Let games run free

They're worth more than profit

Feb 23, 2020

Imagine if literature was under a century old and 95% copywriting. That is, almost all the reading material we had available to us was post-WWII slogans and print ads. Novels, poems, essays, memoirs—all niche and rare, and unknown even from as recently as the 1920s. Occasionally you might read a genuinely funny ad, or a moving one that brings a tear or two; daffodils can blossom even in concrete. But overall the pressures of copywriting—to sell a product, first and last—make achieving such effects a secondary goal. This would be a time of fantastic opportunity, as nearly every great and even mediocre work of literature would be yet unplucked from the ether. But also a miserable time, if you imagine what sort of culture would coalesce in the midst of a medium like that. I think we don't need to stretch our minds too much to picture such a thing—we have it right now in games.

Games are mired in commercialism from conference rooms to hobbiest boards. It's not universally true, but it's so overwhelmingly true that finding scenes which are largely free of this mentality is a thrill. Talks are given at GDC with taglines like "Over a billion dollars can't be wrong". A popular game design textbook has a whole chapter called "The designer and client want the game to make a profit". Sincere, strongly-felt blog posts about this very topic still have a hard time setting their sights above "don't quit your day job". Even a beleaguered post about a lack of recognition on the RPG Maker forums rapidly turns to talk such as "The most important part of gamedev is truly the marketing and advertising part" and dissection of the recent market dynamics of Steam. Is it any wonder that the front page of Gamejolt has many thrice-recycled iterations on yesterday's commercial games?

Money talk

Maybe it's the curse of a medium that grew up in the era of Alan Greenspan, the dot-com bubble, the CEO of an S&P 500 oil company being elected vice president…I understand why even the most dabbling of artists in such a medium would struggle not to measure themselves against the same yardsticks. If you want to make a bunch of cash, though, I think there are far more effective ways of doing it; "make a game" is up there with "start a rock band" for reliability on that front. But we talk to each other in the language of AAA publishers and MBA grads—is that really the most valuable way we have to talk about our art form? Sometimes I feel like the 2010s impulse to shout so loudly for games to be recognized as art was just to compensate for embarrassment at failing to actually handle them that way.

We write "movie review"-type articles for a general audience designed to help them spend their cash effectively, and a strange mix of business advice and hand-wringing polemics for ourselves. It's so rare that I read an essay or watch a talk about games that's just trying to unravel how existing games work in the service of making new and interesting ones, or describing uncharted territories that we could explore simply because they might yield something cool. Bruno Latour, in his touching 2004 science studies article "Why has critique run out of steam?", advocates for a criticality inspired by the nuclear kind, taking in one idea and generating many. Can we find it in ourselves to write critically this way about games—in a way that might lead to many new, interesting games?

What's the value of a free game?

I've heard it expressed, most recently here but all over from time to time, that games need to have a price on them in order for people to notice or care about them. Similarly, I've heard that game makers ought to charge for their games to demonstrate to the world that they have confidence in their work. I'd like to respectfully disagree with all this.

For one, free games can attract a passionate following and high-profile attention. Space Funeral has a fan community so enthusiastic that it's been translated into 4 other languages and spawned something like fifteen fangames. Crypt Worlds has been downloaded over a hundred thousand times and made the front page of PC Gamer when the sequel was announced. Dwarf Fortress is in collection at the MoMA, has been covered in the New York Times, and has made Tarn Adams a regular feature at interactive storytelling and generative design conferences, not to mention that the game's community has financially supported the brothers who make it for many years now. I don't think any art should be made just for the sake of recognition—the only motivation that's reliably rewarding is making the art of your dizziest dreams into something real—but making your game free does not doom it to obscurity.

On another note, if you think free games don't get as much attention as you would like, why not do something about that? Write about them, talk about them, make them—the power is in your hands.

