I went on a bit of a rant on Twitter today and people asked if I could put all of this together for my blog. It all started with an e-mail I received on my Vlambeer-mail in which someone inquired about some tips to start an indie ‘startup’ – from there it quickly turned into the following.
I get so tired when someone emails me about tips for a gaming startup. Start a studio or a company or an actual thing that is real, damnit.
So here’s a question: why don’t I see more of an overlap between the people at developer-facing events and the people at public-facing events?
There are many reasons for developers to not go to those events. Maybe they don’t have the resources to attend at all. Maybe someone planned the convention right before another really big one. Those are valid reasons.
Maybe they don’t like the event itself, maybe they are worried that people will not know about their game or not care about their game at all. Those are not valid reasons to skip an event. If people don’t know about your game, or don’t care, that’s something that you should be working on. If nobody is playing your game, it’s just an icon on a screen.
There is a sphere of influence that we have – both as individuals and as a scene – a sphere of people that we can reach by our own means. These developers, gamers, members of the press and fans are the people that we can rely on to be at least peripherally interested in what we make and think and aspire. They are the people you count on to spread the word when you release a game.
You owe it to your game to try and reach as many people that would like to play it. Not only will more people get to interact with your work, but those people are also more likely to be interested in your next big thing. The more people play your game, the more likely you are to be able to support yourself financially while making new games.
The people that attend public-facing events are all sorts of things, but they’ve not necessarily heard of indie games or the games we’ve made. They do not attend the Game Developers Conference or other developer-facing events. They are unlikely to have heard of the Independent Games Festival or the Game Developers Choice awards. They are people that exist outside of our spheres and the scene’s sphere, but given that they like our games enough they can structurally increase the public awareness of our studios and our games.
Obviously, there are challenges to attending events like these. But the indie scene has always felt like a place of cooperation rather than competition to me. Things as big as the Humble Bundle or as contained as Ridiculous Fishing exist because we know that we – if we work together – can achieve far more than we can on our own.
Just three days ago Vlambeer was showcasing at the Indie MEGABOOTH at PAX East in Boston, which bundled the pull and resources of over fifty developers to make showcasing at an event of this size viable both financially and logistically. By collecting over sixty games it managed to draw a large portion of the tens of thousands of gamers attending in to not only check the indie games they care about, but also the games that are not on their radar. More importantly, since the MEGABOOTH is now the largest booth at PAX, people attending that know nothing of indie games get introduced to our scene in the best way possible: by playing our games and talking to their developers.
Being at a public-facing event –whether it is something as huge as PAX or something as small as a self-organized Local Multiplayer Picnic- is important. In a more structural way it is important to every indie developer out there, because attending those events allows you to help introduce people to the full spectrum of videogames. It enables people to experience tiny and experimental indie games as well as the huge and blockbuster AAA games that are showcasing there regardless of our participation or not. Showing at a public-facing event allows people that had never heard of indie games to learn that indie games exist at all and discover the variety that our scene offers.
There’s a lot to gain for all of us by reaching outside our sphere. So as an open invitation to all of you, let’s meet up at the next big one?
Last week, I gave a talk at the first ever New York City IndieCade East. Completely unaware of the expertise level of the audience, I decided to try a talk I’ve wanted to give for a while. Besides at venues filled with peers, I often speak at art- or culture-related events with audiences that have little pre-existing knowledge of the medium. This specific talk (which has gone through an absurd amount of iterations before I felt comfortable giving any version of it) is an entry-level explanation of the ideas and core principles of player agency – without using the words player agency.
Obviously, I needed to introduce Vlambeer and thus I ran with my usual slides – Jan Willem and I met in the train to school and pretty much hated each other right away, but found a common frustration in our game design university. We developed a mutual respect, dropped out because we felt we’d learn more just diving into the big bad world with reckless disregard for reality, founded Vlambeer in 2010 and made lots of games since.
After the talk was over there was a short slot for questions – which one person happily did. This person grabbed the microphone and carefully cleared their throat. This was an academic that ‘couldn’t fail to notice my stance on education’ and pointed out that I might’ve missed a tremendous wealth of theoretical knowledge about my chosen profession. The question that followed this quite frankly eye-opening rant was: ‘Do you know what player agency is?’
For some reason, that rubbed me the wrong way: I had spent a lot of time refining my explanation of the concept, catering it towards less literate people in a way that was hopefully both fun and educational. Here was someone who thought the reason I did it that way was because my assumed lack of formal education likely meant that I did not know the words for what I was trying to discuss.
I am not an academic. I make videogames. I learned how to make videogames by tinkering around with game creation since I was six years old. Somehow, I learned running a company by selling computers at an electronics store; by having a game design cloned and dealing with the supportive yet rough media fallout after that; by realizing I had undersold a game during negotiations because the other party instantly agreed to my opening bid; by having our accountant mail us about a few missing forms.
However, I am completely unsure as to how not having a formal education could be considered a limitation of my theoretical knowledge. One doesn’t need a university to read books or get access to interesting papers. Last year, I visited DiGRA out of sheer interest for the academic side of game development. The notion that the only way to knowledge of a subject is through formal education is mind-blowing to me.
