How Humans Took Back the Video Game

Meet the coffee-shop coders and jailhouse cons who are making your next video game.

On a breezy Starbucks patio in Redmond, Ryan Nohr and Jonathan Rasmussen huddle around a Macintosh laptop to introduce a stranger to a strange world.

The premise of the video game on the screen is this: A country bumpkin flies from the Midwest to a metropolis (maybe Seattle, maybe not) to find it’s a hard world. Buses, airplane propellers, and politicians all conspire to lead the stranger to a gory death. The graphics in City Quest hover somewhere around 8-bit, and the game play consists of chatting with characters in dialog boxes, presented in blocky font, as the player—in this case, Nohr—navigates a whimsically sinister landscape.

Our hero isn’t even out of the virtual airport when Rasmussen suggests Nohr show a reporter the baby in the vending machine. “Oh, yeah—part of the game is going to be trying to find all the babies,” says Nohr, who wears large ear gauges and a long red beard that forks at the end. He walks the man onscreen toward the candy machine. With a few more quick keystrokes, the avatar extracts a babbling infant. Cute.

“We think there will be a part where you’re hungry,” Rasmussen notes, “and you either have to eat one of the babies or a pigeon.” A man in his 20s who tests video games for a living, he breaks a smile that manages to make him look both proud and embarrassed.

Nohr and Rasmussen are independent video-game developers. They work out of coffee shops for no pay in the hope that they can arouse enough interest in their concept to crowd-source funding for development (when they met with Seattle Weekly, they were coming down to the wire on an $8,000 Kickstarter campaign). Once the game is complete, they then have to market the hell out of it, trying to move enough City Quests at $8 a pop to recoup costs and perhaps make a little money for their efforts.

It’s an enormous amount of work: Nohr and Rasmussen have been developing City Quest since September; Nohr doing most of the coding while Rasmussen develops the art. They both write, crafting their madcap plot as they go (hence their uncertainty about what role those little babes will play).

Despite all that, the two have one huge advantage over developers at big game companies: creative freedom. The freedom that allows them to make what amounts to a dead-baby joke in their video game or have their bumpkin character fall into prostitution (both men, from Wisconsin, swear the game isn’t autobiographical).

City Quest is their vision, and they’re coding to it.

To borrow beer lingo, Nohr and Rasmussen are what you might call nano-developers, home-brewing their game with minimal equipment and capital. And just as tiny brewers have doggedly eaten into Budweiser’s and Miller’s share of America’s beer-swilling dollar, the past few years have shown that any developer has the potential to be a mighty competitor to even the biggest game studios.

It’s a stunning reversal in the evolution of the video game: For decades, economies of scale had benefited firms that could put the most money toward the most realistic graphics and expansive game play. Even simple games required a bullpen of coders to create anything attractive to sore-thumbed consumers. The whiz-bang results were addictive and insanely profitable. They were also dismissed by parents and guardians everywhere as cultural rubbish that may well render kids sociopaths or introverts.

However, the steady creep of technology has lowered the barrier of what it takes to create a fully realized video game, giving practically anyone with a computer, the drive, coding know-how, and a case of Mountain Dew Code Red the power to move the entire industry in a million directions. What’s resulted is an explosion of games that, while clunky on graphics, are funnier, trippier, and cleverer than the standard fare that has for years relegated video games to the cultural slums. It’s also turned the video game into a medium to tell complex stories about the society around us. Or, as one Seattle developer put it: “More [games] that are concerned with real human beings, and sometimes are even made by them.”

In many ways, the indie-game revolution has already come and gone, with games created in Scandinavian garages bringing in millions for their tiny teams. But as with anything, it’s taken time for corporations and governments to figure out what to do with coders like Nohr, and this has been a year of reckoning. Big companies, including Nintendo, have made entreaties to small game developers; the government of Uruguay has even subsidized game-development shops in the hope of bringing in big American bucks. The next blockbuster video game could come from any corner—or coffee shop—of the world.

Even a prison on the Olympic Peninsula.

