[Letters from a New York Indie is a diary written by friend of Hookshot Inc, Kevin Cancienne, one of the creators of Drop7, who recently left his position as Director of Game Development at area/code to pursue life as an independent game-maker. The series documents life as a one-man indie as Cancienne develops his first project, first person shooter Plus Gun.]
A few weeks ago I decided, rather abruptly, to take part in the 7DFPS Challenge, organized by Jan Willem Nijman, Sos Sosowski, and Sven Bergström. After quitting my full-time job at a big game development company in February, getting married at the end of May, and puttering around with some prototypes in between, a week-long game jam seemed like just the kick in the pants I needed. The game that resulted, Plus Gun, is available for free download at plusgun.com, but that’s getting ahead of things.
Among my game design buddies here in New York, music has always seemed a more vital and interesting metaphor for what’s great about games than that well worn object of envy, film. For me, the aesthetics of punk and hardcore exemplify what excites me about making indie games.
As a self-consciously stripped-down reaction to a lot of the musical excesses that preceded it, punk rock made lack of technical virtuosity a virtue, embodied an anybody-can-do-it philosophy, and employed a small set of raw and minimal ingredients to create an incredible sense of immediacy and energy. The parallels with indie games in the second decade of this century are pretty clear, and, for me, unbelievably tantalizing. Another thing about punk and hardcore: the songs tend to be extremely short.
Short Songs, by the Dead Kennedys, is, of course, partly a parody of punk’s predilection for short songs. But short songs were, and are, a huge part of what makes punk and hardcore tick. The Minutemen’s classic Double Nickels on the Dime crams 45 songs into 81 minutes. Minor Threat’s first EP didn’t have a song longer than 1 minute, 32 seconds. Me? I like short games.
Hookshot, Inc was started to highlight downloadable games that go for less than $15. Some of those games are epics, but most that fit into that category are “small” games. Many are games where you’ll see a “game over” screen within a few minutes of starting, or whose format expects you to play in bite-sized chunks. A lot has been written about the trend toward games with shorter sessions over the past several years. People talk about the cultural trends behind the phenomenon — an aging gamer population with less time on their hands, or the changing platform ecosystem — smartphones instead of consoles, or the downward pressure of prevailing business models — $.99 cent price points and free-to-play.
But as a game designer, I’m interested in some of the distinct advantages that short-form games present over the formerly typical 20-40 hour norm. My game, Plus Gun, is an extremely fast-paced first person shooter that’s often over before you even notice it started. It’s hard (too hard, probably). It asks players to juggle a constant deluge of enemies while solving an unfamiliar resource management problem: points vs. guns. For it to work at all, I knew Plus Gun had to be short.
I had a conversation several years ago with a designer who was the lead on a big upcoming AAA first person shooter. The game had some really exciting ideas about dynamic narrative, characters, and player choice. I asked him how those concepts were shaping up. He said, “Honestly, I have no idea. It’s impossible to tell. So I just log in everyday and tweak the gun balance. The guns feel good, I know that.” The game was just too big for him to get his arms around the (potentially) exciting mechanics.
That illustrates one advantage of short games, as I see it: the opportunity to zoom in on a game mechanic, and really explore its possibilities. Strip away all the filler and cruft, and we can truly experience what’s unique and interesting about your game’s core concept.
This leads to a sink-or-swim dynamic, however, which is exhilarating and terrifying — if your clever game design idea isn’t so clever after all, or if it collapses into an incoherent mess when subject to serious play, you’re screwed. Plus Gun features a strange mechanic that asks players to continually teeter between survival and desire for a high score. Is that mechanic enough to carry a whole game? Even a short one? I’m still not sure.
Short games also afford a major advantage relevant to one of my design goals for Plus Gun: I like making games that people can get good at. This might seem a quaint or obvious goal, but many video games for the past 20 years have been experiences that most people play just once (if even that many times). Contrast this with older arcade games, sports, or card games, and the difference becomes clear. How many people are really “good” at Mass Effect? It’s almost a silly question. But how about Canabalt? Poker? Or even Angry Birds?
By being small enough to play over and over again, short games allow players to build skills and develop strategies over time. Short games allow players to iterate over a design, to find its interesting corners, and, sometimes, its broken dead ends or infinite chasms. My high score in the current version of Plus Gun is around 10,000,000. Am I the world’s best player? Can someone play forever? I still don’t know, but by keeping Plus Gun short, I’ve improved my chances of finding out.
None of this is a prescription. There’s still a ton of interesting work to be done in games of all shapes and sizes. Of course, there’s a final benefit to making short games — generally, they’re going to take less time to make. Someday I might find myself working on a 100-hour epic. But for now, I like short songs.
 Brendan Caldwell over at Rock, Paper Shotgun documented some of the developers who seem to express the essence of punk in indie games, in his column Punk’s Not Dead.
 My friend Frank Lantz has sung the praises of short-session games for a while. One of his favorite games, Poker, is a sterling example of how short games can put to use the lazy game designer’s favorite tool: randomness. There might be more on short sessions and the Law of Large Numbers in a future column, but for now, watch Frank talk about Life, Death, and the Middle Pair.