When The Hurt Locker walked away with the Academy Award for Best Picture, beating out $237 million Avatar, it was hailed as a win for low-budget cinema. Low-budget in film is a highly relative term – it’s hard to imagine an $11 million video game, for example, being described with the same designation. While such David and Goliath stories are becoming increasingly more common in movie awards, it’s almost unheard of for a smaller game to even be in the same competition as a blockbuster like Mass Effect 2 (estimated budget $25-40 million).
And yet that’s exactly what’s happened with PRIOR, created by Game Design grad Nick Yonge. The Flash game, built over a 48 hour period for “the cost of a large pizza”, is going head to head with the aforementioned Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age Origins – Awakening, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and a host of others at the Canadian Videogame Awards. Originally designed for Ludum Dare, where it placed 4th overall, the game is nominated in four categories, including Best Game Design. As if that weren’t enough, Nick is also nominated in the Student Category for Ginkgo, a game he helped make while still at VFS.
All of which must be fairly overwhelming.
“It’s pretty exciting to see my game alongside some pretty huge competition,” Nick said during a recent interview. “It’s a great feeling though. Huge honour and opportunity.” Of all the categories he’s nominated in, winning one in particular would mean the most to him. “Definitely Best Writing. I put a lot of effort into the story behind PRIOR, especially considering it was penned under such a short time constraint. It was interesting too, how the game’s story came about. Since there was so little time I essentially made the story up as I went along.”
During their year in Game Design, students develop games working in teams. Nick made the decision to develop on his own, as he did on PRIOR. Was it hard adjusting to working alone?
“While it’s exciting to do solo development, there is definitely something compelling about the collaborative process in a team environment. So while I primarily focus on krangGAMES (his newly started game design company), I do actually have a handful of external collaborators I work with as well.”
Nick is a fan of Minecraft, an indie game phenomenon made by Markus “Notch” Persson that, while still in Beta (released but unfinished version), has sold over 1.5 million copies. This does feel like something of a golden age for independent developers – smaller studios making very individual games that privilege personality and game mechanics over flashy effects.
“Well, of course,” Nick responded, when asked if Notch was an inspiration. “Minecraft, I think, is the de facto poster game for the current generation of indie game development. While I daydream of making ‘the next big game’ and reaping the millions of dollars and army of fans that come with it, I know that it won’t come without a lot of hard work.”
As for starting his own studio:
“I figured after graduation from VFS it was the best route for me personally to take. When I graduated, it seemed that the odds of starting a profitable indie game company were about the same as getting an entry-level job in the industry. While I definitely looked at job opportunities, none of them seemed as attractive as “going indie”. It was a huge risk and I would not recommend it for everyone (I was lucky enough to have some financial backing), but it’s worked out so far and I’m enjoying it immensely. The choice to start an official company was purely business – it gave me a name to go by, and I get a handful of legal and tax benefits from being incorporated.”
Time limits aside, Nick was able to cram an amazing amount of pathos into the game’s main character, a nameless black square with one eye. The ambiguous nature of the character was part artistic limitations (“I’m by no means an artist”) and part wanting “players [to] get a little more abstract with their imagination.” He’s already hard at work on his next game, a magnum opus of sorts called DotGuy vs. The Galaxy. A game philosophy document can be found on his site.
“That’s where VFS came in pretty handy. The Game Design course taught me how to properly handle game development, and that means quantifying everything that goes into a game, properly tailoring the experience for the player. Making games is of course an iterative, amorphous process, but if you have a clear black-and-white design behind a game, it comes out so much the better. And DotGuy vs. the Galaxy has a pretty complex design (despite being a simple game), so working out and objectifying that design was pretty important.”
All of this talk about philosophy had us wondering about a thorny issue that’s popped up around video games recently, namely ‘Can games be considered Art?’ Should video games be judged on their artistic merit? Nick has his own opinions.
“Oh, hell yes! I definitely think games can be an art form. I think there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t. I’ll grant that some games aren’t really art – take the Halo franchise for example: I’m a diehard Halo fanboy, but those games are a franchise cash-in, not examples of artistic or innovative design. But games can totally be art – Google search “Loved Flash game” and you’ll see an example of an artistic game. Even PRIOR ended up being on the artsy side of design.”
Nick gives back to the flash development community, which he calls “amazing”, by offering tutorials and guides on the krangGAMES site. If you’re interested in the anti-gravity ability in PRIOR, that would be a good place to start. You can follow his work at facebook.com/krangGAMES and on twitter.com/krangGAMES.