The Ups and Downs of Making Meditations

What if you had a new game, delivered to your computer, every day for a full year?

And what if those games vanished at midnight, replaced by a brand new experience? Each game existing for only 24 hours before disappearing, unplayable until another year has passed?

That’s just what Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail set out to do: create a program that would deliver a tiny, unique video game to players 365 times a year. Inspired by his experience playing TEMPRES by independent developer Tak, Ismail created Meditations, which presents players with a new, short experience daily – vanishing at the stroke of midnight to be replaced by another.

“I wanted people to have access to a small, thoughtful, language-less game to help colour their day in a certain tone,” said Ismail, speaking to me about the project’s goals. “A little playful ritual that'd allow them to step into someone else's feelings or thoughts, into their fascinations and interests.”

It’s a monumental effort – wrangling over 350 individual developers from across the world, ranging from occasional hobbyists to some of the biggest creators in gaming. But what does it take to manage a compilation of that scale? And when does an indie icon’s pet project between friends begin to veer dangerously towards exploitation?


Meditations is a team effort. Curators like “How Many Tiny Weird Videogames Can I Curate Before I Die” creator Moshboy and Train Jam organiser Adriel Wallick were vital to its creation, alongside the app’s own developers.

An instrumental part of that team was YouTuber, writer, and indie game-player extraordinaire Jupiter Hadley. Through her work covering countless tiny indie games, she was a natural fit for managing the daily dose of Meditations.

Hadley elaborates: “Rami told me about Meditations while attending an event called Games Forum in London. When he pitched the idea of a bunch of small games, created by a large variety of developers, I was instantly excited. I wanted to make a game for Meditations and was even more ecstatic when he asked me to be involved with curating the developers to make sure the days filled.

22nd January's Meditation from Grace Bruxner

“After that, I put my name down for the project and... sort of forgot about it. Towards the middle of the year, I met Rami at another event, where we spoke again of the project and I started to onboard developers to be a part of Meditations.”

Hadley got her start in playing though and recording dozens of games during various game jams. That experience came in handy when faced with the monumental task of putting together a list of hundreds of developers for Meditations.

“As I have played thousands of game jam games by thousands of different developers, I started looking at developers who made experimental games or who regularly made games within the short time frame around game jams,” explained Hadley. “From there, I started reaching out and taking suggestions from them to continue the hunt for games. There are so many wonderful developers who are apart of this project, it is truly great to see their works.”

But Hadley’s role extended beyond outreach. As the project progressed, she pitched in with every little job that needed doing. "At first, I was reaching out to developers whose work seemed inline with Rami's concept or who had been suggested by developers already within the project," she explained. “As the year turned to a close, Rami needed help in testing the games, creating text files, and generally doing finishing bits and bobs. I help out with checking over these games and their files, as well as generally passing on information to the developers I have onboarded, answer questions, and help out in any way I am able to.”

29th January's Meditation from Martin Cohen and Lucie Gromusova

During its first week in the wild, the public conversation around Meditations wasn’t dominated by praise, or a daily discussion surrounding the latest release. My own social feeds were instead flooded with questions: why was there no complete list of contributors, when Ismail’s name alone graced the front page?

Crediting proved divisive as the earliest days of Meditations saw the bulk of names hidden. A full list of credits wouldn't appear until 31st December 2019. And while some contributors wished to keep their participation secret, others found frustration and felt this was unfair to smaller contributors who may have more reliance on the exposure provided by being a part of Meditations.

Ismail explains: “I never mentioned exposure, as it's impossible to guarantee a project will generate exposure at all. In this project, the request was always if someone wanted to work on something cool, for the sake of it being a cool project. The overwhelming majority of contributors in the survey – but also those I've been communicating with since the survey – indicate that their reason for joining was exactly that.”

“Of course, that doesn't mean some of the developers didn't also consider the potential exposure in the project – but at a scope of 350 developers, it's hard to say anything beyond that for some, these things were handled well, and for others, they would've preferred other solutions or approaches.”

Since then, things have changed somewhat. Following a poll that asked how collaborators saw the current and future handling of Meditations, a partial list of credits was created. Ismail removed himself from the main page, which instead now links to both the app developer’s credits page and that partial credit screen.

9th February's Meditation from Ben Swinden and Marco B.

Questions of power dynamics were shot towards the project, too. Meditations has one of the highest-profile indie developers at its helm, and some have questioned whether smaller-scale collaborators are being taken advantage of for an icon’s pet project. According to Ismail, these concerns were present from the beginning.

"Those dynamics absolutely factored in. We specifically set requirements at a small, language-less, six-hour project so that nobody would feel the need to make something enormous, or that the project would out-scope them or their resources. We tried to make sure that all communications of expectation were formal and did not require any additional communication – and except for the crediting issues, I feel we succeeded relatively well."

"We're continuing to implement the solutions offered to us by the contributors in two surveys we had after the original disagreement surfaced. While a majority technically supported the original implementation, we weren't looking for a mandate to continue with our original course of action. We focused on making sure those with issues were heard, and that those issues were handled as fast as possible."

All that said, it looks like both Ismail and Hadley are content with the project as it stands, gradually bringing changes where they’re due. Scale seems to have been the biggest hurdle to overcome, and Hadley assures that she’d have taken far more consideration into managing people were they to start from scratch.

19th February's Meditation by Pekka Kujansuu

“Having a project of this scale – with this many people – is a difficult task,” says Hadley. “I would have got more contact information from people signing up to the sheet and communicated better on various points within the guide and project itself. I haven't actually ever been involved in such a public or massive project.”

Hadley adds: “There was a lot that could have been done better, especially if given the chance to do it again, but either way, this has been a lot of work that I am so glad to have been a part of.”

I asked both what they had hoped to get out of the project - for themselves, and for the contributing developers.

“My personal goal was to make a game about a date that really matters to me – creating this short experience of my life to share with others,” said Hadley. “Through further involvement, my personal goal is just to help communicate with developers and to highlight these games. I really believe all of these lovely games are each unique and fantastic in their own ways. I want the focus to be on these experiences, throughout the entire year.”

Hadley continued: “I have been able to take tiny glimpses into the lives and into important feelings or memories of developers I really look up to and know. This has been the best thing, in my opinion; learning more about these people whom I have watched create and grow over the years.”

25th February's Meditation by Sam Wong

Ismail is a little less verbose when he reflects on the project so far. Meditations has been a success – with one catch: "Meditations has been received very well. There continues to be a high number of new downloads, and more importantly - there's a lot of discourse and conversation around the games."

But if he were to do all again, Ismail “would communicate the crediting circumstances and expectations”.

What’s next for Meditations, then? At this stage it’s too early to tell. There’s a sense that the project will continue to grapple with questions of proper crediting and developer treatment for the near future as it attempts to keep both creators and critics satisfied.

Maybe next year, the project can start over with the lessons learned in 2019. Perhaps there’ll be a new roster of talented developers big and small creating small, heartfelt experiences. But for now, as Ismail puts it: “the future of Meditations is another small, curious, and thoughtful game [every day] made by a group of almost 350 contributors.”


Comments

    Can Kotaku please start including links to the games you mention? Either at the top, linking the text within the article, or a footer with links to the stores they’re available on. I have no idea if Meditations is on the App Store, Steam, Origin, Google play...

      All good! Just a small editing accident. Big link towards the top now.

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