Lastly, to me, making a game available for free shows that you want it to be as easy as possible for people to access, especially the people who might be most desperately in need of some good art to keep them going in life. I think that's a strong statement about the potential you see in your work to benefit others. After all, there's no way around it: charging for a game presents a barrier to access that some will not be able to cross. My partner and I live below the poverty line, and it's rare that either of us feels comfortable spending even $5 on a piece of media no matter how much we might want to, because $5 can be the difference between us being able to get something to eat and not at the end of the month when things get really lean. Almost all the media we take in year-round are works we can access for free. Please remember us, and everyone out there like us, when you're deciding how much to charge for your next game.

But I need to make a living!

Sure, of course. It would be silly for me to claim otherwise at the point that I make my living from games myself. If the day comes when we don't need to bring in cash to feed and clothe ourselves and our dependents I'll be overjoyed, but I know we're not there yet. I just don't think we should be optimizing our games for profitability, equating profitability with quality, or assuming that the only way to make a living from games is to force people to pay money for them. Let's leave all that to the corporate studios. We're lucky enough to be able to aim for the games of our deepest desires.

I think it's important to remember that art has a larger role in human life than commodities do. Art has filled a kaleidoscopic array of cultural needs across human time and space, even in places where the concept of commodity or even money in any sense has had no place. It can make life worth living all by itself; I would have died in my teens if it wasn't for the role art plays in my life.

Given this, I think it matters more than any one person or organization's material gain. What's more, it can last long after those created it are dead, continuing to help people find a home in the psychic landscape even centuries into the future. Material wealth is a base and trifling thing in comparison to this, I think. Naturally we have physical needs we must attend to and people we must care for, and we have to be mindful of that. At the same time, I think taking up the practice of art means you should place the quality of your art first in the parts of your life where you create it, whether that's full-time or a few hours a month. The people who might benefit from your work deserve this from you. What's more, it will make your art practice a thrilling joy in the main, instead of being dominated by the tense and dreary world of business strategy. And if you find yourself in a community of such artists, this kind of focus can produce a culture of sharing works, concepts, techniques, and theory, instead of a culture of wary competition and efforts to reproduce whatever's popular. I dream of this being the norm in game circles someday, and I think this is a dream we can make real together simply by how we talk to each other.

Unfettered scenes

In the margins of Mario

The Mario romhacking scene is an interesting place, because it's largely cut off from even the promise of commercialism by tromping around the boundaries of a fiercely-guarded corporate franchise. This frees up the participants to base their conversation around formalisms that actually reflect the intricacies of environment design and technical work for their chosen games, since they don't have to worry about whether or not their taxonomy is "market-friendly".

Consider, for example, the Contests and Events section of the SMW Central Glossary page. The different event categories are designed to explore different aspects of the design space—what kinds of music and graphics are used, the manner in which the game is challenging, whether it's meant to be played by a human or a computer program, etc. You could look at this as a research program for investigating the expressive possibilities of Mario romhacks; if you're interested in what can be done with an SMW overworld, how hacks come out when made with minimal tooling, or the special qualities of wintery Mario environments, these folks have you covered. The results of this kind of research can be extended to game-making even well outside of the Mario zone, and commercial environments are hardly capable of producing it, especially in ways the public can make use of.

This sensitivity to the formal aesthetic possibilities that hacking these games presents carries over into discussion of individual hacks as well. Difficulty is a major categorization tool: some hacks try for being as hard as possible while still being fair, others go for a difficulty curve on par with the base game, yet others are meant to be short, easy, and funny, and so on. There are multiple categories just for hacks designed around TASing. There are even hacks presenting what the author feels are their own mistaken approaches to a category. These difficulty categories have arisen organically based on what people feel are the different ways that hacks can be fun or interesting in level design terms, and each hack presents an implicit argument about what can work to make a game in its category pleasant. This is in stark contrast to commercial spaces, where genres are often delineated based on whatever has sold well in the past, and many games simply repeat past successes rather than take a risk on a new idea that might not sell.

Another part of the terrain that gets heavy traversal is the "vanilla vs. custom" axis. This is partially a question of whether the hack uses the original graphics and music from the game in question or adds its own. However, it's also a question of ethos: a very vanilla hack promises gameplay in the spirit of the original, whereas a hack on the other end of the spectrum radically changes the base game's look and feel. Some hacks are even focused on breaking the base game in some sort of fun way and aren't intended to be conventionally playable. This also seems like a very organic set of distinctions to me, mapping easily onto what sort of hacks you may or may not be in the mood for at any given time.

