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Electron Dance Highlights



oh no not again

Seven years after I wrote A Weaponized Machine about the indie scene snapping in twain over the proposed $100 fee to access Greenlight, it's Groundhog Day again. Steam are finally jettisoning Greenlight into the yellow light of the sun, like Teh Gabe promised a while back, and will be allowing developers to upload games directly into the heart of Steam with a service called Steam Direct. All that crowdsourcing bollocks is out the window.

But worries about FAKE GAMES and Steam's reputation persist and so instead of the $100 access fee for Greenlight there will now be... ta da an as-yet-undetermined publishing fee. And thus the indie "community" is once again at each other’s throats.

Last time this happened, I got rather sentimental about the passing of an indie golden age, with all its group hugs, hippie values and shit like that. Can’t get sentimental about what never came back, so what can I add to the conversation this time?

I can rant.

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Make Steam Great Again

Too long have we suffered at the hands of BROKEN algorithms.

There is a chance today to return to that Golden Age where no one talked about "discovery".

Too long have our digital streets have been SWAMPED with shovelware.

There is a chance today to drain that swamp.

Too long have storefronts seduced the weak with beautiful screenshots of MINDLESS walking simulators.

There is a chance to put interactivity back in its rightful place - in GAMES.

There is a chance today. And we must seize it.



The Fallen Price of Indie Games


But collaborations like Sportsfriends are rare. What became the norm was the industrialised bundle, which allows customers to pay for several games at a price of their choosing. This became so successful that AAA publishers began to get involved; the Humble Bundle which championed the concept for indie games in 2010 began to take on AAA bundles in 2012. The bundle became a permanent feature of the market, like the discount. The blunt truth is that the bundle was just another vector for game prices to slip to zero. Their innovation for consolidating customer attention became an innovation for reducing the effective price to sub-dollar levels.

RPS has published an excerpt from The Death of Ideas, the second chapter of the book. More precisely, the section titled Is Resistance Futile was converted into a standalone piece. I imagine if you've visited these parts recently, you've probably already read this. Don't worry, nothing extra has been added. The article is called The Fallen Price of Indie Games.

The first couple of chapters have also been updated. No major changes, but I'd dare say if you took another run at the chapter you would notice a difference.


Discussion: Dishonorable Discharge

Dishonored keyhole

Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about anything at all from the slightly late January edition of the newsletter, please speak your mind in the comments here.


The Death of Ideas


You can now download the first two chapters of The Weapons of Progress: From Videogame Revolution to Control.

I've made the fatal mistake of committing a ton of changes in the hours before final publication. Which probably means there'll be a flurry of error corrections over the next week. Oh well, I'm only human.

And other news: I am a finalist for New York Game Critics' Circle Game Journalism Award.

(Sorry this is so brief but I'm utterly spent!)

Update 20 Jan: David Wolinsky won the award, who has been writing a long-running series of longform interviews.

The Unbearable Now received lots of attention after Austin Walker published an article about it on Waypoint. It's reeled in a few more thousand views since.


Discussion: It Is Here


Dear subscribers, if you feel like chatting about the first two chapters of the book, get in the comments.


Countdown 2016, 24: Groundhog Day

Welcome to the Electron Dance Advent calendar. Each day will bring another post from the archives.

"If I see anyone flip gravity again, I'm gonna fucking freak out."

Have you read A Theoretical War that was posted on 24 April 2012?

"Story's not important, what counts is interactivity!"

"Without stories, games are just toys and will never replace movies as the most powerful medium!"

I'm sure you must have heard about the fight-to-the-death between "ludology" and "narratology"? There didn't seem to be a comprehensive, approachable overview of this theoretical war between two academic camps, so I wrote about it to launch a series which would attempt to fight the game academics' corner. I also wanted to point out that this war, assumed to be over, had exploded into the gamer streets.

A well-rounded reading diet will always give you useful, multiple viewpoints. RPS found The Curious Expedition a fun game. Kill Screen and podcast Twenty Dollar Gaming found the implications of the game's mechanics uncomfortable. Here's a question: who is right? Here's a better question: does someone have to be right?

And to my surprise, the debate emerged again in a brief conflagration involving critics and academics in 2015 complete with brand new alt labelling: now the ludologists were formalists. This recent resurrection wasn't something I could enjoy with a bag of popcorn but the debate blew over. It always does.

Still, I've learned something. Something I can share with new developers. Here is my hard-won critical insight:

  • If you'd like to make a game about systems, go right ahead.
  • If you'd like to make a game about stories, go right ahead.
  • If you'd like to make a game that tries to fuse systems and stories together, go right ahead.

That's it. Merry Christmas, everyone!

No, seriously, that's really it, this is the final Christmas Countdown entry. I hope you found at least one piece you might have previously missed. Of course, there'll be one more bit of Electron Dance before the year is out as the December newsletter will be published next week.

And don't forget you can go read A Theoretical War right now for zero pennies.

From the comments:

  • George Buckenham: "Games should be everything."
  • Nicolau: "There’s so much I think reading this."
  • David Kanaga: "I think of games as pieces of music, which feels to me closely related to ludological approaches."
  • Raph Koster: "I do not see why an act of definition is considered destructive."
  • James Patton: "I approve of taking a phenomenological approach to the player’s moment-to-moment experience."
  • Amanda Lange: "We do have tools, but sometimes those tools lead down a particular design path"
  • Steerpike: "The study of a medium leads to understanding, but not necessarily mastery."
  • CdrJameson: "I used to be quite dismissive of the pictures (not the story, of course) but then I played Knights of the Old Republic."
  • Alex: "I’ve never really understood the idea that narrative and gameplay are two separate, irreconcilable entities."
  • Ava: "I think one should in part look beyond what people are saying, in most discussions, and see what feelings they are actually expressing."
  • gotohaneda: "It all points to a fragmentation of the field of Game Studies."

