Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Surviving In the Post-Indie Bubble Wasteland!!!

Incendiary title. Check. Dramatic image. Check. Time to sit back and let the retweets roll in!
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a widely read and mostly acclaimed article about the popping of what I termed the "Indie Bubble." I promised to write more about what I thought was coming and how I thought a small-scale creative artist could make a living in the times to come. It’s a long piece, and boring, so I’ll try to slip in a fart joke somewhere to keep things lively.

Although I'll be focused on video games, I flatter myself by thinking that the things I have to say apply to creators in all sorts of media.

Quite a few people, publicly and privately, asked for my advice and for my opinion on where things go from here. And I think it is solid evidence of how unpredictable and gut-emptyingly terrifying things have gotten that anyone thinks it useful to ask for my opinion.

Look, I don't know what's going to happen next. I'm not a sorceror. I approach these blog posts like Seal Team Six. I sneak in over the border, plant my bombs, and get out.

Plus, I'm old. I keep mentioning how old I am. Folks, this is not a boast. It's a warning. This whole mess is in the hands of the next generation, who grew up with their bleepy bloopy devices and have an intuitive grasp of them I never will.

I went to see a rock show the other week and these two kids in front of me (kids = people in their 20s) used Instagram, followed by SnapChat, followed by three apps that, I don't even know what they were, and it was like watching the birth of a new species. These people shouldn't be listening to me about anything.

I don't know what is next. But I'm not useless. One thing my weird endurance in indie games has given me is a very fine understanding of the advantages of "being indie." What makes people like us, what keeps us around, why we are needed, and how we can turn that into money. (I like money. It can be exchanged for goods and services.)

(Oh, and by the way, lots of people objected to my use of the word "bubble." Here is why I called it the Indie "Bubble." Because I knew if I did, many more people would read the post. It worked. Ha ha.)

So come with me! Let us, in the spirit of Christmas Specials of olde, learn the True Meaning of Indie.

In the future, young indie developers will have to fight in the Thunderdome. Winners get a 300 word preview in Kotaku.
The Term 'Indie' Is Useless

People in all media argue ceaselessly about what "indie" means. It's a sublime waste of time. Silly eggheads! Indie means whatever you want it to mean.

Indie is a type of business. It's a type of funding. It's a marketing term. In fact, the term ‘indie’ can mean everything but a type of game. Calling a game an "indie game" is like buying a six-pack of beer on sale and offering it to your friends as "on-sale-beer."

"Indie" describes the manner of its making, not the game itself. But you're the customer. You don't care how the sausage was made, only that it's sizzling on the plate and won't give you a case of the gutworms. So, in this sense, the term "indie game" is stupid and useless.

That's a Lie. You Know It. I Know It.

Everything in the previous section was wrong. You can feel it in your gut, next to the worms you got from the sausages. Yet if you try to explain why, you'll get tangled up in words, because you're trying to quantify art, and that is unpossible.

When humans say "Indie," whether in games or film or music, they are describing a quality that is completely intangible and yet entirely real. They are describing the feeling that the creation in question feels like authentic communication from another human being.

What makes my little RPGs "indie"? It's that, when you play them, you can feel the presence of my brain behind them, and you know that I cared. When you play, say, Avernum, you are spending some time living in the world as I saw it when I wrote it.

This quality is not restricted simply to games that intend to be art. My favorite example here is AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome, a game you really should try. It's a simple arcade game, and yet it is written with a very peculiar, hilarious, distinctive aesthetic that makes one feel, after a time, like one is visiting the creators' brains. (If you try it, play levels until you start to unlock the funny videos. You'll know them when you reach them.)

It is possible for an independently produced game to not feel at all Indie. iTunes is full of this. Similarly, it is possible for a big-budget AAA game to feel super-indie. (Insert Saints Row IV plug here.)

You are creating something for people. To affect them. To take one of many possible routes into their brains. We're toymakers, and it's an awesome thing to be. This is the Goal.

Advice #1: Make the thing you care about, and people will sense it. If you make something you don't believe in because you think it'll make more money, players will smell the stink of desperation on you.

And yet, "indie" is almost always applied in the context of small, scrappy, hungry developers. There is a very good reason for that, which you ignore at your peril.

The facts: Most people want this. This will sell more than you. But people need to know that they have choices besides this.
Our Greatest Advantage!!!

Our biggest advantage is that people like us. They want us to succeed.

Small game developers fit the archetype of the lone tinkerer, slaving late into the night, creating because they are driven to create, damn the consequences.

In my culture, at least, this is a truly powerful and beloved archetype, one buried deep in the cultural and professional DNA of our society. When people see you as a driven tinkerer, rich in drive and creativity if not in wealth, they will want you to succeed. It is then a short jump to actively helping you to succeed.

As long as they like you. (But more on that later.)

Indie games will have their ups and downs, but they will always be around, because people will always be driven to make toys, success be damned. And there will always be profit in that, because some people will be determined to make them succeed, because they can't stand to live in a world where the little guy can't make it.

Advice #2: Never forget that people want to root for you, and be someone they'll want to root for. When your survival is necessary for the psychic health of others, that’s good.

Pictured: The indie ideal.
An Instructive Example

When I saw the game Octodad: Dadliest Catch at PAX a couple years ago, I had to write about it. Note, I've never played it. I only watched a few seconds of it. That was enough for me to know it'd be a success.

It's a game where you play an intelligent octopus with a human wife and children, and you have to perform tasks without them realizing you are not a human too. Much of the fun comes from the imprecise controls, which make your character flop all over the place in a humorous, destructive way.

Yeah, it's bonkers. What made me sure it'd do well is this: There are a lot of people who would buy it because they wanted to see a game like that be a success. (See also: Goat Simulator.)

To be clear, the quality that brings this sort of support is not humor or novelty. Your game doesn't have to be wacky or gimmicky or hentai-scented to succeed. (Though humor can help a LOT.) It just has to feel personal. Being in some way surprising is also helpful.

But again, this all depends on people wanting you to succeed, which means they have to like you, and they have to keep liking you. So you should know how to manage that.

Heading Out On the Path

OK, here's the usual scenario. You're passionate about games (or music, writing,  acting, etc). You've been doing it as a hobbyist for years, and that's awesome. Creating things as a hobbyist is a noble activity. All those famous designers you look up to? Practically all of them were writing games for years before they made the one you heard of. It takes ten years to make an overnight success.

But you've been doing it for a while, and now you have a hot idea. You think you can turn it into money. You want to Go Pro.

Now, before, I always gave the advice to look for an underserved niche and serve it. I kind of have to take that back. One of the tough things about the glut of indie games is that the number of underserved niches has gone way down. As I write this, Steam is getting a new RPG a DAY. So many. Does this worry me, a writer of RPGs? Hell yes. But I write RPGs for a living. It's all I'm good for. So, even if I see a sexy new market somewhere else, I have to die on this hill.

Inspiration strikes where it strikes, and individual creative processes are very important. Write what you care about, even if it's another 2-D platformer. If you like to work alone, work alone. If you need to be part of a team, do that. If you don't mind doing things on the cheap (like using stock art and music), that can work. If you need perfect professional work for everything, that's what you need to do. (But be prepared to pay the price.)

Advice #3: Figure out what your process is, and then respect and defend it.
How the game industry sees me. "Golly! Is that one them new-fangled computer thing-a-ma-bobs? Gosh!"
So You Have a Dream and a Process

You're working on your game. You believe in it. There is a subset of gamers, maybe large, maybe small, that you can look dead in the eye and say, "You HAVE to try my game. It will change your life." (If you can't honestly do this, you need to go back a step or two.)

Now you need to write it, and you need to sell it. To do this and make money at the end, you need to keep two key variables in mind: PR and Budget. The reason I am writing this article is that the way of dealing with these variables is rapidly changing.

