Seth Alter, founder of Subaltern Games, has a problem with the education gaming industry: It’s just not fun enough. So he took to Kickstarter with an experiment: Give players a chance to commit unspeakable global atrocities (making “Grand Theft Auto’’ look like child’s play) while diving into some of the finer points of leftist capitalistic critique.
Now, his game, “Neocolonialism,’’ has hit retail and the real test begins: Can he make gaming about serious topics fun, educational, enriching — and profitable?
I did an e-mail Q&A with Alter to find out how things have been going since he raised $11,049 on Kickstarter — and how he’s managed to stretch that funding amount to live and work for the past year. Also, check out his talk at PAX East for some interesting on making educational games more fun, embedded below.
You talk about how games can “make us feel about the world differently’’ by enriching souls. Isn’t having players emulate soulless corporate titans a bit of an odd way to pursue that goal?
Probably. But enrichment isn’t necessarily the same feeling as happiness, so much as it is thinking about things a little bit differently, with a little bit more wisdom.
Neocolonialism does not have protagonists in part because the idea of a hero saving the world from rampant capitalism is inherently problematic — the whole point of the game could be reduced to “it is wrong, as an outsider, to meddle in regional economic policies’’ — and because the idea of their being a single organization or force capable of challenging rampant capitalism strikes me as overly naive and optimistic.
And, arguably, it’s more fun to be bad. This is important because Neocolonialism is capable of imparting its message only if the player agrees to play through it. In my mind, the best way to keep someone playing is to make the game really fun.
You’ve been living off your Kickstarter funding since January, so for about 10 months. That’s a lot less than developers make at a lot of other places: How did you make it work, and was it worth it? Anything you would have done differently?
From what I’ve heard from other developers, Kickstarter money tends to go into hiring folks. I didn’t hire folks. My dev team is very small and works for free (or nearly free). The Kickstarter funds have subsequently been mostly rent money, and the occasional beer.
Neocolonialism’s technical and artistic requirements were relatively modest and accordingly were surmountable by a fledgling programmer (me) and a bunch of volunteers working on their spare time. I don’t have an office and I don’t require niche hardware. In retrospect, asking for a little more money would’ve been nice, as my finances have at last gotten rather tight … but maybe if I had asked for more the campaign would have failed? Who knows?
As to whether it was worth it … in turns of revenue, we will see, but I’ve had a fun time.
Neocolonialism’s launch was last Monday, and while not right on schedule it’s in line with what you laid out for backers (August give or take a few months). How has been doing this as a crowdfunded campaign gone? Have people been supportive?
My Kickstarter backers have been wonderfully supportive. It’s been a soundboard — a lot of them have been beta testers since May — but above all it’s been an established core fanbase that has enjoyed following the game’s progress and communicating with me over the past ten months. Not only do I expect them to be a major contributor to sales as they spread the word to their fans, but also they’ve provided a great deal of moral support.
There’s been a lot of focus, with the new iteration, on “Grand Theft Auto’’ and the series’s over-the-top violence, but as one writer described it, this game takes mayhem to a global scale, if less detailed. How can narrative dystopias, and having the player take on the role of an anti-hero, end up being a good thing? Are you just creating a simulator for a new generation of robber barons and plutocrats, or can players both enjoy the game and walk away better people?
To my knowledge, the only person who played “Neocolonialism’’ and thought that it simulated a desirable global order is my dad.
Unlike GTA, which is set in a satirical world of cartoony violence, “Neocolonialism’’ is set in this world, the real one, and it’s a distinction that seems to be immediately obvious to folks that have played my game. It is a much colder game and is very overt about the total absence of a silver lining. There is, for example, a tactic that involves selling your votes in a region to incite a coup so that you can implement your own extortionist policies through international relief effort — it’s a bit tricky to pull off, but it works … while also leaving you rather shook-up. That’s good; you’re supposed to feel guilty and re-think your presumptions about how worthwhile this profiteering is.