My Dream Game

Well, I’m not quite ready to put my thoughts to pen and paper (or in this case, fingertips and keyboards) on Gris or Monster Boy yet, but I also promised that I’d update IGC daily in 2019. So how’s this for a change of pace: I’m often asked “what’s your dream game?” At first, the question caught me off-guard. My dream game? I’m honestly open to the idea of liking, even loving, any game. As far as I’m concerned, “best game I’ve played” is on the table for every single title I’ve played up until it does something to remove itself from the conversation. My dream game? Something I like more than my current all-time favorite: WarioWare Inc. I can’t imagine how much I’ll like that game, but it’ll be spectacular. I’m only 29-years-old and I think that game is somewhere in the horizon. I hope so. Frankly I’m sick of people looking me weird when I call WarioWare my favorite of all-time. They ask if I have ADHD.

But fine.. I’ll play along. What’s a game I’ve always wanted that never got made?

How about a sequel to Super Mario Bros. 2?

His hands say “turnip” but his eyes say “peyote.”

I mean the American version. You can’t mention it without some insufferably smug fanboys saying “OMG that’s not the real Super Mario 2 you fucking newb that’s really a game called Doki Doki Panic you fake gamer gurl you don’t know anything about games!” Yea yea. Here’s the thing: the real Super Mario 2 fucking sucks. It’s a ROM hack that Miyamoto and his crew must have been on their man-periods while making because it’s a maddening, frustrating, completely unfair piece of shit of a game. It makes Vs. Super Mario Bros look positively restrained, and that’s saying something.

The real real Super Mario 2 came out in Japan in 1987 and the US in 1988 and it’s truly an astonishing game. A landmark in level design so inspired that 30 years later I actually had to call out the Wonder Boy III indie remake/repainting for its blandness in that area. How could I not? The gauntlet had been thrown down, and with all the exploration and secrets of Super Mario 2 a full two years before Wonder Boy released (and a full two years before I was even born), it seems the benchmark had already been set. The really amazing thing? It holds up today. I first played it for the Game Boy Advance under the name Super Maro Advance at the age of twelve in 2001, when it was a full fourteen years old, and I loved it then. I still love it today. It’s my favorite 2D Mario. Mario 3 and Mario World aren’t even in the discussion for me.

The irony is I never used Mario when I played it. I’d use Toad for the first couple levels, stock up on coins for the slot machine, win a bunch of lives, then used Luigi to finish everything after that. Honestly, what fucking loser used Mario? He sucked in it.

How have we never gotten a sequel to THAT? And don’t say “Super Mario 3D World” because it’s not a sequel. It’s a really lazy 3D version of New Super Mario Bros. Just because you can play as Toad and Peach doesn’t make it essentially a direct follow-up to Mario 2. And honestly, I thought the new power-ups sucked. Cat Mario? Seriously? I honestly think most new Mario games begin as a game of Mad Libs.

Mario gets a (noun) BELL that turns him into (animal) CAT Mario, who can then (verb) CLIMB.

Yawn.

No, I want a sequel to Mario 2. I want completely off-the-wall, fever-dream enemies. I want horizon/vertical level design that aspires to raise the bar completely out of reach for other games. I want Wart.

Oh.. and I want it to be a Metroidvania.

Repeat after me: Super Mario 2 play mechanics.. but as a Metroidvania.

You can picture it, right?

If I could will a game into existence but it would cost me a year off my life, I’d have to really think about this one.

Mario has never done an actual Metroidvania, and if any one of his previous adventures would lend itself to one, it’d be Mario 2. Even single levels from it can feel like huge, vast open worlds. So let’s just take those settings, scrunch them together, add a few more new ones, tell the 4th world (the ice levels with the little runny snowmen things) we must have misplaced the invitation, and presto: you have a viable new series for Mario that can bring in dosh every few years. Not that Mario needs a new series. I mean, come on.. there’s a Mario basketball game. Basketball not exactly known as a sport that fat Italian plumbers excel at. Even better: it’s developed by Square-Enix. Because when you think video basketball, you think of the guys who make Final Fantasy, and you want to play as Mario.

So, will they ever do it? I don’t think so. Nintendo made a direct-sequel to Yoshi’s Island for the DS and it was so putrid that nobody talks about it.. or apparently even remembers it.. anymore. “Oh you mean Yoshi’s Story?” No, Yoshi’s Island DS, made by a company so awesome they no longer exist. They also made Blinx. Blinx sucked. This sucked worse.

Horrible. Just horrible. Artoon was one of the worst studios ever. They made Yoshi’s Topsy Turvy, a game that I felt was unplayable. Nintendo saw how they did on that and gave them another game with the franchise. Ugh.

