My New Year’s Resolutions

1. More Independence
2. Less games

The start of a new decade feels like an appropriate time to get ambitious. Out with the old, in with the new! Not that there’s going to be any extreme changes around here. My resolutions mostly concern a change in attitude, in philosophy. But, with any luck, they will take us further. And in the right direction.

While these resolutions have been bubbling up for a while, two things were direct triggers: Auriea’s realisation that her favourite games of the decade are all over 5 years old and our recent visit to the Belgian incarnation of the historical Game On exhibition where it became very clear how much more fun the old arcade games are than the new pseudo-narrative shiny next gen titles upon which I had based a lot of my hopes.


We don’t want to make obscure art. This is a big part of the reason why we choose to work with digital media. We don’t even want to make art per se. We just want to share beautiful moments and elegant thoughts with people who are open to them. And perhaps, in our most audacious daydreams, we’d hope to make a small contribution to a more harmonious world.

Accessibility is one of the reasons why we don’t shy away from commerce. Commerce is an efficient way to distribute things in a capitalist system. And thanks to the abundance of the digital, we can sell our work very cheaply. But commerce also has a way of confusing an artist, of holding you back. Commerce forces you to think about seduction -even when it’s not appropriate- and to favour projects with commercial potential over others that might be more relevant artistically. We like our work to be accessible. But we want that to be an artistic choice and not an economic requirement.

We’re not very good at commerce anyway. We don’t have clever business minds. And our work is just a bit too far away from the ordinary to appeal to people who do. But above all, thinking about commerce -however exciting it may sometimes be- always ends in bogging us down, to slowing us down, to depressing us.

I want us to become less dependent. Less dependent on money, less dependent on success, less dependent on quantity. And focus exclusively on quality. This includes improving the accessibility of our work! While commercial pressure may motivate one to lower the threshold of their productions, it only does so towards a specific target audience, effectively locking everyone else out. It would be possible to optimize our work to be very accessible for hardcore gamers. But at the expensive of other people we might also want to communicate with. We want our work to be more widely accessible. We don’t want to depend on any specific niche.

None of this leads to any radical decisions. This is just a resolution that can guide us when making future decisions. As of now, I want to focus on self-sufficiency. And favour non-profit or break-even operations over commercial ones. Or even figure out ways to make losing money bearable. It’s ok if that means working on smaller projects. As long as they are “big on the inside”.

Games over

This year, I’m going to care less about games. And as a result, I will probably enjoy them more.

I give up.
I give up on my hopes for videogames to become a valid cultural medium.
I’ve been fighting very hard. I’ve been putting my money where my mouth is. For several years already. Almost a decade.

But the games industry is merrily traveling in the opposite direction. Videogames are not changing anymore. They seem to have lost that capacity. Sure, the technology still evolves, so everything gets more shiny. But this is not leading to any sort of evolution, let alone the required revolution. The desire is simply not there.

Because videogames are happy just as they are. The videogame culture is extremely pleased with itself. A few years ago, people were still complaining about “sequelitis”. No everybody merrily plays Hip Shootgame #13 and Cool Jumpgame #26, with no objections. On the contrary! Everybody gets very solemn and deep when yet another war simulator hits the shelves. Only to forget it within the first week of release.

Gamers, publishers, journalists are all very happy! Who am I to spoil their fun? If they feel comfortable in a juvenile ghetto that is irrelevant to culture, good for them. I’m out of here.

Maybe this is another incarnation of my desire for independence: I want to be independent from the games industry. And from the games format.

Games are fun. Let them be fun. And let’s do something else, when we want to be serious. Let’s focus on interactive entertainment that is not games (let’s call them “notgames” for now :) ). With a technology that is so versatile and powerful, why should we limit our productions and enjoyment to the single format of games, a format that has been around for centuries and doesn’t even need computers to exist?

I realize that it has always been our mission at Tale of Tales to explore the potential of the interactive medium. But so far, this has happened in some form of conflict with videogames, based on our misguided belief that videogames had potential to grow, to grow into a medium (which, believe it our not, still seemed possible only 5 years ago). Simply letting go of the connection, will make our job a lot easier as it will help us explore with far less constraints. Leaving behind the idea that we’re making a game, opens up a world of creative possibilities!


