Back in October 2008, when the bailouts went down, I was pretty darn upset about 'em. I knew that they would only prolong and drag out any global economic unpleasantness and end up inflating the bubble even more, making the inevitable burst that much more devastating.
Around that same time, the App Store opened up for business. I had been diligently working towards getting a job in the industry with the eventual goal of opening up my own studio years down the road, after gaining much experience and leveling up a few times, slavishly crunching away for someone else. The App Store's indie siren song proved much too much to resist, though, and, just as soon as the opportunity arose, iBailout!! was born.
Being our first game, I wanted to do something I felt was reasonable and I was always a big fan of Ms. Pac-Man, almost always earning the high score at whatever local bar happened to have an old machine set up (since the old cabinets don't battery backup high scores, though, that really doesn't mean too much and, in present company, I certainly wouldn't wager more than a beer or so).
Really, though, things began with the bailouts and the Fed. This is what I wanted to do: Make a ruthlessly satirical game of the Federal Reserve and its dangerous financial shenanigans, use the form of the video game to expose a mass app buying audience to these ideas and issues, that they might not otherwise engage outside the realm of this particular piece of popular culture, and, of course, storm the App Store charts and make a bundle of money--at least one of these three goals were definitely accomplished. Towards these ends, my love of Ms. Pac-Man and distaste of the Fed naturally came together in what ended up as, may I humbly submit, a great game.
Great as I like to say it is, though, iBailout!! is the world's only game about the Federal Reserve (it also happens to be the world's best game about the Federal Reserve too; no coincidence there, trust me) and, having such an unorthodox theme for a game, it ran the real risk of being completely misunderstood, or, worse, possibly just ignored. Thankfully, the pairing of its theme against such a familiar mechanical backdrop makes understanding and appreciating the game much easier, allowing players to quickly go ahead and get right into playing the game and engaging its meaning.
Now, others have argued that mechanics are meaning, but even though I don't strictly agree with that position (our next game's narrative, meaning and mechanics have essentially nothing to do with each other and, I steadfastly maintain, are none the worse for wear) any opportunity that exists to join the two together in matrimonial bliss absolutely must be seized upon.
Obviously, the eponymous theme of iBailout!! is what I sought so well to integrate with the mechanics and doing so actually ended up being quite a simple matter; simple, of course, only because we managed to come up with the ideas. Our artist, Peter White, had the idea of doing bonus levels and from there, I soon made the connection that the bonus level would be a one-time event, occurring only after players exhausted all their lives and lost the game, thus giving players a bailout. This bailout bonus level essentially rewarded players for failure by giving them a second chance to get back into the game by collecting golden parachutes (1-UP for every 20 golden parachutes eaten)--if they earn even a single 1-UP, they resume their game, at the beginning of the last level they left off at.
Beyond the bailout bonus round, the basic underlying mechanics of our Ms. Pac-Man homage provide for further reinforcement of the game's meaning. In iBailout!!, the player is the Fed (the bad guy), gobbling up stack of cash after stack of cash, while mobs of angry, torch and pitchfork-bearing American citizens (the good guys) relentlessly chase after. Like almost all classic arcade games, no matter how Mitchell or Wiebe-like you are, you'll eventually lose and, in this case, losing is the people finally catching up to the Fed and putting an end to his financial rampage. Yes, this is kind of an effortless effect, but it was very much done on purpose, with the fact that the Fed will never win in this game fully in mind from the beginning.
Also, when on a power-up run, much like his predecessors, the Fed can eat his pursuers, but here the mobs of American citizens chasing after the Fed function as snakes, with each individual citizen marching single-file behind the other. The key difference this provides for, and what raises iBailout!! up from mere clone to loving and inspired homage (somebody's got to say it), is that the mob/snakes can be cut in half, forming two completely separate groups of angry citizens for the Fed to now contend with, making the game a much more strategeric and tactical experience. Since players are in control of how they go after the American people, the amount of enemies they have to deal with is a direct result of how they play—if they're careful and considered in their attacks, there will be few mobs to deal with and the people will prove much less of a challenge, however, if players wantonly and crazily attack, they'll quickly find a whole lot more on their hands than they can handle. As citizen mob members also populate at a rate proportional to how much money is being looted on a stage, players quickly get the message that they, the Fed, are the ones making people so crazy and are bringing the trouble on themselves.
One last mechanical reinforcement we made was with the score: An iBailout!! high score really is a high score. Every single cash stack adds $10,000,000,000.00 to the Fed's ill gotten gains and with 100+ stacks per level, scores quickly get up into the trillions with Bailoutus Maximus, Mendell, currently holding down the top of the leaderboard with $52,980,000,000,000.00 (I shall return, Mendell). Reality kept taking us by surprise, though, as, with every report on the possible total exposure to taxpayers from the bailouts getting more and more absurd, I kept insisting on adding zeros on at the end of the player's score, with Ivan Galic, our programmer, getting increasingly skeptical of the wisdom of this and the credulity of players at these numbers, but it worked well, made things more fun and reactions were, as far as I've seen and experienced, positive.
As I said, though, I don't believe mechanics are the limits of meaning in interaction and all the classic understandings of imparting meaning throughout other mediums and games of the past, definitely still apply and martial law was one topic that we addressed this way. How we went about this, which ended up being very natural, was to make the power pellets that the Fed eats into gleaming black assault rifles (originally we had players eating a nuclear family, representing the death of the middle class, but we found it too abstract to properly get across). I really wanted to mock and satirize the kind of black ski-masked, jack-booted thugs employed to rain on peaceable assemblers' parades, that governments of the free world have grown so fond of in recent years, so Anthony 'Fuzion' Drummond, our musician and sound designer, and I did a little bit of recording. What we came up with was the perfect, overzealous, power-mad martial law declaration, sound effect to play when players grab an assault rifle, that does all that and more, while still making the game feel more fun and exciting.
Environmental degradation is also employed as an aesthetic indicator in the urban and suburban backdrops that serve as the level maps for the Fed and the American people to do their, thankfully not, eternal dance on. As players progress through levels, consuming more and more of the cash stacks, streets and sidewalks loudly crack and homes and businesses go into disrepair and eventually foreclosure, with tiny 'Sale' signs popping up in front of them. The general and progressive blight serves as visual and auditory stimuli to the players, directly reinforcing the terrible effect that their rapacious appetite is having on the community at hand and society in general.
These newly understood mechanical methods for creating meaning, hand-in-hand with the traditional aesthetic routes, truly, I like to believe, came together in what resulted in a great and most meaningful game. It gets across the message that the Fed is up to no good, demonstrates exactly how undeserved bailouts are, parodies and mocks authoritarianism, displays the effects of economic degradation on a community and illustrates the absurd amounts of money we're entrusting central bankers with and, certainly not least, is a lot of fun to play.
Financially, of course, I hope iBailout!! does start charting on the highest reaches of the App Store, but what truly fueled the development of this game was my desire to see and play meaningful popular culture--the kind capable of having a real and positive impact, that can reach and be enjoyed by a mass gaming public.
The bottom line on making meaningful games, or meaningful anything for that matter, though, is this: If it means something to you, whether politically, intellectually, emotionally, or however, and you start from there and never lose focus of that, then, odds are, it'll end up meaning something to someone else too.