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Games People Play

Casual gaming's rise opens the doors for players and developers

By James Renovitch, Fri., Feb. 19, 2010

Mike Wilford
Mike Wilford
Photo by John Anderson

If this is the revolution, it sure is quiet. Nothing but occasional conversations and hushed taps on laptop keyboards. Then again, these teams of programmers, graphic designers, and musicians of widely varying expertise are only halfway through the roughly three-day process of making a fully realized video game as part of the Global Game Jam. The table filled with bagels, pretzels, coffee, and hand sanitizer offers a hint of the storm that will follow this relative calm.

The organizer behind the caffeine, carbs, and cleanser is Joey Harding, University of Texas undergraduate and events officer for the school's Electronic Game Developers Society. "They are seeing how it all fits together," Harding says, sitting one room over from the handful of teams assembling the pieces of something fun and/or compelling. He's ready to offer guidance or perhaps a shoulder to cry on as deadline approaches.

With such a tight schedule, team members will likely be tossed into unfamiliar waters of the development process and be asked to swim, or at least tread water. Perfection is not something achieved at GGJ. More than that, there are no winners and losers. But with 900 games made throughout six of the seven continents (maybe next year, Antarctica), a statement is being made: We're quick and agile, and we don't need the big boys of corporate gaming to have our fun – or make our fun, for that matter.

Who's Having Fun?

What kind of games are these teams making? Dictated by the pace of the jam, the creations are generally short-play arcade-style experiences. One can imagine putting quarters in before each turn. Anyone who has played Tetris or Ms. Pac-Man knows that short-and-sweet is no detriment to enjoyment or playability. But back in the heyday of arcades, everyone was a casual player (barring those few three-initialed obsessives at the top of the high-score screen). If you could jump a barrel or shoot an asteroid, you were a gamer.

With the innovation of in-home gaming systems in the Eighties, things began to change. The rapidly improving technologies over the next two decades caused the industry to try to repeat successes and tried-and-true styles of play, which is why the industry is now choked with sure-thing shoot-'em-up titles that cost a cool $23 million to produce (that's the average for titles released on more than one platform, e.g., Xbox and PlayStation).

<i>'Splosion Man</i>
'Splosion Man

While the hardcore players were perfecting their strafing and shooting skills on the latest home system, PCs were becoming a necessity in the home and workplace. The success of online games such as Bejeweled and Scrabble caused companies to realize that there was a huge market for people at work looking for a quick escape. With the advent of portable gaming and the proliferation of the iPhone and its arsenal of apps, every free moment has a game tailored to fit that amount of time – and an iPhone owner eager to buy it (witness the generation of $1.4 billion in Apple app store purchases estimated for this year alone). The arcade boxes of yore had short playtimes in an attempt to suck as many quarters out of unsuspecting pockets as possible. But these online games – what have come to be known as casual games – make things quick, because the developers know people play at bus stops, in Department of Motor Vehicles lines, at work (especially work), and, frighteningly enough, during red lights. There's no time to get lost in a cinematic story arc or learn arcane controls like those of big-budget releases that utilize all 15 buttons and two joysticks on the standard controller – a controller that sends shivers down the spines of those who look fondly on the days of doing little more than running and jumping.

Hit the Ground Running

Running and jumping is something Adam Saltsman of local studio Semi Secret Software knows well. His most recent release, Canabalt, boils the arcade experience down even more by doing the running for you. All you have to do is jump. Add some killer robots, crumbling buildings, and glass-shattering leaps, and you have a simple game that became an unequivocal Internet and iPhone app success story, and not Saltsman's first.

In the mid-2000s, Saltsman left a company job in order to do contract work for mobile-phone games. While his wife held down a day job (at the very same company Saltsman had jumped ship from), the designer, by his own admission, learned every wrong way to do things. After two years, his increasingly streamlined process allowed him the free time to work on the games he wanted to make. Over the course of two weeks' time in August 2008, he released Gravity Hook online and helped put the finishing touches on a game presented to him by Eric Johnson, future co-founder (and only other member barring go-to soundtracker Danny Baranowsky) of Semi Secret Software. That game was Wurdle, a slick and intuitive take on Boggle. As Gravity Hook received blog buzz for its addictive play and teeth-gnashing difficulty, Wurdle went to No. 7 on the iPhone app store's Top 100 list.

