Jim Munroe interview (Society Eye, 2009)

I was leafing through my Google Drive today and found a bunch of old pieces from my old blog, Society Eye, that I was quite happy with at the time. I let the website die on its own, but luckily a bunch of the pieces are still in my hands. This is one with Hand Eye Society co-founder Jim Munroe, about his thoughts on games and such, at the time. Originally published on now-defunct SocietyEye.com, sometime in 2009. 

Everybody Hz


Author, comicbook writer and sometime award-winning videogame creator Jim Munroe talks about the wonderful world of independent games

Jim Munroe is the creator of Everybody Dies, a text adventure that won third place at the Interactive Fiction Competition 2009, Best NPCs at XYZZY Awards 2008 and has garnered rave reviews at sites like Gamasutra and The Onion AV Club.

Jim is the writer of comics Sword of My Mouth and Therefore Repent and was a Joe Shuster Award nominee for Outstanding Canadian Comic Book Writer 2008. He has also written the brilliantly oddball books An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil and Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask.

Finally, Jim is co-founder of the Hand Eye Society, a coalition of Toronto games enthusiasts whose mandate is “meshing Toronto’s videogame communities”. They host regular socials and events such as TOJam and Artcade as well as the Artsy Games Incubator – a project that helps creative types to make their first videogames. The Artsy Games Incubator is sponsored by Metanet Software (N) and Queasy Games (Everyday Shooter).


AH: Hi Jim! The Artsy Games Incubator – how’s that all going for you?

It’s been going pretty well. We started maybe 2007 and have done four rounds now. It’s one of the projects that we saw a need for, stemming from my own interest in getting involved in games but also the difficulty I had getting involved in the programming side of things.

I was talking to some friends of mine who are game developers and programmers themselves but who are very interested in expanding the notion of what games can be, and also just creating more diverse artist involvement in making games. They were able to basically fund the first round, allowing me to create what is basically a curriculum and then open source that curriculum. It’s worked for us and hopefully it can work other people as well. Basically just a structure in which people can help each other.


And you’ve got chapters in Toronto and Montreal?

The Montreal one hasn’t started, as far as I know. We’ve had interest in what I’m calling the ‘manual’ in places like Texas and Tokyo, and all over the Internet – different people who think it sounds like a good idea. To be honest it isn’t something that’s spread like wildfire or anything. Since it’s already thought through and proven itself, it makes sense to make it available out there. A lot of times people won’t take that structure as the one they use, but it will inspire another idea for them to create something in a similar model, rather than having it be a franchise.

Sounds like its been successful.

The main thing is that its successful at creating games – games I’ve been really interested in personally. That’s the metrics I use for it. People have found it useful to get beyond the hurdle of creating their first game and have gone on to creating other games because they’ve been introduced to the medium. That’s been positive.


You stopped publishing books with Harper-Collins to start supporting indie press alternatives. Do you feel that creativity is also stifled in the corporate environments of the gaming industry?

It’s very popular to corporation-bash – and I’m not a fan of the corporate culture. But getting beyond ‘Corporations evil, indie good’ dichotomy, the scale of what corporations put out is by necessity conservative because they have such a huge infrastructure to support.

So it just makes sense that if you have one or two people in your team, or three or four even, you’re way more inclined to do something that is something you’re passionate and excited about personally, and are not worried about the return economically.

Even indies that have an eye on the sell-ability of their games, it’s in a better balance with their passion, because they themselves are working on it. Whereas the people that call the shots in corporations at the higher end are not the people who are realizing their passion in these games being made – they’re getting judged on the return the games make.

Just on the basis of what people get feedback for, for people who are so disconnected from the actual production … they’re not looking in the long run that this is the game that totally didn’t do well commercially but it changed the genre of shoot-em-ups forever. Anything that’s really new generally doesn’t do well commercially, but it has an impact in the longer term.

But generally, corporations have to be accountable to their shareholders in the short term. So really, the people who are calling the shots are not thinking long-term.

When it comes to me running my own publishing house, I give away books for free. In the short term I might take a hit for that but I know every time that I get a new reader, a new person that’s passionate and excited about my writing, then that’s a long term benefit.


Will the long-term approach work well for game developers, who make their first games available for free?

