I thought it would be fun to go back and take another look at those developers I covered in the early days of Electron Dance. In six years, what has happened to them?
In part three: Orihaus, Austin Breed, Chris Park, Jonas Kyratzes and Paul Eres.
I actually first discovered the work of Orihaus at the Eurogamer Expo in 2012. A monochrome virtual environment called Dirac which I described as, “well, I'm not sure yet”. I can’t remember if it was possible to download and play outside of the Expo; regardless, I’ve not seen it since.
Then I played Obsolete which was a revelation. I mean, the game was pretty and all but through a sort of absent-minded wander one evening, I discovered how much fun it was to just explore the near-darkness outside of the core gamey area. This compelled me to write “Into the Black” in 2013 which I reinvented as a popular film just a couple of months ago.
It was a prolific time for Orihaus and after Into the Black he released several virtual spaces for pure exploration in the same year: March brought us the foreboding Césure; Lumiere followed in April for Ludum Dare 26; Xaxi, “designed to teach Aliceffekt's Conlang Traumae” was in November.
There have been other projects but none of these have been completed. The dogfighting simulation Hunting Anubis. First-person sci-fi horror Aeon. And in 2014, Orihaus unveiled another new project, For Each Our Roads of Winter.
However, in October 2015 he released a complete work of interactive fiction called To Burn In Memory. Orihaus says, “It managed to make it onto Steam, and since it had the right kind of response from the people who actually played it - most reviews more than 20 words long were extremely positive - I'll probably go commercial for future interactive fiction.”
To Burn might look like it was built in Twine but Orihaus tells me, “I put together my own engine for To Burn and now I'm extending it for public use as well as a new IF project.”
He’s also been working on high-end 3D tools and assets. “Still unsure what to do with them - other then sell them - at this point.” He released the Procedural Material Toolkit last year, which is “a landscape and environment pipeline to make massive environments and structures feasible for me to use.”
What happens next is not clear. “As for For Each Our Roads of Winter, I've had the project 'On Ice' for about 6 months now to focus on other things, though each of these new projects have fed into being able to actually make Winter.
“Winter is very narrative heavy, and I really wanted to put my writing out there [via To Burn] to see how people would respond. All the assets, concepts and world-building aren't going anywhere, so there's the possibility of going further on the project in future, but I do feel like interactive fiction gets across most everything I'd say artistically at the moment.”
He hopes to have a new interactive fiction piece, The Silver Masque, out in June.
Was it ever humanly possible to sift through all the output from a Ludum Dare competition? Apparently yes: according to Wikipedia, Ludum Dare’s number of submissions remained in the mere double digits all the way until 2009. Ludum Dare 34, a couple of months ago, had nearly 3000 entries. If you find that too overwhelming, there’s always the Mini Ludum Dare contests which have a more modest submission count.
That’s precisely what Laura Michet of Second Person Shooter was rifling through in 2010. And from Mini Ludum Dare 20 she plucked out a small entry called Covetous. It’s a short body horror piece that is gets under the skin - well, under someone else’s skin, precisely. I liked it so much I wrote a note about it called ‘The Prop’ and how it identified challenge as the ultimate justification for any player actions.
Covetous was written by Austin Breed and the following year I decided have a look through his game portfolio myself. His games were a mixture of short-form works which reflected on simple life lessons... and the comic buffoonery of Magic Pink Man. Breed’s thoughtful and more polished A Mother in Festerwood expressed the difficult balance between parental protectiveness and children’s independence, and was a useful example for my essay ‘Parenting is Not an Escort Mission’. I quite enjoyed the Magic Pink Man 2 and Breed had mentioned a Magic Pink Man 3 was in the works but… that’s pretty much the last I heard from Breed.
Time to follow up.
“I took a long hiatus from making games to finish school and to try my hand at other things,” he tells me. “I moved out of the Midwest and I'm working as a graphic designer and illustrator on the East coast. A comic anthology series I contributed to is getting published by IDW, it's called Amazing Forest and it's written by two very talented friends.”
He’s slowly working his way back into game development. “I've always been more interested in the art-side of game-making, so it's been great when I can collaborate with people. My good friend Micah Jones (creator of the 2d platformer Rebound) wrapped up an arcade-style game called Love & Devour that should be on Newgrounds sometime soon.”
One problem, it seems, is high standards causing a sort of paralysis. “An irony of being a degree-holding designer is that I'll actually put less stuff out into the world because I think it needs to look polished. I should probably stop thinking like that and just try to finish something.”
He’s been toying with Twine and Unity over the last year. “My taste as a game maker has also changed a lot, I recently started a portentous art-game and it quickly pivoted to be cute and mechanically fun, losing it's original point in the process. When I told my little brother - my biggest critic in the world - about it, he snorted and said something like, ‘Austin, you'll never make a game that's fun,’ haha. Hopefully I'll prove him wrong!”
