The indie game is, in the eyes of many, the last bastion of innovative gameplay. And for good reason: no triple-A company is going to risk throwing money at an untested game mechanic or idea without a serious amount of reassurance that it won't all go down the drain. But to a team of just one or two people, you don't need to sell a million copies for a game to be a success and this gives a lot more freedom to do what you want.
In fact, to many indie developers, they don't determine success by units sold or by their profit margins, but about how much people enjoy their work, and whether or not they are playing around with truly original concepts. If a concept sells well enough, it paves the way for larger companies to move in that direction. More than ever before, the Indie game developers are the trend-setters. Here at PAX Australia, local developers have crawled away from their work long enough to share their efforts with the rest of us.
The first game I want to talk about isn't a video game at all, but a card game called Story War. After the raging success of Cards Against Humanity due to rapid spread over the internet, more and more creative and original card games are being produced. However, a lot of people forget that Cards Against Humanity was actually a Kickstarter project all the way back at the beginning of 2011 and in comparison to the amount of funding that current campaigns get, its measly $15,570 is chump change.
Story War got $363,254 from its campaign and it's honestly deserving of that sweet, sweet coin. Card game development seems analogous to indie game development, except you don’t have to write a single line of code, just the rules. In Story War, each player picks a mythological creature to place on a randomly chosen battlefield. And then they fight. You can also get items that you can use. What’s that? You want more detail? You want attack points and defence points and a life bar and dice rolling? There is none; it’s all in the storytelling.
I also attended the Penny Arcade "Watch Us Draw Monday’s Comic Panel" today, in which the audience demanded a redback spider, a corked hat, an anatomically correct koala paw (you know, with the creepy two thumbs and all) and a changing in hands of "the watch". I segue into this because Jerry talked about the design challenges in Penny Arcade’s own game series, On The Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness. As you may know, the first two and last two games were designed by different publishers, the earlier in 3D and the later in 2D. In Rain-slick 3, as a running gag, Gabe idolises the villain of the story, and takes to wearing a cape because of this. In a 3D game, though, animating a cape is an enormous task, requiring complex cloth physics that even today usually "fake it". In 2D, all you need to do is... draw a cape a few times.
Quite simply, 2D development just bypasses a lot of problems associated with 3D gameplay. Card games and board games are even easier, not to mention tabletop games such as Dungeons and Dragons, since it all lies in your own imagination and the ability of the storyteller. If you want to get into game development and don’t want to code, it seems the best idea is to make it a physical game, where the rules need only be spoken to become the law.
Moving up the chain of programming complexity into the 2D video game realm, we have the intriguing Particulars, which puts the player in the shoes of a researcher who accidentally turned into an up quark. You have to avoid anti-up quarks or you explode, move around to manipulate down quarks via subatomic attraction, push them into (or avoid) anti-down quarks, and just generally mess around with a well-actualised physics engine to solve puzzles. The game feels fantastic, it’s a joy to whiz around the simple environment. This game illustrates the idea that a game doesn't have to be visually packed to look good; indeed, its artistic style is reminiscent of flOw.
Indie development often tends towards more simplistic graphics, exchanging the time that would otherwise be used on making things shiny into making things feel and play well. It also permits a great degree of visual clarity that you just can’t achieve when everything on the screen is generating particles or explosions. A big problem with triple A games is the common emphasis on polygon count or a shiny engine over good gameplay.
This lets me segue into the other panel I attended today, which was the presentation of the Xbox One. After E3, there was a lot of hate directed towards the console because of its "buy it once, keep it forever" model which would eliminate the used game market. Honestly, this is an understandable stance, reselling and buying used games has historically been a major part of gaming’s history. I myself have particularly fond memories of when I found my copy of the original Metal Gear Solid at a local market. It’s ingrained into gamers’ collective consciousness. Where was I? Oh right, good graphics in AAA games. Battlefield 4 looks really good.
