Category Archives: OZombie

American Interview: Damon Slye

Damon SlyeAs part of a continuing series of developer interviews focused on Kickstarter, I spoke with Damon Slye, CEO and Creative Director of Mad Otter Games, but best known for his work with Dynamix on such classic games as Red Baron, A-10 Tank Killer, and Aces of the Pacific.

AJM: Can you tell me more about the project you’re currently working on?

DS: We are working on Villagers and Heroes, a live game with thousands of wonderful players and the most welcoming community on the internet. The world is open and players can do, create, and grow in whatever ways they choose. We don’t slot the players into set tracks. Building this game and working closely with the community is really rewarding. We engage our players to find out what works, what doesn’t, and in which direction to take the game. Some of the features that we considered fairly minor turned out to form the core of the gameplay for the players. When we see these features, we reinforce them, and do more things in that direction. We are currently running a Greenlight Campaign on Steam to get it greenlit.

We are also preparing a Kickstarter for another game that we will announce in a couple of weeks. It’s very exciting!

AJM: Your earlier games were released at a time when publishers shared box covers with developer’s names (or names of their studios). How do you think this impacted developers, customers and publishers?

DS: Some of the publishers in the mid 80s had the marketing strategy to promote their developers as artists in the same way as the music industry. One consequence was that a talented new game developer would be more excited to sign with a publisher who promoted their developers as celebrities, so I think it was a good recruitment tool for these publishers. As consideration for this promotion, the publishers would in return require the developer to sign a contract that made it very difficult for the developer to work with another publisher.

All of this was not healthy for the industry as a whole. What happens when a developer has a cool idea for game, but the publisher doesn’t like the idea? It was possible, but very impractical, for the developer to find a different publisher to do the game. I am not a fan of stabilizing forces that create rigid structures. They protect the status quo and stifle innovation. I prefer a more fluid eco-system so that things are freely and rapidly destroyed and created as necessary. People should be able to freely associate and quickly move around between different studios and publishers. Hollywood went through a similar transformation when the studio system was replaced with the open system they have now. By the way, I strongly recommend the book “The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era”.

AJM: Any thoughts on why this changed and how that change has affected our industry?

DS: I’m glad the exclusives are gone. A game developer who is really talented will become a fan favorite with or without the promotional support of publishers. A person’s reputation and public goodwill should not be an asset that is owned by a company. So, I neither think that a publisher should be required to spend money to build up the reputation of an individual, nor should they view it as one of their assets. Let the publishers invest into their brand lines, and let the game developers earn their public reputation on the quality of their work. Less coupling means a more creative, fluid, healthy industry.

AJM: As physics in games became more advanced we saw the emergence of details that could lead to emergent game play (think wings shearing off planes in Red Baron or rocket jumping in Quake) – any favorite unexpected behavior or result to emerge from your games?

A few days after we shipped Red Baron at the end of 1989, we read about a rare tactic that some pilots used at the end of World War I, called a slashing attack. Instead of getting into a turning contest, which was the norm in WWI, a pilot with a faster plane could attack from above, then zoom away, essentially getting a free attack with no risk. Then they could turn around, and do it again. So, we booted up the game and tried it out against the Red Baron, the best A.I. we had in the game. He was nearly impossible to defeat in a turning contest. Despite the fact that we had never tried out this tactic during playtest, and we had never explicitly coded it into the game, the slashing attack worked perfectly. We could defeat the Red Baron repeatedly. It was exciting to us to see that the modeling of the physics created a virtual world that had the same behavior as the real world, and that the exact same tactics emerged as the best. This was the most satisfying moment for me on the project. We had built interactive history, a time-machine that allowed people to experience WWI air combat in a way that a history book or video could not.

AJM: The majority of your games have been simulations of combat – players controlling avatars who are operating war machines. With the advent of remotely piloted drones we’re seeing a new generation of warfare emerge. Any thoughts on the implications of the virtualization of warfare – either on the real-world battlefield or in the virtual world?

DS: Yeah, this brings to mind the episode of Star Trek, A Taste of Armageddon, where two “warring” planets use computers to simulate war without actually firing the weapons. The computers spit out the casualty reports, and citizens marked as casualties are required to step into a disintegration booth where they die bloodlessly and cleanly. The people on the planets prefer this because no one is wounded or maimed, and there is no destruction of property nor disruption of the economy. James Kirk, in his typical cut-the-gordian-knot-fashion, destroys the computers running the simulation, gambling on the fact that if war is no longer clean and sterile, the two planets will most likely choose peace instead of face the actual horrors of war. A brilliant exploration of this topic is Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi couplet “Ender’s Game” and “Speaker for the Dead”.

