The Overrated Apocalypse: How to Stop Worrying and Start Working

This past week I stressed a lot about AOTW. From recruiting artists to stumbling through business license regulations, there were a lot of overwhelming things to do on the business side. Then, somewhere around the point when my confidence was rocketing towards an all-time low, I had the pleasure of reading about the impending doom of everything that our team is trying to do.  The motivational tome to which I refer is indie game veteran Jeff Vogel’s piece “The Indie Bubble is Popping.” Before I cherry pick certain parts to comment on, I should note that his piece is very entertaining and thought provoking and definitely deserves to be read in full. It’s making the rounds in the video game press right now, and deservedly so. That said, while there is a lot to learn from his post, I think the emotional emphasis is perhaps slightly misplaced and risks promoting industry apathy instead of healthy competition.

Vogel notes the low barriers of entry to indie developing today. He goes on to discuss how this has resulted in a huge influx of indie developers seeking money and internet glory. According to Vogel, this influx has effectively jacked up the supply of games on the market, thereby driving down prices thanks to good ol’ supply and demand laws. In other words –“The problem is too many games.” Vogel runs through several examples of how the game supply curve has been dramatically shifted to the right, from the spread of fantastically cheap Humble Bundles to the increasingly hands-off approach taken by Steam’s curators.

All of these observations are factually true. Yet, Vogel’s argument leaves readers, especially readers that are developing indie games, with the impression that the industry has declined to the point that failure is almost inevitable and potential for success is feeble at best.

I’m not so sure I agree.

Don’t get me wrong, I think having a sense of realism is important. But there’s a difference between realism and despair. If you approach an endeavor believing that the inevitable outcome for everyone involved is that of complete failure, then you’re probably going to fail yourself. Besides, I do have some strong, concrete reasons to believe in the future of the indie gaming industry.

First off, this expansion of indie game production is not a bubble; it’s more like an industrial revolution. The advent of cheaply available game engines, cheap cloud storage, and easier online advertising and promotion has allowed developers to create at a lower cost while still distributing on a large scale. This phenomenon is in a way similar to how other technological advances have reshaped past industries.

Bubbles happen when demand is artificially high for a limited time before being harshly corrected to more accurately represent underlying value. Paying a ridiculous multiple for stock in an internet company that you don’t understand is a bubble activity. Taking out an obscene mortgage on a house with poor property fundamentals is a bubble activity. Paying $15 for a game on Steam is not a bubble activity. As Vogel himself says, consumer demand for games (X dollars) actually remains pretty steady over time. People are not paying wildly more for games than they have in the past and they are not spending unsustainable amounts of money on computer games. And yes, people are not playing 40% of the games they purchase on Steam. But, they are still purchasing them, and that means that if your game looks good enough, there are people that have the ability to give it a try. The fact that that economic buying power is there should be a source of hope to aspiring indie developers.

Second, in a sense, things are not so different now than they ever were. The implication in Vogel’s bubble piece is that today, there are far more failing indie games than there were in the heyday of Minecraft and the early generation indie games. This increasingly pervasive failure is ostensibly due to an increasingly open Steam marketplace that is letting in all sorts of indie games that never would have made the cut in years past.

However, I would argue that there are not necessarily more losers and fewer winners in the indie marketplace than there have been in the past. The “losers” are simply more visible now since they have the means and access to at least try their hand at making a game. In the past, you never heard about the “losers” because they never had a shot at getting public recognition in the first place. How many potentially great games “failed” because they never had a chance to make a name for themselves due to technological limitations or marketplace restrictions? Whether through hard work, luck, or fate any competitive industry is always going to have numerous failures and a few winners. The indie game industry is no different, and we should be okay with that reality as developers. It doesn’t make our efforts any less valuable or admirable.

Megan Fox makes a similar, if more practical, point writing in a recent piece for Gamasutra. She does an especially good job of highlighting the fact that the industry has been, and always will be competitive. As she says, indie developers have to pay attention to the business side of things (advertising, website, social media etc.) and start thinking beyond Steam if they want to have a chance to stand out. I actually found her post really inspiring, and in the end, it has helped me find a more positive takeaway from Jeff Vogel’s post as well.

Despite the foreboding nature of Vogel’s post, I think he actually makes a very simple and straightforward suggestion as to the way forward, saying that “The easy money is off the street. If you want to make it in this business now, you have to earn it.” I couldn’t agree more. The only thing is, there never was any easy money in the first place–and that’s what gives me hope.

On Writing and World Building

Well, you’ve heard from the other guys for quite a few posts now, so now it’s time for Team Member # 3 (Austin) to show his face. So, here I am! Writing! About things!