But more than that, I want to stimulate research and development of notgames. Instead of continuously having senseless arguments with game fans, developers and theorists, I want to gather together the brightest ideas concerning non-game interactive entertainment. Without the noise and the distractions. Maybe we’ll start a blog about the subject, with news, essays, opinion pieces, debates. A place where ideas can be explored and shared and discussed. I would also like to commission designers and artists to make new non-game interactive projects. Maybe there can be a competition like those ubiquitous game making competitions, but about making interactive entertainment that is not games -far more exciting and certainly a much larger area to explore. And finally, I’m looking into the possibility of starting a sort of label -like a record label- to publish and distribute notgames.

If you would like to contribute to any of this, please post a comment or send email.

Happy New Year! :)

A bad year for dreams

2009 Was another triumphant year for the Wii and DS. Nintendo has successfully introduced the general public to playing games on computer hardware. But this is far from a triumph for the medium of videogames.

Refusing to grow up keeps you small
Source: VGChartz

People like playing games

Nintendo didn’t do much. But they were smart about it. Rather than trying to start a revolution with a brand new medium, they had a good look at the way people play today and made digital versions of those activities. They basically made it possible for people to play the kinds of games they were already enjoying, on their television sets.

Some may celebrate this as the breakthrough of videogames into the mainstream. I don’t. I hope this is just a temporary setback in the evolution of the medium. I’m not a big fan of huge corporations, but I do share, to some extent, the dreams that Sony and Microsoft have about the interactive medium. With them, I see videogames as the great new art form of the new century. Videogames as the cinema, television and pop music of the young millennium.

It’s not about getting as many people as possible to play games (they were already playing games, have been doing that since the dawn of time, there’s nothing new here). It’s about giving our times, our cultures a medium that we can find ourselves in, that we can express ourselves in. A medium that can help us understand our world, and that can help define it. Just as literature and cinema have done in the past.

Nintendo does not share this dream. They never have. Mario and Zelda and Pokemon are nothing like Scarlett O’Hara, Jean-Luc Picard or Romeo and Juliet. Nintendo makes games. It’s what they do. And they’re successful at it.

But the dream of Sony and Microsoft reaches a lot further. They want to be part of your life style, part of your culture, embedded in your society. They want the experiences you have on their systems to be meaningful and dramatic. They’re not selling fun. They’re selling mystery and wonder, spectacle and discovery, experiences you have never had before.

And they failed. Massively. So much so that they are hurrying to try and pick some crumbs left behind by Nintendo by quickly introducing some motion sensing hardware to their systems. The irony of the cats following the mouse would be amusing if it weren’t so sad.

The failure of the nerds

Nintendo got one thing right. It’s an extremely obvious thing. But Sony and Microsoft continuously fail at recognizing it. Nintendo realized that the mainstream audience does not consist of nerds -in fact, one could argue that that is the very definition of a mainstream audience. As soon as they did, they were instantly successful.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. The “hardcore industry” has always insisted that games were great just as they were, that it was just a matter of time before the masses would start playing them. They were basically expecting that everyone would become a nerd. Obviously this did not happen. And it never will. If only because language doesn’t allow it. Nerd and mainstream are polar opposites.

The games themselves were not the problem. Any expert will point out that there is not a lot of difference between Tic Tac Toe and Gears of War, or between Super Mario and Devil May Cry. But Nintendo -finally- realized that people don’t play games for the pretty characters or the great stories but for the systems of interaction that they allow us to engage in. And those systems are far better served by simple graphics and sounds than by elaborate theatrical displays.

The games that Sony and Microsoft have been promoting were basically the digital equivalent of chess sets with pieces made to look like characters from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Only 1337 H4x0rz would actually believe they were attacking the Death Star while playing a match with such a set. Most people simply prefer to play a straight-up game with traditional pieces.

Games and… something else?

So now we’re at a crossroads. Do we give up the dream of a new medium for a new century and follow Nintendo’s example of simply giving people what they expect? Or do we strive for greatness and realize the potential of this marvellous new technology?

Nintendo has made one thing clear: people want to play games. But only if the games are simple and straightforward. They don’t want pretty pictures on their games or sweeping stories. They just want to have fun. However, the same people who are having fun with the Wii, also enjoy a visit to the cinema. They also love reading books. Their eyes fill with tears when listening to their favourite pop tune. And they’re hooked on several television shows. These people are not insensitive to narrative, emotion or meaning. They just don’t want to mix those experiences with playing games.