I don’t see a lot of connection between games and virtualized warfare other than in form. In virtualized warfare, the operator’s actions are tied directly to real world machines and weapons and the purpose is to alter the real world in real ways: to kill real people and destroy real property. In a game, the player is affecting a virtual world, but even that is not the actual purpose of the game. The game really exists in the mind of the player, and a game designer should be focused on providing the best experience inside the mind of the player more than the best experience on the video screen. Great screenplay writers understand this, too. They have a precise understanding of what the viewer is thinking about in each moment of their film. It’s always about the people, never about the technology.

American Interview: Chris Taylor

Chris TaylorContinuing with a series of interviews geared towards support of our ongoing Oz Kickstarter campaign, I’ve asked designer Chris Taylor a couple of questions.

AJM: Last time you and I talked you were in the middle of your Kickstarter campaign, then came the Wargaming announcement. Can catch me up on what’s happened since the acquisition? What are you working on these days? Is Wildman coming to life or have you shifted towards a “World of…” project?

CT: We’ve been busy since the acquisition working on our “next big thing”, which we have so far announced as a big new Free-to-Play PvP MMO that will continue to expand upon what people love about the Wargaming titles that have been released so far.

AJM: Your Kickstarter was brutally honest and at times very very difficult to watch without being overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and loss. You really laid it on the line… Can you talk a bit about the sort of reaction this generated from the press, your supporters and detractors? Beyond the response from Wargaming (which is great), what was the single most surprising thing that came out of that experience?

CT: It was indeed a very tough, emotional rollercoaster ride, but it was a good experience to go through. I think it got us all a lot closer to the truth about game development, and that ultimately helps more than it hurts. The big thing that I was left with was the enormous support that I received from my friends and the gaming community, there are some truly great people in the world, and it really came through during the campaign.

AJM: A lot of people assume that because we’re in the business of “making games,” life must be easy and stress-free. You showed a different side of the story… and I wonder how you got through. What do you do outside of making games to blow off steam? Any secrets to success in life (not work)?

CT: Making games has always been challenging, right back to the first title we made, Dungeon Siege, when we first started up Gas Powered Games. I remember continuously having the bridge the payroll by using my house as collateral, but looking back, those were great experiences that really made the successes much more meaningful. The best way to blow off steam is to play more games! Seriously though, these days I also like to tinker with electronics thinking up some cool new gadgets that I can take my experience in games and combine that with hardware… it’s good to keep expanding and finding new ways to express myself creatively.

AJM: Conventional business wisdom suggests we not broadcast our struggles, yet your transparency proved that something good can come from letting the world know when we need help. Can you talk about the thinking that went into making the decision to reveal the struggle and the risk you were dealing with? Was it a unanimous decision?

CT: I believe that it came from the belief early on in the process that to be successful on KS, much like doing an AMA on Reddit, that the community expects and appreciates a great deal of transparency. Trying to hide the real truth of what’s going on would not be well received, and we believed that and really took it to heart. We all know what it feels like to have someone “spin” the truth, so I was like, guys, we need to just show it the way it is, and now we should pull back the curtain and let them all the way into the process. Looking back, I understand that this was a very uncommon approach, but I think it’s fair to say that we’re seeing more and more of this openness and it’s a good thing.

Kickstarter Backer Q&A #2

I’ve decided to start posting many of our Kickstarter updates here to reach a wider audience and hopefully disperse some of the misunderstandings that seem to be making the rounds on various news sites.

1. I read in the news you’ll need additional funding beyond Kickstarter… Is this true?

It’s common practice to set Kickstarter funding goals at amounts less than what’s needed to completely realize every possible aspect of a game’s potential. Like other video game campaigns, we’ve stated that funding above and beyond the campaign goal will be used to create more content and support additional feature development. From a design perspective, if we ask for 900k but end up with 2 million USD, that would allow for expansion of the design goals and development scope. If we come in closer to 900k then we’ll develop and deliver a smaller game that fits within that budget. The design is expandable to allow for this sort of thing.

In terms of publishing deals and their ability to support continued development of our games – there are many territories in the world where we’re unable to self-publish. China is a good example. So we’d need to sign up a publishing agreement with a Chinese publisher and they’d support localization, marketing and publishing efforts in that closed market. Those kinds of deals sometime come with up-front license fees paid to the developer (that’s us) and we can use those fees to support overall improvements and ongoing development for the game. In markets where we’re able to self publish we will.

