Your Bright Futures

So I’m making the transition from an XBLIG-centered site to more sweeping coverage of indies across all platforms.  It’s kind of scary.  I’ve spent two years focusing on this little unsung platform that is Xbox Live Indie Games.  But I’m not the only one braving new waters.  Hundreds of Xbox Live Indie Game developers are exploring new development formats such as Unity or Monogame, with the intent of going multi-platform.  With both Sony and Nintendo aggressively courting indies, not to mention upstart Ouya and the existing (and thriving) PC indie community, there’s no shortage of places to go.  Well, so far Microsoft hasn’t said anything.  My theory is they’re in a medically-induced coma after sustaining life-threatening whiplash following the quick and reckless 180 they pulled.  Again, just a theory.  But if you see any Xbox guys wearing neck braces, just nod knowingly.

Anyway, with this move I’m making, which has me a little on the jittery side, I was curious how the development community that has supported me for the last two years is handling the transition.  What plans they have for the future, and what lessons they’ve learned from Xbox Live Indie Games that they’ll be applying to the future.  Here’s what they had to say.

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Tales from the Dev Side: Why Boardgames are a Great First Game by Sean Colombo

Why Boardgames are a Great First-Game

by Sean Colombo of BlueLine Game Studios

After Indie Gamer Chick said that our game, Hive, was the best game since Tetris (okay, I’m seriously over-exaggerating heavily paraphrasing here), she brought up that there seem to be a decent number of game developers starting out by making video versions of board games.

It was no accident that I chose to start with our first major offering being a board game. There are quite a few advantages of starting your game company with board games, and today I’m going to share some of them because it’s IGC’s anniversary and I’m an Indie Game Developer so I’m too cheap/skinflint to buy her team a real gift.

Faster to Market

Probably the single biggest obstacle that I’ve seen keeping people out of the game industry is that they can’t finish their game. We all love games and tend to have big visions (eyes) and finite amounts of time (stomaches). So it’s really a race to finish a game before we lose motivation or come up with a more distracting idea to pull us away.

Acknowledging this tendency, we should set ourselves up for success by choosing projects where the total amount of work is smaller. Starting with an existing engine (eg: Unity) or releasing a very simple game are good strategies. Similarly, you can cut down the scope of your game drastically by choosing something – such as board games – where thousands of hours of playtesting have already been done on the concept.

Many people forget to bake this into their time-estimates for the game, but the playtesting needed to make a game actually fun and with high replayability, is far trivial. For some examples, I was playing a paper-prototype of Chess: The Gathering around a year ago and I think Tim has been playing it every time I’ve seen him since then. It was a little awkward that one time during yoga class, but let’s just all be thankful that using Warrior Pose to summon pieces didn’t make it in the game. Similarly, I played Cannon Brawl about a year ago and the gameplay was what many would call “done”, but Pete and his testers kept at that thing and now there’s awesome new units that are like magic missiles and ba-bombs!

We certainly had to do a bunch of playtesting of our interface for Hive, but the literally-thousands of games of gameplay playtesting by John Yianni (the developer of the Hive board game), made it so that we could spend a decent chunk of time polishing visuals and AI while still being able to complete the game before we died of old age, went broke, gave up, etc..

screen4

Market Recognition

Additionally, when you’re starting out nobody knows/cares who you are. If you start with a board game, all of its fans already know what your game is about! On our very first blog post where we announced Hive, we almost immediately had a commenter (who was a complete stranger as far as I know) telling us that they were looking forward to it! That kind of instant fanbase doesn’t happen on its own.

This is probably the point where someone digs up that quote from one of the Team Meat guys that goes something like ‘if you have a good game, the internet will make sure everyone finds it’. Those meaty fellows are wrong. They make great games and I love them to itty bitty pieces, but they built up a following from about a decade of games prior to Super Meat Boy and even had a specific MB following from their flash game “Meat Boy”. If they didn’t have their presence built up, SMB would not have sold as well. This buildup is the same for many of the indies that we think of as overnight successes: Behemoth cranked on several Alien Hominid releases before the (mainstream) world learned their name from Castle Crashers, Rovio released around 35 games before they ‘launched’ (ba-dum-cha) Angry Birds, and Notch (Minecraft) has been making games since the mid-80s.