What does that have to do with a Mario 2 Metroidvania, or a sequel to Mario 2 at all? Nintendo tends to get burned when they try to resurrect old ideas. It’s even happened already with Mario 2. It was the lowest-selling of the four Mario Advance titles. Maybe that’s the fate of Mario 2. To always be “the weird one” of the series. The “not a real Mario game” Mario game. I hope not, but here we are in 2019 and it’s still just that strange anomaly in the series. The one better known for bringing us Shy-Guys and Birdo and little more. Mouser? Triclyde? Fryguy? Clawgrip? Completely forgotten. Actually fun fact: Clawgrip isn’t in Doki Doki Panic. It’s an albino Mouser in the Japanese vers.. GODDAMNIT NOW I’M ONE OF THEM TOO!

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The Difficulty Gateway

I usually say that I feel my reviews as Indie Gamer Chick represent the average gamer, but the truth is I’m probably above-average in skill-level for most genres. Some, like puzzlers, I chew through so easily that I usually hand games off to my family to make sure they’re not too easy for normies. But being a fairly hardcore gamer since the age of nine and being a game critic is a tough balancing act. One that doesn’t get discussed enough, because we’re all probably better at games than Fred and Ethel shopping for something on payday to kill a weekend with on their dusty Xbox One. When a game doesn’t have adjustable skill-levels, challenge is hard to quantify on your own. You’re playing the game based on decades of experience, and can only assume how others will take it. Even if you have friends or family to observe, it’s not like you’ve been studying them in a laboratory your entire life and can fully approximate the ceiling of their ability.

Of course, being a game critic, if I’m not being told that the only reason I didn’t like a game is because I wasn’t “objective enough”, the most common thing I’m told is that I just suck at games. I didn’t like Cuphead, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hollow Knight, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hotline Miami, ergo I suck at games.

Ah yes, Battletoads. A game so fondly remembered that it could go completely dormant for twenty years because it was so prohibitively difficult that very, very few would ever remember it as an all-time great.

I don’t think I suck at games. Maybe some games. Like fighting games aren’t my thing, and an early running gag at Indie Gamer Chick was me noting that I couldn’t ever get the hang of throwing a Dragon Punch with Ken or Ryu (I’m proud to report I can now, suck it Kris & Jesse). It doesn’t mean I don’t like fighting games though. I got Mortal Kombat XL for Christmas and took delight in violence so awesome that it would make even the most dead-inside grizzled veteran become physically ill. But something like Cuphead? I actually don’t think I was that bad at it. I got all the contracts (IE I beat all the bosses on the standard insanely crazy hard difficulty) for the first world and beat all the bosses on the lowest difficulty for the first three worlds, something nearly 90% of all Cuphead owners either couldn’t do or couldn’t be bothered to do. As for Hollow Knight, I’ve heard fans of the game tell me how hard a boss was that I downed without breaking a sweat. I wasn’t dying all that much while playing it and only once did I die without retrieving the shit I dropped, thus losing it.

By the way, I sucked at Spelunky. I really sucked at Kingdom. They’re both IGC all-timers. Trust me, if talent was required for me to enjoy something, I wouldn’t have any hobbies at all.

I’m not a fan of the notion that games are supposed to be hard to prevent undesirables from playing them, or any game. That the measure of a true gamer is being able to finish these hard games. What an absurd notion this is. It’s snobbery of the lowest order. For games like Cuphead, I’ve come up with the phrase “prohibitively difficult” to describe them. I think Cuphead crosses the line where even above-average players will be gated-off from large sections of content without any hope of ever being good enough to reach them. And for those who say “practice harder”, this isn’t an activity where increasing your skill level will lead to greater things in life. It’s a video game. I’m not going to put in eight hours of practice a day just so I can fight a giant animated stack of poker chips.

By the way, Cuphead wiki, this is based on Amarillo Slim. Only the Babe Ruth of Poker. “Duhhhh, we think it’s based on poker. You can tell by the chips.” Good lord, you people need to get out of the house sometime.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to make their games. If you feel your dream project should only be able to be finished by 2% of all gamers, so be it. But, maybe you should consider telling your fans to stop calling those who can’t beat it a bunch of pussies. I’ve seen players far above my skill level who enjoy quality run-and-spray games walk away broken and shaken from Cuphead, wondering if their skills are depleting as they grow increasingly decrepit or if it’s the game. It’s the game.

And what’s the point of gating, anyway? Contra is an all-time classic, and one of my personal favorite NES games. It’s kind of a travesty that it wasn’t part of the NES Classic. Instead, we got inferior sequel Super C instead. Contra is hard, but it has the most famous means of overcoming that difficulty in the history of gaming: the Konami Code. If that wasn’t in the game, nobody would talk about Contra today. The Heart of Contra wouldn’t be one of the most legendary bosses of all time. It’d just be one of those NES games people say “cool, I remember it. It was hard” and then talk like blowhards about how games were better back in the day while reminiscing about all the titles they never got around to beating.

