Last Friday we attended World Of Love. It was the first of what will hopefully be many UK-based independent games development conferences organised by the folks at Pixel-Lab, and specifically Mr David Hayward, who pretty much did everything in terms of Making It Happen. What he didn't do was host the event - that was handled by the indie-supporting media cabal at Channel 4, so that was nice of them. I took notes and stuff, and I've written it up below. My notes were very fast and rough, and my memory is essentially a mad pudding of sleepless derangement, so please forgive any mistakes or omissions to the full plot of the day.
As you might expect, the event kicked off with coffee and discussion of how tired everyone was, thanks to being wrenched away from their computational nests and made to do traveling and time-keeping in the real world. Distressing indeed, but it was going to be worth it. Once we were seated there were a few words from Pixel-Lab's Mr Hayward, who explained that he was inspired by seeing the amazing indie scene around San Francisco, and hoped to to create an event that gets UK indies together, as an alternative to the indie scene which is mostly, er, based around San Francisco. The it was down to Jo Twist from C4 to mention how much they value games as a medium, and how C4's education section had a mandate to support indie development. The fruits of this are being seen all the time, particularly in Privates, 303 Squadron and The Curfew, which are all coming out later this summer. (In fact I think 303 Squadron is being launched as I type this.)
Preamble dealt with, it was over to Introversion's lovely creative director and programming ace, Chris Delay, to explain that he had run out of foam Darwinians, and to show us something he was working on. Turns out it was an independently developed videogame! It's true. And it was a game called Subversion. Of course this seemed like old news for those of us who had already seen the game unveiled at Bafta earlier in the year, but it turned out that Delay wasn't going to rehash that demo in the slightest. In fact he had an entirely new level, with fresh placeholder graphics, and all-new disclaimers about how unfinished the project actually was.
The theme, Delay explained, is Mission Impossible. The TV series, not the Tom Cruise movies. And it's about infiltrating organisations and taking them down from the inside. It aims to be, said Delay, "the ultimate high-tech heist game." A bold claim indeed, but the next few minutes helped back that up. Delay unveiled a bank raid, which is all a part of getting funding in Subversion. Your adventures need to be paid for, and crime is a good way of (not) paying for stuff. His team were going to rob the bank, and try to rob it without anyone even realising they were there. The view is a 3D, third-person camera which is delivered in a kind of blueprinty schematics wireframe look. To start with this schematic view meant you could see outside of bank. Location of the four characters in the team reveals things by line of sight, and bits of the bank's public lobby are revealed just by moving to the windows. "Far from release, nothing final", says Delay as we see this, "but this what indie development is like."
The bank is scouted simply by going in and having a look around. The team scouts other doors, a telephone junction box etc. If the team had character that was skilled in electronics, you could hack it. A magic "wall scanner" reveals toilets, a camera system. All things that can be useful in their way. One of the team will use the toilets to hide a stunned guard, later in the game. Inside the bank there are customers milling about, and a door protected by a keypad. The team could blow doors off, but that's not "covert". Instead one of them just wanders in behind staff. He activates a "fast-talking" skill that makes low level NPCs just ignore his presence in a dodgy area. The raid unfolds with the characters stealing money out of the back of cash machines, tranquilizing guards, and finally intimidating NPCs into doing their bidding in a full on bank-raid fashion. Interesting to note that all NPCs can be shot at in specific zones, to cripple, disarm, or kill.
The demo climaxes in the raid on the vault. The bank manager is forced to open the gauge, and then one of the characters uses what is essentially a mini hacking game - a mic on the tumbler lock mechanism - to unlock the safe. He rushes in to take the loot, but alarms are tripped and the police are on their way. More intimidation of a guard and a quick hack of the keypad are required to extract the team, and Delay gets them back the van with five seconds to spare. Impressive demoing indeed. I can't help wondering if it had been meticulously practiced...
