Video game sales are astronomical, but like the music and film industries before it, the game industry has become dependent on predictable and expensive blockbusters. But now, as writer Clive Thompson explains, creative independent games are adding to the gaming ecosystem. And Microsoft's Boyd Multerer explains how amateur game designers can now create their own games for the Xbox console.
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BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
[VIDEO GAME SOUNDS/GUNS SHOOTING] In 2005, America’s video game industry surpassed movie box office sales. Last year, global video game sales reportedly reached 32 billion dollars, more than DVD and Blu-ray sales combined. And yet video games seem to be stuck in a rut of predictable shooters and other high-resolution clichés.
[VIDEO GAME SOUNDS/SHOOTING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The innovative spirit that marked the early days of video game development was crushed under the weight of the high-stakes, multi-million-dollar businesses built on the appeal of consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox, Sony’s PlayStation and Nintendo’s Wii. Now independent game production is again on the rise because the geeks want it, the gamers want it, and more recently, as you'll hear, even giant producers like Microsoft want it. Clive Thompson, who writes for Wired and The New York Times Magazine, says that innovation started to creep back into game design, after more than a decade in hiding, about seven years ago.
CLIVE THOMPSON: What happened was that it became possible to do your own game because Flash and Shockwave came along, which are like these little languages for programming something inside a browser. You know, you had tens of millions of people that could potentially play your game, and you could put it online and get it out there for free. So lot of the young talent started going, well, I'll have my job where I'm the assistant animator for Scooby Doo Number Four-
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - you know, something completely horrible – boring to play, boring to make – and in their spare time they started saying, I'm going to try and design a little game on my own that is going to be played in Shockwave or Flash on a browser. And this was the real first boom, the first flowering in indie video games.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you say that independent game designers are students of ludology?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah. Ludology is the study of play, why we like to play, why we find meaning in it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what it doesn't mean is 3-D graphics or other technological wizardry.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah sure, I mean, like, play is play whether or not it’s done on a computer or on grass, you know, or with dice and pens, right? What is a game? A game is just a bunch of quite arbitrary rules that you give to someone that give them a task to do that’s actually, you know, difficult because you’re limiting what they can do. You know, like when you’re playing basketball, you stop dribbling, you can't go any further. That’s a really arbitrary rule, but if you take it away, basketball isn't fun anymore. So what game design is, game design is not about thinking about visual things or graphics. It’s about thinking about rules that make for a fun environment, a fun thing to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that console makers have structured the economics of the game industry in a way that’s bred less creative games.
CLIVE THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, if you wanted – if I wanted to make a game for the PlayStation 3 or the Xbox or Wii and I said, okay, I'm going to print 100,000 of these, well, I have to pay a fee for every one of those 100,000 disks I print, even if they just sit in a warehouse and I never sell them. Games have become, just like Hollywood, a very expensive hit-based industry. So you make ten games. They all cost ten million dollars. Nine of them flop. One of them is a hit and it pays for all the other ones. So it’s incredibly hard to make money in this industry, and that’s why innovation has been very flat, sometimes for years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Clive Thompson. He'll be back in a few minutes. Now, the companies that make the consoles say they put those fees on every game disk to subsidize the artificially low price of the consoles. They sell them at a loss in order to build and maintain a mass audience. But some of them do concede that their industry could use an injection of the indie spirit. And so in 2006, Microsoft introduced its XNA developer kit, a set of programming tools that give amateurs the ability to make a game for the Xbox. Microsoft’s Boyd Multerer says that XNA makes it easy to create realistic backgrounds, 3-D graphics and dynamic sounds.
BOYD MULTERER: What XNA gives you is an environment on your Windows machine that allows you to write your game, test it out on your Windows machine and send it over to a regular retail Xbox and see it running in all of its glory. Now, normally a development kit for the professional for an Xbox is, you know, running 10,000 dollars apiece, and this lets you get going for free on the Windows machine and for 100 dollars a year on an Xbox. You do need to know how to write code, but you've got 99 percent of the box, especially the graphics ability, at your disposal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When someone makes a game with XNA, how do they share it with other Xbox users?
BOYD MULTERER: You can package your game up and send it to one of your friends who also knows how to put it on their Xbox, or you can submit it to the community game section on the Xbox, and that goes through a peer review system where other people like you are going to look at it and make sure you don't have naughty things in there. And then it goes up for sale. Then everybody who’s on Xbox LIVE can see it and download your game.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that peers review it to make sure there are no naughty things on it. I understand that Microsoft’s policy is no porn, no Nazis - or no service.
