Monthly Archives: July 2013

New Interviews + Alpha Push

Hey everyone, here’s my third on-time blog post in a row … pretty soon I’ll be so regular I won’t even need to point it out anymore. This was a really busy week on The Novelist. First off, a few interviews went live:

  • Talkingship: This one has some information on the game, but also goes into detail about the difference between working in the AAA industry and working independently. It’s a really well-done prose interview (thanks, Shakeel!), so check it out.
  • JogoPro: This is an interview I actually did quite a while ago, but which was just recently translated and published. The original Portuguese version can be found here. This one in particular is interesting because of the discussion of the Xbox One; it was done before the big 180, and had my take on the situation at that time. It looks like Microsoft has realized their mistakes at this point and is saying all the right things; let’s hope they follow through.

As for the game, I’m trying to put together an alpha build by the end of the month. It won’t be content-complete: I’m doing one last round of pickups with CGBot, and I’m now glad I opened the game up for preorders … the preorder money sure does help in paying for additional artwork, so thanks a ton to everyone who preordered! But all the major pieces will be there: all 9 chapters of the game, all the menus and options, a tweaked/improved series of backstory chapters, the new-style chapter/act break wrapup scenes, the game intro, some tutorials and player help … you know, all the stuff that makes a videogame a videogame.

The game isn’t done yet. The alpha build will have bugs. It will have some placeholder art. It won’t be fully polished. Some of the tuning will be off. But it’s a pretty big milestone, as it will be the first friends and family playtest I’ve done in something like 4 months; hopefully the playtesters like the game’s progress! I’m sure they’ll find all sorts of hideous bugs and have lots of great feedback, which is the entire point: I need to know what’s working, what could use more love, and what it’s gonna take to finish this sucker off.

Oh! One other thing! We’re now in the top 25 of Greenlight, which is amazing. Thank you so much, to everyone who’s voted. Now that the game is nearing release, I want to do everything I can to get the game on Greenlight. That’s where you come in: even if you’ve voted, please take an opportunity to share the Greenlight link with your friends via Twitter, Facebook, email, blogs … whatever your preferred method of communication is. It still helps to get as many votes as possible, and I’d love to get one final push and get the game on Steam.

Anyway, that’s the state of the state. I’ll be back to work some tomorrow and will be hitting the ground running on Monday for a week of long hours and nose-to-the-grindstone implementation. But the end is sorta kinda possibly maybe coming into sight …

… if you squint your eyes just the right way.

JogoPro Interview + Xbox One Predictions

Hey everyone, Kent here with a rare mid-week post. The Brazilian website JogoPro just published an interview I did quite a while back, and since it’s in Portuguese I got their permission to post the original English interview here. Thanks, Edu!

This one is kind of interesting because of the question about the Xbox One. I turned in this interview on June 13th, before Microsoft pulled their 180 and removed the always-on DRM requirements, and before Don Mattrick left for Zynga. The timing is extra funny given that just today Microsoft announced that indies would be able to publish on the Xbox One.

At the time I said that Microsoft would be “forced to adapt or watch their new console fail,” and it appears that they’ve chosen to adapt.

Oh, and there’s also a bunch of stuff about the game in the interview, too!


First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the concept and trailer of “The Novelist”. It seems like a fresh, innovative and emotional game, and that alone is a reason to celebrate. For how long have you been working on it? Not just with code I mean, but for how long the idea is in your head?

Thanks for the kind words! The idea has been in my head in one form or another for a few years now. I started getting interested in the concept of player-driven stories in 2010, and my interest at that time culminated in a talk I gave at GDC 2011. At that time it was only a hypothetical interest, though; I knew what I wanted from games and where I wanted them to go, but I wasn’t actively working on any projects with those goals.

Once I quit my job to go indie, though, the idea kept nagging at me. When I first struck out on my own I started making an iOS game, but within a few weeks I went on a one-month contracting job and during that time I realized I had no real passion for the game I was making. I started thinking about what kind of game I wanted to work on when the contracting job was up, and the idea of doing something with player-driven stories bubbled up.