This is equally mind-blowing to me. Many of the indie developers I consider personal heroes are developers that operate on that fine line between academia or theoretical exploration and practical development: conceptual art as many of Zach Gages’ installations or Douglas Wilson’ purposeful exploration of folk games and incomplete game systems being well-known examples of things that have inspired me over the years.
Thus, the whole framing of Vlambeer as a proof that education is inherently flawed is painful. It becomes even more contrived when one realizes that even though we did drop out ourselves, Jan Willem and I have spent a significant amount of our time on workshops, seminars, classes and talks around the world. Less than twenty-four hours before I presented the IndieCade talk that triggered all of this, I was on a stage at Chicago’s DePaul University presenting to a crowd of enthused students about my experiences with starting your own indie studio. A day after that talk, I would be speaking at the Parsons New School of Design alongside Ramiro Corbetta, Davey Wreden and Fernando Ramallo. Another two days later, I would be presenting another business-oriented talk at the IT University in Copenhagen.
For me that question on player agency perfectly illustrated once more that there tends to be a huge gap between academia and practical game developers. It illustrates a mutual feeling of superiority on both sides that results in two parties not seriously conversing on subjects that might push our medium forward. More than anything, it showcases on one side the tendency to disdain of academics towards the ‘simple, thoughtless banter’ of self-didactic developers. On the other side, it lays bare the mistrust of developers for the ‘experience-less self-referring writings’ of academics.
This status quo worries me. On endless occasions, I’ve argued for games to be inclusive of all expressions – and this is no different. Games can easily include punk games and academic exploration, but phrasing it that way would imply that there indeed should be a divide between the two. There needn’t be. They can just be different perspectives, different approaches to the same thing.
It would be absurd to claim that I oppose education. I will happily agree that I am unfit for education as a student. I will without hesitation state that a lot of institutes are falling short of their intended goals. I have not a single regret regarding dropping out. I will heartily recommend anyone who feels similar to how we felt three years ago to get themselves as far away from the system as they can.
Nobody will ever hear me say that in game development, education is a necessity. I’d go as far as to state that I would consider it foolish to say it is. All the same, education not being a necessity does not make it otiose or superfluous – it just makes it something that each and every person should make a conscious decision about.
Last week I was asked to speak at Pecha Kucha Night Amsterdam #24, an event in which presenters get 20 slides that automatically progress every 20 seconds. The event was a hall full of people who had never really played or considered videogames before, but who were on the frontlines of culture, creation and art in some way. Some were musicians, architects, product designers, commercial designers or digital artists. As I got on stage, I suddenly realized that my talk – a talk about how wide a spectrum our medium really covers – was going to be their first real introduction to videogames.
Last week, I read a magnificent story about an unfortunate EVE player, the pilot of a Titan-class ship who managed to accidentally warp himself into the middle of a hostile fleet of players. Titans, amongst the most valuable and rare ships in the game, can take months to construct and can sustain combat against hundreds of players at once. Naturally, the fleet quickly engaged the unprepared Titan. As reinforcements from both sides poured in, “the battle of Asakai” became part of EVE’s ever-fascinating history. As the battle raged on, both sides started warping in increasingly powerful ships, until several Titans were involved. Since everything in EVE has monetary value (the in-game currency, ISK, has an actual exchange rate) we can say that in the span of a few hours, thousands of players got involved and the value of the ships destroyed or damaged was over $24,000.
Last week, a Facebook post introduced me to the story of David S. Gallant – an indie developer who I had been following on Twitter for a while. I had bought his little autobiographical game “I Get This Call Every Day” when I ran across it a month or two ago. It’s a charming little simulation of David’s job at a call-center, dealing with a rather obnoxious but well-meaning caller who wants to change his home address in the system. Despite your best efforts, it is hard to please the impatient caller – and since the caller does not have the required information available to verify his identity, there is no ‘good’ ending. The best result to the game is you telling the caller to call back later. The most common ending is you getting fired from the job after upsetting the caller. Ironically, David ended up getting fired from his job due to the game.
Last week, I was discussing my love for SPORTSFRIENDS’ leading title, Johann Sebastian Joust. It’s a game you play without screens – a game that you play physically with PlayStation Move controllers. I’ve traveled around the world to play the game against its creator, Douglas Wilson, at locations from the Dom Cathedral in Cologne to the Boston subway, and from office buildings in New York to the cliffs near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Some are quick to note that EVE is ‘work’ more than ‘game’. Some are quick to note that Halo 4, Far Cry 3 and Darksiders II are not real games but simply money-grabs by a cynical, economics-driven industry. Some would say they’re not real games because they’re not PC-games. Some point out that Proteus is not a game because you can’t ‘win’ it and that Fez isn’t a game because you can’t die. Some claim Johann Sebastian Joust is not a videogame, but simply a digitized version of tag. Some say Westerado is not a game because it’s played in a browser, or Hundreds because it’s slow-paced and is played on a tablet. Some say “I Get This Call Everyday” is not worthy of the title ‘game’ because it looks like it was made in Microsoft Paint.
As I got on stage, it was such a relief that the only absurd preconceived notion stopping the audience from appreciating the whole spectrum of our medium was the false idea that games cause shooting sprees.
Made during the Nordic Game Jam 2013 just over two weeks ago, Press [X] To Give Up might not have been the best game made during that crazy weekend, it was definitely the one that left the longest impression on me. Tricky yet wonderfully executed.