Greetings visitors, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. This week, I spent an evening chatting to Alex Jordan of Apathy Works. He’s a developer who released the popular XBLIG title Cute Things Dying Violently. His new project is something completely different altogether. Read on to find out more!
Who are you and what do you do?
I am Alex Jordan! I’m a 28-year-old (soon to be 29) federal employee who works for the Department of Labor in Washington, DC. That’s my day job, and in whatever spare time I have, I try to make indie games for the PC and Xbox 360. I’ve been making games since way back, when I was a kid. I started in QBasic, when I was in elementary school, and I graduated to mod making. I was on a couple of Half Life 1 & 2 mod teams for a while, and when XNA came out, I switched over to trying to make indie games for actual profit, as opposed to it being just a hobby.
Where does the name ‘Apathy Works’ come from?
It was me being a smartass… [Laughs] It’s a contradiction. In some aspects of life if I’m not apathetic, I’m generally laid back, but I take indie game design pretty seriously. I guess you could call it divine irony.
How did you get into videogames development?
Somewhere between six and eight, I saved up enough money to buy myself a Nintendo Entertainment System. I’d always dreamed of making my own games for it and, on seeing how interested I was, my dad gave me an old book that he had from when he would make games for my older brother. I was already a bit of a computer head back then, playing Carmen Sandiego games and stuff like that. It was a really old QBasic book, and so I started making text-based games, Zork-type stuff: ‘You are in a room. You can go North, South, East, West.’ That kind of thing.
I never did anything with graphics, just text-based stuff because that’s all that QBasic could do. From there, I moved on to Visual Basic, and I started mapping for Doom and Duke Nukem 3D, moving onto Half Life 1 at which point I attracted the attention of the Firearms team.
With them, I got into game development proper. We were active between roughly 2000-2005. When Microsoft announced Xbox Live Community games, and made XNA free, I knew that I had to get into it. I set aside some time to learn C#, starting in February 2009, and started making games. The first game I made, Around The World, was this geography quiz-style game. It only sold a few hundred copies. I think edutainment is likely the least popular category of all Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG).
“The decision was simple: make a small, cute, quirky, funny game.”
The game you are likely best known for, Cute Things Dying Violently, is also an XBLIG release. Can you go into some detail concerning the process behind that?
I’d actually starting writing an advanced 3D engine that was lighting-based, to go into making a horror game. I’d been working on that for around a month, and then when Around The World finally came out, and I saw how badly its sales did, that really woke me up. I decided to scale down. I was going to make a game that was going to be smaller and more personal – to play to the channel’s strengths. Most of the best XBLIG games at that point, such as I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1, were basically small, cute, quirky, funny games. The decision was simple: make a small, cute, quirky, funny game.
I wracked my brain and the title came first, before anything else. I thought ‘Cute Things Dying Violently’ was funny title, and I built the game around that. I played with the concept for a bit, before the 2D physics puzzler mechanics came into place, and that’s how the game came to be. The final release only had a couple of tweaks to the original style, but what you see is more or less what I wanted to make.
Do you interact much with other XBLIG developers?
Not so much with the XBLIG community. Let me explain my philosophy: I don’t want to hero-worship anybody, because it’s a bad habit to get into. It doesn’t really do anything for anybody, so I try to focus on people who can help me. In terms of bigger people in the XBLIG community, I’m pretty close with Dave Voyles (XBLIG developer), actually. Dave and I hang out a couple of times a year, because he’s in New York, and I’m here in DC. Whenever I’m there, I see him, and vice-versa.
I’m pretty close with Ryan Donnelly of VVGTV. He gave me some good advice on CTDV and suggested some features that I wound up adding to the game. Last time I was in Boston for PAX East, I met the Xona Games guys, Matthew and Jason Doucette, and they’re pretty cool. For the most part, I try to stay as cordial and helpful with fellow develops as I can, and spend my real time and energy trying to network with game journalists.
They’re not just strictly journalists. They can be advocates, and they can open doors for you. They’re helpful and can give you ideas about what they’re looking for. It’s great to be able to spend time talking about what you’re working on, and it means that when you come calling with the finished game, they’ll remember who you are.
“I cracked open a six pack that day and sat there drinking with my microphone in front of me, trying to be as ridiculous as possible.”
Cute Things… is one of few that overtly attempts to be humorous. Was the intention to make it comic core to the game’s development?
