When I think of what the personification of the Triple-A games industry might be, the first image that springs to mind is a man in a suit; safe, inoffensive, gets the job done. He probably has two kids, a wife, and a house in the suburbs. For the most part he does his accounting job, spends time with his family, and occasionally dons a black robe with his friends in an attempt to summon Cthulhu. In this somewhat overwrought analogy, the gentleman’s nuclear family is the likes of Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed whereas the eldritch cult meetings he attends on the first Monday of every month is Bloodborne – it doesn’t take up a lot of time, but it’s certainly the most interesting part of his life.
On the other side of the industry, however, we have the indie developers whom I believe represent the artistic core of the videogame industry. That’s not to say the Triple-A scene is utterly barren, because it’s obviously not, but the indie scene is where things start to get really interesting. The indie landscape is strewn with one mad experiment after another and it’s a never ending joy to see what’s lying beneath each rock. The most mind-bending, heart rending, and joyous gaming moments I’ve ever experienced came from indie games. Those tiny teams that slave away on odd little passion projects are the true heroes of the videogame industry.
Last year I gave Thumper the prestigious award of being considered one of the two best games I played at EGX. It’s described by developer, Drool, as “Rhythm Violence”, a phrase which almost certainly makes you weak at the knees as you contemplate the sheer possibility of what this could entail. Now I know exactly what you’re thinking: Dance Dance Double Dragon, right? No, it’s better than that.
Through the power of Skype, I spoke with Marc Flury, the programming half of the two man team behind Thumper, about how to survive as an indie developer, working with Sony, and where on Earth this abstract neon spiral of rhythmic violence came from. As it turns out, it originally came from the mind of Brian Gibson, the other half of Drool, and the pair have been working on it for over four years. Marc and Brian met whilst working at Harmonix and then began development on Thumper as a side project.
I was interested to know how these things start. “I guess for me, I wanted to learn more about everything that goes into making a game, especially from the programming side,” Marc tells me. “I’d like to make more games with this level of freedom and with this size team… We wanted to make a rhythm game that was really stripped down and simple. There are some very early prototypes on our YouTube channel which shows this really simple, grid-based rhythm game and then we just kept taking it further and further.”
Thumper has come a long way since those early videos but you can see from the offset that the duo were on to something. There is elegance in simplicity and Thumper demonstrates that perfectly. But don’t let the seemingly primitive nature of the core gameplay deceive you into thinking that work on Thumper is still a part time affair. Marc informs me that it’s “definitely full time” and I’m not surprised. Developing as such a small team is a lengthy and arduous experience which, in this case, is worsened by the fact that Marc lives in Seoul, South Korea, and Brian lives in Rhode Island, USA.
My immediate thought was that such an obstacle would render the development process nigh on impossible at times but Marc reassured me that it wasn’t that bad. “There are certainly times when I wish we were in the same room and we didn’t have to deal with the time difference and the lack of face to face communication. I think it helped a lot that we knew each other beforehand and that we’d spent a couple of years prototyping Thumper together before I moved away. We’re both still very independent in the way that we work and both have different responsibilities on the project mostly.”
I was somewhat tentative to ask about how the average indie developer survives on a day to day basis while still working on their game but did anyway, praying that the answer didn’t involve the word destitution. “I think everyone’s story is different. I know that we’ve been very fortunate. For one thing, Brian and I are kind of old compared to a lot of people who try and become indie developers. We had jobs for a long time so we saved some money… I have support from a lot of places, like from my family and the fact that I live in Korea means that I have free health insurance. If I lived in America I’d have to pay for that.”
The primary hook for my fascination with Thumper is is not just the machinations of Drool as a studio, but the inherent violence that erupts from the game. Drool’s website describes it best: “There is no blood or gore, but you’ll feel the violence.” In a way that I find almost entirely inexplicable, that statement is true, but where did it come from?
“It was kind of like, once we made the game so simple right, to start with… we could try to push it in ways that other rhythm games hadn’t been pushed,” explains Marc. “When you look at most rhythm games, they might be really fun or beautiful but they don’t feel quite as intense in the way that an action or racing game might feel. There’s not the same sense of physical sensation or sensation of speed.
