Look Back

2012 is over. A long, interesting, difficult year, full of surprises.

It started out with a sustained burst of creativity. We did the first few episodes of The Starving Artists’ Kitchen, including running a tiny Indiegogo campaign. Making the show was fun, if not exactly easy, and it felt like something meaningful. Lots of people used the recipes we presented, especially the bread.

We worked hard on the Oneiropolis Compendium, a project I really adored. We made the mistake of not asking enough money for the pictures, so that we actually earned relatively little from it, but it was glorious.

I released Arcadia: A Pastoral Tale. It’s a short, quiet little game, but it’s one of my personal favourites. There’s so much more to it than meets the eye, and a setting that is one of the best I’ve ever created.

Then I released The Fabulous Screech, the game that is trying its hardest to outdo The Infinite Ocean in terms of Most Deeply Personal Emails Generated. What an unexpected game! I wasn’t planning on going back to Oddness Standing yet, I wasn’t even planning on making a game about Screech, but when Angie contacted me about making an interactive present for her boyfriend Matt, who is a fan of my games, I decided to create something more interesting than just an interactive postcard. And somehow I ended up making this deeply personal game which affects a lot of people in the same way it affects me. I’m grateful that I got to do this.

Still burning with energy, I then released Traitor, a casual shmup with an emphasis on giving the action a context. I was very apprehensive about this game, since a lot of developers I respect didn’t like it. The feedback I got did allow me to improve it significantly before release, which was necessary, but the basic concept of the game clashed with a lot of indies’ understanding of innovation and challenge. Sometimes I feel that I inhabit a completely different realm than other designers. Anyway, as it turns out, in the world of flash games there was definitely room for a game like Traitor, and it did quite well. Except of course for the fact that the flash market has basically collapsed, so making money from flash games is no longer really possible.

Not a bad beginning, I’d say. Just a few months into the year and we’d done a ton of stuff. But we’d also decided to make our first full-blown commercial game, to be released with the first Bundle in a Box. So we embarked on the adventure of making The Sea Will Claim Everything.

Wow. What can I say about that? A huge game, full of wild ideas, made on a budget of nothing, taking on Greek politics, austerity, the Egyptian revolution/Arab Spring, gender politics, foreclosures, philosophy, mythology… it went far beyond any previous Lands of Dream game in ambition and scale and detail, and I’m incredibly pleased that we pulled it off. Having made it feels great.

Actually making it, on the other hand, was incredibly stressful. With the deadline looming and an humongous amount of content to create (the hotspot descriptions alone are tens of thousands of words, enough for a moderately-sized novel), I went into a frenzy of work that left me completely and utterly burned out. I spent May 21st, my birthday, working from early in the morning to late at night, not spending a single moment to celebrate. I have no words to describe how depressing that was.

After that, things did not go so well. The bundle was studiously ignored by most major gaming sites, despite offering a fantastic selection of games for very little money. It wasn’t bundle fatigue, it was just the result of Kyttaro Games (who organized the bundle) not being part of the inner circle, i.e. not having enough personal connections. That was a harsh blow. If we’d sold the game on our own, all our financial problems would be solved now. (That’s not an exaggeration.) I obviously feel no resentment towards the Bundle in a Box folks, because we would never have even made the game without them, and it’s in no way their fault that things went this way… but it was very disheartening. I seriously considered just giving up on game development altogether.

Next, right in the weeks after the bundle’s release, the Universe hit us with a special double-attack combo. First our lovely black monster of a cat got sick (a urinary tract problem). Then Verena got hit by a taxi while cycling.

I remember rushing to the hospital after the police called me (they wouldn’t let Verena call me herself, though they allowed her to call work to say she couldn’t come; this is both baffling and enraging). I vividly remember walking into the emergency department, seeing her covered in blood, with stitches above her right eye, and thinking this is the most beautiful person I have ever seen.

Sounds romantic, but I think we both could have done without that particular experience.

Burned out, taking care of a sick cat and an injured wife, I was unable to do half the revolting publicity bullshit that selling a game requires. Part of me didn’t want to do any kind of creative work ever again. Nonsense, of course, as anyone who knows me can tell, but at the time I felt so thoroughly disillusioned, so broken, so disgusted with the incestuous, inwards-looking nature of indie games, that I sometimes seriously thought about just getting a regular job and living a regular life.