Are you still not convinced? Wow, you’re stubborn. Allow me to predict the future! Ian Stocker made Escape Goat which Indie Gamer Chick reviewed as the best XBLIG of all time (no joke) and currently reigns #1 as the king-goat of the Leaderboard. He’s also released Soul Caster I & II and is finishing up Escape Goat 2 with Waking Mars artist Randy O’Connor, at the time of this writing. My prediction: even though EG1 was critically acclaimed, the reputation-snowball is going to make EG2 sell more than twice as much as EG1. I’m so confident that if it doesn’t, I’ll give out all of my remaining free-codes to Coagulate on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Now that I’ve beaten this dead-horse back into stardust… we all agree that your sales suck until people know you. Here’s where boardgames come in: board game fans will buy your game without knowing who you are. Now, you won’t get all “board game fans” but fans of Hive didn’t need to hear of BlueLine Games before they bought our first game. After 100 repetitions of our splash-screen, now they’re fully borgified and will probably buy our next title, Khet 2.0, even if they haven’t played that specific board game.

Attainable IP

Other than the very mainstream board games whose rights have been bought up by Mattel and Hasbro, many board games creators are still willing to deal with indie developers. The board game industry itself is parallel to the video game industry in many ways and most of their developers are “indies”. One of the larger challenges in working with these developers is that most of them aren’t going to want to put an up-front financial investment in. You’ll have to be prepared to eat through your savings just to take the gamble at releasing another game to market that may or may not be successful. That’s just part of the job though.

In addition to indie IP, there are a ton of games that don’t even require a license. For example, BoardGameGeek lists of over 600 public domain board games. These come with their own challenges too, of course; every platform seems to have 3 versions of Chess, Checkers and Go within a week of launch.

Spectrangle360 was another Chick-Approved board game based on an existing property.

Spectrangle360 was another Chick-Approved board game based on an existing property.

Reusable Code

Board games have a lot of re-usable concepts in them. Players, pieces, boards, plies, AI based on Minimax, etc.. If you do it right, you can make your second game far more quickly than your first. We had hoped we could make our second game in half the time of the first. So far, it looks like Khet 2.0 will take one-quarter of the dev-time that Hive took.

One huge caveat here is that making reusable code is a huge difference from writing a general-purpose board-game engine. If you want to start your project by making the most universal, extensible board game engine in the world, then you’re almost certainly never going to finish your project (see the first section of this post!). However, as you create things you need, it’s fairly easy to plan ahead and make sure that anything general you’re writing (such as Minimax AI), is made in a reusable way.

Now, Step Off!

If you’re looking to make a game to break into the industry, board games can be a great way to start! However, if you try to knock off Hive or Khet, I may have to go all Dr. Karate on you!

But seriously, have fun making games and whatever game you decide to make – best of luck finishing it!
– Sean Colombo

If you like board games or indie game development, please follow our twitter @BlueLineGames, or our Facebook page to see behind the scenes!

Interview with Adam Spragg – Developer of Hidden in Plain Sight

Three developer interviews in three weeks.  Is this going to be a new regular feature at Indie Gamer Chick?  Maybe.  I consider myself a mediocre interviewer, but I offer interviews as a perk for sponsoring the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard or Review Index.  Adam Spragg, creator of the cult-hit Hidden in Plain Sight, became the second sponsor of my leaderboard when he donated to Autism Speaks.  I couldn’t have been happier to have him aboard, because Hidden in Plain Sight is one of the true hidden gems of Xbox Live Indie Games.  An extraordinarily fun multiplayer experience unlike anything I had played before.  It’s also one of the rare XBLIGs that has had great success spreading by word-of-mouth.  I was anxious to ask Adam how he feels about the response to his game, which is one of the most critically acclaimed on the platform.

