What’s in a license?

People treat game licenses as things, that can be bought and sold, but I feel the truth is that a license is the people that originally created it.

I stumbled onto this realisation in a recent interview where I was being asked what my favourite series of games was. The first thing that jumped into my head was “Monkey Island of course!”, but then I paused, no, I couldn’t say that Monkey Island was my favourite series because I only really liked Monkey Island 1 & 2, which made me question why that was. I mean, the Monkey Island sequels had pirates, puzzles, beautiful settings, and all my favourite characters from the first two. But something was different. I thought maybe I didn’t like the graphical style, or the fact that all the characters were voiced, but that wasn’t it. It just felt different, it wasn’t quite as funny, or as good or as memorable as the first two. Was this just nostalgia? Did I feel different about these games because of my memory of them while playing as a kid?

Then it dawned on me, Monkey Island as a license is just that, a license. If you don’t have the original people that made Monkey Island what it is. i.e. Ron Gilbert, Tim Schafer, Dave Grossman, Michael Land etc, then all you have is a game that is not quite Monkey Island. It looks like Money Island, it sounds like Monkey Island, it tastes like Monkey Island, but buddy, it ain’t Monkey Island!

When I started development of Jolly Rover, sure I wanted to pay homage to Monkey Island, just as I wanted to pay homage to all the adventure games I loved and revitalise this style of game so they could continue being made. But I never wanted Jolly Rover to BE Monkey Island, it could never be Monkey Island, because as I’ve said, Monkey Island IS the team that made it in the first place, and unless you somehow manage to get them all back together, you’ll never get a proper sequel, no matter what it’s called.

Recently there was this big kerfuffle between Activision and the guys from Infinity Ward. To summarise, Activision made more money of the latest Call of Duty than any other game, ever, and was supposed to pay Infinity Ward a ton of well deserved royalties for making an awesome game, but instead said “Here’s half what we promised you. Get back to work!”, and to top it off they fired the lead members on some conspiracy charge. This was seen as Activision throwing their weight around saying “So, what you gunna do?”, the result being the creative forces behind Infinity Ward starting up their own company (Respawn Entertainment) and having quite a few of their fellow workers follow them. So now Activision have the Call of Duty license, but what do they have really? Without the guys that built the license and made it great, all they have is the name and not much else. When the new Call of Duty comes out, are people going to be picking it up, and trying to put their finger on why it doesn’t feel quite the same as the last one?

What I’m getting at here is that you’re better off following the people that make games rather than the game itself, look at the movie and literary world, what is Harry Potter without J. K. Rowling, or Lord of the Rings without Tolkien? What about Wallace and Gromit without Nick Park? Could Penny Arcade be the same if Mike and Jerry weren’t writing it? I don’t need to answer this. But why do we think that games are any different from any of these works? Games are about the creative vision of people, and the magical team dynamic of a team; to think you can take the people away and still have the same product is wishful thinking.

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On purpose

I’ve just had an epiphany, no small thing. It pertains to what I see as my direction in life.

For a long time, all through school at least, I had no direction, I thought I did, I thought I wanted to be a pilot, but really, that was just something I came up with because you had to do something when you finished school. As circumstance would have it, my eye sight was poor and I needed glasses, so the air force wouldn’t accept me into their training program, and pilot training was much to expensive for my family to consider.

I was a loose end for much of my teenage life, trudging through years of school with no motivation to do well, for the sake of doing well. Each step towards school, with my bag full of books, just felt so pointless. The only thing I was ever good at was working with computers, and the only reason I was good at that was because I loved games, which I suppose contributed to my poor eyesight.

It never occurred to me that you could do something you could enjoy for a living, it just didn’t, you finish school, get a job and make money, hopefully a lot of money, because then you can live well, go on holidays, buy a nice house and car. That’s life.

This perceived view of life made me pay attention in my final years of school, the only ones that would ‘count’ in my opinion, not so much out of joy, but out of fear that I wouldn’t do well in life. This particular motivation allowed me to get a good enough score to go to uni to learn more about computers and, I supposed, eventually get a job working with them that would pay better than the average wage.

Mid way through uni, I think it was one of my first software engineering projects, I made a game in a small team. It was a text-based dungeon crawler where we had to generate a series of connected cubes and have a player navigate through them and achieve a series of quests. We came up with funny descriptions for all the rooms and humorous puzzles and situations. It was awesome!

This switched a light on for me. Could people do this for a living? They had to right? Otherwise where would the games come from? But aren’t all the games made in the US? It was then I sought and found a small games industry in Australia, it had never really done anything big, but it was there, and people were getting paid to make games.

I eventually made it into the games industry, first as a tester, then as a programmer, which is another story, and while it was good, and I made friends with some of the most interesting people I’d ever met, I never really found the same thrill as that first text-based dungeon crawler, though it was pretty cool seeing my name in the credits of games actually on shelves.

