Here’s a crazy question: What if – just what if – the current generation of indie game developers were also the future generation of indie rockers, touring the country hitting local bars and selling custom game equipment out of the back of VW vans for $15 a pop?
According to No Quarter curator Charles Pratt and alumnus Matt Parker, that’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. I’ll let them explain, but the No Quarter exhibit was established to create games for social spaces, so these guys definitely know what works in an arcade.
The pedigree speaks for itself. Ramiro Corbetta’s Hokra and Noah Sasso’s BaraBariBall rank amongst the best local multiplayer titles I’ve ever played (both, incidentally, are included in this just-announced SPORTSFRIENDS Kickstarter campaign) while Robin Arnott’s Deep Sea, Zach Gage’s Guts of Glory, and Matt Parker’s Recurse all push the medium in uniquely innovative new directions.
All six individuals spoke during a jam-packed day two of Gamercamp, after which we sat down with Matt and Charles for a joint interview that expanded on many of the highlights.
Dork Shelf: Charles, during your talk, you said that No Quarter was launched with a mandate to create games for social spaces. How did that originally come about?
Charles Pratt: It started as a way of getting the word out that the Game Center was being built, and also as a way of showcasing game creators living in New York. The first show was thrown together pretty quickly. We said, “We’re going to do this,” we set it up, and it was a big success.
Now it seems like every major city has an event where you can hang out and play games. That didn’t exist then, so we didn’t know people would come. The next year, we did it again, and the third year was even better. Slowly, we’re growing and we’re learning, and hopefully it’ll keep going.
DS: The impetus for No Quarter grew partly out of the principles of the New Arcade. Could you explain the core fundamentals of that movement?
CP: With the New Arcade movement, as it existed three or four years ago, we wanted to capture that feeling of social space that existed in the arcade. We want to make games that only work in that space, or at least work best in that space.
People came [to the arcade] for a lot of different reasons. They came to be exposed to new things. They came with their friends. They came to train. That all disappeared, but now all of those different functions are popping back up. They’re just no longer in that centralized location. You have No Quarter trying to expose people to new, interesting work. You have Juegos Rancheros and the Hand Eye Society gathering people together. And the gym aspect – if you go to the Next Level Arcade, they don’t play anything but fighting games so they’ve captured that side of it, as well.
Matt Parker: Arcade machines used to have custom hardware widely distributed in arcades everywhere. Now, almost everyone makes games that conform to whatever hardware is available. I think that’s a big loss. People are like, “How do I get my game to fit into the hardware,” rather than “How do I make the best game?
CP: We established that local multiplayer works, so the next thing to tackle – and maybe No Quarter can help with this – is finding a generation of game designers interested in creating controllers. That will become more viable as 3D printing gets more commonplace. Hacking stuff together, it’s always going to feel cheap. There’s soon going to be a way to make your own controller that feels like it was professionally done.
DS: People develop everything for the same hardware partly because the cost of building your own peripherals is often prohibitive. How important is the money when introducing new technology on a broader scale?
CP: I may turn out to be completely wrong about this, but your game being inextricably linked to a physical object is actually an avenue by which some of this work becomes more lucrative. One of the problems producing local multiplayer games is if you’re not producing something you can eventually put on Xbox Live or PSN, how do you make money? There are a lot of places to show local multiplayer games, but there’s not a lot of money in that.
If you had something you can buy for $15 or $20, suddenly, you have something to sell. You have some object to hold and buy, and to have it is to have something about that game that you can’t download from the Internet.
MP: Software has become very democratized. The video games being made by indies now, not so long ago would have been triple-A games that you needed a studio to build. Now a few guys can make them.
I think hardware democratization is next. Now, it’s still, “I can make this work if I’m there.” The next big revolution will happen once I have my prototype. I can send it to someone, they can make me a unit, and then I can sell those units. Once that step has occurred, that’s going to be a huge explosion of amazing ideas. That’s something I’m working on with my own stuff.
CP: It’s an avenue that people who do board games have open to them. Zach Gage did a card game for No Quarter, and once we figure out the supply chain and what kind of cards we want, we can get it printed whenever we want. He doesn’t have to go through a publisher. It’s actually cheaper and easier for him once he does all the up-front work. That kind of independence is not open to people making electronic games right now.
DS: It sounds like you’re describing a model that would allow developers to go on tour like a band, selling peripherals instead of CDs out of the back of the van.
CP: That’s another model I hope we’ll see more. I’m lucky. As the curator of No Quarter I can hand someone a cheque. I can sleep at night because of that. They do a lot of work, and it’s hard to ask someone to do it out of the goodness of their heart.
If you’re going to have an exhibition, how do you pass a little of that money on? Bands do this. It’s not a great living, but it justifies traveling around the country doing what they love. We’re not even at that level yet. I would love to get to a point where Matt Parker or Noah Sasso or Ramiro Corbetta could just make weird games and premiere one every one or two years and then take it around the circuit – New York, Austin, San Francisco, London, Montreal – and make just enough money to get to the next city.
MP: Not so long ago, someone invited me to show something and I would pay to go out there. I’ve reached a point now where if you want me to show my work, I can’t pay for it myself. I have custom hardware. You can’t run it without me, and if you can’t get me there, it can’t happen.
CP: We actually pay people to make games. We’re not asking for submissions and then rewarding one game with some money. We’re commissioning people to make stuff you’ve never seen before. It’s important to get these people money because it’s important to support good work financially. I want a No Quarter commission to help someone pay their rent. It’s got to be at that minimum.