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Developer Interview: Aeternum

Aeternum.  I didn’t love it.  Couldn’t even beat the first stage.  So why am I talking to the developers?  Well, because they’re my friends.  And, let’s face it, in this crazy modern world, cronyism is the glue that holds everything together.  Besides, it was late Friday night and after having a nuclear-level seizure, I figured games would be semi-off limits for the weekend.  I needed something to post, and my friends were in to lend me a hand.  It’s enough to make you cry tears of blood, is it not?

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Three Dead Zed Review & Developer Interview

Well, this has never been done before.  A review of a game done while simultaneously interviewing the developer.  I almost didn’t review Three Dead Zed, which sponsors my review index.  Sponsorship on my site is done by donating to charities (either Autism Speaks or the Epilepsy Foundation), so I don’t personally gain anything from it.  Well, unless the $50 minimum that is contributed to the Epilepsy Foundation is exactly what they need at that very moment to cure epilepsy forever.  And you never know, that might happen!  Still, I didn’t want to be accused of a conflict of interest.  If the game sucked, that’s fine.  Nobody would accuse me of slamming a game because it sponsored my site.  But, what if the game was good?  What if it was the best XBLIG I’ve ever played?  People would question whether it was legitimate or not.

Thankfully for me (and not so thankfully for the guys at Gentleman Squid), I don’t have to worry about it.  Three Dead Zed is atrocious.  The idea is you control three zombies, switching between them to make your way across platforms, shoving boxes, avoiding lasers, and killing people.  The game looks great, but the controls are never responsive.  The standard, default zombie feels sluggish and slow, and the jumping physics feel too heavy.  This is the only zombie that can climb ladders or hit switches.  On the flip side of this, there’s a quadrupedal that moves way too fast, jumps way too high, too far, and is a nightmare to control.  It can’t climb ladders, operate switches, or do anything but jumping and wall jumping.  Finally, there’s a giant, angry she-zombie that you use to break down walls and move heavy objects.  This one is slower than death by starvation, can’t jump, and its attacks don’t feel like they have any oomph to them.

Basically, I didn’t like Three Dead Zed at all.  Since I was due to interview developer Fabian Florez, I figured I would kill two birds with one stone and do the interview at the same time, and see what he had to say about some of the issues I had.  All things considered, he was a good sport about it!

Cathy: Before I get to brow-beating you for the ungodly piece of shit that is the game you made, can you give me a little background on your team and how you guys came together?

Fabian Florez: Heh. Well we all work in the same main company. We normally make interactive training for things like online courses for schools or other technical related subjects. Well, the main business was getting slow, and rather than let us all go, I proposed that we take a crack at making games. We had all the primary people needed for a team right there: Artists, programmers, lover of games. So they took a chance on us. Now, with my review coming up, I think “Why would you make this piece of shit” might hurt my chances of a good review.

Cathy: If your job security was depended upon how likely your supervisor is able to hit one of the light switches in the game, would you just immediately start packing your desk?

Fabian: NEXT QUESTION PLEASE!

Cathy: Do you know pink slips typically aren’t pink?  The ones I use are white.  Even the rubber stamp isn’t pink.  More like a crimson.

Fabian: I don’t even think they give slips at all. They just coral you into a room and just say, “Yea it’s been nice but you got to go.”

Cathy: Okay, okay, in all seriousness, why are the controls in Three Dead Zed so all over the place?

Fabian: We drink a lot.  OK,  *I* drink a lot.  It seemed to make sense to me when I was playtesting…that one night…before release. Can you help clarify a specific point?

Cathy: I’ll start with the speedy dude that runs on all fours.  It’s too easy to overshoot everything.  He moves too fast, he jumps too far, and it’s too loose so it’s easy to over jump stuff.  But the controls are also so loose that if you try self-correct mid-air, you’re just as likely to under-jump.

Fabian: He’s very debatable. Some people don’t mind him and adapt quickly. Others hate him outright. I do think it’s a bit of a failure on our part for tutorials and stage layout. For example, on the second tutorial stage after you unlock him, some people don’t just jump straight up. I’ve seen people play this on YouTube, streams, and in person. They always want to jump in a direction first. He jumps higher and you can have a control fall if you do that first. Or jump higher to stick to a higher part of the wall. Sometimes I’ve seen people always want to jump with him everywhere.  Some of the jumping puzzles were meant to be played with the classic zombie, not the jumper, but it’s not obvious enough. That’s just a failure on us.