There is one question from the audience: is there going to be multiplayer co-op? "No"
Next to the podium was Terry "VVVVVV" Cavanagh, who spoke about the value of game jams. He wanted to encourage the audience to take part in more jams, and to see how jams that lasted just a couple of hours could be valuable. He did this with one of the funniest uses of briefly-showing-random-games I've witnessed in recent years. Jams, Cavanagh explained, forced you to work, and they're not to be viewed as competitions but as challenges. It's about trying to get something done, and definitely not about outdoing your peers (at least not for most people).
A quick survey of some jams - and the games they spawned - was the order of the day, and Mr C started with TIGSource's one month james. All of Terry's 2008 games were made in such jams, and he cited one other game in particular, Rom Check Fail, a game that was developed by Farbs for the TIGSource Video Game Name Generator Competition. The upshot of this was a bunch of people having their mind blow, and everyone who had already seen Rom Check Fail saying "fuck yeah, Rom Check Fail is awesome, isn't it?" It sure is.
Anyway, Cavanagh also talked up One Week james, such as the Seven Day Roguelike james, and the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, which I don't know much about, but I think it was cancelled this year or something. Next: 48-hour jams. RPGDX run some of these, in which you make an RPG in 48 hours. That sounds painful, but Cavanagh assured the World Of Love audience that you "learn a lot". There's also Ludum Dare, which lots of people seemed to nod in agreement to, including RPS chum and game ninja Roburky, who has been making a game first spawned by one of those sessions.
And then three hour jams. Three hours! I can barely have breakfast in that much time, but apparently sessions like Tigjamuk (that's probably a useless link, but I am writing and Googling fast here. Maybe I will come back to that and edit in something useful, maybe not. That's how fast and loose I am playing the reporting. It's exciting.)
Two hours! Christ. Apparently Glorious Trainwrecks do two hour jams, which isn't enough time to make real jam for your toast, let alone videogames. Nevertheless Mr Cavanagh talked up their usefulness. Two hours, he explained, was just enough time to sketch up an idea. And I think that kind of worked for each of the jams he talked about, because the session was punctuated by weird and wonderful transmissions from games made in all these jams. What struck me was that - yes - the idea was sound: each of these games conveyed its idea in a few moments of being played, and each was able to articulate a different idea. If there is a value in jams, then, it is in Actually Making Games And Getting Them Made. This was to be one of the core themes of the day.
Next up was Sean Murray of Hello Games. He and his Hello friends made Joe Danger for PS3, which was interesting because the team had to self-publish and do all the publisher stuff that normally devs don't have to worry about - like getting the game translated into various languages. Murray explained that as veterans of the mainstream industry his team saw it as a logical step to get a publisher for their characterful side-scrolling stuntman game, and were much beleaguered when none could be found. Having worked at EA, said Murray, he knew what benefits a publisher provided, and was dismayed not to be able to get that. He didn't give up, of course, and did the sensible thing any committed indie dev would do: he sold his house and risked everything on self-publishing via the PlayStation Network. Fortunately for Hello Games it seems Joe Danger was a hit, and Murray pointed towards the team having a great idea about the kinds of things they loved in games of the past, and updating them in the game they wanted to make right now. The question to ask when considering approaching publishers, said Murray, was "would publishers stop you from making the game you really want?" Maybe. None of them wanted to make Joe Danger, at least not as Hello Games pitched it, and it was still a money-spinner. Interesting stuntman-caricature food for thought there.
We Had Some Coffee And Biscuits (Which Was About Time Because My Stomach Was Making A Good Case For Second Breakfast, Having Been Fed Way Too Early That Day.)
After coffee there was a session by Stephen "Increpare" Lavelle who dispensed with presentations in favour of talking to the audience. I tried to type up the encounters between the skinny young coder and the audience as quickly as possible, and what follows is the rapid set of notes I took:
"Lavelle is walking around. He's talking to Jo Twist, I don't think he realises she's the C4 person. She's only been there six weeks. Do Channel 4 commissioning editors make games? No. But they like kittens. She asks if she can take a box of them to a game jam."
