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2012 in game dev
: : Double Fine Productions : :
From adventure to amnesia

While we are still on the subject of Kickstarters, surely you remember the one that started this year’s ‘craze’? You know, the one wanting to go back to a so-called dead genre of games: adventure games. The ones that started, or at least publicised, the trend of turning to the crowd to fund video game projects are none other than the idiosyncratic Double Fine Productions, led by their head honcho, Tim Schafer.

The fine people at Double Fine productions.

The fine people at Double Fine productions.

As many other geeks of my generation, I spent a lot of time playing point-and-click adventure games, spending afternoons glued to my screen trying to figure out what wacky combination of objects would let me progress further in the game. Sadly, at one point, they stopped coming. The world of video games had apparently moved on.

And, in a totally unrelated circumstance, I heard someone speak about an upcoming game that would focus on heavy metal culture and stereotypes. Being a metalhead myself, that caught my attention from the get go, and I set out in search of all the information I could find. The game was called ‘Brütal Legend’, and would be made by a little-known, to me at least, studio: Double Fine Productions. Then, as my search continued, I was quick to connect the dots between my new guaranteed-purchase and those games I loved growing up. And from that day, Double Fine would be a name I would look out for.

Fast-forward to now, and when I saw that they were asking for donations in order to fund a then vague adventure game idea, I was sold. This was the first Kickstarter for me, and with the exception of Indie Game: The Movie, the only one I felt 100% sure about. Not only because I was convinced that they could deliver a great game, but because they actually promised a series of documentary videos shot by 2 Player Productions, documenting every step of the way. And that, for me, justified the amount I spent on the crowdfunding campaign.

To adventure!

To adventure!

But apart from some fanboyism on my part, why did I include Double Fine in this end-of-year list? Well, that is because they are the studio that single-handedly got my priorities straight as far as my career goes. Prior to seeing the inner workings of the studio, I had ruled out the idea of ever working as an employee in a ‘big’ – compared to ‘real’ indies – studio. That came after spending years wanting to get a job at Square Enix or some other behemot. And they had another surprise coming to reaffirm this new view.

The Amnesia Fortnight.

The opening video for the Amnesia Fortnight.

The opening video for the Amnesia Fortnight.

While the principle behind Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnights was known since their last salvo of smaller games (Iron Brigade, Costume Quest, …), it was still an internal thing. This time, they opened the doors to the studio and let us watch livestreams and recap videos from the ever-present 2PP, and let us download the prototypes obtained at the end of the two weeks. This move, done in conjunction with the guys behind Humble Bundle, was fascinating and full of great insight.

All these and more – Tim Schafer’s apparition in Minecraft: The Story of Mojang, to cite one – made 2012 kind of the year of Double Fine for me. I hope they cultivate their openness in the coming years. And would that not be the case, thank you guys for all you have taught me and made me see this year. You rock!

And as is now customary: Double Fine on Twitter, their website, and Tim Schafer’s Twitter.

2012 in game dev
: : Indie Game: The Movie : :
Bigger than life

As many people these past months, I have contributed to a few Kickstarter campaigns. Amongst them was the one looking to fund a film focusing on indie game developers. There were a couple of those: Minecraft: The story of Mojang, Us and the game industry, and the only one I backed because of missing the deadline of the other two. Indie Game: The Movie.

Indie Game: The Movie, the only film I have a t-shirt of.

Indie Game: The Movie, the only film I have a t-shirt of.

Indie Game: The Movie, or IGTM, is a documentary following the struggles of Phil Fish, developer of FEZ, and Team Meat, creators of Super Meat Boy, as they try to finish their respective games. You get to see them going through the hardships that actually releasing a game entails, all this being put in context by some commentary by Jonathan Blow, creator of the successful Braid.

The film made quite a splash in the indie community at release, and so did it in the world at large, winning many awards, getting screening all around the world and even being considered for a series adaptation. Some praised it as a true success, while others, mainly indie game developers, found it sometimes a bit unrelatable, focusing only on ‘big names’, and not being representative of the ‘true’ life of indies.

