My name is Chelsea Howe. I'm a creative director at EA Mobile in Austin, Texas, but I have basically done consulting and indie-game development, game jam organization, judging, and game jams for my entire career. So I kinda have a foot in both worlds. I really like it that way. It gives me two incredibly different perspectives at all times, which is great.
That's why I thought to talk to you. But actually, to start, you had a question for me? Which I love. "Right out of the gate, I don't trust this guy!"
[Laughs.] I wanted to know how you define "indie."
Okay. That's hard. I think traditionally the analogue I would make is thinking of indie rock. So, in the early '90s, groups of creative people who are meant to be or became an alternative to the majority of what was out there in their chosen discipline or medium.
So what I would consider indie, although I think that's increasingly becoming a nebulous term in games, is the equivalent of that. IE, people who are doing things that are different from what we used to consider "hardcore" games or games for "hardcore" gamers. That said, I think there's also this odd friction in games going where there's a temptation to be very binary about most things in games. I think my definition rules out people, to a certain extent, stuff like Super Meat Boy because they really weren't doing anything alternative to what was out there, but they sure were independent. But on the other hand, so they did go through a giant publisher. So I don't really know what indie is, and so this interview is over. [Laughs.]
But that's the thing, though. As time has gone on, it has gotten increasingly more difficult to define it to the extent that it's pretty much a meaningless term. But what do you think?
First I think if we can answer all the questions that we ask, then we're asking terrible questions. I love asking questions that don't have good answers or clear answers.
I tried my best.
I think indie is super, super-interesting to me because I kind of see it along a whole bunch of other axes. So you have things like Super Meat Boy and things like Journey. With Super Meat Boy, you have the scale of team is really "indie." A small team. Then you have Journey, where it was, again, a huge publisher but the priorities were very different.
So I could see it along a bunch of different axes. You have the theme and the content, and that's kinda what you were saying. There were people who were doing things that were very different. So Journey, I would say, is thematically and content-wise very indie. That's one axis.
Then you have the business axis. So you have the people who are like, "I'm not going through a publisher. I'm going to self-publish. I'm going to Kickstart. I'm going to not have a steady income for 12 months and hope that it's all worth it!" There's just tons of examples of those people who consider themselves indie.
And then there's kinda this third, more nebulous one, that's more about priorities. Most games are put out into the market to make money and to have some kind of financial return. But then you have this whole other group of indies who aren't in it for the money, who are in it for wild experimentation, for self-expression, and I think that that differentiator in terms of priorities when you go and make a game. Like Journey was intended to make money. Super Meat Boy was intended to make money.
If you look at -- what was Anna [Anthropy]'s latest one that I loved? I think Gay Cats Go to the Weird Weird Woods. I'm one of the co-founders for the Queerness in Games Conference, and one of the things that I do is run the arcade version of that, so we're getting all of these submissions that had really beautiful but incredibly heavy content. And then I got to that submission and I was blissed out for about a half an hour. It was wonderful.
But I think that's another type of indie as well, like, the indie that it's just, "My priority is not to make money. My priority is self-expression, experimentation, exploration. It's not money." Money is a secondary or a non-priority is another way to define indie.
Yeah, and I think the problem that I don't think I need to convince you of with a lot of that perceived sameness in games -- if that is true, the indie space is being increasingly looked to for experimentation because the middle tier has hollowed out and completely gone away and they're not nipping at the heels of AAA. But it creates this landscape where there's not a lot of the experimentation going on. I think that's where you see some of the grumbling. But is that fair to lump on just one section of games and say, "You're responsible for doing all the creativity?"
No, not at all. That's on everyone.
But don't you think that's the attitude we're kind of seeing?
I think that's the attitude a bit from the outside, but I think everyone who works at a AAA company wishes they were doing more innovation and is constantly pushing back against that tide of normalization that comes from metrics-driven design and big budgets and therefore risk-averse business decisions and just the overall lack of understanding about how games work that makes producers and executives afraid to greenlight anything they haven't seen before because they don't understand, "Hey, this has similar systems. This targets similar player motivations and player needs. Even though it looks different, that's okay."
How are they fighting back?
I'll tell you some of my personal fights, because this is a fight that I'm constantly up against. A lot of the companies that I worked at, the directive is usually, "Hey, X game is making gazillionty dollars. How do we make gazillionty dollars? Let's start with X game and add a differentiator." I've heard that at at least as many companies as I have fingers.
How many fingers do you have?
