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Nightlight and my Dad

Nightlight is wrapped up now and for those who have no idea what’s going on, I posted a breakdown in the forum.

When my Dad and I were at the Child’s Play golf tournament he saw me have a conversation with Kiko and Dabe about Nightlight. It was before I left for my vacation and I was really struggling to figure out what the monsters in this world would be like. The three of us were bouncing around ideas and my Dad just sat there and listened. We talked about the particular child’s fears informing each monster design. Dabe had the idea of getting real kids to draw monsters and then using those as reference. We talked about the color pallette and what the color choices should mean. When my Dad and I got back in the car he told me that he thought our conversation had been really interesting to listen to. We were talking about “make believe” stuff but we were doing it very seriously. He had never really seen anything like that.

My Dad worked for the Sears service department for pretty much his entire working life. By the time he retired he was managing multiple service centers all over the northwest and Alaska.  He went to an office every day and they fixed things. People brought them their broken shit and my Dad (or eventually the people who worked for my Dad) fixed it and gave it back. In contrast I spend my days playing in imaginary worlds. I work very very hard on things that I think for most of his life he would have called a waste of time.

I don’t really talk about my “job” with other people in my life. Family members often want to hear about my work but I have a very hard time talking about it. I know my wife’s Father is often frustrated by how little I share about what I actually do all day. This is a man who served as an investigator for the military and then when he retired started his own P.I. firm. How do I sit at the dinner table and tell him I spent all day thinking about magical girls who grow flowers in their hair? How I tell him that I decided each girls flower would be unique and tie into her personal story? How do I tell him that one of the pretend girls I made up has forget-me-not flowers in her hair because she left her father alone and she’s scared he will forget her? I tend to hide what I do from what I think of as “muggles” for lack of a better term.

So now I’m in this car and my Dad is telling me he thought the talk I had with Kiko and Dabe was interesting. I tried to explain why I love what I do to him and why I work so hard at it.

When I was a kid I didn’t have a great time. My Dad kept getting promoted but he also kept getting moved. I did 1st grade through high school in four different schools across three states. School was pretty brutal for me. I hated the real world and so I retreated into books, comics, movies and video games. Stuff like the X-men, Star Wars, Ender’s Game, Zelda, they all lit my imagination on fire. All I wanted to do was live in these other places and be these other people. I explained to my Dad that the thing I love most about what I do now is giving that to other people. When I see fans dressed as Lookouts, or read someone’s Thornwatch fan-fiction I feel incredible. I have given them a place they want to be in. A place that sparks their imagination.

I know our stories and worlds tend to start out very loose and believe me I understand when you tell me you have know idea what the fuck is going on. The truth is we’re figuring this stuff out in front of you all. The story is loose partially because we don’t know all the details yet either. We came up with the idea of Dad’s who could see and fight monsters. That was really it. Then we thought that’s awesome but what if the Dad can’t or won’t do it? Someone in each family has to be the protector. What about families without a Dad or as one awesome commenter I saw put it:

“I wanna see an orphanage in this world and meet those nuns. Those very badass nuns”

Suddenly Tycho and were talking about how that would work. A huge room full of beds! Nuns fighting monsters! YES!

I know Nightlight doesn’t look like it but this is the most personal story I have ever told. I struggle with the idea of being my home’s protector. I don’t have the spirit for it. I am not a traditional Dad in that sense. When my first son was born I saw a little mirror image of myself. Gabe and I are so similar it’s scary. He told me he doesn’t like playing with some of the other boys because they get “too rowdy”. He would rather read or play video games. Then my son Noah came along and I met a new person. I met a boy who loves to wrestle and play with bugs. He wants to climb everything he can just so he can try and jump off. He is legitimately good at sports already and the kid is only five. The only people I ever knew like my son Noah before were the bullies who made my life a living hell during school. It was inconceivable to me that these traits could exist in a person who I would love more than I can describe. The thing I see in Noah that I couldn’t or often times probably wouldn’t see in the kids I knew like him growing up is sweetness. Noah wants to tackle me as hard as he can playing football, but he also wants to sit on my lap and cuddle while we talk about Ninja Turtles. During a camping trip my Dad took me aside and told me I’d have the same problem with Noah that he had with me. We are so different and I won’t always understand him. I nodded, it was already becoming a struggle. So yeah, Noah is Grace. This is my way of trying to honor that spirit. She goes into that room and fights that monster for her Dad because that’s what Noah would do.

