Welcome to Under the Radar, a column designed to expand your gaming horizons by highlighting the most interesting work from small and independent developers. Each week, you’ll get a rundown of indie-centric news stories and announcements, a game recommendation to help build your indie street cred, and the Main Event—a rotating segment featuring developer interviews, gameplay impressions, opinion pieces, or whatever else I feel like sharing.
While you’ll no doubt hear about the aggressively hyped juggernauts of the indie world from time to time, I’ll also strive to give you info on the deep cuts and the up-and-comers, the interesting fringe where weird meets brilliant. Let’s dive in.
This week, I sit down with Randy O’Connor, iOS developer and artist on several highly acclaimed indie games. He tells me why I should quit playing games and buy a bicycle.
EGM: So, who are you? How’d you get into indie development?
Randy O’Connor: I’m a full-time indie at this point, and I’ve been doing this four years now. I got my degree in 3D animation from Northeastern University, and then I worked at a Facebook game company for a year, and I was like I don’t want to do this. Around the time I was starting there, I was also helping Tiger Style Games finish Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor. After the Facebook game I was working on collapsed, I went indie full time, working on Waking Mars as the lead artist on that. After that, I continued doing contracting. One of my gigs fell through right when I started sharing an office in West Berkeley—which I’m still sharing right now—with Ian Stocker [of MagicalTimeBean], Alex Austin of Cryptic Sea, and Justin Woodward of Interabang. Ian asked me if I wanted to do the art for his game, Escape Goat 2, and I said definitely. Another year and a half later, Escape Goat 2 is out, and I’m finally really focusing on my own stuff.
EGM: So, what is your own stuff? What do you have in the works at the moment?
O’Connor: I’d say I have two main projects right now. One is called Scoundrels, and it’s a pirate board game for four to six players. I have an iPhone game called Rogues, which is also a pirate game. It’s a kind of a roguelike. You survive as long as you can, sail the seas. It’s all about communication—ports and ships are only aware of what they’ve been told or encountered themselves. Faraway ports might not know that you’re a pirate, so if you can go and trade with them before anyone tells them that you’re mean, then it’ll be all right. But the Navy might be hunting you in the center of the map because you’ve done so much there.
Those are my traditional games, and then I have a much longer-term, currently untitled project where you’re a monk trying to reach the top of a mountain by choosing paths. Basically, it’s a one-button game for iPhone as well, but it’s really about the choices you make. It’s an endless runner where it’s not about reaction time, but planning. I also have Distractions, which I think is my most interesting stuff, and my most experimental. It’s basically making high scoring, fun action games for the iPhone, but trying to center them on mechanics inspired by emotions and things that I care about, like fracking.
EGM: I’ve messed around with Distractions quite a bit, and I think it’s fascinating because it’s very low level game design. You’re basically just inventing new core mechanics. What was your inspiration for the project?
O’Connor: I never really designed as many games as I wanted to when I was younger. As an animator, you sketch little storyboards, and Distractions is ultimately my attempt to do that with games. It’s saying that, here’s a limited space, let me constrain myself in several ways—all simple shapes and text, all black and white, it has to have a high score. I can write about my game ideas, but to get them into these little sketches and then move on. I stop working on it, because there are more systems to make. We’re pretty locked in as an industry. We have a lot of our ideas down, but maybe we don’t have all the ideas yet.
EGM: Yeah. I was actually having this conversation with another indie developer recently. It feels like most of the design that happens nowadays is about adding onto existing concepts with new gimmicks rather than looking at foundational design.
O’Connor: I think I’m lucky, in a way, because when I was growing up, my parents said, “You don’t get a videogame console. We don’t need that.” It was very hard to convince them to let me have computer games, and slowly, little by little, I very determinedly got more and more into games, even though I don’t think my parents ever really saw the career potential the way I did. They never prevented me from doing it, but they would say, “You don’t need videogames.” And that lack of videogames, I think, actually gives me a different perspective. At my first internship, they asked everyone what their favorite toy growing up was, and everyone except for me said their Sega Genesis. I said my bike. It was really weird, and it made me aware of how much the Sega Genesis and other systems like that influenced everyone who’s in the industry.An early look at Rogues‘ pirate-tastic world simulation.
EGM: Now that you’re making a living off of videogames, is it a big “I told you so” to your parents? What do they think about the whole thing?
O’Connor: There was an “I told you so” in mid-college, when my dad bought me a Nintendo DS for Christmas. That was mind-blowing. When he gave me the DS and I got enough money to go buy my first Zelda, I was like, “Oh, wow. They’re actually really supporting this.” Although my mom still says, “You don’t need violence in your games.”
EGM: Do they play your games?
O’Connor: They try. My dad tries. My mom plays for a little while. They don’t really have interest in videogames. But I did get my dad to play Device 6 at Christmas.
EGM: I hear Device 6 thrown around as one of the best examples of how mobile games can be truly great. Are there any other iOS games you’d recommend that might help skeptics like me see the value of the platform?
O’Connor: I actually made a Tumblr so I could highlight some of the iOS games I love. I haven’t updated it in a while, but it’s got the 15 games that I think are perfect for the platform, including Triple Town, Drop 7, Canabalt, and True Skate.
EGM: As an iOS developer, what’s your opinion on the rampant cloning we’ve seen, like the recent debacle over Threes! and 2048?
O’Connor: I think all you can do is keep making games. I don’t have a really informed opinion on that. It’s tough, because with something like Jetpack Joyride—one of the other games I put on this list—I’ve played that game a billion times before with other names, with different art. I’ve heard a lot of comments about Escape Goat 2, where they say, “Oh, it’s just another puzzle platformer.” Well, you might as well say, “Oh, that first-person shooter is just another first-person shooter.” It’s just another type of game now. 2048, I do believe, is a pretty big ripoff of Threes!, but you can’t expect that once you come up with a mechanic, it’s just going to remain within your title.
