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Avellone, Vlambeer, Introversion On PC Gaming's Future

Indie Megachat Ultrotranscript, Pt 3

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All good things must come to an end. Weekends, guitar solos, and – yes – even seemingly unending conversations with a panel of thoughtful game developers. It is nature’s way. And so we reach the third and final part of my chat with Obsidian’s Chris Avellone, Dreamfall’s Ragnar Tornquist, Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, Introversion’s Chris Delay, and Redshirt’s Mitu Khandaker. This time we discuss clones, competition, diversity, and the future of PC gaming. Also, Ragnar dies horribly. Or maybe he leaves in the middle. I forget. Either way, READ ON OR REGRET FOREVER.

RPS: So games on Kickstarter exist in a weird state of both cooperation and competition, but what about the other ways smaller developers butt heads? What about, say, cloning?

[pullquote]It’s going to be PC, always. You develop on PC, it works on PC, you put it on PC.[/pullquote]

Ismail: Well, cloning is a completely different story. You know how we feel about clones, right? [laughter]

Delay: It doesn’t help you if it gets out on Steam first, gets to market first. No one ever paid for DayZ. The War Z made millions of dollars in sales.

Avellone: I didn’t do any metrics for this, but the old-school RPG [Brenda Romero and Tom Hall] were promoting started like halfway through our Kickstarter. I wonder how much that translated into success versus the breaking point for either one of those projects. I have to think about that. I felt like those shared the same awareness space to an extent. I just want to do due diligence and say that there are instances where there can be competition like that.

Ismail: Again, those are… It will be interesting see what happens if they try and figure out a way to work together. The Humble Bundle and a lot of similar initiatives like the Indie Megabooth are all about using that – putting things together, even if they’re similar, and just saying, “Here, guys. Here’s a bundle. Support them both.”

RPS: It’s sort of bizarre how consumerism works in that sense. On one hand, we have a bunch of companies that are just absolutely adamant about competing against each other. But then half the services and storefronts that sell stuff to us are saying, “If you like this, you’ll probably also like this!”

Avellone: You’ll enjoy Running With Friends! [laughter]

Ismail: Those are the things that I wonder about. Is that necessary? The way I’ve seen a bunch of games get a lot of attention is not by competing, but by working together. I wonder. On Kickstarter, could it be that two similar projects launch, and the project creators go, “Here’s a bundle”?

Tornquist: I think the danger there is that you’d make the same amount of money as one of them would and you’d have to split that money so that both project weren’t feasible.

Avellone: I can relate to that happening, because with inXile we offered digital versions of each of these products as part of the Kickstarter process, and we felt that it helped us both. But to devil’s-advocate that, the Kickstarters weren’t running at the same time.

Ismail: So we don’t know. Somebody should do this. End of story. You two, make video games and bundle them.

Delay: When in doubt, bundle.

Ismail: I think there’s a lot of value there. It’s interesting to see how many consumers are complaining about the amount of games that they have in their Steam libraries that they have never played. It’s not because they don’t want those games. It’s just that they have a whole bunch of games that they’ve bought in bundles and things like that.

Tornquist: I think restrictions on time are a lot more important than restrictions on money. People can afford to buy more games than they do a lot of the time, but especially triple-A games. People buy like five games a year…

Avellone: The whole consumerism thing… Time urgency, seemingly drastically reduced price, I’d better jump on this now… That’s a proven commercial technique for selling more than you need. [laughs]

RPS: Are you on some level competing with yourself when you Kickstarter? If you launch a certain type of Kickstarter, I think it seems like fans start to expect you to do a certain type of thing with it. Double Fine can get away with doing two different, varied types of games with their Kickstarters, because that’s always what they’ve been. They’re trusted for it. But people look at Obsidian, and if you guys did another Kickstarter and it wasn’t another old-school type of RPG, people would maybe raise some eyebrows at it.

Ismail: Please make a STALKER game.

RPS: Yes. I changed my mind. Forget my last statement and make a STALKER game.

