Category: lectures

AAA vs Indie

What is an independent game developer?

Small developers have been around since forever but it’s only in the mid-00 that a new idea of independent game development started to emerge.

I think it makes sense to locate the indie games movement in the context of a broader indie / DIY culture.

Which includes indie rock via punk.

Post-hardcore band Fugazi

Independent cinema.

Reservoir dogs

Independent comics and publishing

Daniel Clowes

Indie != obscure or marginal

And we can connect it to broader trends like the DIY/maker movement, open source, local farming etc.

As both a rejection of regimented factory and office work.

And an affirmation of an excess of creativity that is not captured (yet) by the capital.

Independent from what?

The machinery of gaming has run amok… An industry that was once the most innovative and exciting artistic field on the planet has become a morass of drudgery and imitation… It is time for revolution!

-Greg Costikyan Death to the Games Industry – An early indictment of the game industry


the typical development budget for a PC game was as little as $200,000

For A-level title is around $5m
For triple-A title $10m is common




What happened?
Factors include: Moore’s law, CD-ROM, 3D

Today, art assets (not programming) are the main cost driver. As machines become capable of rendering more detailed 3D models in real time, the market demands more detailed 3D models



  • Sales are growing but production costs are growing faster
  • The average game (not the industry as a whole) loses more and more money.
  • The publishers make up the losses on the few games that hit.
  • Big budgets breed conservatism. Publisher don’t want to risk a lot of money.


Only 20% of games that start production will end up with a finished product.
And of that percentage of finished games, 20% will make a profit.
This means that 4% of all games which start production will eventually make a profit.

-Electronic Entertainment Design and Research 2008


Before digital distribution the issue of shelf space was crucial. Most of the sales were concentrated in the first 2 weeks after the release. Marketing was (and still is) a big part of the budged.

The result was a Hit-based market where big budgets bred conservatism and there was little room for niche products or risk taking content.

Then hardware manufacturers and some publishers figured out the “long tail” paradigm

So you want to work in the game industry

Crunch time
The EA spouses controversy. Cutting costs by establishing up to 80-hour work weeks instead of hiring new developers.

You don’t get a game out like that with a bunch of people who don’t have any passion about the quality of the product and don’t want to spend that one extra night.

– Epic CEO, who stated his company would not hire people willing to work for less than 60 hours a week

Geek culture takes such strongly held commonalities of interest and consumption far more seriously than most other subcultures.[…]
The exchange is simple: you will work 60-hour weeks for a quarter less than other software fields; in exchange, you have a seat at the table of your primary identifying culture’s ruling class.

You Can Sleep Here All Night: Video Games and Labor

Talent Burnout

They’ll work new employees until they burn out and then replace them with another fresh face who’s eager to prove themselves in the industry – working harder for less money.[…] The developers that work their way up at these studios are either the most determined or the most stubborn – but not necessarily the most creative or the most fulfilled

Is The Game Industry A Happy Place?

Gender (wage) gap

Survey by Game Developer Magazine 2013

Cyclical Layoffs
“Layoffs are more than just losing a job; they’re gaining a mountain of uncertainty, stress and financial concerns. I have moved my family more than seven times over the last 16 years, across the country and up and down the west coast. I’m a pro at living with very few material possessions, as I grew tired of lugging them around. As you can imagine all those moves put an enormous stress on relationships, both personal and professional. Your circle of immediate friends shrinks to zero with every move.”

In big budget game development publishers set hard release dates for a game (e.g. Christmas), the studio hires as many developers possible and it may find itself bigger than it can afford to be.

At the end of a successful project developers may get laid off because they are not needed for the pre-production of the next title.

Why Game Developers Keep Getting Laid Off (talks about good practices too)


The indie games movement emerged as a response to all these issues. Indie came to signify:

  • Self-directed creative work: experimental, personal, risky…
  • New distribution channels (in part provided by major players): Steam, app store,, festivals/party/new arcade
  • New funding models: Indie Fund, humble bundle, Kickstarter, Patreon
  • New game criticism/journalism: expanding the notion of pleasure, complicating the notion of quality, reaching new types of players.
  • Community support: belonging to a scene of practitioners, collaborating rather than competing.
  • Different development cycles: prototype often > release early > polish and commercialize only if it works
  • Soft deadlines
  • Creating a more inclusive community in term of gender, class, race and background (informal education, alternative conferences, advocacy)
  • Reframing game making as artistic and cultural practice, not necessarily an industrially organized job
Indie/AAA is not a binary category


Solo indie developers earned an average income of $11,812

57% percent of indie game developers made under $500 in game sales. On the other end of the spectrum, 2 percent made over $200,000 in game sales.

