Electron Dance
11Sep/12Off

A Weaponized Machine

November 23, 2010. Quintin Smith posts about a free browser game called The Infinite Ocean on Rock Paper Shotgun. I plan to dabble with it but stay for the duration. Jonas Kyratzes is easy to find in Google, easier than Mr. Mxyzptlk. I hammer him into my RSS feeds and lurk in his comments.

The Infinite Ocean - "It is all pointless"

Today. You can still play The Infinite Ocean if you haven't already. But what made it so special?

It's not technical direction nor mechanical innovation; you might call it a point-and-click although it shares genetic material with the Room Escape genre. Ocean is a good example of what Kyratzes would label “narrative as a mechanic”. The real game is not the one you see on the surface, figuring out passwords and exploring the environment. The real game is in your head, sifting through the fragments of story and assembling the whole.

The player starts out with zero information. The protagonist doesn't know who he/she is, where he/she is or what has happened. Why are the walls adorned with nihilistic messages? Why are they telling you toXXXX

Adam Atomic: finally an article that EXACTLY SUMMARIZES my feelings about the Steam/Greenlight non-troversy

Michael Brough: oh dear, "Go make a great game, and then everything will line up for you, assuming you've got half a brain." - really?

Adam Atomic: thats a surprising paraphrasing!

Michael Brough: it's a literal quote, man.

XXXXnavigate this strange, surreal space, you're showered with documents and computer logs and the story unfolds in shreds, narrative confetti blowing through the dead, grey rooms. I found the technique here of exploring the past through logs to work as well as it did in System Shock 2; see Doom 3 and Bioshock for examples where it does not. This is a game where an AI researcher has had enough of Skynet jokes. These little asides bring life to the characters instead of making them pegs to stick globs of plot on.

The Infinite Ocean screenshot: Something about light

What would an Isaac Asimov novel look like in game form? The Infinite Ocean is pretty close. Scientists are the heroes of the piece and they certainly do not go all FPS to solve problems a la certain other games I could mention. Science is presented as a modern way of thinking rather than a way to get from technology A to technology B.

But wait, I have another Asimov connection for you. One of Asimov's most popular characters was R Daneel Olivaw, a humaniform robot who assisted human detective Elijah Baley. The emotionless Olivaw is all about the logic, the ideal Dr. Watson foil for Baley. But there's a moment in The Robots of Dawn where Baley, who is no great fan of robots, forgets himself and hugs Olivaw; Olivaw hugs back, because it is required of him. Humanity falls in love with technology and that technology may not love them back – but it will take care of them. The development of The Infinite Ocean's artificial sentience SGDS mirrorsXXXX

Sophie Houlden: man, I really don't think I've seen a division amongst indies as strong as I have this week. no sign of healing either.

XXXXisn't perfect, though. I found the military a little cartoonish, who use phrases amongst themselves like "an important step in the war against terror and evil." I could accept such phrasing in a military dictatorship, but the game evokes a Western democracy; I wouldn't imagine communications between a general and HQ being laced with such language. The military personality seemed more suited to films like D.A.R.Y.L. and Short Circuit than a meditation on making an "artificial soul". Black hat, white hat.

Putting that aside, the most important problem to solve is exactly who you are amongst this cast of characters, if any of them. Figuring out the answer to that problem, solving this overarching mechanic, solves the entire game. Absolutely everything then makes sense. I had no identifiable moment of epiphany, but experienced something like a slow descent into the truth of the game. But it is key to understanding the final scenes whereXXXX

XXXXsurprised that not everyone figured out this important puzzle-piece such as Penumbra and Ir/rational writer Tom Jubert who wrote of it: "Deconstructing the philosophy of one of the most intelligent, intricately constructed examples of interactive art available has been a mission and a half." You might reach the end of this game, but that doesn't mean you've solved it.

Kyratzes said in the comments on RPS: “The danger, as I see it, is that if the writer talks too much about their intent, people will refrain from digging into the game and trying to figure out what it means.” I'd go further than this, though. I'd argue that talking about the ending ruins the game'sXXXX

Errant Signal: But I think as budgets rise even among small titles, we’re going to see the gap widen between the two types of indie developers – those who can afford to treat their passion like a business and those who can’t, those who see money spent on their game as an act of investment and those who see it as an act of fiscal irresponsibility, those who see games as a career and those who see it as a calling. And while everyone wants to be in the former group, it’s important not to declare the latter group illegitimate or undeserving.

Alright, that's enough.

Last week was a bizarre week. I don't think Steam intended the Greenlight service to cleave the indie scene in two, their experimental platform weaponized. While indies may have started out discussing whether $100 shuts out a class of developers, they were eventually talking about who were bona fide indie developers – a.k.a. people would could find that $100 whatever the fuck happened – and those who were not.

