Tale of Tales Interview
Note: Some minor edits [indicated by square brackets] were performed for readability and to fix any errors. Otherwise, the text is reproduced verbatim.
Over a period of weeks, I interviewed Michael Samyn, one half of the Belgian-based development team Tale of Tales, which is particularly known for The Path, The Graveyard and The Endless Forest. What follows is a series of eighteen questions that span ToT’s past, present and future in creating interactive art.
Q. What initially motivated you to pursue developing interactive art?
A. We had dabbled a bit with the interactive potential of computers back when we were using the machine primarily as a tool for other arts. But it was only when the graphical web browser was born, that we resolutely chose to make digital interactive art only. Our initial motivation was a desire to reach an audience directly, without mediation by galleries or publishers. But we soon developed a taste for interactivity as a welcome ingredient in our work. In fact, in a way, it turned out that procedural, non-linear, interactive pieces were the thing that we had been trying to create all along in the wrong media.
Q. What enabled you, in regards to both money and motivation, to develop as you please instead of working under a large publisher like many other developers?
A. I object to the use of “as you please” when it comes to art. It makes it sound like we’re doing something frivolous and that we’re doing this for selfish reasons. That’s not how it feels to me. For me artistic creation is almost like a divine duty. We owe it to humanity to do this work, to create this art. It’s our contribution to culture and civilisation. This is especially important in a time when civilisation seems to be considered optional. We work against what seems like a world wide regress to an animal state of being. At the very least, we want to keep the flame of civilisation alive, if only for later, smarter generations.
We started our careers as digital artists by supporting our purely artistic creations through design work we did for clients. But we didn’t consider the separation between the two to be very important. We tried to make our designs artistically valuable and we tried to make our art accessible and easy to use.
Back then we were creating web-based art and the projects were relatively small and quick to produce. When we started using game technology, however, we realized that we were going to have to work full time on our art. We simply couldn’t afford to do client work any more: we didn’t have the time! This medium is very demanding, both in terms of research and development. So we started looking for arts funding to support our work. In the mean time, we have been able to create a second stream of financial support from the sales of our games. And that way we’re happily back where we started: in a direct relationship with our audience.
The reason why we don’t work with a publisher is also out of necessity. The kind of exploratory work that we do, and the process through which we do it, is not something that publishers are likely to support. They basically don’t trust us with their money. Which is ironic since Tale of Tales is still around (almost a decade now), while many of the so-called more reliable developers (and publishers) have gone out of business. But it’s hard to fight a prejudice. If publishers do not want to support our work, then we have no choice but to do it ourselves. Because the work needs to be done. It’s important.
Q. How much (or how little) do you personalize your works? Do you feel that you tend towards universal themes, personal themes or a mix of both? Why did you make this stylistic choice?
A. The degree depends on the piece. We’re also two people. So, per definition, we never make ultra-personal work, since the work will always at least carry a bit of Auriea and a bit of me. And then there’s also the input of our collaborators, whom we consider to be fellow artists contributing their own sensitivities to the work.
I wouldn’t say we choose universal themes to work with. That’s a bit too broad. But we do like working with thematic material that a relatively large group of people can relate too or is even familiar with. This is one of the reasons why we like to use old texts as a starting point (fairy tales, stories from the bible, myths). We obviously choose the specific pieces because of a personal attraction to them, but it is often only during the actual creation that we start putting things of ourselves in it.
In a way, creating our games is a little bit like playing them: an exploration of certain themes, poking around in one’s own spirit to see how it responds to certain ideas and sentiments. This way, we often discover the reason why we chose to work with a certain theme very late in the process. It could of course be that we’re twisting the theme to fit our personal concerns. It’s probably a bit of both.
We have recently created a prototype that dealt with more universal themes and [emotions]. But we’re not completely satisfied with it. One of the reasons for this is probably that we feel more comfortable dealing with concrete stories and characters and situations. We prefer to start with a story and then open it up so that the player can perhaps find some universal or personal value. In the end our work should be about the player, not about its creator.