It seems that they’ve done something similar to LA Noire in terms of facial motion capture and going a bit above LA Noire, as they've got the polygon count and processing power on the next generation consoles to make it look really, really good. I’m not really certain as to how much of that we’ll actually see though, given the emphasis on multiplayer for most people, but they seemed excited about the effort that was being put into the single player campaign.
In fact, that... was pretty much all they talked about. The fact of the matter is, games like Battlefield are always going to play the same. No matter what game mode you’re playing it all boils down to "make bad guys stop being alive via bullet". Typically with an "AMERICA" thrown in for good measure. Most modern first person shooters still suffer from “brown and dusty” syndrome, and while the gameplay and graphics are polished, they are homogenised to a degree of stagnation.
Give me any two random shooters of the last generation, remove the heads up display, and I probably couldn’t tell the difference. Still, they are a major pressure on increasing console processing power, which permits greater freedom in all types of games, so I guess it isn’t all bad.
Back to indie games. On the other side of the visual detail spectrum we have Freedom Fall, which visually is very polished, vibrant, and full of shiny things to collect. At first glance, it might look like a same-ish sort of platformer, but it has one vitally important alteration: you are going down, not up. Bear with me on this one. You see, 2D platform games are all about movement. But progression in these games, usually, requires you to climb ladders, or towers, or stairs. Whether we like it or not, it is a common underlying part of the genre, set in stone by the Mario games: you WILL be moving to the right, and you WILL be moving upwards.
In most platformers, you are always fighting gravity. A wrong step and you are punished, possibly having to retry sections over and over again. In Freedom Fall, gravity is always pushing you in the right direction; to go downwards is to progress. It’s such a simple change, and yet it adds so much; you need to fall as safely as possible, use items such as gliders or wings to adjust your fall, but you are always, always moving down. Moving in the same direction as gravity makes it feel a lot more like "going with the flow".
In addition, the plot of the game is delivered via writing on the walls of the tower, graffiti from a… very strange sort of princess. It’s punchy sort of comedy that’s genuinely funny; the princess has the same manner of disconnected psychopathy as GLaDoS from Portal that you can’t help but snicker at. Freedom Fall is available on Android and iOS as well as PC; it is a style of gameplay that lends itself well to portable platforms.
The last 2D game I want to talk about is a shiny, pixelly morsel called Dungeon Dashers. It’s a fast-paced turn-based extravaganza of tactical fun. You switch between four different characters, each with their own unique abilities, strengths and weaknesses. The assassin can teleport, or “blink”, across chasms or through walls and doors. The knight can charge in a straight line, destroying intermediary blocks. The wizard casts fireballs, the archer shoots arrows.
Visually the game looks like a dungeon crawler, and it absolutely is, but its gameplay is very unique. Each of your characters makes has an allotment per “turn”, consisting of movement and actions, but these are performed in real time. Its action is very tight and balanced, and the different classes need to work together to solve various puzzles.
The game reminded me a lot of Valkyria Chronicles in terms of the handling of its combat. There are a lot of differences, of course; the game is tile-based, and players have a set order, and the enemies don’t attack you while you’re moving.. but in terms of the way it feels to move around the dungeons, the planning that goes into battles, there are definite similarities. Dungeon Dashers, however, is much faster paced; there is practically no delay between calling for an action and it occurring. This is one of my major annoyances with a lot of tactics games: more time is spent watching your commands being performed than actually entering them in. Dungeon Dashers is still in development, but you can buy early beta access; I enjoyed the game enough to do so on the day.
Most enjoyable part of today: Seeing the Penny Arcade guys cringe after taking a bite of a Vegemite sandwich. Least enjoyable part of today: Not having enough time to write an article about all of the indie games that I wanted to! Tomorrow: More Indie Games, the cool stuff about the Xbox One that you haven’t noticed, the game without graphics, and whatever else happens tomorrow.
Supplementary material for PAX day two: 30-minute long super video featuring excerpts from the Penny Arcade Panel, Xbox One presentation and indie devs!
Links to mentioned games: Story War