I could go more into it, but ultimately, a game should just be played without a “guide” so I think that’s why we get hot/cold responses.

Cathy: I get a lot of developers who want to send me a detailed analysis of how to play their game when they request a review.  Always pisses me off and gets things off on the wrong foot.  Doesn’t mean I am certain to hate a game (Hidden in Plain Sight’s developer did it and I ranked it), but it feels like developers know from the get-go there are problems and still release anyway.  Do you think if you had held off on release you could have addressed these issues, or did the game pass the point of no return for salvation?

Fabian: That’s a great question. We initially released the game earlier in the year for Windows and we though we addressed a lot of those initial issues. Our tutorial section for example is longer and added things to what we though might be “second nature” had to be added. Like the area showing you how to drop down from floors. So unfortunately, it’s just that developer trap of “I think we got everything! Release it. OH NO not again!” Tried to touch all bases, but I think it’s really difficult.

But, I think there was also some confusion on our part because a lot of those comments did come from people playing with a keyboard. We did get feedback from people saying switching to a controller made things easier. So, porting to Xbox seemed like it would alleviate that since you can only play with a controller.

Cathy:  There’s a lot of niggling control issues.  Jumping off ladders with the default zombie, hitting switches, and some problems with collision detection.  We’ll start with the switches first.  I’m personally having problems lining up and pushing them correctly.  Brian isn’t.  His IQ is about 50 points lower than mine, so if your target audience is dumbass pseudo-gingers, mission accomplished, but wouldn’t larger area-detections be a no-brainer?

Fabian: Switches: It’s a pretty sizable hit detection. It was increased from the Windows to the Xbox build. The reason why it’s not even bigger, if I remember correctly, is because we didn’t want you activating things behind a wall on the other side on some scenarios. We’ll take a look at it again though.

Ladders is the new one that I did witness in our Peer Review.   Never heard that until we ported it. It’s another one of those, “Probably include it in the tutorials?” Push left or right and jump. I saw Ryan (aka MasterBlud of VVGTV) playing the game and he was stating how he hated the ladders also. The problem there is we have areas where you are going to want to jump from ladder to ladder. If you just push left or right and he drops, you wont be able to jump to the ladder. Minus the actual jumping from ladder to ladder, this is very similar to Mega Man’s approach. Except once you push jump, Mega Man would drop.

Cathy: I get that you guys were trying to go for a Trine feel, but one of the other problems was the game couldn’t seem to decide what it should focus on: platforming or puzzling.  Some games comfortably blend both, but this one seemed to jump from one to the other and it was jarring and killed the pace.  I don’t really know how to word that into a question for you.  First off, I assume Trine was inspiration for Three Dead Zed?

Fabian: We get Trine a lot and I swear, that was not our intent!  It was one of those things that just happened that way. Although I owned it, I still haven’t played it. 3DZ was inspired by a mix of the C64 game Goonies and NES Batman (hence the wall cling). If you never played The Goonies, you controlled two people who need to do something to unlock a door. Tough as nails. Anyway, along the way, we dropped that because, hey, we’re new devs and that was biting off more than we can chew. So we combined them all together to be one “super zombie” and made it more of a traditional puzzle platformer. Nothing too crazy in the way of puzzles though simple things for the most part.  The NES Batman was also a heavy influence on why the fast zombie sprints forward so quickly.  Some like it.  Some hate it. It was meant more for moving from wall to wall and that was it. “You are going this direction!”

(While this interview is going on, Bryce and my boyfriend Brian are playing through Three Dead Zed, enjoying it way more than I did, and start busting up laughing from chasing an old lady into a saw blade).

Cathy: Brian and Bryce just chased an old lady into a saw blade.