2. What is Plan B if the Kickstarter doesn’t make it?

Sometimes you have to kill your babies. For OZombie, it would mean the end of my efforts to design and develop it. I see Kickstarter as an excellent platform for testing the viability of a game concept and understanding the potential for customer demand. If the Kickstarter doesn’t make it that’s a pretty clear sign that there aren’t enough people interested in the concept to support developing, releasing and maintaining it. I want to build products that I’m excited about – and I’m very excited about OZombie – but also products that clearly excite our audience.

For our studio it means we’ll continue working on smaller, mobile/online titles like “Akaneiro: Demon Hunters” and “Hell Invaders” (this is the mobile/web title we recently signed with DeNA – not the final name of the game). I’m not as involved in the design and development of those titles, which means my day to day will focus on running the studio and our business. We can’t currently fund on our own the development of a larger single-player title like OZombie, so making that kind of game will have to wait for some future date.

3. When will we see gameplay videos? Every other Kickstarter has gameplay videos.

When we designed and planned the campaign we did so thinking a gameplay video wouldn’t be necessary. Successful campaigns from Double Fine and InXile (among others) have proven this point by pitching game concepts using only 2D artwork, basic design outlines and the track record of their development teams. And, I figured – incorrectly it seems – that saying “We’re going to make an Alice-type game set in the world of Oz” would be enough to fire people’s imaginations.

In response to feedback from backers on this topic we’ve decided to build a quick demo to show character interaction and art direction within a simple environment. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is just as likely to cause confusion and outright damage, as it is to allay people’s fears. This is one of the dangers in sharing early development efforts and “work in progress” – something we’ve seen happen repeatedly when sharing concept artwork and design exploration.

I’m hoping existing and potential backers will be able to view our efforts in context of the pressures and constraints that have shaped the final result, but you know what they say about hope.

4. How does Alice affect OZombies goals? What if you only raise $950k and part of that is “Alice” money?

That really depends on those backers who have put in money primarily to support the idea of purchasing the Alice film rights. They always have the option to remove their support – so it seems we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it. In that sense it’s the backers who control the campaign and decide its fate. That’s the wonderful thing about Kickstarter.

5. Why did you sell the Alice game and film rights to begin with?

The “Alice” property was never mine because I created it while being employed by Electronic Arts. Generally speaking, when you create or invent something while working for someone else (like a corporation) that creation is automatically their property. I even signed away my name in connection with Alice – meaning EA could make another Alice game and put my name on the box, even if I were uninvolved or dead.

The film rights were first optioned, then purchased outright, by a group of independent film producers in Hollywood. Again, this was a transaction that took place between EA and those producers – I had no involvement in it and didn’t benefit directly from that sale. Why EA would sell the film rights to one of their most popular original IPs is a question you’d have to ask them.

What’s happened recently is that those film producers offered me a chance to acquire the film rights before they put them on the open market and sell them to the highest bidder. This was a kindness on their part, recognition of the fact that a property’s creator should have greater involvement in the decision making process that leads to exploitation of the property. Our mutual expectation was that fans would recognize and agree with this fact. I guess the question is – who would you rather have controlling the film rights? The concept’s creator or some faceless corporation?

If I’m unable to raise the money needed to purchase these rights then they’ll end up in someone else’s hands – who knows, maybe EA will buy them back? I wouldn’t be surprised.

6. Why not run a separate Kickstarter for the Alice film rights?

The timing simply wouldn’t work. When I received notice about the film rights I was told that there was a limited window of opportunity. Beyond a certain date the rights would go to the open market. That date would be beyond the end of the OZombie campaign, but we didn’t finalize the deal to start working with these rights until after the OZombie campaign had already started.

This is one of the reasons I’ve built “The Box” into the OZombie campaign – it’s an interesting way to announce expansion of the campaign in the event one of these deals closed during the campaign. Since we’re still working on a couple of potential surprises we can still have an interesting reveal when the box is finally opened. I’m actively working to put in place some exciting partnerships around the Alice film rights. Just hoping I can get those deals done and make meaningful announcements before time runs out.

