"F*** Unity," And Other Thoughts from the Indie Soapbox

"F*** Unity," And Other Thoughts from the Indie Soapbox

Jenova Chen, Cliff Harris, and others cut loose with their opinions at GDC.

This article is part of our ongoing coverage of GDC 2015. You can find more of our GDC news and analysis here.

In what has become a tradition at GDC, a handful of developers came together to stand on their respective soapboxes and share their thoughts on both the medium and the industry at large. Among them: It's better to hire a diverse array of experts, sequels aren't so bad, and, er, "F*** Unity." Here were the highlights.

1. "F**** Unity and the horse it rode in on": Cliff Harris (Gratuitous Space Battles) pulled no punches when it came time for him to speak. Unity and engines like are doing their share to make it easier to make games, but they're also "wrecking modern programming and destroying the industry."

Harris referenced Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and said that he admired Q because he was a god who could apparently do anything. Not unlike programmers.

"That used to be people like me. That used to be programmers," Harris said. "There was hardware, and there was us, and we understood how it worked, and no one else did."

And that, ultimately, is his problem with middleware, he said. Handed the tools they need on what amounts to a silver platter, Harris feels that developers have lost their curiosity. "Suddenly we're not gods. We don't have control over the whole universe. We can't master the bits and bytes."

"There are gods," he said, "and we just license their engine."

2. Hire People with Fresh Perspectives: Mike Bithell experienced unprecedented success with Thomas Was Alone, the indie puzzle platformer released in 2012 that has since made its way to a variety of platforms. He had enough success that he could make any game he wanted, so he decided to make a stealth game called Volume. It was with Volume that he fell into what he called "an old trap" — "The Old Boy's Club."

In constructing his company, Bithell mostly hired people he knew. Conservative hiring is practical, he said, and it saves a lot of trouble. But there was also something missing. So he decided to take a chance and start hiring people with a different perspective on games.

Among those he brought in to help, Bithell cited Mattie Brice, who helped with the story, and Leigh Alexander, who consulted on the design. In the process, "Volume got good," Bithell said, and now he says it's mostly his own work that he worries about.

In bringing in gaming professionals with non-traditional experience, Bithell suddenly realized that he had managed to grow beyond the white male demographic that tends to dominate gaming. "I was actually achieving diversity objectives that I wasn't doing consciously." And it's for that reason that he's feeling more positive about Volume than he ever did before.

3. Sequels Aren't Always a Bad Thing: Sequels are an odd subject for independent developers. There's a perception that if you make a sequel, you are betraying your creative vision. But as Sarah Northway (Rebuild) discovered, sometimes making a sequel can be necessary, as well as surprisingly gratifying.

After making a handful of unsuccessful games, Northway found herself going back to the well with her most successful series — Rebuild, a post-apocalyptic strategy series. The decision brought with it the vague sense of being a sellout, but Northway was surprised by the excitement that followed the news of another Rebuild game. Soon enough, fans began sending her suggestions for her game, as well as compiling a wiki.

Northyway ended up opening up a successful Kickstarter, which she said works well for sequels. Mostly, though, she said she was overwhelmed by the appreciation she received from gamers. Over the course of PAX, fans continually came by to say hello, shake her hand, and express their excitement for her game.

"It all really reminded me that I am making people happy," Northway finished. "And that is a very important thing for me as a game developer."

4. There Must Be a Way for Adults to Enjoy Gaming: Jenova Chen (Journey, Flower) seemed to be the most morose out of the assembled developers. Having reached his early 30s, Chen said he found that many of his friends had moved on from gaming, calling it a waste of time. He wondered why games had such a perception problem, and whether they could eventually reach a broader audience.

"What kind of game can we make that's not a waste of time?" Chen asked.

Chen didn't necessarily have an answer, save that he considers it important to make games that reach a spectrum that hasn't been well-served by the medium until very recently: comedy, drama, and romance. Given something that reached them emotionally, adults might be be more willing to engage with the medium, he said.

5. It's Okay to Make Games about Yourself: So what's the best way to make a game that touches adult emotions? Nina Freeman (Fullbright) hinted at one avenue, which is to create autobiographical games that tackles mature subject matter — an approach that is oddly taboo in gaming. Freeman referenced a game she created called "How Do You Do It," which was based on her own experience as a young girl trying to understand sex. Her game was met with confusion and hostility from both gamers and even her own extended family, who called it "inappropriate."

"We live in a society where people are legitimately afraid of honesty." Freeman said. "People don't know how to deal with it."

There is a strong stigma against making autobiographical games and "oversharing," she said. Nevertheless, she feels that it's important to the growth of the medium that honest and personal stories are taken seriously. She urged developers to use real stories to inform their narrative, even if it felt a bit scary to do so.

"I'll make games about my personal life because I want to," Freeman said defiantly. "And games can and should be about anything."

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Kat Bailey

Editor in Chief

Kat Bailey is a former freelance writer and contributor to publications including 1UP, IGN, GameSpot, GamesRadar, and EGM. Her fondest memories as a journalist are at GamePro, where she hosted RolePlayer's Realm and had legal access to the term "Protip." She is USgamer's resident mecha enthusiast, Pokemon Master, and Minnesota Vikings nut (skol).

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