Who's telling you this? What roles in companies?
Usually the major stakeholders. So the people who have the money, who have the budget, who are the greenlight group that you're up against. You go up, you want to greenlight something, you want to get a concept approved, the concept has to meet certain metrics. And I mean metrics in a softer way than estimated DARPU. Daily average revenue per user. But things like, "What are your comps? How are you making your estimates?" Because you really can't get something greenlit without an estimate on how much money it's going to make.
The games that have the clearer comparison have much more robust estimates for how much money they're going to make. Whereas if you're doing something completely different and your executive is suddenly drilling down, "Oh, you think you're going to make Y dollars. How'd you get to that estimate?" And if you're like, "Well, there's really nothing like it, so I took this and this and that, and all a sudden, all that executive's confidence in your estimate is gone. And that lack of confidence in that estimate translates into lack of confidence in your proposal. That's how innovative proposals get pushed aside in favor of, "Hey, this is Clash of Clans with a better crafting tree or a bigger skill tree." Whatever. "Clash of Clans with zombies." That's incredibly easy to sell to an executive because they can look and see how much money Clash of Clans made and they can look and see how many installs Clash of Clans got and they can say, "Okay, to get that many installs, we'll have to use this marketing budget." They can come up with the whole profit and loss statement really, really easily, which makes them feel much more comfortable and much more safe and much more willing to give you the budget to actually go and make that game.
I was gonna say, I sensed some of your enthusiasm wane as you were saying that. It seems to transition naturally into what you wanted to talk about on your shortlist, because you mentioned one or two of them here. Are we saying, so we can lay this out for someone who is happening upon this and hearing about this for the first time: Are we both more or less saying it's pretty irrelevant to be defining these categories of the industry at this point?
I think it's not very useful. As a tool to have a discussion, it winds up almost always getting into a discussion about terminology and semantics, which means that the words themselves aren't very helpful.
To be fair, you did start us there. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] I started there because there is that lack of clarity.
Oh, and I appreciate that. And I can tell you this is something I have been thinking very heavily about. Unfortunately, these are the terms we have to communicate with each other. So this is something I wanted to ask, because you mentioned some of the things you'd like to see go away have to do more with casual/mobile than indie. Since we're getting into semantics, can you clarify on that differentiatior?
I was using the standard definition of indie. I think the only people who could consider themselves both casual/free-to-play and indie is probably Spry Fox. I don't really know of anyone else who is like, "Yeah! We're casual/free-to-play and we're also indie!" [Laughs.] So I feel weird feel about talking about free-to-play in the context of being indie.
Because I think so many indie folks are anti-establishment and I think free-to-play very much comes off as establishment. It comes off as the money-making --
They come off as anti-establishment and yet would love to sell a million copies.
[Laughs.] We just had a knowing laugh, but say someone reading this doesn't understand why. Why is that funny?
It's funny because that's the paradox of existing under capitalism. True indie -- and there are some people who are trying to do this, like, Molleindustria is trying to break free of systems and yet they're still trapped in this much bigger all-encompassing system. That's why it's funny.
So, but you actually sent over a list of things you'd like to see recede from games in general. You put "'energy,' zombies/pirates, and aggression."
Yeah, basically, all the trope-y things.
Which of these annoys you most?
Well, right now, my big kick is energy. I think the one that's actually most meaningful to talk about is aggression as our fundamental game content. It's really hard to find a game that doesn't have aggression as one of the fundamental things that you're partaking in. I know a few notable exceptions, mostly from, again thatgamecompany. Even Super Meat Boy. Aggression. Samurai Gunn. Aggression. Some of the greats that we idolize in indie are still about guns and war and fighting and killing and it's just really interesting how hard it is -- like, Pokémon? Aggression. It's really hard to fully grok just how deeply that's embedded in games and how much we need to get away from that and then think about aggression that's not physical aggression.
Like think about dating sims that end up being about conquering, in a way. Getting your own agency over someone else's agency. And then how that goes back to what games are, that in a lot of ways they're little autonomy toys where you get to be in control, and what does that do to how we as people are within games, and what would a game look like that doesn't actually give you autonomy? And that's interesting because that's kind of why people hate free-to-play games and why they hate energy because energy says, "Hey, you can't play with this toy anymore. Go and do something for a few minutes and then you can come back and play again." And so I just think that's this hilarious logical loop that I've been kinda entertained with. Did you follow that?
Absolutely. What are you so entertained about with that?