I couldn’t make a game. I didn’t work on a game for months. I had some ideas, but they didn’t seem worth working on, and I was still spending most of my time trying to get at least a few major websites to take note of The Sea Will Claim Everything. Reviews on smaller blogs were astoundingly positive, with people having all the powerful experiences I’d hoped for, but to the parts of the gaming press that have the power to generate sales, that didn’t really matter. The Sea Will Claim Everything wasn’t a smash indie hit and it didn’t fit into any recognizable categories, so it was ignored.

Despite all this, despite feeling more creatively defeated than I’d felt in a long time (the last time was probably Phenomenon 32), I wrote. I wrote a lot. I wrote Designing for Grace, which somewhat unfairly attacked Raph Koster but also contained some of the ideas that are most important to me as an artist. I also wrote The One Hundred Dollar Question, easily the most-read thing I wrote all year. (“You broke the indie scene!” someone said to me, but I was only one of many voices.)

Both of those articles, though they got a lot of attention, ultimately ended up sending me deeper into depression. Not that I spent all day weeping – I actually had some pretty good times here and there – but this feeling of heaviness, of oppression, of not really feeling sure you want to be part of something… that increased as I realized what an intense hatred and contempt there is for those who think differently, even in the supposedly open and progressive and innovative indie scene. Several developers told me that they had similar feelings about Greenlight, but simply felt that they wouldn’t be able to deal with the backlash for voicing their opinion. And the bile-filled rants that you saw in the comments about whiny entitled brats who are too lazy to understand that we live in a great meritocracy and all good games make money… those were only a small part of the backlash. It’s amazing just how angry people get when you suggest that maybe there’s something wrong with the system; they seem to believe that if they acknowledge the problems, then their otherwise-guaranteed rags-to-riches success will be sabotaged.

I was also surprised by the intensity of the attacks on Designing for Grace. Not Raph’s disagreement with what I wrote – that was well-founded and understandable (and quite gracious). But Raph, though we have a profound disagreement about terminology and perhaps the logic of game design in general, is ultimately on the same side I’m on: he was, as he said, taking the idea of grace as read. But the kind of thinking I criticized in the article, though not really represented by Raph, does very much exist, and I was discouraged to see just how aggressively inane people are willing to get to defend “their” medium from any kind of thinking that does not fit into the obsession with categorization and formulas that is so typical of so-called geek culture.

I struggled to regain my enthusiasm. Verena was better now, but our cat got sick again, this time perhaps more seriously (a chronic illness, unrelated to the previous one). The Starving Artists’ Kitchen got stalled, the Oneiropolis Compendium stopped altogether, even though (to my great shame) I still owed some people pictures and stories. The cat’s medical bills cost us more than twice as much as the Indiegogo campaign had raised. The case surrounding Verena’s accident was still unresolved, with the taxi driver claiming Verena had been crossing in the red (she wasn’t; this would also mean that he was crossing in the red) and all kinds of unpleasant and ridiculous shenanigans occuring. The police, as usual, weren’t terribly helpful, giving contradictory answers and often being outright unfriendly.

The winter was bittersweet, but that’s a lot better than being all bitter. I started writing for Nightmare Mode, my first piece being the well-received Games For Adults. I did some more interviews (I really need to update the press page). I re-released The Fabulous Screech as a downloadable. Our children’s book got delayed to Probably February, a situation that can only be blamed on the Greek government and its bosses in the European Union (austerity destroys business, and publishing is a business). Verena was officially pronounced guilt-free, though no two police officers can agree as to why, and it’ll still take months before we might be able to get any kind of money from the taxi driver’s insurance. I put The Sea Will Claim Everything on special offer and sold a few more copies.

More importantly, I made Moonlight, a game about Stephen Fry and depression. I almost didn’t release it, but I’m glad that I did. A lot of people have found it moving (and funny); I guess there’s nothing more universal than the extremely specific.

It’s kind of appropriate that I began and ended the year on a Twine game. Working with Twine, free from all the usual bullshit of programming, is a joy. Working on Moonlight helped restore my confidence and enthusiasm for interactive art. I’m working on new projects now. Big projects. Huge projects, even. Ambitious and unique and with more walls of text than you can shake a controller at. (But more about that in the next post.)

Despite the really, really hard months in the middle, 2012 was a good year. It reminded me that these strange games we make – these clunky, flawed, human games made of cardboard and dreams – these games matter. They matter to me and they matter to other people. Whatever problems we may have faced, no matter how hard it may be to get the attention a game needs to make money, the experiences that these games contain cannot be found elsewhere.