It’s very interesting to make someone who is better than you.

What we like to do with these worlds is come up with the hook.Fantasy boy scouts, cowboy messiah, What if prohibition was for robots not alcohol, A kid keeps changing schools but they are on different planets. These are places for us to play in as much as you guys. I told my Dad that I was struggling with the monsters in NightLight because it meant defining something in the world. When you start with an idea like this, there are no limits. Then you have to start pinning down the details. What is a Nightlight? Where are these monsters coming from? What is their end goal? What happens if a Nightlight fails? What do these Monsters actually look like? Each time you make a decision like this you are closing a door. You’re saying this is the way it works and it cannot work this other way. Sometimes when you close a door and define something it’s rad world building: There are always two Sith, a master and an apprentice. Sometimes it fucking sucks: The force is the result of midichlorians in someone’s blood. Shutting doors is tricky.

But that’s the work I love to do and my Dad had finally seen me do it. I think it was interesting to him because it’s so far removed from his experience. It is very hard to believe sometimes that what I do has afforded me the life it has. Certainly there are many people who spend their lives daydreaming and don’t get to make a career out of it. I feel very fortunate and that’s part of why I take my make believe worlds so seriously. Not everyone of these ideas will resonate with all our readers and that’s why I always apologize for interrupting the normal strip. The only thing they all have in common is that they came from Tycho and I. All we hope for is that someone will see the world we made and become interested/inspired. The real world can be a pretty shitty place sometimes, but there’s no reason we have to spend all our time here.

-Gabe out

Tycho / 12 hours ago

Grace, Part Six can be found here.

I knew David Edery when he worked at Microsoft, what seems like a thousand years ago, under circumstances you will absorb here in a moment.  I think he was more or less driven insane by it.  Now he works at Spry Fox with an incredibly small crew, making all kinds of weird shit and getting incredibly bad business advice from ME.  I think he does what I do for Mike, which is to say, his primary goal over there is to help other people do what they do best, and it would be hard to put an exact label on it.

Hey, thank you for authorizing On The Rain-Slick Precipice Of Darkness a thousand years ago on Xbox 360.  Making games was terrifying, but it was a weird kind of terrifying that I would do again in a heartbeat.  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s like a runner’s high.  My experience had this profound component of trying to outrun a ghostly assailant.

We’ve spoken at length over many, many empty glasses about the fortunes of Spry Fox - you guys have made a lot of games, and we end up talking before each one comes out like “maybe this will be the one” that will blow up and give you some room to do really crazy shit you want to do.  But crazy shit is what you guys like best - these angular, intimidating games - and aggressively “monetizing mobile” is something that gives you the hives.  It should be said, I love this about your games.  I’m always giving you bad advice about what constitutes legibility in design and gameplay.  What is it like to make games that designers love, and praise, but the wider audience struggles with?  Does that mean you’re close to break-out success, or far away?

David Edery: We’ve had an unusual run. Relatively early in the life of our company we made Triple Town, which did very well by indie standards but not nearly well enough to keep a 10 person studio going indefinitely, and we co-developed Realm of the Mad God, which *could* have kept us going indefinitely if we hadn’t been forced to sell our stake in it. And then we made a bunch of games that, as you said, many of our fellow game designers loved but not enough other people did. This is partially because we became very ambitious after having two minor hits in rapid succession and we dove into much riskier and more experimental projects, it’s partially because we benefited in our early days from better market conditions than currently exist, and it’s partially because making games is just really fucking hard and we’ve made a bunch of mistakes.