I'm entertained because it comes full circle. It's like we use aggression in games because aggression is one of the most base and primal forms of agency. We think that the ubiquity of violence is problematic, but that probably stems from the fact that games are inherently -- if you think of aggression as the push or the dominance of your agency over something else, that's essentially all games are. If we are uncomfortable with how much violence there is and how much aggression there is and with the overall state of us asserting ourselves over these systems, and everything that entails in the kind of entitlements that comes with it, and that kind of entitlement is part of what created shit like what's been going on this past year, then what would a game look like that didn't have that kind of autonomy?
When you start thinking about that, you get into games that have control over you, or assert themselves over you in some way. That's kind of exactly why free-to-play games have been getting this flak. So there's this no-win situation where the games that take away your agency are bemoaned and hated on and the games that give you full agency and give you your fantasies are bemoaned and hated on, and to me that just means there's something for everyone, and all of them are interested pieces of our ecosystem and we should just make sure that our ecosystem is net positive. That's why I think it's funny.
How long have videogames been around now?
I believe it was '58 when the very first something-something happened and then Space War was in the early '60s.
Yeah, I was probably gonna say it was something like 50, 60 years now. Because there was the market crash, and as I was hearing you talk about all that, I was thinking, "Well, games came back and they were targeted to be for children." And that's the stereotype thing we heard people complain about in the '90s: They're too violent and bad for kids. But even before the crash, the things you're saying were still true. Even when games were intended to be for adults.
Yeah, I don't think the age of the audience has to do with what's problematic with aggression being the consistent fallback.
Yeah. But it's interesting that even though they wiped the slate clean in the '80s, why wasn't that rethought at all?
Because I think the people who were making games didn't really change. The pool decreased but I don't think the people making them changed. I think that the people making them -- like if you talk to anyone who's got more than a decade in this industry, they'll tell you that at the time you couldn't get in unless you knew someone. The nature of networks is such that the people you're going to know are going to be similar to you. And so you end up, by and large -- I'm making a generalization here -- you wind up with incredibly homogenous groups of people making games. And that was what they done and what they knew and it had failed, but it was still -- if that's the inherent part of your psyche that you want to realize in a game, that's not going to really change. All the research shows: The things you're intrinsically motivated by, your player profile, your player personality, I guess, doesn't change as you grow up. So it makes sense if it's the same people making games that we'd make the same kinds of games.
This is a terrible segue, but let's talk about zombies and pirates.
Obviously that's just a placeholder crutch for any type of character. But what bugs you about them, other than the fact that they're so seemingly omnipresent?
It's how much attention they're getting and how lazy the people are who use them, and how much it feels like someone went to a marketer and was like, "What do people like?" And they put a list of 100 words on a map and people circled ninja, pirate, and zombies. They just kept bubbling up and it was this self-realizing prophecy that now everyone just loves pirates and ninjas and zombies and so few people actually take the time to make their pirates or their ninjas or their zombies interesting and unique. Even The Last of Us, which was a really cool game and did a lot of really fantastic stuff. Like, its zombies still really felt like zombies. And that's really unfortunate. [Laughs.]
I wish we weren't relying so much on those tropes because I think relying on tropes like that also means that we're not -- like if you think about what Gene Roddenberry did with Star Trek, every alien species had some new thing that examined under a microscope lens, some facet of who we are as humans and made us think about ourselves. When we just use tropes in our games, a trope is just an excuse not to think. It's like a piece of candy that you've already tasted and you know you like it and good for you. We lose so much nuance and we lose so much of the meaty stuff that makes me love certain movies or films, that depth of human investigation and introspection. We miss out on that completely because the marketers tell us, "Hey, people like ninjas." But then if they like ninjas, you have to put in what people think of as ninjas, which is already this solved problem.
Well, speaking of solving the problem, what do you think it will take for that to change? Other people have asked me this in these interviews and it's very snotty and simple to be like, "Well, people should just stop buying them." But it seems like people just keep buying them, so it must be what people want, right?
Well, okay, so there's the want/need dichotomy, right? And that's at the core of this. Yeah, it's a known quantity, it's a candy that I know I like. Whenever I go to the gas station, I always buy Reese's Peanut Butter cups because that's what I know and that's what I'm familiar with. People don't like change and change makes them uncomfortable and growing and thinking makes people uncomfortable so why don't we all just have -- what's the show from Idiocracy? Ow, My Balls!
I think that's where your responsibility as a creator comes in. We need to have -- that sounds like kinda shitty holier than thou.
