Paul Czege of HalfMeme interview, from December 14th, 2015.
Listen to the audio here:
Topics covered include:
- Other games from HalfMeme
- The setup of #ThreeForged and its aftermath
- Brick-and-mortar gaming stores and why they don’t carry indie titles
- What’s next for HalfMeme? (Spoiler: It’s another inspired game!)
Transcript of the first bit:
Slade: So, here I am with Paul Czege, multi-award-winning author of games such as My Life with Master and The Clay that Woke, and we’re just having a casual conversation about game development, the ThreeForged design challenge, brick-and-mortar game stores, kickstarter, and what’s next for HalfMeme Press. Everybody’s already heard about My Life with Master [hereafter: MLWM], and the recent kickstarter of The Clay That Woke was quite successful and has been generating a lot of publicity. What are some other games from HalfMeme that people should check out?
Paul: I think designers have two kinds of games: they’ve got big ones and they’ve got small ones. My Life with Master and The Clay That Woke are definitely the big ones. I think in that category of smaller games, the ones that people think are the best: Bacchanal is a storytelling game about violence and debauchery in a wealthy Roman city. It’s been translated into Italian. Michelle Gelli (sp?) did a card version of it. I think a lot of people would say that Nicotine Girls is also one worth checking out. It’s probably 720 words long and is totally free on my website.
S: So, I picked up My Life with Master and The Clay That Woke on PDF, everyone can go and do that at HalfMeme Press. In reading MLWM and thereafter looking back at Nicotine Girls, there’s a lot of stuff in that genealogy that follows. Things like “Reason” in MLWM and (Oh I’ve forgotten the name of the stat now…[Post-facto correction: I think I was trying to remember “Hope” in Nicotine Girls]). There’s a balance of these stats that really dictate a character’s personality (I would say), more than something like The Clay That Woke, which has a more interesting conflict resolution mechanic in terms of probabilities.
P: I designed Nicotine Girls basically at the same time as MLWM. The first playtest of MLWM was summer of 2002, and Nicotine Girls was early 2002 as well. That was where my headspace was at at the time. What I wanted to do was create this constellation of character stats that were all interrelated. And playing the game was an activity of seeing the stats push and pull at each other and you’d end up with this thematically generated outcome as a result. So, I’m not surprised that you think those games are similar; I think they’re similar as well. When people ask me, “Well, Nicotine Girls, it’s 720 words long, how do I play it? How do I run it? Where’s the gamemastering advice?” Usually my answer to that is, “Play MLWM and then when you re-read Nicotine Girls, you’ll know exactly what to do with it.”
S: It was interesting looking at Nicotine Girls, specifically, and Death of the Valedictorian [sic], and then think about ThreeForged, because I think that both of those games could have come out of the ThreeForged challenge.
P: You know, I’m not sure I agree with that. Maybe they could have been stage one games from ThreeForged, the first 750-900 word submission. But the thing about both of those games is that they’re both super personal to me. They’re both reflections of things that I have had pretty strong emotional reactions to. The Valedictorian’s Death, for example, my father was valedictorian of his highschool class. He’s passed away now. But, there’s a family story that when it became obvious that he was going to be valedictorian a number of his friends actually staged a hanging. They were going to string him up by the cord on the venitian blinds at the school. Whether they were just goofing around or not, he believed that they were going to string him up. Those kinds of personal, emotional reactions to stuff. I think that you won’t get that out of ThreeForged games. You get it when you have one coherent artistic vision, from one inspired designer, then you get something like Nicotine Girls or The Valdictorian’s Death. But, ThreeForged that’s a different animal, I think.
S: Okay, well maybe we should shift gears then and talk about ThreeForged. For those who don’t know, this was a design challenge that was run wherein three different people took on the first, second, and third phases of the development of a short roleplaying game, where they added just a few thousand words each time to produce a final product. I think this relies of a kind of creative generosity. It was interesting that you didn’t pre-suppose a certain Creative Commons license. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about how you designed ThreeForged.
