Dipping your toes in the past
Published 4 years ago
Trying to survive as a indie game dev today
After a busy day playing on the beach in Wexford Ireland in the early eighties my brothers and I always went to visit the local arcade before ice cream and a short car trip home. I would waste what small change I was given within the first five minutes but that didn't matter as I could spend the rest of my time soaking up the sights and sounds each game cabinet had to offer.
In my later years I studied fine art, music and media technology, and finally completed a PhD combining experimental computer animation and sound design techniques. It wasn't until recently I came full circle after realising that what I was trying to achieve with my work could be more effectively expressed through videogames. It suddenly clicked that I could combine story, music, sound effects, visual art, nostalgia, everyday and philosophical issues, within a game. More importantly people could play that game and possibly enjoy playing it as much as I had enjoyed playing games as a kid; well that was the challenge anyway. Unity gave a non-professionally trained programmer like me a chance to achieve my goal.
Before I speak about my current game Mayhem In Single Valley (download demo) I would like to speak about my debut game You Are Not A Banana. When I made You Are Not a Banana I tried to combine what excited me about my videogames past with a more modern take on life. The infinite graveyard puzzle and the randomly placed bag bomb in You Are Not a Banana can be seen as examples of this approach. Because it was more of an experiment than anything else, I never intended to publish or submit You Are Not A Banana for review. In fact, I was trying to make a cheeky game that caricatured the insatiable appetite of gamers/consumers today (including myself, I play COD too). For example, instead of saving a princess, you buy milk. Instead of high drama, the main character remains unaffected by the increasingly sensational situations he finds himself in.
After I discovered short indie games like The Stanley Parable and Thirty Flights of Loving I decided to put my game on Desura. I later placed it on Steam Greenlight. Although the game inspired mixed reactions, the YouTube playthroughs, comments, and player feedback it received was beyond what I expected. Even some indie journalists gave the game kind and constructive reviews. What stood out was how much the gaming community was willing to engage with the game. I had created experimental projects in the past but they never received the same attention by such a diverse community. The ability to watch players’ reactions on YouTube was an entirely new way to receive feedback. Seeing what worked and what didn’t as somebody played was the equivalent of being able to step inside someone’s head as they contemplate a painting. There is also a ‘playing games with my big bother back in the day vibe’ to the let’s play video scene that I find fascinating - virtual big brothers and sisters for the masses.
You Are Not A Banana was stuck on Steam Greenlight for about a year, not great in terms of momentum, but it eventually got enough votes (or Steam felt sorry for me). During this time I was exploring work opportunities. I wasn’t sure if it was possible to pursue making vidoegames any further but looked into funding regardless. I applied to Canada Media Fund’s experimental stream as it seemed like a good fit. While the paperwork was involved, the possibility of creating something more substantial was enticing. In order to receive the development fund it was necessary to incorporate as a business. Again the thought of making a game that could give as much joy to gamers today as I got growing up was all the motivation I needed.
As I began developing a new version of You Are Not A Banana I hoped to address the positive and negative feedback it received, especially the negative. During the first weeks of the design process I asked myself if I was to create You Are Not A Banana with the benefit of hindsight (and a small budget) what would I make? The answer was to build a larger more dynamic game world with a stronger narrative.
As my ideas evolved the game transformed into more of a spiritual successor to You Are Not A Banana than a direct sequel. While Mayhem In Single Valley retains the humorous philosophical elements of You Are Not A Banana it has many new features and improvements.
I also decided that the game would benefit from a technical overhaul. The CMF fund allowed me to hire local programmers to create a more robust framework by building the game from the ground up. Their work has given the game more fluid gameplay, a fully functional save option, an inventory system, proper options menus, and allowed for a more modular approach to adding levels, dialogue, interactions, and cinematics. I have learned a great deal from examining their coding and design techniques.
I spent the last year developing Mayhem In Single Valley and completed a fully playable demo that covers roughly the first five percent of a five hour campaign. All the major technical problems have more or less been solved and I have written a complete story treatment with lots of meta-fiction ponderings. The game aims to be a fast-paced but thoughtful and modern take on the traditional RPG. It mixes what I enjoy most about games such as The Last Of Us and Undertale.
In Mayhem in Single Valley you play Jack, a local troublemaker who makes a series of earth-shattering discoveries on the day he is supposed to leave home to attend art college. Jack's adventure begins in a semi-realistic version of everyday life but unfolds into a humorous and philosophical examination of the interplay between Jack, the player, and the game's creators. I'm excited by the idea of deconstructing the illusion of playing a videogame as the player progresses through the narrative and by what ramifications this has for both the player and the protagonist.
So here's the cliffhanger - I'm going to make every effort to get my game into full production but I need funding to pay the mortgage and hire a team, which is no easy task. It's a seat of your pants, work on what you love rollercoaster ride but whatever the final outcome I've had a blast over the past three years diving into the sounds and images of my past with an aim to create humorous and heartfelt games.
brian cullen