I’m struggling to describe “what this is like.” I tend to be obsessed with my mortality, so when a game we release does poorly I’ll find myself dwelling about the fact that I just shit another # months/years of my life down the toilet, and about how little time I have to actually make any sort of difference in the world before I die. You know, to leave some sort of meaningful legacy behind for my daughter. Eventually I force myself to remember how lucky I am, that I have a wonderful family and a beautiful home and good friends and amazing teammates in Spry Fox, and then we’re working on the next game (because we’re always working on something, if not multiple somethings.) But each failure definitely leaves a scar and the scars pile up. We’re in the middle of a pretty good launch with Alphabear and even so I can’t stop myself from thinking “any minute now this is all going to go to shit.” Some horrible latent bug will upend the game. We’ll stop being featured and the game will immediately disappear from everyone’s radar. Some asshat at a soulless publisher will clone us and outmarket us. I don’t know what it is but something completely horrible will happen any minute now.

Pessimism aside, we’ve made a bunch of mistakes and we’ve tried to learn from them. Even if we’re really excited about a potential project, if we can’t quickly find a way to make it comprehensible to playtesters within a minute, we abandon it. We’ve probably shelved half a dozen prototypes that we thought were potentially awesome because they seemed difficult to teach. We avoid hiring anyone who lacks significant industry experience because we’ve found that making original games is hard enough with veterans and too hard without them. We generally avoid partnerships with other studios because we’ve found that more often than not, even the most awesome studios sometimes have different goals than we do, and those conflicting goals can cause problems that are nobody’s “fault” but really jeopardize the project. Those are just a few examples; suffice to say we’ve changed a lot over the past few years.

I have no idea how close or far we are from having a break-out success. Maybe we’re finally on the verge of it with Alphabear. I can’t help but doubt it. Mobile is just so brutally competitive. I’m hoping that Alphabear at least turns out like Triple Town - a modest success that helps pay the bills for a good while. People don’t realize how long it takes for a development team to gel. It’s only in the past year that Spry Fox has started to feel like a really solid team - we understand each other, we trust each other, and there’s not much friction as a result. It took five years to get to this point! I can’t imagine starting over now. I hope I never have to.

PS. Greenlighting Rain-Slick was a no-brainer; anyone would have done it. But you’re welcome all the same. :-)

- dje

I then received the following from the “other guy” at Spryfox, Daniel Cook, also called Danc, who philosophizes at Lost Garden.  Unlike David, he’s much more of a DESIGNER designer.  Read his response, and tell me I’m wrong.

Daniel Cook: A very personal question! I can’t speak for the whole studio, but a lot of what motivates me is the need to make something great.

Picture dropping a stone in the ocean and having waves spread outward. For years. For decades. Games are these swarm-like procedural systems made of players executing a behavioral code. Where waves are governed by fluid physics, games are governed by designed rules and human physics. Instead of forming a wave, players form cultures around games and spread outward. We drop a great game in the sea of humanity and see what happens.

In the process of crafting these vast dynamic human structures, I think we can do wonderful good in the world. One thing we’ve played with are large scale persistent cooperative games like Realm of the Mad God or Leap Day or our upcoming MMO. Good game design shifts how people behave. It teaches them new skills and new ways of seeing. What if we can help people master cooperation? Or help form lifetime friendships? That’s a deeply motivating challenge.

Our games often experiment. Each design gnaws at several interesting problems that I hadn’t explored before.

- Panda Poet: Word game, evergreen gameplay, play-by-mail.
- Triple Town: Evergreen gameplay, Minimalist Civilization, Psychology of colonization
- Realm of the Mad God: Cooperation, non-zero sum interactions, Micro team MMO design, trade economies, moral multiplayer F2P
- Leap Day: Friendship generation, Small group multiplayer economies, new forms of asynchronous persistence.
- Road Not Taken: Procedural puzzle rogue-like, Dynamic narratives, Life/Dating sim, Meditations on a childless life.

We release an experimental system, see what sort of splash it makes, rejigger it and repeat. Even if we nail 95% of our theories, we aren’t going to get it all right. It is an iterative process of human-mechanical invention.

