Alec Holowka of Infinite Ammo presented together with Andy Schatz (MONACO) and Adam Saltsman (CANABALT) at the Independent Games Summit this year. Their talk "Savvy Indie Solutions to Difficult Development Problems" posited three unique approaches to game design. Holowka's focus was on holistic game design, where lengthy development times were endured so that the sum of the parts or overall vision remained the center of attention.

You began your talk by pointing out that reviews will separate a game into its components in a way that would sound ludicrous in a movie review. Do you find this habit of compartmentalization is symptomatic of the way people think about games?

Alec Holowka, Infinite Ammo: It’s not necessarily that reviews are the problem, but it is an example of how people go about discussing games in a formal context, as if they're just a bunch of things stuck together.

Were there vital issues you wanted to address at this particular time, or was it more of a summary of what you had learned over time?

It was a little of both. This year a lot of people at the Independent Games Summit were there to say “games are only this one thing,” especially during the rants. “This is what games are. They aren’t anything else.” To me that notion is shortsighted. In talking to developers I wanted specifically to say, “Here’s this wide open space. Go find your own thing that makes you excited about making games and explore that.” Basically it was a positive, inspirational message to do what you want.

Do you see Marian as unexplored territory?

Yeah, it’s complicated because it has a number of different systems that are all hopefully going to interact well with each other. There’s a core gameplay mechanic, there’s a narrative element to it, and then there are all these other gameplay systems that will hopefully overlap in interesting ways, such that the player feels this is like a living, breathing world.

One of the things that Aquaria did fairly well was it had a certain degree of mystery, where you were not sure exactly what the rules of the world were. Even the story left certain things open to interpretation.

As a game designer, you are constructing each of the pieces of the puzzle. Does that put you at risk of losing the holistic approach while getting caught up too much in compartmentalizing each of the components?

Yeah, definitely. The GDC talk was meant to be about the differences between mainstream games and indie games. In mainstream game development, when you have a team of fifty to a hundred people, you have to organize stuff into different compartments. Otherwise, it becomes really confusing. It’s harder to manage a giant team without saying, “Okay, you artists need to produce these art assets by this date. You musicians need to compose this kind of music by this date.” Whereas with indie game development it can be a lot more free form.

For example, on Marian I am doing the music, the game design and the code. At any point in the process I can decide to be inspired by art that one of the artists came up with, and then start taking things more in another direction. It is easy to fall into the habit of solving production issues by just separating things and simplifying them. I think it’s really important to remember that all these things should be connected in some kind of meaningful way.

This is an advantage that you would have over someone on a larger development team?

Yes. We don’t have to suddenly get fifty people to get to change gears. We don't have stockholders who are going to get mad at us. I try to hold myself to deadlines and set milestone goals, but we can also wait an extra month or whatever if we know the results are going to be better.

You joined Kyle Pulver on depict1, writing the soundtrack to the Global Game Jam entry. Does it appeal to you to have the chance to occasionally turn your attention to a more modestly sized product that can be completed in a short amount of time?

It’s nice on working with a smaller project to be able to go through the whole process and see the results. With Marian, it will have taken years to get to release it officially and see people react to it.

I've worked with Kyle on two or three games now, and we have a similar way of thinking about things. Though he is more focused on pure gameplay, and I come from more the overall experience, we end up liking a lot of the same games anyway. It’s been fun to work with him on stuff because he will send me the prototype of a game and the pieces I write for it come out super easily. I can literally sit down at the piano, play some stuff, and it sounds right. I build a track around it and in a couple hours it’s done. That does not usually happen when I’ve worked on projects with other people.

Is it difficult to maintain this ideal of holistic design the more people are involved in the process?

It depends how the team is set up. On Marian there are seven people on the project, but I sort of have the final say. So far I have not had to exercise those rights. Everyone kind of gets what I’m going for, more or less. They suggest ideas and if they don’t immediately fit, they often end up morphing into something that fits. I think I have been pretty careful about picking people that are creating things that align with the vision I have for the game.


[Independent game composers Alec Holowka and Laura Shigihara at the 2010 Game Developers Conference. Images courtesy of Infinite Ammo. Photo and video by Jeriaska.]