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Stories, Women and Games.

5 Aug

So I spent the entire day with Alex Epstein, our screenwriter this week, to finalize the script and storyline for Contrast. We spent the day at his place shuffling color-coded cards around and discussing the production costs involved in each scene, character development and player motivations until our heads hurt.

Alex Epstein Directing an early Voice Over Session for Contrast

Making a game with a professional voice over cast and a strong narrative can be quite a challenge for a small independent shop (it significantly raises the production costs and stakes), but it’s rewarding to develop a script that doesn’t start with “You are the long lost child of a forgotten prophecy”, or “aliens are abducting women” and tackles more emotionally interesting plotlines.

What’s with stories in games anyways? I can’t help but think that it’s a segment of our industry that is particularly juvenile. When it comes to experimentation and growing our medium’s audience, talking about deeper subjects seems to be a commercial taboo slotting you in the artsy/fringe side of the gaming world. I don’t know about you, but there’s a part of me that yearns for games that aren’t just about “kill things until they’re all dead”.

In Papo & Yo, our friends at Minority Inc used a metaphore to recount the youth of Vander Caballero’s experience dealing with his father’s alcoholism. That’s the kind of story I think the gaming community should get behind and support commercially; so that we get the tools and budgets we need to create emotionaly compelling stories.

We realized early in our focus test sessions on Contrast that although the game had a strong appeal with men because of the nature of the game mechanics, our context and story also appealed to (gasp!) women as well. Yet, while visiting with an unnamed publisher, we were told by a high-profile woman executive that we should keep that fact carefully under wraps.

Really? So if I make a game that women may actually enjoy in the console space, it becomes a sissy game? Wow. I’m sorry – it’s time we revised our script. I forgot to add gun-toting latex nuns. Yeah. Those should fit right into a 1920’s film noir inspired setting.

So what if there were cool games, with cool mechanics, that your significant other (be they man or woman) might actually enjoy sharing with you? What if we made games that didn’t relegate the activity to the allmighty secluded man-cave? Wouldn’t that be great? Break out the popcorn!

Are you Indie enough?

23 Jul

No one will contest there has been a rise in independent game development in recent years. The vanguard of the renaissance that brought us Castle Crashers and World of Goo inspired an entire generation of developers to chuck their employers and make a go at indie game development. We’ve had an explosion in accessible platforms with the introduction of the iPhone and iPad, Facebook and social games, as well as a revolution in project financing with the introduction of crowd funding, and – let us not forget it – an increased level of involvement from traditional publishers interested in getting a piece of the action.

But what has been happening in the living room? With the repeated success stories on consoles over the years, you might think that the world of do-it-yourself development has become a rosy place. What outside observers often fail to see is how increasingly competitive and selective these marketplaces are becoming. With a limited number of release slots in the XBLA & PSN market, we’ve seen a steady increase in production values – from two guys in a cafe (World of GooBraidto small, dedicated teams (LimboBastion), to the ‘not so small’ indies (Journey comes to mind). So the question begs the answer: what’s “Indie?”.

With the uproar around EA’s recent “Indie Bundle” on steam, it’s clear that we’re talking about a subject that the development community feels ticklish about. The truth is that – even within the spirit of being the indie garage developer – making great games does requires some money. The folks at PlayDead got funding through Venture Capital firms (story), many of us get government incentives in the form of tax credits or grants, and some sign publishing deals (something you’re obligated to do if you want to release on XBLA!). So I ask you – why is signing with a publisher viewed like such a cop-out?

I don’t think that Journey deserves any less props than Dear EstherSure, ThatGameCompany was backed by the financial might and marketing machine of a mega-corporation; but does it in any way dilute the creative and commercial risks the team took while shaping their product?

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