Q. Personally, I’ve never been able to justify making a piece of art with the intent to sell it. Whenever someone does so, I feel like they are being somewhat of a “mercenary” artist, with advertising and propaganda being particularly extreme examples of “art for hire”. I appreciate and understand the sentiment of artists wanting to earn a living off of their work, but I feel that paid artists often have to compromise their craft in order to be a “safe” or “reliable” investment. I think the street performer method of generating money is a bit less troublesome as it allows people to decide if they liked your art enough to pay for it after having experienced it. With many other methods of paying for art, it seems like the art in question is being held for ransom. Do you feel any cognitive dissonance by charging for any of your works? Why or why not?
A. The outcome of the combination of money and art really depends on the individual artist. Some artists create their best work when they are commissioned, while others need to be completely isolated from any financial concerns. Some artists function better in poverty and despair, others need to be surrounded by luxury and comfort. Some art improves if artists consider their audience, other art is completely ruined by such “selling out”. It really depends on the situation, the type of work and the personality of the artist. There is no golden rule. Even the artist himself might not realize which situation is best for him. Heck, the artist might not even realize which of his pieces is the better work of art.
On top of that, complete freedom for the artists seems to lead to isolation of the arts. We have seen this happen in the 20th century, when fine arts divorced themselves from craft and industry in favour of a modern notion of freedom of expression. The result has been disastrous! At the moment fine arts have become a niche of continuous self-references that has lost all connection with society. I believe it is no coincidence that we are seeing a rise of fundamentalism and populism in such circumstances. I believe art can counter such barbarous tendencies but today the artists are far away, twiddling their thumbs in the museum in vain arrogance. For this reason, it is important that artists create work that is not only accessible to the audience on an intellectual and emotional level, but that is also presented in places where the audience can witness it.
We live in a technology-driven consumerist society. As a result, the arts that have most influenced culture in the last half century have not been the expensive pièces uniques that media like painting and sculpture produce, but the widely distributed and cheaply accessible art forms of literature, cinema and pop music. And now video games are adding another medium to this group.
Artists have a responsibility in society. They have to show people what they see. They have to stimulate people’s imagination, they have to help them question things, wonder about things, find joy in life. The first essential step to accomplish this is that the art is seen by people. This is why it is wise for an artist to choose a medium (and even a form) that is accessible to the audience.
In the realm of video games, there’s another peculiarity. While I find it perfectly acceptable for an artist to make a living off of his work that allows him to devote his entire existence to its creation, one might be inclined to distribute one’s work for free on the internet. Oddly, however, free games are per definition not as well respected as games that people pay for. This is probably because video games have always been produced in a commercial and highly technological industry and free games are mostly made cheaply made and thus fail to impress the regular gamer. But if the game carries a price tag, suddenly the attention perks up and everybody has an opinion about it. So even if the artist doesn’t need to sell his video game for financial reasons (if he’s independently wealthy for instance, or receives sufficient arts funding, or has a girlfriend to look after him), it still remains a good idea to charge for the work. It will help spread the work further. And that is an important goal.
We have the opportunity now, with the internet, to completely change the economy. It is actually possible now to get rid of the capitalist/consumerist business model. Simply because a producer can now access his audience directly. Theoretically it should be possible to create small self-sustaining communities of artists and audience that need no interference. This is another reason why I find it ok for an artist to charge for their work. It creates a form of independence that is far removed from both the need for subsidies and the need to please the market or the requirement to make simple, cheap work and/or live in poverty/have a day job.
Q. Do you think there is an overreliance on entertainment to engage players? If so, what other forms of engagement would be well-suited for an interactive medium?
A. Coming from a fine arts background, I find this rather difficult to comment on. The fact that video games are entertaining and engaging is an important reason why I choose to work in this medium as an artist. I find most contemporary fine art dull and not engaging. And I don’t see why this should be. In fact, I think it’s important that an artist tries to seduce his audience and gives people some sensual pleasure, starting with beauty (which is horribly absent in the contemporary art scene).