Has it ever been confirmed this is actually supposed to be a heart and not, you know, the Gonads of Contra?

So how is someone like me, an above average player, supposed to quantify the value of a game that didn’t just destroy me, but destroyed even better players I know? Indies are dependent on word of mouth, and “this game left me blistered and defeated” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement to your average gamer. A critic isn’t an asshole for telling people the game is too hard to recommend, nor are they a pussy. You’re who gated the game off. And for what? So a small percentage of players who will never help you move a single unit outside their clubhouse can have a secret handshake “we’re the only real gamers” crowing moment? If they tell you that you’re selling out for including adjustable difficulty, you tell them to pony up a few hundred thousand dollars so your kids can go to college. I’m sure they’ll get right on that.

Today Gamers #DiscoverIndies

Today is the first #DiscoverIndies Friday. The idea is, on the first Friday of every month in 2019, gamers from all walks of life should find a single indie game they’ve never heard of before, play it, and report back on it. The response so far as been incredible. Overwhelming really, and I wanted to share it with everyone!

Thank you to the entire gaming community for participating. I’ve been Indie Gamer Chick for 7 1/2 years and I’ve seen so many games that were wonderful but never found their audiences. We could never hope to lift all of them up, but if everyone participates once a month, we can rescue a lot of great titles from obscurity. #DiscoverIndies is an investment in our futures as gamers. And here’s what you came up with.

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Ask the Chick (Issue #2)

It’s the eve of the first #DiscoverIndies Friday. No biggie, just the culmination of my entire Indie Gamer Chick career. I’ve puked roughly seven times today.

So let’s get to the questions.

Any Kingdom Hearts game. The second one especially was so top-heavy in its own mythology and the first game ended in a cliffhanger, so I was kind of stunned that the sequel had closure. Yet, having played through most games in the series, I still can’t fully explain what exactly the goal of the Heartless was. It’s just nonsensical tripe. But the gameplay is fun and Sora is relatable.

Indie games? Limbo’s ending left me shaking my head wondering how so many people read so much into it when it’s kept so deliberately abstract. I liked playing Limbo, and that sequence with the spider is a first-ballot candidate in the Opening Level Hall of Fame, but ending left me wondering what the point was.

If you mean linear, story-based games and separate play-sessions (I made 200+ runs through Dead Cells but that was over one month-long binge), I’ve played all the way through Shadow of the Colossus four times. The first play-through was probably an all-time top five games experience for me. It was incredible. Every subsequent time, not so much. The flaws started to stick out more and more. I recently played the PS4 remake and I still think it’s an all-timer, but there’s a lot of questionable decisions and some of the bosses are very underwhelming to the point that they feel more like they were a “we gotta make deadline” inclusions more than being included on merit. There’s two in the game that are barely bigger than the horse, for fuck’s sake.

I don’t replay a ton of games. There’s so many games out there and every single replay is time I’m spending not playing something new to me. I look at my gaming existence as an ongoing quest to play the best game I’ll ever play in my life. I’m 29-years-old, and I hope I haven’t already played that game. But if I keep playing the same games over and over again, it will limit the time I have to find that game. I’ve met people who have proudly told me they play Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VII once a month, EVERY MONTH, and always will because they know 100% for sure they’ll never ever ever ever play a better game. To me, that’s a sign of insecurity. I want to find a game I’ll like more than my favorite game ever, because that game obviously must be spectacular.

The biggest? Yes. The best? I think it gave up that title sometime in 2017. It’s just too damn much work now to sift through new releases. It’s maddening how fast games release on Steam, with no curation. I know people are fans of achievements and Steam cards, but games that exist only to exploit those, have no effort behind them, and only serve to dump 300+ achievements on players in as little time as possible are like a form of cancer that’s rendered shopping on the platform an excruciating experience. PlayStation 4 is just as bad with shit like Emerald Shores or Unknown City. Games that have made some very talented developers who can’t get listing physically ill. Right now, the market I like the most is Xbox One’s. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t feel like a dumping ground. Every platform needs reform, but Xbox needs it the least.

But, my little birds tell me that reform is coming to Steam and PlayStation 4 in 2019, and talks of making sure Switch doesn’t go too far off the rails are taking place. Wish I could go into details but everything is preliminary right now. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight, everyone.

As far as taking Steam’s spot, a 90%+ market share is tough to crack. I used to be of the belief that you would have to chip away at it one tiny chunk at a time, but obviously I was wrong about that. Every market that’s gone that route has failed. I can admit when I’m wrong, and I was wrong about this. So really. If someone is going to shake up the landscape, they’re probably going to need such a momentous send-off that it immediately takes a 10% or better chunk. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust me, that would be unprecedented.

Can it be done?

No, it can’t be. Prove me wrong, competitors. I’m rooting for you.