The Perils of being a Zombie

How easy is it to manipulate and control people? What kind of power do officials, experts and authority figures have over our thoughts and actions? These questions are more relevant than ever but we’re being systematically conditioned to never ask them in the first place. These are questions that go to the root of power – questions that story in a game like OZombie can explore and illuminate. Some background on the topic…

The Milgram Experiments were carried out at Yale University during the 1960s. Researchers wanted to understand how, during WWII, so many seemingly normal individuals committed atrocities against their fellow human beings. An experiment was created where a test subject (in the role of “teacher”) would ask another subject (in the role of “student”) a series of memory challenge questions. The “teacher” was told to punish the “student” with an electric shock if any question was answered incorrectly. Each incorrect answer also caused the subsequent shock to be delivered at a higher voltage – starting at a mild 20-volts and ultimately ending with a beyond-lethal 450-volts. The teacher was always a random test subject (a person “off the street”), unaware that the student was an actor – and the electric shock and pain reaction fake. Throughout the tests a research scientist (an authority figure) remained in the room with the teacher to oversee and record results. 

These tests revealed something very disturbing about human psychology. Teachers would ask their questions, students would respond incorrectly and shocks would be administered. The voltage would increase with each incorrect answer. Mild yelps of discomfort would turn to screams of pain. The student would ask that the test be stopped. At this point the teacher would look to the researcher for guidance and the researcher would insist that the test continue. This is where things got really scary.Even as the voltage increased to near lethal levels and the student begged for the test to stop, the teacher would continue – so long as the researcher insisted that the test continue. 

Can you guess what percentage of teachers continued the test, administered shocks and increased the voltage up to and beyond lethal levels? How many normal test subjects would harm and even kill another human being simply because a scientist overseeing a university research experiment demanded that the shocks be administered? You’re probably sitting there thinking there’s no way you or anyone you know would continue.

Up to 65% of test subjects continued administering shocks all the way up to the lethal 450-volt level. That’s 65% of subjects who would kill another human being because an authority figure told them to continue. Read the Wikipedia article – it’s sobering stuff. 

Milgram, the guy running these experiments, drew two powerful conclusions from the results: 

First, “…a subject who has neither ability nor expertise to make decisions, especially in a crisis, will leave decision making to the group and its hierarchy. The group is the person’s behavioral model.”

Second, “…the essence of obedience consists in the fact that a person comes to view themselves as the instrument for carrying out another person’s wishes, and they therefore no longer see themselves as responsible for their actions. Once this critical shift of viewpoint has occurred in the person, all of the essential features of obedience follow.”

Within the world of OZombie we’re going to discover and must repair instances where Ozites are being turned against each other by abuse of this same knowledge. You’ll find Munchkins engaged in ritual sacrifice of their friends and family members, Quadlings committing mass suicide, Winkies snitching on each other, Vegetable People on death marches and the inhabitants of China Country smashing their own homes – all because authority figures have convinced them these things must be done. More critically, you’ll find yourself in positions of power over others with trusted authority figures asking you to do things you know are wrong. How will you respond? 

It’s a fascinating topic and one that few games (“Fallout” is one) have properly explored. And it’s this type of conformity we’re referring to with the use of “zombie” in the game’s title. What’s interesting to me is reading the different tone in reaction comments on websites announcing our Kickstarter campaign. On those sites where the writer (an authority figure) details the game’s narrative theme and alternative use of the word “zombie,” the reactions are largely positive. On those sites where the narrative isn’t mentioned or the “zombie” idea is highlighted in a negative way, the comments are largely negative. Goes to show that independent thinking is a rare and special thing. 

Zombies, What’re They Good For?!

There’s been a fair amount of commentary on the idea of “zombies” in OZombie. The title is pretty in-your-face about the whole “zombie” thing, but as I’ve detailed on the Kickstarter page, in recent updates and in interviews, these are not your typical, shamble of the mill, brain-eating zombies. In this instance we’re applying one of the alternate definitions of the word:

zom•bie [zom-bee] noun

1. the body of a dead person given the semblance of life, but mute and will-less, by a supernatural force, usually for some evil purpose.

2. a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, listless, or seemingly rote; an automaton.

3. a tall drink made typically with several kinds of rum, citrus juice, and often apricot liqueur.

4. Canadian Slang. an army conscript assigned to home defense during World War II.

Yes, that’s right. OZombie actually casts Dorothy as an army conscript assigned to Canadian home defense during WWII. You got me. This is the game I’ve ALWAYS wanted to make. She’s drank too many zombies and lost her marbles – resulting in a psychedelic journey to an imagined world of Oz. We were going to call it “OZ-CanadianArmyConscript,” but it just didn’t have the right ring.