Ultimately, a video game is like any other work of art: It seeks to share a human experience, be it through realism or, much more often, fantasy.

Which is what makes what’s going on at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center near Port Angeles so exciting. There, the extension service of the nearby Peninsula College, using outdated computers and software downloaded for free off the Internet, began to teach interested convicts how to make a video game. It’s a year-long program, which, as instructor Ray Pulsipher will tell you, can amount to a lot of hours of practice “when you have all the time that these guys have.”

For three hours a day, Pulsipher instructs the inmates in all forms of computer programing, based on each individual’s interest. He says the idea of creating a video game that others can play has caught the imagination of many: “One of the things that struck them is getting something they created shared with the outside.”

Pulsipher says that when he sat his students down to brainstorm what kind of game to make, the ideas that flowed were what you’d expect from a table of men. The group finally decided on a game about a zombie apocalypse. This being a prison and these being prisoners, there are a lot of constraints on what kind of violence they are allowed to render onscreen. For example, wasting a zombie with a sawed-off shotgun is a no-no, so they are going with more of a paintball-game motif.

Pulsipher notes that the gore is beside the point; what they’re asking the cons is this: “If you wanted to create a world, how would you do it?”

He hopes that in a year or two, the class—whose game studio is going by the name Con-ware Games—will be able to submit an entry into national competitions. “We want to get some of the stuff they’re doing out there,” he says.

Could the prisoners eventually use their new-found skills to teach the world about life inside the walls?

Brian Walsh, director of the extension service, thinks so. “There’s such a romanticization of prison life,” Walsh says, speaking by phone. “Prison games that are out there, they’re Sim City-type games. There’s certainly a potential there for a simulation of what it’s really like to be in prison.”

What’s given the prisoners at Clallam Bay, and millions of others, the ability to render their worldviews in code is the galloping pace of technology development, which has made much programming software cheap or free.

In the vanguard of this freeware is Unity, a “game engine” that helps developers with the physics of their game. To cite just one example, Unity allows a developer to, with a few clicks of a mouse, dictate how to get his character to jump, duck, kick, or punch. Simple as that sounds, it’s incredibly complex to create in a video game, especially when it must be replicated across several characters in a number of levels. To compare it with music: It’s as if until recently, your garage band had needed to build your own guitars and drums to play a song; now you just need to know how to play an E chord and keep 4/4 time.

“Back in the day when you had to do everything by scratch, you needed a team of developers,” says Ty Taylor, a Seattle developer who released his game, The Bridge, to critical acclaim last year. “Now you can have a game in just a few hours, or at least a small prototype.”

Just as Seattle rode the power chord to fame in 1991, few cities are embracing this new technology as enthusiastically. While raw numbers are difficult to pin down, one industry veteran put it this way: “L.A. is where people go to do the glitzy design, San Francisco is where people go to have the huge start-ups, Seattle is where people go to sit inside out of the rain and design games.”

And design they do, many of their creations challenging the persistent perception of video games as a low art rampant with violence.

Take, for example, Cart Life, a so-called “empathy game” developed by Seattle’s Richard Hofmeier that seeks to help the player better understand the life of a food-cart operator in a small town called Columbia City. Far from ducking zombies or slaying Nazis (or, as one game allows, killing Nazi zombies), Cart Life’s challenges include keeping your cart open long enough to make money while still closing in time to pick your daughter up from school. In a nice touch, your character tallies the day’s wins and losses as he or she stands in the shower.

“In street vending, your business finances are inseparable from your personal expenses,” Hofmeier says of his inspiration to make the game. “That seems both daunting and freeing to me, and these are conditions that most people I know can understand immediately.”

With the power to make a video game in so many hands, Hofmeier says, he’s seen the art-form come into its own.

“For me, it’s similar to how a book can be a recipe book or a diary or a collection of news photos or The Brothers Karamazov or a sports star’s autobiography,” Hofmeier says. “The things we call video games aren’t always adolescent fantasy play.”

Not that fantasy is at all verboten.