Of course, commercial games will err in the other extreme. If profit is one of the main goals in the creation of a game, entertainment will serve the purpose of hooking the player and making them pay (more). The problem is not the entertainment as such, but the reason for it. If profit is the main motivation for production, then the game will probably be hollow and devoid of meaning, warmth, sincerity, etc. This kind of entertainment if of course mental robbery. It takes away important time from the short life of a human and gives nothing in return. Doing this to fill one’s own pockets is a moral crime.
There’s another aspect to this discussion, though. For many designers, the element of “fun” is very much related to the craft of making games. A good game is a fun game in their eyes (whether or not it is profitable). This is probably true if you consider games to be abstract systems of rules designed to challenge players to achieve a certain goal. But to me, video games are something else. A sports-like system like this is only one of many ways in which a video game can be structured. Video games can also be beautiful, meaningful, moving, etc. All of those things that art in other media can be. Fun should only be a means to an end. If fun supports your goal of giving the player a beautiful, meaningful experience, by all means use it. But if you’re sincere about these goals, you’ll find that superficial fun is often distracting and moves the player further away from achieving a deeply meaningful aesthetic experience, from being moved, from experiencing wonder, etc.
Engagement should come from the content of the game, the narrative and poetic elements, the theme, the atmosphere. Any interaction should be designed with the purpose of expressing these to the player. This is no different than artistic creation in any other medium.
Q. Is there anything about modern game development that particularly disappoints you? That inspires you or makes you hopeful?
A. The thing that most disappoints me, and many players of video games, is the lack of evolution in interaction design. This is a very common complaint. It has been voiced widely throughout the gaming community for as long as I have been involved with it (which is close to a decade). Video games have come a long way in terms of presentation, but in terms of gameplay nothing seems to have changed. Underneath the beautiful landscapes and convincing characters of contemporary video games, we’re still playing Pong, Pac Man or Commander Keen. Game designers have continuously refined these conventional design patterns, but very few have tried to escape them. Which is odd because the computer offers so much potential to move far beyond those rudimentary systems. And every gamer knows this. And every non-gamer expects it. And all the marketing people are selling games based on the promise of adventure, exploration, travel, fantasy, only to lock you into a rigid Skinner-type system of endless cycles of challenges and rewards.
The thing that makes me hopeful and fills me with confidence is exactly the raw capacity for beauty and immersion [that] contemporary video games display. And also the clear desire in their designs to be more than just playthings. Video games now want to tell stories, want to take us away, immerse us in their worlds, etc. Sometimes, when the demands of the formal game play are relaxed, they get very close to fulfilling this dream. It feels like any minute now, video games are going to “break through the game barrier”. And then they will become the rich medium that we have all been seeing in it for years, the medium that will be to the 21st century what film was to the 20th.
Q. In a previous response, you mentioned that you felt that modern art is disconnected from modern society. Do you think that more games should explore social commentary and satire? (Previous occurrences of such have been largely confined, at least in the sense of popular games that reach mass audiences, to entries in the Grand Theft Auto franchise.) Do you think the industry is averse to this because it could decrease the potential user base and profitability of a game? Or do you think it is due to some other reason?
A. I’m afraid that I don’t consider “social commentary and satire” very high goals for art. I find art more valuable if it is about personal experience, if it connects to something deep inside of me, gives me a sense for what humans share with each other, and our place in the cosmos. I don’t think it is the content so much as the form that has [led] to a separation of fine art and society. This problem, by the way, has been addressed by other art forms such as cinema, theater, literature and music, which have succeeded in maintaining a close link to the audience.
Video-games have been less successful in this respect. They are still very much a niche culture. Only gamers like games. They have expanded somewhat on one end (of games as pure entertainment) through casual games, the Wii and social games. But on the other end (as an artistic medium, like films, books and music) video-games have so far been virtually non-existent.
I must admit that I don’t really understand why this is the case. The artistic potential of video-games is clear to everyone (for proof simply read the promises made by games marketing). We all want this medium in which we can interact with a story. The demand is clearly there. But so far, the games industry has refused to grow in that direction.