Yet, I am of those who saw the film as a resounding success. Even if some criticism directed at it are justified, the film was one of the highlights of the year for me. I think that, for the first time, I was able to really communicate to people around me, for example my parents, what making video games is to me. Not that I think of my life as full of drama and affect like the portrayal made by the two film-makers, but  the intent. The drive. That is something that I had trouble conveying.

It also was a huge morale boost for me. Nowadays, the game soundtracks still stirs me and make me want to plop down code to try and create what I have in my head. I do not think I will make the next FEZ or the next Braid, but these, albeit extreme, examples inspire me greatly. And the deeper meaning of the film, which could be a film about almost any creative endeavour, has a big and universal resonance.

If you have not watched it, I cannot recommend Indie Game: The Movie, enough. You do not have to be familiar with the world of game development to enjoy it, so go for it. You can buy it here.

And I am already giddy at the thought of the Special Edition that is still in the works, and which promises to make IGTM whole by addressing many shortcomings of the original film.

The filmmakers, taken by @Jeriaska.

The filmmakers, taken by @Jeriaska.

I, for one, am very proud of counting myself amongst the film’s backers, and I deeply thank Lisanne Pajot and James Swirski for what they did, and how they did it.

You can follow IGTM on Twitter, check out its official website, and oh, if you are quick, IGTM is included in the latest Humble Indie Bundle!)

2012 in game dev
: : Sophie Houlden : :
Gamedev extraordinaire

Oh boy… With the (seemingly endless) Christmas celebrations, I haven’t had the time to keep up with my posting schedule. So, please, pretend like it is still the 25th, and allow me to wish you a very merry Christmas.

And because this was a special day, this posts is dedicated to a special person. Special because if you would have come to me with a gun in your hand, and forced me to reduce the list of 12 posts I am working through down to a single one, it would have been this one. So here is to you, Sophie Houlden.

Rose and Time, a clever time-travelling stealth game where you have to avoid past copies of yourselves.

Rose and Time, a clever time-travelling stealth game where you have to avoid past copies of yourselves.

Sophie Houlden is, like Jasper Byrne or Christer Kaitila, one of these indie game developers that inspire me on a day-to-day basis. She is one of the most enthusiastic ones I know too. When not busy taking part in a game jam or making progress on an array of games, she can be found on Twitter offering her thoughts on the various happenings of the indie scene, like when Steam announced its Greenlight project, for example. That, or simply reminding herself and others that making video games is awesome, and that we should all be sitting down and kicking ass doing it.

She is also one of the Indie Buskers, a collective of indies that twice – for now – decided to livestream themselves making games for a weekend, accepting donations. This resulted in very cool games, of a high quality standard for a game jam, while being really neat to watch being made. I, for one, hope the Buskers will get together again soon!

Even when the going got though, Ms Houlden kept her chin up and soldiered on, going as far as pulling the purchase links for her games for a while because she did not want people buying copies just to “donate” to her. She also contacted people who ordered her game, SWIFT ☆ STITCH, during the day in her Pay-When-You-Want sale when the game was at more than $70 just to make sure there was not a mistake.

Swift*Stitch, a frenetic and amazing one-button game.

SWIFT ☆ STITCH, a frenetic and amazing one-button game.

Respect for her customers, enthusiasm for her craft, spreading positive energy towards her peers, Sophie Houlden has it all. She made few great games already, and submitted one of them, Leaper★, to the IGF this year, with more to come. She is outspoken, honest, yet open to debate. She really is one of the people I respect most and whose opinion I value the most amongst the indie developers I follow. She also kicks my ass in SSX, where I do not seem to catch up at all with her records.

Please, keep on being awesome, Ms Houlden, and thanks for all your mental strength and the inspiration you are!

(Once again, if you want to follow Sophie Houlden, you can do so on Twitter, Google+, or drop by her website. And check out her games – and her wonderful Pixexix – while you are at it, you will not be disappointed!)

2012 in game dev
: : Jasper Byrne : :
Lone warrior

A handful of indies make up what to me feels like the most important group in all the ‘community’. These are people who are incredibly talented and good at what they do, but who I feel are still people I can relate to. They are the ones I hope to one day meet, and have a chance to talk to without babbling like a fanboy meeting a rock star – I can dream. One of them embodies the very idea of perseverance for me, and I look up to him as someone who gives me the will to press on. Meet Jasper Byrne.

