GAME-MAKING’S SENSE OF LOSS

[ I wrote the article below for Wireframe, a British game dev magazine which ‘lifts the lid on video games’. And, inexplicably, lets me have a monthly column. This one’s from Issue #5, in January 2019. ]

Following the last, wheezy gasps of 2018, I’ve been thinking about endings. Fewer players seem to ‘finish’ titles than ever before. There’s growing expectation that all games should be updated with new content after release. Pete Hines promised Fallout 76 would run forever. There was a notable, collective sigh of relief when Obsidian promised The Outer Worlds wouldn’t actually be that big.

Developers have issues with endings. Designers, I’m learning, are the most doomed of the lot of us, cursed by an unkind god to see only the flaws or the What Could Have Beens in their games, no matter how rapturously the title is actually received. But all devs find it difficult to let go: making games is such a tangled, life-consuming delight that when it’s over we don’t really know what to do with ourselves. I wonder if that’s – partly – why there’s such a fear of committing to release dates, aside from lacking confidence in your production estimates. When your game’s out, it’s finished. Isn’t it? The whole disastrous affair? And then you’re judged? And then, er, you move on and do it all again? 

As anyone who’s launched a game before knows, this isn’t how it works. You have this gigantic hopeful bubble which bursts and, well, sometimes you have a buzz for a week because everybody loves it and you’re suddenly seeing a huge spike in sales and a benevolent cloudburst of positive reviews. But even that isn’t the end – it often takes months to actually receive your first payment from distributors, and during that time all the glow of launch week has worn to a duller patina of user reviews, support tickets, bug fixes, and the general sense I imagine new parents feel when they step outside the hospital with this new, helpless human in their hands and just, I guess, go home?

A gentleman I used to work with once gave me a pep talk about post-launch blues, that infamous gloom which descends on developers in the immediate aftermath of release. He said: ‘I’m always going to have an uneasy relationship with marketing, because I spend years working on a game, and then marketing comes in and turns it into something else. They turn it this way and that so it catches the light. And then people respond to it in ways I didn’t intend, and people have opinions, and people form personal experiences from playing it that have nothing to do with me. Something that was mine has gone out into the world, and it isn’t mine anymore.’ 

This is the closest I think developers get to an ending. A game in development’s a series of creative problem-solving. A game after launch is a consumable, eaten by a thousand mouths (hopefully, hundreds of thousands). But this means the infamous phrase ‘art is never finished, only abandoned’ isn’t true. Developers eventually stop developing, but their game slots into storefronts for untold thousands of people to play. It’s likely that never before has that game had so many people playing it, which is its raison d’être

This is a wonderful thing. There’s absolutely a sense of loss in game-making, but your personal loss is a player’s gain, and the whole thing balances out in a vast, impersonal ecosystem. At this chilly time of the year, when one calendar makes way for another, take solace in this. Toast yourself, the games that aren’t yours anymore, and the games that you’ll lose in the future. It’s a bittersweet, but marvellous, destiny.

JAN #1: ACRASIA

Happy 2020, everyone! I have a number of juicy announcements for you.

CULTIST SIMULATOR MOBILE DLC

We’ve revealed our first release date for mobile DLC! The Dancer DLC is coming to the App Store and Google Play on Wednesday 22nd January, along with all the latest PC updates and Russian localisation. It’ll cost £1.99 / $1.99 and we expect to release the Priest and Ghoul DLCs simultaneously in the not-too-distant future.

Everyone will get Russian loc and PC base game updates automatically, for free. More info over on the mobile FAQ!

BOOK OF HOURS

I’m also delighted to confirm that our melancholy, peaceful RPG about managing a magic library is BACK IN BUSINESS. We’re officially prototyping an updated variant of BOOK OF HOURS and will be moving into proper pre-production next month.

This is not only wonderful because I love everything about this game so far, but also because we can start doing proper open development again: posting early alphas, concept art, design thoughts, the dawn chorus of precipitate work that chirrups in the early hours of a new game’s day.

We’re most likely to post this as and when on our Twitters (@alexiskennedy and @tronbevan), but I’ll include round-ups in our sprint updates. If you’ve resolved to be an excellent person this year, wishlist the game on Steam while you’re waiting!