Something else that stands out to me about this scene is how open people are with information and raw materials. SMW Central has big repositories of music and graphics available for the community's use. Programmers who have the know-how to make romhacking tools share them to make things easier for everyone. And people are eager to talk about the nitty-gritty technical information required to make hacks—everything from high-level beginner's guides for simple tools all the way to intricate explorations of the assembly languages used to program the SNES and n64. In contrast, commercial games are usually distributed as closed binaries and little-to-no useful explanation is provided as to how the game in question was made, let alone the tools or media used in the game's production. The Mario romhackers are trying to make things as easy as they can for new participants despite the technical challenges they face.

I think the dynamics of this scene dramatically highlights what I was getting at at the beginning of this essay—you can really see how intensely the pressures of commercialism hold back the game spaces where it holds sway. This community has managed to spin a variety of entire genres, a hefty set of development tools and techniques, and a complex subcultural history out of mainly just two platformers. The popular commercial games on Gamejolt and itch.io are way more homogeneous in feel and atmosphere than a cross-category survey of hacks from this scene. Just think of how many genres and schools of thought have been kept from us by the constraints of being profit-minded—it makes you feel like games have just begun!

Glorious indeed

The Glorious Trainwrecks community makes an interesting point of comparison with the Mario romhacking community, I think. In contrast to the heady, often highly technical atmosphere that romhacking lends itself to, Glorious Trainwrecks is all about "throwing a bunch of random crap into your game and keeping whatever sticks"—as they say, "It doesn't matter if you've got talent, so long as you've got gusto." Their laser-focus on development processes with the lowest amount of ceremony and fuss possible has freed them up to be thrillingly experimental on aesthetic grounds.

One thing that stands out to me about GW is their love of "events". I think they're somewhat like the SMW Central contests in scope: focused on making games with a certain tool, within a certain timespan, or utilizing a certain process. Although they're not framed this way, I think these events represent a valuable form of research: the work made in these events provides a useful survey of what's possible in their domain as well as a nice set of examples to work from. The freewheeling approach to sound and graphics also means that many hitherto-uncharted aesthetic possibilities for games in a certain context are revealed. I wish this kind of practice was taken up more widely in the game dev world—like, game jams intended to explore an underutilized way of working or kind of game, as a way to quickly explore a set of possibilities that hasn't been widely traversed. We really need this kind of research right now to break us out of the rut of platformers, traditional RPGs, roguelikes, point-n-click adventure games—all genres that had their heyday in the '80s and '90s. And it's a fun kind of research to do!

The ways of working prioritized in this community stand in fierce opposition to what's normal in commercial spaces, where polish, expertise, specialization, all-original graphics, music, and writing, and months-or-years-long development times are emphasized. All of these tendencies make it hard to quickly survey the possibilities in a certain space—they demand huge amounts of time and effort for every game made and require lots of work from potential participants just to acquire the skills needed before jumping in. There's certainly a place for labor-intensive art in any medium—some possibilities just require it—but an obsessive focus on it artificially leaves out all the potentially amazing art that can be made quickly. It also discourages work on tools for making such games.

Coder's Cove

One zone I think could use a little more love is the free games available in the software repositories of Linux distros, such as Debian for example. Many of the games are close-to-ports of classic games to the Linux platform; there's not too many highly inventive games available. The mechanics can be quite sophisticated, with flight simulators, arena shooters, and real-time strategy games on display, but tend to hew very closely to one commercial example or another. The art is sincere, but also hews rather close to established styles. I think this is the result of a zone where most of the participants are programmers; from a pure coding perspective, remaking an existing game is a much more attractive challenge than trying to come up with a totally new game from scratch, since that involves a lot of work that has little to do with programming. I think the remarkable coding skills on display in this space, though, represent something valuable that much of the rest of the free game world is overlooking.