No. It's right. Because look at what not taking up that responsibility has brought us.
Yeah. And it's just like -- we need to find better arguments to fight for this. Because I think for a lot of creators, it's hard to get in front of those executives who want known quantities and want predictable results and to fight for "we need to make people think." And to know that your user-testing surveys are going to come back and the data is going to say, "People just want ninjas to be black robed, hooded figures that throw shiny stars." Even if you know that that's a terrible trope and a horrific mangling of history and culture and everything, you have to fight that.
Those are very, very real fights. And it's very hard to figure out how to make an argument against data. So much of that comes from experience and respect and prestige and quite frankly, most of the people who have acquired a level of prestige that's needed to overwrite hard data from your marketers? That's still a really homogeneous group.
So are big games just getting too big to take risks? Is that where we're landing?
I go back and forth on this. I was feeling super-cynical until six days ago when Grow Home came out. Have you heard about Grow Home?
So, Grow Home is what I would consider an indie game. [Laughs.] It has the heart and soul -- like when I talked about priorities,Grow Home is a game that was made by a AAA studio without a priority of making money. It was designed from the ground up to be a technical experimentation for procedural animation. You can see the innovation and ingenuity and heart that developed without that constraint of "this has to make money." And all of the "how is it going to make money?" tests and metrics that you have to live up to.
And so this was designed to be an internal Ubisoft game. Really just a test. And it gained so much popularity within the studio that someone said, "What the hell. Let's put it on Steam." And to me that is so -- it makes me so hopeful and so sad.
It makes me hopeful because it happened and that means it can happen again. And it makes me sad because it shows that that burden of "this needs to be designed to make money" can be so counter to innovation. I was about to say creativity, but that's total bullshit. It's counter to innovation. It's not counter to creativity.
How do you define those two?
To me, innovation is about the creation of something novel. Something that hasn't been done before or seen before. Something that is wholly unique. Whereas creativity can be about combining existing things. It can be about solving known issues in new ways to get to the same results. To do things faster. To do things in a more robust way. To make systems more flexible. There's a lot of ways you can be creative even when you're just "cloning" a game. Less opportunities to be innovative.
I wanna just jump over to the thing you mentioned no one else is really talking about. You had a couple of things here. "Games that are meant to last a decade-plus." Are you talking about World of Warcraft here?
So I think WoW gets into the social variable aspect, which I think is most intriguing. But to me it's even looking at games like chess and sports and seeing what it is about the higher level system of those games that make them last forever and ever and ever. I just mean a few millennia. Imagine if FarmVille was still around in 3012. That would be pretty cool.
Is there any reason to think it won't be?
Well, we get into the dark human probability of mutual destruction.
Wait, what's gonna happen to us? What do you know?
If you look at the number of atomic warheads that are unaccounted for, it's petrifying.
Isn't that why we play FarmVille, so we don't think about that?
[Laughs.] Oh, that's what we could talk about.
But I think that's kind of related. Because I think you were thinking about things like Go or chess. Games that have lasted centuries and truly are, I think, looked back in time as unassailably, unquestionably cultural artifacts, and yet we're 60 years into videogames and maybe they're not as mainstream as we think they are, but the way I read this in a videogame context is if we're talking games that are meant to last a decade-plus: I don't know if World of Warcraft is the first to last so long, but it certainly has hung in for more than a decade and it has its own lifespan. I guess Second Life. But no one really sets out to make a game that will last for decades, right?
Yeah, not to my knowledge. And that's something that excites me to no end, because, again with the free-to-play thing, free-to-play games are infinite games by nature of their business model. They're intended to last forever. Oftentimes, they can do that. Whether for content dependency and the content runs out or the cost of content becomes too high or server maintenance or infinite reasons. It'd be really interesting to think about what it'd take to keep something alive for so long. Because I actually looked into this and there's several MUDs from the '90s that are still running. And that was super-curious. Something like Neopets. *Like, *Neopets is still running. And that's absolutely a game.
Then you have things like Club Penguin, which is sort of like a game meets social network? It's a virtual world that you can exist in, I think. What makes those last? Is it the sense of place? Is it the fact that you're interacting with people? That's always my answer, because my big schtick is humans are the ultimate infinite content generators. Even the same two people who have been playing chess their entire life, every time they sit down, it's a slightly different game because you're thinking about the last game you played and you probably learned something from that. But they've also probably learned something from that, and what'd they learn?