Avellone: But it would happen because… For example, we wouldn’t have any sort of track record in a first-person shooter. We have no track record or experience with ever doing a game like that. I think that’s completely understandable. I don’t know if we’d want to do a first-person shooter, but you see my point.

Delay: You can make good use of that historical context, though, the things you’ve made and that people have liked. You’re saying, “I’m going to take that and make a new version and bring forward a lot of the things that you liked about it, but make it different.” But if you come out and say you’re going to make something completely different, all the people that liked you for those original games would hate you for not remaking the original games, and the people that like the new game you’re making don’t care about the old games you made.

Ismail: This kind of sentiment is always an interesting thing. [laughter]

[Ragnar leaves forever due to time constraints]

RPS: The Ragnar has left the building.

Khandaker: I just couldn’t imagine doing a Kickstarter. It seems like the worst possible thing. Having to be accountable to that many people… I mean, that’s why I’m indie. I don’t want to be accountable to other people, right?

Ismail: I have exactly the same problem.

Avellone: Yeah, but I feel like you always are. You’re always accountable to the players.

Ismail: But there’s a big difference between being accountable to the player and being accountable to people who gave you money.

Avellone: If your players don’t give you money, I guess that works, but…?

Delay: You have the pirate community that downloaded your game from Bittorrent… [laughter]

Ismail: Well, that is a pretty huge community. The good thing about Kickstarter is that you know that these people are interested in what you’re doing, and that they believe that you can do it.

Avellone: Honestly, we found that they bought into the concept. They were really inspired by the concept. Once they’re part of the concept, they actually support the vision with other people. “Hey, I feel like I was part of developing this system, these mechanics.” They become the biggest advocates out on the net. When they’re talking to people who are just looking into the game, they’re like, “The systems in this game are great!” They’ve already bought in and they’re contributing.

Ismail: Making people part of your development is such a big thing.

Avellone: I feel like I’m building up a new community when we’re doing one of these projects, which is pretty cool.

Ismail: We focused a lot on having Vlambeer develop a community, instead of having separate games. Because we work on a game for three months and then we’re done with it. Being a fan of this specific game for three months isn’t really useful. We sort of built Vlambeer around Vlambeer. It’s been interesting, because if we’re ever going to do a Kickstarter, we could make a Kickstarter about whatever we come up with.

Avellone: But if you don’t need to, that’s great.

Ismail: No, we don’t need to. But the interesting thing is, I wouldn’t want to, because I’d be really, really scared. It sounds like the most terrifying thing.

Khandaker: And it’s not like it’s a sure thing. It seems like having a failed Kickstarter is worse than… The most depressing thing is those Tumblrs of Kickstarter wasteland…

Avellone: Well, I disagree.

Ismail: Which is why you did it. And that’s great.

Avellone: No, no, but the sense of… As painful as it can be to have a failed Kickstarter, I’ve known people who have realized what was flawed about the original idea and why it didn’t appeal to people. I’ve seen all the postmortems about why Kickstarters fail, and then they do another one that gets approved.

Delay: What about the usage fee? You’ve generated the money, but then… That would be surely the worst.

Ismail: Yeah, that would be the worst.

[long pause]

RPS: But anyway…

Ismail: Indie games!

RPS: Indie games, they are great. Especially for diversity in games – both in terms of the characters we portray and the people who make them. Do you think we’d have ever reached this point otherwise? Moreover, do you think this is one of the places where games are most powerful: giving people the ability to step into somebody else’s skin and understand their experience?

Ismail: Anybody can get into making games. For me, that is the biggest thing. If you are somebody sitting in a room upset about something… I know a few indie game developers that had bad experiences in their life, and they’re just like, “I want to explain this to somebody.” And they don’t know how to explain it. But they make a video game about it and they use that to explain it. Mattie Brice is a great example.

Delay: There’s a new route to market, too. It’s a commercial reality as well. You don’t have to sacrifice three years of your life [to express something].

