Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Why All Of Our Games Look Like Crap

We spent years working on this game. We're betting our family's future on it. So. Why does it look so bad?
We've been writing indie games for a living for 25 years. My wife and I run a humble little mom-and-pop business. We make retro low-budget role-playing games that have great stories and design and are a lot of fun.

Also, they look like crap.

The first game I released, in January of 1995, looked like crap. It achieved financial success (among the blind, apparently), which funded many more games that looked like crap, enabling me to build a solid reputation.

Based on this reputation, we had a successful Kickstarter for Queen's Wish: The Conqueror, an exciting upcoming RPG that will look like crap. We hope it will be a gateway to us making games that look like crap for many years to come.

We have no complaints. We are in the middle of a long, successful career, and everything is rosy. However, sometimes I like to write about the indie game business and help people understand how it works and give advice to younger developers. This article is about why our games look the way they do, whether you like them or not (probably not).

Most importantly, I want to advocate for the right of indie developers to be weird. If an indie dev has a wild, creative idea and is scared of trying it and thinks, "I might as well do it, at least I'm not being as crazy as Jeff Vogel," I've done my job.

So if you are interested in why we write games that look like crap and will ALWAYS look like crap, read on.


This is what I grew up playing. A true classic. This is what looks normal to me.

First, Let's Just Get One Thing Clear ...

I think my games look good, and they contain a lot of really good art.

All of the art in Queen's Wish was made by extremely talented freelancers doing really solid work to my specifications. I feel very lucky to be working with them. If you think my games look bad, any blame for that rests with me entirely.

Second, again, I think Queen’s Wish looks really nice and comfy. Maybe it's a generational thing. People who grew up with Nintendo and Sega really like pixel art. I grew up with Atari and Intellivision, and I am very used to having art that leaves a lot to the imagination.

My art is the sort of game art I grew up with, just with more modern color and detail, designed to give the feel of a tabletop Dungeons & Dragons game. That is my goal.

So when I say my games look like crap, I am maybe being a little clickbaity. Video games are art, art is hugely subjective, and there are lots of people who genuinely like how my games look. I certainly do.

This article is an explanation for those who disagree.

Exile: Escape From the Pit, the first game we ever released. Queen's Wish is meant to evoke this old style, which, yes, I like.

What Brought This Post On

People have criticized the art in our games for decades. I have had indie developers, normally a mild and supportive lot, make fun of my games TO MY FACE.

We have a pretty thick skin about it. Still, when we announced Queen's Wish: The Conqueror, I got this message on Reddit:

Jeff, I really like what you do and Geneforge 2 is one of my favorite games ever, but why not get a better artist? It's not even about technically impressive art, just about something that is pleasant to look at and doesn't alienate people. So many of my friends have told me they'd love to try your games but just can't get over the sloppy and cheap art style.

Ouch.

What fascinates me here is that the guy seems to think he is telling me news. Like, I'm smart enough to keep a software company running for 25 years, but I am unable to notice qualities in my games that are instantly obvious to Joe Q. Rando. Apparently, my games are so ugly that looking directly at them without protective gear will turn you into this guy ...


So yeah, this message bummed me out a bit, but it shouldn't have. I have seen COUNTLESS variants of this criticism over the last 25 years. At least he didn't threaten my life or call me slurs or wish horrible fates on my children (which happens).

What Is Wrong With Our Art?

If you think my art is fine and don't understand what the problem is, bless you. I'll tell you what some think is wrong, as best I understand it.

1. Queen's Wish has a very retro square-tile top-down view, reminiscent of old Ultima games, old Pokemon games, Spiderweb's first games, tabletop D&D, that sort of thing. For some, that old style is really unfamiliar and/or alienating.

2. Queen's Wish uses art made by a lot of different artists. That means that the style is not quite consistent. We've done our best to make it blend well, but it's a little off.

3. All the characters only look in diagonal directions. I made this choice because I once thought all the art would be hand-drawn, and I desperately needed to reduce the number of icons I needed. This was a mistake, and I'll probably try to fix it in Queen's Wish 2.