Are you excited yet?

Okay, well, regardless of whether you’re jumping up and down or asleep at your keyboard, let’s keep moving.

The reality of a small team such as ours is that everyone has to specialize in something. Rich is our main developer because he’s got the skillset that fits that role best, and well, good ol’ Mike is our business man and marketing guy because he actually likes people. I’m the one writing the story for our game because that’s where my own talents naturally gravitate. We can help each other out here and there, but the reality of the situation is that each of us working on AOTW has to carry a crucial part of the overall game largely on our own.

For me, as the lead writer, this presents a unique opportunity. Largely free of limiting considerations, I am able to construct a narrative and environment that is entirely my own, and build a very personal tale. On the other hand, I alone am responsible for coming up with the entirety of the game’s universe, its characters, and its plot arcs.  Ultimately, I am the one who bears responsibility for any flaws in the story or any controversies it may provoke, intentionally or unintentionally.

I have worked on games previously where the narrative took a backseat, existing only to justify the action onscreen. One example of this style of storytelling was my cheesy, 50’s inspired Anomalous Operations project. I made the purposeful decision to avoid this storytelling technique for AOTW.

Indeed, the world of Armour on the Wastes is very rich, and it is not merely a backdrop to all of the shooting and the hectic, tank-filled action of the game – it is in fact a crucial part of the overall experience. So today what I would like to tell you about is a tiny bit of my thought process behind the writing and the story for this project.

 

I’m a firm believer at this point in my life that some things work better when you plan them, and others work better if left to chance.Writing actually requires that you use both strategies.

Our game takes place in a distant galaxy with its own unique history – effectively, it is a “blank slate” upon which to write the story of an entirely different group of people, free from real world historical considerations. To truly make the world come alive to the player and keep it internally consistent, I have put a great deal of effort into planning out the backstories and the motivations of all characters involved. I have worked for months plotting a consistent timeline and detailing the history of over thirty planets, dozens of nations and terrible, cataclysmic wars, much of which the player will never see in-game.

But the idea isn’t for the player to actually see all of the content – that would be overwhelming.  Instead, this backstory work provides a solid foundation upon which the real plot of the game can be built – and it enlivens the game by allowing me to reference side characters and events not relevant to the main storyline, without having to make things up or introduce plotholes.

Meanwhile, when it comes time to actually script character interactions, I will let these flow from an improvisonal source.The characters themselves have detailed backstories and motivations, but part of the fun of being a writer is letting your characters do what they want – not railroading them down a preset, author-guided path.This also helps the player feel like the characters are real, relatable people rather than stock archetypes.

That’s not to say I don’t have any idea where our actual plot is headed.There is a clear narrative arc – just one I choose not to share with you yet!

In the end, the final goal of all this writing and all this story work is to immerse the player in our world – to make them feel like their choices matter – to make them think about the themes presented in a real and meaningful way – and to have people talking about the plot long after the game’s no longer being played.

So stay tuned, dear readers.You’re in for a hell of a tale…

Making the Relationship Official

On the death, adjudicated incompetence, or bankruptcy of a Member”…

You know things are starting to get real when that’s the first thing you read on a Sunday morning. This lovely line of prose came from the brand new LLC operating agreement language that I was reviewing for our team this last weekend. It was under the section titled “Death Buy-outs.” This line really struck me in a morbidly humorous way. After all, it’s not as if death and buy-outs aren’t already heavy enough subjects on their own. It would probably take a pretty sick person (a lawyer) to combine the two.

However, despite the not so subtle and somber undertones of the operating agreement, I’m actually really excited to announce that we are officially forming an LLC to make our team a real, legal game studio. Assuming that the Evergreen State finishes reviewing our paperwork, we will soon be known as Reluctant Koala Studios LLC. I know — kind of a random name. But, I don’t want to take too much time to explain it right now, especially since the Koala part is so obvious.

Having a certificate of incorporation that reads “Reluctant Koala Studios LLC” is reward enough for going through the process of learning about and forming a corporate entity. However, we do have other reasons behind making a real, legal business entity for our endeavors.

One obvious benefit, for instance, is that having our own LLC will help us with more “grown up” business things like having a business checking account and keeping business expenses separate from personal expenses. Additionally, we also think having an LLC is important from an expectations and “friendship-bro-liability” standpoint (which is definitely a real legal term). After all, we were all good friends going into this endeavor, and we would generally prefer for that still to be the case afterward. We don’t need any Zuckerberg v. Winklevoss  style lawsuit fests. So, we decided it would be worth sitting down and setting out some of our expectations in terms of decision making power and profit sharing in writing. I think we will be glad we did this when things get more hectic in a few months. Moreover, it makes the project seem even more real, official, and concrete – which is great for our motivation as well. After all, it’s hard to just let a project slide when the state is knocking on your door asking for an annual report.

