January 29, 2014 11:45 AM | Staff
"Oh no, I like making small shitty games. I only feel embarrassed when I think they're going to just be parsed as these incapable aspirants to some different ideal of what a game should look like, for instance as the withered embryos of 30+-minute IGF contestants rather than as things in their own right."
I first encountered the unmistakable style of Stephen Murphy, aka thecatamites, back in 2009 with the hand-drawn adventure game Paul Moose in Space. Since then you may well have stumbled across any one of the otherworldly experience that he has provided on tap, like Space Funeral, Murder Dog IV: Trial of the Murder Dog, and The Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan.
Murphy isn't like other developers, and his games are pretty messed up. The animations are crude and visually unpleasant, while the underlying mechanics of play will often force you into the sort of silly and sometimes uncomfortable territory that video games simply don't explore.
With five years of freeware behind him, this most odd and mysterious of devs has finally gone commercial, with the release of 50 Short Games -- a bundle of titles that were originally banged together in a matter of hours each, and then posted for free on Murphy's water fountain hangout Glorious Trainwrecks.
"I wanted to release a commercial game after hearing these stories of independent developers writhing around in huge Scrooge McDuck pools of dollar bills and thinking, 'well, that sounds OK,'" Murphy reasons.
"I also wanted to release something commercial while I still had a day job, so I wouldn't have to get too hung up about the results of my first try," he adds. "And I was curious as to how much money I could get and how sustainable it would be."
"I got a bit obsessive about it and was very concerned about, for example, calculating the amount of hours I could squeeze out per day into my own projects and setting quotas for myself."As it turned out, going commercial while he still held his day job was a missed mark -- but let's go back to the start and explore how Murphy reached this point. When Murphy began exploring game development in 2008, he had one goal in mind - making "old games."
"I used RPG Maker at first," he tells me. "The default mechanics and resources implied a fixed structure which I was more than happy to accept if it meant being able to string little weird setpieces and jokes along it like beads on a wire."
It was dreaming up and refining these small-scale setpieces to within an inch of their lives which became the stickler for Murphy -- he'd spend hours, days and weeks putting these visions together, and sort of forget to make any actual game to go with them.
"I remember in one revision I would just spend all my time making this elaborate detective scenario, which was hypothetically just a light prelude to the 'real game', another 40 hour fantasy rpg," he muses, "but which stretched on and on by itself. But I didn't worry about that. I was so happy."
This feeling of happiness stayed for Murphy for a long while. As the developer notes as part of his 50 Great Games collection, "Many of my video games have a kind of similarly flat self-contained quality which comes from not giving the player an avenue for their own feelings inside the work, in ways which things like relateable characters or challenging action bits frequently do."
Fleeting happinessBut this joy wasn't to last. In 2012, Murphy was collaborating with fellow developer Kat Lake on Goblet Grotto when he landed his first fulltime job as an insurance broker in Dublin.
He found himself getting up at five each morning, powering out a couple of Goblet Grotto development hours before bounding into his paid clerical tasks. "It was an experience and I enjoyed it," he says of his former full-time job, "but I felt like every hour I spent on it was an hour taken away from the things that really interested me, and so I would have to scheme ways of clawing that back."
"I got a perverse kind of pleasure from getting up early before work to do game things for a few hours," Murphy adds, "since I feel most alert just after waking up, so it was like reclaiming the best hours of my day. My performance at the job slumped immediately after I started doing this, by the way. I guess it worked for me, when it worked, when I was able to set aside a certain amount of time each day to work on video game things and when I was working on games that would allow concrete changes to be put in place during each daily slot."
But when work on Goblet Grotto was finished, it left Murphy in an awkward scenario. His newfound sense of early morning discipline could potentially be carried over to his own personal projects, he reasoned, and he was eager to give it a go and see how his output changed as a result.
As it turned out, the answer was: not so great.
"Previously I was just slowly pulling things together over the course of a few weeks and taking my time," explains the dev, "but now, maybe because of the contrast with previous sluggishness, I felt hyperconscious of the amount of time I had left over after work for the things I wanted to do."
"Using the old methods of game making didn't work for me any more since having spare time cut into slices didn't really allow for working in fits and starts as I used to do," he adds. "It's a bit precious but there you are."
As a result, Murphy found himself not getting a whole lot done -- in fact, as he admits, he "basically did nothing." The early morning method was great for working within an established framework, but when he went back to focusing on his more sloppy style of work, it simply wasn't working.
"It made me a lot more conscious about systems of working on things, ways I could avoid lapsing into just coming home and watching TV," he says. "And to be honest I got a bit obsessive about it and was very concerned about, for example, calculating the amount of hours I could squeeze out per day into my own projects and setting quotas for myself. But it didn't work out too well until I started changing up the games I was making in addition to the way I was making them."
"I am currently trying out game development as a singular source of income, but it might turn out that I don't like it very much."
The developer grappled with game development methods at this point. Hand painting 3D textures away from his computer appeared to help for a little while, but he eventually burned out again. Creating Lake Of Roaches for a game jam once again threw some revitalization his way, but soon afterwards he found himself bogged down by slow pacing, and certain quirks of the Unity engine -- the latter of which we'll explore later.
As a result, 2013 was a very unhappy time for Murphy. He was stuck in a rut, seemingly unable to escape from this cesspool of inactivity. As he details in his 50 Short Games notes, "My spiritual torpor manifested itself as drinking exactly four beers each night while watching Superman: The Animated Series until it was time to sleep and go to work again, and this went on for most of a year."