First, there is how much PR you can get. Word of mouth. Web site articles. YouTube videos. You NEED some PR, to start the word of mouth at least, and you need to be realistic about how much you can get.

Some people misinterpreted the end of my indie bubble article to mean I thought that indie games would die out and there would be no more hits. Of course, this is ludicrously far from what I was saying. Their have to be hits. Journalists need hit games to write about. Steam and iTunes need to make hits to sell. Gamers need hits to buy. Some games will always get the golden PR ticket, because the system demands it. The problem now is that, to get the attention, the number of rivals you have to elbow in the throat is WAY higher.

(Yes, I just said that Steam and Apple make hits. If they decide they just want to make a game a hit, they can give it great placement. This phenomenon happens in many media. We've been lucky so far in that the games chosen to be hits are generally good. This will not always be so.)

Here's the key point about the PR. If your game is really good, you'll get word of mouth. With work and press releases, you can get more on top of that. You need to estimate how much press you can get, and adjust your budget accordingly.

Consider Spiderweb Software. We do our games on the cheap, and, as a result, we don't need to get a lot of press to make a solid living. Most people don't want to take our route, but you should know it's open to you. If it was necessary to go to conventions to get enough attention to survive, Spiderweb Software would not exist. I'm just not good at working the crowd.

Advice #4: Do PR or die. I don't know what you should do, but you need to do SOMETHING.

Then, Budget

After you know what sort of attention you can get, figure out how much you can afford to spend on your game. I don't have a lot to say about this. If you're SURE you need a hot big-name musician to score your game, hey, that's your process. My opinion is unimportant.

Just remember that every 5% you shave off the cost of making your game gives you a 5% better chance of business survival. Just make sure that 5% is worth it.

Me, I live cheap. I'm a bottom feeder. I'm merciless about reusing assets from game to game. Rendering creatures in Poser instead of getting a pricey freelancer. Buying cheap, royalty-free sounds. We sell detailed, interesting stories, written in nice, cheap text, and skimp on everything else.

We're so cheap that sometimes, at conventions, other developers make fun of me TO MY FACE. If you know how generally cordial indie developers try to be to each other, this is worth noting.

Most indie developers would rather throw their computers into a fire than release products with my level of polish. But I have a plan. I intend to retire in this business, and I will do what it takes to make it happen.

Advice #5: Don't forget that the best reason to go indie is that you get to do things your own way.

How you want your audience to see you.
On Being Likable

Seriously, the greatest advantage indie creators have is that people naturally sympathize with us and want us to succeed. Play to your strength, and remember, every time you act like a jerk in public, you're hurting all of us.

Cultivate a FRIENDLY personal relationship with customers whenever possible. Answer e-mails. Be present and engage users on forums in a friendly way as much as you can stand. Try to make a demo available so users can make sure your game will work before they pay for it. (I haven't been good about this lately, and I regret it.) Give refunds. Give advice. Use smilies. Be a nice person.

If you do a Kickstarter or Steam Early Access, be damn sure to live up to your promises, or give the users a timely, informative reason why you didn't. Doing otherwise hurts all of us.

Do your best to say yes to REASONABLE requests. It's OK to say 'no,' though. It's your game, your baby. Sometimes, you have to live up to your own ideals, even though you'll get a lot of undeserved hate for it. Here's a good example.

How you don't want your audience to see you.
Don't Look Sauron In the Eye

Conversely, if someone is mean to your game on some stupid forum somewhere, never ever engage them, attack them, argue why they're wrong, whatever. Nothing good has even come out of doing this. Ever. Some people won't like your game, or they won't like your face. Let. It. Go.

Here's a rule that I have violated many, many times, and I've always regretted it: If you must go out in public and air your edgy opinions, remember that goodwill is like money, and you are spending it. It is very easy to cross the line from being a positive archetype (sincere, small creator) to a very negative one (dour, humorless, judgmental blowhard).

This is one of the reasons I wrote the article a few weeks ago defending mobile games. If you are the hip indie developer who lectures gamers about what they should or should not want, you will make them defensive. Then they will get angry. At all of us.

Obviously, I'm not saying you should never say anything. Goodwill is money, and money doesn't do any good if you don't spend it. Just learn from my mistakes. People like us much better when we come forward in a spirit of being friendly, accepting, and eager to help.

Advice #6: Be nice and humble.

I Still Don't Know Where the Game Industry Is Going

Nope. Nobody does. No idea. This whole medium is completely new and without precedent. Nobody knows anything.

But there are some things that always work. Creativity. Determination. Believing in yourself. Working hard. A bit of luck. Kindness. Humility.

The bubble has popped, but we'll keep going on. As long as we make sure to embody the right set of ideals, gamers will refuse to let us fail.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Indie Bubble Is Popping.

Writing this article really stressed me out. I reworked it over a dozen times. To calm down a little, I will intersperse this with image that came up when I Googled "Free cute animal clip art." Here, we see a teddy bear who is addicted to The Spice.
I've been threatening to write about the popping of the Indie bubble for some time. Everything has finally started to come together. It's a miserable thing to have to talk about, but the conversation is long overdue.

First, a brief history of the Indie bubble. In 2008, big budget developers were doing fine, but they had mostly abandoned a lot of genres many gamers loved (puzzle games, adventure games, 2-D platformers, classic-style RPGs, Roguelikes, etc.)

A few young, hungry developers stepped in and showed that classics can be written on low budgets by young, plucky people with unruly facial hair. (Braid. World of Goo. Castle Crashers. Minecraft. And so on.) They were rewarded with huge accolades and many millions of dollars.

Shortly after, other developers stepped in with their own games. They weren't quite as classic, but they were decent, and these people made fewer millions of dollars. Some old super-niche developers (Hello!) were able to rerelease old games and get caught in the rising tide.

Then even more developers, sincere and hard-working, looked at this frenzy and said, "I'm sick of working for [insert huge corporation name here]. I would prefer to do what I want and also get rich." And they quit their jobs and joined the gold rush. Many of them. Many, many. Too many.

And now we are where we are today.

Indie gaming has seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. A deer rocketing through a forest powered by its own poop. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Is it me, or is this bunny totally murdering this other bunny? IT'S GETTING REAL!
My Thesis. (I Have One.)

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am in love with games. Video games in particular. Indie video games in super-particular. I am more smitten with them than I should be.

(That’s why I’m not angry at the big mobile game makers. They found a way to get my parents to want to be gamers! That’s awesome. I could never do that, and I lived with them!)

The rise of indie gaming over the last few years has been fantastic. It’s given birth to a lot of good, well-funded companies, that have the chance to make great products. (Like Transistor, that, as I write this, just came out.) As long as these companies keep making top-quality work on a reasonable schedule, they’ll be fine.

But lots and lots of other companies are trying to enter the space, and I’m not sure how many of them are aware that things are changing rapidly. Strategies that were sold to them as the Way To Go are rapidly becoming less effective, while forgotten strategies from back in the day may deserve new consideration.

(Of course, I'm talking about PC indie gaming here. On mobile, big free-to-play stomped out the little guys years ago.)

So what this grumpy old fart is saying is that there are Issues. They should be discussed. There are new obstacles that should be planned for and forces you may blame for your problems that, in fact, you shouldn’t. If you are a green developer, face these facts, or I believe destruction awaits.

The easy money is off the street. If you want to make it in this business now, you have to earn it. It's a total bummer. Blaming Steam won't help.

Enough preamble. Let's get to the evidence, shall we?

This adorable dinosaur is mocking your dreams.
The Big, Big Problem. The Only Problem.

The problem is too many games.

How bad has the problem gotten? How towering, bleak, and painfully unavoidable? It's gotten so bad that even the gaming press has noticed it.

