Thursday, February 4, 2010

Steambirds: Why indie games are good for fans

Here's a rough sneak peak video of an indie gem called SteamBirds. As I was playing, I started thinking about questions of authorship and authenticity in the game industry.

The game
Steambirds is a rare treat. The magical design equation = Steampunk + Turn-based strategy + Air combat.

Despite my immense love of turn-based strategy games, I've found two problems with the genre over the years. First, very few people make them any longer. This is simple silliness and is easily rectified. Second, and perhaps more damning, most turn-based games that exist take forever to teach and play. The gaps and chinks that once appeared in my youthful schedule are now jam packed with accumulated tasks, looming responsibilities and the vast pressure of my imminent demise. I'm lucky to squeeze in even a few minutes of playtime at the end of a long day.

With Steambirds, the devs managed to make a deep strategy game where a single match is over in minutes. It fits into my life. The interface is super streamlined so even casual players can learn the basics in 30 seconds. My wife, not exactly a hardcore gamer, has been playing for days now. How cool is that?

I'm a fan. Here's a simple question that should be asked of all games: Who is responsible for making this wonderful experience?

The problem with game development heroes
Here is what I have observed: If a game is built by a large team and published by a mainstream publisher, you cannot know who is responsible for the game.

As an exercise, name a modern developer whose work has changed your life. If you are a mainstream gamer, you'll likely name the talking head behind the latest console smash. Chances are that the individual you think of as the key creative force is:
  • A cog in a much larger machine. Only rarely does an individual contribute more than 1% of the magic that makes a large title sparkle. There are just too many cooks in the large scale game development kitchen for individuals to shine.
  • Not directly responsible for the market success of the title at hand. Much of the success of AAA titles is based off brand and marketing budgets that weigh in at double the development cost. Without the expensive propaganda the drives a finely honed message into our consciousness, many of the 'most popular' titles would be little more than footnotes.
  • Made spokesperson by the direction of marketing. Talking heads, even ones with the title of 'designer' or 'producer' are often selected for their ability to A) deliver a message or B) coast by on their past history. Few tell an authentic story based on their personal contribution to the game. Real contributers are hidden behind the anonymous whitewash of the studio name.
The game media, trained to vacuum up press releases and pre-packaged interviews, never asks the probing question "What did you actually do?" or "Well, if you didn't, who did?" Marketing handlers merely selects a plausible face and media blindly crowns them as worthy creative visionaries.

Idols, even false ones, fill a uniquely human need for worship. Both gamers and journalists are desperate to adore, to celebrate, to follow the brilliant individuals that birthed our favorite games. When presented with the mechanistic, faceless truth of modern game development, we reject reality and seek something, anything that fits our preconceived notions of creative genius. A paper hero constructed of marketing materials fits the fan's need and is gladly assembled for each game launch.

But do we really need to settle? Are artificial heroes necessary? What if there were real gaming celebrities out there who are actually worthy of our veneration?

How a fan should select an authentic gaming hero
Here's an exercise for selecting someone in the game industry to admire.
  1. Is the game worthy?
  2. Are you being lied to?
  3. Are the authors identifiable as a real human being?
  4. Is their contribution meaningful and authentic?
  5. Does their contribution predict future enjoyment?
As we step through each of these, I've got a bold claim that I'll state up front: The only people that we, as fans, can claim with 100% certainty are worthy of our appreciation are small teams of independent developers.

Is the game worthy?
You can think about the worth of game in terms of Reach (the number of people it impacts), Depth (the depth of the experience) and Innovation (the degree to which the game moves the industry forward.)

Reach: An indie title like Steambirds will almost certainly will reach millions. It will be played by more gamers than 99% of all games on any game market. Take your pick...Xbox, Wii, PS3, DS, iPhone. In terms of broad popularity, Steambirds will have a bigger reach than the vast majority of games ever released during the history of gaming. Let that sink in for a moment.

Depth: For a percentage of players, a game made by one or two people can be just as compelling as any bloated AAA monstrosity. The elegant birds flying upward in Adam Saltsman's Canabalt spark deeper feelings within me than any of the overwrought hair porn smeared haphazardly across Bayonetta.

Innovation: A game like Steambirds doesn't play much like the vast number of clones that continually flood the market. From one perspective, it is another turn-based strategy game that has clear roots in existing (albeit obscure) boardgames. Yet compared to the dozens of FPS, physics games, platformers, tower defense titles and match 3 games, a project like Steambirds is delightfully unique. It innovates in terms of UI. It innovates in terms of genre pacing and mechanics. It even takes place in an original setting. (One where the fusion reactor was invented in the 1800s!)

I use Steambirds as an example, but there are dozens of indie titles that fit any sane definition of worthy. When you objectively measure game on worth instead of paid hype, you realize that games built by independent developers are rapidly becoming the defining experiences of a whole new generation of players. Just the other day I was chatting with my doctor, a gray haired lady in her fifties. She started excitedly talking about the great new game she was playing, a title called Osmos. This isn't some mainstream or casual is pure indie gaming. It hit me: our stereotypes are broken. The fact that a game is 'indie' no longer limits it to being a niche product.