Countdown 2016, 23: Burn Bright

Welcome to the Electron Dance Advent calendar. Each day will bring another post from the archives.


Have you read Stanley Kubrick Is Gone posted on 14 June 2011?

Believe me when I tell you, for most mortals, Bill Williams' Necromancer from 1983 is quite impossible to beat. But what a rush! That first round trying to grow trees as the forest spider picks them off one by one; that second round with the dread of spiders hatching as your walking trees attempt to tiptoe through the vaults; that final round where you confront the necromancer himself and it's just a matter of time before you're spider food. It overwhelms you, it obliterates you.

I was sad to learn, many years later, that Bill Williams had died at an early age. But he had always known it would be so - thus I had to tell his story. I found a way of intertwining his history with the experience of Necromancer which I believe gives it more tragic bite than simply recounting his personal story.

Stanley Kubrick Is Gone was the most popular entry of the Where We Came From series.

Go read it.

From the comments:

  • Tom: "The quote under the Vaults, to me, is the shining moment of his legacy, the thing we should remember from Bill Williams."
  • Steerpike: "It’s so important to remember some of the geniuses we lost tragically early."
  • Barrie Ellis: "Fascinating life, with some really interesting parallels to the fictional book Skallagrigg by William Horwood."
  • Gregg B: "A fascinating read and I’ve got to say, from the videos, Necromancer looks excellent, and I really mean that."

Countdown 2016, 22: Discoveries

Welcome to the Electron Dance Advent calendar. Each day will bring another post from the archives.

qrth-phyl screenshot with the word "ghosts"

Have you read the two-part Returning Home posted on 13 November 2012?

I wrote reviews in the early years but I decided to quit formal "reviewing" because it didn't add up to exciting writing for me. I mean, if you want a review, by all means go to a site which does reviews. I didn't feel that was what Electron Dance was about. Avoiding traditional review structure meant that I could talk about games any way I wanted. I didn't have to make judgements, I could just pick out something great, something weird or something flawed, something which would make for interesting words.

Matt James has a knack for putting out games which seem retro and familiar, yet the execution is something else altogether. I'd written a small, glowing review of his small, glowing 2D shooter Leave Home in 2010 but I always felt I'd done it a disservice. When I took a look at his next project, qrth-phyl, I was blown away by its quiet ambition. I decided to kill two birds with one stone, highlighting the beauty in both titles and show why James' work was worthy of wider attention. It ended with the absolutely heartfelt line "this is an astonishing piece of work" but one tweet did admonish the two-parter as being a little on the navel-gazey side.

Curiously, Matt James is one of those people, like Michael Brough, who is cursed with being the game designer's designer: high praise without the high sales. Don't get the wrong impression, though, as James is happy with his lot.

Unfortunately for poor little me, his next title Δ was not released on PC so I do not know what it feels like. My impression from YouTube, though, is a twitchfest in the Super Hexagon mould that I might just bounce off. Except... I'd made similar assumptions about James' earlier work, only to be proven wrong!

Go read Returning Home!

From the comments:

  • Badger Commander: "And we all know that Babylon 5 is is a big pile of shit."
  • Steerpike: "These are the kinds of games I perennially miss."
  • JonBro: "I kept finding myself craning my head towards the screen, trying to see around the edge of the camera."
  • Jordan: "This is now on my “to-play-list”."

Countdown 2016, 21: Off the Map

Welcome to the Electron Dance Advent calendar. Each day will bring another post from the archives.

Obsolete Ring

Have you read Into the Black posted on 30 January 2013?

From the smallest of acorns... I had been trying to keep up with the intense output from Terry Cavanagh's Free Indie Games site. It proved too much in the end but one of the games I loved the look of was a 7FPS contest game called Obsolete. It was okay, nothing special in the game department, but then I decided absent-mindedly to wander out of the core game area... and Obsolete did not stop me. I found I could keep going and had this terrifying experience of being lost in the dark.

When I remade Into the Black as a film, I discovered I was unhappy with some of the descriptions used on the page, sounding to me like they all I could come up with given personal deadlines. And so I feel the film is far more representative of what the essay should have been than of what it was.

But the original is still here, intact and unchanged. Go read it?

PostScript: In my head, translating the journey "into the black" from word to screen sounded easy, but I tore my hair out over this. In real-time, the journey is very slow so requires careful editing to keep it watchable but also preserve a sense of narrative flow. Further, choose the wrong direction and the journey ends in darkness pretty quickly - I had to find exactly the same route as that intimated in the original text!

From the comments:

  • ShaunCG: "The counterargument can be made that with games such as Far Cry 3, no matter what you might find within that world it is always only a framework for the core mechanical experience"
  • Steerpike: "But I admit, there are times when I look at something linear and find great comfort there."
  • Fernando's comment shocks me: "So this whole thing is like Chekhov’s Gun." This is precisely the argument I made in Chekhov's Collectible... two years later. GAHHHH! Did I remember Fernando's argument all that time but fail to recall the source of it? I'm sorry for not acknowledging you, Fernando!
  • Amanda Lange: "When I first read this article, I was annoyed a little."