Something I’ve been interested in since I started making games myself is just the exploration of the process of it all. As I’ve said before, I feel like there’s maybe not as much of people writing about the experience of making games and putting them out there, so I’m doing my bit.
Part of the experience of The Artist Is Present being picked up on by “the internet” (it was even a question in QRANK, which was mind-blowing) is that of course my website traffic went up rather a lot. One thing that’s interesting to me, though, is that I have no real way of knowing whether the traffic that ended up passing through the site was a lot, or a bit, or a drip, or anything else. On a personal level I was astounded by the thought of that many people even laying eyes on my website in the first place, so the whole thing was just crazy. But in a larger context? Well I just don’t have the context, so I don’t know.
To that end, I thought it would make sense to just publish the numbers here on the off chance it’s useful to anyone at all or interesting to see. You can click the image for this post to see the most recent barchart from statcounter.com, which I use to track web statistics for all my sites. The numbers there are for the last 30 days for the “subsite” that holds all my games, and mostly reflects the numbers for The Artist Is Present specifically, because that’s where everyone was headed.
The thing I find the most amazing is that the days leading up to the crazy spike (when the game was featured in all kinds of amazing places online) look like this flat “nothing going on” area, when in fact during those days my site was insanely popular by my own standards because there were still a couple of hundred people coming in every day! The other thing, of course, is just the visualisation of what a traffic spike looks like, in terms of a statistical reflection of media coverage for a game – that’s what happens. As you can see it’s gradually subsiding again after the second mega-spike that came of the game featuring on Spiegel Online and German sites (and some other European nations, like Italy) featuring the game a bunch.
Anyway, I just wanted to put this out there in the continued interest in “disclosure” of what goes on when you decide to make games and, now, what happens when one of them catches the attention of a particular portion of the internet. It’s been a really fun ride and totally magically having this sense of so many people playing with a thing I made.
I’ve been meaning to write up a bit on what I think The Artist Is Present (the game) is “about” for a while now, but didn’t get to it for one reason or another. The interview I did with Hyperallergic definitely catches on some of it (mostly because it’s drawn from me writing a lengthy email to the interviewer!), but I thought I’d try to throw down a few thoughts here as well. In this post I want to try to address some of the “antagonistic” aspect of the game.
As I’ve said in various places, the game started out most basically as an amusement, a “wouldn’t it be funny if?” moment. As soon as you think to yourself “The Artist Is Present as a video game”, it’s pretty clear that that’s something that ought to exist. And I thought it, so I set to work on making it. The timing was good too: having just made Safety Instructions, which I view much more as a pretty fun game, I wanted to make something that ignored fun in favour of something else (as with Let There Be Smite!).
As happens when you make things, though, different meanings and ideas come up as you go along. On researching the show it was pretty obvious that the core mechanic of the game was about waiting – that’s pretty much what everyone focuses on when they think of the show – either waiting to see Abramovic or, in a sense, waiting with her. And that’s immediately titillating because waiting is obviously the height of poor game design according to convention. (Note that there are some great games about waiting, notably Gregory Weir’s Narthex and Increpare’s Queue). Part of my attitude to it, though, was to take it to some kind of “end game” – just waiting, so real other entertainment or chance of interaction, possibly for hours, possibly never even achieving your aim. Brutal waiting.
Hand-in-hand with the waiting came all the other bits and pieces of making the game “authentic”. By “authentic” I don’t mean that it somehow is a tribute to Abramovic’s work or anything, just that I wanted to find elements of the real situation that would contribute to a particular feeling. Mostly that meant the kind of irksome realities that usually aren’t supposed to impinge on games. In the game that meant having the museum have proper opening hours, and enforcing queue etiquette to the degree that people couldn’t “game” the game (wait without waiting, so speak). The point was to make a game where you really have to wait and that’s that. Haven’t heard about anyone managing to circumvent it, so hopefully that worked out.
All this means that the game is pretty plainly antagonistic from a traditional gameplay perspective. Games are, by and large, meant to somehow “inconvenience” players (being shot, falling blocks, full bladders, etc.) without inconveniencing us (as in, actually causing them hardship). Douglas Wilson has written much more eloquently on this topic than I can manage, but I will say that at the very least it’s pretty obvious to ask “why?” in the face of the commandments of “usability” and “fairness”. As in, why shouldn’t you wait for five hours in a game just to look into pixel eyes? Clearly you (and many others) may not want to, but why shouldn’t it be an option? And so on.
I don’t think of this as merely “being difficult” or “misbehaving” within game design, it seems very obviously important to push on these boundaries to find out what happens. After all, it’s not like all the traditional rules of fairness and accessibility and so on have yielded so many amazing games. There have been many, of course, but it’s a bit ridiculous to live within such tight confines, so we might as well do some other stuff as well. Particularly in this age of being able to produce and publish your own games almost trivially (pending being able to program or develop the game in some way obviously), it would be mad not to make a game about queuing for hours.