Was I happy doing this? Sort of. Certainly happier than I’d been in any other of the numerous jobs I’d had since I was legally able to work. But I never felt like implementing other people’s ideas was that exciting, I wanted to be the one creating the ideas, or at least putting in my two cents. I suppose that’s not entirely fair on the designers I was working with, what I really wanted was to be making different games entirely; point and click adventures in fact. Which is what lead me ultimately to start Brawsome.

I’ve been doing a lot of interviews recently for Jolly Rover, and in doing so I’ve been asked questions that have been putting my life in perspective. Throughout my life as I look back on it, I’ve always had idols, people I look up to and want to be like. One thing I’ve just realised is that my idols fall into two categories, comedians and game designers, and ultimately, comedic game designers.

Of course this pins at the top of my idol tree, the three talented individuals that crafted the first Monkey Island games, as well as those responsible for Space Quest, Quest for Glory and Leisure Suit Larry, Portal and to a slightly lesser extent the talented chaps at Homestarrunner. The work of the comedians Billy Connolly and Eddie Murphy played a large part in my childhood, quite against the wishes of my parents. Recent, though not so recent, years have seen comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Jimeoin and Ross Noble join the ranks of those I respect and admire.

Which leads to my epiphany. After releasing Jolly Rover, and looking back on the reviews, the thing I realise I wanted people to enjoy most on was the writing, which I hoped would make people laugh. I recently read an article on Gamasutra (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4198/no_laughing_matter_making_humor_.php) about making humour work in games. My particular take away from this was the lack of humour in recent games, and the difficulty of successfully pulling off humour in games.

All of this information must have bumped together in my head when I was making a cup of tea, and having one of those brief moments when I’m not thinking about anything in particular, because suddenly, as clear as day, I understood that my direction, my purpose, is to explore comedy in games, with particular focus on writing.

Not the most noble of causes I’ll admit, but for the first time I feel my direction has never been clearer. I feel like Gaius juggling wooden fruit before DeSilver and the Voodoo priest.

This might not seem like a big deal, but having a clear focus is a potentially life changing experience. What I read, watch, play and listen to, who I hang out with, the people I attract, what conferences I go to and sessions I decide take, which companies I approach, and what roles I apply for, what subtle things I notice about the world, the ideas I develop are all influenced by the core focus of exploring comedy in games.

Now, the next thing to work out is how I can get paid for this…

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Film Victoria – Digitial Media Prototyping final milestone feedback

I heard somewhere that there’s nothing scarier to a writer than a blank page. I feel the same way about programming.

I was trying to think of something to fill my first proper blog entry when I remembered a time recently when I wanted a place to write more than a 160 character tweet or news update. This was when I was writing the final feedback to Film Victoria after completing the final Jolly Rover milestone. So without further ado, here is the verbatim feedback I wrote to Film Victoria on my final Jolly Rover milestone submission.

“I’ve found working with Film Victoria to be a great experience! When compared to working for publishers. Being able to develop a game prototype under such favourable financial conditions is almost too good to be true. This kind of positive attitude towards supporting the local game development industry should be encouraged so that we may become world leaders not just in game technology, but award winning IP.

The main gripe people have with Film Victoria is the perceived barrier to entry, due to the fact that you need to have a company set up, an experienced team ready to go, some of your own financial backing, and the amount of documentation you need to provide. What most indie and start up developers don’t realise though, is that if you were to attempt this kind of deal with a publisher or private investor you would have to provide at least this much or more. So going through Film Victoria is still the best way to get your own game made on good terms.

I do believe though, that the Film Victoria funding is set up to reward those with business and marketing skills, which are no-doubt necessary to make a game a success, but possibly Film Victoria is missing out on opportunities to fund teams that have revolutionary ideas for games, but not the business or marketing skills to get a grant. To address this issue, it would be good if Film Victoria had funding and infrastructure internally to provide the kind of business and marketing support that indie developers need to get their first game out the door. Someone to look at the team, their ideas and their capability, and not just the paperwork. Barring that, possibly Film Victoria could help set up partnerships with entrepreneurs and business minded people and indie developers. I believe a strong commitment to helping indie developers with marketing and business on the Film Victoria side will increase the chances of success and innovative ideas being produced in Victoria.

As a final addendum to what I’ve said in the paragraph above, I’ve been dealing with Brad Giblin from Film Victoria from before I submitted my initial application and he has provided great support, feedback and advice through the entire process, so I am not saying Film Victoria does not provide these things, but with the appropriate resources could go a step further to being involved directly in the application process and supporting the project with marketing and business support.”

There are a couple of sentences I’d like to re-word above, but as I promised – verbatim!

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This is Brawsome

For those that have found this before I’ve had a chance to write anything worthwhile. Yes this is the official Brawsome Blog! Creator of Jolly Rover and all things Brawsome.

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