Fabian: Brian and Bryce, you are AWESOME. We wanted people to scare “innocents” into the hazards. We think it’s funny too. We almost had an award for scaring old ladies into buzz-saws but then pulled it.

Cathy:  I guess this moves us into the art.  It’s pretty good.  It reminded me of the stuff by Behemoth (Castle Crashers, Alien Hominid).  I find a lot of games on XBLIG that put a premium on audio-visuals tend to be mediocre or worse.  You just became the poster child for that.  Yay?

Fabian: *laughing*  Well we tried!  We thought, “Man if we could just make something so beautiful, it’ll be like a Greek Siren to Indie Gamer Chick and she’ll give us glowing reviews!”

Cathy: Good graphics do get my attention when it comes time to review a game, but once I start playing, gameplay is all that matters.  However, your game does have appeal in other areas.  The voice overs are great.  Who did them?

Fabian: Awesome to hear! Get it?!  Hear?

Cathy: ..

Fabian: Ahem.. Actually our star voice actor would love to read that. The two main voices you hear the most (intercom and shadowy figure) are actually the same guy. The intercom is inspired by Rick Moranis/Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. The Shadowy voice is…shadowy? The other voices are various people including the team. He also does the voice in the cut scene changing from zombie to zombie.  He actually does professional voice over work, and he offered to help us out for free.

Cathy: Do you have any future plans for game development?

Fabian: After your review? No. Closing shop. Taking our ball home and doing lots of crying.

Cathy: Hang on one second, I need to add another check mark to my gun.

Fabian: Actually, yes.  We’re working on another game.   It’ll be our first multiplayer game. You can put the chisel down.

Cathy: Awwww.

Fabian: Hey, you killed our joy.  Only fair we kill yours.

Cathy: Touché.  What lessons did you learn from making Three Dead Zed that you’re going to apply to the development of.. what the fuck is it called anyway?

Fabian: It’s called 2012.  Better late than never?  Actually we have no name yet. Basically: Playtest, playtest, and playtest. You really can’t do enough. We did quite a bit for Three Dead Zed (Both online and in person) but you just really need to do more than you think. A BIG sample definitely helps you find trouble areas.

Cathy: Have anything to say in closing?

Fabian: I do thank you for trying out our game regardless! You’re tough as nails, we’ll hopefully win you over with the next game.

I hope so too.  I would like to thank Fabian for being cool about this admittedly awkward situation.  He’s a good guy, and he should be proud of his efforts.  I still can’t recommend Three Dead Zed though.  Great graphics, great concept, and its heart was in the right place.  It’s just not beating.

Three Dead Zed was developed by Gentleman Squid Studio

240 Microsoft Points wondered if Gentleman Squid is any relationship to Armless Octopus in the making of this review. 

Tales from the Dev Side: Greenlight, Red Light by Alex Jordan

Although I’ve sworn many times that Xbox Live Indie Games have a bright future, developers are treating the platform like a freshly pruned-by-iceberg Titanic.  For many, the brass ring for distribution is now Steam.  The problem with that is Steam is a tough nut to crack.  And then hope came in the form of Steam Greenlight.  But is it really hope, or is it all smoke and mirrors?  Cute Things Dying Violently developer and Greenlight hopeful Alex Jordan  has a few thoughts.

Greenlight, Red Light

by Alex Jordan

The life of an up-and-coming indie game developer sure is a great one. I mean, think of the perks!  Scant management, vast amounts of creative control, and great appreciation for the finer things in life, e.g. ramen noodles.

And, hey, there’s also the disproportionately huge share of revenue you command!  Unfortunately, 70% or 100% of shit is still shit (roughly “shi” if you’re using the 70% model, including the dot above the i, greedy bastards), so pretty much every last indie developer has had one nagging thing on their to-do list for the past four or five years: beg for distribution on Steam.  Because, let’s face it, it’d be super nice if people had actually heard about your game and maybe would deign to buy it.  If that were the case, you could consider quitting your day job, or at least consider having something for lunch other than rehydrated noodles in sodium water.

And because the only thing out there more in abundance than ramen noodles is desperate indie developers, the guys and gals at Valve who run Steam have had to fend off these Morlocks with a stick.

