Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Internet is Insane!

A week ago very few people knew what FRONTIERS was. A few playtesters (all onsite), maybe a couple hundred folks I'd reached out to personally or on the gamedev forums, and my wife. I posted my trailer thinking hey, maybe I'll double that.

Now I don't even know how to estimate. A hundred thousand? YouTube alone is cooling off at around seventy thousand. That's not to say they everyone who saw it gives a shit, but the logo has touched their eyeballs. I still can't process it.

And it was mainly due to one article. ONE Rock Paper Shotgun article that I had no idea was coming and suddenly the trailer was getting waaaaaay more attention than I was ready for.

The internet is INSANE, man.

And the craziest thing of all? 100k is small potatoes. Spuds, really.

Look at the views and visitors that some Indie games are working with. It can be millions of people. How the hell do they handle it? I know at some point I'll have to at least try and court that level of exposure. What if I succeed? Exposure is stressful in a way I hadn't anticipated - I thought my problem was going to be haters and internet assholes. Instead I found a bunch of people asking good questions and making helpful suggestions. I want to respond to all of them but it's impossible; I have to ignore so many people. I guess it's a good kind of agonizing, but it's still agonizing.

Anyway, all those first world not-really-problems aside: I'm glad the internet kicked my butt into high gear because what I realized this week is that I've been dragging my feet. I was still afraid that not enough people want a game like this to justify pouring so much money and time into it. But thanks to everyone who stopped by to say 'neat!' or liked the FB page or posted an article I don't have to be afraid of that any more. Instead I can focus on being afraid that I'll disappoint everyone! :)

You've probably seen that I'll be launching an IndieGoGo campaign on June 1st. That's my next big step. With some cash reserves I won't be forced to shelve the game every few weeks during crunch time at my day job. I'll also be able to bring on other artists and writers, thank god.

Raising the dough is going to take a ton of effort (on top of the already impossibly stressful schedule they've got me on at work) but the hardest part - believing it can happen - has been taken care of.

Thanks, Internet!

(By the way, don't worry about my uncharacteristically optimistic mood. I'm sure something awful will happen in the next few weeks that balances the equation and restores me to my cranky self again.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Preserving the Mystery

FRONTIERS is about exploration, and exploration is largely about mystery. And mystery is about guessing without knowing. It's about sensing the shape of things - it's that lump under the blanket in the garage. Is that a handlebar? It sort of looks like a bike but what's that blob near the back? Wait, did it just move? The game knows what's under the blanket but you don't. And long as that tension exists you want to keep guessing / playing. Take away the blanket and suddenly it's just a raccoon sleeping next to a rowing machine. Sure you get that momentary thrill of discovery but there's no reason to keep looking at it.

A few months ago I realized that this is going to be a problem. Here's why:

Dramatic vs. Backstory Mystery

Mystery comes in two forms, dramatic mystery and backstory mystery. I completely made up those terms so if there's a third form, whatever. It's not relevant to this problem.

Dramatic mystery is about plot resolution. Who's behind [x]? What happened to [y]? Will [a] stop [b] from [c]? All will be revealed in the dramatic conclusion! 

Backstory mystery is what happened before you showed up. By accident or design every game has a bit of this as you get acquainted with the world. Most games want you up to speed ASAP - Hello, welcome to Mass Effect, humans made friends with aliens, we use super-luminal spaceships, yadda yadda yadda, here's a gun, GO! Some games (eg Anmesia) are a hybrid, doling out backstory at dramatic moments - I lump those the dramatic column since functionally they're the same.

But the biggest difference between the two is that dramatic mystery is covered by the Spoiler Code*, while backstory mystery tends to be treated as lore and casually swapped. Oh that weird symbol you see everywhere? Yeah that's from the blah-de-blah dynasty 6000 years ago, it represents zoo-be-zoo. Here, check out the wiki. For most games this is a positive thing - playing a game with a mapped out backstory makes it feel more real, more lived-in. It's not spoiled, it's enhanced.

So why are my panties in a bunch?

Because FRONTIERS with a mapped-out backstory is like a rowing machine without a blanket. (Okay, it's slightly more interesting than that, but you get the point.) Sure there's dramatic mystery, and the Spoiler Code covers that, but the backstory mystery is the real draw - and that will be swapped with impunity. And unlike most games, contaminated players may end up enjoying FRONTIERS less. Because exploring / learning / discovering more is pretty much the core mechanic.


That's my first world problem. How to solve it?

  • Nail the blanket in place. (Sorry, racoon.) If the mystery is unsolvable there's no problem, right?

Nope. That's even worse. Unless you're a master of ambiguity (see David Lynch) a mystery demands answers. Not getting them is just fucking irritating. And answers can't be too spaced out, either. It should be a steady drip.

  • Reveal what's going on, but make the goings on mysterious.

Oh boy, you've done it now. This is the LOST / Battlestar Galactica approach, and we know how well they worked out. In their case mysteries were created without answers in mind - FRONTIERS won't have that problem, scout's honor - but the result is the same whether intentional or not: you pull off the blanket to reveal a nightmare manifestation of illogic. Shapes undulate and squirm in your mind's eye like a cubist Lovecraftian terror by way of Escher, driving you slowly mad as you contemplate them, because there is no answer. LOST (and to a lesser but no less irritating degree Battlestar Galactica) will forever remain mysterious, sure, but only because there is literally no way to resolve all the dangling threads.

