Blog Archive (The Orchard)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Interview with Chris Newton, Publisher of Indie Game Mag

Welcome, fellow reader. I've got something a little different for you today. Recently, I interviewed Chris Newton, the publisher of Indie Game Magazine, on the subject of game design and the emerging Indie market. Chris Newton has been working with the publication since 2011, and has only recently (this month, actually) moved up to the position of publisher from his previous position, content manager.

Enjoy the review, and see if you can glean anything out of what Chris has to say that you could apply to your own endeavors. ________________________________________________________________________________________________

Me: Hello, Chris. :D As the content manager of Indie Game Magazine, what are some of the things you do? 

Chris Newton: Hello, I should start off by letting your readers know that I recently actually purchased IGM, so I bought myself a promotion into Publisher. I am not sure if that is the best way to go about leveling up, but I love the site and wanted to make it my own.
My normal role in IGM has not changed, however. I am the business mind and voice behind the publication. I typically lead the marketing and strategic planning of the site and work with our Editor-in-Chief, Tom Christiansen, on getting reviews and news stories organized and published. Really, I collect the incoming mail from the developers, let them know about the services that we provide and then give that data to Tom to assigns it to an appropriate writer.
That is, in a simple explanation, what I do.

Me: Oh, so you've moved up then! Congratulations. Chris, I assume that you had some experience with videogames (i.e. playing them) before the advent of the "Indie Game Revolution," which has only recently spawned in the gaming industry. What are some good things that you have seen come about from this "revolution," so to speak?

CN: Well, my experience in the indie game industry is going to be surprisingly limited. I actually joined Mike as an Editor-in-Chief based on my experience in content management and writing/editing staff leadership. But my previous experience was with the card game, Magic: The Gathering. I have played more than my share of games, but they have normally been AAA games. In my time at IGM, I have been educated by two of the best minds in our industry; Mike Gnade and Chris Priestman, so I have basically had a crash course in the indie scene.
What I believe to be best things to come  from our industry is actually not even game related. I believe that the scene is becoming stronger and growing near to a revolution based on the revolution of the mind and not of the games. Indies are beginning to look at our market as just that… a market. In the past it was just a group of guys making a game because it would be cool to make it and play. Now people are looking at the scene as a business. Profit is the benchmark rather than who made the coolest game, and that sparks the drive to make games that the players want to play rather than what the developers think will be cool.

Me: When I think of “profit-driven” efforts, I sometimes associate them with poor software made by companies who care more about bringing in the dough than creating solid games. But, you state profit as a benchmark is a good thing. I can see how that would be the case, but I'm not sure that I've thought about it in the way you just described. What types of games do you like the best? Why?

CN: I like Flash games the most. Flash games tend to be very short and mind numbing in a great way. I don’t need to spend time learning to play the game, I just play them. On top of that, they are fairly short and enjoyable. I can play four or five in an hour’s time and not feel guilty for spending a bunch of time on a single game. I have two small kids, so for me, time is super valuable.

Me: Time is valuable. It is good that you see that now.

We who are game developers and who work with the industry don't just play games; we study them. What are some good patterns in game design that you have seen from your playing experience?

CN: Well, I am not the best person to ask this question because I don’t really play a lot of games these days. What I can offer insight on is a pattern that I have seen increasing in the business side of the industry. It is the influx of third party marketing and public relations. I have very strong feelings about this, but I don’t know that this is the forum for that discussion. But I do think that developers should work on embracing marketing and public relations rather than pay an outside company to do this for them. Money is very limited in our industry and giving away money to do something that they can easily do themselves is a little disheartening.

Me: That's an interesting idea. Marketing is one of the more exciting aspects of game development for me. What do you think is the most important aspect of game design? Why?

CN: I think that understanding the intended audience is vitally important to answering this question. Are we making a game that is geared toward zombie fans? Are we aiming at traditional RPG fans? Gameplay, learning curve, etc. are all meaningless if you can’t get someone to play the game, so my opinion is that study of the intended audience is both vitally important and vastly under achieved. So I guess my answer would be marketing.

