Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Oscar.
Hi, I’m Josh Long and I’m from Vancouver, British Columbia. I grew up enjoying most activities equally, from sports to programming to playing musical instruments. I’m the composer and Lead Designer on Oscar.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I began my career as a pro gamer at World Cyber Games 2005 in Singapore, representing Canada in Dawn of War. At the time, Relic contacted me out of the blue and offered me a job in games; of course I accepted. I actually wanted to write music for games and I figured the industry was small and tough to get into so I took what I could get. Years later and long story short, I spent three years as Lead Multiplayer Designer on the Dawn of War 2 series; working on the game I grew up competing in was pretty neat. I’m a big fan of RTS and indie games, both of which make their home on PC. After 7 years between Relic Entertainment and Blackbird Interactive, I decided I knew what I was doing; I saw an unattended demographic of older gamers who wanted more from their games, and came to understand from my experiences in AAA why we’re not able to create these games reliably just yet.
Where did the idea for Oscar come from?
Oscar began as a small student project almost 3 years ago; I was busy with my lead job at Relic but dissatisfaction led me to explore writing music for games. I originally signed up to compose music for the tiny pro-bono title, but when I recruited a journalist and friend to write the story, the game became the symbol of my cause as a game creator. The story was undeniably true to life, and some of this stemmed from the fact that it expressed itself particularly well as a video game. I realized this is where my passion for games as a child had disappeared to: The child had grown up but the games had not. Oscar expresses what it’s like to have problems you can’t explain and how this might affect your day-to-day life. It’s something everyone deals with, but it certainly resonated strongly with my own past. We’re a game about showing and not telling, letting gamers explore sensitive issues because we never tell them what’s going on or how to feel about it.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Oscar?
It started off as a student project whose gameplay, concept and entirety of content do not relate to what Oscar is now; As the vision changed we shed the original team members who went off to their first jobs in the industry while I summoned a decade’s worth of industry practice to try and compete with the flourishing creative vision. Design is a very complex and for most studios, unexplored discipline; As someone who was fortunate enough to be taught structured design (even if it was later in my career), it took every ounce of my newfound skills to even approach what Oscar was trying to express.
Even to the team it’s not always crystal clear in every facet as to how Oscar powerful could be if properly realized; I credit their ability to trust my confidence and their gut feelings about the project. Anyways, the team has had some turnover as the project involves braving a lot of uncertainty in exploring what games could do; it’s also not possible to explore these rabbit holes without full-time commitment and this has compounded the uncertainty in some as the project’s lifecycle has continued.
On the plus side, for those who have stuck with the project, the results have been surprising and rewarding; with good process and a potent creative vision, the opportunity to insert our own personal solutions into the game create satisfying work that explores experiences unlike anything we’ve found out in the current industry. Games and story/experience to me feel a bit like ten years ago with the idea of owning a cell phone and a palm pilot; the smart phone has now made this idea seem silly. Games and meaning don’t have to be separate, providing we understand how they fit together well enough to not make them encumber each other. Wrapping our brains around how to tell an intensely personal story without directly informing the player has forced us to grow; sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s not, but we think the results will be worth it.
In its current form, how close is Oscar to your initial vision?
If we’re talking about the basic platforming game we started with a few students, the game shares little to no resemblance. Outside of that, unravelling the sensibilities that tie a young girl’s fantastic and realistic world together has been a lot of work but not prohibitively challenging. It was more a matter of unpacking the story and artistic vision inside the brain of our narrative designer which has taken a lot of time but gone relatively well. The game is somewhat pretty without final art, but we think visually it resonates with people because the art has been conceived with deep meaning; each asset is there for a reason, not just to be flashy. When everything in a game ties together, slowly it begins to show and people feel that.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Oscar and if you faced a similar challenge.
As an RTS designer this was the fundamental lesson I learned in the first 5 years of my career; I don’t think it’s a problem that can be avoided, only experienced and corrected. Every designer is excited to create their first game, tuning and playing it day and night. We learn to only see it from our perspective, to obsess over the deepest elements of the game that still give us uncertainty and excitement. We forget the entry point for most users who don’t yet share that same passion and aren’t as intensely literate in the worlds and systems we’ve shared as creators. I went from making games for myself, which I think is what currently brings most designer to the industry, to being able to make games for others and take pride in how the average user could connect with the experience I was trying to create rather than simply satisfying my own needs.
For Oscar specifically, the difficulty isn’t the main concern; the game’s mechanics aren’t particularly overwhelming or meant to stop unskilled player in their tracks. The game’s main challenge is to play through all these various gameplay scenarios, from 2D to 2.5D to even sections where you don’t control the character, and to unravel what they all mean together. Solving the puzzle that is a young girl’s unspoken set of troubles is the crucial challenge and to that end that is the line we refine every day. We want to make sure players can solve the narrative, but we also want it to be subtle enough that they feel like they discovered it themselves. One of the biggest keys to the project was realizing the core team had a lot of talent in that area; I felt the game could be successful largely because our team knows how to show without telling.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Oscar would run on the various PC system configurations?
