The Queasy life of independent games

July 25, 2011 Comments off

While down at Sony’s PlayStation holiday preview event in New York last week, I came across a pleasant surprise. One of the launch titles for the upcoming PlayStation Vita, the portable game system that will succeed the PlayStation Portable by the end of this year, is being developed by a Queasy Games, a tiny Toronto startup.

Queasy is the brainchild of Jonathan Mak, a 28-year-old game designer who studied computer science at the University of Toronto. Mak saw his first success a few years ago with Everyday Shooter, which was picked up and offered by Sony as a downloadable game over the PlayStation Network. That led to the upcoming Vita release Sound Shapes, an intriguing idea that marries gaming with music creation.

I wrote about some of the better Vita games last week and also had a chat with Mak about the world of independent games. Here’s an edited version of that conversation:

A screen grab from Everyday Shooter

How did you get into games?

My parents started a computer business in the eighties so we always had a computer lying around and my older brothers would be playing video games. Somewhere around grade 7 or 8 I met a friend who taught me how to make programs, how to code. That’s when I started making video games. Back then it was a lot harder to make games because you had to do all this weird computer hackery just to draw a pixel.

I was trying to think of how to break in [to the business], but there was no indie scene or at least I wasn’t aware of it. All I knew about was whatever was in PC Gamer. Someone in the industry told me to go to university, so I did. I don’t know how helpful that was but I did meet a fellow game developer there, they’re now Metanet [creators of the popular game N+]. They were a year or two ahead of me and they showed me what was the indie scene back then. They started working on N and I thought, hey, maybe I could make a game on my own instead of working for some gigantic company.

When I graduated I took a year off to try to make a game that I could sell and break in [with], but that [Gate 88] didn’t do very well at all. From there, I got a job. [Gate 88] had a chat program built in and someone offered me a job in that chat program. I turned it down but then I ran out of money, so I took the job. I did that for a couple of years and during that time I worked on Everyday Shooter, which was my first commercial game and the first that actually came out and made money. After that, I hooked up with Shaw-Han Liem, a musician from Toronto, and we started collaborating on a project. It was very simple, we were working on a visualizer and started dabbling with some game prototypes. We did like nine prototypes and then we hit upon an idea that would become Sound Shapes. Since then we’ve hired some people to help us out.

When did you form Queasy?

Queasy was the name I would release games under when I was a kid, in grade 7 and 8. When I put out Everyday Shooter I just called the company Queasy Games. You have to be incorporated to receive the money. We have seven or eight core people and then some people helping us out contract-wise.

Are you still in a basement or do you have an office?

We have an actual office, but we were in a basement until we had our first hire, which was a year and a half or two years ago.

How did you get hooked up with Sony for the Vita?

[Everyday Shooter] happened because I was showing that game at the [Independent Games Festival] and got nominated as a finalist. A bunch of Sony guys were there and I guess they liked it and offered to publish it. So with [Sound Shapes], since we’d already done business with Sony it made sense to go back to them to see what they thought. When we showed them, they flew us down [in 2009] and showed us the early prototype Vita hardware. They were like, “It’s a good fit, what do you think?” and we were like, “Okay.”

How has working on Sound Shapes been?

The design of it is so difficult to comes to terms with because of the tight integration with musical gameplay. If you change one little thing, like you make one thing move faster so that it’s more fun, that breaks the music. You do one thing to the music and that breaks the game. That’s been the hardest part, is figuring that out. It’s not a resource-intensive thing, it’s just that someone has to sit down and go through it.

What’s the biggest challenge you find as an indie game developer?

It may not be the answer you’re expecting, but it’s just about making a good game. Once you’ve made a good game, people want good games, publishers want good games, your audience wants good games. From a business point of view, it’s easy to market a good game. People will pay money for that. The hardest part is coming up with a good concept and executing on it. There’s a balance between the amount of time it takes to do that and the amount of money you have in the bank. I’ve gone through the process twice now of having no money to making a game. It’s about not giving in to tangential jobs just to pay for your project.

Sometimes you might make something that you think is really awesome but that the public just doesn’t get or isn’t ready for and then you have to make a decision of, “Oh I can take this path and dumb it down or be true to myself and figure out why nobody is getting it. Can I change it in a way that it’s accessible but doesn’t destroy the original vision of the game?” That’s something I hope as a game creator that I learn to do better and better because that would help to make the game better.

A screengrab from Sound Shapes

Why did you decide to stay independent rather than working for a big company?

It wasn’t like I was sitting there and thinking, “Okay, I could work for a triple-A game company or I can start my own business and make a game.” It was more like I have this idea for a game, so how do I make it? I guess by definition at the time, that was independent. I also thought that it’d be hard to get a job. After that first year where I made the game that didn’t do very well, I actually tried to get a job in a triple-A game company and they didn’t hire me, which I think was a good decision on everyone’s part. I don’t think I would have done well there. It’s so specialized and I have no desire to specialize.