6 key points from the 2014 Indie Salary Report

The opening of marketplaces like Steam to indie led people to believe that saturation will produce an “Indiepocalypse” pushing revenues down and forcing small developers to consolidate to compete – mirroring the evolution of the App store.
It’s an ongoing conversation.

Meanwhile, common wisdom if you want to be a professional indie:
– Don’t quit your day job or find a job that doesn’t suck the entirety of your time
– Don’t start a company if you don’t already have a product/prototype that was received well
– Don’t Kickstart a project unless you proved yourself “worth”
– Be part of a community, go to conferences, participate to game jams, hang out with other developers. See resources.
– Beware of the survivorship bias

Triple I and Alt games

Successful independent games like Minecraft and the willingness of publishers to invest in small studios (e.g. Playstation and Thatgamecompany) prompted a gold rush, a “get rich or die trying” mindset that came ad odds with the values of some members of the independent community.
The category of Altgames was created to shift the focus toward individual financial sustainability and inclusivity.


Find the game developer/designer you want to be. Research her/his background and career. Read all the interviews, biographies, lectures and podcasts you can find. I don’t want to know what these people did but how these people established them in the game industry at large (indie or not). How did they get there? What were their breakthroughs or crucial experiences?

Use Google, filtered by date to find old news coverage.
MobyGames is a good resource for credits.

Game Art for Non Artists: some tips

1. Find a good color palette

It’s 30% of the work

You can steal color palettes from here.
Create a new one with Kuler
Generate one from a picture with this tool

2. Use few colors

Or go monochrome altogether

3. Less pixels = less work for you

And more work for the viewer. Let them fill in the gaps.

4. Less polygons = less work for you



You don’t have a 100 person team behind you

5. Go flat




If you are not confident in your drawing and painting skills, avoid outlines, use geometric shapes, solid fills or simple gradients.

6. Put a filter on it




A shader or a 2d filter can add some depth to an otherwise simple style

7. The Internet is full of images



Photoshop, rotoscope, trace

8. Turn your limits into strengths



Character Design

Make sure you can draw it from all perspectives (not always necessary for 2D videogames and stylized animations)
Test it in action
If you are planning on using close ups, make sure that your design allows the facial expression you need
Facial expressions are not the only way to convey emotions
Allow for consistency across characters (using a limited palette helps)
What are the features that makes your character instantly recognizable?

Realistic, Iconic or Abstract?

Notes on cuteness

Cute characterization seems to appeal to people across generations and cultures

Cutesy Japanimation and character industry (Hello Kitty etc.) influenced a lot of contemporary Western character design (Powerpuff girls etc.)
The expectations that come along with cuteness can be subverted
Gloomy Bear
People like to look at cute things, but your expressive goals may be different.
The original characters in Unmanned were a bit cuter


How can your character communicate its state and features?
The proportions of the main character in Braid were dictated by the platforming gameplay. In cognitive terms, the player has less work to do to calculate the movements of a short squareish object.
Don’t let the technology dictate your expressive modes
Some of the best character design in contemporary games is iconic. Originally Mario’s distinctive big nose and mustache was a low-res necessity.
Low-res style is a widely used strategy for small teams to save time in content creation.
…same as limited palettes or silhouettes
In 3D too!
…turning a necessity into style

In short animations, characters may have specific built-in affordances. They are designed to perform certain actions:

This happens more frequently in videogames, where characters are defined by what they can do and the actions they perform are limited.

Character design as level design:

Game designers often need to communicate threats, goals and roles without going through narrative character establishments. To do so often “effectively” recur to problematic strategies such as stereotypes and stock characters: zombies, princesses in distress etc..

We’ll talk about the problem with women representation in games in a few weeks
On a sample of 20 recent FPS with “realistic” setting

Playable characters in games tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. When there’s “diversity” it reflects the overwhelmingly white male and conservative composition of the game industry today.
Ethnic and racial stereotypes are a common (lazy) characterization for fighting games.

Modern day Native American wearing feathers… Magic-Yoga-practicing, skull-wearing Indian… traditional-but-sexyfied chinese dress… evil Russian brute…

Transposing elements from existing cultures in fantasy settings can also be debatable. The Na’vi in Avatar are the ultimate embodiment of the Noble Savage. The struggle between good and civilized humans and vicious and primitive Horde in World of Warcraft has colonialist undertones. The Horde has totems, tents, face paint, Trolls even have a Jamaican accent.