"Now he's moved on to Graham Smith. Does the PC gamer dep editor make games? Yes, with his girlfriend, Lisa. She's there too. She is an amazing artist. I've got one of her books."
"Does some guy called Alex make games? Yes, he's been working on it for two years. He sounds sad."
"Someone called Kerry is making a game where you play with a ouija board from the point of view of the ghost."
"Someone else has been making indie games for five years, which is a long time. Nine years is even longer, as someone else points out. He's right."
"What happens to people who leave the indie community? Gobion from Red Redemption answers that (I think): they go off to make planes, or become a nuclear physicist, but not an indie nuclear physicist. Because that would be dangerous."
"Lots of people are using Unity - should they be worried about the licensing issues? Maybe! (What issues?)"
"Alan, who is sitting next to me, is working on a couple of small projects and a couple of large projects. He's not sure what to do with them! Not sure how to execute them, or quite how to make them work as he hopes they will. He worked on a long game when he was at uni, but eventually found out it wasn't as fun as he and his dev chums had hoped. That sounds like a bummer. Poor Alan."
"Mitu is a PhD student working on a social networking thing-slash-game called GetLoco, but also an emo game about feelings and stuff, called Infinite Abyss. It might be related to having a mid-20s crisis. She's not sure if she'll get it finished."
"Roburky is making something about cyclops beasts talking to each other. He's a student, but that's okay."
"Increpare wants more people to go to game jams! Maybe they will. There's one tomorrow! It's called World Of Love Jam, which is not an ideal name for anything, really."
We returned to podium-based presentations for Tom Betts' turn. He's a graphics whore! What does this mean? It means he's going to argue the toss for graphics being important, even in indie games. He's playing Devil's Advocate, he admits, but he basically thinks that indies rely too heavily on retro pixel art approaches. Games are heavily connected to age, says Betts, and he argues that you are tied to your youthful experiences. Previous slides showed what other speakers valued, he says, referencing the 8 or 16-bit classics that Cavanagh and Murray were talking about, and that informs their understanding of what games mean and why they are appealing. Not so for the current generation, as Betts illustrates with a quote from one of his students. (Betts teaches game culture stuff, there's not much critical guidance in academic studies, his approach brings in philosophy and media studies etc.) The quote is:
“When they designed space invaders, they decided to do the graphics in a retro style” - student essay
And that raised a laugh, but yeah, that says so much about where the younger brain is with games. (No, not all young people are stupid, I'm not saying that.) But since the "history" of Betts' current generation of students is Final Fantasy 7 and Metal Gear Solid, the 8-bit stuff that we find so hip and connect with so readily is actually more like a style or an attitude than a historical condition to them. Retro might work for this generation, but it's not going to hold power across all generations, because it won't also have nostalgia on its side.
My notes got a bit out of sequence here, because my hands are unfortunately incompatible with my new laptop, but Betts basically explains that while he has 8-bit heroes, Deus Ex Machina and Elite, which are both totally fucked up and fascinatingly procedural respectively, he also values things being made New. He also wanted to point out that being a student can be similar to indie dev - no money or support, and thus students can't mimic being Rockstar or something, they need to emulate how indies do stuff. (At this point Betts shows a picture of Cliffski's desk, for some reason.) If they do that, they can really get somewhere. But they also need to learn a sense of graphical style that doesn't just lean on how things were in the past. And besides "You can't separate graphics and gameplay," says Tom, and I think he's right. Games *are* their graphics. Relying on 8-bit visuals means that there's always something visually hamstrung in your game.
And by way of illustrating how this works for indies without emulating retro styles, Betts showed pictures of Braid, The Path, Love, Machinarium, World Of Goo and Eufloria to demonstrate that there are new lo-fi ways of making games appear graphically arresting. There are lots of folks who like making things look pretty, Betts pointed out, but lots of them disappear from development, leaving just the programmers and other technical types. Don't let them get away, find them, make them make your game look pretty.