I call plots like this a PLOST.

But as bad as that is, it's still not the worst case...

  • Reveal what's going on, make the goings on logically consistent, and hold back most of it.

Aw shit. Worst case is when you put in the effort to keep your ducks in a row but you're too stingy with your answers and it ends up looking like a PLOST anyway. Some stories can get away with this because they're designed as a puzzle and expect you to derive enjoyment from the hard work it takes to figure them out (eg, Primer). But for most it's just the worst possible way to fail. That leaves:

  • Be an amazing storyteller and reveal enough to give players resolution while holding back enough to keep the world mysterious.

Well when you put it like that it sounds easy.

Full disclosure: I'm a bad writer. I've written four screenplays and all of them stink. I've made several short films and the story-driven ones are hard to follow. There is a very good chance I will fuck this up. Not the backstory part, mind you - that I've got under control. It's the skillful revealing of information that's got me sweating.

Typically this is where I'd tell you how I overcame that panicked lack of confidence and offer a bit of sage advice but the truth is I've got nothing... so I guess that wraps up this post.

*The Spoiler Code: Thou shalt not tell people what happened if finding out what happened was part of the fun. Thou shalt shalt exercise caution and use blackout / hidden text when discussing spoilers online. Thou shalt use a hushed voice when discussing spoilers in public. Thou shalt not depend on vagaries; they do not work as well as thou thinkest. Thou shalt not assume that you 'spoil nothing' by saying a thing; this is not true as often as thou thinkest. Thou shalt consider a plot point a spoiler until it has entered the realm of public knowledge; whether a plot point is public knowledge must be decided case by case. Lastly; be vengeful toward those who spoil maliciously, but forgive those who spoil unintentionally, for they know not what they do.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Moving on up

Just a heads up, now that I've got an offical FRONTIERS page up and running I'll be posting fewer promo bits here & sticking more to personal thoughts.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Gameplay Videos

Some gameplay videos for your enjoyment. Just a few tidbits to whet your appetite for the proper trailer I'll be releasing in a week or so.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The More Things Change...

...the more different they feel. Ha! Gotcha!

Last week was a rude re-awakening to the world of gaming. As I often complain, my day job has kept me out of touch with gaming & gamers for years, so I asked some developers for a little help in getting reconnected. They obliged with an avalanche of websites and videos and articles. And holy crap things have changed since the days of five foot ten packs.

Alright I'm not that out of touch. I do the Steam thing like everyone else. But what surprised me was how early indie games show off their barely-alpha gameplay, and how willing online reviewers are to not only play them but treat them with kid gloves. Last past week I absorbed roughly 2,561 hours of YouTube let's play videos and I saw dozens of early, early alpha builds with temp art, no menus, sometimes even no animation. And yet even the snarky, quick-to-judge reviewers were happy to ignore crashes and broken features.

Not that this is a bad thing. Just weird. It's clear I need to toss my concept of a game's life cycle. It used to parallel my concept of a movie's life cycle (big surprise) - you tease with trailers and promo stills and making-of goodies, but the work print itself is kept under lock and key. Then the premiere comes and *boom* you dump a finished product in the audience's lap. The only people who ever see a truly unfinished version are test audiences (who put up with green screens and 'Scene Missing' cards) but that's hardly a public showing. You'd never post a test screening print online and ask 'What does everyone think?'

But now it's common to do exactly that, to the point where feedback from players can fundamentally change game mechanics. Crazy. And also kind of exciting. I think I like it.

Anyway, I'll be releasing a playable demo a lot sooner than I'd expected. Possibly a matter of weeks. Don't hold me to that though, some big jobs are coming up.

Oh, and I'm also in the process of getting my youtube channels, twitter account, facebook pages, and all that jazz set up and interconnected properly. Again I thought I could ignore this stuff for another three months but oh how wrong I was.

(Check back later for some Screenshot Saturday gameplay vids.)

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Day Job Blues

I hate my day job.

No, that's crazy, I like my day job. Right? I have a lot of freedom, the pay is good, I'm blessed to be working in a creative field, and my colleagues are wonderful people. Plus I'm lucky to have any job in this economy. Only an entitled brat would complain.

But seriously, I hate my day job. I can sit in a chair for 12 hours working on my game and walk away feeling refreshed and full of joy, but put me in the same chair for the same amount of time working my day job and I walk away feeling like I've been sucking face with a Dementor.

Okay maybe 'hate' is too strong a word. An indie developer's day job is like a really tall friend who sits in front of you at a movie - you love the guy but goddamn it, move your fucking head! Except he's paying your half of the rent this month so there's no way you can say that out loud. And you need him to pay for gas on the way home, so you can't even politely leave the theater. Instead you stew in anger while his fat rich head ruins the movie. You hate yourself for needing his money and for not having the dignity to demand a little courtesy. You hate him for existing. You hate the whole world and everything in it. Did I say hate was too strong a word? Now it doesn't feel strong enough.


(Note: I try to avoid pointless rants around here but I couldn't help myself today. Apologies all around.)