BOYD MULTERER: That’s basically right. The other thing we care a lot about is that you accurately describe your game so that anyone who is coming up to it can make their own informed decision on whether or not they want to download it. We very specifically do not review those games. We're very much leaving it up to the community to decide what comes through and what doesn't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do these amateur programmers really have a chance to make money or is Microsoft really just exploiting the game community’s desire to create?
BOYD MULTERER: Well, hopefully it’s a little bit of both. I have hopes that someone in their basement will be able to make a decent piece of change if they make a good game.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Microsoft takes a third of that, right?
BOYD MULTERER: Yeah, roughly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Having all these amateurs in on the process, do you think that’s having any impact on the big game developers?
BOYD MULTERER: Oh, absolutely. One of the biggest problems in the industry is there is a lack of enough trained people who know how to make a game and have experience making games. So the big publishers are partly looking at this as a pool of people who are teaching themselves how to be in the industry. Second, there’re some crazy new ideas that are coming out, and the big publishers are looking for their future titles. Third, just the fact of having a lot of niche titles that may not have a big audience but definitely speak to those people, it means that we have a huge variety and a huge number of choices for our customers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Boyd, do you like to play video games?
BOYD MULTERER: Yeah, I do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the fun-est program that’s come from an amateur?
BOYD MULTERER: My favorite game to come out so far is The Dishwasher, by James Silva. He started completely as an amateur. He made this game. He put it into the Dream, Build, Play contest that we have. It is fun!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s just basically a shoot-'em-up, isn't it?
BOYD MULTERER: Yeah, it’s kind of a hack-it-up sort of game, but it is fun. It’s that magic word that’s hard to quantify and hard to qualify, but it’s got it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Boyd Multerer is manager of Microsoft’s XNA program. James Silva, former dishwasher, created the game Dishwasher: Dead Samurai using the XNA tools, and he won Microsoft’s Dream, Build, Play contest, which gave his game wide distribution on Microsoft’s Live Arcade platform. Silva studied computer programming in college and made his game while getting a master’s. He'd created games before, but this one was something special.
JAMES SILVA: Being able to deploy on a console, I mean, that just, it was such a big deal to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So tell me a little bit about Dishwasher. It seems a little autobiographical.
JAMES SILVA: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Well, the story, I got the idea for the concept like five or six years ago when I was working as a dishwasher at a little café. I just got really, really taken by the idea that there should be a game where a dishwasher just flips out and kills bad guys, you know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did this thought occur to you while you were doing dishes?
JAMES SILVA: Yes. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Do you think that there’s something that you can do that those big studios can't?
JAMES SILVA: Well, there’s definitely more room for just experimentation. And I kept saying to myself, like, who the heck has an idea about making a game about a dishwasher? When you've got a big studio, you've got so much money on the line that they really like to vet concepts to make sure that they can sell the concepts.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What makes your game fun?
JAMES SILVA: It’s got a pace that’s really just crazy. It’s really visceral. It’s really responsive. [SOUNDS FROM DISHWASHER/VIDEO GAME UP AND UNDER] And it’s pretty unique in the strategies that you can develop. It’s not so much a button-masher as like a strategic button-masher.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And there’s so much, you know, weird little nuances in it. You can really do awesome if you figure it all out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now that you've quit your dishwasher job, do you have another game up your sleeve?
JAMES SILVA: Yeah, I've got two of them I kind of whipped into shape while I was waiting for Dishwasher to go through rounds of testing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what are those called?
JAMES SILVA: One is called Zombie Smashers X4: Guitarpocalypse.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And one is called ZPTK9, and I don't remember what that is supposed to stand for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you think you can make a living at this?
JAMES SILVA: Oh, I hope so. [LAUGHS] So far I think it looks doable. We'll see how the sales go through. I quit my day job, as everyone has warned not to do in life. You know, if you go eat at a restaurant and I'm washing your dishes, you'll know if things didn't go quite as well as they were planned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James, thank you very much.