The only reason I can think of is that it’s very difficult to figure out how exactly we should do this: how can we turn video-games into a medium? In the commercial AAA market this is most commonly attempted by making the gameplay very easy and adding elements from other media (text, movies, music, etc). Only few AAA developers have explored the potential of the technology itself to provide for a media experience (Heavy Rain is the main and perhaps only example, maybe Ico a little bit). Even in indie circles there’s very little attention to this. Often indies are even more hardcore and niche-oriented than their AAA colleagues. And because of their limited means, they often don’t have much room to experiment.
Because that is what is needed: in order to figure out how to optimally use this technology and allow a new medium to grow out of it, we need to experiment. I don’t understand why the big publishers and developers don’t invest in this experimentation when the commercial benefits are so immensely obvious, not to mention the impact a video-games-medium might have on culture at large and the increased respectability of our profession.
Of course it’s difficult, but since when has that been a reason to shy away from things in this industry? Maybe this problem is intimidating because it is one that cannot be solved through technology alone. We cannot crack this by simply throwing more programmers at it. This is an artistic problem, and as such it needs to be solved by artists. It’s simple: hire artists and give them tools.
Q. Switching gears a bit, let’s start talking about some of your projects. The key difference between the free and purchasable versions of The Graveyard is that the player character may die. Why did you feel that the possibility of death was an important aspect of the game?
A. The possibility of death is inherent in the situation, isn’t it? You are playing an old woman. One of the typical aspects of old age is that death is near. We just felt we needed to go there. We needed to take the experience to its logical outcome. And we added this element to a special version of the game that you can only play when you pay for it, to accentuate how special it is: how death makes a difference. It was also a commentary on how we experience games and feel that other people could experience them. It’s not about numbers of levels and kinds of weapons and length of gameplay. What matters is the intensity of the experience. And having the main character die on you is a drastically different emotional experience, even if technically the difference is very small and even if the play time might in fact be shorter.
Next to this inherent motivation, we had a desire to address the way death was usually treated in video-games, namely simply as the expression of a fail state. It is well known that game design has not changed drastically since the stone age, let alone since Pac Man and Space Invaders. But computer technology has changed enormously. And to see these believable characters die these nonsensical deaths is really painful to us. We feel that if you’re going to show death, it should really be death, death as we, humans, know it well: a sad lonely death of old age, nothing spectacular about it, no murder, no accident, just naturally slipping away. This is why The Graveyard ends when the woman dies. You can’t even close the application anymore. Death is the end.
Q. Why did your project named 8 (and later The Book of 8) end up in development hell?
A. It didn’t. We are currently prototyping a new version of 8, originally codenamed The Book of 8. It’s going well.
8 was our first video-game project. We worked on it from 2002 to 2005. Back then, independent development of a moderately ambitious title wasn’t really an option, mostly because broadband internet didn’t exist yet and there were no digital distribution platforms like there are now. So we were forced to organize the production according to the then standard model: find a publisher willing to loan the production budget up front. One of the many downsides of this model, as we experienced with 8, is that the decision whether a game is actually made or not is down to the publishers. And publishers are not often willing to take a risk or support something because they believe in it.
We made several prototypes of 8, put together a production team and presented our idea to many publishers. We got pretty far in the negotiations with some of them, but in the end, 8 proved to be too unconventional to find real support. So we were forced to abandon the project, and review our entire approach to game development. Which, in the end, turned out to be a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that we’re not still traumatized by this initial experience with the games industry.
Q. What lessons were learned from developing your multiplayer game known as The Endless Forest? Do you think you will eventually delve into multiplayer again? Or will you just stick with single player games?
A. One of the consequences of failing to find commercial backing for 8 was our desire to publish a game ourselves. We had already developed the concept and a small prototype of The Endless Forest in response to an art commission from the museum of modern art in Luxembourg. After realizing that we were not going to find funding for the full production, we decided to cut up development of the project [into] several small phases, production of which could be funded through art grants. In order to ensure production and publication, we reduced the scope of the first phase of the game to its bare essentials: a single avatar model in a small environment with a minimal amount of actions.
