A little over a year ago, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek column called "Dogma 2001: A Challenge to Game Designers." In that column I introduced a three-word manifesto: Technology Stifles Creativity (at least for a while). My basis for saying this was the plethora of cookie-cutter games that get published with the introduction of every new console machine: the new hardware takes so much time to learn that game design creativity goes out the window while all the developers are busily trying to outdo one another in technological splendiferousness. Most of them are simply old games with new display engines. The result is like watching movies filmed entirely for the sake of their special effects: spectacular, but shallow.
That was the gist of my argument, and I think it's still valid in the world of commercial computer gaming, where competition for shelf space is so fierce and market forces conspire to stifle creativity even more efficiently than new technology does. The point of Dogma 2001 was to take technology - specifically, graphics hardware - away from designers, and challenge them to devise new games without making reference to it.
But what if we inverted Dogma 2001? Suppose we took a technology and told designers explicitly to think of new kinds of games we could make with it, without regard for their commercial viability? What if we took a technology, and instead of letting it stifle us, we let it inspire us?
From March 15th to 18th 2002, a group of 14 designer-programmers did exactly that. They got together in a barn in Oakland, California, worked insanely hard for four days, and developed 12 new games, all based on a single piece of technology. It was called the "0th Indie Game Jam."
The origin for the Indie Game Jam was simple: Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett, two of its organizers, were brainstorming game ideas one day and they asked themselves a question: How many sprites can you put on a PC screen with modern display hardware these days? Even fairly aggressive games like Shogun: Total War never display more than about 1000 units at a time. What's the real upper limit? They did some research and came up with an answer: about 100,000.
"But," I hear you cry, "who in the world wants a hundred thousand sprites? Sprites are dead, aren't they? An outmoded technique, old news."
No. If that's what you think, you don't really understand technology. Technology isn't subject to the whims of fashion. To an engineer, technical methods are not hip or dead, tired or wired; they are simply more or less suitable for a particular purpose. All techniques, no matter how ancient, have their use. Every now and then a long-abandoned practice turns out to have modern applications, as when doctors recently discovered a new use for leeches in medicine. On the flip side, NASA has lost most of the engineering drawings for the Saturn V rocket, and the engineers themselves have retired. If we wanted to go back to the moon for some reason, we'd have to start from scratch - inexcusable short-sightedness.
Sprites were superseded not because they were useless, but because 3D models were better suited to the particular purpose that everyone was interested in at the time: rendering 3D spaces and objects. But suppose instead of rendering a 3D space filled with complicated models, you had 100,000 sprites and a simple landscape. What kind of games could you make?
That was the question that the Indie Game Jam sought to answer. Hecker, Barrett, and three other friends - Doug Church, Casey Muratori, and Jonathan Blow - spent several weeks developing a simple engine and one sample game to use as a springboard. Then they invited a small group of designer-programmers to come and work with it for four days straight. The results were weird, funny, gruesome, thought-provoking, and, yes, spectacular. This is what they came up with:
| Angry God Bowling
Angry God Bowling, by Doug Church. This was the sample game. You roll a ball and crush the flocking people, who flock to a prophet when they get scared.
Red Rover, by Doug Chuch & Chris Hecker. There are two huge armies on either side of a map, moving towards each other. You control one by either telling them to run away from a point laterally, or "try harder" by concentrating in an area. The first army with a soldier to hit the opposite map border wins.
Firefighter, by Doug Church & Chris Hecker. Fly a helicopter around and fight forest fires; water is a resource you have to go fill up. I've wanted to do a game about forest fires for nearly 15 years, and even did a design for EA, but it never got funded. The big problem was displaying all the trees. This game uses the sprites to show the trees, and as a result it has the best-looking 3D forest I've ever seen.
Flow, by Charles Bloom. The object is to guide a liquid through various puzzles by changing the terrain. Each sprite represents a small volume of the liquid. It responds to gravity and can only get so near to another sprite, so the whole collectively flows downhill and occupies space just like a real fluid. By comparison to the other games with their huge landscapes, Flow has a small, intimate feel to it, a puzzle you can hold in your hand.
Charles Copter, by Charles Bloom. A four-player networked game where you scoop up people of your color and try to rescue them. Vaguely based on the arcade classic Choplifter, but with lot more people.
| Dueling Machine
Duelling Machine, by Thatcher Ulrich, inspired by a book called The Duelling Machine by Ben Bova. The game looks like a first-person shooter, but with a twist. You are in a city full of pedestrians (thousands of them!), you have exactly one bullet, and you have to find and kill a single unique fugitive. You have a sonar that will help you locate him, but he can also hear it when you use it. This game is also 2-player networked. Except for the sonar, it's completely silent, creating an extremely creepy, tense experience.
Troopers, by Art Min & Sean Barrett. You command nine super-powered ground troopers, but you are stuck in the command center, and hordes of aliens start pouring over the ridges around you.
Total Age of Doomcraft & Conquer: Romero Alert, by Robin Walker & Brian Jacobson. A super-RTS, with an innovative gestural command interface and thousands of units. The game is hilariously chaotic to watch. Instead of producing units slowly, one at a time as in ordinary RTS's, the factories spew them forth in a fountain all over the nearby area.
| Very Serious RoboDOOM
Very Serious RoboDOOM, by Sean Barrett. It works a bit like the old Robotron 2084 arcade game, but this is more an artistic statement on the futility of the one-against-all power fantasy combat game. You start with a closeup view of your avatar in a landscape, shooting at what appears to be a small number of nearby enemies who are all converging on you. As you do so, you collect a group of people who follow behind you à la Robotron. However, the camera zooms out slowly in proportion to the number of enemies you've shot, revealing more and more of the map. It becomes increasingly clear that the situation is hopeless. There are actually 75,000 enemies, but you don't know that at the beginning. The transition from seemingly normal game to satiric commentary takes place very smoothly and is actually quite funny to watch as realization dawns.
Worship, by Ken Demarest & Zack Simpson. A Missile Command-style game, with hordes of demons trying to capture instantiations of Jesus, crucify them, and take them away while you're trying to protect them. Another game that won't win us any friends in Congress, but still highly imaginative. Contains the code #define MAX_CHRISTS 5.
| Dueling Machine
Wrath, by Brian Sharp & Chris Carollo. Two gods compete for followers, but they only get the credit when the followers die believing in them. As a result, the most successful strategy is "convert, then kill." However, the followers are so small that it's really impossible to see them as individuals. Rather, they look like seas of color, with areas of influence flowing around.
Spotlight, by Marc LeBlanc. He couldn't attend the whole Jam, so this game was only worked on for a few hours. You shine a spotlight over a sea of people, and see color shifts that indicate infections. One type of person flows to light, one away, and you have to try to save vulnerable creatures. If that sounds incomprehensible, it's because I only got a very quick look at it and I don't know what LeBlanc had in mind for the longer term. It's definitely an interesting start.