4. It's not in 3-D. Some people will only ever be happy with 3-D.

I'm sure there are lots of other problems. These are just the most common complaints. All these problems can be fixed. All they need is money. Lots of money.

Our previous game, Avernum 3: Ruined World. Why didn't I just write another game that looks like this? Because I didn't want to. Nyeah!
So. Why Do My Games Look Like Crap?

Or, more accurately, why do my games look the way they do, when other more fancy, more expensive art styles are available? Style that would, I freely admit, increase my sales.

These are the reasons I don't change. If you want to make a living in the games business, or run ANY business, these ideas might be useful to you. This isn't just me whining. There are a lot of key basic principles here, and ignoring them is very dangerous for a small entrepreneur.

1. I Can Never Be Good Enough

Remember we're a tiny company, like most indie developers.

Suppose I want to change how I write games and run my business. Fine. Maybe I should. the first thing I have to ask is: What is my goal? It's to convert non-customers into customers.

There are players out there who look at my games and say, "I don't want to play a game that looks like that." That is totally their right. But suppose I want to win those people over. What is required?

The key problem here is that, when most people say, "Your art looks bad," what they mean is, "I want art that is good." They mean, "I want AAA-quality art." And I can't make that. Not even close.

I have had games where I worked very hard to improve the graphics, spending a lot of time and money, and they really did look better! But when I released those games, the vast majority of people who had said, "Your games look bad." STILL said, "Your games look bad."

Games like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin look infinitely better than my work. Those games also have huge teams, paid for by big budgets.

And let's be clear. If this is what you want, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Hey, I like good graphics too. If you want really good graphics, my games will never be for you. I can't afford you.

Writing story-heavy RPGs like mine is still a total niche business. AAA gaming has moved away from what I write very fast. Yes, Divinity: Original Sin 2 was a big hit, but Pillars of Eternity 2 very much was not.

I will never run a big game company. I have to stay small, both because of business realities and because of what my wife and I want from our lives. So our games will never be fancy. They will always be humble.

LESSON: Before trying for a goal, make sure that goal is possible to reach. It might not be. Know your limits!

Nethergate, released in 1997. A huge improvement over Exile. Before I released it, everyone said my games look bad. After I released it, everyone said my games look bad.

"BUT ... Just because we can't shoot for the moon doesn't mean that we can't make some improvements! Hire a full-time artist. Hire another programmer who knows Unity. Why not do that?"

2. We Want To Run a Profitable Business

When you want to run a small business, managing your budget is vitally important. Right now, our games only need to earn enough to support one family. When you have a solid product and a decent reputation, that is a very realistic goal. We've been doing it for 25 years.

Suppose I want to hire a second employee. That will double the budget for our game. That means we have to double our sales to make up for it. When you are in business, especially one as competitive as video games, doubling sales is HARD.

Would a second or third employee increase sales? Absolutely. Would it do so enough to justify the expense? Far more dubious. And bear in mind I need to come up with the money to hire those employees in the first place. That probably means a bank loan. Even if I get that loan, if the extra sales from the new employees isn't enough to pay the loan, that means the whole business can die.

Can increasing headcount and making better games be a good idea? Of course! Businesses do it all the time! It's how great games are made. It is also a good way to lose everything.

I already have a long-term profitable business, and that is not unrelated to my risk-averse personality. I don't want to blow it.

LESSON: When you spend more money, you need to increase sales to match those expenses. Make sure you have a good chance of doing this, and make sure you can stomach the risk.

Darkest Dungeon has really good art that a small team can afford to do. However, the style is really distinctive. Finding artists to reproduce this exact look is hard.

"BUT ... Small companies make great-looking games all the time. The key is to get an artist to make a cool, distinctive art style (like hand-drawn or pixel art). My games have fairly standard, neutral icon art. Why not have more style?"

3. We Need To Maintain a Consistent Look

This is a very subtle but important point, and it's one that people don't think about enough when analyzing or planning indie games.