“It was only like a year, or less than a year ago when we came up with this term ‘Rhythm Violence’ to describe the game. That works effectively in terms of something that people remember… it became this opportunity to exploit something we felt hadn’t been exploited before.” Marc tells me that he doesn’t have anything against violent videogames and plays them just like everyone else, but that he didn’t “really want to make a game that is like violent in terms of hurting people. So I’m kind of proud of the way it’s violent, but without physical violence to human beings.”
Back in 2013, Shahid Ahmad of Sony, gave a talk at the Eurogamer Expo about at the future of publishing and, not only the rise of indie games, but also the difficulty of actually finishing the creative process; a point he drove home with a quote from Robert Fearon, “Finishing the videogame without topping yourself? Hardest.” I was at that talk and the enthusiasm Shahid had for indie games and their future with PlayStation was unquestionable. I’m not going to say that it wasn’t a little overloaded with PlayStation Vita propaganda but the point stands – out of the Big Three, Sony are the only company that seem to be throwing any real weight behind indie developers. I wanted to know why indie games are increasingly coming to the PS4 and PC with no sign of a deal with Xbox on the horizon.
“Everything is a possibility,” Marc says about bringing Thumper to Xbox. “Honestly we’re just trying not to spend too much time thinking about it. Things are always changing. We’ll just kind of see where we’re at once we’ve finished with the two main platforms. It’s already a tonne of work for just the two people. We made a decision that we didn’t want to partner with anyone. We wanted to do everything ourselves, at least for this first version. It might come out on Xbox, we hope it does.”
My immediate inclination for why indie developers go for the PS4 is the dominant market share and, if you can only afford to develop for one of the consoles, you’re going to pick the most popular one, right?
“Yeah, that helps” says Marc, but he’s quick say that it’s certainly not everything. “We had established a good relationship with the people at Sony. We work mostly with Sony America but I also know people in Korea and Japan that have been helpful. They seemed genuinely psyched about the game and then we also have a co-marketing agreement with them. They’re going to help put some marketing support behind the game, they’re showing it at events, stuff like that.”
This reinforced my generally positive view of PlayStation in this respect. I’ll admit that’s it’s an opinion based mainly on anecdotal evidence and the churning PR machine of Sony that wants me to think that, but there is only so much you can do to hide the truth. I believe Sony has a positive reputation among the wider gaming community because they do actually care – at least a little bit. But my main concern regarding the relationship between these seemingly faceless mega corporations and the indie developer is: does PlayStation ever try and wrestle control away from the indie?
“No. In terms of creative control and anything like that, it’s our game, we own the game, we’re paying to make the game… It’s been a positive relationship. It took us a while to get to the point where we trusted them and everything but overall its gone very well so far.”
No matter how positively people feel about PlayStation and their work with indie developers, I still couldn’t help but feel that it was all a persona, little more than a well organised PR move designed to make Sony look like a kindly philanthropist to all of these Dickensian orphans that have inexplicably learnt to program. Last year Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, accused Sony of buying up all of the third party deals, a move that would be considered cynical more than anything else, but Marc doesn’t appear to see it like that.
“I think what they’re doing is good and smart. They’re putting some support, even some altruistic support, behind developers. At Tokyo game show, Sony sponsored the whole indie game section, even though there were a lot of games that aren’t on PlayStation which is really forward thinking and cool. I mean there are so many people that are willing to make games for consoles now, and so many people are doing it on their own time that it makes, I’m sure, good business sense to just let people on their platform and support them. They might just find the next Minecraft that way. They’re not necessarily assuming a lot of risk or necessarily paying for a lot of development.”
Marc sums up my thoughts for me quite perfectly there. Sony are investing in a positive public image with very little risk and a potentially huge reward. The next Minecraft may well appear first on PlayStation 4 and, if it does, it will barely have cost Sony a pittance. However, some support in the right places can help developers flourish and ultimately that pays off for us, the consumer. Sony appears to be a largely ambivalent overseer of indies games in the home console market and I get the impression that it comes in part from corporate necessity and in part from a handful of good people running around at PlayStation who really do care.
At present, Thumper doesn’t have a release date but Marc hopes for it to be ready within the next six months. Following our talk it’s evident that, for him, Thumper is a game worth making regardless of how well it performs and I have a huge respect for his dedication to the project. “It’s a big risk. I don’t know if it will pay off, but of course I hope it does. But, I know that even if it doesn’t pay off financially, I know that it was still the right thing to do. At least it was for me.”