Steam released more games in the first 20 weeks of 2014 than in all of 2013.  I don't know why anyone acts surprised. How many times last year did we see the article, "Another 100 Greenlight games OK'ed for publishing!"?

This wouldn't be a problem if there were a demand, but there's not. After all, almost 40% of games bought on Steam don't get tried. As in, never even launched once! At least the people who download free-to-play games try them.

(To be clear, this isn't a problem because these games will keep people from buying new ones, though there will be some of this. People mostly don't play these excess games because they didn't want them. The problem is that a business based on selling things people don't want is not a stable one.)

Because this flood of games is so unmanageable, Steam has been doing everything it can to throw open the gates and get out of the messy, stressful business of curation.  This is absolutely inevitable. It's also going to winnow out a lot of small developers, who don't have the PR juice to get noticed in the crowd. (Think iTunes app store.)

With so much product, supply and demand kicks in. Indies now do a huge chunk (if not most) of their business through sales and bundles, elbowing each other out of the way for the chance to sell their game for a dollar or less. Making quick money by strip-mining their products, glutting game collections and making it more difficult for the developers who come after to make a sale. (I am NOT making a moral judgment here. It is the simple consequence of a long series of calm, rational business decisions.)

Indie gaming started out as games written with passion for people who embraced and loved them. Now too much of it is about churning out giant mounds of decent but undifferentiated product to be bought for pennies by people who don't give a crap either way.

It's not sustainable.

When I asked this lion, "Will Steam Early Access make things better?", it made this face. And then it mauled me.
It Really Is the Only Problem.

It's simple math.

All gamers together have a huge pool of X dollars a year to spend on their hobby. It gets distributed among Y developers. X stays roughly constant (up a little, down a little), but Y is shooting up. A fixed pool of money, distributed among more and more hungry mouths.

Those mouths are your competitors. All your heroes? Notch, The Behemoth, J. Blow, etc? They’re your foes now. Are you ready to fight them?

You can talk all you want about how mean Steam was to you, or how much "discoverability" is a problem, or about how important it is for developers to go to GDC or the PAX Indie Warren or to cool game jams or whatever. It's all a distraction.

X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.

And if X stays constant, the only way to solve the problem is for Y to go down. I'll give you a second to work out the consequences of that for yourself.

Another Dimension To The Problem

I can already sense people are unconvinced with my "proof" of why a shakeout is ahead, so I need to point out something else. It's the problem with being a middle-sized developer (a problem that extends to many fields, not just games).

Suppose you are a super low-budget micro-developer like me. It's not super-hard to survive, because I can get enough sales to get by with a little cheap marketing and word of mouth advertising. I'll be all right.

Suppose, alternately, you are a huge AAA developer with massive budgets. You can afford the massive marketing necessary to generate the big sales you need to pay for your expensive games. You'll be all right, until you're not.

But suppose you're a mid-tier (sometimes called AAA Indie) developer, with $500K-$2 million budgets. You have a problem. You need advertising to get sales, as word-of-mouth won't cover it. But you can't afford a big campaign. The only way you will turn a profit is if you get huge free marketing from Steam/iTunes placement and press articles. (Which is why going to big trade shows and cozying up to the press is so important.)

But when there are so many games competing for free marketing, you have a serious problem. According to their site, the Indie Megabooth at the last PAX had 104 games. 104! At one PAX! Just indies! The games industry doesn't need that many games this year, period. #mildexaggeration

If you are an established developer journalists love, like Supergiant with Transistor, you have a chance to stand out from this horde. If you don't already have a hit, I don't know what to tell you. If I were you, I strongly suggest you write an utterly flawless, ground-breaking title and utterly blow everyone’s minds.

It's a rough spot to be in, and that's where a huge chunk of current indie development has placed itself. Some will shrink down, some will leap to the higher tier. But it's going to be super rough in the middle. Again, to see how this works in real life, look at iTunes.

Oh, and by the way? If you disagree with me on any of this? I HOPE I'm wrong! I want you to convince me I'm wrong!

Anyway.

Um, I said "cute" animals. Come on, Google. YOU HAD ONE JOB!
Stop Blaming Steam!

I am somewhat irked by developers blaming Steam for their problems. "Why don't they publish me? Why don't they feature me? Why won't Steam make me rich!?" All of it said in exactly the tone of voice my 8 year old uses when she's angry her older sister got a bigger piece of cake.

If there has been one true hero in this story, it has been Steam. If, in 2008, I'd written my dream list of what a publisher could provide to help the little developer, Steam would have done it all, and then some.

I have a private theory, that's really only in my own brain. It's this. Valve is full of really cool people, who truly love games. But, at some point, with Steam, these basically nice people suddenly found themselves in the position of deciding who lives and who dies. It's a stressful, miserable place, and they didn't like it. It just made it harder to get out of bed in the morning.

In the last few years, Steam workers were the ones who handed out the golden tickets. They gave one to me. (Everyone on Steam made a lot of money. Even niche-developer dingleberries like me. You could put Pong on the front page at $20 a copy and still make a fortune.) The guy next to me who didn't get the ticket? He was angry. At Steam, at me, at the world. But mostly Steam.

Steam found themselves in a position of being hated for something it could do nothing about. Not to mention the fact that the sort of curation they were doing was impossible in the long term. You shouldn't want the games you can buy to be controlled by some guy at a stand-up desk in Bellevue, WA. They aren't wizards. They can't tell what's going to be a hit any more than anyone else. The free market has to do that job.

So they stood aside and opened the floodgates. Supply shot up and demand stayed even, which means, by a certain law of economics (the first one, in fact), prices have to drop. Which brings us to the bundles.

Christ. How long does this blog post go on for anyway?
The Bundles. Oh, So Many Bundles.

I've long been a vocal fan of Humble Bundle. They're good people who want to make the game industry cooler. Their sales widgets are an amazing tool. We use them ourselves. Their bundles started out as a fantastic way to showcase what our slice of the industry has to offer and help charity to boot.

Now, however, there are a lot of bundles. Many of them. Their main purpose: help established developers squeeze a few more dimes out of fading (or faded products). They are a product of the glut.

As I write this, Humble Bundle is running two weeks of DAILY bundles. That's, like, 3-10 full-length games a DAY. Spend a hundred bucks or so, and you'll get enough solid titles to keep you occupied for years. You should do it. It's a bargain. Then you'll only need to pay full price for the one game a year you really care about, and you won't need to worry about risking cash experimenting with new developers.

Then, give it 2-3 years, and you won't have to worry about new developers, because there won't be any.

Again, there is NO moral judgment here. We're all making calm, rational business decisions. I'm just saying where it's going. Where it has to go.

It just can't last. Bundles used to earn a ton, but they don't anymore. If making pennies a copy selling your games in 12 packs is the main source of a developer's income, that developer is going to disappear. Also, all of the bundles and sales encourage users to expect to pay a price too low to keep us in business. It’s just the same race to the bottom as in the iTunes store, except this time we were warned, and we did it anyway.

And hey, I’m not blameless in this. My games have been in a million sales and bundles. It’s what you have to do now, and I’m just as fault as everyone else.

If someone tells you this is the slightest bit sustainable, they are misleading you. There are lots of different reasons to do this. Maybe they need to fool you. Maybe they need to fool themselves. Just don't believe them. X dollars, Y developers. That's all that matters.

"FTL, what is best in life?" "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to get sweet iTunes store placement."
Just One More Data Point

Actually, what drove me to write this, more than anything, was the first minute of last week's Zero Punctuation. It's kind of a gut punch.

It's the time of year when Yahtzee normally shines his giant flashlight on some under-noticed, deserving indie game and elevates it to the big leagues. Instead, he threw up his hands and reviewed the 2012 title FTL. FTL!