Suppose I want to make a game like Darkest Dungeon, that doesn't actually have a huge amount of art, but it has a really cool, distinctive style. A small developer could afford to write a game like Darkest Dungeon. I have to get a freelancer who will develop an individual art style for a reasonable price. (Because I can’t afford a full-time employee, see above.)

But.

There is a key problem with freelancers: They have free will. They will very rarely be able to work for you for a long time. They get better jobs, or they quit making art, or they make art but for someone else, or they just flake out.

Suppose I get half a game-worth of really neat, funky art, and then my freelancer gets a real job for big bucks. I then have to find a new artist who can match the style of that art and make a lot of it, which is very difficult.

And then suppose I write a sequel, and I want to reuse that art and need more art made in that style. Then it is even more likely that my freelancer (and any replacements) will have moved on, and then I either have to throw everything away and get it redone (expensive in time and money) or find a new artist who will try to match that art's style and probably not do a great job at it.

I can't stress this enough: Finding talented, reliable, reasonably priced freelancers is HARD. Cherish them when you find them.

That is why all of my games have a more generic fantasy style. I have to work with a lot of different artists. It's the nature of the business. Thus I have to write games in a way that the artists can be replaced. The generic style this requires is not ideal, but it is necessary.

LESSON: Always be aware of when you are relying on other people. Always be prepared to replace anyone. People move on. Life happens.

This is a really good, critically acclaimed, successful indie game. If a game that looks like this can be a hit, maybe there can be room for me?
"But you did games with a more 3-D look and I like those better. Your games looked kind of fine. Why didn't you stay with that?""

4. You Gotta' Follow Your Muse

Game makers are artists. Artists are dependent on their inspirations. Sometimes your brain just wants to make a certain thing. If you aren't going to do what you want and believe in, why are you writing indie games?

I've been writing games with that angled isometric look for twenty years. Twenty! I just wanted to write something that looks different. I have to change things sometimes to stay interested and keep from burning out. Period.

LESSON: Not every artist can make every sort of art. Van Gogh couldn't paint a Renoir painting. If something inspires you, consider following that. If you're writing things you don't want to write, why not just get a real job? You'll get a regular paycheck and benefits.

Atari Adventure, one of my all-time favorite games. A true classic. I STILL love this game. If you don't like it, maybe the problem is you.

"BUT ... Surely you can do SOMETHING? Surely there is some hope! Can nothing be improved?"

5. Again, Some People Like Our Games

Remember, we've sold MANY copies of our games. We have fans. Our games have a scruffy, eccentric handmade look. Our indie games look, well, indie.

I like how our games look, more or less, and I get a vote too. Maybe I'm a big weirdo, but weirdos spend money too.

And, honestly, isn't one of the foundational ideas of indie games that there is room for all sorts of creative expression? That having more dollars doesn't give you a better claim on The Truth? That you don't have to be a billion dollar company to be good, to be right?

Seriously, if you think my games look bad, don't play them. Believe me, I understand. But I got into this business to make my weird toys in my weird way. If I ever can't convince people to buy them, I'll quit and sell shoes.

LESSON: If you are doing something that is working, keep doing it. If you are comfortable with your success, don't let anyone psych you out of it.

People have been hating on my art for 25 years. I am very lucky, and I hope they'll be doing it for 25 more.
We Run Our Own Businesses To Have Freedom

To me, one of the most saddening things about our current economy is that the number of small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs has been dropping for quite some time.

We at Spiderweb love the freedom of being our own bosses, and we hope others get to enjoy it too. It's a scary way to live, but it has its rewards. We get to be weird. We get to make our own thing, and we OWN it. That is wonderful.

So, anonymous Reddit person, that is why we don't have art that is "pleasant to look at and doesn't alienate people". This was a lot of words, but it's actually a pretty big question.

If you've stuck with me this far, thank you, and I hope, in your life, you get to create things that make you content.

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I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Make Them Want. Delay. Fulfill. Repeat.

Players can get a deep feeling of satisfaction from games that literally play themselves. How cool is that?
Last week, I began my discourse on how video games can warp your brain chemistry to bring you pleasure in order to make lots of money and how difficult, delicate, and awesome that process is.