You might get stuck doing some minor job as opposed to bringing your ideas to life?

Yes, exactly.

It seems like many good independent game companies eventually get bought up. Can they survive on their own or do they inevitably get acquired?

There are people who are in it just to make video games and there are people in it to start a business making video games. For me it’s never been about making money. The only reason Queasy Games is incorporated is because there’s a technical issue where if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t get money. From a business point of view I know tons of people who don’t get bought out, who stay small. It’s kind of surprising when you say that most small companies get bought up because I don’t know anyone who would want to get bought. The business entity exists for negotiating their next game and that’s it, it’s not to grow or for turning a profit. They’re secondary to making a great game. For me, if one day I burn all the cash and the capital is gone, I’m perfectly okay with finding a job and making my games on the side until the next game I make makes money. I wouldn’t go and work on a game that I have no interest in because life is too short to do something you don’t want to do.

In Canada, we do have a lot of grant programs and that really helps keep companies alive to make their games. It’s a very good buffer. There’s a couple granting agencies and there’s also arts grants, which I haven’t had much luck with because I don’t think games are generally recognized as art in the arts-granting community in Toronto and Canada.

Some people, like film critic Roger Ebert, have said video games aren’t art. How do you weigh in on that debate?

When I was a kid coming out of university I totally got into that debate, but it was very academic. Now, I don’t really care. Whether people think it’s art or not doesn’t concern me. For many years now, I’ve thought that you decide whether it’s art, it’s not for Ebert to decide. You look at a painting and that can mean nothing to you or something to you, or you walk down the street and you hear that wind rustling through the trees. That can have meaning for you. For some people, it’s just, “Oh, it’s breezy today.” People should just think for themselves. I’ve been able to read meanings into games and also not, depending on the game. Same for movies, novels. For me, it’s beyond that question now. When I think of that debate, it’s like looking at a photograph where I’m like 19 or 20 thinking about those things. It’s as absurd as asking a musician, “Why are you doing this? Is it art that you’re doing?” Maybe what I’m doing isn’t art to you, but who cares, it’s just what I do.

That said, what’s your favourite game?

My favourite game is probably Tetris. It’s a game I’ve been playing since I was like 8, and I’ve never stopped playing. When I started playing it, I actually didn’t like it, but then I saw my brother’s friend playing it and he was speed running it. I was like, “There’s this whole other side to this simple game that I didn’t see.” I started reading into it. I was going through some stuff when I was kid and I thought, “Oh, this game is like life. Sometimes you get really bad pieces and you just have to deal with it.” Then I started to think of it in terms of probability, which is when that poker craze happened - at least in Canada - where poker became a thing and people were talking about odds and stuff. I was like, “Oh yeah, sometimes you have to rearrange the play field so that odds are you’ll have a piece that you can use somewhere.” It’s something that has always grown with me and once in a while I’ll think of a new meme for it.

Categories: sony, video games

More Bieber, less CRTC

July 22, 2011 6 comments

It seems like you can’t have a discussion about Canadian music these days without Justin Bieber coming up. And rightfully so, I think.

A couple people brought up the Biebs after my post the other day, both in the comments section and in subsequent conversations on Twitter. Truth be told, I had a follow-up written about why Bieber is better than The Tragically Hip, but I suspect a number of people would try to firebomb my house if I published that. Instead, let’s go with this.

The reason why Bieber - the little dude with the annoying haircut from Stratford, Ontario, who is also one of the world’s biggest pop stars - is relevant to any discussion about modern Canadian music is because of how he became one of the world’s biggest pop stars. He didn’t do it by slogging his way around Canada and touring incessantly and by getting airplay thanks to CanCon rules. He did it the new-fashioned way: through YouTube videos.

If you’re not familiar with his story, here’s a nice summary. Basically, 12-year-old Bieber started posting videos of himself singing pop songs. When the videos started garnering lots of views, he got the attention of big-wig artists and music executives, and the rest is history.

It’s easy to hate on Bieber because of the haircut and because he sings vapid pop songs. But if you’ve never heard the kid sing, you really should. He’s got a good voice and, dare I say it, he’s almost soulful:

Not only is it good to see a local kid done good, it’s also encouraging to see that he did it without any help from the kindly old folks at the CRTC. It really makes the idea of the regulator getting its sticky fingers onto the likes of YouTube that much more repulsive, doesn’t it?

Ironically, Bieber may or may not be considered Canadian under CRTC CanCon rules, which brings back memories of the same crazy situation Bryan Adams had to deal with 20 years ago. The CBC had a great radio feature on the issue at the time, which I highly recommend checking out. As the cliche goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Categories: crtc, Google

Electronic discrimination in the skies

July 21, 2011 9 comments

If you’ve ever been on a plane, you’ve probably heard those announcements right before take-off and landing asking passengers to turn off all electronic devices. For kicks, I sometimes refuse to, just to hear what excuses flight staff come up with for why I should.