Along with forming a legal entity, the project is also starting to feel more and more official because of another big change that will be happening in our lives soon. We need to bring an artist onto our team.

I can’t overstate how exciting it will be to have a talented artist that can really bring to life the characters and environments that Austin has created. Yet, bringing a new team member on board is also a bit scary. After all, Austin, Rich, and I have known each other for close to 6 years. We know each other’s personalities, styles, and quirks. We have no idea how a new team member will fit in with our team vibe. For example, how will the artist deal with Austin’s burning love of 80’s music? Will the artist understand any of Rich’s obscure internet references? Will the artist be stressed out when Mike touches his or her computer and it immediately breaks?

Until now, we’ve been able to get by naturally with the friendship we’ve built up in the past. But once we bring on an artist, we will also need to focus on building relationships while working on the game. Bringing a new team member in arguably makes this project feel even more official than all the LLC paperwork in the world. Because now, this isn’t just something we work on together as friends – it is work that we are also sharing with another person. Moreover, we are asking another person to dedicate substantial amounts of time and effort to our vision.

We recognize that making it as an artist in the videogame world is obscenely hard. An artist has to build up a great portfolio, and he or she only has so many hours in the day to work on this. We take the responsibility of offering this person a quality opportunity very seriously. Knowing that our project could affect the future of another person’s career definitely puts things in perspective and makes our hopes and responsibilities for this game very real.

So, given everything that’s at stake, I’m glad that we are putting in the effort to formalize our game making venture. Going through this process with close friends does feel a bit stilted and overly proper at times, but in the end I think we will be glad that we made our relationship official in the eyes of the law. We still haven’t made it Facebook official though – after all, we wouldn’t want to jump into this thing too quickly.

HTML5 – What is this Black Magic?

Editor’s Note: I know by now you’ve fallen madly in love with Mike’s narrative style, but this week we’re switching things up. It’s time to kick the business major out and get a bit more technical. To that end, this week’s post is written by our lead (and only) developer, Rich Knieriem. Enjoy!

Last week you heard about some of the exciting progress we’ve made on the game thus far, including a fully playable tech-demo level. I want to talk a little bit about the types of tools I’ve used so far in creating that level and why I think they’re part of the wave of the future.

As the team’s leading “expert” in software development, I was put in charge of creating the game’s engine.  After a few laughable attempts at building my own I went in search of a ready-made one.  It didn’t take long before I started running into engines built on HTML5.  I decided to give one of them, Construct 2, a try. And believe me, after a few Hop Czar fueled learning sessions, I was firmly on the HTML5 bandwagon.

HTML5 is a relative newcomer to the coding arena, but it’s far from obscure. Popular video services like YouTube and Vimeo have already switched to HTML5.  Even the vaunted Netflix has begun to supplement its Silverlight video player with an HTML5 player.  HTML5 is quickly gaining ground and it’s not hard to see why.  Barring minor differences between modern browsers, HTML5 offers a truly platform independent experience. I mean really, your code can run on anything. What other language offers that?

I realize that some people may dare to disagree. So, for your benefit, I’ve listed a comprehensive summary and refutation of any possible arguments against HTML5:

            Q: “What about flash?”

            A: Who the fuck still uses flash?

            Q: “Silverlight?”

            A: Hahahahaha, no.

            Q: “Oh…So you’re just making a web game?”

            A: Not quite.

Frameworks like PhoneGap or Construct 2 allow users to create something in HTML5 and port it to any type of device they choose; this is why I chose an HTML5 based engine.  With a simple click of the mouse, I can build the game to any device I want.  Anything from a PC to an Iphone is fair game.  Hell, I could probably get it onto one of those smart fridges if I really wanted.  Our game is a desktop game, but it could be a phone game later, or a web game, or pretty much anything we want. And even if we never try to expand it beyond a desktop game, it will be easily portable across Windows, IOS, and Linux operating systems. That alone is enough reason to use HTML5 for a time strapped indie developer.

I may not be a AAA title developer, yet. But, don’t let the detractors fool you. HTML5 does have enough power to make it onto the big stage. Seriously, it isn’t just for angry bird clones.  Full 3d graphics, offline asset storage, and socket based networking are all possible with HTML5.  It won’t be long until AAA titles begin to hop on the bandwagon. In fact, I’m so confident in HTML5 that I’m willing to defend this claim in trial by combat against any AAA executive that disagrees, especially if said executive is from EA.