The first thing we learned from The Endless Forest was that we were actually able to publish a game, by ourselves. I guess we sort of re-invented independent publishing by ourselves, out of necessity, without knowing much about the games industry’s history. We find it extremely important to show our work to an audience. It’s one of the main reasons why started using this medium. We were very happy and proud to have pulled this of. And it set a [precedent] for us: we had figured out a way in which we could create our work, without requiring publisher support.
The second thing we learned from The Endless Forest and that has influenced our work to this day, is that people don’t need a lot of pre-designed structure to amuse themselves. By necessity, the first phase of The Endless Forest was very minimal in terms of interactivity. And thanks to it being multiplayer, we could actually observe what people were doing in the game. It came as a real revelation to us, to see how creative players were with the limited amount of gameplay. They invented whole new games before our very eyes and made up stories about the game world, etc. This ultimately lead to our abandoning the original design of the game in favour of simply collaborating with the players on what to implement next.
The Endless Forest is incredibly successful to this very day. So much so that we can’t really advertise it out of fear that our feeble technology wouldn’t be able to cope with any more players. There’s a thriving community around the game that not only plays the game but produces all sorts of fan art and fan fiction too. [As a developer, it's really nice to know] that your players are right there, having fun with your work. Whenever we feel a bit down, we just dip into the Forest and have a little run around with our deer. It’s very relaxing.
Multiplayer games require constant care, and The Endless Forest being a free game – thanks to the continuing support of the Mudam museum in Luxembourg – doesn’t make this easier. So I don’t think we’ll be starting up another MMO any time soon. It’s a very demanding thing for a small studio. That being said, we do have plans for a two-player online game. We will be working on that next year.
Q. You recommended that people play FATALE especially if they didn’t like video games. Why did you make such a recommendation for this notgame of yours and not others?
A. I think we do recommend this for all our games. It’s more or less a mission statement for us to try and make video-games for people who do not play them yet. Fatale is perhaps a little bit more special because it contains even fewer conventions than the others, making it more accessible to people not familiar with these conventions. Its subject matter probably also appeals to people outside of the [gaming] community.
But Fatale was still made before the epiphany we had when we started the notgames initiative. We had always been critical of many game conventions and always felt that they stood in the way of wider enjoyment of the medium, but it wasn’t until early 2010 that we really took up the explicit challenge of simply rejecting as much influence from conventional game design as we could. Before that, we always had the inclination to include game-like elements. Sometimes because we simply weren’t critical and we just gave in to what felt natural (after having played so many conventional games). Sometimes because we were worried that people would be bored if we didn’t give them something to do. Sometimes because we felt we needed [the traditional gaming audience] to buy our game because otherwise we would go broke.
I think this wishy-washy attitude may have weakened our designs and reduced their emotional impact. But perhaps it was a necessary transition phase both for us and the audience. I have a feeling that a lot more is possible at the moment [now] and that we’re all ready for something new. So the projects we are currently working on will probably be even more appealing to people who don’t play video-games.
Q. Unlike portable handhelds, other portable devices like phones, tablets and music players are sometimes not considered ‘real’ games platforms. Based off of your experiences with developing and distributing Vanitas for the iPod and iPhone, do you think such portable devices and their application distribution services provide a better or worse environment for games outside the paradigm of entertainment-centric experiences? And does the different control scheme hinder or foster creativity and possibility in regards to how players interact with the game?
A. I’m not a fan of handheld devices for our work. I want to create worlds. And the windows to these worlds offered by handheld devices are simply too small. Plus by being handheld these devices continuously remind the user that they exist, which makes it difficult to become immersed in the fiction of a game. And finally phones in particular seem to favour extremely casual types of play because people tend to play to kill time when waiting for the bus or something, instead of dedicating time to it like they would to a film or a console game.