It's interesting to me to compare the work in this space to that of Glorious Trainwrecks, because they're almost a perfect inverse of each other. If there's one thing Glorious Trainwrecks has tended to avoid, it's programmeriness; games made there tend to have very simple and off-the-shelf mechanics, due to the preference for no-fuss and rapid processes and engines that de-emphasize coding. That does mean that it's kind of hard to draw inspiration from Glorious Trainwrecks if you want to make a game with complex mechanics (like the aforementioned Dwarf Fortress), intensive procedural generation (like farbrausch's .kkrieger), etc.

In a lot of ways, I wish these two groups could get together somehow. Beautiful things can happen when coders and artists cross-pollinate, or when game makers have skills from both camps—consider Alien Soldier, which was designed, coded, drawn, and animated largely by one person, or Deus Ex, which has a remarkably game-sensitive script written primarily by someone with a programming-heavy math degree from MIT. A lot of the experimental, "artsy" game spaces and individual artists I know of don't seem too interested in ideas that require lots of technical expertise, which gives me the feeling that a lot of the most promising areas of game space have been left unexplored. Mechanics, procedural generation techniques, and engines and development tools are all places that seem under-researched to me.

I hope that more traditional artists (including writers and composers) move into game spaces where programmers predominate and vice versa. I also hope that more programmers take time to share with artists how technical work can be playful and satisfying instead of scary and annoying, and for artists to take time to share with programmers how to feel confident thinking outside the box when doing aesthetic work. These two ways of thinking are not as different as they appear on their face—they both involve technique, craft, and inventive problem-solving, and I think people can even improve their abilities at one by practicing the other. Who knows what wonderful things we'll find if we really go for this?

Oh the places

One thing I think we could use more of is real community. I don't know about you, but I've felt like being a game person has been kind of lonely in recent years. Places like SMW Central and Glorious Trainwrecks derive their energy from having an enthusiastically collaborative and sharing-focused culture, and it leads to remarkably unique games. There could be thousands of spaces like this, each with their own ideas and ways of working! We would have so much more variety in available games, much happier developers, and less of a stark division between creators and audience. A lot of the existing community for "serious artists" in the game world consists of things like professional conferences and out-in-public social networking apps, and the "workiness" of these kinds of spaces makes it hard for people to let their hair down, speak freely, experiment, and just be plain unvarnished humans instead of a professionally-acceptable stock character. Not that these spaces are valueless; I just think we need more environments where we can feel cozy and at-ease with each other as artists.

I also think it would be tremendous if it became normal to share the source code for games, give explanations of how they were made, and make things like modding and level editing easy for players to access. Games are really complicated to make compared to a lot of more traditional media, and the opaqueness and walled-garden packaging of most of them are deterrents to anyone who'd like to make their own. This holds back the art form—who knows how many people with amazing ideas get discouraged and stop because they can't figure out how to do what they want? My earliest game-making experiences were editing the sound, text, and graphics of Macintosh shareware games with ResEdit, and many of the game I modded this way were made by hobbyists. Today it seems like kids focus more on big corporate games that foreground creativity, like Minecraft or Roblox; those games may be cool, but there's not as many direct routes in the world now to go from modding small games to making your own. That's something we could change, and I think it's mainly an attachment to commercialism that prompts us to keep our games' innards hidden.

Also, since it's possible to make a living from games without charging for them traditionally, I think we should meditate hard over all the possible ways to do that. Like any kind of digital media, they're infinitely reproducible, so putting them behind a paywall relies on artificial and inevitably ephemeral scarcity—and their reproducibility and easy redistributability is one of their most wonderful strengths, allowing a single piece of digital media to rapidly benefit people all over the world. Instead of holding our work back from this, I think we should find ways to survive and thrive from it—and I think building tighter-knit, more genuine communities around our work is probably key to doing that, because communities can care for their members.

Lastly, as writers about games, let's try to focus more on writing that gestures towards new possibilities and a deeper artistic understanding of existing work—the kind that could inspire someone reading it to go out and make something fresh. We do a good job of criticizing all the cultural and political problems of the current game space, but an artist can't survive on that alone. If we really want to gesture towards a better game space, we can nurture and develop that space in our writing. Let's be sensitive to new insights, new forms of analysis, new techniques, new games—new worlds.


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