"It wasn't some big depression or anything, but working on my own things grounds me, and there's the sense that having an interest or stake in even one small thing makes it easier to pay attention to and appreciate other stuff as well," he tells me. "You don't feel like you're flailing around loose so much."
He continues, "The idea that this could be replaced by a job I didn't feel much interest or aptitude for, if I did not watch myself carefully and maybe even if I did, was worrying me. So did the idea I could ever be in such a bad state that falling asleep could be the highlight of my day. I guess the daily games were my way of dealing with that."
Thecatamites is hoping that 2014 will be the year that this all changes. He broke this cycle of regret last month, when he quit his clerical job and moved away to Slovenia. With enough cash saved up to allow him to survive for a while, Murphy is hoping to try his hand with some commercial releases -- 50 Short Games is the beginning of this new phase.
"I had kind of embarrassingly romantic ideas that a day job would keep me grounded in the 'real world' and stop me becoming too self-absorbed and egomaniac, or more than is already the case," he laughs. "But it turns out that the mindset involved with dealing with other people in an office is not especially dissimilar to arguing on, like, a Diablo fan forum all day, with all the weird lack of perspective and awareness that this suggests."
But even now, Murphy is reluctant to make his life all about the games. "I would like making games to remain a kind of vague and gratuitous enterprise where I don't have to care about claims that 'roguelikes are in this year," he says. "But I also need cash and would like to make it in a way I feel good at or proud of. I am currently trying out game development as a singular source of income but it might turn out that I don't like it very much."
And the developer plans to balance out any commercial flings with his usual free splurges -- it's this freedom that he enjoys the most, and so to switch from free to paid without any in-between wouldn't fit with his mantra.
"I only recently began properly obsessing about methods of balancing all this stuff," he adds. "Results not in yet for commercial games as a whole, so I am keeping options open as I try to figure out what it is I'm trying to do."
Murphy's LawWhen Murphy began putting together the short-form, messy games that would make up 50 Short Games partway through 2013, it was as a direct result of his slothfulness during the first half of the year.
In particular, Murphy began to find himself worried that the games he was releasing were picking up coverage on sites like IndieGames.com and Rock Paper Shotgun, and that player expectations would not match the content. After all, his games are a little more "out there" than your average indie release.
50 Short Games was, in part, an answer to this echoing fear. The developer planned to outpace the press coverage by constantly releasing games, regardless of quality -- "I had the idea of a compilation pack about a week or so in and that kind of locked me into it," he notes.
"One of the reasons I enjoyed the Glorious Trainwrecks Pirate Kart so much was because it felt like the first time to me that a 30-second game could feel as fluid and natural as you'd think it should," he reasons, "and that was because it had a supporting framework that changed the overall assumptions with which you approached each individual game (and also because it helpfully cut down on the process of finding, downloading, unzipping etc which can overshadow small things)."
The highly-lauded Unity engine was a sticking point for Murphy -- or should I say, his style of game development. While he respects what the engine can provide for the average dev, he found that it simply wasn't gelling with his methods. As such, he went back to the Multimedia Fusion framework for 50 Short Games.
"I like Unity, but it just took longer and required more conscientous effort to use, and this was at a time where I was already having trouble focusing on even small things, and where the periods I was able to work felt all chopped up," notes the dev. "I would start a new game in a burst of energy, but then would have to sleep, then there'd be this mandated 8-9 hour gap from work, and I'd come home and open up the editor and see, like, some unnervingly abstract WIP level with an untextured 3D dog standing on a cube, or something, and be too tired and disappointed to continue chipping away at whatever ridiculous thing I was trying to do. This would last for maybe 2 weeks until I felt pent up enough to begin a new project and then it would all repeat."
Going back to Multimedia Fusion allowed Murphy's organized disorganization to run riot once again. "I think I've always liked the sloppiness of being able to combine these seperate elements (gfx, music, game systems, text, etc) into something which worked better than the components," he adds, "and which could hopefully surprise me and let me get out of my own head and actually feel alert and responsive for once. I think this is mostly why I keep it up."
"My plan is just to subsist as long as I can before the inevitable and ignominious return to the land/work of which I was born."Regardless of this first venture into the realms of commerciality, Murphy is still quite the enigma to both the gaming press and other indie developers. When I contacted the dev back in 2011 to include one of his games in a book I was writing, it took several days before I even discovered his real name, let alone a contact email.
"I talk to a couple people but for the most part it's not a regular thing," he notes. "I enjoy talking shop but not when it's tied in with all these intransigent issues of art and worth and god help us, 'the games medium' -- so I actually don't like talking to other developers except on neutral topics such as weather."
With his newly laid plans for monetary success, is he planning to put his face out there a bit more, and perhaps even try his hand at a bit of marketing?
"I don't really know that it makes a difference," he answers. "I believe that personality is a fad and that the game designers of the future will be bred in big vats to have no genitals or feet. I'm trying to be ahead of the curve."
As for the here and now, Murphy is considering going back to a work-in-progress called Mouse Corp with New Vaders, the musicians he previously worked with on Goblet Grotto. He also wants to try his hand at a longer, more focused 3D game that he would charge money for.
"Other than that, my plan is just to subsist as long as I can before the inevitable and ignominious return to the land + work (both my parents were in insurance) of which I was born."
[Mike Rose wrote this article for sister site Gamasutra]