Pictured: Cute Things Dying Violently creator Alex Jordan and his fiancée.

For every indie game that manages to pass through the Pearly Gates, 100 get denied or ignored. Enter: Steam Greenlight, Valve’s way of saying, “Here! You look at shitty MS Paint art.  We’ll just sit here and make decorative pants out of $100 bills.”

Having had Cute Things Dying Violently rejected by Valve back in July, Greenlight (which was announced roughly three days after I got my rejection email) seemed like a juicy consolation prize.  A community indie games voting site for a large captive audience of Steam users, designed by a developer as canny and talented as Valve? Sign me up!

And I did. Pretty much the moment it went live, back on August 30.  And that’s when the horrible truth set in: Greenlight was. . . decent.  It wasn’t great, it wasn’t terrible, it was just. . . a filter.  Pure, exhausted convenience distilled into a website.

What’s Going Right?

My first 20 minutes with Greenlight were pretty blissful.  It was streamlined and easy to use, and I managed to register CTDV with trailer, screenshots, and description inside of ten minutes.  And pretty much the moment my page went live, the unique page views started pouring in.  The “large captive audience” I mentioned earlier is nothing to sneeze at.  Just by virtue of being on the platform, my game and others like it were getting a degree of attention that was unprecedented just hours earlier.

It’s also marvelously easy to provide feedback on games.  For each game page there’s an upvote button, a downvote button, and a Favorite button.  Additionally, Collections make it easier for third parties like gaming websites to promote a series of games.

What’s Going Wrong?

I’m not going to harp much on the reviewer’s experience, since most gaming journalism outfits have already beat me to it.  The short version is that discoverability is still a problem; talented developers with attractive games are unavoidably lumped together with complete crap; trying to cast several votes efficiently is a navigational cul-de-sac; and, unfortunately, the Greenlight community is full of slack-jawed retards.

“Gameplay looks like iphone appstore level trash” said Cletus Gumtooth of Pine Knot, Kentucky. Jed Toomanytoes of Camden, TN noted “looks like a boring, bad, lazy game thats just like a multitude of other terrible and boring games. also i want to fuk my sistah.”

How obnoxious can they be? Well, many of them didn’t know what Greenlight was for.  They thought it was a way to request their favorite AAA games getting on Steam as opposed to indie games.  Plenty of people who knew what the deal actually was were scarcely better, and each game’s comments thread began racking up scattershot feedback that many YouTube vets would cringe at.  One man’s Cthulhu Saves the World is another man’s crappy RPG Maker clone, and one man’s Cute Things Dying Violently is another man’s “stupid Flash game.”  Ouch.

I’m sure the majority of Steam accounts are held by lovely people, but you can only read so many variations on “Your game sucks” or “Get fucked m8” before the scales fall from your eyes.  After all, these are the people whose votes you need.

Oh my God, I turned out to be a politician anyway.

The Developer’s Experience

Anyway, such delicate interaction proved to be a wee bit of an eye-opener.  The rest of the developer experience on Greenlight isn’t much better.

The most notable aspect of the developer’s experience is one of confusion and withheld information.  Putting a game on Greenlight, with its studied silence from Valve and its schizophrenic community, is like being asked to stand in one place and alternatively receiving either kisses or kicks to the genitalia.

And those are the only two forms of feedback.  Initially, developers (and only developers) got to privately see their game’s percentage of upvotes to downvotes, but that disappeared after a few days when it became apparent to Valve that downvoting – either legitimate downvotes or those by trolls – served no other cause than to drag down a game’s up/down ratio.  Downvotes don’t subtract from upvotes, but, initially, we didn’t know that.  For reviewers, a downvote got the game off their to-review screen.  For developers, it was a sign of dislike for the game and perhaps even a negated upvote, as Valve hadn’t told us otherwise.  We got to suffer in silence for a few days, watching our numbers degrade, before Valve put us out of our misery and yanked that wonderful feature.