There’s the popular one, about how electronics with connection technologies - the likes of cellphones, laptops, iPads - can interfere with the plane’s navigational systems. If that were true, I don’t know why would-be terrorists would go through the trouble of smuggling in shoe bombs or explosives packed in liquid containers when all they would need to do to cause catastrophe is turn on their phone.

I looked into this a couple years back while I was at the National Post (alas, I can’t find the article online, otherwise I’d link to it) and found that the real reason cellphones can’t be used on planes is because, in the event that their signals are strong enough, they play havoc with networks on the ground. Because planes move so fast, phones can jump quickly from cell tower to cell tower, which can ultimately cause a big roaming mess. Cellphone carriers wouldn’t know how to bill their customers. That’s why the Federal Communications Commission bans use on planes, unless such connections run through special in-flight systems.

Nevertheless, the debate continues. ABC News had a recent report on a confidential airline industry report that questioned whether using phones on board really is safe but, as a former Air Force and commercial pilot put it, there really is no proof either way.

In any event, I’ve never actually tried to use a cellphone on a plane, and not because of the potential interference issue. Sitting next to someone on a bus while they chat away is annoying enough; having to do it on a plane would be intolerable. My mom raised me to have better manners than that.

But what happens when the particular gizmo you’re using doesn’t actually have any sort of wireless connection, or it’s turned off in airplane mode? Why, in that case, do the flight staff still want you to shut it down?

Such was the case Thursday night, when I was flying back in to Toronto from a PlayStation press event in New York. I was reading a book on my iPad when the flight attendant told me to turn it off. I ignored her and, when she returned and told me again, I asked her why. She whipped out another excuse I’ve heard before, which is that the device could fly out of my hands while landing and nail someone in the head.

True enough, but so could a book. Getting beaned with a hardcover copy of Sex, Bombs and Burgers hurts just as much (trust me, I tested it - and yes, that is a cheap plug).

Failing that, she tried another excuse - that the staff needed my full attention while landing in case of emergency. Again, fair enough - but, I asked, why weren’t the people reading books and magazines asked to put those away? Her answer made me chuckle: apparently, any flight attendant who didn’t ask passengers to stow their printed reading material was being negligent.

I finally put my iPad away, which made her happy, but then she did the unbelievable - she walked right by my friend, seated in the row ahead of me, and completely ignored the fact that he was reading a book. I asked if he had heard our exchange and he said, “Yup.” We shared a laugh.

But seriously - what’s with the double standard? This was far from an isolated incident. Airline staff always crack down on electronic devices, transmitting or not, but are fine with printed matter (including the airline’s own magazines stuffed into the seat pockets). The conspiracy-minded would say it’s because laptops, iPods and iPads are sucking away revenue from airlines’ pay-per-use entertainment systems, but I don’t believe it’s that simple.

That said, I can’t explain it as anything other than electronic discrimination. When will our gadgets finally get equal treatment? Can’t we all just get along?

Categories: ipad, mobile

Radio is sinkin’ man and I don’t want to swim

July 20, 2011 19 comments

Last month, I broke down and bought a car stereo to replace the factory model that came with my 2003 Toyota Corolla. Given that the car is eight years old, the stereo didn’t yet have the necessary inputs to properly connect an iPod. I’d therefore been relying on one of those crappy FM transmitters that plug into the iPod, which not only result in crackly sound, but you also have to continually adjust the reception because of shifting FM stations in different towns and cities.

I shelled out for the new stereo, a simple $99 model from Pioneer, simply because I can’t take Canadian radio anymore. On the one hand, there are all the ads - since the CRTC allows radio stations to air as many as they want, the amount has been climbing and climbing. That’s good news for radio revenues, which are also climbing and climbing, but bad news for your sanity while driving.

On the other hand, there are the CRTC’s Canadian content requirements. At least 35% of popular music radio stations’ content must be Canadian each week, with a further 35% requirement for Monday to Friday between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm. If you like rock music like I do, that means you pretty much get The Tragically Hip every hour, on the hour. And let’s just say that’s one band I can’t stand. I would actually rather listen to my car explode than have to hear New Orleans is Sinking one more time.

Since I got the new stereo, my iPod has been on non-stop. I’ve ventured back to radio once or twice just to hear what was up, but got disgusted and switched back quickly.

Evidently, I’m not alone. Radio listenership is plummeting. According to the most recent report from Statistics Canada (from 2008), Canadians are listening to two fewer hours of radio per week than they did a decade ago. Moreover, adult contemporary was the most listened-to form of music, while kids barely tuned in to the radio at all. Translation: only older people are listening to the radio.

