Thursday, August 6, 2009

Reflections with Jason Rohrer

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

This month in the game club, we played Passage and Gravitation, two short games by Jason Rohrer. He was also kind enough to answer a few questions for us on his creative process, artistic exploration in games, digital distribution, and his exciting new project.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of making games by yourself, without the aid or supervision of a publisher?

I don't find any disadvantages, because I'm simply not interested in making "big" games, which is what you usually need a team for. Most big games are big in terms of consumable content, not in terms of gameplay or interactivity, and I don't think that games are fundamentally about consumable content.

The advantages of working alone are complete creative control and maintenance of a singular vision. It's very easy to make a work that is coherent and self-consistent when you're the only one working on it. Also, working alone is much cheaper (free!) than hiring a team, so that allows me to take big creative risks and not worry about financial pressures and deadlines. I can finish a game when it is really finished, not just because I run out of money.

What aspects of your games do you typically spend the most time on (visuals, themes, gameplay, etc.)?

The design process happens on paper ahead of time, and it usually spills out pretty quickly, so I'd say that I spend the least amount of time on design. However, design is by far the hardest step in my process. Programming the game, and polishing the resulting implementation until it is perfect, takes up the most time in my process.

Do video games open up new themes for artistic exploration? Are they particularly unsuited to certain tasks?

Games allow you to explore aspects of the human condition that are fundamentally interactive in ways that non-interactive mediums cannot. The most obvious examples are themes that involve choices. Other mediums can explore the same themes, but they must present a single branch in the possibility tree---what happens when one character makes a specific choice in a given situation. Non-linear uses of these mediums---like the film Run Lola Run---can present a handful of specific branches at most. Games, on the other hand, can present you with the entire possibility tree and let you explore it for yourself. Instead of depicting a character and showing you that character's choices, a game can put you directly into the situation and let you make your own choices.

Games are weaker than non-interactive mediums when dealing with parts of the human condition that are not fundamentally interactive. Consider a very basic theme like "the loss of a loved one." Games try to explore this theme a lot, but they usually fall flat, because they must turn off interactivity---at least momentarily---to deliver the theme. When a game takes control away from you during a major thematic turning point, it immediately feels "unfair." The interactivity of the game and the non-interactivity of the theme fight each other.

All of your games have been released for free download on the internet. What are your beliefs on digital distribution and cost?

I believe that control over the distribution of a given work is impossible. Once you release something into the world, there's no way to prevent people from doing whatever they want with it in the privacy of their own homes. One thing they might want to do with it is make copies for their friends. That's a very natural thing to want to do, and it does not feel "wrong" to most people. We can shout "NO!" all we want, but people are going to continue making copies.

On the other hand, it's also very natural to charge people for a service. You come to this convenient website and download a copy quickly and easily---that service is something that cannot be copied for your friends.

The iPhone app store is one example of a service-based model---at least I use it that way. You can download my game from a central location and have it automatically installed on your iPhone for a small fee. If you want to download the iPhone source code yourself and build your own copy for your iPhone, you can do that too, for free. You can even sell the version that you build in the AppStore yourself---there's nothing to stop you, since my games are in the public domain.

You recently released a game,
Primrose, on the iPhone store. What role do you think that the iPhone plays in the world of independent game development? Does it have any advantages or disadvantages when compared to Xbox Live, WiiWare and the Playstation Network?

The iPhone AppStore has extraordinarily low barriers to entry compared to those other download services. All you need is a compatible Mac and a $100 developer membership. I was able to find a used Mac Mini on Craig's List for only $250. That's a mighty cheap dev kit.

Dev kits for the other platforms cost thousands of dollars. On top of that, Nintendo *requires* that you lease a business office space before they will even let you buy a dev kit.

The downside to the AppStore is the extraordinarily low barrier to entry. Every programmer in the world has an app in the AppStore. Dozens of new apps are released there every day. It's very hard to compete. Making a good living from AppStore sales is like winning the lottery. The other platforms hand-pick the games that get distributed, so there is much less competition. A really good game on one of those other platforms is pretty much guaranteed to bring in a large amount of revenue for the developer. Even an excellent game on the iPhone is a crap shoot.

Beyond entertainment, what other qualities give value to a video game?

If we believe Koster's theory about fun, then games are primarily about learning and thinking. That thinking may be at a very low level (learning a new reflex skill) or at a very high, conscious level (planning out a many-step strategy). Regardless, games make you think. Furthermore, because they cannot be experienced passively, they *require* that you think. So, right out of the gate, games don't feel much like leisurely entertainment---more like hard work! Still, we tend to use games---especially video games---as a form of escape entertainment. By "working" on something with no real-world consequence, we can take our minds away from our worldly concerns.

However, I think we can leverage the thinking induced by games for all kinds of purposes in addition to entertainment. We can make people think about the world in new ways, for example.

Would you like to share with us what you're working on now?

I'm working on a game for the Nintendo DS that will be published by Majesco sometime in 2010. It's a two-player strategy game about diamond trading in Angola on the eve of the passage of the Kimberly Process.

This is my first game that will be sold in a real box in real stores, so it's an exciting project for me.


  1. You can see his paper prototype for the DS game he is working on in this article: Jason Rohrer's New DS Game

  2. I hope it's profitable for him. Because Jason's games are so personal and have a strong motivation behind them, I'm completely willing to pay for any experience he thinks up - you don't get that kind of relationship between the author and work too often in gaming.


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