space for things to happen which the designer or player didn’t expect. If you make one pushing one specific agenda, they reject that – they like to fuck around with things innately. Games are a bit more democratic then other forms of art. They allow more perspectives and more interaction then other form of art. I wanted to make it because I wanted to go “Me! listen to me now!” rather then playing other games.
Keita: Want the users to discover new possibilities and give more things for them to explore.
Audience: What about companies – do they reject you or ask you to work for them and freelance?
Jonathan: Once you get popular they don’t bother asking, and I’d not go back to doing work – I didn’t like consultancy.
Chris: Yes, they will take you in as a freelancer – they don’t take you into design, I went into do the animation system only. There is no space in a AAA for an indie person. It isn’t how game development works. You usually come up with a design, try and make that game, iterate a bit, it’s a totally different way to making games.
Adam: Hardest way to get into a company is spending 3 years making an indie game. If it works, then it doesn’t matter since there is no reason to carry on freelancing or consultancy.
Chris: Game designers are miserable at big companies since you can’t do what you want to do. Compromise and compromise and so forth. Metrics people, not actual game designers.
Paul: There are a lot of people trying to get control of indies and make money out of it. They’re trying to consume successful indies. Uber A list indie might try and hire you, but why would you do that if you if you’re doing what you want? We do some freelance but it’s hard to do too much working on other games.
Audience: What about collaboration between indie designers? What do you think about it? Is there a place for more collaboration or is it a bad thing?
Adam: Collaborate with indies all the time. World of Goo, Aquaria, Braid to some extent, it is some major meeting of two creative minds. Super Meatboy – a collaboration, it’s two guys making games and who decided to make a game together after years. There can be more I guess; the hallmark of independent development is bitchy, antisocial moaners, who can hang out together – I love you guys but if you told me what to do with my game…
Chris: Stones, REM, long term bands with consistent output; true to what they’re trying to do. Iteration cycle for making a song is 10 minutes, the band thing would be awesome but I can’t see it working. Music is performance while games are not. Hard to do a band and with people you trust, and barrier to entry is so high with games.
Paul: If there is too much overlap of creative designer control unlike a band where everyone uses a different instrument. The right synergy can work, but need incredibly complementary strengths or it won’t work.
Audience: Are the Game Jams worthwhile? Are the only indie projects worth doing take 3 years to make? Are there certain things you just cannot do?
Brandon: Was talking before about things being broke up until the last second. How far do you take prototypes before you give up? The last minute it might come together.
Jonathan: Judgement call, leave it or you don’t. Chris spearheaded one of the first game jams, when jams were not a thing. It was a very exciting and novel idea that you could make a game in a weekend. It was out of a period of grindy thing where there was no 3d, so all pixel perfect graphics. It was good since it was so stifling before. Now it is a bigger and bigger jam culture – it is easy, you go and do some stuff. It’s great if you don’t have much experience and want to learn how. It can also be cool if you’re experienced and want to blow off some steam. It really bothers me now how many there are and how cool they are, like Tigsource.com – all the games are not very good because they were all made within 4 days, but it is almost a badge of honour, yet so many people can do it now. Chris had a rant called please finish your game at GDC. I started an experimental gameplay workshop at GDC, it got very frustrating – some games touched on an interesting idea but then they’d barely do it, and they’d not do most of the obvious ideas you could see because they think the idea they touched it was enough.
Chris: Please find my talk on this, called Please Finish Your Game. Jon talked about my stuff so I’ll talk about his stuff. Braid is a perfect example of a mechanic perfected, used in other cases like Blinx, Sands of Time – and more directly PB Winterbottom, no competition anymore – was taken to the depth it is a personal thing. If I had gotten Spy Party done in a game jam 4 day event, ironically since I started it, I might not have found the depth to it. It’s an end of a means. Lots of people riding me saying I do it for the social side – but if you don’t take it further then that, it isn’t doing your job creatively. Trying to work out with Jon how to do a depth based jam. That is kind of negative, but I think there is so much more to do then in 4 games. The experimental ideas are great but we really need more depth.
Adam: I work on games sometimes one weekend every month, getting stuck on the weird things not connecting properly in the design. Fiddling now for 10 months, and only the first couple of things fit. Tried the bang the head against it thing but I just can’t do it. I be a dick to everyone around me when trying to solve the problem. I don’t claim maturity, but knowing what your limits as a design is – so solving it by brute force isn’t within my own bounds.
Chris: The wall clock thing – you can’t have a baby a month with 9 women. Some things don’t parallelise – there is plenty to do on Spy Party apart from the design but there is the wall clock thing going on for the core design. It sucks I don’t know any way to do anything about this. It seems to be real.