In closing on this I will say, too, that at least for me (and anecdotally perhaps some others), The Artist Is Present is a really intense game to play. If you commit to the basic idea that you want to get to see Abramovic, then I think the game falls into place in interesting ways. Most of all, my experience was of an almost unbearable anxiety about paying attention to the queue to make sure I didn’t get shoved out and almost having a heart attack each time it moved. As I’ve said elsewhere, I spent about five hours playing the game, during which time I managed to make dinner (omelet), watch TV (The West Wing) and browse the net a bit (vanity), but throughout which I was largely consumed with my obsession with the queue – I’d say I checked it, flicking my eyes and/or switching windows, about every 20 seconds.
For five hours.
Going through something like that is obviously hugely just to do with the attitude I brought, but I think that’s entirely true of so many games. To the extent that games are essentially inconsequential (other than something insane like Lose/Lose or Painstation) then, well, sure – nothing matters. I find that kind of unsatisfying. It’s fairly clear to me that a big part of the play experience is some kind of agreement between yourself and the game to take it seriously, this is what something like PermaDeath can help with. Part of the problem is that we’re so used to the traditional structures of games (run, shoot, live, die) that it’s extremely hard to care.
One thing that a game like The Artist Is Present can do, then, is provide a new structure within which to maybe, just possibly, give a shit.
Alright, so in my continuing efforts to document the developer (hilarious to refer to myself that way, but it’ll do) side of making and releasing games I thought I’d see what I can say about rather shockingly big media reaction there has been to The Artist Is Present. This is an entirely novel experience from my perspective, so some of it will no doubt be rehashing what many others have said, but I feel like there’s not so much of this maybe from the games community (though as per usual I may just not have read it – not like I read everything).
I released the game on Wednesday I think, at any rate it was in my mind to release it such that MoMA would actually be open for it’s usual week (rather than hitting a Tuesday when it would be closed). As you probably know, “release” in my world means that I upload the .swf and .html files to my site, write a little blurb, and then tweet to my epically small number of people that the game now exists, I also let the Kill Screen posse know (because they’re super smart), and posted it to the TIGsource and Flixel forums. That was the release. But luckily for me, I do know some pretty amazing people and they got the word out more than I ever could, which I appreciate very deeply. It’s a pretty great thing to have supportive friends and colleagues.
The game went out and about and I was anticipating basically that a small number of people would play it, some people would find it interesting (because it is!), some people would hate it, and most people would turn it off in disgust or boredom pretty early on. But for whatever reason (a strange delayed zeitgeist or something), it took off in various place. IndieGames.com was nice enough to review the game (as they did with Safety Instructions), and that completely made my day. And then everything went kind of mad and confusing. In incorrect order, the game was picked up on kottke.org (with an awesome ambivalent little blurb!) and the Huffington Post. And that blew my mind. Those sorts of places are very much in that unknown “other” world of the internet, in some ways what I think of as the “proper” internet, but I guess more like the “professional” internet or whatever. The internet we all encounter from time to time, rather than the byways and back alleys of the normal folk.
And the attention has been ongoing and deeply flattering and deeply weird. ArtInfo.com did an email interview with me that went up today – I wasn’t too familiar with as a site, but my parents, who are art people, tell me it’s a pretty serious and major art website. Slate got in touch and I did a phone interview with them. And I just got off the (Skype) phone with The Village Voice in New York. And there are others.
The point is not to somehow promote myself here, waving my hands and yelling “look!”, but just to try and convey the flurry of madness that came about. I haven’t really had a way to understand or deal with it, so my strategy has to be to treat it as normally as possible, answer the questions, remember to plug the forthcoming book, and so on. But good grief is it a strange feeling to have people this interested (though temporarily) in something you’ve made. It’s a rush, and also just surreal and I won’t necessarily be completely unhappy when it all dies away.
I’ve also had the chance to experience doing interviews (written or spoken) and then feeling strange about what comes out the other end. That’s just a feature of the interviewing process, of course, but since no one usually interviews me I haven’t felt it first hand. Which is not to say I’m being terribly misrepresented or anything, just that there’s that necessary disjunct between what you try to say and what other people hear, even when you literally typed out the words – context is king! Goes a long way to reminding me that I’m not sitting here somehow literally communicating what I think, but rather different people read it differently. Obvious insights 101, I know.
Anyway, this blog post is way to long already so I’m just going to snap it off here. I’ll probably want to muse on all this some more later on, but for now I’ll continue to let it wash over me.