Me: Hm, interesting point. If a game is good, I would think that, regardless of whether the marketing was optimal or not, an audience would arise by word of mouth and curious gamers. Personally I'm seeing a lot of great new software coming from Indie Developers. We'll only see more of this in time, I think. Where do you see the Indie Game market going in the future?

CN: I think that the easy answer would have to be mobile devices. It won’t be too terribly long until tablets and even smartphones have the power of a laptop and then who knows? The fact that Unity allows devs to reach those mobile devices kicks the door wide open as well. I see a ton of games coming into us that are offered on iOS, Android, PC, Linux, Mac, etc. That was not the case a couple years ago.

Me: Yes, even now Indie developers are making games for such devices. Looking to the future, I can see that the emerging game developers are obviously going to be those who give the players what they want. What practices/techniques will the emerging star developers of the future make use of?

CN: I am going to sound like a scratched record here, but Marketing plus add in social media. You mentioned that game developers are studying games. If that is true, then they need to begin studying Minecraft and even Angry Birds to discover how those games made it so big. It is certainly not because they use blocks and cubes in everything or that they fling birds across the screen. So then what is it? Marketing and Social Media. They have both took to the market to find and embrace the audience that they are addressing, and the audience has responded.

Me: Well, you have a good reason for repeating yourself! I would have thought that the success of games like Angry Birds, had to do largely with the game itself. But efficient marketing may have had a greater affect than I thought. I've seen Angry Birds all over the place (from collectible erasers to t-shirts). Lastly, if you could design the next major gaming system, what would it include? :)

CN: Well, since I am an old school gamer, it has GOT to have 8-bits, plumbers, elves and blue bombers. (Joke!) But really, I don't think that the technology is what defines the system and perhaps that is what makes very little difference between PS1, PS2 and PS3. They are all just ‘The Next Console’. Whereas if you talk about the NES or Genesis, epic titles and characters pop into your mind. The NES set a standard that, in my opinion, has yet to be met by anything since. Almost every major title in that system had a character that you identity with and authentically care about. It was important to those designers to ensure that you wanted to know what happened next to Mario, Mega Man, Link, and even the entire Belmont Family. Extend that line of thinking into future consoles and the value of lineage and legacy diminishes. Instead of trying to make sure to continue something awesome or just making something awesome, you get the sixth or seventh knock-off of Halo (which was Half-Life, which was Quake.. etc.). We understand that certain genres sell greatly and are profitable, but be unique about it, test the uncertain grounds. Be bold enough to take a chance.
I mean, your only possible results can be Epic Failure, Moderate Success or Epic Awesomeness. Moderate Success does not lead to anything but mediocrity. It doesn't even supply you with data by which to improve. Both Failure and Success provide that valuable data and help lead you to improve and that should be the goal – constant growth and improvement.

Me: I agree with you about taking chances. There are still great strides to be made in the art of game design. And the ones who are willing to go against the grain will be the ones who get the new—and better—results.

Thank you for your time, Chris! It was a pleasure interviewing you.
-Amoeba of Light

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Case in Point: Pikmin 3

Starting today, I'm adding a new type of post to the Game Fruit blog. They will be called "Case in Point" posts, and will focus on a real life video game, examining it with the topics I've discussed in other posts. I will scrutinize games using the knowledge of what I've learned in Game Studies.


Pikmin 3 is a pretty good game. Upon its launch, it exemplified perhaps the greatest use of the Wii U's GPU. The game takes place in a colorful world that closely resembles earth in both character and  presentation. It's a pleasing game to look at. But, of course, graphics aren't everything. 