The protagonist of Jasper Byrne's Lone Survivor.

The protagonist of Jasper Byrne’s Lone Survivor.

The UK developer, artist and musician is probably mostly known for this year’s survival horror Lone Survivor. A game that encapsulated the very essence of games like Silent Hill, but in a 2D format. Which was the culmination of years of work and the final form of another project of Superflat Games. The road to release was a rough one for Mr Byrne, and I was relieved to finally be able to purchase a copy, meaning that he would probably be able to continue on his quest.

Reading the blog of Jasper Byrne always provide for an engaging read, and one that, even when it is delivering bad news, bolsters my will and my resolve to continue designing and writing games. I may be far behind in regards of output, but if I am still doing it, it is because of people like Mr Byrne who show me that while things do not always work out the way we want them to, dedication and willpower can prevail.

NEW GAME+, the new dungeon crawler that was almost not meant to be.

NEW GAME+, the new dungeon crawler that was almost not meant to be.

But summing up the creator of Lone Survivor as being dedicated would not do him justice. Because his games are not only good and insanely polished games, they are labours of love, from Lone Survivor and its hommage to Silent Hill to his latest project, New Game+, which crosses Zelda and Demon’s/Dark Souls. Which adds something to the picture : I can easily relate to Jasper Byrne’s inspirations and tastes, it would seem…

It is Christmas Eve, so I do not have much time left to wrap this post up, but if you read this, Mr Byrne, I want you to know that you have been an important part of my journey this year, and that I am grateful for that.

(As usual, you can find Jasper Byrne on Twitter, or via his website!)

2012 in game dev
: : Jonathan Blow : :
Food for thought

Amongst all the game developers I am following, some inspire me by their sheer dedication to their craft. Other by their quirky ways of exploring themes through game mechanics. And some other by being great people. But there are some that go a step above and tend to elevate the way we think about games. One of such guys is Jonathan Blow.

Jonathan Blow in 2008.

Jonathan Blow in 2008.

The maker of Braid is quite is quite a polarising individual. Some people seems to really like him, while others think of him a pretentious and vain. I am more of the former camp (and also a firm believer that we actually need a bit of pretentiousness, because it is a pejorative term applied to something that is not always negative). Even if I do not agree with him on every subject, I think he at least has the clairvoyance and thoughtfulness that let him bring up subjects that most other avoid or would not think of discussing. And he does it with very strong opinions that, yes, may come off as elitist sometimes. Yet which open wide the doors for further discussion.

Yet I think that we need ‘thinkers’ for video games to advance beyond being mostly simple entertainment, which most are. Not that it is a bad think per se, but I am convinced that there is much, much more potential still locked away in the medium. And by being a very outspoken designer, Mr Blow – and others like him – does play an important role in the industry.

From declaring free-to-play games as being ‘evil’ to contesting the value of game jams for more experienced developers, the discussions sparked from remarks from Jonathan Blow are often deeply revealing and informative. He is also a very articulate speaker, which of course is a good thing when you want to listen to him speak rather long talks.

All in all, Mr Blow is for me one of the most influential game designer so far. I could explain how Braid proved to be a game that stayed with me while I muled over it for a long while, but I would rather have this post be about the man and the great way he has of making me think outside the box. To make me consider what we can do with games in more than an aesthetic sense, and make me want to aim for greatness (even if I am not quite there yet).

Thank you for that, Mr Blow.

(You can follow Jonathan Blow on Twitter, or read about his next game, The Witness)

2012 in game dev
: : thatgamecompany : :
The road to awe

FEZ was not the only video game experienced that, in 2012, rekindled my passion for what videogames could and should do. Another one was thatgamecompany’s third game, Journey.



Amidst a never-ending stream of FPS or action games, Jounrey felt like a breath of fresh air. Like FEZ, its focus was shifted far away from conflict and spoke to the good parts of gamers. So much so that, despite being an ‘online’ game, I never had any bad experience with a player. Nor did any of the people I know that played the game. When you read weekly how awful people are behaving behind the curtain of relative anonymity, it feels like something that would be impossible to achieve. Yet thatgamecompany did it.