And then there’s the “% of Calculated Ratings So Far” bar that shows how far along your game is on upvotes before it gets submitted to Valve.  Well, the fine folks at Valve don’t quite know yet what level of participation the Greenlight community will have, so they’ve erred on the side of caution and set the number pretty damn high.  Even standout games on Greenlight like Project Zomboid have only gotten about 20% of the votes they need, while the rest of us plebes get to hang on to single digit approval percentages.  (Granted, it’s been less than a week, so take my whining with a grain of salt.)  And since developers don’t get to see how many upvotes their games have actually gotten, there’s nothing for us to extrapolate from.  We just get to sit, and wait.  And get kicked in the balls.

Hey, I’ve Done This Before. . .

Despite its shortcomings, Greenlight still presents a big opportunity for indie developers.  Whereas previously Valve would almost certainly take a look at your game and flat-out reject it in the same split second, now we have an opportunity to land a game on their laps with some sort of critical consensus and the understanding that Valve employees will review it with the time and attention it deserves.  Gone will be the days of instantaneous judgment leading to rejection and developer misery.

Thus, Greenlight becomes a plausible shortcut.  Sure, it’s an extra step in the process (you used to be able to just fill out a form on Valve’s website and send your game in), but if your game emerges intact on the other side, odds are you’ll soon be sitting pretty.

Cute Things Dying Violently has seen modest success on various platforms. Which is probably a good thing. If it did any better, you know a certain Silicon Valley mobile company would be right there with their “completely original” physics puzzler “Adorable Creatures Perishing Disturbingly.” Then they would probably sue him for stealing their idea before they thought of it.

But here’s the thing… Greenlight’s voting threshold and discoverability shortcomings mean that the developers still need to do quite a bit of hustle to gain attention and upvotes.  Which is. . . hey! I recognize that feeling!  That’s exasperation, having just realized that this is what we’ve always had to do, and will always have to do.  I don’t think any of us developers were naïve enough to think that Greenlight would be a straight ticket to success, but what we got instead was another chapter in the same story we’ve been reading for years upon years: capitalism is hard, and you gotta work for it, and in the end you still might get shafted for no fault of your own.

That means instead of spamming Kickstarter solicitation emails, now you’ll be spamming Greenlight solicitation emails.  (I’m sure gaming journos will be just as eager to read the latter!)  Developers will still be struggling to worm their way into bundles and promotions, desperate to practically give their game away just to get a little bit more recognition.  Networking will still be paramount and journalists will still need to be schmoozed at bars, but last I checked, I really like beer and I really like talking about myself, so that’s not a problem.

In the end, Greenlight represents yet another dance routine on the never-ending popularity contest that all obscure indie developers have to participate in.  It’s certainly not bad, and dare I say the vetting process still represents a good opportunity, it’s just that it’s underwhelming.  Greenlight’s another queue, another procedure, another form that needs to be filled out on the road to possible opportunity.

It is, in short, the perfect microcosm of the indie developer experience.  Does that look like a raw deal to you?   It shouldn’t.  It may seem like deferred, somewhat unlikely success, but it’s worth a shot, isn’t it?  If it wasn’t, we would’ve given up.  And judging by the growing number of games on Greenlight, that ain’t gonna happen.

Indie Games Uprising III Interview: Sententia

It’s back!  Last year, the ten games of extreme varying quality (somewhere between sublime and subfeces) took part in what was the most promoted event in Xbox Live Indie Game history.  This year, nine new games are ready to show off what the platform is capable of.  It’s called the Indie Games Uprising III.  The man running it, 19-year-old Michael Hicks, has a game of his own in it: artsy platformer Sententia.  I talked with him about his game, the event, and what exactly “art house” gaming means.

Kairi: When I hear the term “art house style game”, I typically throw-up a little bit in my mouth.  What do you think the medical term for that is?

Michael Hicks: Ha! Well, I guess you could say I used that to rebel against “the man” or status quo. It’s kind of a vague term looking back at it now, but this game is extremely personal to me and marked a big change on my outlook towards game design. I wanted to be sure that when going into the game people would know that I attempted to make something more than a game about jumping over blocks and attacking enemies; there’s a ton of reasoning behind all of the design decisions… almost an unhealthy amount! I guess I was just worried people wouldn’t get me, so I decided to go all hippie hipster and call it an art game!