EGM: It feels like there’s been a serious shift, though. With a first-person shooter, for example, what makes each game feel distinct is such a high level confluence of different mechanics and variables. I feel like the more simple and foundational the mechanics get, the fuzzier it becomes. With something like Threes!, the genre or mechanic or whatever you want to call it is the game.
O’Connor: Right. That’s true, but it’s not always that simple. When Threes! came out, I actually glanced at it and said, “Oh, you guys are ripping off Triple Town.” And then I looked at it more, and I saw that they weren’t, even though the way you combine things is very similar. And Triple Town is basically an evolution of the match-three concept.
EGM: So, would you say that borrowing is healthy, to some extent, if it’s done in good conscience?
O’Connor: Yeah, I think it’s kind of inevitable. For me—and I think for a lot of the people I work with and the people that I respect—the cool thing that happens is you start from a different mindset and you arrive at similar points. When Tiger Style was first designing Waking Mars, there was no intent to be a Metroidvania. But as the game developed, we realized there were lessons we could learn from those games. That’s something that I’ve learned over the last several years: Coming from a completely different angle doesn’t mean you should ignore the other things that are going for the same stuff.
EGM: I guess the flipside of it is, It’s almost harder to recognize exceptional design when there’s so much of this continuum of people experimenting with the same idea. I don’t think that you could release Tetris today. There would almost instantly be a billion shinier Tetris clones, and Alexey Pajitnov would be out of luck. I love the explosion of developers, but I feel like we’ve almost lost something in the process.
O’Connor: I think that’s the ongoing debate. There are people in the indie community who are discussing things like Steam becoming more and more open. At first, Steam was a curated system where you pretty much knew that everything was going to be good or decent. They’ve moved into a different space. They’ve said that they’d rather just get a bigger crowd. I think that every field in media entertainment is facing this same question. Even with what you do, gameswriting, there are so many people writing about games that even your position is hard. We’re all struggling to stand out and figure out what voices to pay attention to.
EGM: OK, to close things out, I’ve got one last question. Given your history, I’m pretty curious to see what you say. What’s your favorite game of all time and why?
O’Connor: I don’t have the same nostalgia factor for any one game, but I did see that you’ve asked this question in the past, so I wrote down some things. I’d say, of the last decade, Minecraft, just because I think it’s the perfect blend of push and pull, action and inaction, construction and destruction. I think it’s probably the perfect game in my mind. But in terms of my lifetime, I’d say Morrowind and Counter-Strike are the other two tops.
To learn more about Randy’s work, head on over to his website. His most recent collaboration, Escape Goat 2, is now on sale just about everywhere. You can download Distractions for free through the iOS App Store.
Good news, everyone! If, like me, you managed to get suckered into buying Earth: Year 2066 through Steam Early Access, you’ll be able to get your money back. Valve came out today and announced they’d be pulling the game obvious scam and offering full refunds. The listing says purchasers will be able to get a refund from the game’s store page through May 19th, but there’s no obvious way to do so at the moment. Unless that changes, just contact Steam support instead.
Next up, we’ve got two quick pieces of milestone news. First, Sir, You Are Being Hunted, the decidedly British stealth/survival game from Big Robot, has finally exited Early Access and hit version 1.0. I can safely say it’s the best game about being chased across the English countryside by murderous gentleman robots ever made. (But it’s a damn fine stealth game in its own right, too.)
Second, the third act of adventure game Kentucky Route Zero has finally been released. If you’ve already got the game on Steam, it should automatically update, and if you purchased through Humble, you can get the new chapter by redownloading. I can’t speak to the game’s quality personally—I decided last year I’d wait for all five acts to be released before I played through—but I’ve heard nothing but good things.
I also wanted to highlight a trailer that caught my eye: a debut glimpse at The Cartel’s Mother Russia Bleeds. I think the aesthetic comparisons to Hotline Miami are apt and promising enough, but I’m mostly excited to see side-scrolling beat ‘em ups get a little love. Some of my fondest arcade memories are of playing Final Fight, X-Men, and Turtles in Time, and I’m amazed more indie devs haven’t tried their hands at the genre. Hopefully Mother Russia Bleeds will do it justice.
Finally, Dan Marshall of Size Five Games has written up an interesting (if a bit depressing) piece about why indie developers shouldn’t make multiplayer games. The Time Gentlemen, Please! and Ben There, Dan That! developer talks about his personal experience supporting his most recent title, the 1-on-1 platform shooter Gun Monkeys, and shares the lessons he learned from struggling to keep its online multiplayer community healthy post-launch.
Given Thirty Flights of Loving’s emphasis on narrative and short running time—you’ll be done in under 20 minutes, guaranteed—there’s not a whole lot I can say that won’t spoil the experience, so you’ll have to settle for vague praise this week. As an experiment in videogame storytelling, it’s a fascinatingly taut and single-minded exercise, using level design, audio, gameplay, and filmic techniques to deliver a condensed blast of story and character.
If you’re one of those people who judges the value of a game on a ratio of playtime to dollars spent, you’re not going to be thrilled, but I’d thoroughly recommend anyone with an interest in game design give it a shot. You can pick it up for just $5 from the Blendo Games website or Steam.
Are you an indie developer? Are you making a brand new cartridge for the Atari 2600 because you feel like it was the last artistically pure console? Would you like it to be featured on an upcoming installment of Under the Radar? Shoot a message to firstname.lastname@example.org with “UTR” in the subject line and I’ll do my best to make your dreams come true.