When I’m giving someone money, that gives me a little more license to give feedback. As curator, I’ve seen these things for three years running and I can tell you how people are going to react. If they were doing it for free, I’d be much less comfortable having a hands-on relationship with them.
MP: As a designer, it also gives you the pressure to make something polished. I’ve done games that were just passion games. I was like, “it’s good enough.” For No Quarter, ‘good enough’ wasn’t good enough. It had to actually be good because you give artists money.
DS: Matt, you have a background in standup comedy. Does that influence the way you design a game for social space?
MP: I hadn’t thought of it before, but probably. If you’re a comic doing a joke, it’s not funny the second time. That’s something you can’t have when you’re making a game for public space. I’ve seen puzzle-platformers shown, and once everyone has seen how it’s solved, that’s not going to work. You need something that’s going to be fresh every time.
If anything, comedy has served as a lesson on what not to do because it’s impossible to stay fresh in comedy. Recurse is never the same game twice. Of the No Quarter games, one or two have levels. Robin Arnott’s Deep Sea is a bit of an anomaly. But for the most part, they’re either multiplayer or they have a high degree of randomness. I think that’s what makes it work.
DS: Both you and Ramiro brought up sports during your presentations, and No Quarter games like Hokra and BaraBariBall have a similar performative element. Are we still entrenched in old stereotypes of jocks vs. nerds, or should developers pay more attention to sports when designing games for arcade spaces?
MP: Of all the games in the entire history of humanity, I wish I had made Johann Sebastian Joust. To me, it’s the perfect game. When I’m playing Joust, my screen is your body. What you’re doing, how you’re moving, the space we’re in – these face-to-face interactions are important, and that’s something that sports really nailed.
Look at basketball. The Triangle offense is designed around specific skill sets. It’s one thing to make a game system that works well. It’s another thing, a system so good that people can build structures on top of their own systems inside of that, and that’s where sports excel. Even when I hear people talking about eSports, I don’t see that level of creativity.
CP: Do you watch Starcraft? A person playing Starcraft today can stomp a person playing Starcraft two years ago. The metagame has grown so much.
I think it’s fair to say that Triple-A games have cinema envy. You’re going to play it, it’s going to affect you, but you’re going to move on and see the next thing. Maybe you’ll go back and play something again the way you go back and watch Casablanca, but it’s to see it as a document of its time.
In the indie realm, we have indie music envy, which is a very different time horizon. It’s more about being part of this scene. Both of those time horizons are very short — a year, maybe two. One thing that’s interesting is creating a game for a hundred years. What happens when you’re trying to create a game for every summer of your life? That, in video games, is still extraordinarily rare. Starcraft would be a good example.
DS: Could you elaborate on that? Games like Street Fighter have been played competitively for years, but the problem – especially with shooters – is that people tend to play whatever happens to be big at the time, so there’s always pressure on the developer to keep putting out new content. An eSports movement seems like it would require a game built for a longer time frame, so how do you design a game to give it that stability and sustainability?
CP: First of all, no one’s figured out how to monetize it. And Blizzard dropped the ball. You have one of the great eSports, but you’re treating it as a business model that’s got to sell boxes. Those things don’t get along very well.
The solution is something that Riot is doing. League of Legends is free-to-play. You can also buy skins, and that’s how they make their money. It’s not going to be Starcraft. It’s not going to be, “here are 12 new units.”
I don’t know if Capcom will ever figure out how to do this with Street Fighter. It might be impossible. The schedule of a big release every three or four years is not conducive to a high-level competitive game.
DS: How do games like Hokra and BaraBariBall fit into that? Would people be interested in watching an entire Hokra tournament?
CP: Yes. The thing is, Hokra is not going to stay Hokra as we recognize it. It’s changed a lot already. It’s subtle changes, but it has changed since No Quarter.
Hokra and BaraBariBall can endure, but as they endure, they’ll change. Ten years from now, you’ll be able to trace it back, but it might not look the same. League of Legends is based on DOTA. DOTA is based on a couple of mod maps that only a few people played. I don’t know if we’ll see BaraBariBall as shepherded by Noah Sasso. I won’t say that’s impossible, but we haven’t seen it yet.
MP: Part of what makes Hokra work so well in that bar setting is that you see the whole field when you’re playing. What the player is seeing and what the audience is seeing is everything. When you see most network games, it’s focused on the player. It’s a very different viewpoint when you’re looking at this guy and the information that’s important to him versus the entire screen.
If GoldenEye had been networked, I don’t think it would have been the same. Modern, networked first person shooters have different things going for them, but they lost some of that local magic that GoldenEye did so well.
To get back to the jocks versus nerds thing, I like to think that’s going away. How many jocks don’t play video games now? None. If you’re a professional athlete, to be on the cover of that video game – no one disparages that. If you watch football – I’m a big football fan – they’re putting fantasy stats everywhere.
I think resistance is almost entirely on the nerd side now. Jocks are OK with the nerd stuff, and the nerds haven’t come around to throwing a football.
CP: Nerds act like jocks. If you get a bunch of Starcraft nerds on a team, they act like football players. They’re not doing something that involves running and jumping, but it’s the exact same mentality. You’re just playing a different game.
MP: When Ramiro and I are playing basketball there’s no difference. He’s six-foot-four, so there’s a difference in the result, but we analyze it. We talk about what was good. It’s very, very similar, and I think the nerds gotta get on board.
[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]