Kairi: When I watched the video for Sententia, it looked to me like a cross between a punisher and Scribblenauts.  What is the actual inspiration for the game?

Michael: You’re the first one to call it a punisher! The game is very challenging and ramps up fast – I don’t think that’s something people typically take away from the trailer. The gameplay wasn’t really inspired by a particular game, but you could say that it was inspired by the themes and messages I wanted to convey. The games that made me open my eyes were “Aether” by Edmund McMillen, “Gravitation” by Jason Rohrer, and “Braid” by Jon Blow. These games are very powerful, but they tell stories through basic gameplay interactions and themes, I wanted to try and experiment with what they pioneered. As I started to get more technical with the platform designs I did reference “Super Meat Boy” quite a bit, as the game is very challenging, but never felt frustrating (at least to me!).

Kairi: Your previous games have been space shooters, and now you’re doing a self-described “art” game.  You’ve started taking drugs, haven’t you?

Michael: No, never! It’s insane how many times I get asked this by people… it’s so weird that when people start to make more expressive things others instantly think they’ve turned to smoking weed or something!

Kairi: I’m actually kind of surprised by the lack of quote-unquote “experimental” games on XBLIG.  Why do you think developers don’t try to get weird when they create their games?

Michael: It’s really easy to just stick with what has already been proven to be successful, it takes some practice to really work the “originality muscle”, and I’m still trying to exercise it myself. It also takes some guts to make something super personal/deep/experimental and release it to a wide audience; I’m very terrified to release my own game, I think the closer it gets to the release date the more I am going to lose my mind.


Kairi: When you made your previous games, was there any off-the-wall weird shit that you thought to include but chickened out of?

Michael: I don’t think I’ve ever censored myself like that, but before “Sententia” I was going to make a game based around this joke rap project that my friend and I do on occasion. We started recording music for it back in High School as a way of making fun of pop culture. In this game you were going to drive around with a police officer collecting donuts while this song of ours played on the radio. Then I remembered that I’m in a position where the games I make can actually affect people’s lives and I wasn’t interested in committing career suicide.

Kairi: You pussy!

Michael: Hey, I thought it was the right thing to do!

Kairi: Okay, so now that you’ve finally manned up and are doing something off the beaten path, are you finding it difficult to implement your vision using the XNA framework?

Michael: Definitely not, I hope I never have to work with anything else. I really don’t care for C++ or any of the hardcore techie languages, even though I can use them. I love to program, and I’m glad I can do it… but I don’t like spending time doing all of the crap that those languages require when I could be doing more game specific type stuff.

Kairi: You’re the man in charge, more or less, of the third Uprising.  Are you fucking insane?

Michael: A lot of people think I am, that’s for sure! It’s really an honor to be involved like this, but it’s a huge responsibility; I want to make sure this is a promotion that people won’t forget.

Kairi: Some people, who shall remain nameless (ME!) thought the last Uprising was incredibly disappointing.  This year looks much more promising right from the start.  What do you say to those (ME!) that are skeptical about the quality of the games this time around?

Michael: Reception of indie games at this level is kind of a weird thing, you get such mixed reactions. Personally though, I am really excited for the line up this year… a lot of the games are very interesting. I’ve played most of the titles thoroughly, and I would definitely rank a good number of them in my “Favorite XBLIGs Ever” list.

Kairi: I noticed all the Uprising games are single player titles.  Is the irony that we’re doing an event where the community rises up together yet plays games alone lost on you?

Michael: Wow, that never dawned on me before! We tried to get a variety of games, but mainly we wanted to scout out some titles that we thought were great games.

Kairi: In closing, how do you feel the games of this Uprising stack up against the games of the previous two events?

Michael: The selection this year is totally different from last time I think. I would classify those games as more extroverted and these games as more introverted… maybe that makes no sense. Either way, we’ll just have to see what people say when all of this kicks off!

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