So the solution seems clear. If we want to realize the dream, if we want to give the new century the medium it deserves, the medium it needs, the medium it is sorely lacking, we need to stop wasting this technology on games!

It’s a difficult step to take. Because we love our games. We love battling our giant demons and riding our fire breathing dragons. We love planning our global wars and feeling the rush of victory against improbable odds. But let’s face it: we’re nerds. And only nerds like this kind of stuff. In the clear light of day, a sober eye quickly recognizes these videogames as the superb kitsch they are. Such videogames appeal exclusively to an educated elite and/or marginal ghetto.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to create interactive entertainment for people outside of the core niche. People still love their stories, and they still need fiction to help them deal with reality. And people also love to interact with their machines. That has ceased to be a geek exclusive a long time ago -if it ever was one. We just need to work a bit harder.

Instead of simply skinning ancient game routines with high tech spectacle, we need to sit down and have a good look at our medium-to-be and understand what is so uniquely interesting about it. Instead of trying to use new technology to do old tricks, we need to figure out what it is exactly that we find so fascinating about playing on a computer. And translate this to new audiences. This is not an easy thing to do, and it will take a lot of trial and error. But the rewards are great and the accomplishment will completely overshadow any of Nintendo’s current successes.

Down or up?

Will Sony and Microsoft realize this any time soon? I doubt it. The fight seems to have moved from the living room to the play room, from the media store to the toy store. And they will battle it out right there, on the brightly coloured carpet, in between the Barbie dolls and plastic machine guns, while the rest of the world is aching for a new medium, a medium that can deal with the complexities of today’s society, a fiction that can help us cope with our confusing realities.

I feel we have a responsibility here. A duty, even. We have a choice. We can continue to make geek kitsch for the niche audience of hardcore gamers. We can follow Nintendo and make simple games with pixels and code instead of cardboard and plastic. Or we can do something important, something meaningful, something that actually makes a difference.

Let’s end with a long picture:
Sources: VGChartz, Worldmapper, Wikipedia

Are indie games too cheap?

(…) if Machinarium sold for just $10 more, a price I would still pay for the game, many gamers would instantly be turned off of the title. Not because they don’t feel the title is worth their money, or even because they don’t think it’s worth $30, but, rather, because they are accustomed to getting indie games at super cheap prices, despite how much money, effort, love, and creativity was put into the title.

Geoff Gibson, DIY Gamer

John Jackson responds to this that the problem is not that indie games are under-priced but that AAA games are over-priced. And to some extent, he is right. He just doesn’t seem to realize, however, that what you’re actually paying more for when buying a AAA game in a store is not the game itself but the wages of the shop attendant and the truck driver, the heating of the store, the bribes to get shelf space, the advertising and marketing, and in some places additional taxes. If you subtract all of this, you are indeed only giving $20 out of the $60 you paid to the developer and publisher of the game, the same amount as you pay to an indie developer who sells their games via digital download from their own website. This sounds fair (as long as the customers can accept that most of their money goes to other things than the actual production of the game).

If AAA games would be sold online, and not through expensive retail, their price could be the same as that of indie games.

But what should that price be?

Continue reading “Are indie games too cheap?”

We are debt free!

Auriea in Animal Crossing

We’re happy to announce that today we paid off our loan to CultuurInvest for the production of The Path. We are debt free! That took about 35,000 sales. The loan only covers part of the entire production budget. But the rest was funded with subsidies and art grants with much more modest expectations of return on investment.

Ergo: as of now, every copy of The Path sold contributes to new Tales of Tales!
Or returning to an old one

The punk economy


artists need to make money to eat and to continue to make art.

artists used to rely on middlemen to collect their money on their behalf, thereby rendering themselves innocent of cash-handling in the public eye.

artists will now be coming straight to you (yes YOU, you who want their music, their films, their books) for their paychecks.
please welcome them. please help them. please do not make them feel badly about asking you directly for money.
dead serious: this is the way shit is going to work from now on and it will work best if we all embrace it and don’t fight it.

Amanda Palmer