Under the hood of small games

By Emilie Reed

Rex Crowle, Knights and Bikes

The history of game development in the UK owes a lot to the accessibility of personal computers like the ZX Spectrum in the early 1980s, and the networks of magazine advertisements and mail order forms bedroom coders developed for distributing their games to a nationwide audience. In this case, the tools available to aspiring game makers, such as the limits and behaviours of the ZX Spectrum, the cassette tapes which the ZX Spectrum read, as well as the postal system and home computing magazines of the day, played a large part in determining the style and types of games that made up a distinctly British games scene.

Tools have always played a large and materially traceable part in shaping culture. For a more historical example, Monet never could have done his series of Rouen Chapel studies that have become emblematic of the Impressionist style, without industrialized production of portable easels and pre-mixed tubes of paint. Or recently, think about how the technical limitations and distribution networks set by Vine, a looping video sharing app that was discontinued despite a surge in popularity, caused a flood of new memes and changed our relationship to video on social media.

As I interviewed several Scottish-based game developers for this project, I was especially interested in what tools they were using, and how it shaped their approach. While it may seem like, in the era of controlling proprietary storefronts like the Apple App Store and Valve’s Steam, independent developers may be facing a different set of hurdles, there are also many encouraging alternatives and new trends.

Jack King-Spooner primarily uses visual drag-and-drop interfaces for creating games. Examples of this type of software include GameMaker and RPGMaker. GameMaker Studio is currently produced by YoYo Games, based in Dundee, Scotland, and is one of many editors that offer an accessible way to experiment with putting images, sounds and object behaviours together without requiring programming knowledge. These visual tools offer a straightforward way for King-Spooner, who also works with music, sculpture and painting, to experiment with how he can combine his musical compositions, sculpted characters and constructed dioramas into a digital, interactive format. While his background is primarily in art and music, these kind of tools allow non-programmers to quickly begin making games in an editor. The resulting games can be made available for download or play in a web browser, and King-Spooner distributes his games via Steam, as well as indie storefront Itch.io, where developers get a larger portion of the profits and can better control how their games are presented.

Natalie Clayton worked toward expressing herself through games by first working in the modding scenes surrounding games like Half Life. Instead of the typical chaotic arenas and labyrinths of mainstream first person shooters, Clayton uses the potential of space and atmosphere offered by video games to create experiences that can be emotionally evocative and solitary, sprinkled with ambiguous narrative details. While she mostly uses Unity for her 3D projects, setting it up in a way that makes it work most like Hammer Editor, the popular modding tool she is familiar with, Clayton also seeks out more experimental tools to work with, such as Stephen Lavelle’s Flickgame or Adam LeDoux’s Bitsy. Both are free, web-based tools that can be used to intuitively “draw” the settings or objects in a game and export the game as an HTML5 page. Similarly, Clayton doesn’t charge for her own games, though they are available to download for free on an itch.io page, instead funding her work through freelance writing and support of her Patreon page.

However, some developers still prefer a more coding-heavy process. Niall Moody, a lecturer in sound design at the University of Abertay who also makes games that provoke playfulness and creativity through surprising outcomes, programs most of his work in C++, a well-known general use language. He observes that this process is familiar to him from designing sound plug-ins, and the familiarity gives him better control over how the sounds and imagery that make up his generative work behave. This is a process that has to be fine-tuned to work in a way that piques the players’ interest and promotes collaboration, rather than frustration. His familiarity with the code also means that specific behaviours or sounds can be predictably transferred between projects. Moody’s work can also be found on an itch.io page, but he’s found that exhibiting his work at events, such as Edinburgh-based Games Are For Everyone nights are an important way to get the word out about his projects, as well as observe how people interact with them directly, which can be totally different than what he anticipates.

While UK game makers are using a variety of tools, some also make tools. Like Mark Wonnacott’s Flatpack or George Buckenham’s Cheap Bots Done Quick, creating these tools can be an opportunity to stretch your own programming skills, serve a community, and see if you can master the delicate art of designing something that inspires people to be creative on their own. As the varied outputs of these developers demonstrate, having access to a wide variety of tools is just as much a part of the process of making games and playful media as using the chosen tool.

The availability of a variety of unconventional, web-based, and visual tools for making games has again changed not only who is making games across the UK, but also the type of games being made. These small-scale creators can work independently, as freelance work, a hobby, or an arts practice, to make games outside the typical targets set for AAA games.

As the games industry has developed over the past 30 years, the standard of mainstream video games is increasingly out of reach of newer generations of “bedroom coders.” Aside from the budget and technological resources that go into more realistic graphics and special touches like orchestral soundtracks and famous voice actors, mainstream games also have a particular relationship to the player’s time and expectations. Generally, players expect to spend tens or even hundreds of hours with a video game, and for it to satisfy their itch for challenging and complex action.

