Posted on April 29, 2014 AT 05:00pm
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.
For this week’s Main Event, I thought I would do something clever and play a game that I’d truly never even heard of. I’d hop onto Steam’s Early Access section, randomly select a recently released title that wasn’t in the top 100 bestsellers list and buy it sight unseen. I figured I’d luck into some diamond in the rough, a game with potential but zero hype or marketing behind it. In my head, I was helping to raise the profile of a deserving underdog.
Instead, I spent $19.99 on Earth: Year 2066. Whoops.
Now, in the days since I forked over the cash, I’ve discovered all sorts of interesting things about Earth: Year 2066. For instance, the game’s promotional materials include images stolen from British artist James Chadderton. The developer has allegedly been linked to two separate crowdfunding scams, including one where he showed footage from another independent studio’s game in an effort to secure funding for a project that didn’t actually exist. He’s also purportedly deleting negative comments from the Earth: Year 2066 Steam forums and recruiting his friends to post positive reviews.
But when I first booted up Earth: Year 2066, I didn’t know any of that. All I had was the blissful optimism birthed by a promotional blurb that promised a tense survival experience inspired by Half-Life and Fallout. All that was gone by the time the main menu loaded up. I’m not sure if it was the background—clearly produced by running a screenshot of the game through Photoshop’s Texturize filter on the default settings—or the menu options dangling from chains, but I knew I was about to experience a special brand of terrible.
The gameplay, if you can even call it that, doesn’t fare any better. It’s ostensibly a first person shooter, but there’s no way to tell that at the moment. Your gun randomly decides to disappear without explanation, and the camera jerks violently from side to side on a semi-regular basis. There are only two enemies populating the tiny, completely unfinished map: a wheeled robot that shoots bullets that send you flying into the sky for no reason, and a flying mechasquid that, as far as I can tell, just attacks you with motorcycle noises. You don’t currently seem to be able to kill either one of them, but they’ll eventually kill you, despite the fact that the game has no visible health bar or any indication that you’re taking damage. Your only objective currently consists of seeing how long you can tolerate this enormous waste of your time before you give up and quit.
So Earth: Year 2066 isn’t really a game at the moment, then. It’s more a proof of concept for disaster. There’s nothing to do, and even doing that nothing is ruined by disastrous controls, hideous graphics, and coding that seems to bug out more often than it functions properly.
Worse still, I suspect it won’t ever be a proper game. The patch notes so far include such lovely statements as “new and better crosshair” and the wonderfully cryptic “fixed size of grass.” What size was the grass before? Since it was so vital to fix, leapfrogging things like “add actual gameplay” and “learn to design and program videogames” on the to-do list, I can only imagine that each blade was previously the size of a skyscraper, completely obscuring everything from view. You know, that might’ve actually been an improvement, if only for the added laughs.
Even before I heard about the rumors shady behavior, it was obvious to me that Earth: Year 2066 isn’t even an honest failure. This isn’t the work of a naive creator who’s out of his depth and struggling to make things right. This is a vile scam perpetrated by a man with more interest in making easy money than making games. His formula is simple enough to deconstruct: Use a bunch of astroturf accounts to push a trailer through Steam Greenlight, throw together an atrocious “playable” build in Unity over the course of an afternoon, and sell it with a pitch full of lies and a high price tag, hoping some poor schmuck falls for the trap. It’s sinister and disgusting, and it threatens to undermine the inherent trust that keeps the indie community afloat.
I can promise you, without a shred of irony, that you’d be better off throwing $20 into a trash can and lighting it on fire. At least then you get a brief flash of warmth and the illicit thrill of violating federal law. With Earth: Year 2066, you just get to feel like a sucker padding a scumbag’s pockets.
I’ve learned a valuable lesson today, and I hope you have too. For all the incredible opportunities that crowdfunding and Early Access have opened up for the indie game development community, the lack of any serious regulation or oversight means you’re at an enormous risk every time you decide to support a game. While it’d be foolish to let a few bad apples spoil the whole barrel, you should definitely do your research before you throw money at an interesting idea. It might run contrary to the theme of this column, but it’s the truth: Sometimes things are under the radar for a reason.
If reading about my time with Earth: Year 2066 wasn’t enough of a downer for you, you should give Drowning in Problems a shot. It’s a deceptively simple text-based browser game by Notch (yes, that Notch) that takes you through an entire human life, boiling it down to a simple series of choices and resource management. It’s not the most imaginative or the flashiest piece of game design, but there’s a brutal honesty in it that’s unsettlingly hard to deny. Who knew monospaced font could so effectively bring on a bout of existential angst. If you need me, I’ll be crying in a dark bedroom.
On a lighter note, Ludum Dare 29 just wrapped up this past weekend. For the uninitiated, Ludum Dare is a game jam and competition where participants are asked to create games around a central theme in just 48 hours. This latest contest was the biggest yet, with nearly 2,500 games submitted. If you’d like to experience the fruits of the contest firsthand, you can head over to the official site and download all of them free of charge. OK, so you’re probably not going to be able to play every last game—I know I sure as hell won’t—but I’ve already stumbled onto a few gems, like Ant Simulator 2014 and the stupidly pretty turn-based stealth game Beneath the City.
Finally, an intriguing bit of footage has popped up for a quirky game prototype from Simon Flesser and Magnus Gardebäck, the duo behind Year Walk and Device 6. The project, entitled Brisby & Donnovan, actually predates their current studio, Simogo. They apparently put together the concept back in 2010, when they were still working for ilomilo developer SouthEnd Interactive. Gameplay seems to be a curious take on the Katamari Damacy formula, with Brisby throwing boxes at objects in the world to coax Donnovan into eating them, thus enabling him to grow larger and eat even bigger objects. It’s rare that we get to see unreleased indie game concepts that are so far along in development, so this is an interesting glimpse behind the curtain. Shame we’ll never get to play the full thing.
Zachary Barth’s SpaceChem is a hard game to sell people on. This is, after all, a game that centers on assembling atoms into complex molecules, and even in a post–Breaking Bad world, I’m not sure the masses are itching to try their hand at fictional chemistry. But if you can move past the seemingly obtuse premise, you’ll discover a remarkably well designed puzzle game. The complexity ramps up gradually and smartly enough that you’ll go from completing the simplest tasks to designing complex systems without feeling like you’ve actually learned anything in the process. Whenever I first come back to the game after a break of a few months, I’m amazed at the things I’ve built, since they’ve basically become indecipherable to me in the interim. I’ve long since thought of game design as a sort of applied heuristics, and by that metric, SpaceChem is one of the best games ever made.
And there’s real-world value, too! Since what you’re doing, at the simplest level, is building a repeating code that transforms inputs into a desired output, SpaceChem also serves as a very basic tutorial for computer programming. I realize that saying something is both fun and educational probably isn’t going to convince you, either, but like I said, it’s a hard game to sell people on. I’m just going to pull a reverse Reading Rainbow and ask that you do take my word for it. You can pick up SpaceChem for $9.99 on Steam or GOG.
Are you an indie developer? Are you making a game scored by your roommate on his vintage Casio keyboard, and also he once auditioned for The Arcade Fire so he’s basically famous? 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.
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