This has been bubbling away beneath the surface for some time. Indies recoil in horror as Jonathan Blow is hailed gaming's true messiah in the New Atlantic. Anger, rage, gnashing of teeth when Phil Fish is allowed to enter the IGF twice and win both times for the same game that hadn't yet been released. What appears to be respect for short-form and niche games that don't make much money might actually be begrudging tolerance of freeware. Some see every little Flash game and jam prototype as noise: Steam is where you go for the beautiful symphonies away from the cacophony.

There's a shocking scene in Roman Polanski's Chinatown where Jack Nicholson tries to slap the truth out of Faye Dunaway and she alternates her answer with each blow – sister, daughter, sister, daughter. Surely both answers cannot be true. Everyone is an artist? You are what you earn? Greenlight slaps the indie scene: artist, business, artist, business...

So when Jonas Kyratzes wrote an article about the $100 Greenlight fee he was, in fact, inviting an angry mob to come to his comments and try to kick him in the head. Some asserted that developers like Jonas should throw in the towel if they weren't making enough money to pay the fee.

The Infinite Ocean is my personal favourite of Jonas' games but it was browser-based freeware and I never paid a penny for the experience. Instead of letting the grim drama playing out over blogs and Twitter continue to upset me, I asked Jonas a hypothetical question. How much, I asked, might he have sold The Infinite Ocean for? He told me.

Last night, I sent him the money and finally paid him for his game.

The Infinite Ocean screenshot: "The great madness is coming"

 

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  1. Fantastic post. It does feel like it addresses something big.

    I’m honestly not sure where I stand on the signal-to-noise ratio of indie games. I feel like Kyratzes games are definitely signal, and any filter that doesn’t let them through based on money/status/whatever is fundamentally broken. My games are very surely noise, and I’m kinda okay with that. I enjoy making them in any case.

    I’ve been playing through scores of Ludum Dare games over the past couple weeks to leave them ratings and honestly, sifting through that gigantic collection of experiments kinda feels like hard labor. Finding the gems in there is a great feeling, but most of the time trudging through Ludum Dare games is a difficult task. But at the same time, I wish it’s a task more people would do rather than just writing it off and losing the good with the unfinished or bad.

  2. Thanks Switchbreak. I had actually written a completely different Greenlight piece on Saturday night but realised others had covered that kind of ground already (I like the Errant Signal piece linked above). I started again from scratch and decided to write about how I felt about this thing which happened.

    There’s a real problem now of a constant churn of games. New games – commercial or hobbyist – are being released every day. We’ve got sites like freeindiegam.es, owVideogames and Zero Feedback to make sure we don’t miss anything special. But it’s still too much, so freeindiegam.es gets a double-curated list on Sundays via RPS. And despite all of this free stuff being pumped out every day, most players are happy to be locked inside Steam.

    I’m not sure what the solution is and I’m happy to put my hand up and admit that. But Greenlight didn’t offer anything that seemed terribly constructive or clever from a consumer or developer point of view. It seemed like Valve were trying to crowdsource the design of the crowdsourcing plaform itself.

  3. “It seemed like Valve were trying to crowdsource the design of the crowdsourcing plaform itself.”

    Some company, at some point, will try to make a go of an A&R model, and that will be viewed as reactionary. Before we threw out the old, perhaps we should have more fully developed the new.

    What a world we live in.

  4. @HM: +1

    @Eric: By A&R, you mean Artists and Repertoire? The arm of a music company that goes and find talent for the rest of the company? Basically, a company that goes out, finds the good stuff, and tells you about it? That would… that would be odd.

    Also, my ‘what a world we live in,’ is usually preceded by ‘a non-democratic committee can usurp a nation’s sovereignty, overthrow its government, and impose a harsh, nonsensical rule to the sounds of international acclaim.’

    And I suppose that Greece is as good a place as any other to take the conversation.

  5. Very nice article HM.

    Greenlight’s fee probably has completed the division between indie businessmen and “amateurs” (for lack of a better word; among them there are also some that I’d call artists, like Jonas). While the division has always existed and it seemed like they were going to split sooner or later, I really really didn’t expect such a division to bring out so much hate. It was painful to see from the outside.

  6. @mwm: I’m friends with a musician and so hear about what musicians talk about, and it’s interesting to hear that they kind of miss labels, because they all hate being forced to spend time on promotion and distribution.

    Greenlight (and crowdsourcing in general) strike me as the internet trying to reinvent A&R and doing it badly.

  7. See, I feel like interesting, experimental “noise” games are important. They are my favorite part of the “indie scene”. It’s all ABOUT the game jams, and people like Increpare with an inexplicable drive behind their art, and the struggling ramen-eater coding furiously on their 6-year-old laptop. That is the “scene” I want to consume, that is what I want to participate in, that is what I want as many people as possible to participate in.