JAMES SILVA: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Silva is the creator of Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. Okay, so Clive, have you ever wanted to design a game?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Not really. It’s very, very hard to do. Designing a game is like designing a constitution for a country. You have to think through human behavior and what your rules are going to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Writer Clive Thompson says that independent creators have been exploring human behavior with their PC- and Internet-based games for years. But when indies made the leap to consoles, it opened up a whole new world.
CLIVE THOMPSON: A lot of people play video games on computers but way more play them on these consoles, like a PlayStation or a Wii or an Xbox. You know, if you just design games for computers it’s a little bit like saying, well, you know, I'm going to design movies for just a small run of theaters. What these sort of new avenues for making an indie game and putting it on a console have done is allowed these very small teams, one or two people, to bat in the big leagues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So at this moment, what’s the impact of these independent games on consoles going to be?
CLIVE THOMPSON: You think about what happened in film was that indie film came along and some of the techniques of storytelling and acting techniques that the indies were doing in these tiny little films started bleeding into big Hollywood blockbusters. And I absolutely think the same thing is happening now because you get these little players - one or two people - who are making these very weird forms of play. The big studios are starting to pay attention because they're getting aware that you can do cool things if you have a cheaper budget. So they're starting to realize, well, maybe we should try and rein in these insane economics of our industry and be more creative at the same time. So I definitely think that the rise of sort of indie game makers is infecting and, hopefully, going to revitalize the mainstream of game design.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But give me an example. What weird, cool thing are these indies doing that could actually influence the big companies?
CLIVE THOMPSON: Here’s a great example. There was this game called Flow. You sort of took control of this little amoeba.
[MUSIC FROM FLOW VIDEO GAME UP AND UNDER] It didn't tell you what to do. You just sort of guided it around and eventually you'd see things, and when you got close then you could sort of eat it.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And depending on what you ate, you would seem to go deeper or higher, almost into the screen, as if you were descending into water or going upwards through water. And you would encounter different things that were sort of trying – you – it was a very almost Zen-like experience. That’s what he intended to do. He wanted to make a game that would relax you. This was so successful, so popular, that he got a commission to do a Zen-like game for the PlayStation 3 called Flower, that just came out. [SOUNDS AND MUSIC FROM FLOWER VIDEO GAME/UP AND UNDER] You’re blowing a flower petal around this very barren landscape, and as you blow it towards other little flowers they open up, and you get these lovely bits of music and gusts of color. And eventually you get this huge flock of petals you’re guiding around with this gust of air, and you’re just trying to sort of bring the landscape back to life. It is playful. It is fun to do, but it actually chills you out. It calms you down, you know, which is a lovely thing [BROOKE LAUGHS] for a video game to do. It’s something that if you went into a major game studio and said, you know, I want 20 million dollars to do a game where you just blow petals around and it calms people down [BROOKE LAUGHS], they would have thought you were absolutely insane, right? So he had to do this by himself, just him and maybe a friend sitting at a computer, to prove that it is cool and fun to make a game that calms you down. And then he was able to get a commission to do a different game with a much larger team on a PlayStation 3, and it’s been a big hit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems to me that calming down just strikes at the heart of what we assume video games are supposed to do.
CLIVE THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] That’s just one example. There’s a guy who made a game for the Xbox that has no graphics. So you load up the game and you’re holding the controller, you just close your eyes and listen to stuff. You'll hear sounds and you try and move towards and move away from them. And I love that idea – a video game with no video, right? It’s an audio game.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] So you’re getting these really crazy, interesting experiments. They're really blowing open the idea of what a video game can be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, let me ask you the big cultural question here. If, in fact, video games may become the largest form of home entertainment in America within the next year, in terms of dollars spent, how will that change the culture?
CLIVE THOMPSON: I certainly would hope that this breeds – particularly if we get more inventive forms of games – a type of a cultural mindset that’s more interested in the complexity of the world and complex systems, because the one thing that you do when you play a video game is you sit down in a state of total ignorance. You don't know what you’re supposed to do. You don't know how this game works. And the process of figuring out what to do is really what is fun about the game. In fact, people often stop playing the game once they've figured it out. And that’s a great inquisitive mindset that video games quite uniquely tap into. So, you know, 30 years from now, imagine a president who did this, you know, as their primary cultural activity for 25 years. I mean, I hope that’s an interesting proposition. I hope it’s a good proposition. We'll find out one way or another.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much.
CLIVE THOMPSON: No problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Clive Thompson is a writer for Wired and The New York Times Magazine.