As for Betts, well, he makes games under the "Nullpointer" moniker, and he tends to rely on generative systems and general maths-tinkering to make things look good. He spent some time showing his music-sequence puzzler av-seq at the end, and very attractive it seemed, too.
Following this both Lavelle and Betts were asked "how do you support youtself in industry?" Lavelle does programming, Betts does lecturing and some contract installation work for galleries and so on. There can be more to being an indie game designer than selling $10 games to us lot, it seems.
Then it was time for Eskil Steenberg. The wizard of Sweden kicked off by demoing his game, Love, to the crowd. A fair number of people hadn't seen it before, and they were - judging by the subsequent discussion in the foyer during lunch - pretty amazed by what they saw. All this was impressive enough, but what Steenberg really wanted to drive home was his toolset. He showed how he could have multiple people working on the same model at the same time, and how he had developed procedural systems for texturing various objects and then scaling the texturing when the models were changed. It was, as ever with Steenberg's work, pretty magical to watch. It all had a point, however, which was to encourage people to rely on their own abilities, and to make their own tools where appropriate. "Outsourcing is terrible because you outsource your creativity, the technical people are the creative people, because they are the ones who figure out how to make stuff work," said Steenberg. For him, as an artist and coder, there was really no difference between the two types of people. Not an easy philosophy for everyone to swallow, I think, but Steenberg's work is nothing if not about aiming high.
Incidentally, we'll be talking about the expansion/revamp of Love soon, Avail, which Eskil showed me a little of the other day. It's genuinely interesting and I think could mark a turning point for the game, dragging it from wondrous oddity to genuinely mechanistically interesting game world. Anyway...
Following a rapid inhalation of tea and sandwiches, we returned to watch Simon Oliver from Hand Circus take the stage. He wanted to simply talk to the assembled crowed about how the indie gaming route had to appealed to him personally, and how valuable it had been. He had started training as an electrical engineer, but rapidly realised that a life behind a soldering iron wasn't what he wanted. Like others at the conference he had been heavily influenced by an older generation of games, and felt that he needed to express those influences in the things he wanted to make in the future. He came into the games industry from the angle of tools like Flash and Director, which allowed him to make things rapidly. This was a theme that turned up in a bunch of different talks throughout the day: the idea that one of the primary properties of "indie" was fast iteration. Getting an idea out there fast, because there's no barrier to doing so. The words that Oliver wanted to stress were "freedom" and "distribution", which are concepts he linked the transformative power the internet has had on the creation of games by small groups of people.
All this fed into Hand Circus making Rolando and Rolando 2, and should now help them produce their next game with confidence. Oliver finished off with a list of "Things That May Be True, and I didn't manage to note them all down, but they included: Be selective because you're not always going to be in a team, and expect to be Mr Benn, because you're going to be wearing a lot of different hats if you're an indie. It also seems that the most important one was "TIME IS PRECIOUS". And I think that's a good thing to be aware of in pretty much any creative endeavour.
Following Mr Oliver's turn was Sophie "Linear RPG" Houlden, who implored everyone to make games. Reading from a PSP, for some reason, she came up with four reasons why making games is fun (and everyone should do it.) These might not be the exact four, because my notes are once again garbled, but it was something like:
1. You don't have to be good. You are not making the next Halo. "You were a pretty riubbish human when you were born," said Houlden. Which is true.
2. Making games is like a JRPG. Just grind! You only have to be basic level 1 in everything to get a game made.
3. It doesn't take that much time, really, because you learn as you make.
4. "Making games is really damned cool!"
Something like that. She was pretty convincing. I think you should all make games. Maybe I will too.
