I have three pieces of PAX related news to share with you.
1. If you are attending PAX Dev and you would like to know when all the cool stuff that is happening there is happening then check out this schedule.
2. The Dates for PAX South are January 29, 30, 31.
3. We are “planning” on launching ticket sales for PAX South on September 16th 2015.
4. I hate when I’m trying to get to the World’s Grave but I get turned around at the Circle of Bones and I end up in the Skull Orchard. One of those places is not actually in Destiny.
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.
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. :-)
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.
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.