N is a great example. The whole idea of making this game, giving it away for free came from the fact that [Metanet founders Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard] had loved a lot of freeware games and loved that kind of accessibility, and the idea of very small teams of people making it and finding a way to get by economically. They were influenced by those people and they in turn have influenced lots other people. They came along at a good time as there was a platform like Xbox Live that allows them to monetize what they were doing.

Having to pay every time to experience a game, it makes you conservative as a buyer as well. Mare [Sheppard] did this talk at the GDC about the benefit of demos. Basically saying, make a demo for your game because people will play it for free and then if they like it they will pay for it. A lot of companies will say, “Why buy a cow if you can get the milk for free?” Definitely, there will be some people who are just like, “That’s totally fine, all I wanted was two minutes to experience it and now I’ve experienced it.” Then they’ll talk about it to someone, and that person is a different type of game player who gets really into the game and so they end up buying it. I don’t think you really have to twist peoples’ arms to get a couple bucks out of them. I think the more accessible it is, it actually ends up paying back in one way or another.

You’ve created an episodic subscription plan for people to read the comic book Sword of My Mouth online, ensuring that you get paid for putting time into your work. At the moment, a lot of the best independent games are simply made available for free online. Do you think that an episodic subscription model would work well for indie games?

People like to feel, when they’re buying, that they have some kind of idea of what they’re getting. It’s along the line of demos. Usually what I do with my books is that I don’t give them away right away. So if you’re really interested in my books, then generally you buy it rather than wait for a year when i release it as a free e-book. At the same time, people can check out a lot of stuff that I’ve given away in the past and get a sense of my sensibility and stuff. Personally, I haven’t bought a 60 dollar game since I was a teenager. I have different ways of getting games – whether it be BitTorrented or whatever. The idea of shelling out that much money for something, regardless of how many hours I get out of it… it’s a huge thing for an artist who isn’t making a lot of money. To me, the idea of something being five or ten dollars, that totally feasible, and that’s something I’d actually consider paying for.


Some indie developers, such as Zombie Cow Studios, give away their first iterations for free, hoping that you will buy the sequel. What do you think of this kind of approach?

It’s neat that there are all of these options for indie developers, and a more direct relationship with the audience. With other media, There’s also a credibility issue with releasing a book as a self-published book, versus releasing a game as a self-published game – it doesn’t have that same stigma. The indies don’t have to worry about that lack of credibility and just the fact that it’s all digital means that they can sell the complete thing – e-books are fine but they’re not the same product as a book. That’s why I’ve always been fine with giving away e-books because I figure – it’s not a book, I’m not giving away a book, I’m giving away an e-book and that’s quite a different thing compared a product that people will take to the beach, or take on the subway … those types of things. And that requires a machinery of shipping and all these costs associated with physical production, whereas you can deliver something digitally in a totally reasonable way.


Much of the hype for promoting games comes online – on websites, blogs, etc. For independent movies, music and books, there are many more avenues of promotion in the real world – launch parties, festivals, touring, etc. What are the best ways for indie game developers to promote their product outside of cyberspace?

I personally don’t know how much it pays off in a revenue kind of way to do real world advertising, but I have always been a bit advocate for it for games. When you see Rockstar‘s street team stickers around it gives games more tangibility. If you’re walking around town and you see a show poster you’re likely to chat about the show or that band or that type of music or whatever. It brings it into the real world.

Promotion is not the only way to bring it into the real world. One of the things we’re doing through the Hand Eye Society … is a retro-fitted arcade cabinet that we’re going to be filling with Toronto indie games, that you’ll have in a gallery or in a bar. The idea is that the general public will come upon it and say, “This is cool, I haven’t played a game in ten years” and then play games and realize that “Hey, this is people in this city that are actually making these games”. There’s something way more exciting about that than if someone in Dakota made this game, or California. That local aspect of it kind of generates a bit more a scene … which is important in terms of development of a medium and an art form, to have a real offline component.

Whether it comes through promotion or initiatives like that, I think it’s fun to have stuff in the real world rather than just in peoples’ basements or in peoples’ computers or on their devices or whatever. It’s the same reason people like the theatre and movie-going is still very popular despite the fact that everybody’s got a friend with a giant TV, you could hypothetically just go over to the friend’s place with a DVD and have the same experience. But there’s something exciting about theatre attendance. That’s where the kind of real-life magic that happens.