The whole experience was so intense that I played through it four or five times now, always coming from it with some new memories. And I am not the only one. As a gamer, Journey thus got to me. As had thatgamecompany’s previous effort, Flower. But as an aspiring game designer, it did even more. It taught me how you can forgo written words, and not only manage to tell a story, but evoke much emotion with it. It showed me that bigger teams and production values do not have to translate into watered down experience or run-of-the-mill games. And it was a resounding success in using game mechanics to bring the best sides of gamers to the forefront.

Perhaps even more tantalizing was the realisation that even after Flower and other ‘artsy’ games (pardon the usage of the word, I do not want to enter the ‘games as art’ debate in this post), this is still pretty much uncharted territory. Everything still needs to be explored in this space. Video games have never been so diverse, yet we only have begun to grasp the extent of their power to inspire, amaze and help us grow.

For once, when another player will come, unsolicited, you will not mind, you will share beautiful moments.

For once, when another player will come, unsolicited, you will not mind, you will share beautiful moments.

And that is a marvellous prospect. I hope to, somehow, do my small part in this journey, and if I do, it will be in part thanks to these people making these beautiful, meaningful games. People always trying to, like thatgamecompany’s logo seems to represent, touch something higher, something deeper.

For that, thatgamecompany, I cannot thank you enough.

(You can find thatgamecompany at their website, or through their Twitter account. Journey – and Flower, and flOw -, are available on the Playstation Network.)


2012 in game dev
: : Phil Fish : :
FEZ and the rabbit hole

The first half of this year has, for me, been profoundly marked by FEZ and its creator, Phil Fish.

Phil Fish in Indie Game: The Movie.

Phil Fish in Indie Game: The Movie.

Of course, it was the release of a widely anticipated and iconic indie game. True, there were repeated ‘controversies’ spawned by remarks of the outspoken game designer. But those are not the reason Phil Fish and FEZ have had such an important place for me in 2012.

The first reason is a week-end. FEZ was released on the 13th of april. A friday – of course – which would see me buying an XBOX360 game (after borrowing the console from a friend). Then, along with my girlfriend and a friend, we spent the week-end in another world.

We became completely immersed in the game. Information had been scarce before the release, so I was in no way prepared to face a game that is way more about cryptology than platforming, and I was delighted. I have played quite a few games this year, yet FEZ stands out as the most absorbing of them all. And I loved the way you had to scribble notes on paper while piecing together the answers to the game’s riddles so much that I made a tumblr for them (which was later tweeted by Mr Fish himself, then much later even mentionned on a post on Venus Patrol, both my biggest ‘fan’ moments of the year). It felt like falling ever deeper into the rabbit hole, opening successive doors leading to more doors.

The colorful, and deeply mysterious world of FEZ.

The colorful, and deeply mysterious world of FEZ.

The second reason is that FEZ, and by extension Phil Fish, have strongly reaffirmed my hopes that games could still be mysterious affairs. Many were very critical of the way FEZ seemed to be stuck in an eternal development limbo. I, perhaps because I did not follow FEZ from the very beginning, was less upset, and put faith in the developer’s judgment.

And it payed off. Phil Fish, as uncompromising as he can be, managed to evoke the sense of wonder that video games had for me when I was younger, but tuned for my older self. And thus FEZ became a game I want to measure my own against. Not because I want to make a FEZ-like, but because I would nothing more than make a game that evokes a similar sense of wonder.

If you want to learn more about FEZ or its developer, you can head to Polytron Corporation. You can also follow Polytron on Twitter if you would like. If you would rather listen to some awesome house-disco-spacey mixtapes, you can enjoy the great playlists proposed by the ‘Polytronaut‘ on 8tracks.

Thank you for being an inspiration to me, Mr Fish!

2012 in game dev
: : Breakdance McFunkypants : :
Positivity overload

While I have fell through with the Japan-related posts (though I have some of them almost ready, so you might see them in the end), I need to cope with a new reality : the year is about to end. And while this is not in itself a cause for worry, it does mean that I should probably do like so many people are doing and start doing some kind of recap of the past year.