Ms. Male Character

And other videos from the Tropes vs Videogames series

Branching narrative from Borges to the Hypertext

Linear story

Branching story

The problem with branching stories

The most common solution

Or another solution…

From You chose wrong

Your first assignment is a branching story.
The most popular artifacts of this kind are the Gamebooks or Choose Your Own Adventure. Very popular teenage literature in the 80s and 90s.

CYOA diagram – Michael Niggel

PDF here

Or you can check this impressive formal analysis of Choose your own adventure books:

Visualizations, playable books and essay here.

Before computers

We have to go back in time to find more “noble” precursors of non-linear and interactive storytelling.

Apollinaire – il pleut 1916
F.T. Marinetti and the Futurists “Words in freedom” (1909 – 1916)

And the DADA movement

To make a Dadaist poem
Take a newspaper.
Take a pair of scissors.
Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
Shake it gently.
Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
Copy conscientiously.
The poem will be like you.
And here you are a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.
– Tristan Tzara, 1920

Writer William Burroughs in the ’50s applied this technique to his own writing.
(And David Bowie, and Kurt Cobain, and Thom Yorke…)

Jorge Luis Borges

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)
In the short story a character named Ts’ui Pên tells everybody that he wanted to write a book and build a labyrinth. Nobody ever found the labyrinth, only a very confusing and contradictory book. We then discover that the book *is* the labyrinth. In the fictional book, every chapter is followed by “every” possible continuation.

"In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one at the expense of the others. In the almost unfathomable work of of Ts'ui Pên, he chooses - simultaneously - all of them. He thus creates various futures, various times which start others that will in turn branch out and bifurcate in other times. This is the cause of the contradictions in the novel"
The Garden of Forking Paths - Jorge Luis Borges

Agusto Boal’s Forum Theatre (1960)
In this process, the actors or audience members could stop a performance, often a short scene in which a character was being oppressed in some way (for example, a chauvinist man mistreating a woman or a factory owner mistreating an employee). The audience could propose any solution, so long as they conveyed it on stage, working, acting, and directing not from the comfort of their seat.

Hopscotch, Julio Cortázar (1963)
Written in an episodic, snapshot manner, the novel has 155 chapters.
The book can be read either in direct sequence from chapter 1 to 56 or by hopscotching through the entire set of 155 chapters. There are several other ways to read the novel, such as reading only the odd or even pages, or choosing chapters in completely random order. There are multiple endings.

Starting from the Mid-20th century even an inherently linear form like cinema starts to experiment with non linear storytelling and interlocked and contradictory plots.

Kinoautomat by Radúz Činčera 1967 – the first interactive film

“The film is a black comedy, opening with a flash-forward to a scene in which Petr Novák (Miroslav Horníček)’s apartment is in flames. No matter what choices are made, the end result is the burning building, making the film —as Činčera intended— a satire of democracy”

Raymond Queneau

Founder of Oulipo – Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (workshop of potential literature).

Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (1961)

web port here

Also by Queneau: Story as You Like It (1984)


Computer Lib / Dream Machines – Theodor H. Nelson, 1974. Self produced later republished by Microsoft.

Like many early geeks, Ted Nelson saw computers and networks as empowering tools and advocated for the democratization of these technology (You can and you must understand computers now!).Personal computer = personal liberation.

Ted Nelson coined the term Hypertext in the 60s.

“A system of non-sequential writing that would allow the reader to aggregate meaning in snippets, in the order of his or her choosing, rather than according to a pre-established structure fixed by the author.”

A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia – Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980)
These ideas, and a general antipathy toward the author-as-authority, resonated with the post-structuralist theories (late 70s – 80s). In particular with the concept of Rhizome.

“Unlike trees or their roots, the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states.”

“The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. Unlike the graphic arts, drawing, or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.”

Years before the world wide web was implemented. A visionary application called Hypercard (1987-) already tried to make hypertext creation accessible to anybody


The concept of hypertext is now familiar to anybody thanks to the World Wide Web (invented in 1990 and popularized in 1995 with the invention of modern browsers) but in the 80s it was a quite exotic medium, especially for non-utilitarian uses.
Still some fiction writers started to experiment with the hypertext as literary form.

Afternoon, a story by Michael Joyce (1987)

You can read Afternoon, a story online here

And “253” by Geoff Ryman here originally published in 1996.

Interactive fiction

Adventure games popularized another way to control and navigate interactive texts: the parser.

The most vital legacy of hypertext literature and parser-center storytelling is Interactive Fiction.
IF uses more sophisticated structures than the simple branching and a parser for the interaction, usually employed to navigate spaces, interact with characters and objects in a game-like fashion.

Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe and Michael Cho (2008) is a good introduction to IF.

IF is a kind of universe on its own which deserves its own course. A great introduction and a collection of resources can be found on Emily Short’s website.

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