The Unconcerned is the working title for the subject of this post, a video game set in Iran during the protests following the recent election. Quite the weighty subject matter. In the game, you play a couple looking for their daughter who has disappeared during the rioting.
As Borut, the game’s developer, explains both in his pitch video and in our Q&A below, he is well-aware of the needed delicacy in making a game like this one. He is approaching this with complete earnestness, both in terms of the subject matter and the Kickstarter project itself.
The project launched over the weekend and has raised over $1,200 so far, with a goal of $15,000 and 84 days to go. Rewards include the game itself, original artwork, and even having an in-game character modeled after a backer.
We emailed with Borut about his project, its politics, and how indie game development can fit in with Kickstarter. To check out the project, click here. Here is our conversation:
Can you tell us about your project?
It’s a small game that’s set in Iran, during the riots and protests that followed the election this June. You play two characters, a husband and wife who are looking for their lost daughter.
The gameplay will be a combination of solving puzzles and action. You’ll come across different types of people on the street while looking for your daughter, and they’ll react to you differently depending on what character you are at that moment (the father or the mother). You have to use these differences to get past obstacles like police or crowds, and get information from people that will help you find your daughter.
A lot of people don’t think games can address such serious topics, but I think that not only can they address them, games can sometimes be the best way do so. Games can make people feel like in they’re in another place and another moment in time, to give them perspective on serious events like these.
What was your thinking in *how* you decided to take on the task of creating a game around the Iranian elections? How are you handling the delicacy of the subject matter?
That’s a great question - how I approach such a volatile and sensitive topic is definitely at the forefront of my mind as I’m working on the game. I think one of the keys to creating a successful story about such a serious topic (in any medium) is that the core of the work should deal with emotions that translate to any place and time. I think anyone who is a parent or whose friends are parents can at least in some way relate to the pain a parent would feel losing their child.
There are a number of political issues I’d like to deal with in the game, but I think these will work best as subtext. By that I mean that your explicit goals as the player at any given moment don’t have to relate to the political situation. Instead, they will indirectly expose you to situations that encourage you to think about it more. For instance, one of the characters in the story is a police officer, and you will come across moments where police are being unnecessarily violent against protesters, as well as moments where they are the victims of violence (based on real events). By asking you as the player to deal with and resolve such situations, my hope is that you’ll ask yourself more about how such situations are created and what causes us to do such awful things to each other in such times.
How I approach these topics is especially important early on in the game’s development, so I’ve been taking time to do research and am trying to be very careful designing the game’s mechanics. I’m a very strong believer that everything you decide to put in a game says something explicitly, whether you realize it or not. I’ve recently been designing the gameplay differences between the father and mother characters and I’ve been trying to avoid making those differences based on the physical nature of the two characters (like the father being capable of taking more damage during a fight). Differences like that play up the unequal nature of the sexes, and downplay what role society has in controlling that inequality. So I’m trying to make those gameplay differences consist more of how other characters *react* to you, based on which character you are. For instance, the types of actions that would cause a nearby police officer to become suspicious of you and stop you would be different if you’re playing the father or mother. Everything in the game has to go through that kind of analysis and thought process.
I realize it is perhaps audacious for someone (especially, say, a white, middle class, U.S. citizen like me) to make a game, or any other piece of media, about such a different place and culture. But I also feel like this game really needs to be made, and I don’t see any else doing it - understanding people and trying to help them relate has always been a passion for me.
What is your background? And what about your collaborators?
I’ve been working in game development for about 9 years, doing programming and some game design. After graduating from Georgia Tech in 1998, I did regular software programming for a little while and then eventually tried to create my own startup studio with a couple partners. That didn’t work out at the time, but it was an amazing learning experience. From there I went to work for Radical Entertainment, on a game based on the movie Scarface. Then I worked at Sony Online Entertainment on a PS3 launch title (Untold Legends). I’ve been at EA the past two and a half years, until I finally decided I had to get back to making my own games (while doing contract work on the side to help pay the bills). I’ve also taught game design at the Vancouver Film School, and have written about game development for a variety of books and websites.
I’ve started working with a couple artists, Amanda Williams, who did some of the art for the popular iPhone game Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, and Alex Drummond, who also does concept art for the game Edge of Twilight (which is currently in production). I’ve got a friend who’s offered to help me with sound effects, but I haven’t reached the stage in the project where that’s necessary yet. I still have a lot to determine about the music for the game though, as to what kind of music and how much there will be.
How does Kickstarter fit as an indie game funding model?
I think it has the potential to work very well for certain size games. A small downloadable game’s budget can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand. I think at the moment it probably works best for games in the $1-25k range, but hopefully that amount will increase both as Kickstarter’s audience grows, and as the audience for indie games grows.
What has your experience been so far?
It’s been great - in the first day alone I raised $836 and after three days I’m at 8% of my goal, $1211 out of $15k. Even if the project doesn’t meet its funding goal, it’s incredibly empowering to know there’s people out there who believe in you and want to see the project succeed.
How will you be keeping backers informed?
I plan on doing regular updates on the game’s development process. I still have to figure just how much I’ll publish publicly, and what information I’ll keep for those backers who have pledged for exclusive behind the scenes access. To start, I will probably only do detailed development updates every 2-3 weeks, with smaller updates here and there. As the development ramps up, detailed updates will probably become more frequent, maybe once a week or so. I’ll probably include in-progress art as well as insight into what problems and approaches I’m taking in the game’s design and programming.
How and where will the game be released?
The game will be available for download on PC, and ideally for download on the Xbox as well. The Xbox has two channels for downloadable games, Xbox Live Arcade and Xbox Live Indie. It’s easier to publish something on the Indie channel, but it also restricts the price you can charge to $5 (whereas I think the typical price for a game of this size and depth is about $10). The Indie channel also doesn’t have as broad a market as the Arcade channel. As I get closer to finishing the game, I’ll have to figure out if it’s worth the effort to go through the longer approval process for the Xbox Live Arcade, which also depends on Microsoft’s interest in publishing it on that channel. Because of the political nature of the game, they may want to keep it on the Indie channel.
As for the timeline of the game’s development, that’s still up in the air. Realistically, it’ll be at least 6 months of work, but it may take longer, even over a year. It depends partly on how successful the funding is via Kickstarter and how much of my time I can devote solely to developing the game.
Are you consulting any Iranians or anyone who was in Tehran as you develop this?
Absolutely - Right now I’m starting by just reaching out through my personal network. For instance I have a friend and ex-coworker whose parents are Iranian citizens and whose mother was actually in Iran this summer during some of the protests. I’m also hoping to make more contacts for additional interviews/research through the attention the project gets on Kickstarter - in fact while answering your questions I’ve already gotten an email from someone whose family is from Iran and who offered their support.
Aside from that I’m doing a lot of other research, reading about both the politics and culture of Iran. I would like to travel to Tehran myself, but I’m not yet sure how feasible that is.
Any closing thoughts?
I’m hopeful that indie game-playing community is open to both this kind of game and this kind of method of funding games. Part of the challenge is definitely figuring out how to get the word out there yourself, but Kickstarter is a really cool service and it has a lot of potential for indie game development. I’m excited to have my project on the site and to see how the site develops and grows over time as you open it up to more people. Thanks to you, and thanks to all my backers!