Electron Dance
12Feb/15Off

Brough Beaten: A Portrait of Success

868-sad-face

Michael Brough developed 86856527 for the 2013 7DRL challenge (7 Day RogueLike). It was a great prototype that Brough transformed into an iOS commercial release called 868-HACK (2013).

It’s taken two years for Brough to get the refined, post-jam version back to its original home on PC. This is where a reviewer might ask, “Well, was it worth it?” Rather than treating the question as some pithy gunk to pad out the opening paragraphs, we would do well to take it more seriously.

Brough’s games have a recognisable signature, a combination of pixel lo-fi and procedurally-generated music, which is usually labelled an acquired taste or simply excused altogether depending on who you get your games news from. But go back further to 2011 and you bump into a Brough’s previous PC commercial release, Vertex Dispenser, which offers a different visual look: sharp and crisp geometry flanked by needle-thin text.

vertex-dispenser-shot

According to Brough, Dispenser was first conceived in 2005 so the game was developed over a period of six years. The result was a game that received some critical acclaim but was a dud in the box office. I have no doubt that the ultimate failure of Vertex Dispenser was a blow for Brough – it would be a few more years before there was a Jonathan Blow for Brough. Taken from a post titled “2012 introspection” with my own emphasis added:

Putting things in context, in 2011 I released Vertex Dispenser, which I'd been making in the background for years. This was massively stressful: first I overworked myself crunching to finish it while simultaneously trying to do a PhD, then at release some new bugs showed up - this isn't unusual but I panicked over each one, and then sales were very poor and it became clear that I'd failed in a lot of what I'd tried to achieve with it (I'm still proud of it, but it's not what I wanted it to be). This was followed by a period of depression in which I did very little.

After Vertex Dispenser, Brough changes gears. He becomes attracted to game jams and churning out unpolished, quirky shorts instead of embracing long, punishing development marathons. He seems to be searching for a more comfortable approach to development and we see a flow of finished titles rather than just the kind of fascinating fragments that you can find in his Idiolect anthology. All of Brough's PC games are free and the pixel art style also becomes a staple of Brough’s work.

ed_zaga-33-level-21

Take Zaga-33 (2012), originally made for the 2012 7DRL challenge. It’s a turn-based game of tactics pitting the player against a system that wants nothing more than to destroy you; some would call it a roguelike, but that's a term I have trouble pinning down so I merely wave it around here like garlic to stave off jargon vampires. I became so obsessed with Zaga-33 that I wrote up an entire session as a fictional diary. It’s not exactly minimalist, but what I like about Zaga-33 is the economy of its rules and the tension present in every single move. It’s an intricate device which requires a little patience to master.

Brough’s games normally eschew tutorials in favour of a little mystery but his games are not usually predicated on that mystery. As I wrote on Rock Paper Shotgun about Kompendium (2012), Brough's collection of two-player games, “the truth is Kompendium is more than mystery”. A lack of a tutorial is intended as a gift to the player: here, have fun working this out and, once you’re done, have fun mastering it out.

A new release from Brough is always worth a look. Game Title (2013) is a testing but not overly challenging adventure game, but it’s “sequel” Game Title: Lost Levels (2013) is deliriously good. Lost Levels has a particular mechanic which is flat-out bizarre, not surprising as it emerged as a bug during the development of Game Title. I’m not going to tell you what it is because it’s fun to figure out – the game features no procedural generation so once you’ve finished the game, it’s done – but it's so outside the norm you’re constantly fighting yourself in an effort to solve the game. You become the game’s ultimate adversary.

The discomfort of this experience is heightened by the fact there is no save game and you have to complete the game in a single session. Corrypt (2012) is Lost Levels' bigger, older brother. It has mechanics that bite back but also comes with the ability to save progress. That’s how, when Corrypt asked me to break it, I was able to stop and never go back.

corrypt

This remarkable body of work puts a different spin on the failure of Vertex Dispenser; we could argue that Brough’s failure was our gain, as players of games, for the next four years. But was it Brough’s gain?

At some point, there was not just a Jonathan Blow for Brough (tweet) but a Wired profile which stated that “Brough isn’t trying to maximize his profits, he’s trying to create something with value for himself and for those who play it”. While it seemed like Brough was on the ascendant, none of this converted into what we might term commercial success. In June 2012, Brough reported Zaga-33 sold 1624 copies, and Glitch Tank – extracted from Kompendium – shipped just 378, killing the chances of seeing the rest of the Kompendium collection on mobile. Last year’s Helix, after being touted as “game of the year” by his peers has not even sold 4,000 copies. And now we have 868-HACK on PC, having been moderately successful on iOS with 14,000 copies sold.

868-HACK is the meaner, tighter sequel that Zaga-33 never had. Games are shorter, death is more brutal and it has plenty of “locked content” that gradually deepen it’s complexity. I’ve played countless games and I still feel I’ve not scratched the surface of the strategies here. If you enjoyed the mobile title Hoplite, you will probably enjoy 868-HACK.

Like Zaga-33, carelessness is often rewarded with death but the game hinges on understanding the longer-term consequences of your decisions. Every time you “siphon a wall”, enemies are spawned in response – but without siphoning programs (tools) you are unlikely to make it through the game’s eight sectors alive. The aim of Zaga-33 was to defeat the alien cortex on the final level but 868-HACK is about score. If you don’t take on the risk to siphon some points, you’ll end with zero score, which is just as bad as death – all that effort for no reward. It's fantastic.

But will 868-HACK be successful? Here's a review taken from the App Store for the iOS version.