P: I was super intentional about all that stuff. When I first started talking about it, there was a lot of conversation about, “Why didn’t you put a Creative Commons license up front?” The reason I didn’t was that my goal for ThreeForged was community building. And I think the upfront Creative Commons license gives people permission to not have human interactions. It gives people permission to just realize, “Hey, I can do whatever I want with this thing. I don’t have to actually talk to people, negotiate with people, have relationships with people. It’s all be done for me. There’s a contract that lets me proceed.” And I think that’s bad for community. I wanted people to have interactions. The whole thing was designed to have community effects. The way the work moves from person to person, and, at the end of it, you’ve worked on three games, with two different designers at each stage and you’ve got this creative artistic investment (to some degree) in each of these as games. And, you share that creative investment with two other people at each stage. The network effect of that. You’ve got more people in your online circles as a result of the conversations you have. “Why did you make this decision when you were changing my game at stage two?” You’re forming friendships and you’re forming relationships.
In an internet where everybody feels more alienated by the facebook posts that they see by their friends and family. When they don’t agree with the politics of Uncle Larry. You don’t feel accepted. Suddenly you’re actually having conversations about things that you mutually care about. That was my goal. My goal was ‘create more relationships within the scene.’
There was a time when discussion-forum-based… at the Forge… people were forming a lot of relationships and playtesting each other’s stuff. The reason I did it, was that I wanted to create that, relationships.
S: And doing that by not presupposing any kinds of agreements, just that we’re going to try to make these three stages happen.
P: A lot of designers go into Game Chef every year, for instance. And their reason for participating is generating potentially sellable products for themselves. And, I didn’t really care about any of that. I didn’t design it to shake commercial products out of designers who’ve had success in the past. I really did design it for people who hadn’t had success. And by that, I mean, one of the surprises to me about ThreeForged was that I kind of expected that people would see it how I designed it. That people would look at it and say, “Wow, it’s an opportunity for me to form relationships. And it’s an opportunity for my work to be judged on its own terms and not based on the fact that I’m a woman, or that I’m queer, or that I’m non-white. (All of these things that are potential points of being marginalized when somebody looks at your work.)” In this case, all that stuff was gone. Suddenly, you’re going to be forming relationships with people based on your real talents. And your work is going to be judged based on none of these other side factors. The surprising thing to me, was that a lot of people didn’t see that as an upside and didn’t recognize that. When and if I do it again, I’m going to make that a lot more clear, that I think that these are the potential benefits to you. You’re not going to be judged on side factors.
S: So, were some people chafing under the idea of anonymity till the end? Or were people pushing back against that?
P: Yeah. You know what was kind of interesting: People did violate anonymity, in lots of ways. In some ways, maybe just cluelessness, right. They left metadata in their file that they didn’t know that Microsoft Word was embedding their name in the .rtf file that they had generated. In a lot of cases, it was clearly intentional. They wanted to get credit for their work. So, at stage three, I had at least one designer (more than one, actually) that put their name on it, right on the inside of the file. So I email them back and say, “Send me a version without your name on it.” There were people who posted on social media snippets of work in progress, or snippets of graphic design that they had done, or pretty much said straight out what they had done. I think there’s a status game to that. If you’re a successful designer already, you know that you can draw attention for your work by not being anonymous about it. You’ve worked really hard to get to the point of name recognition and people being interested in your stuff. And you’re excited about what you’re working on. And you want attention for it. People who’ve been successful at that know how to get attention for their work. So, it certainly felt intentional by some folks to just willfully violate the anonymity. In some cases it was clueless, I think. It was inadvertent. Was it push-back? no. I think it was just people making their own choices to get what they wanted out of the challenge.
S: Did you have experience previous to this with game design challenges other than Game Chef? Programming? I know that there are a lot of game jams that produce video games.
P: Not in the video game space, I certainly hadn’t. I’ve seen itch.io where a lot of people launch their video games and game jams. But I hadn’t participated beyond Game Chef. In the late 2000s, there was kind of a tradition of: If you had an idea for a game challenge, you just launched it. So, Keppen Allen Jr. who designed Sweet Agatha and Primitive, launched one at one point called the Reverse Engineering Challenge which I participated in. It was a two-stage thing: somebody designed a character sheet, they got randomly reassigned, and you had to design a game in response to that character sheet. So I designed a game called Specimen for the Resurrection, and conceptually, very cool. The game is terrible and no fun, in play. It’s entirely possible—it’s certainly probable, actually—that the idea of randomizing the work and moving it around might have been inspired by that. Also, Jared Sorjensen called the “Indie game company indie game design challenge. That was a multi-stage thing as well, where you were supposed to form a company. One person was the artist. One person was the editor. One person was the project manager. A sort-of pseudo-company. And you were supposed to collaborate on a game and produce it and sell it in the month of January for a dollar each. The winner of the challenge was who sold the most copies at the end of January. And he threw a wrinkle into it where, if you were working together as a group in November and December, to get your game done for sale in January, at the beginning of January he said, “Indie companies can enter the fray. A single person can kick out a game, try and get it done in January, and try and win the challenge.” And what happened for me in that challenge was… I had been working with a couple of friends in December on a game, and it kind of fell apart. The artist didn’t do any art. The thing just kind of came apart. And as the quote-unquote designer on that one, I still had the mechanics. So I got to January and I was, “I’m just going to do the indie component of this. I’m going to finish it myself. I’m going to hire somebody to do art for it. And I’m going to bang it out in January. And I’m going to try and sell more copies than the people who’ve been selling it since the beginning of January.” And I came very close. The game that I created for that was called Divernal Chieftains. It has some mechanical flaws. And one of the down sides is that I’m not super passionate about it. It wasn’t my idea. It’s a Roman Britain thing. It was another person’s idea for that concept. So, I don’t love it enough to do the work to make it a product. Unlike, The Clay That Woke, which I obsessed over.