I’d previously written a short design for a game where you play a ghost in a house full of people who’ve just come from a funeral, and that was the original form of the game that I started working on in February of 2012. As I kept working, though, I realized that I needed to create a more defined context for the relationships in order for players to identify with the choices and characters, and around June of last year I hit upon the idea of a novelist trying to balance his career with his family.

So as a high level idea it’s been floating around in my head off and on for years, but this specific execution of it is about a year old.

The protagonist has writing as his job, he has to manage his time to work, and deals with doubts about spending more time with his family. To what extent does that problem relate directly to you, being a developer, working alone, doing almost everything by yourself? (And we know that takes A LOT of time!)

It’s definitely a struggle I identify with. I don’t have any children, but I am married and it does take effort to do good work while maintaining a healthy relationship. The game was never intended to be autobiographical, though; when I hit upon the idea of balancing the main character’s career with parenthood and marriage, I was really just trying to find something universal that people could identify with.

That said, once I started writing the game and trying to create real-world scenarios I found myself drawing on my own questions and struggles to create a perspective for Dan, the novelist in the game. He’s only one of three characters, though, so even though I identify more with him it doesn’t mean his path through the game is the right one. I’ve tried my best to make all three character equally sympathetic so that players have to bring their own values and opinions into their decision-making, which in turn allows them to tell their own story.

And how do you manage your time, to spend moments with your family and friends? Do you have time left, now working on The Novelist?

It’s definitely a challenge, but as with many aspects of life the most important thing is to simply acknowledge the challenge and make a conscious effort to prioritize the things that are important to you.

For example, there are two nights a week when my wife and I make sure we spend the entire evening together doing something interesting (trying a new restaurant, going to a music show, visiting a museum, etc). We see each other every day, of course, but on those days we make a conscious effort to do something new together instead of just watching a movie or spending time on our iPads.

It’s the same with hanging out with friends. Even though it’s tempting to just lay around and relax after a hard day of work, it’s important to make the effort to meet up with a friend or go do something fun. I also keep my IM program open and stay in touch with my friends throughout the day to keep those connections strong.

So in the end, it comes down to making family and friends a priority. It’s one thing to say they’re important, but if someone really means a lot you have to take action and make a conscious effort to keep those relationships alive.

Did you think about launching The Novelist in consoles such as PS3, Xbox 360 or Wii U? If so, what kept you from doing it, what made you prioritize PCs?

I prioritized the PC because it’s by far the platform with the lowest barrier to entry. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get your game onto a console (though Sony has lowered the barrier to entry quite a bit recently), but on the PC you can make the whole thing in your apartment and sell it yourself (which I’m already doing on the game’s website). I definitely plan to look at putting it on consoles after the PC game has shipped, though right now it looks like the PS3, PS4, and OUYA are the only viable options.

Nowadays is easier to get financial investment for independent games than it was before? Do you think that individual incentives that are shown in Kickstarter are a better way of getting investment than the traditional way?

I definitely think that Kickstarter is a great thing for games and creative projects in general. The benefit of Kickstarter is that it lets you pitch your ideas directly to the audience, and for people who haven’t worked in the AAA industry it’s hard to understand just how empowering that concept is when compared to the traditional model.

Publicly traded companies have a primary purpose: to generate profit for their shareholders. They may have other secondary goals, but those other goals are all aimed at achieving the primary goal of making money. So when you have a creative company – and this goes for movie companies, music companies, book companies, and other artistic industries – there’s a natural tension between business goals and the creative workforce. The people who work on games want to make the coolest, most creative thing they can, but the people who run the company want to make as much money as possible for the shareholders.

The friction arises because creativity is risky. You can’t do truly creative work without a real chance of failing; that’s the nature of the beast. In a corporate environment, a failed project can mean losing millions of dollars, which is in direct conflict with the company’s primary goal. That in turn means that companies are less likely to take creative risks and are more likely to look for sure things, which is why we see so many clones and retreads of the same types of games. There may be a few exceptions to the explanation above, but in my personal experience the financial side has usually won out. I’ve seen years of work thrown away by executives who don’t even play games, people who rely on focus tests to form an opinion about what the audience wants.

