It’s said in Hollywood that even the guy bringing you coffee is working on a screenplay, and that’s not too far from the truth. In an industry that thrives on new ideas, people are lining up outside the gates to provide them – and working at the coffee shop while they wait to be discovered.
It’s also said that the game industry is a fair model of Hollywood in most respects, and in this respect, the model holds. An informal poll conducted by this author at a recent game industry conference confirmed that a good 80 percent of all attendees – developers, press and others – had a game design idea up their sleeves and were drawn, like starlets on the Greyhound from Nowhereville, to the place where the action is.
At every game convention, gathering of developers and idle interview, the one question on everyone’s lips is not “What’s the next Halo?” but instead “How do I get into games?” The answer depends on who you talk to, but no one – not even the big shots – can rule out the lucky break.
“I had no idea there was a program an editor used to create the game – I thought a game just got created,” Ken Levine, Lead Designer of BioShock recently told 1UP. “I didn’t know anything. And probably based on the fact that they were in awe that I had lunch in Hollywood a few times, [Looking Glass] hired me.”
Levine, frustrated by his efforts to get a screenplay produced in Hollywood (and unwilling, I assume, to work at Starbucks), instead took his efforts into the game arena, and the rest is chart-topping history.
But not all designers are as lucky as Levine, and the larger the industry gets, the more body guards are at the gates, and the harder it is to get lucky. Ballooning budgets and expanding production cycles have brought Hollywood-like bureaucracy to the once idyllic game industry, and getting in isn’t any longer as easy as stepping off the bus and looking pretty (or smart).
“The best way to begin your trek is to start in another department, such as quality assurance, customer service or technical support,” says Ryan Shwayder of 38 Studios. “It’s generally not too difficult to get your first job in one of these departments.”
But working up from the mail room isn’t for everyone, and even for those willing to sling support tickets for their AAA masters, it’d still be nice to find a place where everybody knows your game’s name. Enter: the casual space.
To The Masses
“What we needed was an industry leader to step up,” said Kathy Vrabeck, head of EA’s casual division, describing her company’s effort to snare the 2 billion casual customers they expect are waiting in the wings, begging for a game they can understand. According to Vrabek, EA intends to bring interactive entertainment “to the masses.” Step one: Pogo, the “stickiest site on the internet.”
Founded in the late ’90s and purchased by EA for $50 million in 2001, Pogo.com currently hosts over 100 games, serving around 15 million users per month their casual game fix.
“All over the world,” Vrabek told 1UP, “consumers are playing games that don’t require hours of intense concentration. Whether it will be playing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on the Wii with the family or downloading Madden NFL 08 on a phone, quick-to-the-fun games are bringing new players and new demographics to interactive entertainment.” And new opportunities for baristas with a game design in their back pocket.
Casual games are, by their very nature, easy to play and relatively easy to design. Most, in fact, bear more resemblance to games made back when a single programmer could build a working game from his bedroom than they do the big budget, high-end blast fests of the current generation. That’s not to say they’re simple, just simpler. An aspiring game developer could do worse that start in casual.
Developers at the Gates
Of the 100 or so games at Pogo.com, only about a third are exclusives. The rest are made by names you may have heard of – PopCap, Big Fish, Crazy Monkey, Armor – all companies whose only game is making games, all companies who also run websites on which you can also play their games and occasionally the games of others. It’s a studio system akin to the golden age of Hollywood, where the starlets are brought in to provide the goods, and the goods are then pimped as far and wide as possible.
If you like Bejeweled, Pogo has Bejeweled. So does everyone else. Pogo also has Poppit, which is like Bejeweled, but with balloons. But again, everyone else has a Bejeweled clone, too. What everyone else doesn’t have is a community.
“The thing that really sets Pogo apart from all of the competition in the casual game space is the seamless blending of unique game experiences with strong community features,” Pogo Vice President Andrew Pedersen told Gamasutra earlier this year. “We have chat, tokens, a prize system, avatars, and badges – all of these things are seamlessly integrated into the game experience. … When you come there, you don’t play one game one way and then jump into another one with a different set of features. It really is one holistic experience.”
And yet this community is only for the customers. Try to offer your screenplay to the director just in for lunch and you’ll get a swift boot to the face. To make a PopCap game, you have to work for PopCap (or bump into them at GDC). To make a Pogo game, you have to work for EA.
Some casual sites are also game brokers, soliciting game designs and sifting through them for the gems. Some of the starlets signed from these casting couch acquisitions can go on to B-game stardom, or at least sign a deal for their next game. Some veteran developers even are finding new life for their old talents at places like Crazy Monkey. But for every Boxhead or Turret Defense, there are hundreds more developers making lattes while waiting for their big break.
“When a game is completely accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection, far more people end up enjoying your games than if they were commercial releases,” says Brad Borne, developer of Fancy Pants Adventures, a side scrolling, 2-D Flash game starring a stick figure in fancy, yellow pants. “Taking risks is no risk to Flash developers. We don’t have to sell our ideas to a publisher, nor market to a specific crowd, or even have to ‘look cool.'”
If the game industry is Hollywood and casual games are B-movies, sites like Kongregate are cable television; allowing anyone with an internet connection and a game to get involved.
Kongregate works like this: You design a game, you upload it to Kongregate’s servers and the Kongregate community plays it and scores it relative to other games. It’s an easy way to get games in front of people, and the people, not some marketing executive, decide what’s popular.
“Instant feedback and reviews is definitely something that I appreciate,” says Borne, a self-employed, self-taught game designer who’s been designing Flash games for over four years and “can’t really draw. … I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I love creating things, and I love videogames.”
But even for a pro-indie like Borne, the lure of the bright lights is attractive: “There’s so many things that I’d like to do if I was actually designing a game with a real budget and staff, but until then I’m just going to enjoy the freedom allowed by building a game from the ground up for no one but yourself.” Today Kongregate. Tomorrow, the world.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.