Oscar is about design, as in how all the pieces of the game fit together. For maximum flexibility we chose a genre (not that Oscar is always a 2D platformer) that isn’t very technically demanding. We want to show that it’s design that needs the most improvement, simply our judgment calls on systems and content that haven’t yet caught up to our technical prowess. Of course this plays to our advantage in many ways; e.g. with a 2D art pipeline we can still look pretty, but absolutely it’s been a pleasure to not worry about system performance for once.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Oscar.
The art style, level design, music and pretty much everything else are always informed by the story; the story is informed by the dynamics and emotions surrounding a young girl’s daydream adventure. As such the art, gameplay and music pivot constantly to show how Oscar is feeling and what she’s going through. Whether it’s impressionistic art to portray fantasy or photo-realistic art to convey a real-world sense of dread, we love that the game is simply a vehicle for her emotions; it lets just justify just about anything without breaking the experience.
In terms of levels we of course have platforming, but later on we develop our own kinds of gameplay that tell the story; I couldn’t pin a genre to them because there simply isn’t a comparison. I’m a systems designer by trade and I’ve tried to see if systems can convey emotions, which is an unusual requiring unusual solutions. Musically I’m formally trained in classical music, but my tastes given that I’ve always wanted to write soundtrack, runs all over the place. Oscar features everything from synths, to instrumental/acoustic sections to flat out rock and metal. We think it gives the game a sense of flair and personality.
How did you go about funding Oscar and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Currently we’re still Kickstarting and while it’s been a bit slow it wasn’t unexpected; we’re not an overly gimmicky or pretty game so we’re relying on press and word of mouth to acquire an audience. Friends and family have been overwhelmingly supportive of my efforts to make games that contribute more than just entertainment and that’s almost been enough reward in itself; the money and career implications are of course always a concern, but somehow being told I’m doing the right thing has made this experience sweet come success or failure.
Tell us about the process of submitting Oscar to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
We haven’t yet submitted anything though we believe our game is unique (enough and through funding polished enough) that I don’t think it will be that hard to distribute. Both of my former employers dealt heavily with Steam and I just don’t think it’s going to be a problem as long as the game is quality.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
We did, though we still don’t know what that price will be. The game is trying something completely new and until it’s 100% finished we won’t be able to sit down and say what it’s worth exactly. Maybe it’s a quaint title that costs a few dollars or maybe we want to go for 10, 15 or more like a Gone Home or Papo and Yo? Money wasn’t the main reason for this creation as I could have just followed the normal career path in AAA for that; I’m more interested in getting it to as many people as possible. Obviously we want to be able to keep our research and products going so we’ll have to devise a plan, but it’s too contingent on varying factors that will emerge in the next several months as we complete the game and get its cause out there. We’ll just have to wait and see.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Oscar from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Instantaneous feedback isn’t critical in this case; how users are feeling is pivotal, but we’re not hedging on any multiplayer interactions or monetization models as I did at previous jobs.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Oscar professionally?
I value the reaction of press and critics greatly; not so much in terms of whether or not the experience we’re conveying is effective, but more so if they believe in its cause and potential effect on the industry. The game is charting unknown territory as part of a first effort so it probably won’t be perfect, nor particularly well understood in some cases but I’m curious how much traction the industry will give us in trying to push the medium in this direction.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Absolutely, I’ve been contacted by Humble Bundle and I’m certainly open to their cause. I’m here to get Oscar’s message out to gamers, and no better way to change peoples’ minds than to give as many people access to what we’re trying to convey.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I’ve either dealt with games that include heavy multiplayer components (AAA RTS) or in this case an indie title whose cause is more about changing games than making money. I’m sure it’ll be something to think about more in the future but I do recognize that the industry is affected by many more problems than just the medium’s capability to stay relevant for older audiences.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos and receiving monetization of Oscar?
I think that would be great! Oscar helps articulate why children might not tell their parents or other sources of authority about their problems; it’s a game that helps us all understand why the words “I’m fine” are too often not indicative of what’s really going on.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Personally I don’t mind, but as a developer with little time on his hands, I invest very specifically in some titles; I don’t usually feel the effects of varied distribution models as a consumer since I can’t afford to spend a ton of time gaming, but with everything up in the air I don’t feel it’s particularly culpable or in that regard generating anything particularly wonderful. I like Walking Dead though.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Honestly my confidence comes from having spent such a long time in the industry; I don’t wonder how a game is made, struggle with finishing products or worry about who’s going to like it. You can find a market, execute and take manageable risks when you’ve been through a few scrapes; that’s what lets me do something as adventurous as Oscar. I’m here to grow the medium and to do the right thing; even if you want to succeed in a conventional way, I agree with conventional wisdom that industry experience first will go a long way, especially in the long run after your first great idea.