Oscar – how a developer wants to change the design of the game forever | Games
Josh Long has big ambitions. He makes a game to prove to the world that his way of making games is better than the way the industry has been making games for years. He wants players to demand complexity, and he thinks he can give it to them. He wants everyone to make better games, especially AAA studios, and he wants his gaming Oscar to be a catalyst for change: the game that proves games can grow.
“Games when we were kids was something we could relate to,” he says. “When I was young, 90% of my time was spent playing games, playing games and imagining, and video games could capture all of that. As we get older our lives are more about struggling with relationships or paying bills – we have so many more complex experiences. I don’t think the games have developed to reflect this.
Oscar is his attempt to restore that balance, to create a game that reflects truly grown-up themes and offers a human experience that anyone can relate to. But he does it stealthily, at least at first. At first glance, Oscar doesn’t seem like it’s shaking up the video game industry all at once: it’s an indie 2D platform game, set in a stylized fantasy world, with a young girl and his stuffed elephant as the main protagonists.
“Oscar tries to stay outside of standard experiences and to stay outside of genres,” he says. “It’s important to me that Oscar starts to look like a very standard 2D indie platformer. Players log into Steam or elsewhere and see a character jump into a fantasy, artistic world, and they get it. I have great respect for games like Dear Esther and Gone Home, but most players are not drawn to them because they see them as too experimental. They are still too separate. It’s my mission to change players’ minds about what the media can accomplish.
Big budget zombies
Despite his apparent naivety, Long is no stranger to the industry, having worked for nearly 10 years on a variety of big-budget AAA projects. He got his start as a pro gamer and was hired by Relic “to play the game and tell them what to change”, before ending up as a senior multiplayer designer. Before Oscar, he says, his low-budget title was $ 5 million, and that was for a game he called “boring.” To develop Oscar, however, he set up a Kickstarter appeal and asked for $ 40,000 for a game he is clearly excited to bring to life.
“I don’t think games have been around long enough that we know what we’re doing,” he says. “But there is a pretty large demographic of people who have been doing this for over ten years. And I think they’re like me. They are tired of how bad things are and how tired and outdated the industry is, and how bad the working conditions are for developers.
“I thought AAA was full of zombies who wanted to make Call of Duty clones. Then I started to work with these people. Most people in the industry want to do something unique and enjoyable, but they haven’t had a chance.
“I realized that I couldn’t change the process in an AAA studio. It’s like playing Guitar Hero, and when you start playing you can only scratch down. Then as the game progresses you get to the hardest songs, the fastest notes, and you have to learn to strum back and forth – that’s the only way to progress. But in the time it takes you to relearn how to strum this way, you’re playing less well than you were – for those three songs or whatever the length of time, you’re not doing as well.
“You see playing in games like Mirror’s Edge, which was trying to be something different; you see these interesting games that gamers don’t really like, and the risks are so huge. The cost of bringing in all these different ones. set is so high that almost no developer can afford it. It’s a great way for studios to implode. “
The industry status quo is therefore one in which developers feel trapped in the continued production of safe products – products that are more likely to make money for investors and the board. “Without a good design process, there’s no way you can keep a safe job and healthy working hours unless you create the games you already know how to create,” says Long. “You have to create games that keep your employees in place. Independent studios can explore much more widely what is possible with games but also with processes.
“I could go on and on about the right way to make games with Gamasutra, but there’s no reason for anyone to listen to me. So with Oscar there is a lot of documentation about our decisions and our design process. After that, I want other studios to be able to look at what we’ve done and apply it to their own games.
Oscar was in pre-production for a year and a half, mostly while Long was looking to create something interesting and new, before bringing it to Kickstarter. The game started as a side project alongside his AAA work, he says; he worked on music in his spare time, before realizing he needed a story to write about. The story he coined was an autobiographical tale that – without wanting to spoil the game itself too much – explores the experience of being a young girl, being the child of a single parent, and being bullying victim.
“These were things she had experienced and you can see why she had never told anyone about it,” Long said. “You can explore things in a game by putting the player in someone’s shoes, and the game makes it very clear why a child might be in this situation where you feel like you can’t speak.
“As adults you think bullying isn’t that bad. We have a system in place where you talk to an adult, and the bully is disciplined, but they know who told them and they don’t really care about the punishment, and then things go back to how they were.
“Oscar presents this choice to you. She may try to get help, but that help is a teacher sending the bully into custody, and he doesn’t care. The choice is to be bullied or to be a witness.
Sometimes, Long admits, the game can get dark, but the point is never to tell the player how they should feel, or even what they have on Oscar’s mind. There are no log entries scattered around the levels for players to find, no audio logs to “beat your head with what’s going on,” as he puts it.
“Players get a lot more investment if they can figure it out for themselves,” he says. “We think it’s very important that you never tell you about it. We let you feel his emotions when making his choices, but we never tell you it’s sad.
As you progress through Oscar’s world, the game starts to tell you that all is not well. The art begins to change from the cheerful and familiar fantasy style that initially greets you, to a photorealistic style more akin to horror games. Oscar sometimes introduces stealth elements and switches to 2.5D perspective – Long says they’d like to switch to first person view, but that would more than double the budget.
“People can play at the Oscars. Basically, it’s a game. It’s fun to play; it’s funny. It’s part of what works with genres like movies or music – you get a positive part of the experience to counter the sadness. Music does this with tone and rhythm, while a game has fun.
These things take time
Despite his ambitions for the game and its impact on the industry, Long is aware of the difficulty of selling the concept and likely marketing issues to a skeptical player base. The Kickstarter was slow and hit its mark with just a few hours to spare; Now Long has set up a pre-order page where people who missed the crowdfunding stage can purchase a package or simply donate to the cause.
“Oscar promises something very ambitious,” says Long. “A lot of games today and in the past have promised things that didn’t come to fruition. It’s hard to try and advertise something abstract that gamers trust and believe will happen. It’s a bit difficult from a marketing standpoint, but on an individual level, I haven’t had a single negative response.
Long also recognizes that Oscar is only the beginning of his ambitions; he talks about thatgamecompany’s progression from fl0w, through Flower, to Journey, as an inspiration for his path.
“As an attempt to turn the games into a journey into specific human experiences, I think it would be unrealistic to expect it to be mind-blowing and incredible, as a first attempt, but I think it will be. something different, ”he says. “These things take time.”
Ultimately, he says, he’d rather not play games at all: he’d rather be back where he was a kid, on the couch with a stack of new games, playing rather than creating.
“When I left the industry, I thought about what a job is,” he says. “I decided this was about the world that is here and the world that I wanted to see, and my job is to do what I can to change this world in this world. When I was a kid I would sit on the couch and play five different games, knowing that everything I knew about what games could do would be completely changed once I was done.
“What I want is to sit on my couch and play games that change my outlook on how games work, but I can’t do that right now. I’ve been thinking about education, but writing a manual doesn’t really change your mind.
“I think the game will have to speak for itself.”
Comments are closed.