I have eight observations about how video games cause your brain to secrete delicious dopamine. Here are the last four. If you can master this dark art, endless success awaits.

5. Different Genres of Games Provide Different Dopamine Delivery Systems

Role-playing games let your characters earn small improvements, providing a constant flow of drug. Tough puzzle games and Dark Souls-type games hold back your dose for a while as you master a challenge and then reward you in one big flood when you finally succeed.

Open-ended games like Destiny are for the serious addict, who wants a lot of hits over a period of time. Short, self-contained games are for someone who wants a limited supply or likes getting the hits in a variety of ways.

This is why there will always be a market for finite-length single-player story games. They are safe to play. However intensely they consume your time for a while, they end. I'm fine with dumping all this time into Subnautica because I know I will eventually kill the Final Fish and be free.

By the way, part of the genius of Achievements systems is that they create a whole new layer of fulfillment and addiction on top of what the games already provide, and they do it with very little effort. Whatever mad genius in Microsoft came up with the idea of the Gamer Score deserves the Nobel Prize For Awesomeness.

My next game, Queen's Wish. Beating dungeons gets resources. Use resources to buy shops. The shops give you better equipment. Each step provides dopamine.
6. Like All Drugs, You Will Eventually Develop Tolerance

You will always develop tolerance for a drug. You will eventually get tired of walking on the hedonic treadmill.

Most people, as they age, stop playing video games. They sometimes ask me, confused, why they don't want to play anymore. Games used to seem so important.

Part of this is the increasing obligations of adulthood, taking away your ability to spend hundreds of hours in an MMO. I think it's more than that. After all, if you care about something, REALLY care, you'll make time for it. If you were that desperate to play video games, you'd play video games.

No, I think it is that video game-induced dopamine hits are a fleeting and hollow pleasure. Every hit you get makes you less fulfilled than the one before. The sense of accomplishment is an illusion, after all. Eventually, the fun you get just doesn't justify the time expended, and you put down the controller and leave your house.

When the rewards are provides by machines you make yourself, that magnifies the fulfillment. Have this game running on three computers simultaneously to triple your pleasure!
7. Don't Be So Judgmental About This.

Seriously. Dopamine addiction is a problem, but it isn't that huge a problem. Why get so mad about it? You're not trying to cure cancer. You're not freeing an oppressed people. You're writing about video games.

Look. I love video games. I have my whole life. I've dedicated my career to them. I let me kids play them. I think they're terrific, in moderation.

Yet, if you spend a hundred hours playing a video game, I think you should ask yourself if it's the best use of your time. If you spend a thousand hours playing a game, I think that you are making a mistake. If my kids try to get into speedrunning, I will, in a friendly and gentle way, strongly encourage them to not do that.

Look, I don't want to make any big fancy declarations about morality or what other developers should do. Video game writing already has wayyy too much of that. I just try to run my business in a way I can feel good about.

These days, I write games that you can be pretty much done with after 50 hours. That's a lot of distraction and dopamine for your 20 bucks, and then I free you so you at least have the chance to go to the park or take swing dancing lessons. This is how I make my peace morally with what I sell.

All I know is this: Writing video games that provide pleasure without dopamine hits can be done. It's just hard. Storytelling is hard. Generating emotions is hard. Dopamine is the cheat code for compelling game design.

Which brings us back to Anthem.

Now you can carry your addictions on your walks with you! You never need to have a moment of tranquility again!
8. If You Want To Sell a Drug, You Have To Provide the Drug!

This is the final point, and the one that will protect you from ruin.

Almost every game, even the most artsy one, uses dopamine hits to keep the player going. For example, Papers, Please! is unquestionably artsy, but it provides happy-making rewards for each challenge you complete correctly, and there is even a nice score sheet at the end of every day. (Return of the Obra Dinn does exactly the same thing, but it is subtler.)

I think a major skill of a successful game designer is a feel for how to give a player dopamine. How to generate those hits. How to pace them. How to introduce enough variety in other parts of the game to create the illusion of a fulfilling activity.