Look no further than Taylor’s The Bridge, which puts people inside M.C. Escher drawings. A 23-year-old from Ohio, Taylor spent two years designing The Bridge, inspired, he says, by what he hoped was a common fantasy: “Whenever I looked at an Escher drawing, I’d fantasize about what it would be like to walk around in them,” he says. “The only way to really experience that was to make a video game . . . I’m sure I’m not the only one to fantasize about what it would be like to be inside that drawing and feel that.”

Taylor says he was free to pursue his vision thanks to low overhead. Working during his off hours from his job at Microsoft, Taylor was able to put together a prototype of his game in just a couple of days, though it took him two and a half years to build it out. Still, with $5,000 and lots of keystrokes, he developed a game unlike anything coming out of bigger studios. “I took a huge risk, basing a game off what I personally thought was interesting,” he says. “They put millions of dollars into finding out what people want.”

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Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the ongoing fights between indie studios and major game consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox. But even these battles tell well the story of how an industry built on glitz has come around to games less polished.

Consoles like the Xbox and the Wii are much like any brick-and-mortar store. Like the GameStop on Capitol Hill, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo seek to create a one-stop shop for video-game customers looking to download a game, whether mass-produced or a little more hand-crafted. At its most felicitous, this relationship enables developers to deliver games that improve a console’s offering, while the console gives the developer access to millions of users.

But it’s rarely felicitous.

Like any store, consoles want to be careful not to put junk on their shelves; but without having the manpower—or, some say, incentive—to fully test every game created in the far-flung coffee shops of the world, the companies have all set up arbitrary guidelines to separate the grain from the chaff. (This isn’t the case in the world of PC and phone games, where there are few to no restrictions on publishing a game and where, admittedly, there is a lot of chaff.)

Inevitably, this has kept good games off popular consoles and instilled a David-vs.-Goliath narrative into the indie scene, with Microsoft most often playing the Biblical ogre.

Blogs that follow these battles are filled with anecdotes of indie developers breathlessly explaining how frustrating it is to try to get a game on to Xbox.

“Why do we need a publisher when we self-finance our games . . . and we’ve turned nearly two million units online?” one developer fumed to blog Eurogamer in reporting that the latest installment of his popular Oddworld series won’t be offered on Xbox’s newest console, Xbox One. “Why? What’s wrong with us?”

Ed Fries agrees that Microsoft has a strained relationship with indie developers. Before leaving the company in 2004, Fries was the company’s vice-president of game publishing during Xbox’s debut. In a brief interview during a developers’ summit held recently at EMP, Fries said that early on Microsoft supported independent game developers, but over time “put a lot of restrictions on the developers” and “made it harder to find the games.”

But Fries also notes that the last Xbox, Xbox 360, was released seven years ago, before indie game developers shook up the industry landscape. As Microsoft ramps up for the release of the Xbox One, Fries says the gaming world is listening to whether the company is ready to start playing nice with all those rock-hurling Davids—a move Nintendo and Sony have already made. Given the explosion of indie games, Fries doesn’t seem to think Microsoft has much of a choice.

“They’ve been much more aggressive with approaching the indie community,” Fries says of the Japanese companies. “Microsoft is being much more quiet.” Earlier this year, Nintendo drew cheers from the community when it dropped its requirement that a game maker have an office address to publish on its systems, meaning that coffee-shop coders like City Quest’s Nohr and Rassmussen now have at least a shot at reaching Nintendo’s millions of users.

Other corporations are also trying to get into the game. Earlier this month, Amazon launched with some fanfare an entire section of its website devoted to indie games. In an e-mail to Seattle Weekly, Amazon spokeswoman Lyn Hart says the new site gives developers access to “tens of thousands of customers” and gives gamers a way to “more easily discover the large and growing selection of innovative indie games.”

Gone unsaid was Amazon’s, Nintendo’s, and Sony’s interest in getting a piece of the action. The fact is, there’s too much money in indie games for the big boys to ignore them any longer. As Fries puts it: “Back in the day, you wouldn’t believe you could make a great game with two guys in a garage. Then a group in Sweden called Mojang put out a little game called Minecraft that’s caught the world on fire.”

