Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Inkblot

Kieron Gillen has an excellent interview with Vic Davis, the creator of Armageddon Empires, over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Kieron is always thoughtful and interesting, and so is Vic, so it's an ideal combination.

Here's an excerpt where Vic discusses his next project:
The next game is a project that I’ve code named Brimstone. It’s a turn based strategy game with a unique theme and lots of board game mechanics. It’s going to have simultaneous turns so it will be ideal for PBEM. I’m not going to skimp on the single player experience though as coding the AI is one of my favorite parts of development. The game is an eclectic cross between Diplomacy, Dune, A Game of Thrones and Ticket To Ride. It’s got a structured diplomatic system that is sort of a variant on a feudal system where the use of force is regulated by higher authority and formal protocols. And it’ll have hexes of course.

Two words: I'm in.

Clearly, Armageddon Empires has won the indie game derby. By that I mean it's the single best example in 2007 of an indie game that not only kept gathering players, but also received highly positive coverage in the gaming press as well.

In the last three years, I can think of three independent games that have clearly "broken through," so to speak: Dwarf Fortress, Mount & Blade, and Armageddon Empires. Even though these games--as games--are totally different, the approach used by their developers in terms of reaching a market has some important elements in common, and I think it's worth discussing.

Here's the easiest way I can explain what I mean.

Take a piece of red construction paper and a pair of scissors. Cut out a circle.

At that point, you're holding 90% of games in your hand. They are clearly defined. There are a certain number of things to do, but when the circle has been cut out, it's finished. Almost every game EA has made in the last five years is like this this. Pick a shape, get the feature set in as best you can (given the time you have to work with), and ship the game.

It's not really any surprise that big publishers work like this. What I've come to realize, though, is that many indie developers work like this, too.

There's anther kind of game, though. Find a white napkin, then find an ink pen or a Flair(or any kind of pen with ink that seeps).

Touch the pen to the napkin and just wait.

It doesn't happen quickly, but ink will seep out of the pen and into the napkin, and over time, the ink will spread to a larger and larger area.

That's what Dwarf Fortress, Mount & Blade, and Armageddon Empires all have in common: they're inkblots.

All of these games have been in development for an extended period of time. With DF and M&B, they've been in development for years and they're still not "finished." With Armageddon Empires, the game was in design and development for over two years, and since it was released Vic has spent over six months meticulously improving the interface and the game experience in general.

Continued development of these games is a lifestyle, not a job. For DF and M&B, it's obvious. In the RPS interview, Vic tries to deny that he's like that--he says "I’m not driven to design by a personal muse like some people. I’m a plodding workman but it beats a lot of other jobs"--but he also says "I’ve actually written an opening chapter of a book about an Imperial Consul named Ulysses Starke who appears as a hero in the game," and he mentions that he'd love to see an "anime style film" done in the game's universe.

Nice try on that "plodding workman" claim, Vic, but no soap. Clearly, he spends much of his time thinking about the game world far beyond the feature set of the game.

So is it any wonder that each of these game worlds is incredibly evocative? It would be very easy to write fiction set in any of the three game worlds--it would be easy to write fiction just based on experiences generated in playing the games.

Some games generate stories, and when they do, gamers will tell these stories to each other, and over time, these stories turn into lore. Inkblot games are far more likely to have lore, because that's how the developers think about their own game. It's a natural result of thinking about a fictional world for thousands of hours.

All three developers also have a strong partnership with their communities, and ironically, the communities themselves have provided "ink," so to speak. I wrote about this a while back, but the people who play a game almost always want to help make the game better, if developers would only let them.

What happens with a conventional release, though, is that after the game launches, there's a short period of time when forums are active, maybe a patch or two gets released, but then the developer moves on (if there were ever any developers active in the forums to start with). And all the energy that players still have and want to contribute to improving the game starts to waste away as soon as the developers stop being active.

If that relationship continues, though, interest in the game continues as well, and the community can have a hugely positive effect. Armageddon Empires was a terrific game to begin with, but Vic Davis was active in multiple gaming forums (and continues to be), and much of the interface streamlining and feature enhancements were suggested by members of the gaming community. That's true of DF and M&B as well--the developers have an ongoing, long-term relationship with their community.

It's incredibly difficult for a developer to make this kind of commitment. There are bills to pay, and they have ideas for other games, and it takes a tremendous amount of both faith and patience to invest so much into a single game. But based on the last few years, if an indie developer really wants to succeed, it seems like a commitment that he or she must be willing to make.

There's another element as well, and that's media coverage. Media coverage for an indie game is going to be nonexistant when the game gets released.

Why? Well, to be blunt, no one cares. At first.

Coverage is still going to be nonexistant for months after release. Still, no one cares.

But if the community around the game is loyal, and if the developer is loyal to the community, someone will notice. And since just about everyone in the gaming press seems to know each other, if even one writer tries the game and likes it, he or she will tell other writers, and they'll try it as well.

Seepage, in other words. Discussion of the game spreads outwards.

If the game is really, really good, all these people trying the game and talking about it reach critical mass, and suddenly everyone seems to be covering it at once. That's how games with zero marketing budgets get attention.

On a personal level, this inkblot approach has always had a deep appeal to me, because it distinguishes games from any other kind of media. Could you ever imagine a book or film getting released, the continually being revised and polished based on end-user input? How about an artist having twenty revisions of a painting based on early viewings?

That's just crazy.

So a game like Dwarf Fortress, which is very much a result of the unfathomably deep imaginations of Tarn and Zach Adams, is still not a discrete work of creativity. There is a collaborative aspect that makes games entirely unique from any other kind of entertainment.

Which is one of the many reasons I consider them special.

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