With Kickstarter, on the other hand, you can find out not only how many people want your game, but how many are willing to give you real money for it. That’s a concrete show of support. So while the budgets aren’t remotely as big as a AAA title, you’re also not trying to get the money from someone who’s wildly risk-averse; you’re getting it from people who are saying, “Yes! We want what you’re making!” That’s a very liberating concept for creative individuals, because it’s made it possible to get risky projects underway.

Microsoft has just announced the new Xbox One and had no words for the indie development, they only wanted to show an impressive increase of technology and opening for a diversity of possibilities… Is it a bad thing for indie developers and the independent scene, or once the mainstream industry of games sets its eyes on indie games it becomes part of the industry (and then it’s not independent anymore)?

This probably won’t be a popular opinion, but I don’t really care that the Xbox One doesn’t support independent developers. I would feel very differently if the XBone was the only way for independent games to reach a wide audience, but there are a ton of other ways to get your product out to gamers between the Humble Store, Steam, PS4, iOS, Android, OUYA, Desura, direct website sales, and other platforms.

Don’t get me wrong: I think Microsoft has made a mistake by not supporting independent developers on the XBone, but I think they’ve made a number of anti-gamer decisions with the console (my buddy Chris Plante wrote a good summary on Polygon). The reason I’m not worried about the XBone shutting out independent developers is that I take a very Darwinistic view of the situation; I believe products that don’t serve their audience will fail and that gamer-friendly products will succeed.

Customers don’t buy expensive consoles that don’t meet their needs, especially when there are viable alternatives.

If gamers are as put-off by the XBone as they seem to be judging by the E3 reaction, then Microsoft will be forced to adapt or watch their new console fail. Given that there are so many other ways for people to create and sell indie games, I’m content to take advantage of the channels that are there and let market forces dictate the outcome for platforms that aren’t friendly to independent developers.

As for whether or not the inclusion of indie games on consoles would make them part of the mainstream, I don’t think that a game’s distribution platform defines whether or not it’s mainstream. To me, the difference between an independent game and a mainstream game comes down to two questions: where did the funding come from, and what are the creative goals of the product? If a developer funds a game via methods outside the AAA system and has creative control, then in my mind it’s still an indie game even if it’s distributed on the PS4 or XBone or WiiU. It’s a question of where the game came from, not where it ended up.

But ultimately, I really only care about what the creative goals of a game are and how those goals are realized in the final product. There are amazing, inspiring AAA games and there are really awful indie games; I cringe a little bit when I see people turning it into an “us vs. them” situation. Your goal as a creator should be to find a situation where you’re creatively empowered and can work on something you’re passionate about. I have friends doing that in both the AAA and indie spaces, and I couldn’t be happier for them regardless of where they are.

So as long as there are ways for games of all types to find an audience and be profitable enough to sustain the individuals and companies doing good work, I’ll be happy.

If you have something you like to say to gamers in general, especially Brazilian gamers, this is the space:

Although I’ve never been fortunate enough to visit Brazil (yet!), it’s wonderful to see games reaching such a global audience. If you’re reading this, please find ways to support the developers and projects you believe in, whether that means helping out on Kickstarter, voting on Greenlight, or buying games when they’re released. You have the ability to support what you believe in and shape the industry, and that’s a beautiful thing!

Saving Tips + New Interviews

Hey everyone, Kent here with the regularly-scheduled Saturday update (the second week in a row that I’m doing it on time!). This one’s going to be a little less game-specific than normal. It primarily focuses on some saving tips for people who are thinking of trying the indie thing and want to put some money away, but if you want to get the latest news there are a few good interviews to share this week.

