Have you heard about SPACE/OFF? If not, blame the media.
“I forget that E3 is a thing,” said merritt kopas, acknowledging that the oversaturated season may not be the best time to release a small-scale independent video game. Despite the lack of press, SPACE/OFF has been a modest commercial success for kopas and co-creator anna anthropy. The game currently occupies one of the top slots on itch.io, the online distribution platform where it’s available for $5.
Given the timing, the low price tag provides a poignant contrast to the corporate glitz of E3. Though SPACE/OFF was not on the show floor at the LA Convention Center, kopas has displayed the game at events like Toronto’s Bit Bazaar because self-promotion is as important for an individual developer as it is for any triple-A studio.
Does that mean kopas has sold out? She doesn’t think so.
“Honestly, that’s bullshit, because this is a capitalist society,” said kopas, dismissing the very concept. “Everyone needs money to eat, and you need money to make more art.”
kopas is so forward about monetization because she wants to erase the stigma between deeply personal material and profit, and she’s hoping that more small game creators will follow her example.
“There is a sense that we can’t charge because no one’s going to be interested or it’s worthless,” said kopas of those doing untraditional work. “Charging for your work is a powerful statement about what you believe it’s worth to see.”
In other words, you don’t need to complete a checklist of mandatory features before you sell your game. You just need a product that audiences are willing to pay for.
So what is SPACE/OFF?
A direct descendent of Star Control, SPACE/OFF pits Mind Wolf and Cool Bug against one another in a series of three local multiplayer space battles. Both characters are controlled from the same keyboard, one with WASD inputs and the other on the arrow keys.
As for the contests, What’s Yrs is Mine places the combatants in a minefield of their own making, while She’s the Bomb plays like Asteroids in reverse and Lase Her is an angular concoction involving skulls and neon lasers. Rounds seldom last longer than 30 seconds, and all three games are both accessible and complex enough to reward strategy and skill.
SPACE/OFF is also a game about a breakup, subject matter that at might seem at odds with the spirited gameplay unless you’re familiar with kopas’s portfolio.
“I’m traditionally a narrative game designer,” said kopas, whose best known titles – including LIM and Consensual Torture Simulator – attempt to tell stories through mechanics. She admits that having an aesthetic can be constraining for a developer.
“I think people expect to see games about relationships,” said kopas of her work. “The community pressure, which I don’t think is any individual person’s fault, is something that’s internalized.
With SPACE/OFF, those expectations crystallized into dramatic motivations.
“Why are these characters fighting? I came to this idea of it being about a failed relationship,” said kopas.
That decision ultimately transformed SPACE/OFF into something more than another arcade shooter. The game sets up shop at the intersection of art and entertainment, suggesting that it’s possible to incorporate themes of bitterness and loss into a game designed primarily to be fun.
And make no mistake; SPACE/OFF is perfectly serviceable as disposable fare. Many players don’t pick up on the interpersonal undertones because the space battles always remain compelling. However, kopas believes that the material does affect the way people interact with the game.
“Most people are playing in a way that isn’t viciously competitive, and I think narrative has something to do with it,” said kopas. “It’s playful. If that relationship element weren’t there, it would be more straightforwardly competitive.”
kopas cites Spy vs. Spy – another series in which two caricatures try to outdo one another with increasingly intricate schemes – as a primary influence. It turns SPACE/OFF into a battle for bragging rights rather than malice.
“When a character is blown up, they’re cartoonishly toasted,” said kopas. “This isn’t a dire game. It’s about how sometimes relationships go bad, and the hope that maybe something can be salvaged out of that.”
In the case of SPACE/OFF, the silver lining is the comedy. The breakup of Mind Wolf and Cool Bug provides humorous fodder for the players witnessing the fallout, each victory precipitating a witty quip or sarcastic taunt courtesy of anna anthropy.
“anna wrote all of the dialogue, and it very much fits her aesthetic. She’s pretty terrible with puns,” said kopas.
That lighthearted approach mitigates the potential weight of heavy subject matter. Sure, SPACE/OFF is about interpersonal trauma that millions of people have had to deal with. But it also has absurd dialogue and absurd visual design, and it’s damn near impossible to be too downhearted after a few cathartic rounds of Lase Her.
The mechanics are similarly sprinkled with a contradictory dose of optimism. The one-keyboard setup forces the two players – ostensibly angry former lovers – into surprisingly intimate proximity.
“I like the fact that players have to be right next to each other,” said kopas. “I don’t necessarily buy the idea that playing a game in person is inherently better than playing it over the internet, but the truth is that there are a lot of technical hurdles to implementing online play in any kind of game.”
SPACE/OFF is therefore the beneficiary of necessity. Even though many people expect online play in any multiplayer video game, kopas’s informal programming background made it impractical. The solution turned out to be a more potent game about separation that paradoxically brings people together.
“There is this element of dopiness or sense of hopefulness. There’s this destructive bad period right now, but there’s the chance that these characters will at some point be friends,” said kopas.
That combative camaraderie might explain why the game has been so well received at public showcases like Bit Bazaar. SPACE/OFF isn’t the kind of game you’re likely to play for five hours at a time, but it is a game you’ll play for fifteen minutes with twenty different people. kopas is proud to have made a game that people enjoy in such an immediate way, even if deviates from her customary output.
In the meantime, selling SPACE/OFF has become a practical way to recoup prior development expenses and to fund new projects. kopas is currently moving forward with Snake Factory, a nascent collaboration with Canadian comic artist Michael DeForge, further demonstrating how the viability of games like SPACE/OFF can help legitimize and sustain the careers of non-mainstream artists.
The past and future sales of SPACE/OFF only prove that there’s an appetite for products outside the more explicitly corporate E3 sphere. Early June may be the wrong week to go looking for media attention, but savvy audiences find ways to support the games worthy of their financial consideration.