Yeah, that was always going to be the case. The humorous nature of the tool tips in-game was something that I thought I wanted to do, but it wasn’t until I had all the levels set up that I realized I could get some pretty decent freeflow riffing going from level to level. If you play through them fast enough, there’s a humorous theme that comes just from reading the tooltips. Using those bite-size formats, I played around with how I could deliver very brisk jokes and whether I could deliver multiple jokes across multiple boxes, or three parts of a joke across three boxes, for instance.
As for the more obvious stuff, like the over-the-top blood and guts and the voices, I knew I was going to do that from day one. In fact, all of the voices are me, just throwing my voice and playing with pitch. I cracked open a six pack that day and sat there drinking with my microphone in front of me, trying to be as ridiculous as possible.
Your latest project sounds like it’s worlds apart from CTDV. Project Coriolis, right?
Yeah, that’s it. I would never ever call myself an auteur, but one of the things that disappointed me about CTDV was that it’s fairly by-the-numbers. It’s funny, and it’s got its own unique style, but it’s a mash-up of Angry Birds and Lemmings. It wasn’t the most original thing out of the gate. I’ve taken it for granted that, as an indie developer, I have to iterate on existing tropes.
However, one of things I’ve always been interested in was making a dynamic system in a game that had never been seen. So I wondered if I could model weather. I played around with it in XNA for a bit, and discovered that I could, and furthermore reliably. My prototype wound up creating deserts, forests, grasslands, etc all in the right places. Then I started working on the game proper.
It sounds a bit like a god game crossed with tower defense?
That’s exactly what it’s going to be. You start off with a blank piece of terrain and ocean. You can put land wherever you want. In a traditional tower defense game, the enemies adjust their path to the land available. If you try to break the path system, as everyone does with tower defense, the enemies will go straight at the objective, so it’s best to string them along.
Once the defense phase starts, the earth terraforms based on where the lands and oceans are, and develops climates appropriately. There are nine different climates, and each provides a typical resource: deserts give heat, polar ice caps give cold, rain forests give water, and so forth. This builds a budget from which you can craft a number of spells. You will then defend your towers with these god-based spells. The towers will be more vulnerable than in traditional tower defense games.
Are you anywhere near looking at a release date for it?
I’m the wrong person to talk to about scope. I swore CTDV would take four to six months, and it wound up taking the better part of two years. I’m three months in right now, and I think I’ve limited the scope such that once the major systems are done, I can iterate heavily, so instead of programming one new thing after another, I can write one batch of AI and adjust it for the rest, then one spell behavior and so on.
I’m calling one more month until I bring my brother on board, which I’ve been meaning to do forever. My brother is also into game design, and has been focusing on Left 4 Dead mapping, but we’ve planning to make a game together since forever. Hopefully with the two of us working on it, I would love to see it out in the next four to six months, but… Well, don’t hold your breath. Anywhere in the next four months to five years! [Laughs]
Are you intending to release it on Xbox/XBLIG, too?
No, I’m doing it with Unity. Xbox has been very good to me, and I thought PC would be my salvation with the PC version of Cute Things, but it sold far worse on PC than on Xbox. So while I am reluctant to abandon Xbox since previously that was where I found my sales, Unity gives me access to PC, web browsers, Mac, Android, iOS, and to Flash as well. I’d like to get Project Coriolis on NewGrounds, iPads… the more the merrier, basically.
“It’s a great multimedia console. For selling games? It’s going downhill.”
How do you feel about how the focus of the Xbox has changed in the last year or so?
I was gobsmacked because I didn’t see it coming. I should have it seen coming, because it made so much sense. It’s a situation that goes back 10 years: Why the hell is Microsoft getting into the game design business? They already owned the software business, and what was hiding in plain sight – what no-one figured out – was they were getting into the game design business so that they could get a foothold in the hardware business. I totally didn’t see it coming, and the moment the damned ad-ridden dashboard update rolled out this time last year, it was a moment of ‘Oh, I get it. Those crafty…’
I like my Xbox; it sits right next to my Playstation 3. I just don’t play games on it anymore. I basically use it to watch Netflix and HBO Go. It’s a great multimedia console. For selling games? It’s going downhill, and I say that with full acknowledgement that XBLIG has been extraordinarily good to me and the people in the community, that play XBLIG games, gave me enough money to put a downpayment on the condo that I’m in right now.