Those reading me since quite some time know that I used to do series of posts titled “12 moments in anime” when I watched a lot of it. But it is not the case currently, so I decided to keep the format (12 posts, but counting down to the end of the year rather than to Christmas, because it is too late for that), but change the topic. And so I present to you “12 moments in gamedev”, in which I will take some time to recollect and give a shout out to the game developers or studios, or other gamedev-related thingies, that made my year what it was. The first of those, as the post titled suggests, is a quite strangely named fellow called Breakdance McFunkypants. Or, as he is known elsewhere, Christer Kaitila.


Earning his nickname.

This guy is, as seems to be a relatively common trend in successful indie devs, a multi-talented individual. He (of course) make video games, but he writes books, write songs… But the feature that makes him stand out for me is his unabashed enthusiasm. Throughout the year, his tweets have proven to be a great source of motivation, to the extent of making me wonder if he ever runs out of optimism.

He also published the Game Jam Survival Guide, taking his big experience of game jams and input from a wide range of other game jammers (if you do not know what a game jam is, it is an event where the participants have to create games from scratch under a set of constraints, for example a time limit like 48 hours). He promoted a huge amount of his fellow indie game developers’ projects, and he is currently busy organizing the One Game A Month Challenge to boost the morale of indies who languish in ever-unfinished projects and make them sit down and release some games in the coming year.

I think that, for people like me who are making game in their free time, motivation can be in short supply at times, and it is very important that we keep it up to continue developing our games when we come home from work. And Mr McFunkypants is one of those that unknowingly helped me with that.

If you want to know more about him and/or his games and books, he has a website. If you would rather have your dose of energy shot straight to your Twitter timeline, he is on there too. Or if you prefer Google+, you can encircle him. Finally, you can find his latest release (not counting his latest game jam game), Mars Orbital, on his website and it is pay-what-you-want!

Thank you once more for your enthusiasm and for being such an awesome guy, Mr McFunkypants!

Japan Log #5 – My deer Nara

Oh wow, I think I topped myself with the lameness of that pun… But anyway, time for our first stop on our ‘traditional Japan’ tryptic : Nara.

A city that we visited with Pascale in 2009, and which I knew was very beautiful. Many people, when they think of seeing the traditional side of Japan, instantly think of Kyoto. But for me, Nara feels even more authentic, and it is surrounded by a beautiful park offering the visitor many beautiful sights. And deers.

The view from our room at Seikan-so. Traditional, I tell you!

As I already mentionned, we were staying at Seikan-so, a traditional Ryokan that Pascale and I already enjoyed. But I had forgotten how great it was. The garden of the house had made a great impression on me when I saw it, but I didn’t remember how big the room were. I also took a resolve to dare to use the bath. For your information, it s a japanese-style bathroom, which means people can enter freely and wash themselves when you are taking your bath. So last time I just showered at the speed of light and got out. Missing out on the bath. Not this time, I told myself!

That said, we had 2 nights (so a bit more than 2 days) planned for Nara, so first I took Joan on a little walk near Japan’s second-highest pagoda and around a little pond.

The pagoda and the pond. No festival this time around, but still very pretty!

There were also baby turtles ^^. But that was pretty much it for the first day – we did arrive pretty late though. We walked around the shopping arcade, then took that bath (no one did come in when I was bathing, so that was that). A pretty relaxing and slow day after Osaka.

Then, on the morning of the second day, we had planned to head for the Nara park to sight-see a bit. Unfortunately, we had to take an umbrella with us because, for the first time in our trip, it was raining. And the sky didn’t seem keen on getting clearer any time soon.

The one-way street leading to the ryokan, under a steely sky.

That didn’t put a dent into our courage, so onward we went! The great thing about Nara koen (‘koen’ means ‘park’ in Japanese) is that it is not simply a park. It is a vast space alternating between a regular park, a forest, and shrines or other temples. So along the way, there are really many things to be seen.

Our tour began near a really big shrine, Todai-ji, before which there was a big gate. And I mean big. On each side, hidden from your view until you crossed the actual gate were two statues of Devas. You know, the kind of divinities you can so easily dismiss as looking kind of goofy with their contorted faces. Let me tell you, when two of those look at you in the form of 10-meters-or-so wooden statues, dimly lit, you don’t feel like making fun of them so much anymore.

The picture doesn’t do it justice, but it felt really impressive.

We didn’t enter the shrine itself, but continued on our way (you need to pay an admission fee for most of those shrines).