Oh jeez, I totally forgot to ask him whether would we see a Magic Pink Man 3 after all this time.
Chris Park put his name on the map with AI War, a real-time strategy game that was quite different to everything else out there. Across the galaxy, after stamping out humankind, an all-powerful AI (or perhaps two) has turned its attentions outwards. No longer considered a threat, the last remnants of the human race take the opportunity to strike back. Technically, the players have to tread carefully to win; the AI has infinite resources so, antagonize the AI too much, and it will come down hard on your little rebellion. Players required tactics more balletic than brutish in nature.
But AI War offered a fearsome learning curve, complete with serrated edge. Not only was the game composed of many moving parts but a single campaign could easily last many hours; it proved to be too much for anyone other than the dedicated strategy player. I tried going through the multi-hour tutorial campaign one Christmas but left the game fallow for too long, forgetting everything I had learned.
Yet AI War was one of those perfect indie stories. One person had made a decent living with a niche game that could never have emerged from a AAA house: a $20 game that proved to be more devious than a classic RTS title at a much higher price point. Maybe we didn’t play AI War. But we liked innovation. We liked anything indie. And we liked Chris Park.
Park had launched Arcen Games in Feb 2009 and AI War followed just a few months afterwards, planning to release another title called Alden Ridge “3-6 months after that”. AI War did so well that Arcen was able to take on full time staff within a couple of months and Park quit his regular job to go full-time indie at Christmas. But instead of Alden Ridge, Arcen focused on making AI War as best as it could be. Since 2009, AI War has made it to version 8.0, been ported to Unity and received six different DLC expansions, the last one arriving in 2014.
Arcen’s first attempt at branching away from its flagship title was Tidalis, a devious and complicated match 3 game. After several months in beta, it was officially released in July 2010 but Park neglected to spend any serious time on PR. As Tidalis was also very different to what Arcen was known for, AI War, Tidalis did not fare well. Things deteriorated to the point where it seemed after the birth of his son in September, the company would fall apart. This prompted me to try it out which I found interesting but some boards just felt too reliant on luck.
As Park experienced some blowback for seeking help in public, I interviewed him for my piece on how developers deal with destructive criticism, Punchbag Artists in October. He related the difficulty of connecting with your fans while trying to keep a safe distance from the more negative comments.
Arcen came back from the brink, but I followed up as he had originally suggested a broader collapse in the indie market. Park told me that other developers had mentioned an unusual sales drought, but none of them were willing to come forward for the public record. In the end, I posted Park’s perspective alone in a piece called ‘The Summer of Discontent’ at the start of 2011. However, sales had already returned to normal, so this wasn’t really a sign of anything serious.
Arcen continued to grow over the years and has been one of the most prolific indie studios. A Valley Without Wind. A complete overhaul and mechanical refit of the same title called A Valley Without Wind 2. Shattered Haven. Skyward Collapse. Bionic Dues. Another strategy title called The Last Federation, which has already has one expansion.
The latest was a bullet-hell roguelike Starward Rogue, released just last month. I asked Park to contribute to ‘Where Are They Now’ but, while waiting for a response, he dropped a bombshell in public: Arcen was on the verge of letting many staff go.
Park’s studio had been burning through cash reserves for months. Steam sales had crashed mid-2015 and remained depressed, which Park considered to be indicative of something changing in the Steam store algorithms, but this shock decline had not been anticipated. Arcen’s next project, Stars Beyond Reach was turning out to be a difficult development with the complete game being, like the stars, well out of reach.
In a desperate attempt to bolster the finances, Arcen switched to a more manageable, rapid project - Starward Rogue - to get more money in before the cupboards were bare. But in a cruel repeat of 2010, the rush to get the game done and launched meant no time had been allocated to run some marketing prior to release. This was costly. And it didn’t help that Google redirected some searches for “starward rogue” to “star wars rogue one”. Rogue failed to save Arcen and Park was forced to lay off staff.
Now Introversion Software went through a similar near-death experience in 2010, following the two commercial disasters that were Multiwinia and Darwinia+ but, instead of throwing in the towel, came back with Prison Architect. We can only hope that Arcen will experience a similar revival.
So there was this point-and-click game, yeah, called The Infinite Ocean, that wasn’t about an ocean at all but actually artificial intelligence. Still, it made an impression as I would later write, “What would an Isaac Asimov novel look like in game form? The Infinite Ocean is pretty close.” It was written by this guy, Jonas Kyratzes, who I’d never heard of before. I began stalking him online, watching what he was doing. You can never be sure if the developer is going to pull off something amazing again or whether it was all just a Macromedia Flash in the pan.