But you are right that the diverse audience that uses these devices is attractive to us. We wanted to test if there was an audience for our work by releasing Vanitas on iPhone. And there is, but it is very small. Partially, probably, because of the awkward environment of Apple’s app store which seems to focus on promoting things that are already successful. And, apart [from] CreativeApplications.net, I don’t know of any site that carefully selects apps for a specific audience. Most are very general. Maybe because it’s such a mainstream medium?
Because of the nature of these devices, the things we want to make for them are more object than world. And the specific input medium is suitable for some projects and not for others. It doesn’t offer greater freedom but it does [offer] opportunity for different types of interactions. This is nice, but not our main focus as designers.
Our biggest problem with these portable devices is that they are very weak computers. Regular desktop computers and consoles are already far too slow for what we really would like to make, let alone these underpowered handhelds.
Q. What do you think made The Path one of your most successful projects? During its development and after its release, was there anything that surprised you about the reactions of media outlets, conventions or players? Anything that disappointed you?
A. Well, it’s kind of pathetic, but what made The Path our most successful product was wanting it to be so. We wanted it to be successful because we took out a huge loan to produce it and not paying back this loan would mean the end of Tale of Tales and probably years of misery too. I call it pathetic because I’m not used to being rewarded for my efforts. We designed The Path on purpose to appeal to a wide variety of people. We playtested the game and adjusted the design to the results of these tests. We gave it our best shot because we felt we should try this at least once. But deep down we didn’t really believe that this effort was going to pay off. But it did: The Path became our most successful game.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not sad about this. It’s actually comforting to know that we can do this stuff on purpose. And it’s funny to see how many people still consider The Path as somewhat of an extreme/insane/mega-artistic game while for us it was the most accessible one, the one that was designed to please the public. Maybe we have found an ideal middle ground here: a compromise between artistic ambition and connecting to an audience. The only downside is that this type of design costs money. It’s generally much cheaper to just follow your gut feeling and create what you desire. But when you start taking the audience into account, and include thorough playtesting in your process, then your production budget easily doubles or [triples]. At least that’s how it works for us, because we apparently have aberrant tastes and so we can’t trust our own instincts in design decisions.
Still, we were very surprised by the generally positive response in the video-games press. As well as by the overwhelming silence everywhere else. We were hoping to appeal to non-gamers with The Path as we expected only a luke-warm reception in the gaming community. We thought our work would just be considered too weird or boring by gamers. But we had underestimated probably the size but definitely the desire to play something different in the gaming community. The thing that we – shamefully – sometimes forget is that gamers are people too. And as people they have interests in many different things. Even many people who play the most hardcore of shooter games online every night have a place in their hearts where a strange game like The Path can fit. Nobody does something 100% of the time. People like variety. And I guess we offered some with The Path. At the same time, we found it near impossible to have the non-gaming press talk about The Path, or finding another way to reach the non-gaming audience. As an independent studio without the budget of Nintendo or Zynga, the non-gaming audience is more or less beyond our reach.
This lead to a bit of confusion within Tale of Tales: we wanted to make games for non-gamers but we found relative success within the gaming community. For a moment we figured that this meant we should work harder to make our video-games more game-like, to put in more things that this new-found audience would be used to. But I think this was a mistake. I think the reason why gamers might be interested in our work is precisely because it is different, because it is unlike what they are used to.
Q. Backing up to The Endless Forest for a brief moment, another staff member wanted to know two things: Where did the idea for the game come from? And why do the characters have human faces attached to animal bodies à la Seaman?
A. The idea came to us already in the train ride home from Luxembourg where we had been commissioned by the museum after giving a presentation about the web-based art we were doing before making games. This ride goes straight through the Ardennes, an area of Belgium with wooded mountains. So we were simply inspired by the view out of the train window. But there was also an underlying thought. We had been doing a weekly web-based performance called Wirefire. We really loved being able to join up with people and perform our live art (a bit like online audiovisual dj-ing). But we were frustrated by the fact that this art work was dead without our presence. People could only enjoy it, really, when we were there. So The Endless Forest was a way for us to have a piece in which people could gather but that could also function without our presence. We simply enhance the experience when we are there, during the so-called Abiogenesis festivals we organise in the game.