Seriously, the definition we’re going for here is #2 – an automaton. Specifically, of the type found throughout our modern society. The person who goes about their daily lives oblivious to the political and financial forces that shape and determine the quality and content of life. “The Matrix” offered beautiful commentary on this concept – of an entire race plugged into a simulation of life, and of a certain number of people who would prefer the illusion to the reality. These are the kinds of zombies we’re talking about.

I know the name is causing some confusion, but to be honest, I think that confusion only serves to prove the point. You’re reading this because you know the truth, because you know there’s another layer to the story. The knee-jerk reactions from readers in the comment sections on Eurogamer or Kotaku shows they haven’t bothered to go beyond the headline. They jump to a lazy conclusion and deprive themselves from a deeper, more meaningful understanding. You can’t force understanding and I don’t think it’s my responsibility to force a more “descriptive” title on the game for the sake of those zombies.

Beyond the metaphorical, there’s the literal usefulness of the name “OZombie.” It creates a clear and defend-able name space for the game, was available as a domain name and it’s instantly recognizable and it’s easy to remember. Even the current controversy around the name is useful because it’s forcing people to talk about the project.

A zombie by any other name would smell as rotten.

News Flash: Things Cost Money

I read an excerpt from an upcoming interview with Strategy Informer on the topic of our OZombie Kickstarter Campaign. Apparently, in view of what’s happening with Double Fine, my honest suggestion that Spicy Horse might seek additional funding above and beyond what’s raised on Kickstarter, is a bad thing. There’s enough attention on this topic that this excerpt from the larger interview was published prior to the main article… here’s a bit of it:

While $950,000 may seem like a lot of money, but it’s not a massive amount when it comes to making games. Spicy Horse have recently started a Kickstarter for the Oz-set game titled OZombie and eyebrows have been raised at the scope versus the goal price.

We spoke with lead designer American McGee and he suggested that the price would only be to start the game and fund a few chapters. After that they would need to get further funding, including the possibility of publishing deals which might upset a few backers.

Just want to say to all the press, public and others who are gnashing their fangs at Kickstarter, Double Fine and anyone they think look “fishy,” you can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain about big publishers and their bad business models – highlighting all the times they’ve pushed overpriced, buggy, unfinished product onto the shelves in hopes of a quick buck. Then when an indie developer lays bare their business model and struggles, crucify them for taking risks and being honest. In both cases the hyperbole is through the roof and completely unproductive.

“Kickstarter is done!” “Consoles are dead!” “Always Online is the devil child of DRM!” “Get the pitchforks and burn Microsoft!” “She’s a witch!” “Early Access is a scam!” “Publishers are evil!” “F2P is evil!” “Mobile phones are Lucifer’s gaming device!” “Game developer are the devil!” “Moar COD!” “Sequels! Kill them with fire!” On and on and on… these chants of rage make it so no one can do anything right. Any attempt at honesty or innovation is met with derision and contempt. Even the slightest mistake must be repaid by public lynching or Hara-Kiri.

What’s going on here? Why are we so bent on finding enemies and destroying them? What’s happened to civility and constructive debate? Could it be true… all this video-game playing HAS had a significant psychological impact on us all? Are we unable to go through a day without seeing a bag of MacDonald’s as a power-up and misquoted game developer as a demon from hell who must be beheaded with a shotgun and cast into a lake of lava? Why are gamers becoming so antagonistic, combative and resistant to constructive engagement? Have all those hours spent destroying and killing rotted our brains and turned us into robotic griefers?

Note to the online kill squads:

Developers aren’t your enemies. They’re just people, like you, trying to make a living doing what they love. Publishers aren’t the spawn of Satan. They’re just corporations trying to compete with other corporations for your wallet, soul and first born. Accept these things and the world around you. Not everything should be answered with criticism, negativity and buckshot to the face.

The games you play cost HUGE amounts of money to develop and market. Productions are insanely complex, which means there are many places where they can breakdown or fail. Outcomes aren’t predictable, so that money to fund these things is nearly impossible to come by. Simply put, this shit is hard.

Things are going to go sideways and sometimes horribly wrong. Instead of wanting to murder someone when they level with you about these facts, embrace them. The choice is yours – support transparency, honesty and constructive involvement… or don’t complain when the industry shrugs and shifts back to a model dominated by monolithic, uncaring publishers.