The Super NES. I have most of the classic mini consoles and tons of compilations of classic games, and the SNES lineup is the best top-to-bottom with the fewest stinkers. Games for the SNES just plain aged better than NES, N64, Genesis, or PlayStation One games. The worst game in the collection, Star Fox 2, was a game so horrible Nintendo shit-canned it twice in two different eras before finally sticking it on the SNES Classic as a tacky promotional gimmick. I’ve been doing this IGC Retro Blitz thing for a month now and the best classic game collection, and it’s not even close really, is the SNES Classic. Just the lineup of it alone could probably get me through the next decade if that’s all I had to play. But if you throw in the rest of the SNES lineup, I’d be able to make it for life.

I look at something like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes more like a board game than a video game. It’s actually really clever and when I finally put enough time into it for a full review, I can’t imagine it won’t be on the IGC Leaderboard Top 10. I also like what it represents: that making a game doesn’t begin and end with a series of 1s and 0s. That you can take it outside the box and create a simple, coherent, insanely fun title that isn’t limited to just a screen.

Otherwise, it depends on what you mean by “media.” Does Amiibo count? Skylanders? You know who would have been all over that kind of shit once upon a time? Young me. I would absolutely have been someone who pestered their parents for the latest Amiibos or Lego Dimensions sets. I only currently own one Amiibo, and it’s a still-boxed Shovel Knight I got from a friend at Nintendo as a gift. Adult-me just doesn’t have the time to bother with that stuff. I want to just sit down and play games. Young me? My parents would have been screaming at me 24/7 because they’d been stepping on them constantly.

My Dad is one of those older people that wants to be “hip” and “with it” and so when the media would hype the latest game console, in the time before I was around, he’d buy it and play with it for a few hours, and after that it’d only get used if they had guests come over. So when I was born, we actually had things like an NES and an SNES, but I never really got into them. My parents tell me the first game they remember me playing that I turned on and played by myself was Super Mario Kart, but I certainly wasn’t “hooked” by the experience. We had Zombies Ate my Neighbors and I remember playing it while hiding under the blankets. It’s not even a scary game, but five-year-old me probably thought it was.

When I was seven, my parents were shopping and there was a kiosk for PlayStation, and it had Crash Bandicoot. I started playing it, and it became the thing I wanted most for Christmas. That’s what made me truly interested in games. But the game that solidified gaming for me for life was Banjo-Kazooie. I played it on a kiosk again (hey, those things work game companies, you should bring them back!) and I really wanted it. And so on my 9th Birthday, July 11, 1998, my parents got me a Nintendo 64 with Banjo, and on that day I truly became a gamer. From that point onward, that’s all I wanted to do with all my free time.

In late June of 2011, the summer gaming drought was happening. I was browsing my Xbox 360 collection when I came across the game Breath of Death VII, which I had previously purchased. Brian asked me what it was. I told him “it’s an Xbox Live Indie Game. Anyone can make and publish games for Xbox and they go into a separate section of the store.” I hadn’t looked at those games in a long time, so I went to the XBLIG section of the market and there were TONS of games, many of which looked cool. I wanted to know which games were the good ones, but when I went to check reviews, we noticed that basically every site that covered XBLIGs gave every game a recommendation and said almost nothing critical about them.

My family had been pestering me that I needed a hobby, something creative, and suggested I take up blogging. Brian said “that’s it. That’s what you blog about. These Xbox indie games.” I opened Indie Gamer Chick on July 1, 2011, ten days before my 22nd birthday. By August 1, 2011, it was the most read XBLIG site in the world.

The funny part is, I definitely had no right to call myself “Indie Gamer Chick” at the time. I wasn’t an indie enthusiast. I hope in the seven-and-a-half years since, I’ve earned the name.

That anyone read me. When I cleared ten page views on the third day, we couldn’t believe it. But then the XBLIG development community found me and at first they were kind of mortified. I mean, my reviews weren’t very nice, and even with games I liked, I pointed out the flaws in them. Devs weren’t used to that. But, they ultimately embraced me, and I somehow became part of their community. That’s the part that shocked me. I never set out to be a community leader. It wasn’t something in the cards for me. That the community essentially chose me for that role? Humbling beyond belief. I hope I did right by them. I gave them everything I had. I miss them. I miss XBLIG.

Yes. I think we’re way overdue for this. But, after Hot Coffee, which could have been a fantastic chance for the game industry to, at long last, grow the fuck up, I don’t think it’ll happen anytime soon. The biggest issue is getting distribution of course. Someone could try to make a truly adult-only game for a major console, but they’ll certainly get rejected for listing from any of the big three. If they did get approval, the game would almost certainly never get listing in their digital markets and be relegated to physical copies in adult fun-time stores.