If people are saying about your looter shooter, "We aren't getting good enough loot," that's not a whine. It shows you are fundamentally failing at your main task. It's like someone at your restaurant complaining that their meal doesn't contain food.

You have to respond by giving them more food. Not too much. Not enough to gorge them. Just enough to make them feel rewarded enough to stay on your hamster wheel.

Make the player want. Hold back what they want. Give them what they want. Repeat forever. This is the art.

This is a touch cynical, I know, but it's how I built a career and a life in this business. Game colleges should have classes called "Addiction For Fun and Profit, Mainly Profit." If you want to sell video games, you ignore this topic at your peril.

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I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Glorious, Profitable, Inescapable Art of Addiction

Get those numbers up! Those are rookie numbers!
I've been reading a lot about Anthem. It's that gigantic, mega-budget looter-shooter from BioWare and Electronic Arts. Apparently, it doesn't give out enough loot for the monsters you kill. For a game like Anthem, this is BAD FORM.

Apparently, when you spend three hours killing a boss, the increase in your character's numbers isn't generating a sufficiently pleasurable dopamine hit to justify the time invested.

So Bioware releases a patch, and good loot suddenly drops like crazy. Our characters numbers shoot up and up, causing a pleasurable, sustained dopamine high. Ahhhhh. That's the stuff. But oops. The rebalancing was bugged! The loot rate drops, and again we are strung out, demanding that when we kill the level 99 Glip-Glop we get a properly satisfying purple (or legendary or epic) item.

They never enabled Anthem to give the players the sweet hits of neurotransmitter they desired. Anthem is therefore not serving the main purpose it exists for, so now the game appears to be slowly dying.

So what have we learned?

Time To Actually Look At What We Are Seeing

I can't be the first person to notice that complaining about these games' loot drop rates is like being mad that the bartender is watering down the drinks. Complaining your character's numbers aren't going up fast enough is the "My weed dealer sold me a bag of oregano!" for the new millennium.

While artsy indiepants developers debated whether video games are Great Art or a great storytelling medium, the big shot developers wearing the money pants became the most profitable drug dealers the world has ever seen.

Fifty of us spend 12 hours being this jerk so that I could get an imaginary sword. What force is powerful enough to inspire such madness?


A Brief Disclaimer to Get the Neuroscientists Off My Butt

When I say video games give you a pleasurable "dopamine hit" that’s shorthand for whatever pleasant chemical process is going on in the brain while you play. Is it actually dopamine? Or some other more complicated reaction of chemicals in the brain?

Beats me. Answering this question is way above my pay grade. I'm just using "Dopamine Hit" as a placeholder/shortcut term. But whatever is happening, it IS chemicals, and they are generated by the brain on gaming.

So, here are a few thoughts about the ways video games provide pleasure and manipulate our brains. Just observations. I don't have any answers. Nobody does. We can, however, look across the landscape and see what we see.

1. The Video Game Industry Sells Engines That Release Pleasure Chemicals In To Your Brain

Hey, I love artsy video games like Papers, Please! or whatever. I really do. But don't kid yourself. That is not and never will be where the real money is.

Popular video games sell so well because they cause the release of sweet, sweet dopamine in the brain. When you fill up an experience bar. When a stat number goes up. When you find a vein of diamonds and can make a sweet pickaxe. When you get the BEST sword. When you solve a puzzle or clear away a row in Tetris.

When you die fifty times to a boss in Bloodborne, you are holding off the fix, which makes the huge surge of dopamine when you finally win all the more satisfying. Aaaaahhhhhh.

I'm Not Judging

I know I'm expected to say how bad this state of affairs is, but I'm not going to. I don't think it's bad. I play these games. I like the dopamine.

This isn't an editorial. I'm not judging anyone. I write computer RPGs for a living. My games are crude and low-budget, but they give you your modest dopamine dose for a far more reasonable price than the free-to-play drug lords over on Android. I even throw in a decent story to put a patina of sophistication on the whole thing.

How many children are, right this moment, grinding at the computer to get the thrill of seeing a fresh vein of diamonds.
2. The Effect Is Very Real and Very Powerful.