  • Giant Bomb (Article): I talked to Patrick Klepek about all sorts of things, and he wrote a great article about the history of the game and how I’ve tried to capture the experience of being a parent despite not having any kids.
  • Giant Bomb (Podcast): If you want to hear the full interview, you can check it out in podcast form! Listen in on my conversation with Patrick for more details.
  • VentureBeat: This is part of a larger series that focuses on why so many developers are leaving AAA for indie development. There’s some information about the game in there, but the larger focus is on contrasting AAA and indie dev.

And that’s it for interviews!

Now on to the main topic, which is life-focused and has nothing to do with the game. Earlier this week, my friend JP tweeted a question that sparked a lot of conversation:

It’s a good question, and I did my part to shame Chris Plante into researching the subject and writing an article about it (here’s hoping he decides to do it!). Anyway, in the course of the conversation I mentioned that a few years ago I learned a technique that helped me save money, and I figured it would be helpful to share it here.

But before I get into the nuts and bolts of the post I should give a little bit of background: I was a full-time employee in the AAA industry for ten and a half years before I went indie. Other than a few gaps between jobs, I had regular paychecks and the time and opportunity to build a savings account. I didn’t actually take advantage of that opportunity most of the time, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have a steady living situation since graduating college. I don’t want my advice to come off sounding like a perfect solution for all financial situations, because it isn’t, but hopefully it will be useful for some of you.

Anyway. Enough disclaimers.

One of the best things you can do as an indie is have money in savings. You may be able to live off your savings long enough to make a game, or it may supplement a part-time job or bridge the gap so that your partner can support you both for a set period of time. But no matter what you do with the money, it’s never bad to have a savings account.

The Novelist doesn’t have any outside investors, I didn’t use Kickstarter, and a big reason I’m able to make the game is that my wonderful wife has a good job. So I can’t really comment on how to raise funds, and advising people to go get married to someone with a job probably isn’t too useful either. But it’s definitely the case that if one person in a relationship has a job it can be the difference between lighting your savings account on fire or merely watching it slowly melt away.

I’ve always been terrible at saving money. Well, that’s not exactly true; in the past, when I saved money it was always socked away in places I couldn’t touch it, like an employer 401k account. I thought, “Hey, I’m putting money away and being responsible, so whatever’s in my checking account is there for the spending!” I never spent more than I made or got into credit card debt, but I did my best to spend exactly what I made, leaving me with no liquid savings. If I ever had an unexpected expense (car repairs, doctor bill, etc) it was hugely stressful because I had no safety net whatsoever. I would kick myself for not saving money, but I never did anything to change the situation.

Then about four years ago I realized I wanted to change this behavior, in no small part because my wife is a much better saver than I am and we wanted to start building a nest egg for adventures like one of us quitting our job and working independently. So we started looking for ways to set money aside, and a financial advisor showed us a great methodology: have your paychecks deposited directly into your savings account, and then set up an automatic payment for a smaller amount into your checking account. It sounds simple, but it fundamentally changed my ability to save.

Maybe an example would help.

Let’s say that you get $1,000 per paycheck every two weeks. If that was me, I would look at each paycheck and say, “Cool, I have $1,000 to spend before I get my next paycheck!” If my expenses were only $700, I would say, “Great, I have $300 for fun stuff!” and figure out a way to spend it all. If rent/food/gas didn’t use it all up, I’d go looking for Blu-Rays or albums to buy. And if I was ever lucky enough to get a bonus at work or an annual raise I never saved the new money, I just said, “Awesome, now I have more money to buy stuff with!” In short, if I had money I was gonna spend it.

So let’s look at the same hypothetical $1,000 paycheck with a new goal: saving $100 per paycheck (which would be $200 a month and $2,400 a year). What you’d do is change your bank setup so that your $1,000 paycheck goes directly into your savings account, and then you’d set up an automated rule that transfers $900 into your checking account, leaving $100 in your savings account from every paycheck. It’s easy to set this kind of thing up with online banking, especially if your employer offers direct deposit.

It sounds really simple, but the effect it had on me was profound: I realized that no matter what was in my checking account, I would try to spend it. It had nothing to do with the amount of money itself. I would simply spend what I saw in my account. So when that $1,000 changed to $900, I just spent $900 instead. I didn’t miss the $100, because I never saw it in the first place.