It's got alot going for it, this Pikmin 3. The story starts off quite compelling, particularly if you're a fan of the Pikmin series. Alph, Brittany, and Charlie are on a mission to an alien planet to collect food for their starving civilization. But just before their craft prepares to land...BOOM! Something goes "terribly wrong," as the narrator says in the opening cutscene. The three adventurers are separated, and you must control each one to have them meet together again.

Because of how the neatly the package is wrapped up, the player will be pleased just getting the hang of things in the start off: it's calm, realistic looking and sounding, and curious. Realism is beneficial to games, as if it holds some intrinsic value. When you apply realism to any aspect of a game (provided it's adapted from something good in real life), it prospers. I mean just think about it. Realistic graphics equals excitement and aesthetic goodness; realistic characters equals compelling plots; realistic controls equals and precision and easy-to-learn gameplay. In fact, let's talk about controls next.

This is one area where Pikmin 3 could have been better. If you've played Pikmin 2 for the Gamecube like I have, you would notice that Pikmin 3 isn't as responsive, as far as controls go. There is some latency involved when you press a button. I'm not sure if this is because you are using a wireless controller, or just because of how the game is programmed. Either way, this aspect subtracts from the heart of Pikmin gaming that I was used to, i.e. quick action (particularly when throwing pikmin). In fact, this fault--if you want to call it that--actually leads the player to take in more of the serene aura of the game, which is brought about by the realistic graphics and calmness that I mentioned earlier. So you may feel that the game is leaning more towards "casual" than you would if the controls were quicker in response. This wouldn't be an issue if I wasn't used to the controls of Pikmin 2. But nevertheless I am, and so are all the other Pikmin fans like me. So when you go to press the "A" button as fast as you can, you end up throwing a Pikmin only half of the time. The ambiguity of control that I felt had a negative effect on the gameplay.

There are a lot of little things that add up to make this game pleasing, such as the colorful personality of the pikmin and the mellow but delightful sound effects that create a mellifluous ambiance to explore in. Little pleasures like these helps one to appreciate a game; when they work together in unity, the results are exceptional. Everything in a game should be working together, really.


Once you get into the mission of collecting fruit, the game becomes quite engaging. It also helps that the fruit looks so believably real and that the environment and bugs look and behave likewise. Because the different bugs have different behavioral patterns, you experience a nice learning curve for a while. There is a significant amount of strategy involved with killing off these critters. And some are hardly critters...if you've never played a Pikmin game, you'll be surprised by the variety of bugs that you'll come in contact with. Some are big, some are small, and most all of them resemble a real creature here on earth. You'll also find "data files" in the game that give you bits of information. I found these pretty pleasing to collect--that was a bit surprising, considering that they're just little tads of info. But still.

Another disappointment with this game was that I seemed to be led along the path carved out by the storyline too much. There didn't seem to be as much freedom compared to Pikmin 2. In fact, the game as a whole seems to be more buffed and waxed--that is, generally more adapted to casual players. Unfortunately this means that, in turn, some of the features that non-casual players would look for are harmed or completely cast out. This need not be the case. But it is the case with this game, at least in part. Nintendo did well in bringing over various staples from the Pikmin series. But some things were changed or left out, and not for the better. I want you to notice something else here: I'm comparing Pikmin 3 to Pikmin 2. Obviously, games in a frachise like this are going to be judged greatly by their predecessors. A similar thing may occur if one attempts to make a video game that resembles another game. In fact, that game may be considered mediocre and looked down upon. I'd say that's generally not a good idea.

Now before you think this game is a bust, let me assure you that there is something to be enjoyed here. A lot of my disappointments sprout from the fact that I have played Pikmin 2, and so was expecting certain things from the third installment of the series. If I had never played a Pikmin game, I'd have better words to say. The Pikmin games are actually a unique breed of games, as far as I've seen. That trait alone will help a game's success. Newness is a good thing when it comes to videogames. Also consider that certain game institutions--like the red, blue, and yellow pikmin--are ideas Pikmin fans are already used to. It's almost as if we take them for granted, and so don't think too highly of them. Personally, when I play a game today, one of the main things I'm looking for is a new or uncommon experience. The Pikmin series in general brings this to the table.