Back in the day, before game designers got really good at parceling out the dopamine hits, I raided in Everquest and World of Warcraft. Hardcore. Hours a day for weeks to get my shot at one of the really high-end artifacts. When I got one, the good feeling, a really substantive warm illusion of accomplishment, could last for days.

These days, I struggle to remember what any of those clumps of data stored on a distant server actually were. (An "epic weapon"? Was that a thing?) However, the memory of the FEELING of satisfaction I got is still very strong.

Now, of course, we designers know to make the upgrades come in a constant flow of smaller improvements. A host of bars slowly filling up and numbers increasing, so that the warm feeling never stops.

This effect is so powerful that you don't even need to make the player DO anything. Look at clicker games. Cookie clicker is particularly good.

In clicker games, a few simple clicks jump starts the process of earning cookies/points/gold, and then it runs on its own. You can walk away from the computer, return later, and see your progress! In some games, not only do you not need to do anything, you CAN'T do anything, and you still advance. It really, truly feels like you did something! It's amazing how our brains work.

3. Writing An Addictive Video Game Is HARD

Making a truly addictive video game is an art. Like, it's really, super hard. If it wasn't, there would be far fewer failed video games. Artsy types don't appreciate how difficult it is.

When I am trying to design a game that pulls people in and gets them stuck there, I don't have rules. There's no algorithm. When designing a system, I sort through the 10000000 different ways I can do something, and I pick the one that feels right in my gut. The design that makes me go, "Yeah, this compels me. This would tickle my brain and keep me playing."

There’s no rules for it. It’s intuition. Feelings. Art.

I mean, think about it! When I write a game, I am trying to manipulate another human being's brain, at a distance, using nothing but these abstract mental constructs I build. Do I get to give the user cocaine or meth? No! I don't get a tool as easy or clumsy as actual chemicals. I'm trying to shape their minds with nothing but pure thoughts! That's awesome!

I like writing and visuals and all that good stuff, but don't undervalue addictiveness. Making a game addictive requires true craft, and this quality enables video games to provide something unique in entertainment. If controlling the player's brain was easy, Anthem wouldn't have burned up hundreds of millions of dollars and exploded.

Even artsy games are smart enough to provide a score to increase. Nothing is more fun than bigger numbers.
4. DLC and Micropayments Are a Side Topic, Not the Main Argument

Our industry has discovered that the pleasure jolt from advancing in these games is so great some people will spend lots of money to keep the drip coming. “Five minutes of gameplay and your fancy tower is completed right away? That will be a dollar, thank you.” Bottomless fortunes are being made off of dopamine.

Look, if an ADULT spends $500 of their hard earned money to buy Fortnitebux or Smurfberries or whatever, I don't know what business it is of yours. If an adult wants to spend cash on beer or DLC or opera tickets or loot boxes, it's their right.

BUT.

Parental controls are deeply flawed. The companies who give them to you don’t want them too work well, because they want the money your children will spend.

Suppose a tired distracted parent (as all parents are) makes a mistake (as all humans do) and lets their kid play the wrong game unsupervised for an hour. That game will happily suck your bank account dry and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

For decades, the world has been trying to portray our industry as malevolent and harmful and evil. They’re always been wrong so far. PLEASE do not allow your greed to make them correct.

Anyway.

Suppose the people who hate free to play games win the argument and get rid of microtransactions. Suppose they change the laws so you have to get your looter shooter Destiny/Anthem/Division dopamine drip for one fair fixed price. So you're grinding hundreds of hours to get better armor, but you aren't spending more money. Just time.

What is the creepy part? Is it evil to charge a dribble of money for a game so addictive it devours hundreds of hours of your time? Or is the problem making the game so addictive it consumes hundreds of hours of your time in the first place?

Again, I am asking this as a person who writes games as addictive as I can make them in order to buy food.

This turned into a huge post, so this is just part one. The second half is to come.

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I am writing these blog posts to get attention to our newest game, Queen's Wish: The Conqueror. You can also follow me on Twitter.