    The thing is, I don’t think any of this is what Steam wanted on their platform in the first place. And I don’t think any of these games need to be on Steam. To me, Steam seems like a platform for those who have already “made it” financially selling their games.

    If any struggling-financially artist depends on a Steam release to find success, then we are all failing. If that $100 is a barrier, so be it — it might be working as intended. I think too many of us got our hopes up that Greenlight would be opening it’s not. Steam isn’t much more inclusive than it was before Greenlight — it’s easier for Valve to sort through their applicants, but it might be actually harder to apply.

    Which is why I repeat: if struggling game designers absolutely depend on making it on to Steam, then something is already wrong, no matter what form that platform takes in the future. There need to be more avenues to success, that don’t depend on one company’s storefront.

  8. @Stephen: The thing about the ‘alternate avenues of success’ is that they overlap, and that they make it impossible to keep up on all but a few sites (like it is right now…). If people are free to write about whatever they want, they’ll tend to keep writing about the same couple hundred, with one or two articles for all the rest (At a Distance… Cough). And then, with all the bloated excess of information and repetition between different sites, it’s very, very hard to pay much attention.

    And, with that in mind, Eric’s suggestion starts to make an increasing amount of sense.

    Also, has their been much effect on mainstream video games by indie developers and academics? I’m sure the question was answered by HM a bit ago (and I can even think of one or two examples), but I’m not so much up to the task of searching or researching. This being the primary purpose of ‘jam’ games, this would be the critical factor in their worth.

    An idea I just had: what if unpopular games (over a certain ratings threshold) were thrown into the ballot to be given away to people for free (or for a subscription cost)? Once a month, each person signed up for the program gets a random game sent to them. Each person would receive a different game, so each game being given away has two or three people pick it up. It’d be a small thing, and it may not have much of an advertising impact, but it’d sure be a thing I’d shell out money for.

    I’m also racked by questions about the article. Was it an actual sale, or a comforting gesture? Did HM buy the game itself, or the IP? Is ‘the Great Madness’ a short story in Jonas’ universe, or some sort of collaboration? And, of course, the price (though that’s mostly to test Jonas’s humblosity).

  9. @Eric: It does feel like we need something along the lines of A&R but I wonder if developers would really submit to it. Depends how such a thing was handled, but it’s like the “independent genie” is out of the bottle and creators want to own their work more. Plus, once you’re across that line of discovery, it’s easy to change your mind: thx, but now I want to go it alone with my fanbase.

    @Fede: That’s it exactly. I just wanted to talk about how unreal and discomfiting it was to see the indie scene rip apart like that in a matter of days. There are different “classes” of indie now. You can’t drop Notch and Jonas in the same bucket and say their experiences are equivalent.

    @StephenM3: I’ve spent more time in indie games and freeware since starting this site than anything else. I think Steam Greenlight is just going to be a way for indies that have a strong fanbase to signal to Steam that they can make money on the platform. I would hope that one day Steam could split into a storefront and a repository for managing your collection (so any games could slip into the repository, other than just the storefront); I’m thinking more about the problem of Steam addicts who stay exclusively with Steam rather than issues of discoverability and PR through the portal. Steam is effectively walling in consumers; there’s the rub.

    @mwm: I think we’re pretty much with Greece already considering I wrote about Jonas! You’re right about the obsession with a few key titles with the rest collapsing into noise. Right now, for example, Terry C’s finger-killer Super Hexagon is doing the rounds but this week also saw the release of Hermitgames’ Qrth-phyl which is amazing and weird. Qrth-phyl had a small spike of attention… but I’m not sure anyone is still talking about it. Super Hexagon is still in the internet’s headlights, though.

    I’m not sure I can really point at anything off the top of my head and say “look indie pawprints all over that mainstream game property” but I think certain things are probably floating up. Some of the giants have been experimenting with indie clothing (EA Indie Bundle, Atari had some enter-your-game competition too – I’m not recommending these ideas, just pointing them out).

    Some jam games have been spun out into commercial releases (World of Goo, The 4th Wall I recall) but having mainstream developers pick up jam game ideas… well, I’m feeling all Zynga now. (Academic research is a different kettle of fish; the whole point is to discover new things which might become useful in the field.)

    As for the ballot/lottery thing, I think you have to bear in mind there are millions of free games out there already. Do you only include games that are “commercially” available? There are still problems of gatekeeping. It doesn’t get away from someone having to curate what goes in to the blender. But will it blend?