Minecraft could be called the Seinfeld of computer games: It’s about nothing, and fans can’t get enough.

At least there are no concrete objectives. Released in 2009, the game is based on exploring a world of blocks that can be moved and used to build shelter and otherwise stay alive. If you do, the 16-bit universe is your oyster, as players try to beat each other with what they can create (one player created a working computer within the computerized world).

Essentially created by one man, Markus Persson, at practically no cost in his garage, Minecraft has been downloaded more than five million times, bringing in $80 million.While top-tier games can still best that in revenue (one installment of Call of Duty grossed $1 billion in just 15 days), Minecraft and other indie hits have forced the game community to rethink what gamers actually want from video games—especially what kind of graphics users will put up with if the game is clever enough.

Speaking at EMP, developer Chandana Ekanayake marveled at his children’s response to a game called Thomas Was Alone, a moody puzzle game in which the main character is simply a rectangle whose internal dialog is more about where he’s headed in this world than about the game. Ekanayake doubted his race-game-loving kids would take to minimalist gameplay. But before he knew it, they were hooked.

“Indie games take risks with their stories and are willing to go farther with those stories,” says Tom Swanson, who helps organize independent gaming events in Seattle. “That’s opened this huge window that has allowed indie games to just blow up.”

“The AAAs are starting to feel the pressure,” says Kate Edwards, director of the International Game Developers Association, using the industry slang for major game developers. “They say, ‘We didn’t know that kind of stuff would sell.’ ”

Not that the big guys play nice when they get a tip from a well-performing indie game: With games coming out at a furious pace, quick rip-offs of hit games are part of the business. “Big companies look to innovative indies as their free R&D,” says Tom Buscaglia, a Seattle lawyer who represents video-game makers. If a small game hits on iPhone, he says, huge companies can and will quickly replicate it and release it on Android phones before the small guys have a chance to. If the big companies are smart enough, they’ll change things just enough to make it pass as original work. But sometimes they aren’t smart enough.

Last year, Kirkland-based SpryFox filed a lawsuit against the major Hong Kong–based studio 6Waves after it noticed a few similarities between its popular Facebook game Triple Town and a new game called Yeti Town. “We’re talking about tons of little details,” SpryFox CEO David Edery fumed on his blog, “from the language in the tutorial, to many of our UI elements, to the quantities and prices of every single item in the store.” As reviews of the game noted, the only real differences were that “saplings” were called “bushes,” “houses” were called “tents,” and where there once were “bears,” “yetis” now roamed the land. The suit was settled out of court, and Yeti Town was pulled; 6Waves is still valued at $100 million.

The episode speaks to how much money is up for grabs in a world where customers are almost always within reach of a device capable of running a video game. Even governments are taking notice. Perhaps lured by the possibly huge return on investments, Uruguay has successfully fostered a booming video-game industry. As The New York Times reported in February, while the country’s heavy regulation of industry is typically seen as anathema to entrepreneurship, it used its clout to help found a successful company that makes educational games, which in turn is encouraging a $600 million software-export trade in the tiny nation.

To which Seattle can say: chump change. An industry study released last year by the Washington Interactive Network estimated that the state’s video-game industry—including games, software, and hardware—produced $9.7 billion in 2010, up from $4.1 billion in 2006. The number of firms in the industry doubled between 2006 and 2011, from 150 to 300.

The lion’s share of that comes from Microsoft’s many tentacles, but WIN executive director Kristina Hudson says independent developers deserve some of the credit. “The industry is going through some ebbs and flows right now, but the indie developer is here to stay,” she says.

Too, it appears that Nohr and Rasmussen are staying at their Starbucks for a little longer. It was close, but they got the $8,000 they needed to continue development of City Quest. Tasks ahead include hiring someone to compose the music and writing the remainder of the game.

Asked about two-man teams like theirs, they say these do seem to be auspicious times to be in the biz: “In five years,” Rasmussen muses, “everyone will have played an indie.”

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