I took on another one of his projects that seemed my kind of thing, Phenomenon 32 but I just found it too tough. After the Reality Bomb has devastated Earth, the world turns into a 2D explorer in which it is easy to die again and again. A passion project that reached only a small audience, Jonas Karates wrote of its development, “first it broke my heart and ripped out my guts”.
He collaborated with Konstantinos Dimopoulos (Gnome’s Lair) on the Wikileaks Stories project: an open-to-all anthology of games to support the Wikileaks cause but, in the end, only three games came into being. I wrote about these games then interviewed Jonas Kolchak about the project back in 2011.
I never quite got into his Lands of Dream series, playful point-and-click adventures which adopt the tone of a children’s book but often reflect more grown-up themes; these projects are all collaborations between himself and his wife Verena. His first commercial release was the Lands of Dream title The Sea Will Claim Everything in 2012.
Then there was this whole thing about one hundred dollars. These hundred dollars were very important. Valve said they were opening up Steam to all of the developers, not just the ones that survived the arduous journey through dark channels to the Great Womb of Steam, but everyone! And as long as you paid $100, you could be everyone too! And thus the indie scene crack’d into two, one side who liked purple and the other green. Jonas Klaatu was one who wrote against the fee and there was much howling and gnashing of teeth in the digital community, which is par for the course in these modern times.
He also worked with Twine, releasing titles such as Arcadia: A Pastoral Tale in 2012 and another Lands of Dream tale, The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, as part of the Fear of Twine collection in 2014. There's a podcast around here somewhere on the entire FoT anthology (aside from my entry and Eric Brasure's NSFW entry).
As a developer, Jonas KyloRen never achieved anything approaching financial stability, partially because his teeth extorted money out of him, demanding a ransom else torture him repeatedly with toothache. His wife was also knocked off her bicycle by the sort of decent driver of the road who could turn around and claim it was all her fault. But poverty is the mother of inventive recipes. For those of you who miss 90s student cooking series Get Stuffed, the Kyratsez family offered the The Starving Artists’ Kitchen show. I never did get the T-shirt for that series but at least I obtained a recipe for omelettes.
The truth is I don't have space to cover every one of Jonas Kmxyzptlk's projects. There's just, like, too many. And I didn't even mention that trophy for a Neptune's Pride game I commissioned him to make.
It should be obvious what happened next. Serious Sam developer Croteam hired Jonas Krycek to write for their first-person puzzler, The Talos Principle, with Tom Jubert. It took me months to complete, but I absolutely adore Talos and the DLC Road to Gehenna, which tops the original in many ways.
I ask Jonas Kowpatz about his biggest achievement. “That's really hard to say. Both Talos and the Lands of Dream are a really big deal to me personally as well as professionally.”
What is he working on now? “Serious Sam 4 and the next Lands of Dream game, The Council of Crows. And after that Ithaka of the Clouds, which I'm really looking forward to, especially after writing all those text adventures in Road to Gehenna.”
Now it's plain to see that a Serious Sam script is a document containing pages full of “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaa”. This doesn’t actually sound like very much work to me. Is there anything else, a secret project perhaps? “I don't really have any impressive secret projects. I wish I did, but I've been so busy, I haven't even managed to look for another writing gig.”
Fingers crossed that his teeth have put their rebellious aspirations aside.
Visually, Immortal Defense didn’t do much for me, but I’d heard it was interesting. It was a tower defence game based in, uh, pathspace. I played the demo which includes two chapters; I was so impressed and surprised by the second chapter’s unexpected cliffhanger that I ended up buying the full game on the spot. Gregg and I chatted about the game, carefully avoiding spoilers, back in 2010. In terms of both mechanics and story, it blew away more polished brethren like Defense Grid. (If you want to know what happens in the game but don’t care for tower defence, I spoiled the entire story in an essay about Spec Ops.)
Immortal Defense came from a group calling itself Radical Poesis Games & Creations (RPG&C) and I made a note of developer Paul Eres. The RPG&C site, after all, has the URL “studioeres.com”. And thus Eres was interviewed as part of my post on the impacts of destructive criticism, Punchbag Artists. I should stress that the Immortal Defense story was the work of writer Jeanne Thornton.
Anyway, Immortal Defense came out in 2008. There was a trailer for Eres’ next title, Saturated Dreamers, included in my copy of Immortal Defense. It is now eight years since Immortal Defense, and Saturated Dreamers has not yet materialised. But you would be wrong to assume Eres has quit games development.
“I spent a lot of the last year porting Immortal Defense to Steam. It was released on Steam in August,” he tells me. Not just straight porting, either, as he spent time “updating the game and adding a lot of features to it.”
Also Eres confirmed Saturated Dreamers is still very much alive and kicking. But perhaps somewhat cruelly, he included this almost throwaway remark: “I also started on Immortal Defense 2.”