The deer character was designed by our friend Lina Kusaite. Originally we had envisioned the game to feature natural looking deer. In fact, our very first prototypes have real deer in them. So when Lina presented her first sketches, we tried to discourage her and told her we wanted regular deer in our game. But she persisted and we decided to give it a try, to see how the players would respond. We ended up being quite happy with the design, because it adds an immediate feeling of wonder and mystery and it contributes to the kinds of narratives that you can make up about the place.
Q. You’ve mentioned some benefits of digital distribution and self-publishing a few times now, so I wanted to ask you about something that’s seemingly endemic to these options. While independent publishing and other things like Valve’s Steam, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade,
Sony’s PlayStation Store and so on are less restrictive on risky or innovative ventures, most of the games available are “small”. In this day and age, it seems like if you want to commercially release a game, you’re often either developing a multimillion behemoth with the backing of a ton of staff and a big publisher or you’re developing a niche game that’s smaller in scope and has a budget of anywhere from shoestring to a couple hundred thousand with the hope that you can eventually recoup your expenses through some form of digital distribution. There just doesn’t seem to be much middle ground, such as a big publisher funding a project that isn’t just a homogenous cash cow but costs one million dollars to flesh out its potential. Do you think a solution is on the horizon or perhaps already exists? Or do you think this divide is due to a fundamental difference in motive, such as the overriding desire for a stable investment versus a zealous drive for pushing the boundaries of the medium regardless of the financial incentive?
A. I disagree with the contrast you’re suggesting between big “AAA” productions and independent games in terms of commercial viability. Many AAA projects end up in commercial disasters, many AAA developers go bankrupt shortly after finishing their game, the competition is fierce and financial risk considerable, given the huge budgets involved. Making smaller games for a smaller audience is often much more commercially viable. I think there [are] as many dreamers making AAA games as indie games. And also as many commercially-motivated people in either camp.
I think you’ll see more and more publishers realizing this and investing in the production of small games.
Of course, this still leaves the problem of the moderately sized game: small enough to be artistically ambitious and big enough to optimize the impact of this ambition. This is indeed extremely rare. Thatgamecompany’s Journey falls in this category. And probably the first Portal too. Maybe Eric Chahi’s From Dust as well? Maybe publishers will realize that there is commercial opportunity in these products too, especially if digital distribution becomes dominant.
Another way in which medium sized independent games development might happen is how it works in film. Very few films, even independent films, are made with budgets as small as those of indie games. Making films costs money. Everyone knows that. So next to the huge Hollywood blockbusters, there’s also a very large offering of independent films, each made with a budget that would feel very comfortable to most any indie games developer, indeed. Independent film makers have access to this kind of money (through private funds and government subsidies) because their work is respected as an important cultural form, and because civilized societies believe that the making of this art is important for mankind. If and when video-games reach the same cultural status as film, we will have access to these sources of funding as well.
Q. The main Tale of Tales blog is noted as having closed down due to discomfort with the format. Since you still maintain separate blog-like pages for some of your projects, why did you choose to close down the main blog and not others? Besides serving as interesting stuff to read, developer diaries and logs can often help players to be more invested in both the corresponding project and its developer, so it seems like you are disadvantaging yourself by removing this link between artist and audience.
A. There were many reasons why we closed our blog. First of all because it had served its purpose, which was indeed to prepare the world for The Path. And because, at the time when we closed the blog, we were getting ready to “go underground”. We were starting two prototyping projects and we felt that there was no need for us to advertise anything while we were doing this.
It also seemed that the blog format had run its course. We wanted to figure out a new way to keep in touch with our audience, temporarily setting up camp in Facebook and on Tumblr and Twitter. We had never been comfortable with Web 2.0 so maybe we were secretly hoping that it would go away while we were “underground” and that something new would offer new opportunities. This doesn’t seem to have happened yet.