The bigger question is “is there even a market for this?” There was a cottage industry of pornography games for the Atari 2600 that were about as erotic as your grandma in the shower, but only one of them sold “well” (50,000 units) and that’s because it became the center of a media storm that made it 10x more desirable to try from a counter-culture point of view. That game involved raping a bound-and-gagged Native American. Something tells me that wouldn’t fly today.

But a well-made game that involves graphic depictions of sex? Something classy? It’s basically impossible to gauge because there’s no precedent for it on consoles. It would be a huge risk to whoever undertook the production of it. I believe there’s no reason to not have thing already be a thing in gaming, but whether it ever will happen? Honestly, I can’t see it because there’s just too many barriers of entry. The big chastity belt of gaming.

Bad controls for platformers for me. I’ve always been of the belief that good controls don’t make a game, but bad controls will absolutely break a game. As for RPGs, ones where grinding isn’t fun. Some people believe that, by definition, grinding has to be a chore. I’ve never believed that. I’ve played plenty of games where the act of grinding up resources can be every bit as fun as opening up the storyline.

Ask the Chick (Issue #1)

So, I foolishly declared I’d post content every day at IGC in 2019. And then the bug zapper in my head went off for the first day in 2019. Yep.

But thankfully my fans were there to bail me out with a simple new feature: Ask the Chick. Where I’ll answer your gaming questions, indie or otherwise. And man, did they come through with some good ones. Like this one..

Basically, the new regime that took over Konami looked at their books for all outstanding projects and saw what Hideo was cooking up. It was Metal Gear Solid V (set to release very shortly when this all went down) and Silent Hills. Both were over-budget and behind schedule. So they looked into the books for the past few console generations and noticed all his games had gone over-budget. The Konami of old had essentially given him a blank-check to make games because he had a tendency to make hits. The new management didn’t give a fuck about any of that and decided they would hold him accountable to budgets for the first time in his career, and he didn’t like that.

You see, there’s this metric that many big businesses use called EBITDA. It stands for “Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization.” In layman’s terms: it’s the metric used to gauge how well an aspect or holding of a business performs. And many companies simply do not give a shit about anything BUT a holding’s EBITDA. If you looked at Hideo’s track record and saw one project after another going over-budget, some wildly over-budget, if you’re EBITDA-oriented, you’re going to shit in your pants a little. So the new regime basically said “you will stick to a budget or we will cancel your projects.” And he said “okay, fuck this, I’m out of here.” Had he not quit, he’d probably been fired or demoted and stripped of what control he did have over his projects if he had gone even a dime over-budget or fallen behind schedule.

Would *I* have done it? I don’t know how I would have handled it long-term. I personally see no problem holding someone to a budget. That’s what a responsible business does. That he had been in the industry for so long and had never once been held accountable for the budgets he should have been managing was straight-up irresponsible. Those in chargeΒ of him should never have let that go on as long as it did. I’ve always been of the belief that you can’t give a creative person a blank check. They’ll feed like a goldfish until they pop with it. Konami did with Kojima for decades, and sometimes that hurt them.

Having said that, if a person is used to one way of doing things for years, and that person is essentially the face of your company, the smart thing to do is EASE him into the new standard. Provide him with the tools and resources to become responsible for a budget. Kojima was loyal to the brand and so you give him a decade to adjust to the new reality. And then if it’s still not working, then you let him go for cause. I know people hate it when I talk about stuff like this and side with the companies, but sometimes you have to. Sometimes it’s the right call. Sometimes it’s the only call.

But short-term, you HAD to let him finish the shit he was already working on. Silent Hills was arguably the most-hyped Konami project since.. well.. probably since Metal Gear Solid way back on the original PlayStation. It was a sure-fire, can’t miss mega-hit in the making based on the buzz alone. Millions had already been spent on its production. And it probably had the most famous game teaser of all-time already creating a tsunami of anticipation. Letting that get cancelled.. even thinking about it.. given how far along it was, even if considerable delays were on tap, was stupid. If it had been a situation like Star Fox 2 or Mega Man Legends 3, where the game got shit-canned because they realized it wasn’t fun, that’d be one thing. But everything I’ve heard from insiders tells me this could have been an all-timer. It’s a shitty thing to have happened and it’s unreal that it played out the way it did. It was short-sighted and kind of power-trippy, and we all lost out because of it.

So, to answer your question: he was going to be held to a budget for the first time ever and didn’t like the idea of it. Konami was completely in the right to want to move in that direction but wrong in how they handled implementing it. I side with Kojima based on the fact that the most responsible thing for the company would have been to stay the course on the existing projects and begin the process of breaking him into working within a budget beginning with Survive, and they were unwilling to.

For many reasons..