They say that to break a habit it helps to remove the trigger: if you want to stop eating so many cookies during the day, hide them in the back of the pantry instead of leaving them out on the counter and tempting yourself every time you walk past them. It’s the same thing here.

Now, obviously there are practical realities to having less money to spend each month. It’s pretty easy to set up this kind of automated savings plan if that $100 is non-essential, but if the full $1,000 is required to buy food and pay rent then you can’t just cut out $100 without consequences; you’d need to find other ways to save if your necessary expenses are that tight.

But even if your budget is tight, you might want to give this technique a shot anyway. I found that when I committed to saving money it was easier than I expected to look at how I was spending my paycheck and find places to cut back.

We started cooking at home more, b/c money goes a lot further at the grocery store than it does if you eat lunch and dinner out; The Novelist has been fueled by reheated leftovers. I haven’t bought any clothes or shoes for almost two years. We got rid of cable, which saved us $100 a month right there (and arguably raised our IQ scores). Those are just random examples, but if you make an effort you can find a million small ways to save money.

Ultimately, you have to make it a priority to save. Putting your paychecks into a savings account and automatically setting some of it aside without ever seeing it is a great tool, but only if you make the changes to your budget necessary to live on the smaller sum; if you still spend the $100 you’re supposed to be saving and put the balance on a credit card, you’re worse off than if you hadn’t tried to save at all.

But you know where this technique really helps? You get so used to living on a fixed amount of money that it rewires your thinking. Any sum above your normal paycheck goes into savings by default. So if you get a 2% cost-of-living raise at your job, that 2% goes directly into your savings. In the past, when I got raises I instantly figured out what my new paycheck would be and started planning how to spend the new money. But if you get into the habit of living on a fixed sum and you never see your paycheck at all, then a raise or a bonus just increases your savings by default instead of tempting you to blow it on something you don’t need.

Anyway, this has turned out to be a much longer post than I planned, but in light of JP’s question I wanted to do my small part in answering the question. This advice won’t work for everyone in every financial situation, but if you’re steadily-employed and have room to cut a few expenses it can be really powerful to remove the Spend More Money trigger, set up an out-of-sight-out-of-mind automatic banking rule, and start building the kind of savings that can open up all sorts of exciting doors in the future.

Game Intro + More Tools

Hey everyone, check me out: doing the Saturday update on time for once!

There are no new interviews to share this week, but there should be a few coming soon. This was a good week for development; I started work on the game’s intro, which I hope to keep really lightweight and unobtrusive. The meat of the game is chapter-based and very systemic, but I want to make sure to introduce players to the mechanics and the environment in a safe way so they can get used to how the game works before being thrown into the deep end. The very fact that the game is so systemic makes it more difficult than normal to do traditional level-based scripting, but I was able to iron out the kinks and get a short intro sequence in place.

My goal is to create a tutorial at the start of the first chapter that does two things:

  • Establishes a bit of the family’s backstory (but not too much … I want players to fill in some blanks and piece things together for themselves)
  • Introduces the basic movement/navigation/interaction verbs in a safe environment, when players aren’t worried about stealth gameplay.

I’ve got the flow all implemented, and over the next few days I’ll put in the final content and get it up to a presentable state.

I also spent some time today putting in a handy little recap feature, so that if you’ve been away from the game for a while and then sit down for a new session you can review the previous story choices you’ve made and get back up to speed. It was a much-requested feature from earlier playtests, and it turned out to be much easier to implement than I previously thought (although fixing bugs and making it shippable took about 5 times as long as creating the basic feature).