Seriously, what sort of review can you write about FTL in 2014? I can cover it in four words: "Yep. It's still FTL." What? There's an iPad version out? Fine. Ten words: "It's still FTL. Also, the iPad version doesn't crap itself."

(To be clear, FTL is a very good game. But I suspect that, at this point, its authors wouldn't mind sharing a smidge of the spotlight with a less established developer.)

With so many games out, picking the good ones out of the crowd is a huge job. As far as I can tell, nobody, and I mean nobody, is willing to do it. This is why, despite such a flood of product, so few games have broken out from the crowd so far this year.

If most of the indie developers went out of business, are we so sure that, outside of the game dev community, people would even notice? Are we so sure a hearty herd thinning isn't what they secretly want?

I Shouldn't Have Written This.

Because it's redundant. I mean, we knew all of this, right? Gamers certainly know. It's been a few years since looking at the new indie games went from, "Ooh! Let's see what treats await me today!" to "Aaaahhh! So much stuff! I am stressed out now!"

Also, it bums me out. I feel like some jerk who sees a guy's pants fall down and points and laughs and shouts, "HA HA! Your pants just fell down!" The pants-down guy has my sympathy. My sales are way down too, so if you hate me, I hope that fact gives you a little smile.

But all this stuff seems pretty obvious. Someday, as things shake out more, I want to try to get into a much more interesting, chewy topic: What happens next? And, if you still want to write indie games, perhaps a grizzled old survivor of multiple booms and busts can provide some helpful ideas.

---

Edit: I fixed a date and corrected the number of games in the Humble Daily Bundles. I swear I fixed that once, but the correction was lost in the flurry of rewrites. Also, anyone who wants to hear more of my natterings can follow me on teh Twitter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Please Stop Complaining About Free Mobile Games Now. PLEASE.

God. When did Indie game developers start acting so darn superior all the time?
Like many self-declared oh-so-serious gamers, I've long been irritated by casual mobile free to play games. I finally managed to get over that. I don't know what was wrong with me. Things now are just fine.

Ok, yeah, we know, we've all heard the arguments. Mobile games are too dumb. Too brightly colored. Too greedy. It's irritating to see ads, to be asked for money. They make too much of their money from compulsive "whales." We're nerds, and grannies are sneaking into our seekrit kewl gamer basement. Mobile game developers are too obsessed about money metrics and not enough about creativity. (As if the Indies are blameless on that score. "But my new tower defense game is really groundbreaking!" Please stop talking to me now.)

Mobile games are not what gamers and Indie developers want gaming to be. And this is the Internet, so, if anyone likes something different, THEY MUST BE DESTROYED.

Yes, you've had your say. You don't like mobile games. We got it.

So please give it a rest already?

So Jeff, What Got Up Your Butt?

Lots of things, but this tweet was kind of the final straw. In my butt. #mixedmetaphorpromode

Sure. I'll get right on saving mobile gaming, as soon I finish this Hearthstone match. Then I'll ... WHAT? RELEASE THE HOUNDS AGAIN? I HATE HUNTERS SO MUCH!!!
I feel a little bad picking on Notch here, because he's a decent guy and critiquing tweets is already a waste of time, but his tweet bugged me for two reasons.

First, "save mobile gaming?" From what? Being crushed under a giant avalanche of cash?

Second, this is a smug dismissal of a huge chunk of the game industry that keeps a lot of developers employed making games that a lot of people really like. It's also the most emotionally manipulative argument possible: OH, won't someone think of the CHILDREN!?!? ("Honey, are you letting little Billy playing Clash of Clans?" "Yes." "You MONSTER!")

By the way, in my observation, the younger generation isn't playing mobile F2P. The kids are spending all their time in Minecraft. Somehow, I think they'll be fine.

(Actually, if you want a better example of the Indie Developer sense of superiority, this recent article in Polygon is the gold standard. His attempts to use mathlogic to prove that these immensely popular games are actually hated are genuinely amusing.)

While we're all relieved that Indie gaming is ready to swoop in and save us from what we want, those of us who hate mobile games should take a moment to consider why we do. Speaking to gamers here: When you viscerally hate something that has never hurt you personally (or even affected you, really), it is possible that the true problem is really somewhere inside your own head.

So let's examine some of the reasons why we fear and hate our new Mobile F2P masters.

"Hearthstone doesn't count. I don't consider one of the bad free games." Yeah. Everyone says that about the one they like. 

One. "The People Who Make Them Are Soulless Business Drones. Not Cool Arteests Like Us."

Yeah, pretty much. I've been to casual/mobile game trade shows, and, man, that is so not a nerdy place. It's a bunch of NormalPeople and MBAs, with nice clothes and haircuts, tossing around weird business terms like ARPU and ARPDAU and AMPU and DILDONG. And sure, they all like Game of Thrones, but they don't like it in the correct way we do.

Sometimes I think that the gamer hate for mobile is not because it's unsuccessful (because it's massively profitable) or because they provide people with mind-boggling amounts of leisure fun (because they do), but because they remind us of the grade school bullies who laughed at us and took our lunch money. But this time they're doing it inside OUR industry.

People who write free games, from Candy Punch Saga to Hearthstone are doing what we do, but better. (And yes, Hearthstone has "Casual" appeal too, whatever that means. Ten million registered accounts says so.)

The people making those games may not being doing it our way, by our metrics, but they are passionate about giving lots of people something they like. Hell, they care about how many people play their games way more than I do. They'll lose a week's sleep over increasing their player base by 0.01%, because that might be the edge they need to stay employed.

The sheer scale of the entertainment they provide is mind-boggling, and they're doing it mostly for free, with, by the way, game systems that mere mortals can actually understand.

Why did free games take over the world? Well, you can pick up the entirely of Hearthstone in five minutes. Think you understand the rules to Magic: The Gathering? Nobody does. Look what it takes to understand that game.  It's madness.

Maybe accessibility is our problem. "Hey, man, I was wasting my life stressing about impenetrable rules systems before it was cool."

Two. "They Write Simple Cartoony Games For the Most Casual."

And they're rich. Aren't you just angry you didn't think of it first?

What people seem to ignore is that these games provide the most challenging hardcore experience available in games today. Want a rough time? It's simple: Don't spend money.

(A common logical error made when analyzing mobile games is seeing that only a small percentage of people spend cash and concluding this means people don’t like the games. This is a huge mistake. I’ve never paid a penny on free games, including several I love. This just means that I’m awesome.)

Free games, even the more casual ones, solve the great problem in game design. They thread the needle between Casual and Hardcore. Want a light, easy experience? Spend a little money. Want a punishing experience that takes lots of time and care? Play for free.

Yes, if you pay for free, they'll put a lot of time blocks in your way, both arbitrary waits and levels you'll lose a lot of time. But that's what serious gamers want, right? To do something hard and finally succeed? And this time it's even more fun, because you did it for FREE. It feels like you got away with something!

Hay Day, and enormously popular F2P game. I only put up this image because I think it'll annoy gamers.
An Aside. You Think You Know Hardcore? You Don't Know Hardcore!

People who ask for and play tough games are really full of themselves. We all know that. You won Dark Souls? That's nothing. I have a friend who beat Candy Crush Saga without spending a penny. Took months. You want strategy and grueling persistence? There it is.

And she's not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination. She's as casual and casual gets, and she's a more dedicated, obstacle-toppling gamer than you are. Even if her game involves hitting a spastic teddy bear with clumps of purple gumdrops, or whatever.

Three. "If You Don't Pay, You Have To Spend a Lot of Time Getting Power."

Sure. And this makes it different from non-free games how, exactly?