There are two multiplayer modes beside the main story mode: Mission Mode and Bingo Battle. The former lets you control one or more of the three main characters as you aim to kill the most bugs or collect the most treasure (it's a battle against the clock). The latter pits you against a friend as you aim to get four in a row on your bingo card by collecting bugs to make the combination. Now, personally, neither of these modes really tickled my fancy. But I've heard several testimonials, if you will, from players who have really enjoyed the Bingo battle game mode, claiming that it's a lot of fun. What these two modes do is add some variation to the normal gameplay of Pikmin 3. They create a break in the normal collect-fruit-and-harvest-pikmin story mode that you'll spend most of your time on. Of course the story mode is quite fun; yet sometimes you just feel like doing something different. It's not just that these game modes offer a different form of gameplay, but also that different feelings result from playing these modes as do when you play story mode. A game has to feel different to be different; that is, it needs to seem like a different experience, not the same experience with a new shell.

I'm going to point out how I spoiled this game for myself. Yes, you read that correctly. Believe it or not, it's actually my fault that Pikmin 3 wasn't as fun as I wanted it to be. I didn't completely ruin the game, but I sabotaged it nonetheless. How did this happen? For one, I expected a lot from this game. This is the prodecessor to one of the best games I've ever played through. It's the game I've been looking forward to for years, soon after it's first official public reveal so many E3 conventions ago...and so what happened? I was disappointed because it didn't meet my expectations. Expectations that are not met automatically lessen the player's appreciation of a game. And that's true with most things, I'd say.

 Second, like I mentioned above, I had a standard with which to measure this game. Somtimes I would experience something while playing Pikmin 3 and would think how Pikmin 2 was better than this. There were certain tools and features I was used to in Pikmin 2 that I wanted to be in the third installment. Where was the ability to line up your pikmin like army soldiers like I could do with the C-stick on the Gamecube controller? Where are the cave levels that made Pikmin 2 so exciting? Third, I tried to make sure Pikmin 3 measured up to my expectations. This actually isn't surprising. I was disappointed and concerned at how the game would turn out, so I attempted to aggrandize it by trying to make the gameplay more intense; by trying to marvel at the new treasure I found; by trying to convince myself of how great the story was; by periodically making use of abilities that I really saw as useless (like the dodge whistle). And it didn't work. I've just accepted that there are some elements of the game I plainly dislike.

Pikmin 3 is, indeed, a pretty good game. Take a look at the congregated critic scores. Play it yourself if you want to. Even I agree that it's brilliantly crafted in many ways, and I enjoyed it for the most part. But my disappointments led me to focus on the bad parts of the game, and I wasn't as satisfied as I could've been due to my poor experiences. 

 Wrapping it Up... 

Things to Apply:
  •  Realism, which is applied in several areas in Pikmin 3
  • Unity in beauty in regards to how game elements work together
  • Variation in types of gameplay
  • Rarity/uncommon experience
  • Good Learning curve (for the most part), especially in regards to fighting bugs
  • Clever little pleasures placed here and there (constitutes the learning curve) 
Things to Learn From:
  • Controls feel a bit ambiguous at first
  • Not as fast paced or challenging as I would have liked (compared to Pikmin 2)
  • Limit of freedom to make choices  

Maybe I'll go back and try again with a fresh mind; without worry of what the game's like compared to others. Maybe I'll try one of the two extra game modes, and actually enjoy them. Perhaps if I take my anxious mind off of the apparent fallacies and try the game out with curious innocence--just wanting to enjoy the simple pleasure of playing--I'll find some good in gaming experience. Perhaps I'll actually enjoy myself. Sometimes a critic's score isn't just dependent on a game's composition and objective examination. Our heart, and the issues thereof, may cause us to see things differently.  -Amoeba of Light