Greatness is now independent of development budget. It is no longer defined by team size or marketing campaigns. A great game is a great game, be it a AAA marquee title or a 2D project made by two guys with a dream.

Are you being lied to?
If there is a publisher, there is always spin. It is built into the incentive structure associated with funding and marketing a game portfolio.

With an indie game like Steambirds, there is no vast publisher machine with a financial need to twist and massage the truth. You are connected directly by blogs, forums and interviews with the developer. Many times they are the ones responding to your emails directly. There are no endless lists of people who may or may not have actually ever made something. Unlike most most pro developers, the human beings responsible for every lovingly crafted detail of indie games even have names. You can look them up. They have ugly, honest, human websites, not extravagant confections excreted by nameless outsourced minions.

Honesty and transparency should matter to true fans. It is worth dedicating your passion and energy to something real, not a lie.

Are the authors identifiable as real human beings?
For Steambirds, I helped a bit on the design and graphics, but real creator of the game is Andy Moore, who worked alongside Colin Northway on the phenomena called Fantastic Contraption. The musician is by DannyB, the sizzling dynamo behind games like Canabalt and Super Meat Boy. In some ways, it is a game made by indie superstars.

It matters that Andy Moore is a real person, not a cog playing a role. I've met him last year in Austin and together we drank some fine microbrews. Along with a crew of other indies, we partook in an ill fated 2am adventure through the back alleys of Austin in search of a magical rumored cupcake deli. As we were chatting, he told me how after Fantastic Contraption, he sold off everything that didn't fit in a suitcase. This practice is called 'rightsizing your life' and it shows a dedication to game development that I find both rare and admirable. The fact that his lovely girlfriend puts up with his artistic journey is even more admirable.

Now, he lives to make games. Just last weekend, he was tapped as a mentor for the Global Game Jam and stepped up at the last minute to bail out a failing team. By the end of 48 hours, they had created a giant grotesque caterpillar that barfed rainbows. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

You won't find such stories told at press junkets. In fact, you may not even be able to find out the names of the people who actually worked on the game. Merely having accurate credits is still somewhat of a controversial topic for many large developers.

Games made by real people...there is something inherently valuable about the human story behind a game's creation.

Is their contribution meaningful and authentic?
Andy programmed every line of code in Steambirds. He isn't a 1% contributer. He is a majority contributor. My rule of thumb is simple: If you remove a person from the project, does the project still get finished? Does it still reach it's potential? I challenge you to find such a person on most non-indie projects. You typically won't. The cogs are treated as replaceable components (even when they aren't.)

After the project started, I found out that Andy is an amateur pilot. Steambirds was not merely a job. It was an opportunity for him to express his love of airplanes as a game. This intrinsic motivation is the difference between Van Gogh placing his turbulent emotions on canvas and an assembly line mechanically painting signage.

Personal passion and the size an individual's impact matter.

Does their contribution predict future enjoyment?
You haven't played Steambirds. But you may have played Fantastic Contraption. And you may have heard the tunes in Canabalt. There is a direct mapping between the creative skills expressed in Steambirds and your impressions of the author's past efforts. Much like how you might check out the album of your favorite band, you should also be inclined to check out the newest game from your favorite indie developer. Their creative blood courses through their entire body of work.

No such link with the past exists on games made by larger teams. 8 times out of 10, the name of both the publisher and the development company on the box have no coherent connection with the people who made the game. The team logos are, in effect, meaningless badges that exist purely for the sake of marketing. If someone says that they like or dislike an EA game, they obviously have no idea what they are talking about.
  • A publisher's brand is a business shell, not a developer that creates authored experiences.
  • Publishers often switch up teams on a title by title basis. The group that made the game that you enjoyed is unlikely to be the same team that was contracted to make the sequel.
  • Large teams experience massive churn. Some groups lose upwards of 50% of their developers from game to game. The original people who made your beloved game may not even make games any longer.
  • Power shifts within a large developer often alter creative direction in unpredictable ways.
A clear, strong connection between the author and his works helps you, the player make meaningful judgement about whether or not you want to try future games. Without this simple, obvious connection, you are just a sucker caught up in a cynical branding shell game.

True fans know who makes their games
In summary, when you really love a game, be it a small title or a large title, do the following:
  • Find out who actually made the game you love.
  • Look for games where vision and ownership are clearly visible.
  • Reject the marketing machine.
As I look at this list, I am delighted by the indie game movement because for the first time in many years, players can once again associate the efforts of a human being with their great game experience. I want to be celebrate the individuals who makes the games that change my life. I don't want to be a suckered by some expensive snow job. Indie games let me be a fan who is cheering on someone authentic and deserving. That is pretty darned cool.

take care

PS: Steambirds is currently in bidding over on Wish Andy luck!

PPS: mind is blown! Some eagle eyed commenters pointed out a great little space strategy game called Critical Mass by Sean O'Connor that has a very similar control system...and was created in 1995. I love it! It is awesome when two smart team independently stumble on the same solution decades apart. Convergent evolution in action. This also points out the importance of seeking out old masters for great ideas. If we had known about Critical Mass, perhaps we'd have a few dozen less UI prototypes. :-) Credit to an original innovator where credit is due: Go check out Critical Mass.