People have a problem with this now? Well, I don't remember gamers having a problem when we all burned up our youths in the twin furnaces of Everquest or World of Warcraft. Used to be, in Everquest, every fifth level was a "hell level," where they doubled the number of experience you needed to pass it for no reason. It was arbitrary, obnoxious, and ridiculous. I still have nightmares about level 45.

If you complained about it everyone jumped down your throat and called you dirty names. Players just spent the hours grinding. With great concentration, you could convince yourself that you were having fun.

Now, the worst thing that happens is the game, to advance, forces you to pay or get this to stop playing for an hour. You don't even need to spend that hour killing the same goblin over and over again. You can go do something else!

Seriously. Whatever ridiculous hoops free games make you jump through to advance? Hardcore gamers have gone through ten times worse. And we did it to ourselves. And we convinced ourselves it made us cool.

An Aside. Of Course, It Can Be Done Badly. Of Course.

It's not hard to make a F2P game that sucks. A recent instructive example of the Internet Anger/Entitlement Complex was EA's free Dungeon Keeper game.

Now, I never played it. And neither did 19 out of 20 of the people who complained about it. From what I heard, it committed the cardinal sin of making people wait too long to do anything and forcing them to spend money to see any of the game's cool stuff.

And they were punished for it. Even in the ancient shareware days, we knew that the free version had to be enough to addict your customers. Dungeon Keeper didn't do this, and it messed up in the harshest, most unforgiving of markets. Result? Don't bother to look for it in the top sales charts. It's not there.

But that has nothing to do with the bizarre level of screeching that accompanied its release. To hear gamers talk, it's like EA defiled some sacred institution of modern society.

Dudes, I was there when Dungeon Keeper came out. I bought it with real money. And ... It was fine. Halfway decent. And that's it. Look at it this way. If it was such a hot property, why was the license allowed to lie fallow for fifteen years?

(Bonus Young Developer Advice: Looking for a game idea? The apparent desire for a new version of Dungeon Keeper might be something you can profitably take advantage of.)

"I have two jobs, three kids, and four minutes to rest." Why don't you spend that time pretending to have a miserable, meaningless life? "Because I don't hate myself."
Four. "These Games Are Shallow and Don't Provide a Rich Artistic Experience."

Yes. Thank God.

I've lost count of the number of indie developers who cursed these games as being mere time-wasters and dopamine-generation buttons. Why wouldn't you instead play an iphone game that provides a varied, rich artistic experience, like ... like ... Yeah, I don't know either.

Look, don't listen to indie developers. We all may be, oh, I don't know, a tiny bit in love with ourselves? I missed it when the world elected us the High Princes And Arbiters Of Leisure Time.

Candy Crush Saga fans aren't sheep or Muggles. They are making highly rational choices about spending limited time and/or money for maximal rest. Papers, Please! is a great game, but it's also stressful and depressing. If you look down on someone who prefers Pet Rescue Saga, you may have lost the plot on this whole "game" thing.

Some may have forgotten that, most of the time, all people want is a painless way to escape stressful reality for five minutes while waiting for the bus.

Five. "Casual Games Monetization Isn't Ethical."

The best evidence is that a tiny fraction of mobile games players make up a huge chunk of the income. These super-players are called "whales." It's really interesting.

I used to be concerned about it. Not so much, now.

I was uncomfortable with a business model of coldly extracting most of your earnings from a tiny percentage of "whales" in your user base, but it could be WAY worse. There's a hundred casinos within an hour's drive of my house, and those icehearted bastards will take your house, smile, and sleep like a baby afterwards. Who is protesting them? At least nobody ever lost their kids' college money playing Candy Crush.

I hate to get all Robert Heinlein on you, but unless Zygna agents are sneaking into your house in the middle of the night to load Epic Bakery Candy Saga Pony Plus on your phone, the reason people play these games is because they like them. They picked them out of a market that provides a million places to hop to if their current game irritates them. I'm sorry if it angers you if someone chooses to play Flappy Bird or 2048 instead of your soul-enriching art piece, but that's the breaks.

(Of course, when these games have actual gambling, it'll be a moral apocalypse. Argument for another day.)

Fun Still Matters. Games, Remember?

My wife has a serious love/hate relationship with these games. When Candy Blast Mania hits her up for cash, her eyes glow incandescent with rage. And yet, she's burned through hundreds of levels, exterminating bosses with robotic efficiency. Not paying for it only makes it more fun.

I won't embarrass us by revealing how thoroughly Hearthstone has occupied our brains. Again, not costing a penny.

I'm always in awe of people's ability to take a cornucopia of wonder and upend it, pawing through the treasures within in the hope of finding a dried rat turd or something. We're getting an awesome deal here, people. Perhaps too awesome. There's probably a big business shakeout approaching this market in the next few years, but it's nothing compared to the apocalypse small Indie developers are about to face.

(Don't believe me? Go here and watch the first minute. This is the way the world ends.)

Daily earnings for the top ten mobile games. I think my favorite thing is that some people think the war isn't over.
The Peace of Letting Go

So you might as well be cool with it. Because, well, look at this sales chart. Those revenue figures are per DAY.

This isn’t competition. This is implacable domination. This is the Huns stampeding over the border, driving the survivors into the caves, and salting the earth. Except that the Huns, in this case, were us.

The people have spoken, the bastards. For Indie developers to say to gamers, “No, you poor, lost little lambs, this isn’t really what you want. Let us saaaave you,” is getting more than a little embarrassing.

Indie was, is, and always will be, niche. Add up all the earnings of every Indie game last year, Minecraft included, and it’s probably still less than Supercell’s monthly Snapple budget. All we can do, going forward, is find a way to deal with it.

In our house, dealing with it will include a lot of Hearthstone. And, of course, gathering colored candy into easily extracted clumps.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

This Miraculous Money Of Old People.

Who is this game aimed at?
As a crunchy old fart of the indie gaming industry (started company in 1994, blah blah blah), I often get e-mails asking for advice for getting started in the biz.

My first piece of advice is always to keep your budget and scope under control and expect a rough ride. All of the easy money in indie games is long gone. But enough bad news.

My second piece of advice is: If you're small, there's still a lot of money in games for old people.

Don't fight for 13 year olds. The big-budget, big-marketing AAA lords of the industry have them locked up, and they aren't letting go. If your little game is all first-person zappy-pow for the adrenaline set, you may have a problem.

(Oh, and it's so poignant that anyone thought the Thief reboot might have any of the charm of the original games. Thief 2 is still one of my all-time favoritest  games, but I gave up hope the reboot would be good for me three seconds after it was announced. Teenage boys don't have the patience to lurk in shadows for five minute waiting for a guard to pass, so that was never ever happening. Every AAA game now has to have Titanfall/Grand Theft Auto nihilistic boom appeal, for the kidz. "But teenagers aren't allowed to buy Grand Theft Auto!" Ha ha ha you are adorable.)

But games for grown-ups? Short games? Intricate storytelling? Slow pace? Turn-based? Hard puzzles with actual thinking? Art? AAAs have given up. This is the land of the small and nimble now.

Why? Because of The Way Things Are ...

The Fundamental Fact of Video Games Now

There are two unquestionable, fundamental facts behind pretty much every debate about games and what they should be like and where they should go.

One of the key memories of my childhood was my dad coming home and telling me about this cool thing he saw and how much he thought I'd like it. It was a weird thing called "Pong."

I'm old, but I'm not THAT old. I'm a few steps into middle-aged. And yet, I have experienced pretty much every step of video games as a thing regular people do. That is how amazingly young the art form is. One not-too-old person can have seen the entire thing.

In the beginning, young people were the target audience. Old people tended to avoid those weird, electronic contraptions. Video arcades (a thing that used to exist) were full of kids and young adults almost exclusively.

