Hey everyone, Kent here with a rare mid-week post. The Brazilian website JogoPro just published an interview I did quite a while back, and since it’s in Portuguese I got their permission to post the original English interview here. Thanks, Edu!
This one is kind of interesting because of the question about the Xbox One. I turned in this interview on June 13th, before Microsoft pulled their 180 and removed the always-on DRM requirements, and before Don Mattrick left for Zynga. The timing is extra funny given that just today Microsoft announced that indies would be able to publish on the Xbox One.
At the time I said that Microsoft would be “forced to adapt or watch their new console fail,” and it appears that they’ve chosen to adapt.
Oh, and there’s also a bunch of stuff about the game in the interview, too!
First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the concept and trailer of “The Novelist”. It seems like a fresh, innovative and emotional game, and that alone is a reason to celebrate. For how long have you been working on it? Not just with code I mean, but for how long the idea is in your head?
Thanks for the kind words! The idea has been in my head in one form or another for a few years now. I started getting interested in the concept of player-driven stories in 2010, and my interest at that time culminated in a talk I gave at GDC 2011. At that time it was only a hypothetical interest, though; I knew what I wanted from games and where I wanted them to go, but I wasn’t actively working on any projects with those goals.
Once I quit my job to go indie, though, the idea kept nagging at me. When I first struck out on my own I started making an iOS game, but within a few weeks I went on a one-month contracting job and during that time I realized I had no real passion for the game I was making. I started thinking about what kind of game I wanted to work on when the contracting job was up, and the idea of doing something with player-driven stories bubbled up.
I’d previously written a short design for a game where you play a ghost in a house full of people who’ve just come from a funeral, and that was the original form of the game that I started working on in February of 2012. As I kept working, though, I realized that I needed to create a more defined context for the relationships in order for players to identify with the choices and characters, and around June of last year I hit upon the idea of a novelist trying to balance his career with his family.
So as a high level idea it’s been floating around in my head off and on for years, but this specific execution of it is about a year old.
The protagonist has writing as his job, he has to manage his time to work, and deals with doubts about spending more time with his family. To what extent does that problem relate directly to you, being a developer, working alone, doing almost everything by yourself? (And we know that takes A LOT of time!)
It’s definitely a struggle I identify with. I don’t have any children, but I am married and it does take effort to do good work while maintaining a healthy relationship. The game was never intended to be autobiographical, though; when I hit upon the idea of balancing the main character’s career with parenthood and marriage, I was really just trying to find something universal that people could identify with.
That said, once I started writing the game and trying to create real-world scenarios I found myself drawing on my own questions and struggles to create a perspective for Dan, the novelist in the game. He’s only one of three characters, though, so even though I identify more with him it doesn’t mean his path through the game is the right one. I’ve tried my best to make all three character equally sympathetic so that players have to bring their own values and opinions into their decision-making, which in turn allows them to tell their own story.
And how do you manage your time, to spend moments with your family and friends? Do you have time left, now working on The Novelist?
It’s definitely a challenge, but as with many aspects of life the most important thing is to simply acknowledge the challenge and make a conscious effort to prioritize the things that are important to you.
For example, there are two nights a week when my wife and I make sure we spend the entire evening together doing something interesting (trying a new restaurant, going to a music show, visiting a museum, etc). We see each other every day, of course, but on those days we make a conscious effort to do something new together instead of just watching a movie or spending time on our iPads.
It’s the same with hanging out with friends. Even though it’s tempting to just lay around and relax after a hard day of work, it’s important to make the effort to meet up with a friend or go do something fun. I also keep my IM program open and stay in touch with my friends throughout the day to keep those connections strong.
So in the end, it comes down to making family and friends a priority. It’s one thing to say they’re important, but if someone really means a lot you have to take action and make a conscious effort to keep those relationships alive.
Did you think about launching The Novelist in consoles such as PS3, Xbox 360 or Wii U? If so, what kept you from doing it, what made you prioritize PCs?
I prioritized the PC because it’s by far the platform with the lowest barrier to entry. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get your game onto a console (though Sony has lowered the barrier to entry quite a bit recently), but on the PC you can make the whole thing in your apartment and sell it yourself (which I’m already doing on the game’s website). I definitely plan to look at putting it on consoles after the PC game has shipped, though right now it looks like the PS3, PS4, and OUYA are the only viable options.
Nowadays is easier to get financial investment for independent games than it was before? Do you think that individual incentives that are shown in Kickstarter are a better way of getting investment than the traditional way?