No promises at this stage, but I’m expecting BOOK OF HOURS to be a Cultist-sized game developed in ~12-18 months. So we still expect to release in 2021. More on that later.

A BOOK, BY ALEXIS KENNEDY

Something which is not a game?! Sacrilege, I know. But Alexis has been in the industry for over a decade, through two companies, three significant indie successes and some Down and Out-esque nadirs along the way. Indie games, in short, be cray, and he’s writing a book on how cray indeed they are. Expect a professional memoir about indie game development: the good, the bad, and the

More info as and when!

“SKELETON SONGS” + NEW VIDEO SERIES

I’d like to try something a little different this year. So we’re going to start a podcast and some new vid series on YouTube. Follow us on YouTube if you’re interested, and I’ll shout about our podcast channels as and when I am remotely informed about how that whole system works. 😅

The podcast, tentatively titled Skeleton Songs, is a series devoted to obscure narratives, forgotten tales and unlikely stories we want to talk about for half an hour.

Our new videos will vary between quick-fire video bites about anything and everything to do with games (tropes, techniques, themes, and possibly other things that begin with ‘t’) and deep-dives into particular design elements in Alexis’s games.

The current plan is to alternate between podcast and video each sprint, but we’ll see how well they go down – and how much fun we have making them – and make a call later down the line!

ROADMAP

The long-lost golem of my producerly clay is now alive again! It’ll get particularly interesting once we have a full feature list ready for BOOK OF HOURS, but you can already follow our upcoming activity and releases here. I’ll update this every sprint.

ENIGMATIC DATA

Fiiiiiiinally, along with all of the above, we expect to revamp the current Enigma, as well as publishing a bunch of useful DATA about Cultist‘s localisation and the studio’s State of the Factory: Year 2. Check out our mobile data dump and the original State of the Factory for an idea of what to expect.

If you don’t know what Enigma is…………………. YOU WILL. 🌓

DEC #2: YELLOW, a.k.a. Detective-Ostiary Pender

Happy advent, Believers. It’s been a helluva year. We have a bunch of announcements coming up in 2020, ranging from Mobile DLC to Other Cultist Stuff to New Stuff to Stuff That Isn’t A Game At All. We’ll also be able to reinstate our production roadmap, to give you all a much clearer idea of what you can expect and when. But more on that after I’ve eaten my body weight in pigs-in-blankets.

For now, a tarot update! I have learned a great deal about DIE CUTTING (goth) and BLACK CARD (goth) and 350GSM ZANTA GAME BOARD (………………post-goth). The short version is our test deck showed me I needed to pay more for a black-card deck, lest the edges of our glorious set look like they’ve been nibbled by Worms when they’re still brand new.

Stupid die cutting.

I can at least start confirming some of the correct guesses I’ve seen about our suits and face cards. I’ve only seen two correct guesses so far, so if you think you can work out any of the below, leave a comment and I’ll update the chart!

Updated 19/12/2019… Wands ain’t Knock, or Edge, or Winter. WHAT COULD IT BE

Finally, a pre-Christmas treat for the last production update of 2019. Some of you may remember a certain Serena Blackwood from the last letter to cross my path from Hush House. Well, an official missive from Serena herself has come to light. Read the original below, or a transcript at the bottom of this update. Click for larger versions.

Thank you to everyone who’s been supportive over these last few months. I can’t tell you how much it’s appreciated. Take care, Beloveds, and see you on the other side. ♥

***

OFFICE OF THE CURIA
Hush House, Brancrug
June 22nd, 1924

Detective-Ostiary Pender –

Thank you for your time last week, and for your patience. I’ve reviewed your requests for limitation. Most are acceptable to the Curia. Some are not. In this letter, I’ve outlined our objections. I hope that we can find common ground, and an acceptable compromise.

Nix Abolix. You marked as ‘Suppress’. No arguments here. Quite frankly, I don’t know how it ever made it to the main collection. We don’t need any more Worms in the world. I mention this only to say that we do, despite our differences, appreciate the Bureau’s efforts and contributions.