“You always want to be the hyper-reliable indie developer that has great relationship with his fans – someone who promises the moon, and then delivers it.”
Besides Coriolis, you have mentioned a sequel to Cute Things Dying Violently. Is that in the process at all?
I’ve had an extremely busy year, and Coriolis has been my palette cleanser. Development on CTDV lasted two years, and I wanted to work on something else. I’ve been pretty bad so far, I haven’t yet brought the upgraded art to the Xbox version, which I’ve been meaning to do before Christmas. Around this time of year, with new consoles being opened, XBLIG sales get a little bump, so I’d like to benefit from that.
As far as a sequel goes, it would be reasonably easy to iterate on the first game. It would need some new art, but I’ve found a very good contract artist, and I’m not opposed to doing some of that myself. However, my interest for it has declined precipitously. You always want to be the hyper-reliable indie developer that has great relationship with his fans – someone who promises the moon, and then delivers it. Unfortunately it’s not yet my job, and I need to take a break from Cute Things. It was driving me crazy. I still want to revisit it, and I plan on making a sequel before the next Xbox comes out, but I haven’t started working on it yet, and I haven’t made any plans concerning it for the next number of months.
What is the most difficult part about being an independent developer?
I think the most challenging aspect is everything that comes after the game is released, especially with my transition from XBLIG to PC. With XBLIG, you have a captive market. You make a game, and so long as it passes peer review, it will get on the Xbox, and people will see it in the New Releases section. They generally have a base level of success. It might be a low level, but it’s still there.
Whereas on PC, it’s several orders of magnitude bigger than the Xbox. You can make a great game, and still drown. You wind up being desperate for coverage, desperate for getting in bundles. I did quite a lot right with the PC release of CTDV and still only made a fraction of what I made from the Xbox version. You know I said that Cute Things was aimed squarely at the Xbox market? Coriolis will be aimed squarely at the PC market. Tower defense is popular, and it will be a unique spin on the concept that hasn’t been seen before. I don’t think it will be humorous, though. I don’t think I could fit humor into it. I’m going to wrack my brain to see if I can, but we’ll see.
What is it that makes it worthwhile? Why do you put yourself through it all?
That is an excellent question… I also draw in my spare time, and I used to write. I actually wrote a book for my senior thesis in college that I haven’t done anything with – it’s a terrible book, flat-out horrible. [Laughs] Writing, even including the research and the amount of time hunched over the keyboard, is far easier to do than programming. Writing is pure creativity – just you, the word processor, and your mind. The reason I’ve turned my back on that, and focused on game design is that game design is participatory in a way that reading is not.
I could publish a book, and maybe if I was lucky, I’d have someone say ‘I read what you wrote, and I really liked it.’ Whereas with game design, it’s smaller. Everyone reads. People who play games, and then indie games, are a much smaller community. The sense of communitas from developing small personal games, and having people play your small personal games, and getting in touch with you and saying ‘Oh, I really loved this bit’, or having noticed some area of care that you put into that – I don’t think I would ever get that from writing. I would like to try in the future, but for now, game design scratches that exact itch for me.
Finally, what’s your most prized gaming possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from the dark ages?
Oooof! My most prized? Software or hardware? That’s a tough one! I’ve got an original copy of The Curse of Monkey Island on two CDs lying around here. I love that game to death. As far as hardware goes, it might be my PlayStation 3…
It was actually given to me by a friend earlier this year when I dog-sat for him when he was in Miami for a long weekend. The dog was the worst-behaved dog on the face of the planet, and had to be taken out like six times a day. I didn’t have my own life for this entire weekend, it was just babysitting the dog and cleaning up after him. Then, when I went back to my apartment, I got woken up at 3am in the morning by the owner calling me from Miami to say that his neighbors were complaining that the dog was awake and had been howling and screaming for the past two hours. So I had to go back to his apartment and basically sleep with the dog for the whole weekend. By way of apology, he bought me a PlayStation 3. [Laughs]
Thanks for your time, Alex! It was a pleasure speaking to you.
Yeah, thank you so much! It was nice talking to you as well.
Alex Jordan’s next game is tentatively titled Project Coriolis. It currently has no set release date. You can buy Cute Things Dying Violently through the Xbox’s Indie Games channel, or on Desura for PC here.