A short post this evening just to note that I did indeed release The Artist Is Present out into the wild today. I make it almost exactly one month in development time, maybe a little less, given that I started it pretty hot on the heels of releasing Safety Instructions. So now it exists on the internet for people to actually see – though I am in no way expecting it to garner quite the loving reaction that Safety Instructions did. For one thing, that game was actually kind of fun, and for another it was at the very least not obtuse and abusive.
Anyway, how do I feel about The Artist Is Present being out, I ask myself?
Well, I do feel some low level nausea associated with having put myself in “harm’s way” in terms of the game turning out to be a pile of shit. Visions of clipping errors and a million unforeseen bugs crowd my peripheral vision along with the faceless horrors of maybe having forgetting to uncomment some bit of code that was needed for the game’s “authentic” time management stuff. So yes, definitely a lot of anxiety associated with having the game “playable” but not really played yet (other than by my noble testers – thanks to you all!).
I’m also feeling some low-level humiliation that it took me so very long to put together. As is my habit, I started out thinking that implementing such a simple concept would take about a week. Then I sensible told myself, “but double that… you never know”, so it became two weeks. But it actually took four-and-a-bit weeks. I feel like there’s something wrong with that because it’s just not a complex idea and I lost so very much time to poor coding practices, poor implementation ideas, and poor everything else. The only thing that went smoothly was the art, which I felt totally comfortable with. As someone with a computer science Ph.D. and no art degree or training at all, that kind of depresses me.
However, I do also feel proud of the thing (let’s just assume it works and does its job for now). And I do think that, conceptually, there are some good things happening in the game, a bunch of things actually. Things which I don’t really feel like writing about now, and which I wonder about still counting as good/interesting in the context of a game that is, in some ways, unplayable. Still, in my calmer moments I basically think that it’s a good game and that it was worth making, and that’s the main thing.
At any rate, these are all the immediate feelings right now. The negative ones will burn away and hopefully I’ll just be left feeling a lightly warming pride.
On to the next game! (Which I figure will only take a week, right…)
(Oh… and obviously you can play The Artist Is Present on my games page, the link for which is at the top of this page, unless something bizarre has happened, in which case I’m sorry.)
I happened to read bits and pieces of Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun today. It’s actually a pretty alright book, despite having a general aesthetic that didn’t work for me in the slightest – some really nice observations in there, and well put. There’s a chapter toward the end, after building through descriptions of what games are, about “Where Games Should Go”. Which I found to be an enticing project, since Koster makes it clear he’s not into games going where they always go (with a gun).
Unfortunately, while the rhetoric in the final chapter is essentially laudable, there wasn’t much in the way of concrete examples to help us out. Given that Koster’s a pretty fearsomely good game designer, that was pretty disappointing. The only actual example of some kind of alternative game was one where you faced a trade-off between having friends/allies versus power/control (because the later scares off the former, and the former, I guess, precludes the latter). That’s fine, but it doesn’t light my brain on fire, and having just been rightly told that games needed to go somewhere other than aiming and shooting, it wasn’t quite enough. I imagine these mystical platonic “ludemes” (as Koster calls them) floating around, still out of reach. Somebody just tell me what they are already.
But this brings me back to my own stuff. Now obviously, when I make a game about queuing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I’m not producing something in the traditional vein of games. Definitely not a shooter, more of a waiter. So it has at least some of the idea Koster was getting at of heading down different vectors of design. On the other hand, who’s going to play this stuff? Seriously. There are quite a few really alternative and strange games out there, but it’s not at all clear that many people are interested in playing them. We’ve been pretty seriously conditioned into viewing games in a very specific light and the games shuffling around in the darkness are hard to take seriously.
Critically, these alternate games seem like they’re not going to be fun. And it’s all very well to talk about how games don’t have to be fun, they can be “interesting” or “challenging” or “disturbing” and so on. This is true, but it’s also true that basically nobody’s going to play those games except the brave vanguard. The question then becomes whether the vanguard can convince anyone else to play them too. Unlike a lot of other media, games have kind of “grown up” too fast – not in a maturity way, more in a giant meat-headed ogre kind of way. This meat-heat, often bellowing “fun” at the top of its lungs, is kind of hard to dislodge from its hulking position in the mainstream. In a lot of ways there simply wasn’t time to establish alternate streams of “what games can be” before the juggernaut sat its ass down.
Anyway, I guess I’m not exactly making any super duper point here (though I enjoyed that ogre metaphor a lot). I’m just concerned that making quirky, different games is a bit of a “hiding to nowhere” – it’s good to do and in some cosmic sense important, but will it actually get us anywhere? There’s probably some answer in the realm of Fine Art and particularly the thankless task of making contemporary art that “I could have done” – is it filtering back somehow? Anyhow?
Meanwhile, The Artist Is Present should be good to go in a day or two, pending the testers finding more gaping flaws (like when they found out you fly into the air and embed in a wall the instant you touch any other living person in the game).