    I paid for a copy of the The Infinite Ocean which I can play in a browser any time I want. The fact that everyone else can play it too, well, I didn’t pay for all you guys =) “The Great Madness” is the opening text from The Infinite Ocean. Last, I didn’t want to divulge the cost because I didn’t ask Jonas if I could tell everybody. In fact, Jonas didn’t know why I was asking – I joked on Twitter last night that he’d have told me it was $100 if he’d known. I will say it was pretty low and Jonas said it was a short game, after all.

  10. Joel– As always, I appreciate the earnestness of your writing. I took a different approach when writing my piece on the Greenlight mess, trying to be as disinterested an observer as possible.

    Speaking personally, I do like Jonas’s games (big fan of Alphaland). I think there’s an unnecessary dissonance right now among developers and commenters on this issue. Not all games can or should be commercial, not all of them can or should be widely known. This is a good thing. When indie film was going through a surge in America (and else where) around the early 90s, if you had a tape of some indie foreign film, the less known it was, the more street-cred it had (assuming it was any good). Some games will always be overlooked, except by a few people (like on this blog and others) and among the people who recognize them they’ll often be lauded; then all we indie hipsters will lament how the “mainstream” doesn’t understand what they’re missing.

    What so much of the indie scene isn’t willing to admit is that if a game like The Infinite Ocean had a marketing campaign and a banner ad on some major site, it might be easier to ignore through the subconscious part of the indie scene that says, “nah man, that’s not indie – skip.”

    And yes, a few stars will rise, be criticized for going “mainstream” or selling out. Christopher Nolan made a little movie called Following out of film school, a movie shot with family and friends, where most of the interior shots have actors placed by windows because they had literally no lighting equipment. No he makes Batman movies with budgets in the hundreds of millions. I guess he’s not indie anymore. I guess that’s bad either.

  11. I guess this is the ground that’s already been covered, but I’m still stunned at the cluelessness that many of the professional indies display. Adam Atomic (quoted in the Errant Signal piece) tweets to do shit jobs and get $100 on the side; leaving aside the difficulty of getting shit jobs at the drop of a hat in today’s economy, has he not considered that some developers may have shit jobs, and may need the money they get from them?

    Then there’s this Rob Fearon post (via Jordan — thanks!) Map that over to the US and suddenly instead of paying for taxi fares you’re paying for the medical procedures themselves. Pretty easy to not find yourself with a spare $100 if that happens, I think.

  12. @Jordan: I have seen Nolan’s Following, on a plane flight if I recall. Anywho.

    I did read your piece that asserted that Greenlight was actually the core issue. I agree there are two debates here which are being conflated – one is the Greenlight fee (which also overlaps other issues like what Greenlight is for) and the other about the legitimate indie.

    The more I write about indie games and the more I discover about the economics of indie development, the more anxious I become about indies themselves. Titles that appear popular, within our echo chamber of indie-loving blogs, are lucky to break even. This is not an easy business to be in. I’ve moved on from indie hipster into something more approaching panic: worried that all these games are being flushed down the toilet of obscurity, and the developers with them. And still Call of Duty 19 is a money magnet.

    I have been dispassionate about Greenlight from the start, just as I was about Double Fine’s Kickstarter “fixing the funding model”. I don’t see any new magic indie bullets in production, certainly not Greenlight. I was taken aback, though, at the direction of the conversation which encouraged everyone (consumers and developers) with a grudge against “shit freeware” to pile in. To me, this was far more serious in terms of lasting indie scene impact than will she/won’t she for $100.

    Like you point out, there are all these arguments about going mainstream and selling out. We’re reaching the point where the word indie is simply so broad in meaning that recently I have been trying hard to avoid it. The word still has this cachet of cool, self-published, innovative and garage-edged, lacking AAA super-polish: not many titles represent that any more. A lot of indies resemble professional studios chasing distribution agreements.

    That term is too loaded with meaning now. I don’t know what words to use instead. Maybe I’ll just call them developers and to hell with indie.

    @matt: I wanted to include Rob’s post somewhere but it is such a powerful piece that it unbalanced the article and I had to leave it out. It should be obvious that I’ve sided with the devs that say $100 is too much/a blunt fix. I’ve also been offended at the idea that $100 is such “small change” that some devs are handing out $100… well, provided you can prove you’re “serious”. Such small change that they want to Dragon’s Den the experience. Right, so let’s add yet another gatekeeper to the sequence of getting on Steam! The lenders say they are serious but they come across as stunts.

    However, I was bothered by the injection of the terms “privilege” and “classist” into the discussion, which are highly charged by themselves. I’m pretty sure these words managed to shut out some of the sympathisers. Dictionary meanings be damned, these imply that developers with the Greenlight $100 were born into money: they aren’t words that build bridges. These shortcut terms are just as loaded as the word indie.

  13. Thanks for this great introduction to a controversy I wasn’t even aware of. I wish I still had time for twitter and lots of blogs. Alas!