Oh yeah, I’m forgetting the deers!

I have alluded to that fact, but Nara is known for its deers, and they are indeed EVERYWHERE in the park, especially in that first part. You can buy biscuits to give them pretty much at every corner, and they have long since learned to recognize them and come to ask for them. In a very Japanese twist, some of them have learned to be polite enough to bow twice before you to ask for those biscuits.

One of the youngest deers we saw.

Of course, both Joan and I have bought biscuits to feed them. Each in our own… personal style.

Anyway, back to the scenery. Unfortunately, it kept on raining for most of the day, so the pictures we took were not as bright as they could have been. Nevertheless, we saw really great things, and again, I think it is better to let the pictures speak for themselves rather than bore you with an endless stream of words.

Walking towards the top of the park.

A long stair going up to one of the big shrines atop the hill.

Panoramic view of Nara from atop the stairs.

Some of the first stone lanterns we encountered.

A little bit of red in the forest.

People’s wishes written on wooden planks. We did one of our own, a little bit earlier.

Hanging lamps inside a shrine.

The result of the very flourishing stone lantern industry in Nara.

Pfew! And all that in a little more than 4 or 5 hours! After that, we were too soaked to continue exploring the city, so we went back to Seikan-so to enjoy the warmth of our room, and the bath again, which had the good idea to be “private use” for the day! Then, we finished our day with a bit of TV. And of all things, we ended up watching the Three Musketeers (you know, the crappy steampunk-ish movie from a couple years ago) dubbed in Japanese. ^^; It was also a surprise for us, but a funny way to spend an hour and something.

The next day, unfortunately, we didn’t have much time to go walking around again, as we had to make our way to the next destination: Kyoto. Hopefully without as much rain… But would the weather be with us? Tune in next time to find out! (And no cheating by checking the weather on the Internet, you geeks!)


Japan Log #4 – Hyperkinetic

So, with a bit of delay, here is the post relating our adventures in Osaka…

Ah, Osaka… That name which rings like the funniest city of Japan. If you don’t read Azumanga_Daioh, then maybe you were, like me, an avid reader of “An Englishman in Osaka”. That blog featured during several years the observations of said Englishman in its daily life in the city. If you value English humour, you would do well to browse the archive. Just be prepared not to do anything else for the evening!

Osaka during the day. Pretty standard fare, amirite?

When the sun is up, Osaka does not really earns the title of this post. Sure, it has got its share of shopping arcades, but it is nothing to write home about. Our hostel was rather nice though, with a cafe/lounge on the first floor that, apart from a very insistent smell of curry (not that I mind), was very cozy and inviting. It showed that it had only recently opened and that it was transformed from other occupations into accommodation facilities by local artists and the like…

But anyway, we were only staying in Osaka for one night, so we thought we might as well walk around until late, and not worry too much about “formal” sightseeing. Yet, as the sun went down and the sky grew darker, the city grew ever more alive.

People and neon signs. Everywhere.

By 7 p.m., the streets were bustling with people. Food was offered from everywhere, and each stall and restaurant participated in some kind of arm’s race to catch your attention. There were voices coming from everywhere, and the hardest question you faced was which way to go, since all the streets seemed equally interesting.

Not only was it huge, it was also moving. Osaka seems to have a thing for huge robotic crabs, it seems.

All this activity was centered around some kind of nexus. In a contrast so typical of Japanese culture, huge neons signs were reflected upon a calm river flowing in the most illuminated part of town. Probably even more brightly lit than Shibuya.

The Glico sign. Those guys make a lot of biscuits, for example the Pocky ones (Mikado for us in Europe).

We walked for a long time, turning left and right randomly as if we were moths drawn to the bright lights. It was only for one night, but it was great. Well, great, but a little awkward when you realize that after turning from an innocuous shopping arcade, you end up right into the red light district…

This short outburst of energy left us thrilled, yet we looked forward to our next destination : Nara. Where we would be staying in Seikan-so, a traditional Ryokan that Pascale and I already had visited in august 2009. I knew from experience that our stay there would be a 180° from that of Osaka.

Actually, our next three stop being Nara, Kyoto and Nikko, they would feel like a long breath drawn before diving into the deep end : Tokyo.