However, leaving aside any potential duels with industry leaders, the question remains – how should indie developers prepare themselves for HTML5’s imminent world domination? Once again, I’ve prepared some exhaustive guidelines:

            Q: “How should we prepare for our new HTML5 overlord?”

            A: Uninstall IE8. Seriously guys, that shit is pure evil.

            Q: “Are you just using HTML5 because you don’t want to learn a new programming language?”

            A: …well…yes….but HTML5 is fucking black magic. You can’t beat that.

You may think that “black magic” is a bit of an overstatement. But I have my reasons. When I had to explain why this language was good to Mike, this was the phrase that came most naturally. And it seems to have gotten the point across. This may have something to do with the excessive amounts of time he’s dedicated to reading fantasy books, but it works.

Until my next developer post, I want to leave you readers with one final comprehensive insight – my steps to becoming a filthy rich developer.

Step 1: HTML5

Step 2: ?

Step 3: Profit

You’re welcome.

What is this “Game” you speak of?

In our first three posts, I’ve reflected a lot on the game making process as seen by first time indie game makers. However, for this post I would like to switch tack and start talking a little bit more about the actual game, lest anyone begin to suspect that it is… errrmm…not real. Have no fear loyal reader – this game is no mystical unicorn (yes, I know all unicorns are mystical). It is very real, and we’ve made some great progress in the last few weeks!

Our game,  Armour on the Wastes, is a 2D vehicular combat game with strong RPG elements.  The story takes place in the vast reaches of outer space, in a galaxy recovering from an apocalyptic war.  As the player, you will have a customizable, multi-component tank at your disposal that you will use to battle your way through a diverse range of planet types and foes.

While we owe a debt of gratitude towards pure action games, we are striving to make our game more than just an interstellar shoot’em up. To that end, our writer Austin is putting heroic amounts of time into story development, to make sure we have a rich universe and fully built out codex to back up the main plot. AOTW will also feature a branching storyline in which the player must make morally difficult choices between imperfect options with imperfect information (because you don’t get to do enough of that in real life already).

We have a few over-arching goals for this game in terms of player experience. First, the game has to be fun. I suppose this goes without saying, but I think it’s important to keep that objective fixed firmly in mind as an end in and of itself. Furthermore, we want the game to be so fun that it’s actually addictive. We want fans to go back and re-play the game, to try out various combinations of tank parts, to build different characters, and to make different decisions in the branching storyline. Last but certainly not least, player agency is a huge driving force behind the vision for this game. We want players to be able to make choices that legitimately influence gameplay, and we want to set the game up in such a way that there is no truly wrong way to use your wide array of customizable tank options.

If you’re an avid gamer yourself, I hope these goals have reminded you of various games that you have viewed as fun and influential. Our vision for the game has certainly been molded by a lot of amazing work in the gaming and sci-fi arenas, both independent and mainstream. To truly talk about these  guiding lights in a meaningful way would probably require a separate blog entirely. However, if I were to name a few of our biggest influences in terms of plot, atmosphere, and player agency, I would start with  the games I Miss the Sunrise, Mass Effect, Homeworld and the perennial classic, Deus Ex.

I’m confident that players will feel these influences, as well as our own unique style, once they have the game in hand. But since the game is not ready yet, I want to give you something tangible to get a better feel for the vibe of the game. As you may or may not recall, Rich, in addition to being our developer, is also a musician and is creating the entire soundtrack for AOTW. He has several full songs already completed. The sample below will likely be one of the feature tracks in the game, and is I think very representative of the overall feel of the AOTW universe. So, hit play, sit back, and immerse yourself for the first time in the AOTW universe with “Blood and Iron.”

In exciting news on the development front, Rich and Austin finished a tech-demo level this week. I played it a couple days ago, and it’s really exciting to have a playable level running for the first time. As I  moved through the game, taking damage left and right, I thought to myself “damn, this is real!” Right now, the tech demo features placeholder art, customized in MS Paint by yours truly. However, we are on the warpath to find a real artist, because if I were to illustrate everything in the game, your typical battle scene would look something like this:

Lol_Terrible Tanks

However, rest assured, we will find an outstanding artist (by the way, if you are a super awesome artist, you should definitely email us for more details at hiring@aotwgame.com).

In fact, while it adds a lot of pressure right now, the need to bring on a new team member is actually a bit of a blessing in disguise. It forces us to clarify our goals and vision for the game so that we can communicate this to potential artists and to all of you readers. Above all, no matter what we achieve with these goals, we sincerely hope that you will enjoy playing this game once it is released.