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Games for humans: Shadows of the Damned's creator finds his calling

It was midway through 2011 when Massimo Guarini decided he wanted to do something different with his game design career. Then, a life-changing event compelled him to follow through.

Mike Rose, Blogger

September 4, 2013

8 Min Read

"I had a couple of ideas about games, and I have this strong vision about making something emotional, and trying to expand the medium. I know I sound like David Cage when I say that, but it's more about at least trying to... it might sounds weird, but try to appeal to myself again." It was midway through 2011 when Massimo Guarini, previously director on Shadows of the Damned and triple-A industry veteran, decided that he'd had enough of the same old, and set out to revitalize his work through his new Ovosonico indie studio. "My decision to go indie was dictated by two main events in my life," he tells me. "The first was my own desire to actually do something different." He continues, "It's been quite a while, I've been working in the games industry for more than 15 years, and all the games I've been working on were getting increasingly boring from a development point of view, from a creative point of view. Which is more or less what everyone is saying in the industry right now!" The other main event was on a more serious note: The 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake was such a catastrophe on a grand scale, that Guarini found that he simply couldn't live there anymore. His work at Grasshopper came to an end as a result, and he moved back to Italy. "I just had to move out of the country," he says. But in Italy, he notes, "it's not a country where the game industry as an actual industry exists. Instead we have many talented people... All these events combined together, and led me to the decision to go indie and try doing things by myself."

Games for humans

Part of Guarini's move into the indie space is driven by wanted to further the medium where emotion is involved. "If you have to choose at night between a movie, which you know will be over in two hours and will be emotional and rich, and a 40 hour game, which is more than enough effort for somebody who has a busy life... I thought why not try to condense all the emotions, and to target them at humans, not just players, in a way that you can actually enjoy a game in three hours." This is what Guarini is attempting with his first indie-built game Murasaki Baby, the tale of a young child who is lost in an unsettling world of darkness and evil. Players lead the child by the hand using the PS Vita touch-screen, and swiping the back touch panel to switch the settings through which the child is moving. The creator took massive inspiration from games like Limbo and Journey -- "They were short games, but so emotionally intense, especially Journey - they just proved to me that this was the right market seement that nobody is really exploring too much." "Everybody is fixated on 99 cent and free-to-play throwaway games on phones," he adds, "or $60 triple-A games where you need to sell 5 million copies to recoup. But there's plenty of space in between, and not many people are trying hard to explore that." That's why Guarini is now looking to make shorter games that talk to human beings, rather than gamers. "Also I usually get bored quite quickly," he admits, "so I prefer working on shorter games. I like to put everything I have into that game, and then jump to another one."

A helping hand from Sony

But while Guarini is looking to explore new horizons with his newfound indie freedom, he's also not a massive fan of doing it alone. That's why he signed a deal with Sony Computer Entertainment earlier this year to bring Murasaki Baby exclusively to Vita. "I believe that it's impossible to go out without a punch, unless you have all the skills and money to do some serious self-publishing," he explains. "Everybody's thinking 'Cool, I've got Steam' or even worse, 'I'm on the App Store.' Yeah, good luck with that!" "People need to be aware of your existence in the App Store," he continues, "and nobody freaking knows you, because there are thousands of games coming out every single day. You need money. I never wanted to get out and do some self-publishing. I knew I didn't have the knowhow or the financial power to do that." Guarini opted to completely skip the mobile space, and not turn to work-for-hire. Instead, he decided he'd try to survive for 18 months, and see where he was up to at that point. murasaki baby 1.jpg"It was definitely hard," he says. "I relied on new ideas, and pitched these ideas to publishers. Sony was not the only publisher that I pitched ideas to. In the end, we got this idea for Murasaki Baby, and Sony really liked it. In six months the deal was done." "I really have to say, it might say obvious, but Sony is actually the only publisher that really cares about innovation, or at least, taking some risks on smaller projects, instead of doing one single big project," he adds. "Kudos to that. Regardless, I'm not the only one being signed by Sony, so I'm really happy about that. And I'm really happy that people are getting into the notion that games can be short, games can be different than just shooters, and games can be enjoyed like pure entertainment like a movie is."

Not following the herd

"There is an obsession in the games industry," Guarini tells me. "Whenever new trends come out, it's like everybody must go there. The free-to-play thing - fine, there are free-to-play games, and I'm happy about it... but I don't want to do that!" Just because most of the money is in free-to-play on mobile, doesn't mean that's where all the money is, he reasons. "It's fine, we can expand the market by heading in both directions," he adds, "but I don't understand this obsession with 'This is the future, and everything is crap!' It's just more people playing, and more devices that are out there." The way in which the games industry jumped on whatever is currently popular reminds Guarini of Hollywood in the 50s, when "there was just Bela Lugosi and all the Dracula movies, and cheap effects, and then it just turned out to be something really different." In the same way, our industry is at the stage where everyone simply moves over to whatever is new and appears to be working best at the time, he says. "There's digital bubbles everywhere. I'm just interested in content, and ultimately, that's what really counts," he notes. "I just don't want to do free-to-play games. That's my choice as a creator. It's nothing to do with business choices. I really don't understand it. I think we're too young of an industry right now."

Get your gimmick on

The neat way in which Murasaki Baby uses the Vita's back touch panel really stuck out during my playthrough, mainly because I've found -- at least up to this point -- that much of what is done with the back panel in Vita games feels tacked on and not particularly necessary. The same is true of all new game technologies, of course -- whenever a new tech comes along, like the dual screen of the Nintendo DS, for example, or the tablet/console combo of the Wii U, it's always a question of whether the tech will be able to pull out of the gimmick phase. murasaki baby 2.jpg"Most of the time they are gimmicks that look to make a new product that will renew interest in gamers," Guarini tells me. "For Murasaki Baby particularly, it's quite amusing, but the idea of swiping to change the background came way before we got into the deal with Sony. We were not pitching for PS Vita or PS4 - we were just thinking about the game concept." "I liked the idea of switching the background, and the PS Vita was the best fit for that, since it has the back touch. I always start from the game, not the platform, unless you're forced," he adds. "When I was working at Ubisoft, I had to think about the platform first. They'd sometimes say 'OK guys, we need to make this kind of game for this kind of platform.'" Having the freedom to come up with a concept first, and then choose the right platform for it, is most natural to Guarini. It wouldn't be possible to enjoy Murasaki Baby on any other platform than the Vita, he reasons, as the platform fit the concept perfectly. "I'm usually not really interested too much in new gimmicks, or the second screen thing - one screen is enough!" he adds. "I really dream of a day - don't say this to Sony! - when there's just one single platform. Maybe it's not good for innovation and development, but at least then everybody can develop for this generic platform." "When you choose a movie, you shoot on film - that's the technology," he notes. "That would be the day for the game industry where people can actually focus on content, rather than finding new gimmicks to fit. I'm not saying it's not good for innovation - we need to go through these things, and chain ourselves to some constrains - it's always good for creativity. It's useful. But I do dream of the day when we can get rid of the technology, and just think about the content." "I'm arrogant enough to think that I can actually do it today," he laughs. "I'll probably just be stuck in the same problems tomorrow - but it's a long path to growing up as an industry. I don't even know if I'll still be making games in 30 years, but I look forward to that time."

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