Spoiled a lot by the graphics. I know, I get the "retro" idea, but in this case I think retro is an excuse for laziness on the part of the developer.

I've shown the game to a lot of people.

None are interested in it, because it looks so crap.

I'm torn on the argument that Brough needs to change his style. I understand exactly what Blow means about that Brough look but at the same time, there's a purity about going your own way, making the game your very own Mighty Vision. But at least we’ve got a snazzy viral-friendly trailer for a change.

After spending years following his own game development instincts and avoiding “maximising his profits” does Brough really want commercial success? He is the great indie paradox made manifest. We're not going to compromise our art for money, yet without money we can't make art. But if there's anyone who wants Brough to succeed, it's his fans. We want sales as incontrovertible proof that his designs are awesome, to ensure Brough won't throw in the towel.

It's difficult for a salesman to avoid blaming themselves when the sales aren't flowing in, a problem a maker of freeware can sidestep. As Brough has thrown more of his designs into that grand meat grinder known as the App Store, he has become increasingly dissatisfied. He has lamented the blight of the iOS update which often breaks his games, forcing him to patch them on a regular basis to keep them alive. Each new release also brings tales of customer support.

Why did it take Brough two years to finish 868-HACK for PC? Because it wasn't exciting any more as he’d already developed it twice, initially for the 7DRL challenge and second for iOS. And Brough’s free-wheeling development has been burdened with the grinding drudgery of customer support and bug management. Welcome, my son, welcome to the machine. In December, he said he missed when he just made things and his disillusionment is more strident in a most recent post:

i haven't been starting new things. i haven't been getting into jams lately, not feeling it. so i don't know where i'm going after this. for a while there i thought i would keep producing games at the same rate forever. but now i've done a lot of what i'd set out to do, maybe i am running out of ambition.

The obvious counter to this is that business is more than just “making a great game” and all that cruft around the craft is business reality. Suck it up, right? But 14,000 copies sold on the App Store is not real money. I look at Brough’s “success” and it looks to me like a non-choice between withering in obscurity without money, or be asphyxiated by attention for a subsistence-level income. Consider Puppygames’ rant about what zero price means for indie customer support:

Now you’re worth $1 to us. If you buy every one of our games, you’re worth $5. After Valve and the tax man and the bank take their cuts, you’re not even worth half a cup of coffee. So, while we’re obsequiously polite and helpful when you do contact us for support, even if it’s just the same old “please install some actual video drivers” response, you really should be aware that you are a dead loss. Even if you buy everything we ever make again.

No one wants to lose a game designer as remarkable as Brough. Maybe this is just another Vertex Dispenser moment. Maybe he's on the verge of reinventing himself again.

Reaching the end of 868-HACK with no score is as bad as death, all that effort for no reward: so was it worth it?

Notes

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  1. I was crushed to read Michael’s latest blog post. Few developers have his gift for designing game mechanics that function as artistic statements. It will be a huge loss if he gives up.

  2. Hi Manitoo. Michael said on Twitter he’s not down for the count yet but there’s definitely been creeping pessimism over the last year – the earlier post “compatibilities” is more negative than “endings”.

    We’ve also enjoyed the fact Brough hasn’t needed to make a living wage (a fact he’s been open about) which of course builds in a sense of guilt that other developers are worse off with more success.

  3. This is a good article. It would have been easy to simplify things to make it more like “clickbait” but the reality is complex if less exciting and you have been respectful of that. Thank you.

    I wanted to add a couple of things because of course the sales numbers I’ve made public are out of date. All my iOS games have continued to sell in a steady trickle – particularly when 868-HACK got attention everything else spiked a bit too. So Zaga-33 is now at ~3400 sales and Glitch Tank at ~1300. These still aren’t amazing but they’re a lot better than they were back when I wrote that post! It seems unusual that a game should sell more copies two years after its release than it did in its first year – it goes against the conventional wisdom of “put everything into launch”. (It is however a mixed blessing as it means I really ought to keep them alive as operating system updates break things.)

    And 868-HACK’s now-16000 copies is not the kind of number you’d see touted as an amazing success but it is by no means an insignificant amount of money for a one-man operation! I’ll be living on that for a while; before that happened things were looking a lot more dire.

    It’s a funny place I’m in. I make these numbers public because otherwise people keep assuming they’re a lot bigger and that’s kind of frustrating to me, but I don’t want to /complain/ about them. I have recognition now and people play my games and things aren’t bad, this is a pretty great job as things go. And occasionally being called a lazy hipster with bad graphics isn’t nice but it feels pretty insignificant compared to the harassment campaign that’s been consistently targeting women in game development for the last several months. But yeah I couldn’t recommend it to anyone.

  4. Hey Michael. I was pondering whether to reach out to you and get updated stats and the like, although I was sure things had not Significantly Improved having read your more recent blog posts. The other reason I didn’t reach out is that chatting with you would likely have killed off the little picture I was putting together.

    I spent some time trying to figure out what I was trying to say here. For some time I was focusing more on the paradox angle – I want success but I don’t want success, hence the original subtitle of “Success Considered Harmful” – until I realised that, well, you’ve got a very brutal form of success where it seems like drudgery for little pay.

    I understand the urge not to complain, but just saying “other people are more miserable than me” doesn’t do much except pile the guilt on, which inevitably deepens the misery. I often feel uncomfortable complaining about Electron Dance in terms of time and expense here. I have a good job but it’s a thorn in my side that Electron Dance does not “pay its way” in any shape or form… and it would be nice if it could at least cover server hosting.

  5. I, for one, am a great believer in schadenfreude.

  6. Well I suppose, mwm, that might be more useful than helpings of guilt.


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