Ismail: The other thing is, it doesn’t need to be a commercial reality. Mattie made that game because she wanted to make that game. She wanted to say something through that game. We’ve opened up our medium not just to the commercial space, but also to a lot of other spaces that are infinitely interesting, and we’re just starting to explore them, just starting to see. Having that happen sends a signal to the rest of the industry that these games are okay to make. These games are interesting to make. If the commercial space picks up on that, great, because I’d love to see commercial versions of games that deal with issues like that, as long as they do it with the same taste and the same care as these people that have put their heart and soul into it.

Khandaker: Yeah. Everyone should definitely check out Mattie Brice’s game, Mainichi. It’s brilliant. And it’s so important for me to have indie be something that’s very inclusive. There’s a worry that… As I was saying earlier, about not going, “Oh, we’re all now making money and we’re all following a similar path.” We’re not, and we shouldn’t need to be. It should be really open and diverse. It should be welcoming to as many types of people as possible.

RPS: Yeah. You ended up doing a rant at GDC, didn’t you?

Khandaker: Yeah. My rant at GDC was about race representation in games. And again, a lot of those concepts apply to the entirety of culture. But yeah, I think inclusivity is just important, and we shouldn’t even have to explain why it is, really. [laughs] It just is. It’s good business on the one hand, but I also hate that argument, because we shouldn’t have to go for the business argument when we’re trying to explain why people should just be treated equally as people. I don’t know.

Ismail: Like I said, games might be the most potent medium that I’ve seen. It has everything from everywhere. It has everything from audio, from video, from graphics, from writing. Anything can be in here. And then the player is put into this world or into this place or this situation that you’ve created to explain whatever you want. Whether you want them to shoot something, whether you want them to understand how it feels to be stared at by people in the street, whatever that is, you should be able to explain that in our medium. I think our medium is more than capable of doing all these things.

It would be a shame to have that limited by commercial interests, by political interests, by social interests. Just have everybody be able to make video games. That’s where the medium becomes mature, as far as I’m concerned.

RPS: At this point, the openness of the PC as a platform definitely enables a lot of people to make games. But at the same time, PC hardware sales are down and stores/tools on other platforms – whether console or mobile – are pretty proprietary. Do you think PC’s safe in the long run?

Ismail: It’s the most convenient. Making games for PC is easy. You’ve got Game Maker. You’ve got Unity. You’ve got all these tools.

Delay: Hardware sales might be slowing down because we don’t need to buy a new PC every six months, right?

Ismail: I definitely need to buy a new printer… [laughter]

Delay: Steam is there as a distribution method. The development tools are there on PC. It’s the natural home for it. Xbox was a really great place for indie games for a while, but it’s not anymore. Definitely not anymore. There’s a new generation coming around and maybe they’ll all be different. Maybe Sony will do something different. But the PC’s always there.

Ismail: It’s a generation of convenience. It’s really about convenience.

Delay: And you can aim in first-person shooters. That’s a real benefit. [laughter]

Avellone: It’s the control stuff for us. It’s largely the control stuff on consoles that prevented us from doing all the RPGs that we wanted to do. While there are great RPGs that come out for systems like that, we miss having a larger party. That’s the stuff that we grew up designing. That’s what we’re really passionate about. Having a device that limits that kind of input is disappointing, and on PC we don’t have that sort of problem.

Being able to turn to that was really gratifying for us. And a lot of the advantages you guys described in terms of things like Unity and digital distribution… I feel like there are more avenues to get the game out there in the first place on PC. Added to that, a lot of the community, I feel, is also PC-centric. Everybody reads the forums through the PC anyway. It’s so easy to switch back and forth between community and game.

Ismail: I guess the simple answer for why PC will remain the place for creative games is that pretty much everybody has a PC. Pretty much everybody can develop something for PC without needing anybody to say yes and without needing to pay money to anybody. You make your game, you put it out there, you send the link to somebody, and it works.

RPS: With that in mind, why don’t we have more open platforms? Why haven’t more companies picked up on this?

Ismail: Ouya’s working on it. Sony’s working on it. A lot of people are working on making sure that things open up. But it’s going to be PC, always. You develop it on PC, it works on PC, and you put it on PC.

[Everyone nods in general agreement]

RPS: Well then, hurrah! Thank you all for your time.

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