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Playing games with the media

Double Zero One Zero's Pontus Lunden spins the issues facing indies and getting ink for his censorship simulator

The Westport Independent is a "censorship simulator," a game in which players oversee an independent newspaper in the weeks before an authoritarian government takes over all media operations. It's also the first commercial game from Swedish outfit Double Zero One Zero, a two-person team consisting of Pontus Lunden and Kristian Brodal.

Speaking with at the Game Developers Conference earlier this month, Lunden explained that the idea came from a Ludum Dare game jam with the theme "Beneath the Surface." After seeing how many other developers settled on diving or digging games, the pair decided to embrace a different interpretation of the assignment.

"I think media in general is interesting because it acts as the middleman between an event and public awareness," Lunden said. "This means that by nature, press has a lot of power over society. It also means that press has, morally at least, a responsibility to provide the public with a legitimate representation of said event."

"We tried to make people understand why it is the way it is, why people would print something like this."

In The Westport Independent, that moral obligation is matched against the player's own agenda. As the editor of the paper, players can't actually lie about the game's randomized news events. However, they can spike stories, change headlines to affect slant, delete sentences from the body text of an article, or bury inconvenient news in the back of the paper. The editorial choices will differ depending on whether the player's goal is to provide readers with the clearest picture of events, sell the most papers, foment revolution, or maintain a free media.

"We tried to make people understand why it is the way it is, why people would print something like this," Lunden said.

As much as the game could be interpreted as a critique on the media, Lunden said that hasn't really hurt The Westport Independent when it comes to getting coverage.

"Media in general enjoy writing about things they can relate to, and if there's anything that all media can relate to it's, well... media," Lunden said.

That coverage (and a publishing deal with Sanctum and Goat Simulator outfit Coffee Stain Studios) may help crack the discoverability issue when the game launches, but there are plenty of other issues small developers like Double Zero One Zero must address, such as the multitude of possible platforms on the market. Right now the plan is to bring the game to the standard indie stomping grounds of PC, Mac, and Linux, as well as the mobile marketplaces of iOS and Android.

The game may fit right in on the indie-friendly marketplaces of the former group, but it doesn't sound like a slam dunk for the mobile market where the game's premium business model has been less than trendy of late. However, Lunden thinks that might be changing.

"The problem I'm seeing is that because you're forced to make free-to-play games, you're very limited in what you can do. And it feels like that's starting to open up, which I feel is a great thing."

"For years the industry has been so much about 'Let's do more free-to-play. Let's do more things to add monetary options that may or may not fit the design of the game,'" Lunden said. "But last year with the sales of games like 80 Days and Monument Valley, we're seeing especially on smartphones a big change that actually premium games can sell well. The problem I have with smart devices is not with the platform itself. I think the platform has great potential to have good games on them. The problem I'm seeing is that because you're forced to make free-to-play games, you're very limited in what you can do. And it feels like that's starting to open up, which I feel is a great thing."

While Lunden acknowledged premium games have a slim chance of success on mobile platforms today, it's still preferable to free-to-play. Fortunately, Double Zero One Zero isn't relying on the game to be a mobile hit in any format.

"I wouldn't release our game on smartphone alone," Lunden said. "Our game is mainly on PC, Mac, and Linux. If it wasn't because we had an engine that we could port easily, we probably wouldn't... Some games, if they adhere enough to that market, can do it on one platform. But if you do it like us and make a smaller, cheaper title, I think you want to reach out to more platforms if you can. When choosing the engine you work with, it's something you need to consider. I think that's also why so many indie games these days are compatible with Mac and Linux, and not just PC."

For the record, The Westport Independent is being developed on Luxe, an in-development engine built on the programming language Haxe and created by Sven Bergström. Luxe is free and open-source, and also emblematic of one of the best things happening in the industry today, according to Lunden.

"Engines are becoming cheaper," Lunden said. "That's a really good thing, because the more people are developing games, the more competence will come out of it. And the better the competence, the better the games. If it becomes too much of a flood of new games, then we'll start to need something to help people understand what games they should buy or not. That will obviously become a problem with the engines becoming cheaper, but I think having too much to choose from is a luxury problem, in comparison to not having enough to choose from."

The greater availability of game tools isn't the only democratization trend with a downside. Crowdfunding has also lowered barriers to entry for aspiring developers, but Lunden said it also comes with its own problems.

"As long as you adapt for the market, I think you can survive decently, whatever happens."

"Kickstarter has made it possible to create some games that never would have been funded," Lunden said. "But at the same time because you have this funding method using consumers, if it goes badly, it's the consumers that take the hit rather than investors. It depends on how you see it. Instead of the risk being on the developers or investors, it's on the consumers. If the consumers believe in the product, then sure, it's no problem. But one needs to remember that by giving money to games, understand that you're taking the risk by doing this. Because that's what it is. Making games is a risk. It's an economic risk. Making games costs money and you don't know if you'll make it back until you start selling it."

While The Westport Independent is the sort of project that might get attention and backing on a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter, Lunden said Double Zero One Zero is not the sort of team that should undertake a campaign like that, at least not yet.

"We don't have that much of a community right now, and not having a community, or not being well known, you'll have a really hard time doing it," Lunden said. "And because there's only the two of us, that would basically halt our development for a month. You need to give a lot of attention to a Kickstarter."

Lunden said he'd love to see crowdfunding become more reliable, but he's not exactly sure how to bring about that change. As it is, every failed project is another step in the wrong direction.

"One of the problems now is because there have been so many crowdfunding things that have gone south, people are starting to lose faith in it," Lunden said. "And if people lose faith completely in it, no one would be able to do it."

Regardless of how it plays out, Lunden will hope for the best while preparing for the worst, a combination that makes him confident Double Zero One Zero can get by.

"As long as you adapt for the market, I think you can survive decently, whatever happens," Lunden said.

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Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.