-They’re direct competition. Let’s say an indie developer makes a free-to-play flash game with a popular IP that’s meaty, lengthy, and well produced. It’s a totally bullshit reason and I’ve never seen a shred of proof this has ever happened in the history of EVER, but it’s a stated reason. In theory, it might be harder to convince consumers aware of the game to buy future official installments of the franchise if there’s well made, free games that are so well done they could be mistaken as official games. Speaking of which..

-Sometimes they’re so well made that people could mistake them for official games by the company who owns the IP. This one is actually more valid than the idea of “competition” and is why you’ll see Paramount be very stingy with stuff like Star Trek Fan projects. Even with a disclaimer, it’s not kosher to make something so close to the authentic game that it creates market confusion as to whether or not it is an official release, free or not.

-The IP holders are responsible for maintaining the integrity of their characters. So if you have a game which features Mario doing unwholesome things, Nintendo aren’t being assholes by telling the creator to take it down. It’s their property. They have the right to tell you that.

I’ve played fan games that use popular IPs. Some of them are so well made that it breaks my heart because I know what’s eventually going to happen to them. Be smart, guys. Focus that talent on creating original characters and IPs of your own, and maybe you’ll find success instead of a giant foot coming down from the sky to squash you.

Are polygons? Pixel art is fine, and I’ve often told readers that authentic-feeling retro mimicry is harder to pull off than most people realize. I’d like to see devs take games in more original directions, but sometimes players do want a no-frills neo-retro platformer with authentic 8/16bit art. The only time I’m against it is when it’s used cynically, meaning it’s the hook of the game on its own. It’s true that it’s not special to have 80’s-looking games anymore, but I don’t get the outcry of “over-saturation” when it’s a form of art that’s quintessentially video-gamey. The same people complaining should actually take comfort in the fact that 10-year-olds today cherish games with that style of graphics in ways beyond ironically-so.

Well, I don’t think the platform people choose for #DiscoverIndies matters, and in fact we encourage people to use their personal favorite gaming platform’s marketplace because we want to maximize the potential for enjoyment. Just the process of browsing to choose your game should be enough to open any gamer’s eyes to just how vast the indie market is on each platform. This will be remembered as the Golden Age of Indie Gaming. We’re living in it right now. And this Friday, when gamers start to #DiscoverIndies, they’ll also discover just how many options there are they never knew existed. It’s exciting.

What is the hardest platform for indies? Steam. New games release on Steam at such a fast-paced clip that you could be knocked-off the first page of the new-release list within hours of your game’s debut. That first page used to be so important, and now it’s a crap shoot. A game would be lucky to be on it for 24 hours. I once heard that the average gamer spends 20 seconds on a Kickstarter game’s campaign page. Twenty seconds. I don’t have numbers for how long the average gamer browses marketplaces, but you probably have only a matter of seconds to get someone’s attention, and if your game releases at 10AM and is already on page four of the new releases by dinner time, you’re going to struggle. Steam needs reform. Desperately. And Nintendo should watch what’s happened to developers there, because by the middle of 2019, the Switch could be in such a position itself.

PROMOTE THEIR GAMES! Far too many developers rely on the hope that high-follower content creators will stumble upon their work. In seven years, I could count on one hand the amount of times I’ve seen that happen, and even then it might not make a difference. Once upon a time, I was considered a very big deal on the XBLIG scene, but I reviewed fantastic games and sang their praises at the top of my lungs and those devs still abandoned gaming because nobody bought their work.

Developers have got to be proactive in getting their games attention. “If you build it, they will come” is a shitty catchphrase from an overrated movie and not remotely based on reality. You have to seek out and find your audience. They’re unlikely to find you. There’s just too much competition, and you’re a needle in a haystack.

Developers can also oversell their games too much. Trailers should be under a minute and focus on the game’s unique gameplay mechanics. I can’t stress the “unique mechanics” part enough. They’re the selling point of your game. What makes you stand out in a very, very crowded field. Don’t hide it. Don’t be coy with it. Show it off, because without it you’ll just be one of thousands of nameless, faceless indies who never found their audiences.

#DiscoverIndies

On Friday, January 4th, a new concept for trying to help spread awareness of under-the-radar indie games will get its first run, and it has the full backing of IndieCade.

I call it #DiscoverIndies
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#DiscoverIndies

The idea is simple: on first Friday of every month in 2019, gamers of all stripes will be encouraged to purchase a single indie game that they’ve never heard of before. It can be on any platform, any genre, or any price (including free-to-play), as long as they’ve never previously heard of it.

You then play that game and report back on how much (or how little) you enjoyed it on social media using the hashtag #DiscoverIndies, including screenshots and clips if possible. You can also stream the game, blog on it, do video essays on it, or review it. As long as you give the game a moment that it might otherwise have never gotten.

The hope is that people will see the activity from the event, see games that are enticing to them that they’ve also never heard of, and maybe inspire them to also purchase that game. While you are discovering games through the campaign, others will also get to share in your discovery, ultimately giving these games a chance to find their elusive audience.