On the other hand, My Most Violent Enterprise. You marked as ‘Restrict’. That’s a little extreme. I really don’t think it even merits an ‘Advise’. The contents are certainly pretty despicable, but if Enterprise is limited, we are going to have to revise classification for a great many other equally despicable items. The function of Hush House is not to protect, but to preserve.

The Almanac of Entrances. You marked as ‘Suppress’. I can see the risks, but I don’t believe suppression is merited. We’ll agree to ‘Restrict’.

OGHKOR OGHKOR TISSILAK OGHKOR. You marked as ‘Restrict’. I understand your concerns, but the author has not been witnessed abroad in the world for at least two centuries, and can reasonably be considered defunct. I’ll allow ‘Advise’, and we’ll revise to ‘Restrict’ if the author is ever verifiably reported active again.

A Child’s Treasury of Golden Afternoons. You marked as ‘Expunge’. This is a proposal we would consider only in the most extreme circumstances. The text is already categorised ‘Contain’. I’ve discussed with the Librarian and we are confident that the theoplasmic contamination – which is, I grant, quite advanced – can be purged. If it can’t, then we will consider the ‘Expunge’.

Codex Acephali. You marked as ‘Contain’. I agree that this is a reasonable request, and once again, I wanted to thank you for drawing it to our attention. As a matter of fact, the contamination has also reached the neighbouring texts (The Radical Measure and In the Malleary) and we’re going to mark those ‘Contain’ too, pending review.

The History of Inks. You marked as ‘Suppress’. Now this is not the first nor indeed the second time that the Suppression Bureau has taken issue with this book, and I do see your point, some of the inks are extremely significant, but with all due respect, Hush House has its purpose, as you must know, and the Suppression Bureau’s place is not to question that purpose. Your Suppression request is denied. My patience is wearing thin. If I see another such request for the History in future years, I’ll take up the matter with our patrons.

The Kerisham Portolan. ‘Suppress’. I don’t think so.

Blackwood’s Magazine, January 1922. ‘Restrict’. I assume this is some sort of joke. I must assure you that no-one in the Curia is laughing.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Serena Blackwood, D.D., O.F.S.B.

PUT ON YOUR GAME FACE: IT’S TRIPLE-A TIME

[ I wrote the article below for Wireframe, a British game dev magazine which ‘lifts the lid on video games’. And, inexplicably, lets me have a monthly column. This one’s from Issue #3, back in December 2018. ]

In November, Riot Games set the world on fire. The spark was K/DA’s ‘Pop/Stars’, a K-pop song which debuted at League of Legends’ 2018 World Championship. It came complete with Korean pop idols, augmented reality, a Justin Bieber protegée and a badass music video, which was watched 38 million times in the first week alone. Its coolest moment is an extended neon rap section, which is probably responsible for a 38 million percent increase in graffiti, too.

You might think all this spectacle was announcing a new multi-million dollar IP. Or to reveal something nuts, like Riot working with Valve to finally make Half-Life 3. It, er, wasn’t. Its immediate purpose was selling four new cosmetic League of Legends skins. It was part of larger marketing and visibility for Riot too, of course, but it remains the point where I, an indie dev, throw myself into the sea.

Don’t get me wrong: everything about this is epic. It’s a promotional triumph. It’s the catchiest song I’ve heard in while. It’s a PR stroke of genius, somehow managing to balance four consumable, sexualised women made by an allegedly sexist studio* and dancing for a majority male audience with companionable Spice Girls-esque feminism. Who do you like the best? Meanie Spice? Painty Spice? Foxy Spice? Or the one who isn’t very memorable and gets the least screen-time, N/A Spice?

But this sort of spectacle is impossible for indies. The greatest indie success stories – Stardew Valley, Papers, Please, Spelunky, even Minecraft – don’t have gigantic real-world annual events with K-pop supergroups selling in-game stuff. In Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light – a Buddho-apocalypse sci-fi novel you must read – he accidentally sums up the difference between AAA and indie:

“An army, great in space, may offer opposition in a brief span of time. One man, brief in space, must spread his opposition across a period of many years.”