    Anyway, I’m only really commenting to say that I imagine AR will have something up about Quetzlcoatl/Qrth-phyl at some point. I don’t think I can contribute anything to the larger discussion as I’m simply not informed enough.

  14. Hi Shaun! I think this article is a bit calmer than what I tweeting from the hip over the weekend. It was difficult to remain detached with IndieWarz breaking out.

    …qrth-phyl is coming here too.

  15. About the term “privileged”. I’m not comfortable with it myself, because in many cases what people are is simply not discriminated against or not born into an exploited country/population, and “privileged” sounds like they have too much when in fact others have too little. But when the actual debate was happening, I ended up using the word because I couldn’t find a more fitting one. It may be divisive but it’s not entirely inaccurate.

    As for “classist”, I will gladly defend that term. To be comfortable or middle-class is not the same as to be classist; classist denotes an attitude, and the people we applied that attitude to do very much have it. I’m not sure any sympathizers scared off by that are really worth having.

  16. Howdy Jonas. I knew exactly what you were reaching for with the word privileged (and others such as Robert Yang), but I had a beef with its apparent over-simplification and that it didn’t convince those who remained to be convinced; they would just turn it around and not see the point (e.g. a developer with a laptop is the very definition of privilege!!!). Perhaps no word would have done any better.

    On “classist” my earlier comment shouldn’t have wrapped it into the same breath as privilege. I’m not really getting at your comments – some of the attacks were just plain weird – more of the spiralling twitter conversation. Once the word classist has been invoked against someone, there’s obviously no way back for that discussion. I’m not saying it was inaccurate but it’s a bridge burner.

    I don’t want to get mired in the semantics of argument though because there were proper big issues under the microscope. I’m not implying all this happened because of a few “poorly chosen words”, heh!

    Hope Cat is okay at Cat Hotel.

  17. I wasn’t thinking you meant it that way, but felt the need to comment because I rather dislike the word “privileged” myself.

    As for bridges… some bridge burning may be a healthy thing sometimes. Maybe, as Tracy Chapman sings, “all the bridges that you burn / come back one day to haunt you” but I certainly feel lighter. And more like myself again.

    (Cat got very mad at us. Also we got lost on the way and took an hour longer to get there. She did not appreciate it.)

  18. I think the issue with “classist” is that it ties up the whole person in one disagreement and ignores any sort of nuance or complexity there. I saw it invoked toward AdamAtomic, for example, and he was understandably defensive in his response: https://twitter.com/ADAMATOMIC/status/245723544451952640

    Once a conversation hits that point, where people feel the need to point out good things they’ve done (and making Flixel is without question a very good – not to mention selfless – thing that has helped hundreds of game devs make something they wouldn’t have been able to [even me!]) to defend what type of person they actually are, then it’s gone so far past the point of accomplishing anything that you can’t even see the original issue in the rearview mirror anymore. There has to be some acknowledgement of the fact that someone can disagree without being a bad person, that the world is more complex than “classists over here, the people they oppress over there.” That is the biggest part that is making me feel sad as a largely uninvolved observer – watching it go past the point where disagreements matter and just linger on the hurt feelings and disenfranchisement.

    I’m reminded of Jay Smooth talking about how to tell people they sound racist: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc

  19. Some people can and have made very classist assertions, largely out of ignorance, without necessarily being bad people themselves. I very much choose to believe that many of them WOULD change their statements if they could be helped to understand certain things, which is why personally I’m usually uncomfortable with bridge-burning.

    I have been on the wrong side of such arguments, shamefully, probably more times than I know. It’s always been friends who were graciously patient with me that help me to find perspective.

    Once you aim your fire at the idea-holders as the enemy rather than some bad ideas that they carry, people will naturally become defensive, which can solidify beliefs as lines are drawn. That’s not to say that it’s your responsibility to manage everyone else’s opinions, but it’s why I try to leave doors open when I can.

  20. @EVERYONE– This is a good discussion. I wish the topic had been handled with as much civility everywhere.

    @Joel– Just realizing how many typos are in my first comment. >.>

    You’re right about more obscure indie titles; a lot of them don’t make money or lose money. Why I’m still encouraged, is that at one point the equipment and software wasn’t affordable enough for many of those same games to even exist. The ecosystem for discovery wasn’t democratized enough (self distribution is more common, and often preferable for everyone). I think discovery is still the biggest hurdle, but that these games can be created at all (and better, cheaper ways emerging), I think is worth celebrating.

    Like I touched on in my article, people are fiercely protective of group identity. It’s not just people who label themselves “indie” it’s that if they’re part of an “indie scene” they somehow care more about how the group is defined. Not unique to gaming, but always strange for me to watch as someone who is extremely individualist. In a way, I applaud Jonas for being able to wash his hands of it and say, “you can have it.” Maybe that’s the thing — simply not classifying it anymore. You may be right to just call them all devs and nevermind with all the indie nonsense.