And then we grew up. We matured. (These are not the same thing.) We had kids. Our tastes changed. Our supply of free time changed drastically, but we still loved video games. We grew up with them. And when I say we, I mean men and women. It took longer for females to get into gaming then males, but the percentages of each who play games are now roughly equal.

Games are in our DNA, but they've struggled to grow up with us. Which leads us to Fact #1.

Fundamental Fact 1: Video games have never had a large percentage of its audience be women and older people, but that is rapidly changing.

Who would look at this image and say, "I want to know more."? Who is this being sold to?
We Change. The Games Don't

But who is writing the games now? Back in the day, it was mostly young men. Now it is ... well, it's mostly young men. Video game makers are paid a pittance and worked like dogs. They tend to leave the industry early on for jobs that pay more for fewer hours and give you a shot at raising a family.

The industry is then happy to harvest a new crop of young, cheap, starry-eyed victims: Plentiful, desperate and loaded with debt. Clutching expensive DigiPen degrees good for nothing else, and the cycle continues. Which leads us to Fact #2 ...

Fundamental Fact 2: Video games have never had a large percentage of developers be women and older people, and this is changing slowly, if at all.

Put facts #1 and #2 together, and you get the key corollary ...

Corollary 1: The audience for computer games is split into two factions. There are young men (at which almost everything is and always has been aimed) and everyone else.

Add these three statements together, and you have the heart of every debate in video games. I'm going to move fast and engage in gross overgeneralizations from here on out. These are all things indie developers looking for a niche they can occupy and flourish in should bear in mind. I've been getting feedback from gamers of all backgrounds for a long time, and I feel like I'm on solid ground.

One. The Role of Women

Probably the most passionate argument going now.

Women want to see themselves in the games they play as more than just eye candy.

A large number of young men see themselves represented just fine and may kind of lack the empathy to see the issue from someone else's viewpoint. Criticizing the games they like is often taken personally for some weird reason, resulting in a lot of angry arguments on comment boards.

I'll tell you something I learned in 1994, when I started writing RPGs that had interesting female characters and an equal number of male and female player icons: Including women in your audience is highly profitable.

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play To the Moon.)

This is not for kids. Though, trust me, it's hilarious to watch them try.
Two. Game Length

Young people have little cash and tons of time, so they want their games to stretch 20, 30, 40 hours. Young people finish the games they pay for. A game like Gone Home that charges twenty bucks for two hours of fun will make them angry.

Old people have more money but limited time. They almost never manage to finish the games they pay for, and it sucks. A game that costs only twenty dollars and provides a satisfying experience they can actually finish is awesome.

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play Gone Home and Stanley Parable.)

Three. The Impact of Violence and Death

As gamers age, many of them are starting to have kids and experience the deaths of those they love. They are far more likely than young people to be extremely disturbed by, say, the heaps of dead children in The Last of Us. I'd bet money that most of the people who game me flak for complaining about the hideous violence in Tomb Raider are young.

I was really pleasantly surprised by the number of reviews of Bioshock: Infinite that called it out for its violence. The term "ludonarrative dissonance" got kicked around a lot, but that's not necessary to describe their basic problem: They kept getting pulled out of the touching story to watch their character flay the faces off of racists with his horrifying robot hand.

Often, the more of a personal experience you have with death and violence and what it really means, the less tolerance you have for that kind of thing. Games that really understand and depict what violence means can be both unique and incredibly effective.

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play Papa & Yo.)


I was going to put a Gone Home image here, but it's already been overexposed, so here's another shot from To the Moon instead. Such a good game.

Four. Storytelling

Old people want it. We've heard a lot of stories, seen a lot of movies. We're harder to impress and harder to surprise. Just having a story isn't enough for us anymore.

As much as I rag on video game reviewers, it was a huge relief to me to see them take a break from their 9/10 Grand Theft Auto V reviews to point out that the main characters just aren't very interesting. Because they aren't. We're old. I've met lots and lots of people, and that makes poorly drawn, fake people much more bothersome to me.

People tend to develop more empathy as they grow older, and experiences that enable you to experience life in someone else's skin can gain passionate adherents (and thus make money).

(Hot market research tip: Buy and play Papers, Please!)

So What Happens Now?

Well, it's great news for indie developers, who seem to be the only game writers who've realized that there are a lot of markets out there. The AAA developers are on their high-poly, mega-budget death march, fighting tooth-and-nail over the young, male portion of the market. A portion that is a smaller percentage of the video game audience every year.

As a result, people who make thoughtful games like Papers, Please and Stanley Parable will only do better and better.

These days, most major movie studios have sub-companies that make artsy movies. I honestly believe that the big publishers will do more of this as time goes on. After that, it's up to old people to spend enough money to justify more investment.

Until then, the indies are always there. Underserved niches keep us in business.

---

Edit: Tweaked the description of the Thief reboot to make it less unkind.

I am on Twitter, but who isn't? 

Monday, February 24, 2014

Twitch Plays Pokemon, Self-loathing, and Never Being Able To Predict Anything.

None of us is as insane as all of us.
If you are in any way hooked into the bleeding edge of this weird thing we call Internet Culture, someone might recently have talked your ear off about Twitch Plays Pokemon.

I'm going to talk about it now. So, if you were bored about it by your [child/weird friend/acquaintance you always secretly suspected has Asperger's], you can now do what you wish you could do then: tell me to shut up by closing this browser window with extreme prejudice.

(Pause.)

OK. You are still here. You want to learn what Twitch Plays Pokemon is, so that, for once, you can know about the hip internet thing before it ends and becomes as tired and old as those captioned cat photos your parents send to your aunts and uncles.

My explanation of what is happening will take the form of a Socratic dialogue between me and the voices of self-loathing in my head. Take it away, voices!

I HATE YOU SO MUCH!

Hey, pace yourself there, sparky. We have a lot of ground to cover. Many miles to go before we sleep, and all that.

Sorry, nerd. "Twitch Plays Pokemon"? How is that even a phrase in English? Why should I ever care enough to continue?

Well, I don't know how "interesting" or "significant" it is. I'm sure some kids in some PhD mill somewhere will write a thesis on it or whatever.

But the main reason I think it's interesting is because it is so weird. I mean, thinkers like Isaac Asimov and William Gibson and Neal Stephenson always try to predict the future. Then, when the future actually shows up, we find their predictions to be just sort of weirdly sterile and unimaginative and just kind of off.

What actual humans do when given any sort of resources is always really weird and chaotic. (Except for porn. There's always porn. Now in HD.) Those above world class thinkers never imagined anything close to tens of millions of people trying to play a 20 year old videogame together as a maddened hivemind because why not.

That's because they were people who had it together and could get dates in high school.

I got dates!

They hated you more than I do.

Well played, brain. But you're stuck here with me, so let's describe Twitch Plays Pokemon.

Sometimes, I get into things just for the fan art.
Fine. What is Twitch Plays Pokemon?

Well, it's a channel on twitch.tv. As of this writing (Monday, Feb. 24), over 63000 people are watching/participating and over 27 million have dropped by to watch.

And what on God's Green Earth is twitch.tv?

It's a video game streaming web site. Basically, when you're playing a game, you can also enable other people to watch you play it.

WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THAT?

Beats me, man. Look. The Internet is now as big as human experience. Which means that 95% of it will be stuff you can't comprehend the value of, forever and always. So you'll just have to take the value of twitch.tv on faith.

So people go there to watch cool games like League of Legends and Call of Duty.

Sure. It's a dream come true. Though, lately, the most popular channel by a margin has been to watch people play Pokemon Red, a Gameboy game from 1996.

The confused fellow to the lower left is you. 
What is Pokemon?