It isn’t a typical approach to crafting games. Instead of following proven patterns, we’ll often seek out the personal unknown. Instead of listening to some tribal forum opinion, we’ll just build a prototype. The design process is “hey, here is a genre we’ve never done before. We have no experience and no chance of competing with the big boys. What the hell. Let’s try reinventing it from scratch. Let’s mix it up with 10 other genres because we’ve learned to see the Matrix and it’s all the same stuff underneath.”

Sometimes that works. It can take a large company about 200 person years of dev to harvest a hit game from their portfolio. It takes Spry Fox about 16 person years. Most indies are lucky to have had one success. We are shockingly lucky to have had three. All built on a bloody and painful history of shattered experiments and moronic dreams. :-)

The process here is to learn intimately how games actually work through the hands-on experience building them. It is the difference between listening to a violin and playing one. Each morning we get up and practice playing.

I’ve been doing this for 20 years and to me games are still a wonderful future of untapped potential. The gaming past is honestly just a tiny subset of what is possible. A personal exploration of that huge future space means we are stumbling around half blind. But that’s how you make something better the next time. Store up all those mistakes. Learn from them and stretch deeper into the void the next time.

Sure money matters. We need housing, food, health and stability. Those are base human constraints. Growing up in the economic backwaters of rural Maine, I know that poverty saps grand intellectual or artistic endeavors. Starving artists rarely have the bandwidth to thrive and Americana bootstrap homilies to the contrary are 99% bullshit. I don’t aim to be a starving artist; it is a pretty crappy way to live.

So we try to design games that are commercially viable enough to at least let us continue making games. It is a balance and it creates a massive amount of stress. I am one giant compromise at this point in my life. :-)

These are things that drive me. How do we create a rich, meaningful hobby that stands for ages? How do we change the world for the better?

We obviously aren’t there yet. We are still learning. But that’s okay. If making games were easy, I’d do something else.

- Danc

POOPING IS LOGICAL!

For some reason I have a bunch of writer friends. In fact now that I think about it, I probably know more writers than I do visual artists. I like writers because they always get very excited when they see drawings based on their stories. Taking the ideas they have in their heads and turning them into pictures is like a magic trick to many writers. Maybe that’s why I like them so much. When I hang out with writers I’m the best artist in the room!

Gary Whitta is one of these writer friends and a few months ago he came to me with an idea. He wanted to make a book for geek parents and their kids called Pooping is Logical. He asked if I’d help him out with some drawings. A potty-training book based on the tenets of Vulcan philosophy? Hell yeah I was interested!

Getting the Star Trek license is tricky though and Gary needs some help convincing the folks in charge that Pooping is Logical is a fun idea. Head over to his page for more details on the project and see what he has to say about getting the word out.

Here’s some of the sketches I did when I was working on the cover:

Also Gary’s new book Abomination just hit Amazon. I read this more than a year ago now and absolutely loved it.

-Gabe Out

PAX Aus

If you live in Australia then it is already tomorrow but that’s just your today so don’t freak out. That means you’re “Tomorrow” (Friday, July 31) is the last day to snag badges at the Early Bird Rate. So you should do that!

Also we’ve announced the PAX Australian Indie Showcase winners. You can check them all out over on the official page.

-Gabe out

Tycho / 3 days ago

Grace, Part Five can be found here.

Erik Wolpaw, from Old Man Murray to Portal and Portal 2, you must certainly be considered the world’s foremost writer of gaming humor - both inside and outside games themselves.  And your last name is just pronounced regular old Wolpaw, which is way easier to pronounce than Chmielarz.  It’s a much more considerate name.  But, back to the other thing: why is the best in the Goddamn business writing Team Fortress comics exclusively, and only those, forever?

