tl;dr version – the current Dark Acre project is working from an establish design document, & has a time allowance of 2 to 3 years.
The age of the game jam is over.
Three years of postgraduate education have proven enough. Participating in game jams, making a metric ton of little experiments & even a couple of longer-form commercial projects under the guise of jams have taught me something important: crafting a good videogame takes time.
The definition of “good” varies wildly depending on who you talk to, be they game developer or game player or casual observer to this whole mess we on the inside refer to as “the industry”. There’s no question, however, that a very clear bar exists that’s defined by the nebulous value of “quality”, & it’s a bar that a given product has to pass before certain levels of cash flow are achieved.
Now, if you’re a game developer & cash flow is not an issue to you I envy you & please feel free to disregard the rest of this section.
The quality bar can be adjusted based on a whole slew of factors:
- Excellence in audio design.
- Outstanding exploration of a concept.
- Solid execution of a project.
- Far-reaching, deep-penetrating marketing.
- A massive fan-base waiting for your “next big thing”.
- And so on.
All of the above take considerable amounts of time. Time burns money, & both are finite resources. In order to be efficient with these things a plan is usually required.
For 33 months it’s been my own modus operandi to take a half-formed idea directly into the toolset & make it happen. This has worked out wonderfully 30-odd times. In all cases the complexity of the end result has been a direct reflection of the overall amount of time spent on the projects. Typically this has been no longer than 48 hours, with a few exceptions being the published Primes at 8 weeks and 16 weeks respectively, CHASSIS at 2 weeks, and the failed Prevengeance at nearly a year. Prevengeance, the longest project in Dark Acre history, is also the only project that worked from an established design document.
It’s important to note that of those projects only 1, The Apartment, has ever returned cash-money.
I used to scoff at design documents. For reasons I’m sure are irrational, I figured planning was a restriction on creativity, & therefore outside the purview of true independent development.
That attitude, I realize now, is kind of stupid.
I’ve spent the past month writing. I’ve been rebuilding Project Zero Five, also known as “The Child”, from scratch & on paper. I’ve noticed no significant loss of creative energy or agency, if anything it’s been far better than trying to keep track of all the project elements in my head as I scramble to build. As a game development process it just feels better, & I can see how it’s already allowing for far more exploration of complex ideas than my previous methods. The only apparent drawback is the feeling that nothing is actually happening.
When you sit down & just build things, you have a constant flow of tangible progress. Things move around on the screen, menus & buttons activate, sound effects added, & mechanisms can be constantly tested & iterated upon. There’s a steady supply of feedback.
I still think that’s one of the the ideal ways for beginning developers to work. It’s fast & satisfying in the short term. It’s like an extended practical education, especially if you’re making sure to publish your results & get other people to play with your creations.
But once you reach the point where you’re confident enough with your abilities that you have a workflow that produces results, it may be time to sit back & actually plan something worthwhile out.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Do some research & see how many of those top-selling & critically acclaimed indie videogames were made in under a year.
There’s this quote from Stephen King, something he wrote into the afterword of “The Gunslinger“:
“It was time to stop goofing around with a pick and shovel and get behind the controls of one big great God a’mighty steam shovel, a sense that it was time to try and dig something big out of the sand.”
This is where the Dark Acre sits.
Madeus & Ambia
If you missed the “big news” last month, the 3rd definitive edition of “Tale of the Madeus” has been self-published here on the site. Part of an ongoing experiment into total ownership & distribution, this book represents several years of hard work & trials overcome. If you’re at all interested in science fiction I recommend that you check it out.
Currently hard at work on the as-yet-untitled 3rd book in series, making decent daily headway on the 1st draft.
Where does that leave the 2nd book, then? Jiří Horáček, the artist responsible for the stunning cover of the Madeus re-release is cooking up something amazing for Ambia, which will get its own self-published re-release at the end of July.
tl;dr version – The Last of Us makes a better movie than a videogame, based solely on how I like my videogames.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us wasn’t for me. It was a failed relationship. It wasn’t the game, it wasn’t me, it was the chemistry between the two of us.
Part of my vast personal philosophy toward videogames that I’ve been cultivating since way back in 1981 is the belief that the pillars of quality in a given videogame are communication & user experience.
The communication in The Last of Us is stunning. Astounding. Stellar. Well, aside from the fact that whoever wrote the exchange between Joel & Ellie after one of her key development moments straight ripped off lines traded between Will Munny & the Schofield Kid.
The user experience of The Last of Us wasn’t for me. I always strive to do the best by my players in every game I craft; my key mantra is “thou shalt not waste thine player’s time!” The Last of Us seemed to go to great lengths to waste my time. A strange thing to criticize a videogame for, granted, but you want the time to be wasted in a way that brings you some form of either interest or enjoyment, & I was getting neither.
I recommend watching any complete cutscene recordings you can find on YouTube, even if you’re not into playing videogames. There’s a really, really great story in The Last of Us, one that loses absolutely nothing but simply watching the cinematics. That’s another issue with the experience: nothing the player does in the gameplay affects the narrative. There are minor asides & vignettes during the traversal & exploration bits that contribute to character-building, sure, but you don’t miss a thing if you don’t see them.
As with any good critique I have a laundry list of “how I’d make this film a better videogame” but since I’m not on Naughty Dog’s payroll & the game’s already shipped it’s best to file it away & use it as reference, saving me from making the same mistakes in my own projects. This is critical analysis done right, documented & then hopefully synthesized at some point in the future.
Another note that may help you see where I’m coming from & also raises some talking points about videogames in general. The Last of Us has been the only console videogame I’ve pre-ordered since Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. Now, if you know me, you know how highly I regard Red Dead. It’s in the unspoken pantheon of favorites that I’m not supposed to have. It’s one of my “desert island” videogames. When I finally got Red Dead into my X360 back in May of ’10, it was nothing but joy-puke for 30-odd hours.
I’d set myself up for something similar with The Last of Us. I’d convinced myself that the folks who made Uncharted 3 were going to crush it with a post-pandemic adventure of grit & grime. I’d failed to manage my expectations & paid the price: 67 bux, to be exact.
Maybe the money had a lot to do with it. Maybe videogames really aren’t worth that much at launch, & alpha customers just get taken for a ride. I don’t know. I can say that I felt John Marsten’s adventure was worth the money, while Joel & Ellie’s wasn’t. I do know that this whole experience has soured me for launch-day gaming, & I won’t be pre-ordering again.
Unless, of course, there’s another entry in the Red Dead series done to the same quality levels as Redemption…
If you Follow me on Twitter there’s been a slight policy change: I’m no longer replying to @’s. I might read them while I’m on the toilet—Twitter makes an excellent laxative—but don’t expect a response. Try more discussion-friendly channels, like Skype (darkacrejack) or e-mail (jack at dark-acre dot com).
All part of the new “if you find yourself infinitely scrolling through garbage, something’s probably gone wrong” approach to Internet research. That & I’m really starting to think that this new communication paradigm, zeitgeist, whatever you want to call it is rapidly transforming us into a society that values speed over clarity, teaches us to accept misquotes taken out of context as life-defining proclamations, & trains us into thinking that people aren’t really people: that we’ve become a collection of avatars & status updates, entertainment to be consumed or blocked or ignored. Still not certain if this is by design or just one massive fuck-up on our part, but if you’ve read down to here perhaps there’s hope for you yet. Then again, you might have started here & that’s the problem.
That’s it for this month. Back to turning pencils into nubs & abstracting grand plans into manageable chunks. See you in 30 days.
“My god, this videogame is amazing!” said the people as they passively watched a cutscene.