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Steve Swink On The Art Of Experimental Games
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Steve Swink On The Art Of Experimental Games

April 8, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[Indie Fund Shadow Physics developer Steve Swink discusses creative inspiration, the realities of developing games in a fiscally-driven world, and how Braid and Portal profoundly influenced his conception and understanding of development.]

As a veteran indie game developer -- in the current sense of the term -- Steve Swink is making the biggest bet of his career on Shadow Physics. The downloadable game, currently under development by Swink and Scott Anderson, was announced to be one of the Indie Fund titles at GDC. It's targeting the Braid space -- creatively and in terms of its audience.

Swink is a big believer in the experimental gameplay methodology, an approach he's both taking with this title and which he also outlined passionately during a well-received talk at last year's GDC China.

In this wide-ranging interview, Swink talks about the games that cast their shadows on his own creative process, how different developers tackle development -- what works and what does not -- and how going back and examining previous games to understand how they work is essential to progressing the medium.

The reaction you can get from the public makes the act of creation daunting, doesn't it?

Steve Swink: I don't know if it's because games are so new, but I find that everyone thinks they know how to design games. Even more than people who think they know how to make movies, or think they know how to write books.

I'd say that it goes that way: it's like games, movies, books. Like people have ideas for screenplays, before they have ideas for novels, and so on down the line. Maybe it's just the age of the medium, you feel like there's not as much ground covered, so maybe your unique voice would carry you through -- even if you don't have the craft or talent. Or something.

I don't like to make sweeping generalizations, because I feel like nobody actually knows how to design a game. And I feel like if you talk to people who I think are the best game designers in the world, even they will tell you that they have no idea how to design a game really, and they just have some data points, and they feel like they got really lucky with being at the right time in the right place.

I don't know; it's sort of weird. It's like everyone judges games monetarily, in a lot of ways. Because that's the one bottom line of success that no one can argue with; it's like the "take it home to your mom" kind of success. You can prove to your dad that you're worth a damn if your game made a bunch of money, kind of thing.

But I don't think that's necessarily good or positive. Like I think Cactus's games, and Messhof's games, and weird things like Increpare's games, some of those have a lot more interesting things than most mainstream games and most indie games, and they get overlooked because they never really made any money.

Shadow Physics

When it comes to indie games, it's something of a chicken and egg thing. They get overlooked because no one's out there shouting about them. Who's really shouting about games? Usually it's marketing people. Even with indie games to an extent, especially if you end up in XBLA or something, right?

SS: I think we, in the indie scene especially, are very myopic in the sense that we know all the games that are coming out, we have our finger on the pulse, and we are even at the point where we're starting to think certain types of games are tired, and all that sort of thing.

But what we always forget is that even games that we consider massive breakout hits -- like your Minecraft, the Braids and the World of Goos and even Portal to some extent -- are not part of the broader conversation about video games.

The broader conversation about video games is a sound bite on Fox News about Modern Warfare 2 coming out; that's the way that the general public digests games. And so they've never heard of Minecraft except as a story about a game that made $10 million being sold through a website, through no portals, and no consoles. And in some way it becomes self-reinforcing, because that kind of press is really fascinating to a lot of people.

It's like, wait a minute! You play Modern Warfare, you play a lot of PC games maybe, you hear about this indie game that has made $10 million just from the website, you're like "What is this?!" And it sort of balloons up in these little viral clouds wherever one person tries it, it's like, "Oh!", and then all their friends buy it, too.

But I think in a lot of ways, what's driving the publicity of that is the story about how much money it's made once it's crossed a certain threshold. I mean obviously, it has a lot of things about it that are really interesting, and cause it to be shared that way.

Well, one reason is it takes a lot of time to make games, and if you are going to do it -- fully committed to it -- you need money to live, because that's how our society works.

SS: Right. But I mean I think you need a lot less money to live than a lot of people think. It just depends on how you…

Want to live?

SS: Right. The standard of living to what you have become accustomed to, I guess. So right now, I'm basically living like a college student. I don't buy anything except for food and travel, and I try to cook food for myself because it's cheaper, and my big expenditure is, like, having a guy come clean my pool so I don't have to do that. [laughs]

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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