A couple years ago I did a column called AbandonedWare, and it was all about going back and visiting old MMOs that have fallen out of favor. I went five years ago and I played Diablo II, and I also went and played Hello Kitty Online. I'm curious, though: Why do you think those MUDs are still running but Diablo II is a complete ghost town?
Yeah. Those are creepy. I've been to a lot of -- that's like an entirely new topic. Digital presence and ambient social awareness and how that changes a space over time. It's already happened on mobile. Even Journey, already, it's hard to find people. Even Assassin's Creed Unity -- I went into Assassin's Creed Unity just to dick around and I wanted to go on some of the social missions, and it kept on pairing me with this one guy. There was no one else. This was like on a Saturday. That's how quickly things have come and gone.
Do you think it's accelerating, the pace at which people peace out on digital worlds?
Oh yeah. Our attention spans are just decaying at a terrifying rate.
Well, so maybe what we're talking about is a way to turn things around. If we start thinking that a game should be expected to last a decade. Not that you'll be playing it solidly for any of those years, but if you start thinking about it as a creator that people will be coming back to them over the course of a decade, I have a feeling it'd be treated far less as a disposable thing. Whether it's 99 cents or $60, it seems to be just as disposable for many consumers.
Mm-hmm. Absolutely. It's totally true.
Well, that scares the shit out of me, because why make a $60 game if you can do a 99-cent game? Why do a 99-cent game if people say it's too expensive? It feels like a large race to the bottom. We talked about how hard it is to get a job in the industry. I wonder if people are wondering about how plausible it is to shift any of this, or to make a mark or to do something different rather than stick to the tropes. I don't want to sound all doom and gloom, but it does feel like you look around at a lot of places -- I look at Steam everyday just seeing what's out there. Maybe it's part of where I'm looking, but I go to itch.io or Warp Door, and it feels just has hard to navigate. There's just so much stuff out there.
It's true. All of the people I've talked to in my personal experiences as a designer, essentially what we're optimizing for is the amount of delight that players can get for the least amount of time and effort. And you can define effort financially, or in terms of attention. Whatever. A natural result of that is that all games become free-to-play. Free-to-play doesn't need to be what we think of as free-to-play. It can be more subscription model. It can be something entirely different. But as we go towards delight over time and effort, the least amount of effort is free. So.
I'm feeling not super-hopeful about the future, but I hope that there's always going to be enough people like me who just cherish that unrestricted open-world sandbox-style play where you can get a premium game and sit down and play it for 20 hours straight and just melt into it.
But I haven't played a premium game that didn't have some free-to-play elements in it in a really long time. Like, all the new Assassin's Creed do, Dragon Age did. What was I playing before that? Shadows of Mordor. I gave up on that too early.
Fighting and killing and gore. Also, "Hey, you have a wife and a child. Oh! We killed them. Your character is now developed." [Laughs.]
I got about as far as it saying, "Press X to something your wife" and I was like, "Okay, I know where this is going." [Laughs.]
I think that was the crouch tutorial, to surprise your wife.
So, you explained why we laughed before. I have a feeling this will likely wrap things up for us: Can you explain why we just laughed again?
Well, we laughed because the "press X to whatever" is a huge trope of people trying to add interesting forms of interactivity in a very shallow way. Popularized by "Jason!" in Heavy Rain and then recently by Kevin Spacey in one of those brown war games. You should look that up, and if it's one by EA, you should make me say the right name.
That was a little more anticlimactic than I thought it'd be. Um. What gives you hope for what's ahead in games?
What gives me hope is I am a realistic optimistic by nature. I found that in order to survive in the games industry, you have to believe that it gets better. And believing in it often makes it happen. We didn't talk about it, but I got super-down on energy, I was like, "This was horrible, this is the most artificial constraint I've ever seen in games. It's a terrible UX." And it's gotten better. A lot of the games that are making money and staying financially successful are staying away from energy. We can see that as free-to-play becomes ubiquitous, people are demanding better free-to-play. And so you're seeing free-to-play start to adapt, start to get better, start to be less pinchy. And that's super-cool. I think that as people see that the games that get into the top charts are ones that have significantly novel features, we're going to start investing a little bit more in novelty.
Because of what it means to play -- and I have all sorts of philosophical love tied up in what it means to play and what it means for humans to be at play, I think we're just gonna see a positive trajectory. As negative as it has seemed, if you compare where we are now to where we used to be thematically and content wise, there are so many people doing so many interesting things. I think it's gonna get better. I think it is getting better and it's going to continue to get better.