S: Maybe on a related note, what was your response to some people dropping out of ThreeForged. Was that expected? And, was the extent to which that happened expected?
P: I totally expected it. The way it worked was, you had to ask me for a number. You had to say, “Hey, I want to participate.” “Let me give you a number.” And your game was going to be a number at every stage. So, I had 148, 149 people ask me for a number, which stunned me, to be honest. I figured I’d get 45. And that was three times as many as I really expected. And it was 128 or 9 that actually turned in a stage-one game. And starting with 140 or so, that was about what I expected. The ability to kick out a 750-900 word fragement that isn’t a complete game, I figured 80% or more of people could do that.
The next stage, I think there was double-digit dropoff, but not much. 13-16 people fell off at stage two. I was super happy with that. I thought that that showed people were totally into it. That’s a very small dropoff, I think. It showed that people were committed to it: they were going to take somebody else’s work and they were going to try and do something with it.
The pep talk that I gave at stage two, a lot of people have told me that that helped quite a bit to help them get through stage two when otherwise, they might not have. So, I was glad I did that. I think somebody–it might have been Vincent Baker–suggested that I do that. It might have been my wife Danielle that suggested that I do that. Somebody suggested that I do that, and it was a great suggestion. Then the final dropoff was just another 16 people, to end up with, like, 102 games. Which, to me, is amazing! When you look at English-language participation in Game Chef, there were something like 106 final games submitted. And this! To get though three stages of this and have 102 people, I thought was amazing. I was super, super pleased. It was fun, and a little nerve-wracking the whole way through.
S: It was definitely fun, and definitely nerve-wracking. The one that I started off was almost unrecognizable by the end of the third one. I was cringing. “What have they done to my beautiful creation?” Then I realized, I think that’s kind of the point of ThreeForged, to realize that as much effort as you put into something, your creative vision is not the only creative vision.
P: There was at least one person who emailed me and said, looking at the third-stage version of their game, “What happened? It doesn’t have any resemblance to the third-stage game. Are you sure that this is the third-stage game? That the numbers didn’t get transposed?” Was that you?
S: No, no.
P: Somebody definitely did that. And I went back through and I read all three versions, and I could see how it had changed at all three stages. And I emailed them back and I said, “Yep. It absolutely is the third-stage version. I can see why you think that. But when you get to see all three versions of it, you’re going to realize. You’re going to be able to trace the evolution of it. You can’t wait, because it’s going to be super interesting to see that.”
S: None of the three games that I worked on got anywhere near the final results. So, how much should I have bribed the judges?
P: You can’t bribe the judges, because it’s a public vote. This is in some ways one of the most unexpected aspects of the whole thing. The public activity. Once the final games were out there, there were hundreds and hundreds of reviews. And people were reading them. Doing thumbnail reviews. Doing longer reviews. There were at least 500 reviews. More than that probably. 80, 90 people participating and writing multiple reviews of the games… That wasn’t something that I expected. When I think about a game like Dogs in the Vineyard, Vincent has used the phrase “The Fruitful Void.” Dogs in the Vineyard has a Fruitful Void. It’s a void within the game that you’re drawn, as a player, to fill. In Dogs in the Vineyard, it’s right and wrong. There are no mechanics for right and wrong in the game. There are no mechanics for that moral statement, “Are human beings good, or are they… wrong?” And you’re pulled as a participant, in playing the game, to find some answer.