This means that, thanks to CRTC regulations combined with a plethora of other options (such as iPods), radio stations are raking in an increasing amount of dough, yet they’re reaching fewer and fewer people every year. Does that sound like a sustainable business? Most definitely not.

That takes us back to last week’s post about the possibility of the CRTC regulating the likes of Netflix and YouTube. Rather than looking at expanding CanCon requirements to new businesses, the CRTC should perhaps be examining how its rules are inevitably going to hurt old media. I, for one, won’t go back to radio unless stations cut back on playing ads and weak Canadian music.

Categories: crtc, radio

Does Shaw know or care about internet rules?

July 19, 2011 9 comments

What’s going on with Shaw Communications? Of all the telecommunications companies in Canada, none seem to be more schizophrenic than western Canada’s largest cable provider, if recent actions are any indication.

The company was back in the news late last week, but likely not for the reasons it hoped. While its announcement of a rival service to Netflix - called Movie Club - was the intended headline grabber, Shaw instead took flak for what looked like a blatant net neutrality violation.

Movie Club, according to the Calgary Herald, will essentially replicate Netflix’s all-you-can-eat movie service for a monthly fee. But, as company president Peter Bissonnette said, watching stuff on Movie Club won’t count against Shaw customers’ monthly usage caps:

As well, subscribers to Movie Club — who initially can watch on their TV or computer, with phones and tablets planned to come on line later — can view content without it counting against their data plan. “There should be some advantage to you being a customer,” Bissonnette said.

To anyone familiar with net neutrality, that would of course be a violation in the first degree. Net neutrality rules in Canada require telecom and cable companies to treat all services that run over the internet equally. By not counting the hefty gigabytes that online movies chew up, Shaw’s Movie Club would inevitably be cheaper and more desirable to use than Netflix.

Not surprisingly, Shaw took heat for the move. Michael Geist said a complaint under the Telecommunications Act to the CRTC would be inevitable while Open Media said it was a clear attempt to try and turn the internet into a two-tier service. I was pretty shocked at Shaw’s blatant anti-neutrality move myself and said on Twitter that it was either incredibly bold or amazingly dumb. More on that in a minute.

A day later, on Friday, Shaw shifted into damage control mode. Through Twitter and other statements, the company clarified that the Movie Club service going through cable subscribers’ set-top TV boxes would not count against monthly data caps, but if customers used it over the internet - on their computers or tablets, for example - it would. Net neutrality concerns were therefore not necessary, since Shaw’s service will play by the rules. As the company said on Facebook:

Shaw Movie Club is intended to be watched through your set-top box. You can order your movies online through and send it to your set-top box for viewing - watching movies on your set-top box won’t affect your included Internet data. However, you can also stream your Movie Club movies online to your computer – this WILL contribute to your Internet data.

Movie Club thus sounds like two different services. The internet portion, which will count toward users’ monthly data limits, sounds very much like an “over-the-top” service such as Netflix. The TV version, however, sounds more like a repackaging of the cable provider’s existing video-on-demand service. Rather than VOD users paying per selection, they’ll simply get unlimited access for a monthly fee instead.

Open Media still has problems with this set-up, but I’m not as concerned. Bandwidth isn’t much of a problem when it comes to traditional cable, so if Shaw wants to be able to introduce a Netflix competitor that way, it shouldn’t just be allowed to - it should be encouraged to do so. It is when such a service is offered in a discriminatory manner over the internet that the problem occurs, which doesn’t appear to be the case with Movie Club.

However, it’s starting to become clear that Shaw’s left hand might not know - or agree with - what the right hand is doing. Bissonnette, one of the company’s top executives, was pretty explicit in saying that Shaw customers should have some advantages in using Movie Club over non-customers, a position the Herald reporter stuck to in her follow-up story. Yet a day later, someone else at the company - it’s not clear who - either overruled or corrected him.

The company was similarly lost in the woods on the usage-based internet billing issue. Back in May, when Shaw introduced new internet plans that feature large usage caps in response to user complaints about UBB, company executives also gave people the impression that they’d have to subscribe to cable TV to get those plans. According to multiple reports from people who attended meetings with the executives, the company wasn’t planning on offering standalone super high-speed, high-usage internet plans, thereby raising the spectre of tied-selling, a practice that is illegal in Canada.

The company has since made standalone internet plans available, albeit at a $15 markup, but that particular bullet from the Competition Bureau has been dodged, for now at least.

That brings us back to the question of whether the company is incredibly bold or amazingly dumb. In both the Movie Club and UBB cases, executives have shown themselves to be oblivious to how their products may violate existing CRTC or Competition Bureau rules. In both cases, executives touted services without apparently knowing whether or not they were legal. That either means they simply don’t know about the rules, or they don’t care about them. Quite frankly, I’m not sure which is worse.

Categories: net neutrality, netflix, shaw