Indie tends to be equated with archaic – there’s a strong presence of retro in the games. Is it not the job of indie games to move away from retro ideals and into new territory?

The whole basic simplicity of the arcade is something that has been lost [in big studio games]. Indie games were able to bring it back, and on the practical level, they were smaller scale products that individuals or groups of individuals could manage. I think there’s something good about the kind of pick-up-and-play game.

I’m personally kind of tired of the aesthetic of retro, indie games, because it’s a little bit of a cliche. I think that it needs to move away from it – not because there’s anything wrong with being retro but because its such a common, default choice in some cases, whether it be aesthetically, or gameplay. It’s a cliche, at this stage. But there are people who are passionate about it, regardless of it being a cliche. That kind of blocky graphics, chunky graphics, chip tunes music… [I don’t mean] to dismiss that kind of genuine enthusiasm. But I feel that there are a lot of hangers-on that don’t really have an aesthetic of their own, and they’re not really trying that hard so they just go to the default, retro side of things.

The games that were created back then were intended to be compelling right from the very beginning because if you drive and you don’t have any fun, you’re not going to put in another quarter. So the gameplay was really more important than it is nowadays where if you invest 60 bucks, you’re going to learn how to like this game – even if the game controls are super complicated and there’s a huge learning curve. Those games would never survive in 1980s arcades – but it doesn’t matter because its a whole different model.

… There’s no way you’d pick up the game and really figure out in five minutes what is enjoyable about it. Whereas in the arcade style games, that are now totally accessible on a platform like flash, there’s no kind of setup or investment or time – it’s totally free, it’s totally fast. Immediately you’re playing a game that you like from the beginning. I think that indie games have really stepped up to fill that niche. It’s been left behind by the huge studio games.


AH: Independent game production is becoming a bit like music production today – where simplified, high-quality tools are readily available for us that take care of the programming side of production. By putting programming into the background, and creativity into the forefront, do you think that indie games are more easily interpreted as art?

JM: I think that they’re more likely to be innovate because … even if you are a programmer and you’re writing something from scratch, there’s a huge investment. The investment that corporations make causes them to be more conservative. I think that the same dynamic is at play when someone decides to make a game and they’re a programmer and are able to do it themselves. They still have to spend a lot of time coming up with an engine, a strategy of how to get it to react the way they want, there’s a big investment in time so they’re less likely just to do a little sketch of something that’s off the top of their head.

Whereas if you can just whip up something in a couple of hours using a preexisting engine or preexisting tools, then you’re way more likely to be whimsical and say “This is probably crazy but I’m going to try it.” If your opinion is just “it’s probably crazy”, it’s not going to get you through the first six months of programming grind. You can spend an afternoon doing something that might be crazy but it might be brilliant, it might be a breakthrough. I think that’s the benefit of having the tools – not just for non-programmers but for programmers too. They don’t have to bother with a lot of that background, building it up from scratch type of pain.


AH: What has been your favourite independent game of late?

JM: The game that inspired [Everybody Dies] was this brilliant game by Emily Short called Savoir Faire which is a text game. It’s written in the puzzley older style of old Infocom games. The writing is really phenomenal, there’s a magical element that comes into play that you get to use, and its a really clever gameplay device. It just blew my mind in terms of what is possible. Relating more object-oriented ways of thinking about game design, modern ideas to what is an archaic, 1980s obsolete form of interactive fiction.

Another one was a point and click called Nanobots by Erin Robinson, from Montreal. She’s working in an older medium but with more modern methods with the writing and whatnot.


What’s your favourite non-independent game of all time?

It would be a tossup between Grim Fandago … and Half-Life 2. The original Half-Life was the one that got me back into games. Half-Life 2 is just so fucking amazing – I can’t say enough about it. I’m a big fan of the Grand Theft Auto series as well. There’s lots of really amazing big studio stuff. I’m interested in [Ubisoft Toronto], in a way that I’m not interested in big corporate publishers. There’s something inherently interesting about the medium.


Bye Jim!


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