And finally, and probably most importantly, we had said what we wanted to say. After publishing a new blog post, it often felt like we were saying the same thing in yet another way. The blog format is deceiving in this aspect because all posts are dated. But many of the posts we made years ago are still very relevant today. They are by no means obsolete. So we’d encourage everyone to read them again.
We also got tired of angry people posting comments. They always provoked the same discussions, nitpicking about our choice of words instead of considering the gist of our ideas. We really got sick of people coming to our blog defending games because they loved playing Zelda when they were a child. It just wasn’t constructive anymore. So we started notgames.org to get away from this and to have an environment where we could leave such endless discussions behind us and concentrate on moving
on, on getting things done.
I guess it’s not news that Internet comments can be extremely depressing. But when they happen on your own site and you’re literally hosting this rubbish in your own database, it can cut deep. We just didn’t need that anymore. It wasn’t helpful.
Q. You’ve teased us with the thematic details of CNCNTRIC (and The Book of 8) by posting reference pictures to a tumblr page. Can you give us any more details about the project? Or is it all still hush-hush for now?
A. It’s only hush-hush because there is nothing to say. For both of these projects we felt a strong need for a separate prototyping phase because we were uncertain about how we could make these things. We still are. And [as] long as we’re not certain, we can’t really talk about them.
The Cncntrc prototype is done now but we don’t know what to do with it. We were initially disappointed with the result because we felt that it didn’t live up to all of the themes we wanted to deal with. After polishing, we discovered an unexpected beauty in the game, but it takes a bit of effort to reach it. And we’re not sure if turning the current prototype into a full game is worth our time. Maybe we will end up publishing multiple smaller games, each inspired by one aspect of Cncntrc. We don’t know yet.
The Book of 8 is a prototype for a new game based on our first unfinished design, called 8. We had an idea how to squeeze this big production into an indie-sized package and wanted to prototype that. We’ve ditched this idea in the mean time, partially because of experiences with Cncntrc, and have started a new prototype from scratch. So far, we’re extremely happy with it! Laura Raines Smith has made some wonderful animations, Kris Force is creating sound effects and Gerry De Mol will be making music. It feels like it might become a really lovely thing. We’re very excited about it.
The Tumblr logs are really just practical. They’re not meant to tease, just to share. We always collect large libraries of reference pictures for each project. And Tumblr offers a convenient interface for doing this. And we like working in public. We’re always very open about our process. So we didn’t see any problem in these Tumblr streams being accessible to everyone. And I think we also felt more comfortable sharing our thoughts by means of images (after being fed up with all the words on our main blog).
Q. And finally, what do you predict for games in the near future? An emphasis on casual games? Or perhaps social games? Or maybe more experiences that serve as an alternative to entertainment-driven engagement? Some combination of the three?
A. I don’t really see an increased emphasis on casual/social games. I think what’s happening is that more and more people are using computers more and more (including smartphones and tablets). They have always played games (board games, card games, games of chance, etc). And now they’re playing these games on computers. Any differences have more to do with differences in social behaviour online than with the games themselves.
I don’t like making predictions. Because, rationally, I would have to say that nothing will change and/or that everything will get worse. Because that’s what my experience in the games industry this past decade has taught me. But for me it’s not about likelihood and hope. It’s about necessity and possibility.
We have a wonderful new artistic medium. It is simply our duty to explore this medium and to create beauty with it. It’s not a matter of calculating whether or not this is commercially feasible or if we are dealing with the future of the industry. All that matters is that we have to find a way to do this work. The potential is there, everyone can see it. It’s up to us to figure out how to bring it out. That’s what notgames is all about. And we will succeed. We’re actually well on our way. Even with the slow hardware and the crude software we have to work with. Even without the genius artists we so desperately need. We are creating a new medium. A medium that perhaps has its historical roots in video-games but that will become something entirely different. Something new. A new technology, a new art from, a new millennium. We’re here.