Cliff Harris' presentation was not helped by his garbled Powerpoint slides, but I don't think it was hindered, either. It was the linchpin of what turned out to be highly pragmatic afternoon of down-to-earth advice. Cliff is, by his own admission, not a genius artist, nor a ninja 3D coder (although clearly proficient enough in 2D), but he does make games for a living, and he's figured out how to make working alone pay as much as being a lead programmer at Lionhead (which he was previously). Consequently, this was a presentation worth listening to.
Firstly, he argued that the total income for a lone, working indie needed to be about £100k, assuming that you wanted to live as a normal person earning a £40k wage might live. Tax and costs eat a bunch of that money before you ever see it, and if you don't sell direct, and rely on Steam or whatever, that's another chunk of cash vaporised before it can congeal in your wallet. That's not necessarily a goal for lots of indies, who are often young and without major expenses or responsibilities, but if you're going to be grown up and long term about it, then these numbers start to add up. This tied to a point about the cost of games. Cliff sold his games for $20. Everyone has told him he would sell more if he sold them for $10 (including me, probably), but he knows that to be factually incorrect. How? He's done the tests. He's sold his games at $10, without announcing it, without changing any other parameters and yes, he sold more, but he didn't sell twice as many. To really make a killing he had to sell at the price point he had selected: the one everyone else agreed was too much. The games that Cliff makes simply had to have a perceived value of $20. And that means constructing games that have depth and complexity. An interesting point for anyone making games.
The other thing that Mr Harris tackled was advertising. Should indies advertise? Yes, and they can do really well at it. Google AdSense, said the man from Positech, is like a game, one that you win real money on if you are good at it. It's all about understanding the parameters, know the metrics, and having a great name to splash on your adverts. (Gratuitous Space Battles has, Cliff reports, be sold to some customers purely on the basis of the name, and nothing else.)
Supplementary interesting fact: an average a click from traffic via RPS is worth $0.45 to Cliff's sales. A click from StumbleUpon, by contrast, is worth $0.02, and a click from Reddit worth $0.08. That means something. It means you lot buy games.
The business ball was not dropped by the next chap along, who was Nicholas Lovell, the man behind a blog on the business of games, and author of a book called "How To Publish A Game". He wanted to urge indies to pay attention to the business side of their work, because he saw it as the greater part of their capacity to get stuff sold. Worth remembering that 80% of the cost of Modern Warfare 2, which was the best selling game of last year, was advertising, distribution and so on, said Lovell. And this was key to his point: the internet means that you no longer need to ask for permission to make a game. Anyone can do it. In Lovell's case, he hadn't needed to ask permission to write a book. He just did it and then self-published. That's what the internet has allowed us to do with games. To create and to distribute without another party. But this creates a massive additional responsibility for creators, because they still need to ship, to sell, which was something that was previously the responsibility of publishers. Understanding that, and dealing with it, will be the difference between standing up on that podium and talking about your success at a future event, or ending up working on quite a different industry.
Someone who has made a success of this business stuff is Gobion Rowlands from Red Redemption, who followed Lovell with a speech about "trying to take over the world". It was a clever joke, of course, because what Rowlands actually wants to do is to make games about the world, and he's managed to do that with a small team based in Oxford. His angle is not unique, but it is unusual. Red Redemption make games with social impact, relevant to real world issues. These are Climate Challenge and Fate Of The World (which will be out later this year), each of which offer gamers complex models that they can learn some lessons from. This was another theme in many of the presentations: while simplicity and ease of expressing ideas is one of the strengths of indie development, there's no reason to shy away from complexity. Gamers aren't just able to handle complexity, they love it, and will pay for it. "Gamers are about chaos, you want as many variables as possible," said Rowlands.
Anyway, Rowlands reported that his team had raised £800k investment to continue their work - a tactic which is relatively unusual for indie developers. The crucial point he made was that investors don't understand games, they understand companies, and Red Redemption had to prove itself as an ongoing concern - a maker of games rather than just people and "some games". The investors had to understand that over and above knowing or caring about the game.