I also realized that I forgot a few things in the write-up I did a few weeks ago about the tools I’m using to create the game. Here are a few things I forgot the first time around (I’ve also updated the original post):

  • Apogee MiC: This is the microphone I’m using for voice recordings, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s really compact and it has a pre-amp built in, so you just plug it into your USB port or iOS device and you’re set. No power cords, no extra gear, just a great mic that’s ready to go. If you’re looking for an inexpensive way to record voice or music, check it out!
  • TwistedWave: This is a really powerful sound editor. I’ve used it for cleaning up voice recordings, applying filters to sound effects in the game, and even recording the soundtrack via Soundflower (described in the soundtrack preview post). I’ve also used it for personal music projects, and I highly recommend it. It’s a little more expensive than some programs, but it’s incredibly powerful and polished.
  • Google Apps: I love Dreamhost, but their webmail interface is … well, it leaves something to be desired. They make it easy to host your email with Google Apps, though, and for $5 a month you can have Google handle all of your mail. It works with your existing domain, so you can keep the same email address (as opposed to, and you get all the Gmail benefits plus an administrator dashboard. All in all it’s a great option for small companies that don’t want to run a full IT department or host their own servers for files and email.

Anyway, that’s it for this week. I’m trying to march forward and finish the game in the next two months, and though a lot of the work it takes to finalize a game isn’t sexy it’s gotta be done. Wish me luck!

Soundtrack Preview + Podcast Interview

Hey everyone, I’m checking in with this week’s Friday Saturday Sunday update! I know I keep slipping on these, mostly because I rarely have time to put together a blog post on Friday while trying to work on the game. I decided this week that I would start doing blog posts on Saturday … and then missed that date, too. But better late than never!

Anyway, this was a fairly slow week news-wise. The only new interview is with my friends over at This Is My Joystick, but it was a podcast instead of a written interview so that’s a bit of a change. Give it a listen if you’d like to hear us chat about the game. There are other games featured in the podcast, and The Novelist’s segment is at 1:34:40.

Neil asked for a bit of music to use in the podcast, and since I happen to have I spent some time last week tweaking the music I thought it would be fun to share a song here.

The music in The Novelist is created by an algorithm that randomly selects from a large list of scales to create a unique soundtrack for every player. Each time you start a new chapter in the game, the algorithm adjusts a large number of settings (tempo, the percentage of runs vs chords, the length of the runs, how linear or random the runs should be, and a bunch of other variables) and then starts a song that plays indefinitely without ever looping or repeating.

I really enjoy the effect; sometimes a surprising or beautiful musical passage will play, and I’ll feel a bittersweet twinge because I know that moment will never happen again. The music is completely transient, and you’ll never hear the same thing twice.

But while it’s pretty cool to constantly hear unique music, it also means that there’s really no such thing as a “song” in the game. For that reason, I created a debug mode where the game deletes all of the actors in the game and only plays music. It also selects from an additional set of criteria to break the music up into segments of traditional song-like length. The lengths are, of course, random, but right now it’s set to pick a length between 3 and 9 minutes. When the game is in this mode, it just sits there and plays different randomized songs forever.

Once the debug music mode is cruising along, I can then use a tool called Soundflower to directly capture the game’s audio buffer and record the music in real time. After doing that, I just have to go into an audio editor and clip the tracks up into individual songs. The debug mode creates a log file with the names of the songs (based on the scales) and some information about the tempos and lengths, all of which helps in editing them into individual tracks. For the official soundtrack release, I plan to use this method and generate a ton of songs, then go through and pick out the best ones to create the official score.

A month or two ago I tested out this methodology and recorded a handful of songs, and the track below is one of the songs I really liked (it’s based on the Aeolian scale, if you’re interested). This track is using an older version of the algorithm, and I’m still tweaking things to get just the right sound for the game (I’ve added some different types of runs and chord combinations since recording this track).

Be warned: this song may be mellower than what you’re used to in game scores. I want The Novelist to have a very ethereal, peaceful aesthetic, and as such the music is intended to be a background accompaniment, not a bombastic foreground component. So while this song might not make the best soundtrack for working out at the gym, it’s pretty nice for curling up with your favorite book.

If the embedded player isn’t working in your browser, or if you’d just like to download the song directly, here’s a link. I hope you enjoy the song, and I’ll see you guys next week!