    @Jonas– Hello, sir. Wanted you to know I read your article three times before writing mine; read all 191 comments (at the time) twice. I agree at your use of the word privileged, because you actively (and without getting angry) engaged people who questioned it. What you said (I’m paraphrasing) really stuck with me: you said you weren’t angry some people live the way they do, that everyone should get to live that well or better, but we should all be aware of those who don’t and count ourselves grateful for things we’ve benefited from but didn’t earn (i.e: where we’re born, etc).

    @Switchbreak– The video you link to about racism and discussing it is appropriate. People should really watch it.

    @Stephen– You’re correct about people saying classist things out of ignorance, and not malice. What saddened me was watching Jonas address comment after comment (calmly, for the most part) explaining to people why what they were saying was classist, and a lot of them responding with more classist cliches, like they skipped Jonas’s comments altogether. Some people did respond though, which was encouraging.

  21. This is obviously a massive discussion fraught with treacherous semantics and very important issues, but I would like to comment on two things.

    1) The “we can’t handle all this freeware crap!” problem. I understand this problem to be “There are too many non-serious developers making crappy games!”, rather than “Steam needs to filter out all the crappy games!”, on the basis that *everyone* agrees that Steam needed to do something to weed out the trolls and HL3 requests etc, so that wouldn’t be an issue. So the problem becomes, should there be so many developers making freeware games which take time and attention to sift through?

    To me this seems like a silly way of looking at it, although perhaps I’ve just misunderstood the problem, because it assumes that there are two types of developers: those who make crappy games and those who make good games. I assume that people tend to label the former as non-serious not-able-to-raise-$100 devs, and the latter as the $100-is-an-investment-this-is-a-business devs.

    My problem with this is that everyone has to develop skills to become good at making games. Somebody who makes brilliant games will, at some point, have made crappy games, because it’s a learning process. This was brought home to me when I played “The Company of Myself” and, later, its sequel. TCoM was pretentious and full of soporific nonsense and felt very artificial, like it was trying to be an artsy platformer. I condemned it as the very worst of the indie scene, as shallow and insincere. Some months later I played the sequel, and was surprised to find that it was actually engaging, dealt with intriguing and moving issues, and was engaging on the level of characters and their emotions. The good game could not have emerged had the developer not learned from the crappy one.

    So it seems to me that, rather than having this dichotomy between professional and amateur, we should superimpose onto it (or at least bear in mind) another dichotomy: that of early work and mature work. This isn’t to say that people are always indie when they start out and they always sell out when they get better (though that sometimes happens), or that either early or mature work are always better than the other. But we should be aware that the way developers and their work grow is not as easily pigeonholed as some blog posts would suggest.

    2) I’m sorry, but I like Jonathan Blow. There, I’ve said it. Burn me as a fascist.

    Look, the one thing I’ve always believed about games, whether indie or mainstream, is that what really matters is not the financial capabilities of the developer, or the passion put into it by the team, or what real-life events may have inspired it, but simply *the game itself*. All that stuff will influence the final product in some way, yes, but the reason developers develop and people buy games and people write about them and are excited about them is that *they want to play good games*. At the end of the day, it’s the games that matter; to my mind, the entire superstructure of this industry exists to produce games. Some would argue that it exists to make money and, yes, I admit that it does make money, but frankly I don’t care about that.

    So if the games themselves are the most important thing, then… well, the important thing about any discussion of Blow is that *I really like Braid*. I know many people think it’s pretentious and I know many people take issue with his refusal to talk about what it means and I know the books were a bit stupid but, dammit, I thought he was really onto something there. Yes, I think Braid was flawed and was ultimately a failed experiment. But so were Titus Andronicus and Beethoven’s 2nd.

    And for what it’s worth, Blow may put down developers who aren’t in a position to afford the $100, but he worked on Braid for *years* and funded it with contract work. And he’s reinvested all the money he made from Braid into The Witness. These may be the actions of a classist guy who’s too attached to a capitalistic way of thinking, I don’t know – but they certainly *are* the actions of a man who loves to make games, and whose games turn out to be much more thoughtful and interesting than most. Yes, not everyone can be Jonathan Blow and pursue the path which he has pursued: other things get in the way, and Blow must have had certain opportunities. But it’s to his credit, I think, that he’s managed to navigate the monetary problems of indie development so successfully that he came out several million dollars on top, and I think it’s even more to his credit that he then selected the most ambitious and thought-provoking of his potential ideas and threw all of his profit into *that*, rather than calling it quits. Whatever he’s said or done, he hasn’t sold out.