Oh, give me a break. You're reading a game blog. You must have heard of Pokemon. At the very least, it's 10% of the cultural DNA of anyone in their 20s. Basically, you catch monsters and they're your pets and you use them to duel other monsters.

Part of the cultural DNA of boys, you mean.

My daughters would vigorously disagree.

But back to the channel. In it, they're not watching the game. The multitudes passing through are also playing it.

So I assumed. How does your little nerd-conclave work?

People type the controls they want to press (up, down, left, right, A, B, start) into the chat window, and the game processes them. This results in a very slow, very chaotic game.

So 50000 people are typing in commands and they're all processed?

No, it's more complicated than that. There are two modes for how the commands are taken: Anarchy and Democracy, and people vote on which control scheme is in place at any one ...

OH GOD KILL ME.

Sorry. You're right. It's boring. I'll sum it up. In Anarchy mode, a few commands are selected at random from what people enter, resulting in slightly directed chaos with lots of weird, interesting things happening. (Assuming you are capable of finding any of this interesting, which I do, but I'm weird.)

In Democracy mode, people vote on what the next move is and a move is taken every 20 seconds. It's more directed, but painfully slow and boring.

It has arguments about politics AND religion? Sign me up!
And how long has this travesty been going?

As of this writing, 10 days and 20 hours, 24-7. It's a global project. When one continent goes to bed, another picks up the slack.

OK. Fine. They're playing an old game in a stupid way. 

It's even worse than that.

How is that even possible?

You see, there is a 10-20 second lag between what happens in the game and what you see on the screen. So when you enter a command, you're not saying what happens now, but what happens in 20 seconds. This means that even if everyone involved was united and smart, some chaos would be unavoidable.

One happy side effect of this is that it's very difficult for trolls to sabotage the project, because having any sort of directed input by anyone is very difficult.

This all sounds stupid.

Oh, it totally is. But stupid things can be interesting and fun.

But isn't it gross to care about something like this, when, say, people in the Ukraine are dying protesting their government?

Haven't you been reading? It's a global thing. I bet a bunch of kids in the Ukraine are playing the game to distract themselves from the terror and uncertainty.

Anyway, that is a dumb standard. Our ancestors fought and died in part so we could occasionally relax and do something frivolous.

Fine. An old game, in a stupid way, and it barely even works. Why on EARTH would so many people care?

Three reasons.

Oh, Lord.

First, it's a big experiment in the fascinating field of collective intelligence. It's the idea that a lot of people giving tiny inputs is smarter than any one person. A lot of research into this idea has taken place, and it is genuinely cool.

Because the most surprising thing about Twitch Plays Pokemon is that it's working. It's slow, but this confused random input is beating bosses, solving side quests, agreeing on what path to take among many possible choices, and generally getting it done. Sometimes the Hivemind even plays WELL.

That is pretty cool.

Really?

We are, after all, dealing with Gamers here.
No. Psych! Loser. What's the second thing?

The second interesting thing is the constant debate between democracy and anarchy. In other words, between slow, methodical success or fast, inefficient chaos. Anarchy is winning. In other words, people as a mass would rather do the thing in the chaotic, slower, harder way simply because it's more cool. That, if nothing else, should give you some faith in humanity.

And the third reason? If it involves fan art, I'm so out of here.

Third, the fan art.

[Sound of running away.]

Sorry, brain. You're stuck in here with me.

Ahhh. It burns us.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has evolved its own weird, funny, sometimes tiresome backstory and mythology. It is in human nature to anthropomorphize things. Elaborate stories about the insanity of Red (the main character) and the relentless voices in his head that drive him on have been crafted. It's actually kind of cool and poignant.

It helps that the chaotic interface results in a lot of painfully self-destructive behavior. Red constantly destroys his own best pokemon, throws away valuable items, and flings himself off of ledges. Twitch Plays Pokemon is truly unpredictable. Tell me, how many things in your life are like that?

Fortunately, there's not cosplay yet, but give it time.

Twitch Plays Pokemon has the XKCD Seal of Nerd Legitimacy.
What is this Helix Fossil everyone goes on about?

It's an item in Red's inventory that gets used accidentally like ten times a minute. Lots of jokes have arisen around this. It's the Cake Is a Lie/Arrow To the Knee of 2014.

Hasn't that joke been run into the ground?

To everyone who has been paying attention, yes, but new folks are hearing about the stream all the time, and it's funny to them. Also, um, how should I put this delicately? The Twitch Plays Pokemon diehards might not be the most socially-aware folks on the planet.

But the whole cobbled-together Twitch Plays Pokemon backstory does include a pretty amusing, made-up parody religion. I suspect that appeals to the demographic of the player base.

And who is doing all this? Shut-in boys, right?

Ummmm ...

ADMIT IT.

The only survey I could find of players is here, and, yeah. Guys. Which is, itself, interesting. I don't know if this sort of activity has inherently higher value to men, and, if so, why. Maybe if Anita Sarkeesian reads this, she can tweet something.

So how will it end?

Nobody knows! It is completely unclear if the hive mind can finish this stupid thing, which adds a pleasing sense of suspense to the whole thing.

But if you want to help find out ...

I don't. Oh lord, I don't.

Humor me.

Internet culture moves fast and is unpredictable.
Fine. What would I do if I cared?

Well, if you want to read the history of the thing and see a lot of surprisingly funny and elaborate fan art, go here.

If you want a live update of what is happening, go here.

The freshest fan art is here. http://www.reddit.com/r/twitchplayspokemon/

My personal favorite pieces for fan art are here and here, though you need to know the culture a little to get it.

I still don't see why anyone should care.

Because, try as I might, I can't think of any analogue to this in human history. The duration, the planetary scale, the chaos, the joyous frivolity of it.

Unprecedented? Really? What about Second Life? SETI@home? WIKIPEDIA?

OK, you're right. I got a little overexcited there. How about this? Twitch Plays Pokemon is a reminder that we have not even begun to scratch the possibilities of what the hordes on the Internet can do when something piques their interest. And, sometimes, like with Wikipedia, those things Anonymous spits out can be genuinely valuable.

God. You're even more pathetic now than when you were telling everyone who'd listen about Doctor Who back in the 1980s.

And now everyone watches Doctor Who.

And that's why everyone who reads this should go to Twitch Plays Pokemon and enter just one command. I don't know if this is a harbinger of bigger things or not, but, if it is, don't you want to think you were on the ground floor?

OK. Fine. I went and voted for 'Democracy.' Happy?

Filthy casual. Anarchy or riot!

Everyone who reads this will laugh at you.

I love you, brain.

Virgin.

--

Like all the cool nerd kids, I'm on Twitter.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Why Indie Developers Go Insane

We all have our little mantras we use to get through the day.
After I started writing games in 1994 and went full-time in 1995, I soon came to a conclusion about the people who do what I do for a living: "These people are all crazy."

Then, as I got older, I realized that I am crazy too.

Then, as I got even older, I switched to a better truth: Everyone is crazy. Every human has his or her damage. Nobody gets out of this world alive.

It's just that indie developers tend to have high visibility, high stress, and small support groups. These factors mean that, when these devs break, you see it, and it's spectacular. Twitter has only helped to make self-immolation faster, easier, and more public.

A lot of people love indie games because they can so clearly be the product of real people. They aren't focus-grouped, penny-pinching, soulless chum. At their best, they have character. You might not like my games, but you can tell I CARE. They're works of love, recognizably the product of passionate brains.

And, since we care about the product of these brains so much, it's sometimes worthy to look at the brains themselves. Brains that spend half their time receiving more accolades than they deserve and half their time being the target of laserlike hate. These crazy, crazy brains.

I wanted to write a bit about the brain of the indie developer under stress. I don't want pity. I just think someone might find it interesting to read what it can be like to be in this particular box.