I’ve been a member of the indie game community for seven years, and trust me when I say that most developers never find their audiences. Lack of fanbase should not be mistaken for lack of talent. I’ve played outstanding games from nameless, faceless developers who will never see their characters become Funko figures. If we, as a community, can make #DiscoverIndies a cool, trendy activity to participate in once a month, this could give them a shot at success on the level they’ve only dreamed of.

How do I participate?

On the first Friday of every month, go to the marketplace of your favorite gaming platform and just browse. You can use whatever filters you feel necessary to narrow your options. Just keep browsing until a game stands out to you that you’ve never heard of before that you would want to play. Buy it, play it, report back on it on social media using the hashtag #DiscoverIndies. It’s that simple.

A good idea is to start with the game’s title screen, include the platform you bought it on and the price you paid for it. If you have the time, check to see if you can find the developer’s handle and include it.

And then just play the game. Put a quality amount of time into it. When moments pop-out to you, take a screenshot or clip (these functions are built into all current game consoles and Steam) and then upload them to your social media (preferably Twitter). Make sure to include the #DiscoverIndies hashtag, so that others can see the game you played while browsing the tag.

Can I choose a game I already know about?

Then you’re not really discovering a game, are you? The discovery process is what makes this work and assures that the initiative doesn’t devolve into gamers promoting the same small handful of games. And so we ask participants to choose games they’ve never played so that they are the ones making the discovery, and let others share in your sense of discovery. While many of you feel that Undertale, Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, or Celeste deserve bigger audiences, the truth is they do have followings already. The goal of #DiscoverIndies is to help those games and developers that have little-to-no following.

But what if the game I already know about is under-the-radar?

We’re going to assume you’ve already been singing the praises of it and those who follow you should already have heard about the game from you, hence the need to pick a game you’ve never heard of before. If that’s not the case, why have you been keeping this hidden gem you’ve previously discovered to yourself? 99.99% of all indie games are fully dependent on word-of-mouth to find their audiences, so if you’ve already found a game and haven’t done your part to spread the word of the game, you can’t really call yourself a fan of it, can you?

How do I find the game?

You browse the marketplace pages of your favorite platforms and keep looking until a game catches your attention that you think you’ll have a good time on Friday with. Check to make sure it’s not published by a AAA studio, and if it’s not, grab it.

Use whatever criteria you need. To really make it fun, wait until the day of the event to shop for the game, and go off your first, visceral instinct.

What if I can’t afford to buy a game?

Steam has a WONDERFUL collection of free-to-play indie games by hungry developers looking to find their audiences. Check them out! There’s a very wide variety, including games that should be compatible with even low-end computers.

I’m gaming media. Can I do the #DiscoverIndies work before each Friday and then post the work on the day of the event?

Absolutely. If you’re going to go more in-depth with the game you select and need time to produce the content so that it’ll be ready for each #DiscoverIndies Friday, by all means do what you need to do to participate to the best of your ability.

Can the game be older or does it have to be a recent release?

You can choose any indie game released at any time. Every game deserves a chance to find its audience. As long as it’s under the radar and you’ve never heard of it, by all means choose it.

#DiscoverIndies Dates

January 4, 2019
February 1, 2019
March 1, 2019
April 5, 2019
May 3, 2019
June 7, 2019
July 5, 2019
August 2, 2019
September 6, 2019
October 4, 2019
November 1, 2019
December 6, 2019

Logo by Gordon Little

The Trouble with “Clone”

Pong wasn’t the first video game, or even the first arcade video game. It was the first commercially successful one, and the resulting popularity led to the most predictable consequence ever: it was copied. By everyone. In fact, this was so widespread that most people with only a passing interest in games who were around during the time assume Atari sold a lot more units than they actually did. Often, the competitors just straight-up directly copied every aspect of Pong component-for-component and slapped a generic name on the machine. Pong had no title screen and if you’d only heard of a newfangled electronic tennis TV game that cost a quarter to play, you wouldn’t know that Midway’s “Winner” wasn’t the original arcade video tennis machine. By the end of Pong’s market viability, there were over 25,000 “Pongs” installed in locations across the United States. But, around two-thirds of those were knock-offs with names like “Rally” or “Electronic Tennis” or “TV Ping Pong” made by companies besides Atari. Only about 8,000 actual Pong machines were built. The rest were eventually given the name “clones.”

Imagine living in a world before video games were everywhere and hearing about this “electronic tennis game you play on TV.” If you stumbled upon Rally, a Pong clone by Bally, would you have guessed or even cared that they had completely ripped-off Pong?