Jesus, Jerry, you’re making it sound like I don’t do anything at work. I doubt Gabe Newell reads your (stupid) website, but somebody might tell him about your website and say “you better read this website,” and the first article he’d read is all about Wolpaw not doing any work at work. So to answer your question: I am doing a lot of work.  I come in every day and think about how I can add value to Valve and its customers. I don’t always just think about it, either. My writing partner Jay Pinkerton and I are writing a novel. Don’t believe me? Well, I guess I’m screwed then oh no wait how do you explain this:

And that’s just a small excerpt of the hundreds of pages we plan to write. I should also mention that, if you look closely at the excerpt, you’ll notice it’s not just plain text. We made it into an actual webpage image, which doesn’t just magically happen with no work. When Gabe asked me and Jay what we’d been doing since Portal 2, we triumphantly slammed down our novel.  And even before its single, post-it-note sized page had finished floating gently to his desk, Gabe pointed out that we were fired. I quickly refined our pitch to include the fact that Jay was crying, and then Gabe sighed and let us stop being fired. That was two years ago, and while The Great Greatsby hasn’t technically grown in word count, it has ballooned in ambition, because given four or five years any motivated pair of talented writers can write a novel excerpt, but not everyone can (plan to) turn their novel (excerpt) into a (butt hospital) room-scale VR experience.

Would we like to write a big AAA story game? Sure. But funny, big-budget story games aren’t really in demand lately. It’s grim survival dinosaur underage haunted house lesbians all the time now. Jay and I tried to write some serious literary fiction and couldn’t get through the first sentence without something getting jammed up somebody’s butt, so the odds of us writing The Last of Us is mostly zero.

Between our cross-medium Great Greatsby franchise planning, the Aperture VR demo, TF and DOTA updates, plus a bunch of unannounced Valve projects, we’re keeping pretty busy. And that’s not even counting the massive, ongoing, Eisner Award-winning someday probably, seven-part TF comic opus (#1, #2, #3, #4) that Jay and I are making with Heather Campbell. Issue #5 ships in August, which gives you just enough time to catch up on the eagle attacks, Australian supermen, immortality machines, Tom Jones murders, naked bear fights, public execution scrapbooking and shocking major character deaths in what has become Valve’s most story-heavy game. We even made an easy-reader comic to gently usher you into the big players and plotlines of the TF Universe.

And that’s what we’re up to, Gabe, if you’re reading this. Okay, well, we know you’re a busy man just like us and all that’s left is some boring legal disclaimer stuff so you should stop reading now so we can all get back to being busy. Penny Arcade LLC and its laws and jurisdictions are not responsible for the habeus corpus - Alright, he’s gone. And to (stupid) Jerry, thanks for Frost Nixoning us about what we do all day. Go to Hell, Jerry. Anyway, this post is over for real now. Turn off your computer, Jerry. Show’s over.

...

Okay, Jerry’s gone. Neil Druckmann, if you’re reading Jerry’s (stupid) website, all that stuff we said earlier about us being bad at writing Last of Us was just jokes. But jokes aren’t all we do, Neil. Don’t believe us? Why don’t you ask THE SKELETON THAT’S RIGHT BEHIND YOU! Horror writing, Neil. By us. Now take a closer at that skeleton. Maybe it makes you think of your own mortality, and how we’re all just skeletons on the inside? Or maybe that last sentence was just great drama writing. Great drama writing that could be in The Last of Us 2 if you play your cards right. Or at all. We do all the genres, Neil. Including sex, if that’s what it takes to get this deal done. One non-negotiable: Jay and I are a package. We get this job as a team or not at all. Say! Is that a knock at the door? Jay, maybe it’s Neil with some jobs! You better go see.

...

Okay, no-talent Jay is gone. This ruse isn’t going to hold together long, so I’ll have to be quick. Neil, I will drive over Jay’s dead body for this gig. I was BORN to write Last of Us 2. On my birth certificate it says Erik Wolpaw, The Last of Us 2 Writer. Or whatever other game you want me to write, I’m not picky. I just need to be paid in cash, Neil. In advance. I lied to everybody else about this blog post being over, but I’ll never lie to you, Neil. This is the actual end. I love you. Wait, maybe that’s too much too soon. I intend to love you.

- Erik




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