Simple. Free. Ad-supported. Indie. Popular. Addictive. BURN IT!
What Brought This On?

For years now, the iTunes (and lately Google Play) app store has been this gigantic, rushing torrent of infinite money, and everyone has scrambled to grab their piece.

It's the most soulless, joyless, metric-obsessed market/ethics-free-zone imaginable. There is nothing that can't and won't have all fun and creativity sucked out of it to earn an extra penny from the "whales" (i.e. compulsives) who will happily shell out a hundred bucks a month to get Candy Crush Saga to let them play Bejeweled. (Hot tip: Uninstall Candy Crush Saga and play all the Bejeweled you want forever ad-free for three bucks.)

So for the last couple weeks, people, when they weren't raging about EA's pillaging all of their happy memories of Dungeon Keeper, were noting the runaway success of a tiny, free, ad-supported game called Flappy Bird.

Let's be clear. It's not a great game. It was written in three days by a young Vietnamese man named Dong Nguyen. It's really simple, crushingly difficult, pretty derivative, weirdly addictive, and marketed purely by word of mouth. And it became a huge hit, sucking the attention away from a million equally derivative money-sinks.

According to the author, Flappy Bird was averaging $50K a day. So here come the haters ...

Shut up, canada.com.
If You Think There Is Something Bad About Flappy Bird, Here Is Why You Are Wrong

The Internet exists to crap all over everything. And Flappy Bird is simple, silly, derivative, and casual-friendly, so it was sure to bring the self-styled Defenders of Gaming out of the woodwork.

And why do people object to it?

One. The gameplay is similar to many earlier games. Well, of course. Flappy Bird is very similar to a host of press-the-button-to-make-the-helicopter-or-bird-stay-in-the-air games going back years. So what? Here's a news flash. If you write any sort of simple game, there is a %99.999 chance somebody already did it.

You can't copyright gameplay for a reason. If you could, small developers (including me) would never stand a chance.

(Many have claimed that Flappy Bird is a ripoff of a game called Piou Piou, which is laughable if you bother to actually try the games. They play entirely differently.)

Two. The art style is super-similar to early Nintendo games. Yes, Flappy Bird's art is reeeeeally close to some Nintendo games that came out in the last century. I've never seen proof that assets were lifted. It's just similar.

So what? Again, you can't copyright an art style, for a reason. If your art style could never be similar to someone else's, small developers (including me) would never stand a chance.

Three. The game is pretty rough. So what? If people choose to play it, nobody voted you the Queen of Gaming. It is so, SO not your business. I think players of Candy Crush Saga or mobile Dungeon Keeper are getting rooked and could get a lot more similar fun elsewhere for way less money, but I'm not running up and down the subway slapping the iPhones out of their hands.

Want to see people hate on Flappy Birds for no good reason? Look at this gross bit of anti-journalism from Kotaku. As of my writing this, the article begins with an update that basically says, "We changed the title of this article as it was pure slander." (Kotaku has since apologized for this piece, so thanks for that, I guess.)

Or look at this vicious example. Or this straight-out slander from the famed game critics of, um, canada.com. (At least Kotaku apologized.) Or, on in the best pretentious grad student style, this hilariously bizarre article in The Atlantic.

Or read the petty, jealous comments of any article on it. I promise you the author has. Every single one. Which is why this happened ...

Going ...
Rough Lessons In How Humans Work

Dong Nguyen quit. A fortune coming through the door, and he walked away. As I write this, Flappy Bird has been removed from app stores.

Think about this. I mean you, personally. Think about what it would take to make you run from a gold mine like this. Really. Think about why someone would do this.

This is not about money.

If you've experienced any time as a public figure, especially one that is mainly hated on, it makes a lot of sense.

Dong Nguyen is a young guy. He wrote a game for fun, put it out there, and found himself at the target end of a massive wave of attention, much of it negative. I can't stress enough how insanely terrifying this can be, and he wasn't ready.

Hardly the first time this happened. Remember when Phil Fish, the successful author of Fez, canceled Fez 2 and quit the industry in a fit of pique? I've never been Phil Fish. I don't know exactly what was happening in his head when this happened. But it did happen, and I can totally relate.

It can be hard to understand why someone would kill a product that's making a fortune. Anyone can say, "Oh, gee. He has money. Who cares?"

Well, I promise you, there are things that money can't buy. If you are going mad, you can't buy yourself sane. Some people can take this sort of attention. Not everyone. And some people can take it, but it makes them ... weird.

... going ...
I'm Crazy Too.

I've been the target of my fair share of hate. Real example: E-mails from angry schizophrenics. People who tell me they hope I go out of business and my kids never go to college. Pictures of me Photoshopped in various unflattering ways.

And, of course, the occasional truly unhinged message that I forward to my friends and ask, "Tell me honestly. Should I be worried about my safety here?"

I've been doing this for a long time, and I have a pretty thick skin. Even then, this stuff has an effect. You can't help it. It's part of being human. One angry message has more effect than ten friendly ones. It has a real psychic weight. And, once you know it's there, turning off your computer and avoiding Twitter doesn't remove it.

When my games had their own Humble Bundle, I should have been happy. I mean, I was, in a way. It'll help send my kids to college, and who could argue with that?

Yet, I spent that week in my room quivering with terror. When my developer/writer/artist friends find themselves in similar situations, they are often the same. I've been asked, "This is going so well. Why do I feel horrible all the time?" We neither expect nor deserve sympathy, but that's what happens.

And when an indie dev becomes the hate target of the day, isn't up to it, and loses it a bit, the public responses are the same.

Suppose one day I get one insult too many, I go nuts and quit or freak out. Here's what people will say about me: What a weakling. What a wimp. What an idiot. Why does he care? Why doesn't he just turn the social media off? Why can't he be tough and awesome like me? Screw that guy.

All this, of course, from people who have never experienced being in even remotely the same position.

A Quick Aside

Everyone jokes about how supposedly soulless PR and marketing people are, but dealing with the masses is difficult, time-consuming, and an actual skill. To survive emotionally in a high-profile situation, you need a layer of protection between yourself and the raw feedback of humanity.

If Dong Nguyen got a PR flack, stayed off forums, and just wrote games, he could make a lot of money. However, as he has said himself, this isn't the sort of life he wants to live, and I can't blame him.

But if you've ever seen a public figure (politician, actor, musician, and yes, game designer) have a weird, inexplicable public flame-out, it might make a little bit more sense now.

... gone. You see? Trolling does work!
Nothing Can Be Done, Of Course.

Reality is what it is. We devs would never have our attention and success without the Internet, but you have to take the good with the bad. If you want the attention, you also have to face the Hate Machine.

Sometimes it seems (accurately or not) like every gamer on the Internet seeks out their own little rantbox. A place to direct rage at their chosen target. Young male teens on one side, social justice warriors on the other, general cranks everywhere. Everyone has their axe to grind, and shouting is fun.

People have the right to give feedback, too. If I want to call out the Dungeon Keeper app or the hacky articles I linked to above, it's something I should be allowed to do. If you make your work public, people get to respond.

Trolling is annoying. (Though one man's troll is another man's brave truth-teller.) People troll because it works. When someone writes, "[Some developer] is a moron and his games suck," and the developer reads it, it hurts. You can't prevent it. It's just how our brains work.

I don't think this can ever change. (Though less slander from reporters who should know better would be nice, of course.) It's not about a broken system. It's about understanding, empathy, and remembering that the work you are shouting about was written by another human. An actual human, with feelings and stuff. And humans can be surprisingly fragile.

Saying that won't make any difference, of course. Haters gonna' hate. Trolls gonna' troll. But it feels nice to remind people occasionally, just the same.

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Edit: Fixed a typo and made it clear one of the pieces linked was not actually by a grad student.