Rowlands finished with some terrifying real science about "methane clathrates" and climate horror, which will probably kill us all. Sigh.
Then the stage played host to linen-shirted lawyer Alex Chapman, who - perhaps predictably - spoke on law stuff. "Where there's creativity there are generally legal issues," said Chapman. The crucial lessons for indies were clear: have something written down regarding permissions if you work with anyone, and don't dismiss EULAs once you start making money. Having things legally defined can stop you getting screwed, either by your partners, your publishers, or even your consumers. Chapman said that his firm, Sheridans, tailored their deals to suit indies, and indeed a lot of the room - including Introversion - had used his law-talents to deal with complex contracts and stuff in the past.
Penultimately, we got to hear from Amy Casson, who is a programmer at Littleloud. She wanted to show us XML code stuff which Littleloud use to create their web-friendly adventure games, but basically her demos didn't work, and we got to see the trailer for The Curfew. So that was bah/hurrah, respectively. And no, I didn't get much out of that. Sorry!
Finally World Of Love played host to Mr Kieron Gillen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun webazine. He wanted to talk to the indies about making the most of the gaming press. He'd already written a bit about this in the past, having spoken about it in Australia in 2005, but now it was time to update things, mention how awesome Rock, Paper, Shotgun is, and to offer a few suggestions for the PR plans of some specific indie games.
There were graphs! They showed just how much attention Armageddon Empires earned after it got some really good coverage from Eurogamer, RPS and finally the monolithic Penny Arcade. The end of development is just the beginning: you've got to get your ultracore hex-based strategy into the hands of the right people, no matter how long that might take. Vic did that with Armageddon Empires, and again with Solium Infernum, thanks to our extravagant diaries. Or you could weaponise link-sharing tech. Kieron pointed out that Transformice had been around for a while before it turned up on Digg, and once it was on there it went viral. Why didn't the developers get it on there sooner?
Then Mr Gillen piled into Mark "Spirit Engine 2" Pay for not being Amanda Palmer. In essence: she does nice internet stuff (marketing), she makes money, she gets to do what the fuck she likes. Mr Pay refuses to do marketing, seeing it as damaging to his person, and consequently makes no money, despite having made a decent game. There's a reason why you need to be Amanda Palmer.
Final case study: Frozen Synapse by Mode 7 Games. Comment threads featured whining about the start of their PR. What had they done wrong? Nothing. In fact, their PR had worked, because they had a fanbase that was getting cross about them not doing enough. What else could they do? Well, they could march into the World Of Love conference room with a banner and water-pistols, shout something about how we were all to blame and then - to the sound of two-dozen laptops hastily closing - spray the audience. That, you understand, is what they call a publicity stunt.
Kieron's talk in summary:
1) Send us the game.
2) Read the press.
3) Know why your game is interesting.
4) Seek advocates.
5) Mobilise your army.
6) Image counts.
7) Be Good Copy.
A) THE END OF DEVELOPMENT IS ONLY THE START.
B) BE LUCKY (AND MAKE YOUR LUCK WORK FOR YOU)
C) IF YOU CAN'T BEAT ADVANCED CAPITALISM, FUCK IT.
D) DEMO. LIKE, OBV.
E) YOU'RE CREATIVE PEOPLE. BE CREATIVE.
Things ended, people were congratulated, and Channel 4 was exited. There was a trip to the pub, where drinks were drunk, and the origins of wizards were considered. Then, for some reason, me, Kieron, and a band of miscreants ended up in a karaoke restaurant singing Total Eclipse Of The Heart. A pretty good day, I'd say. A considered, pragmatic, inspiring, focusing conference. There were technical mishaps, and some winging it, but it was perfectly indie. And British.
We'd do it next year. I think everyone else would too.
Photos by Pixel-Lab's Toby Barnes. Thanks!