Short games tend to be more conscious of how they are using players’ time, or their place in the player’s lives. Of course, some mainstream games do this as well. The Animal Crossing series generally only asks for a bit of effort every day over time, becoming a fun routine as you watch your town grow and change. Small games can take the form of puzzles or toys to pick up and fiddle with while you’re on the bus, narrative vignettes, or even purposely ridiculous, silly and satirical games to make you laugh.

Small games won’t satisfy people looking for hours of everything video games have on offer. But they do appeal to different audiences who don’t set aside as much time to play games, or simply dislike that they can take so long and gate exploration and story behind challenges like grinding or boss fights. While it may seem counter-intuitive to the glorification of next gen potential, that so often colours how video games and technology in general have been discussed, small games are offering appealing alternatives to people who think video games “aren’t for them.”

Small games can offer experiences that are surprising, funny, intimate and expressive within their tiny scale. Here are three you can open in a new tab and play right now:

Yearly, by Vaida Plankyte

Karambola, by Agata Nawrot

Cat’s Out of the Bag! by Claire Morley

But small games don’t just offer an alternative way to play games, they offer an alternative way to work for creators. A growing movement for short games, where they are expected and accepted by players, encourages people to try using current game making tools in new ways. Vaida Plankyte has discussed her process with making small games, describing them as a way to communicate. Because a short game is less of a time commitment than a more involved or longer project, the medium becomes responsive. Now games can be your diary, a letter, or even the online equivalent of protest signs.

While the internet and the availability of a game making tool for just about any approach has led to an explosion of creativity, and a variety of browser-based, tiny free games to play being released almost every day, this phenomenon is not without precursors. The online community Glorious Trainwrecks has been around organising two hour game jams and celebrating short, crazy, unpolished games for over ten years. In the early 00s, Macromedia Flash was the tool of choice for sharing games quickly online. And before that, shareware demos, game mods, and themed chat rooms were just some of the ways people shared the fruits of their digital creativity online. Before computer networks were widely used, meet-ups, mail-order games, and pages of raw computer code printed in magazines had to do.

A lot of these elements of early digital creativity are forgotten or misunderstood, because how these games were created and distributed were so different from how established studios develop and distribute video games. Flash has been discontinued, and eventually won’t work with modern browsers, retro magnetic media will deteriorate soon, if it hasn’t already, and archivists are working to find remaining copies of what was seen as a transient medium in its time, computing magazines. Fostering a healthy community and appreciation for small games in the present will help to revive interest in the past practices which inspired them, and hopefully, both the discussion surrounding these video games and playable copies can be better preserved for future research and reflection.

A challenge facing many of the developers who make smaller games that I interviewed is that their work is difficult to fund. For many, it remains a hobby that can only take up the time outside working at another job, which may be video game related or not. Or, they can balance their game making with things like freelance commissions, or fundraising through platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon. Because the games are short, and can be run in a web browser, it is also hard for creators to charge for them, usually just receiving an occasional optional “tip.” Even the games that are slightly longer, more like 2–3 hours, for example, and require a download, are pressured to be priced proportionally less than longer mainstream titles.

Additionally, funding models, from both the arts and video games, are often not quite a perfect fit. While New Media art forms have an increasing presence across the UK and Scotland (NEoN, a festival specifically for New Media art is held annually in Dundee, for example), institutions broadly can be less informed on how to commission and display digital work that doesn’t produce a single physical object. Despite the long history of individuals working in video games with experimental, artistic and expressive goals, they also still carry an association with purely commercial products. Video game industry funding often relies on a pitch, which will make an argument based on industry trends, to demonstrate that the planned game will be successful, popular, and profitable. This doesn’t suit the distribution channels or the more immediate and personal design process of smaller games.

Alternative ways of supporting this work is necessary for it to become a viable artistic practice and further enliven the long-innovative British game scene. Groups like the Biome Collective in Dundee, and events like Now Play This at Somerset House in London provide community and opportunities for small games to be developed and shown to the general public, but many small game makers still desire more security, time to work, and ways to exhibit their games publicly. This isn’t an unrealistic dream, but it does require existing funding organisations to be aware of the process behind making these small games, and the passion they inspire in those who play and share them. Adjusting their criteria, or creating new approaches to funding creators will create more opportunities for those creators currently struggling to find support for their practice.

When I think about how much many small game creators, not just in the UK, but everywhere, have already done for free, a future where this is a possibility excites me. Limited by their need to balance creation with paying work and personal responsibilities, many people have already made funny, moving and inspiring small games, and tools that have allowed further communities of game makers to grow around them. These tools, and their distribution over the internet have removed many of the limitations that made early British bedroom coding a phenomenon local to the UK. What will happen when we remove even more of the limits?