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Road to the IGF: Stephen Lavelle's  English Country Tune

Road to the IGF: Stephen Lavelle's English Country Tune Exclusive

February 14, 2012 | By Mike Rose

Anyone who follows the indie gaming scene will no doubt have crossed paths with plenty of Stephen Lavelle's games before, although they may well know him better as "Increpare".

Lavelle has been pushing the boundaries of game mechanics for a good few years now, with short but deep experiences that can potentially cause the player to question what real innovation in video games is.

English Country Tune is Lavelle's first commercial title, all his previous releases having been free to download up to this point. All those years of honing his skills appear to have paid off too, as his first paid release has earned him an IGF nomination for Excellence In Design.

As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, Lavelle discusses why he decided to charge money for this game, and which elements he was forced to cut out of the final vision.

What is your background in making games?

It depends on the game. There are certain general inspirations and role-models, but most of no general interest. I feel like I haven't had a new thought in about two years, and I've more or less "used up" everything I could think of. So I'm trying to think of new things, and it's proving hard work. I let myself go, both culturally and intellectually, and now I'm paying the price. Grrr.

What development tools did you use to develop English Country Tune?

Unity. Music was a mix of Reason, Garageband and some custom-made tools (that are single-purpose enough to not be worth preparing for general consumption). Photoshop.

How long did you work on the game?

8 months in total, though I took some breaks during development.

How did you come up with the concept?

There's no real single concept to the game. I had a lot of different ideas for the game at different stages of development. It started as a (mechanically very very different) political game about child labour at a games jam of January last year. I didn't like it at all, so I shelved it. Here's an exclusive screenshot of the first version of English Country Tune:

english country tune.png
The next stage I treated the game as a technical exercise in design, trying to add mechanics and design levels for them - then I spent a month or so thinking about narrative arrangements, and large-scale plans, none of which made it into the final game.

Are there any elements that you experimented with that just flat out didn't work with your vision?

Oh, many many things. Let me briefly mention one. I wanted for a time to have a large continuous world with the puzzles being self contained but still seamlessly connected to some adventuring space, perhaps giving room for a meta-game. However, this was before I started designing levels in earnest. Once I got into making levels properly, all of the levels I could come up with were these super-compact affairs, requiring total isolation, the exact opposite of what I had hoped for. I didn't have any choice but to respect the way the game wanted to grow, really, so I took what I was able to make and ran with it.

In addition to (conscious) visions, there were also (subconscious) assumptions - one assumption was that the game would get harder the further you would go. But, try as I might, I couldn't make levels that were non-trivially difficult and still interesting. This is very likely due to some combination of the relatively short length of time I spent making the game, the relative novelty of some of the mechanics, and my deficiencies as a games designer. But difficulty isn't the be-all-and-end-all of level organization - there are many other approaches to arranging levels.

This is the first time you've put a price tag on a game - if I remember rightly, you told us during our IndieGames podcast that you had no intentions of charging money for any of your games. What changed?

Last May, when I was living off my savings (asking for donations gave me an immediate chunk of cash but weren't sustainable as a source of income), someone quite graciously offered to help me out with a no-strings subsistence stipend, with the intention of supporting the making of games that wouldn't necessarily be financially viable.

By this stage I was working on English Country Tune, which was, well, the sort of thing that looked like it might be financially viable. I felt an obligation to him to not waste his money, basically. (There are many other possible stories, but that's the one that convinces me the most).

How do you feel that your first commercial game launch has gone?

It wasn't entirely pleasant, but it's gone as well as can be expected. No serious bugs, people were able to buy it with problems. Emotionally it was a bit strange. Submitting to the App Stores in particular + waiting for approval was a very odd ritual for me - hard as I tried to be nonchalant, it was quite a nervous week.

Commercially it's gone badly. The game's nowhere near making back it's money (maybe $5000 in sales out of $13000 to make (ignoring income from the aforementioned patronage), and by now sales are averaging about $15 a day). I submitted the game to Steam at launch, but haven't heard anything back from them. I'm guessing that an IGF nomination increases my chances of getting on to Steam quite a bit, which would likely result in my recouping of the costs of development and probably a little bit more.

Have you been satisfied with the response from fans and the press?

I always knew that people's experiences would be a mixed affair, so reviews were likely to be similarly hit-or-miss. And so they were. Which is fine, really. One curious phenomenon was that I found myself far more emotionally affected by positive reviews than I usually do - kind words by a reviewer in a respected publication would elicit warm, fond, and utterly unexpected feelings of gratitude. IGF changed as well for me - it felt perfectly right to submit it, whereas nothing else I've made really felt like it made sense to submit.

As for people buying and playing the game, well, they've been grand.

If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?

If I could go back in time, I would probably have told myself to not make the game, to wait and try to think of something that I'm really passionate about to work on, rather than something as conventional as ECT. I'm happy that I made it I think - it was a step into the unknown, but it was really very dry to work on - fiercely resisted many ideas I had for it, and left my brain an addled heap with a capacity for puzzles and little else - I'm still recovering from development, two months after, trying to figure out what the hell I'm supposed to be doing. I sure hope I figure something out.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed?

Yeah, SpaceChem. I love that game - I really hope it wins the grand prize. Fingers crossed.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

The fact that people have quite a tough time making a living making games, and the non-profit nature of a lot of the scene both result in there being quite a high turnover of people involved. I'm pretty focused on the games scene, so tend to lose track of people when they depart.

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