    Sorry for the long post.

  22. Interesting thoughts, James. On 1), I hope nobody is going to say that people shouldn’t make crappy games; it’s a free country/countries. The question of how we can filter the waterhose of content is another problem. Steam is one gatekeeper, so the question seems to be in part how they can be a better filter.

    And your comment helped me get clear on what I think is a big problem here. Steam seems to be (I’m not on it) half-assing the job of making the best games available to its customers. Over on Tap Repeatedly they were talking about how Immortal Defense isn’t on Steam; even I know that that’s an indie classic, and I’m just some schlub who reads gaming blogs and can’t even play it. But the original Greenlight idea is half-assing it again, quarter-assing it as it were. Somehow unable to figure out what games you should be selling? Instead of putting more work into research, let’s just have everyone vote on a bunch of thumbnails!

    That just reproduced the waterhose problem; how are people to filter out the best thumbnails out of the avalanche of content that winds up on the site? Maybe there are some really great thumbnails there (does anyone know if any games have actually made it through Greenlight?), but the main way people are going to get there seems to be through voting for games they’ve already (at least) heard of, which just raises the question of how those games got filtered out.

    OK, so now how to deal with the waterhose that is Greenlight? Well, one way would be to actually put some thought into filtering this time. (Seriously, hire a couple people to troll around looking for interesting-looking games and hit up the devs for free promotional copies, then tell you about the best ones! You probably wouldn’t even have to pay them that much!) Instead, they decided that they’d apply this filter: Do you have a spare $100? Not cool, and probably not effective either.

    OK, what I really want to say is I liked Company of Myself. My defense is here. In fact I’d say it’s better at matching gameplay to story than Braid, except in Braid’s title level — it didn’t seem like the story Braid wanted to tell usually had anything to do with the movements you were making on the screen (partly because moving to the right was easy, and the hard part was finicking around to get to the puzzle pieces). But yeah, excellent game. Still, man, I’d argue that Blow’s story is more like the guy who maxes out his credit cards to get his project done — at least he has credit cards, you know?

  23. Right, I have some time to respond!

    I think @Switchbreak you’ve expressed better what I was trying to say about language. I know you’ve linked to Jay Smooth before and he’s always entertaining yet somehow I’ve not been back to his videos since last time I caught your link. But yeah, no one is all bad or all good; you get me in the right conversation, you’re going to walk away thinking “jesus, i never knew about his political leanings on reindeer, off with his rss feed”.

    So someone like Adam Atomic who enabled many hobbyists with Flixel thinks the $100 thing is overblown. That sounds like someone you can have a conversation about – but I doubt Twitter is the place for it. Once classist is lobbed in, well, it’s game over with the pyrrhic victory achievement.

    And @StephenM3 “Once you aim your fire at the idea-holders as the enemy rather than some bad ideas that they carry” – yeah that’s far too common as modus operandi not just on the internet but in real life. Real life, however, always gives you a chance to interact with someone as a person whereas all you get on the internet are the bad ideas. We are made of these words flying about on the internet, because there is nothing else to us, no corporeal self out here. As a result, separating us from these words is incredibly difficult.

    @Jordan, The discussion is civil because we’re all on the same side of the $100 fee debate. I didn’t really want to get into that anyway but, considering how far and wide my essay has been scattered into the Twitter aether in the last week, I’m surprised no one has fired a shot.

    I’m reminded that I recently came to the conclusion that there were no commonalities to “academic games” and that throwing them into a single category like this was a pointless exercise and the categorisation was without benefit. Maybe there is a broader theorem at work here: there is no such thing as an indie game.

    Ah, @James, I love long comments but they make it difficult for me to respond promptly!

    I first wanted to suggest that Greenlight has mashed together all sorts of different issues. Was Greenlight intended to take the burden away from Valve to find new titles for Steam? Was Greenlight intended to open up Steam to all games and be inclusive? Was it intended to a form of Kickstarter light? Are freeware games undermining pay-for games in the indie space? Is the starving indie dev a real problem or hype put out by failing devs who shouldn’t be in the market? Does Steam’s power means it needs to think beyond it’s own corporate concerns towards how it should wield that extreme power in an ethical manner? Do freeware games create noise that hide the pay-for games? Do they provide value that undermines purchasing games for profit? Is that actually a F2P problem instead? Should everyone consider themselves a game artist or do we need to return to the days of the game programmer elite? And so on and on.

    One of the problems with Greenlight discussions is that all of these come out yet not always acknowledged. It’s like twenty people arguing in twenty different languages.

    But, yeah, the idea that there we have can cleave the world into crap and great developers is a tad simplistic. I wonder if it is related to the age-old problem of programmer ego, where every programmer thinks they are a fucking star programmer and they can’t understand the poor coding style of their peers. Being condescending in software is the norm. I could spend all day detailing examples but my go-to example is “The Daily WTF” a site where people go to laugh at shitty programmers. It’s an extremely popular site.

