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Using the saga of Limbo Of The Lost as a starting point, a discussion on how we can and should be getting more people to create games.

Robert Fearon, Blogger

July 6, 2010

14 Min Read

[A slightly elongated and edited version of a talk I was due to give at the inaugural World Of Love UK Indie conference but due to the complexities of life, I was unable to attend]

I'm sure many of you are aware of the tale of Limbo Of The Lost.

In 2008, a barely known group of chaps dropped over 13 years worth of dreams onto the world in the shape of an elaborate (and admittedly not very good) 3rd person adventure game. Originally starting life as a 16 bit game, time passed from an initial demo in 1995 with nothing of note occurring to the day in 2008 when the internet discovered that there was a new game out there that had quite a few issues surrounding it.

 The issues, of course, mainly being that the game was made up pretty much entirely of stolen content.

Sure, the writing and the puzzles (for the most part) were original, the same could not be said of the assets. Steve Bovis and the rest of the folks behind Limbo of the Lost had managed to write the biggest mash up game in history. Wherever they felt something from somewhere else could be used, they used it. From the movie Spawn to so many games, the content of Limbo of the Lost began life far from the purpose it was eventually used for.

Overnight, the elation they must have felt at getting their game finished and published must have disappeared pretty rapidly as piece by piece, denizens of the internet traced the origins of each piece of art, each movie grab and each piece of source art. Sure, it's likely the game would have languished in absolute obscurity given its quality were it not for the notoriety surrounding it and yes, overnight they became pariahs but...

Bovis and pals managed something many people don't. They'd wrote and completed a large scale adventure game, something they clearly wanted to do for over 13 years. As I say, not an especially good large scale adventure game but I think we all know just how many short form projects don't even make it that far and how many ambitions are dashed on a daily basis.

The thing

Now, I'm not going to stand here and tell you that what they did was right. Clearly, it wasn't.

Steve Bovis is the extreme end of the spectrum, sure. Whilst he had a certain determination that eventually led to mass content reappropriation in order to make Limbo Of The Lost a reality, most people just shrug their shoulders, give up and walk away.

I don't think that's right.

Wouldn't it be much better if we lived in a world where people didn't feel like stealing content was the only way to make an ambitious game become reality or that, well, people didn't feel such a need to run away screaming from game development?

Y'see, there's this thing about game development. For all the progress we've made over the years towards sharing knowledge, making more accessible tools and all the wonders the internet has brought in enabling more people to write games there's still a few fundamental problems that keep people away from game development.

It's stuff we should be concerned about changing. The more people we can bring into the development gene pool, the more we can expand what we have. The more chances of getting a wider variety of games and more chances for something truly different and quite wonderful to appear. It's in our own interests as players of games and as writers of games to do this.

Oh yeah, that thing? It's called exclusion and most of us probably don't even realise we're doing it.

The test

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who wants to write a game but doesn't know where to start. I realise that's probably a long time ago for a fair few folks, but try. If you need a bit of assistance with this, go to a game development forum - pretty much any one will do. Go and find one of those threads that crop up on a reasonably regular basis. You know the ones. "I want to write a game but I don't know where to start".

Often, the first thing people will need to know is well, what they need to type their thoughts into. Often, the replies are frankly useless and end up in bickering and arguing over what package is best. You should use C/C++ because of this reason, you should try XNA because of this reason. "No!", someone else will cry. "If you're just starting out you should use Unity. It's fantastic for beginners." and someone might pipe up with "You could always consider Gamemaker or Construct or MMF". Often, because we're nothing but human beings, a small heated argument will follow bickering over who's coding cock is the biggest coding cock.

Very helpful, I'm sure you'll agree.

Now, as you're in the shoes of someone starting out, go and download each and every one of these things and look at them. Just look at them and imagine the heartbreaking disappointment large amounts of people feel as they're faced with either an empty window and a blinking cursor or a myriad of windows docked to the left, to the right, to the top and to the foot of the screen filled with what might as well be absolute bollocks.

Writing games isn't just about coding either. Even if you've managed to write your game, often you still need art and sound too. I know of a lot of cases of games getting trapped in limbo because Person A can code a game but feels the art requirements beyond their reach.

I'm not talking "I want to write Crysis 16", often we're talking small, simple puzzle games or platformers.

The simplest of things, things some of us probably find second nature or not a problem become mountains that cannot be climbed.

We will, we will fix it

I know, I know. I know what some of you are thinking right now.

"When I was starting out, I went to the library and I got every book on coding I could find and absorbed it. I went on a course and did this and I did that"

Well done you. You're not going to get a gold star or a sticker for it though, are you? If nothing else, in saying that you already admit the barrier is a high one.

We're talking a creative endeavor here, not heart surgery. There's no need for the barrier to be that high for everyone.

"But you should just pay for an artist or musician. It's what I do"

Or we could teach people that if they're sitting there writing games on their own there's many ways to get a decent looking game without having to throw money at it hand over fist.

More importantly, we could actually do something to help them rather than fob the problem off with a flippant remark.

I realise that's going to sit uncomfortably with some of you folks but this is about making games not being CJ from Reggie Perrin. I'm glad that you got where you are today by doing what you do. Thankful for it, even. It doesn't mean that everyone can do what you do and it's wrong to assume that your way is either the only or the right way.