Saltsman explains the process this way: "You just upload your file through this automated Web page and away it goes. There's zero overhead. We don't negotiate with sales people; we don't have contracts; there's nothing. We just upload a thing, and Apple sends us a giant check." Bear in mind, the size of the check varies on a case-by-case basis.

The giant check afforded Saltsman and Johnson time to work on another original title, a racing game for the iPhone that was temporarily abandoned for another, much smaller project.

That project, which came to be known as Canabalt, was made in five days for the Experimental Gameplay Project, a monthly competition that invites designers to make theme-based games (Canabalt was born of the theme of "simplicity"). The nature of the EGP and Saltsman's pre-existing design tendencies came together, resulting in a one-button game that felt like a stripped-down Super Mario Bros. played in fast-forward. Not long after its release in October 2009, there were legions of iPhone users tweeting and Facebooking the distances that their jumping skills had taken them.

Adam Saltsman with <i>Canabalt </i> on screens of various sizes
Adam Saltsman with Canabalt on screens of various sizes
Photo by John Anderson

Another round of giant checks starts to flow in. The cycle of game creation begins anew.

'Sploding the Archetype

This path to success is relatively new to the gaming world. It's no coincidence that the changes on the demand side of casual games have also necessitated changes in the way they are supplied to the increasingly Internet-connected masses.

Typical big-budget titles are developed and then handed off to a publisher who promotes the game and jumps through all the hoops necessary to ensure that the product is on the shelf in Wal-Marts and Best Buys around the globe. Profits are then funneled back through the publisher, who takes a massive chunk out, leaving about 25% for the developer. Downloadable content, on the other hand – be it for the iPhone or one of the big three home-gaming systems – skips that middleman. The way Saltsman submits games directly to Apple plays out very similarly to the way Michael Wilford's development studio, Twisted Pixel, offers up titles to Microsoft. This newfangled path to distribution has a significantly superior revenue split of 70/30 in favor of the developer. Not a bad racket.

"The digital distribution platform is changing the whole industry in a way, because for the first time you have developers – especially independent, small developers – able to go directly to the manufacturers," Wilford says from his studio's office space in South Austin. Twisted Pixel started much the same way as Semi Secret Software, with a balance of contract work for other companies' titles (to bring in a steady stream of cash) and work on riskier original intellectual property. The main difference between Apple and Microsoft is that the latter takes much more care as to what is released on the Xbox Live Arcade, and for good reason. The Xbox Live Arcade has positioned itself as the king of the downloadable content market, putting similar services on the Wii and PlayStation 3 at a disadvantage.

Microsoft took a chance on the small startup – then working out of a house in Madison, Ind. – and saw success with its first downloadable release, The Maw. Impressed, Microsoft gave Twisted Pixel the green light to create another original title. Realizing they needed more people to handle the workload, the three founders moved to Austin, hired new blood, and started working on their sophomore effort: 'Splosion Man. The controls consist of move and 'splode. Needless to say, with a protagonist made out of 'splosions, Twisted Pixel had another hit on its hands. Two consecutive critical and fiscal successes now have Microsoft fronting the money for Twisted Pixel's yet-to-be-released follow-up, Comic Jumper.

And another indie finds an alternate route to profitability.

Code Breakers

<i>Canabalt</i>
Canabalt

The means of distribution isn't the only thing changing for the little guys. Saltsman, unable to let all those man-hours put in typing go underutilized, packaged chunks of basic code for game design together into one helpful tool called Flixel, which can be downloaded for free. Used by teams at the Global Game Jam and by indie developers everywhere, Flixel provides helpful shortcuts and removes some of the countless hours of repetitious code jockeying involved in creating even the simplest arcade game.

Microsoft is also in on the act as it attempts to "democratize game distribution" (something its website claims over and over). The XNA Creators Club is the all-accepting stepchild of Xbox Live Arcade. You can download its programming language, make a game, test it on your Xbox, and then put it up online for other people to play and offer criticism – and all for free. Wilford sees the endgame of this trend: "Never before could you get access directly through the console. Some grandma just turns on her Xbox and finds a game made by a dude in his mom's basement."

These game-creator equivalents of garage bands are exactly the market for Gendai Games' GameSalad software. CEO Michael Agustin takes accessibility to a demographic he calls "casual creators." "Maybe they are professionals, but they're not programmers – like if you're a graphic designer," explains Agustin from his company's headquarters in North Austin. GameSalad subscribers get regular updates to the software that can take you from idea to iPhone or Mac with a bit more click-and-drag and a little less zeroes-and-ones.