    I also liked Braid! I’m going to come back in a later article about the inability to separate an author from their work. I’ve got plenty of notes lined up for that so I’m not going to wade into that right here. I would add, though, I’m troubled by a story of “throwing years of development and life savings into a game to become the lottery millionaire” because it is the exact opposite of what I’d like to see. That is the same problem that we’ve been whining about in mainstream for years – that the risk/reward is so skewed – and here we are watching the indie scene sleepwalk their way into the same cul-de-sac.

    @Matt: “(Seriously, hire a couple people to troll around looking for interesting-looking games and hit up the devs for free promotional copies, then tell you about the best ones! You probably wouldn’t even have to pay them that much!)”

    I think the problem was Valve was under siege in terms of submissions and no one was happy with the system – devs or Valve. So Greenlight was an attempt to lighten the burden, solve the problem using today’s buzzword which is crowdsourcing. I imagine if Greenlight takes off, Steam may close the doors on its direct submission policy – something that blocks out most of the little players so that mainstream publishers are not “belittled” by having to go through a Greenlight beauty contest.

    My theory, then, is that it’s an attempt to solve the submission problem and not the wunderkind discovery problem. Which explains why the $100 is not just a big deal from the Valve perspective.

    Ten games have been greenlit already. Steam has a special page for them.

  24. Just swooping in to say that this was a great read, complimented by a cracking bunch of comments. I’ve nothing to add because, like Shaun, I’ve not been keeping abreast with the Greenlight debacle since it reared its head.

    I’ve been meaning to check out some of Jonas’ work for a while now and after following a few of the links above I noticed that he was also responsible for Phenomenon 32; a game I remember seeing, eagerly wanting to play and then totally forgetting the name of, making it very difficult to search for. Excellent!

  25. Thanks Gregg. We’ve got some pretty long comments down here so it must’ve taken you awhile!

    I keep wanting to go back to Phenomenon 32 but it was quite hard and I drifted away from it. However, it has a stunning opening, quite effective, so I’m determined to go back in at some point.

  26. Great article. As to: “…who use phrases amongst themselves like ‘an important step in the war against terror and evil.’”

    Americans. I grew up during G.W. Bush’s two terms, and phrases like this were (and to a lesser degree, still are) tossed around all the time, both in media and sincere conversation. From what I’ve heard about working in our military, it’s even stronger on the inside – gotta be able to sleep at night, and if you’re taking drastic measures, that means believing drastic simplifications. It sounding ridiculous is part of the horror/surrealism of being involved with extremists.

  27. Hi Agley and welcome! There are two parts to my feelings on this.

    First, the messages that bothered me were not about wider propaganda (which is fine, we live in strange times) but actually internal military communications. I’m thinking back to Wikileaks and I can’t think that any of the Iraq-related messages that made similar references. I’m happy to be corrected though, it’s not like I mined the Wikileaks material for information.

    Second, if this really is more true to life than I believe, then the game didn’t sell me that. I had a quick e-mail exchange with Jonas after posting this where I said the military didn’t get as much attention as the main cast, which was actually the root flaw in the story. There was less emphasis on strategic objectives and more on ideology.

  28. I could easily see a Jerry Boykin type using that kind of language in internal communications.

  29. The emails I specifically remember, not just specials in the NYtimes about army officers whose names I can’t remember, are evidence from war crimes. Comments and captioned pictures from Abu Ghraib, that sort of atrocity. Can’t really draw comparisons there though, can I? It’d be like justifying the James Bond silliness of the IO’s mails with nazi letters or some other bullshit. A better comparison would be FBI declassified documents. Not military, but it’s got that old us vs them type paranoia. Two of the more infamous examples:

    http://nyr.kr/pN5uwn
    http://bit.ly/SGDXHp (Starting at “Domestic Covert Action” + in letter to King: “Protestant, Catholic and Jews will know you for what you are — an evil, abnormal beast”)

    After drudging up that old shit and rereading your post, I agree with you. The email was over the top and out of place; bad writing isn’t made good by the possibility of it passing under the player’s recognition threshold for nonsense.

  30. As I said to HM in an email, much of the military stuff in the game was drawn from reading I was doing at the time about the takeover of the US military by the extreme religious right, and some of the stuff I read at the time was even more ludicrous. But I do think it would have been better to focus a little bit more on that aspect, to flesh it out more and make it more believable. (Then again, though, the average person encountering the ideas of the extreme religious right will have great trouble believing any of it is for real. Just look at all these stories and movies about the Rapture, which are meant perfectly seriously, and at the political ideas presented in them.)