I definitely think that Kickstarter is a great thing for games and creative projects in general. The benefit of Kickstarter is that it lets you pitch your ideas directly to the audience, and for people who haven’t worked in the AAA industry it’s hard to understand just how empowering that concept is when compared to the traditional model.
Publicly traded companies have a primary purpose: to generate profit for their shareholders. They may have other secondary goals, but those other goals are all aimed at achieving the primary goal of making money. So when you have a creative company – and this goes for movie companies, music companies, book companies, and other artistic industries – there’s a natural tension between business goals and the creative workforce. The people who work on games want to make the coolest, most creative thing they can, but the people who run the company want to make as much money as possible for the shareholders.
The friction arises because creativity is risky. You can’t do truly creative work without a real chance of failing; that’s the nature of the beast. In a corporate environment, a failed project can mean losing millions of dollars, which is in direct conflict with the company’s primary goal. That in turn means that companies are less likely to take creative risks and are more likely to look for sure things, which is why we see so many clones and retreads of the same types of games. There may be a few exceptions to the explanation above, but in my personal experience the financial side has usually won out. I’ve seen years of work thrown away by executives who don’t even play games, people who rely on focus tests to form an opinion about what the audience wants.
With Kickstarter, on the other hand, you can find out not only how many people want your game, but how many are willing to give you real money for it. That’s a concrete show of support. So while the budgets aren’t remotely as big as a AAA title, you’re also not trying to get the money from someone who’s wildly risk-averse; you’re getting it from people who are saying, “Yes! We want what you’re making!” That’s a very liberating concept for creative individuals, because it’s made it possible to get risky projects underway.
Microsoft has just announced the new Xbox One and had no words for the indie development, they only wanted to show an impressive increase of technology and opening for a diversity of possibilities… Is it a bad thing for indie developers and the independent scene, or once the mainstream industry of games sets its eyes on indie games it becomes part of the industry (and then it’s not independent anymore)?
This probably won’t be a popular opinion, but I don’t really care that the Xbox One doesn’t support independent developers. I would feel very differently if the XBone was the only way for independent games to reach a wide audience, but there are a ton of other ways to get your product out to gamers between the Humble Store, Steam, PS4, iOS, Android, OUYA, Desura, direct website sales, and other platforms.
Don’t get me wrong: I think Microsoft has made a mistake by not supporting independent developers on the XBone, but I think they’ve made a number of anti-gamer decisions with the console (my buddy Chris Plante wrote a good summary on Polygon). The reason I’m not worried about the XBone shutting out independent developers is that I take a very Darwinistic view of the situation; I believe products that don’t serve their audience will fail and that gamer-friendly products will succeed.
Customers don’t buy expensive consoles that don’t meet their needs, especially when there are viable alternatives.
If gamers are as put-off by the XBone as they seem to be judging by the E3 reaction, then Microsoft will be forced to adapt or watch their new console fail. Given that there are so many other ways for people to create and sell indie games, I’m content to take advantage of the channels that are there and let market forces dictate the outcome for platforms that aren’t friendly to independent developers.
As for whether or not the inclusion of indie games on consoles would make them part of the mainstream, I don’t think that a game’s distribution platform defines whether or not it’s mainstream. To me, the difference between an independent game and a mainstream game comes down to two questions: where did the funding come from, and what are the creative goals of the product? If a developer funds a game via methods outside the AAA system and has creative control, then in my mind it’s still an indie game even if it’s distributed on the PS4 or XBone or WiiU. It’s a question of where the game came from, not where it ended up.
But ultimately, I really only care about what the creative goals of a game are and how those goals are realized in the final product. There are amazing, inspiring AAA games and there are really awful indie games; I cringe a little bit when I see people turning it into an “us vs. them” situation. Your goal as a creator should be to find a situation where you’re creatively empowered and can work on something you’re passionate about. I have friends doing that in both the AAA and indie spaces, and I couldn’t be happier for them regardless of where they are.
So as long as there are ways for games of all types to find an audience and be profitable enough to sustain the individuals and companies doing good work, I’ll be happy.
If you have something you like to say to gamers in general, especially Brazilian gamers, this is the space:
Although I’ve never been fortunate enough to visit Brazil (yet!), it’s wonderful to see games reaching such a global audience. If you’re reading this, please find ways to support the developers and projects you believe in, whether that means helping out on Kickstarter, voting on Greenlight, or buying games when they’re released. You have the ability to support what you believe in and shape the industry, and that’s a beautiful thing!