In case you hadn't guessed by now, I think there are better ways. And we can all do something to help. All of us as indie developers have the advantage of not being tied to corporate structures requiring approval before we can open our gobs. We can just do.

So let's do stuff. Let's help get more people making games.

In 3 Easy Steps

Look, it's easy. I'm not going to stand here and ask for a miracle or the impossible, just some stuff that each and every one of us can do.

1 - You can help people.

I don't expect everyone to be Dr Petter and release tools that take the pain away from creating sound effects or introducing people to 3d modelling the easy way, for a start I know most folks probably don't have time in their already busy lives to go off writing tools for the public as well.

Even something as simple as a level editor can get people involved in content creation.

If you can and your game suits it, include something in there that makes it easy for people to modify it.

The last figures I found for Little Big Planet stated that there were over 725,000 levels created for the game. There's over 100 million entries into the Sporepedia, all user generated. On a much smaller and more indie scale, Knytt Stories by Nifflas has a thriving community of folks who create levels for the game.

There's thousands of people out there itching to create something and the more accessible a tool you can offer them, the more likely they are to start creating. The only thing the three titles I've just mentioned have in common really are that they all ship with accessible content creation tools and it seems to be working for them.

If you can and you do put out non game specific tools that make creation easy, even better.

Oh yeah, and document your stuff. In English. Not in coder-ese.

Don't complain that no-one uses your level editor, tool or package if you don't explain to most people how to use it. Rubbish documentation or documentation that makes no sense to 99% of the population is far too regular a thing.

Don't make that mistake. Don't assume that whoever picks up your package already has prior knowledge of coding conventions or understands computer.

Ideally, of course, your level editor/tool/package should be usable without it anyway, but y'know, just in case...

2 - We can share stuff.

Going back to Limbo Of The Lost for a brief second - one of the reasons why you'd feel the need to steal content is because there's not that much in the way of art assets out there for people to use.

Consider that we writers of games are often terrible for reinventing the wheel. New game, new door texture. New game, new sprites. I know some of you, like me, will be serial recyclers but by and large, a new game means it's time for new content.

Why not offer up the assets to your old titles for reuse and recycling?

I've done this and already know of a number of people who've used some of the content in their own titles because it takes some of the pain away from stuff they feel they can't do or (shockingly) because what I've done is better or more appropriate than what they've managed to throw together.*

There's a lot of banging on in certain quarters about how sharing your source code is the ultimate in generosity. I'd argue that the source code is, when all said and done, only valuable to a small amount of people. The people who can already read and understand your code. Art assets and sound effects on the other hand can be universal.

And who knows, perhaps it'll lead to an exciting remix culture. We already see Mario Vs Tetris Vs Metroid done in certain more underground quarters to great effect, imagine what people could do with your game and what new things they could create. It could be amazing. If The Kleptones can do it for music, someone will do it for games.

There'll always be people willing to pay for their own original art and sound or with a want and need to create their own original art and sound, let's give those who can't a leg up the ladder and take one pain away from them getting their first game out the door.

3 - We can encourage people

And I don't mean "enter my competition and win a huge amount of wonga" here.  That's too easy and really only appeals to those who already code.

I know it's a coders want to moan and complain that making games is hard, I've lost count of how many times I've read or heard stuff like "you wouldn't build your own house, would you, eh?"

Let's be honest here though. Making games isn't hard.

Making a good game is hard and not everyone is equipped for that but just making a game? Nah, that's not difficult at all.

Yet you listen to the way some of us go on and you'd think we were rerouting the internals of an elephant with keyhole surgery rather than typing some stuff into a box.

Here's a wild thought. Instead of spending our time moaning and griping how hard it is to make games or complaining about the frustrations, we spend some time encouraging people to have a go at it themselves.

If you've got a blog attached to your site, why not write a post suggesting that your readers write their own game and hey, it might be fun. Tell them that they can do it if they really want to. As Stephen Lavelle points out, you could consider a section on your website detailing how you write your games and with tips for beginners.

And next time you find yourself in one of those forum discussions where someone says "I want to make a game but I don't know where to start" - instead of confusing them or scaring them or getting into the obligatory "my language is better than your language" fight, ask them what it is they want to make.

Listen to their needs.

If they want to tell a story, perhaps Twine or Ren'py is more than enough for their needs without having to dig into the code of Inform or C++. Maybe they could do everything they wanted to with Gamemaker. Or maybe they do need C++, C#.

It's their needs that count, not yours.

Point them at tutorials, point them at starter kits, by all means offer the wisdom you've acquired along the way in your own game making adventures, your knowledge is invaluable.

Together, we can all start breaking down some of these barriers and get more people interested and excited about writing their own stuff. We're already seeing this shift happen, it's why Indie now is not what Indie was even 5 years ago and it's absolutely brilliant. Between the lot of us, we can make this gaming landscape even better.

And it won't take much effort at all if we all help, share and encourage.

*It's also led, partially, to Farbs (creator of RomCheckFail and Captain Forever) setting up IndieKombat where two developers take each others IP on and attempt to make a game with it in 4 weeks. Worryingly, I'm the first contender...

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