The Advantages of Being Small

Even if the forces formed by a rise of casual games, a return to arcade experiences, and the new accessibility on the supply end of the market are strong, does the mainstream, platform gaming industry need a revolution? Are multimillion-dollar retail releases (otherwise known as triple-A titles) and their ubiquitous harem of sequels approaching critical mass, or will the gaming equivalents of Avatar always be just as successful as that box-office behemoth?

"There's technology – which is driven primarily by triple A – and there's the actual design progress, which I strongly feel is being driven primarily by independent game designers," explains Saltsman. "Big companies aren't designing anymore. It's really just, 'Take that thing that was already built and add some new stuff.'" So while the big guns polish their graphics and smooth out their multiplayer capabilities, the indies are trying to innovate new ways to play.

"Triple-A games have a dollar sign attached to them, so it's hard to be very experimental at that level," seconds Agustin.

Joey Harding (center) advises local Global Game Jam participants.
Joey Harding (center) advises local Global Game Jam participants.
Photo by John Anderson

The retail developers' business practice of recycling successful ideas has led to a glut of titles geared to hardcore players and no one else. The big boys are intent on creating pecuniary success instead of quality games per se, so the games get faster, louder, bloodier, and more complicated to keep the shrinking attention spans in line at the stores. The assumption that a video game needs to provide constant gratification is something being seriously questioned by the indie community. In short, indie designers are thinking more about the psychology of games and less about the psychology of hardcore gamers.

Saltsman notices a trend among developers at independent conferences, where there is "outright frustration with the tiny scope of games on the whole. The idea that a game has to be fun, for example, is a fundamental principle of game design they wholly reject." Games like Saltsman's Fathom or Justin Leingang's experiment in charitable donation as playable software, Glum Buster, play like poetry. "Where is the line between fun and compelling, and why are they both interesting?" Saltsman asks. "How useful is fun as a secret weapon for sneaking compelling things in?"

Both Sides of the Glass

Call an indie game "casual" and you might see a cringe or possibly a fast-approaching fist by its creator. There's a tried-and-true formula that many releases for the iPhone and Internet browsers follow: Take a successful game, throw some bells and whistles on it, and wait for the money to roll in. "If 'casual' just means people can pick it up and play it, then that's great," says Saltsman. "But if 'casual' means it's addictive gaming designed to trick your mom into paying $20 for the same game with different graphics ...." Not cool. Safer to call them indie games and assure that no one is confused with something haphazardly thrown together for a quick buck or time-sucks like Mafia Wars and Diner Dash that are so insufferably oversocial it makes you want to jump from the Facebook ship.

So what statement are Saltsman and Wilford making in Canabalt and 'Splosion Man? Aside from perfectly embodying the gaming adage that people jumping through glass is awesome, they prove the simple fact that these games are playable by everyone. A noob can pick it up and have a blast, and a hardcore gamer can play them for hours and feel rewarded for the effort. It's not a balance that's easily attained.

Gaming's Punk Rockers?

Sitting with the Global Game Jammers, you can clearly see the other side of the rise of casual gaming – the supply side. The options opened up to game developers in the world of quick-play arcade-style experiences are antithetical to everything that "gaming" has come to stand for – namely, big money and years spent on titles for one of four major platforms (PC, Wii, PlayStation3, Xbox 360). The games made here are accessible to the masses in their simple controls and nonexistent price tags and were created in three (grueling) days.

On this increasingly Internetted planet, where you can play against your friends anywhere in the world, blogs don't recognize borders, and the idea of a regional gaming success is something that just doesn't exist, it's hard to define any sort of local indie scene. But if there is one, there are more than a few members in this very room. Hell, this could very well be the event that launches a thousand development studios. Joey Harding and the varyingly skilled designers and artists could use what they've learned here and go on to revolutionize the industry. The gaming world could use more rabble-rousers.


All this talk of games giving you a hankering for something to click? Check out my weekly blog, This Week's Waste of Time, offering a free Internet browser game to help you while the workday away. This week's post has links to many of the games and websites mentioned in this article. Go to the Screens section of the Chronolog at austinchronicle.com/pip, and limber up your clicking finger.

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