So it’s no surprise that the word “clone” is a major part of the gaming lexicon. The industry’s initial meteoric rise was built on a foundation of cloning. Unfortunately, we’ve stretched the definition of what is and isn’t a clone a little too thin. The word always has negative associations, yet we use it as a catch-all description for games similar to others. We do this even games we like. I’ve heard gamers call Axiom Verge a “Metroid clone” or Bloodstained a “Castlevania clone.” That seems like a slap in the face to such games, which strive to replicate the look and feel of classics but in a way that feels new and fresh. These are not clones.

They’re tributes.

The word “tribute” doesn’t come with the baggage that “clone” has. Well, unless you’re a child about to be forced into combat for the sake of somehow repressing rebellion among overworked and underpaid civilians in a dystopian society. I’ve never understood how that was supposed to work. It seems like that’s actually the exact sort of thing that would eventually cause such a rebellion. I mean, I would understand it if it was used as a threat. “Rise up against us one more time and we’ll force your kids to battle to the death for our amusement.”

“Okay, now remember: in the event that these adorable, photogenic children from your district are the ones that die screaming in agony, absolutely no rioting and/or rebelling. If you do.. um.. I’m not entirely sure actually. Really, we’re already killing your offspring for our entertainment. That’s about as horrific as it gets, it would seem. You know, I need to bring this up during the next cabinet meeting and ask President Snow if we’ve really thought this whole thing through. I mean, I can see some of you are not on-board with our plans. I don’t know what people itching for an uprising look like, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d guess they look something like you people. You have that ‘overthrow the tyrannical government’ look about you. But don’t.”

Where was I?

Tributes. It just makes more sense to me to call a modern indie title inspired by the hits of gaming’s past a “tribute.” Because that’s what they are. And the word works whether the game is fun or not. Calling Yooka-Laylee a failed tribute to Banjo-Kazooie is more accurate than describing it as a clone. It’s not a clone. It does try to somewhat modernize Banjo’s concept with things like a physics engine that closely resembles games of the 21st century. The way they implemented the idea completely missed the mark to such a degree that the mark shot itself in despair, but that doesn’t change the fact that the intent was toΒ pay tribute.

I’m not saying actual clones don’t exist in the modern-day. Anyone who searched the mobile market during the Summer of 2013 will remember endless copy-cats of Flappy Bird, which itself wasn’t exactly the high-mark of game design. But it was popular, and it got knocked off. But there’s a big difference between that and being inspired by a 1988 game in 2018. And it’s especially irksome because gaming is the only medium where such things are called “clones.” Nobody called Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad or Big Bad Beetleborgs a clone of Power Rangers. Hell, nobody even called the uber-cheap, so bad that it caused organ failure across the country Rangers knock-off Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverly Hills a “clone.” What about Cloverfield? By the standards of the usage of “clone” in gaming, is it not a “clone” of Godzilla? If every mining game is essentially a clone of Minecraft, surely every disaster movie must be a clone of the Towering Inferno?

So why do people say Shovel Knight is essentially a clone of DuckTales? Or even Terraria being essentially a clone of Minecraft? Clone is such a dismissive term. There’s no positivity to it at all. And maybe this message sounds weird coming from someone who regularly boils games in oil, but y’all need to be more positive. It’s such a disservice to these games to simply brush them off and lazily describe them as clones. Tribute is much more versatile. It can apply to games not out yet (“attempts to pay tribute”), good games (“wonderful tribute!”) or bad games. (“tried to pay tribute”). No matter what modifier you use on clone, it still sounds bad. Even “good clone” makes a game sound derivative and uninspired. And what happens when something does get cloned? In the event you run into an actual knock-off that deserves the title of clone, the proper meaning of the word has less weight when people say, completely seriously, that Dead Cells is, more or less, a 2D “clone” of Dark Souls.

That wasn’t a joke. I spent about a month tweeting media from my Dead Cells play sessions and had multiple people shrug their shoulders and call it a 2D Dark Souls clone. If I could strike one word from the gaming lexicon, it’d be clone. Well, actually I’d like to strike the pejorative “gay” from it too, which would remove about 75% of your average Xbox Live player’s vocabulary.

The indie community struggles enough with finding and maintaining an audience. Writing-off every neo-retro game as a clone of some classic title isn’t helping with that. The real shame is the work that goes into the games is the part of the equation that is lost most when someone casually dismisses a new release as a clone of some all-time great. “Cloning” suggests a lack of effort. Yooka-Laylee was terrible, but actual effort was made regardless of its failure. If they had set out to simply copy it, that could have been done with a lot less effort and a much smaller budget. Cloning is easy. It’s simple reverse-engineering. Building a new game from the ground-up that aspires to invoke the spirit of a legendary classic takes work. Win or lose, the effort should be worthy of the title “tribute.” And maybe we owe developers that kind of consideration. Let’s pay tribute to their work and ditch “clone” for good.

And if you don’t, I’ll force your kids to battle to the death for my amusement. See, that’s how you make it work!

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