Riot Games, with its galactic user base, its top Twitch rankings, its live world championships, and above all, its whackloads of cash, can afford to nitroglycerin the internet with one huge event. Indies pootle along for years, picking up followers and building hype each day, generally trying not to die.

However, there’s yin to this yang. Triple-A’s weakness is that it’s hard to humanise spectacle. It’s shiny and awesome and memorable, but it’s not going to play in soft-focus on Christmas eve when you’re curled up with your loved ones thinking about What Really Matters. Rather, humans have evolved to respond to people. Even God’s portrayed as a benevolent old man because he’s more impactful that way. And this is where indies shine. We can say ‘Hi, I’m Lottie, and here’s my game’ and generate a different sort of interest than big shiny Riot can. If you’re watching the indie space, this is why there’s increasing interest in open development, showing your work, live coding, being all over the Twitters with a personal account… We can’t go head to head with the big dogs. But we can be Frodo, the likeable schmuck sneakin’ round the back while triple-A’s Uruk-hai stomp off someplace else. 

I love Pop/Stars. I love its size, its pageantry, its chutzpah. But Riot have to computer-generate humanity, selling human skins to human people because they’re too big to connect with anyone directly. I’ll never be able to pull off a Pop/Stars, and my face isn’t half as symmetrical as K/DA’s. But it is, at least, a real one.

*Allegedly at time of writing. This post goes live in the week Riot had to pay $10mil for gender discrimination to all female employees from the last five years. LOL indeed.

STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GENRES

[ I wrote the article below for Wireframe, a British game dev magazine which ‘lifts the lid on video games’. And, inexplicably, lets me have a monthly column. This one’s from the very first edition back in November 2018. ]

Indie devs know they need a punchy elevator pitch. ‘X meets Y’ is the classic formula, but the significance of genre is often overlooked. Genre’s the path that leads many players to your game in the first place – only then can you hit ‘em with your Wildean ‘X meets Y’.

Players who liked Rollercoaster Tycoon are liable to try management sim Two Point Hospital. LucasArts fans are likely to enjoy point-and-click Unavowed. Players of World of Goo may resonate with Semblance, ‘the first true platformer’. But what do you do when there isn’t a clear fit? My own game, Cultist Simulator, certainly struggled to belong: it’s a Lovecraftian horror card game! It’s a roguelike narrative simulator! With cards! It’s… oh it’s only £15 please just buy it. Please.

Genres are used as marketing touchstones, conveying significant information economically to players. Some are tight, functional labels: visual novels and racing games set clear expectations. Some are larger, contested groups: roguelikes are numerous and multiform and wrestled into apparent submission by the Berlin Interpretation, a crowd-sourced manifesto. But others are wide, woozy things: RPGs cover everything from Skyrim to Stardew Valley, no manifesto in sight. By the time you get to horror you’re wedged on a sofa with Amnesia, Detention and The Evil Within and it all gets a bit uncomfortable. What once were paths leading you to fertile ground are now deceptive tracks with many slip-roads and few signposts. And as one of the biggest dev pitfalls is setting the wrong expectation (please see No Man’s Sky), not playing nicely with traditional genre is a Real Problem.

In reality, devs label games with multiple genres. Hob’s an ‘action-adventure puzzle platformer’; Rocket League’s a ‘physics-based sports-action game’. But we’re now up to 200 weekly releases on Steam. Never before has it been so important to do something new and distinguishable. Taglines like ‘Lovecraftian horror card game’ are useful because it’s not just another Metroidvania, but they’re also useless as they don’t immediately convey what the game’s actually like to play. Therein lies the issue: indies have an increasing need to make games that break molds, but the more molds we break the fewer molds we have to shape our games into pleasing forms for the passer-by.

Alternatives to genre as indie filters include curation, nicher stores, better algorithms, crying. Newer, more specific genres may seem a solution, but they’re a perpetuation of the issue, not a fix. We’re seeing attempts at all of these (in order: the App Store; itch.io; Steam; myself), but nothing yet has really cracked it. Genres remain godlings and indies are polytheists laying offerings at one or two of their altars. But year on year their power shrinks, and all we can do is await the apocalypse when a new god comes. Whom that god is, I don’t yet know. But I hope they like card games.