Is there a difference between a good game and a good indie game? No, not necessarily. However, big budget titles and home-made titles do have their own individual strengths and weaknesses, and I’ve seen a great number of bad indie games spawn from a failure to recognize this.
Without naming names, there are a great many that reach for the scale of AAA games, and (obviously) fail. These games end up with the worst of both worlds- a lack of polish, and (in trying to emulate the design-by-committee sheen) a complete lack of personality.
Tim Sycamore’s ‘Applejack’ was a rare thing- an indie game with a distinctive flavor, and very tight, professional design.
A devilishly tricky puzzle-platformer, it establishes a very small set of core mechanics, and spends 100 short, sweet, endlessly creative levels examining each and every possible way they can be utilized. With gorgeously rustic aesthetics, and a bizarre, cruel, distinctly English sense of humour, it easily became one of my favorite games of 2010. There’s nothing contrived or knowingly quirky about its charm- My Owl Software’s homemade affair is as genuine and sincere a game as they come.
I’m very excited, because a sequel is almost upon us with sixty much larger levels, featuring great big boss fights, enormous ravenous eyeballs, and hundreds more pandas, washing machines and owls that shoot lasers. You can watch its development come to a close over at Tim’s blog, and read our interview with him down below.
Tim Sycamore Interview
Applejack was very refreshing for me, in that it was the first British game I’d played in a long long time that actually *felt* British. The odd quirks and sensibilities of cultures other than those of Japan and America rarely rear their heads these days. Why do you think this is, and what sort of effect will this have on young aspiring game designers?
Tim: Yeah, I agree completely. I wasn’t being jingoistic with Apple Jack – I just want to see more cultures represent themselves in their games. I guess market forces are to blame for so many non-US games feeling so American, since you’re targeting the largest section of gamers. The sad fact is if something like GTA V comes out and is full of Scottish characters and cultural references and was set in Glasgow, it would sell about 1/10th what GTA IV did. Making zero-budget indie games, I can take a risk on that stuff.
Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy etc pair up their distressing gameplay with equally distressing aesthetics- Applejack bloody tortures the player against an idyllic rural backdrop. Was the contrast meant to be funny, calming or cruel?
I had no idea the game was so hard until it was nearly finished, and by that time all the art was done, so it’s a complete accident. The trouble is I’ve now played hundreds of hours of Apple Jack and I’m really, really good at it, so getting the difficulty right isn’t easy. The nice music and scenery does seem to help calm people down a bit though, which is interesting.
I discovered the game after watching Robert Florence talk…uh..very passionately about it on The Independent Charles Show, on Inside Xbox. How big an impact did his review of it have on the sales of the game?
Tim: It made a huge difference – suddenly I had a guy on the first page of the dashboard telling people to buy the game, and sales went up something like 3000%! I was very lucky that he was around when the game launched, that’s for ruddy sure. XBLIG could really do with a weekly or bi-weekly round-up show guiding people towards the best games.
Did development of Applejack or its sequel ever rise from its roots as a hobby to take over more time than it should? How have you found managing development alongside the rest of your life?
I very much develop these games part-time and I rarely spend more than an hour at a time at the computer working on them, so it doesn’t have too much of an impact. I probably just watch less TV now as a result, which is no bad thing. The downside of this relaxed attitude is that the games take bloody ages to finish, as in over a year each, which is far too long.
What challenges and/or advantages does developing for Xbox Live Indie Games offer?
As someone who grew up with consoles and never plays PC games, the biggest advantage of XBLIG is that you get to make a genuine console game and sell it across the world to anyone with an online Xbox. It’s pretty amazing when you think about it! It’s a shame the service isn’t more popular though, and the XBLIG games that make it to PC generally sell much better on Steam. The service probably could benefit with a better filtering system, so all the best games are more prominently featured. The Apple App store does that sort of thing a lot better, somehow.
What games on the service would you recommend to anybody who’s skeptical about it?
Browsing the ‘top rated’ section would be a place to start, although it’s a bit too hidden away at the moment. From memory, Wizorb (a Breakout RPG) is very good, as is Leave Home (2D shooter). Cute things Dying Violently is a good lemmings-style puzzle game, and Cthulu Saves the World is a well-made RPG spoof. Revolver 360 is a very clever shooter which also looks amazing, so I’d recommend that too.
After over a year of work, Applejack 2 is almost here. What has carried over from Applejack, and in what ways does the sequel build on the original?
The central idea of picking up and throwing enemies is the same, but now there’s much more variety in the levels – their size and shape and the stuff you end up doing in them changes all the time, and there are more items and hazards to watch out for, like switches, massive saw blades and moving platforms, all used in ways that are pretty unique. It also has big bosses and even an intro detailing the mental breakdown that leads to Apple Jack embarking on his new adventure. It looks nicer too!
Thank you very, very much for your time! I wish you all the best with Applejack 2, and am really looking forward to seeing more of your work in the future.