Wednesday 8 August 2012

SOOG: Fangaming in 2012

It's Sonic Amateur Games Expo (SAGE) 2012 time! I've covered this event in previous years in varying degrees, but this year, I'm not going to bother. Shoot me.

Exceptionally poor management and conduct has allowed SAGE 2012 to underperform by leaps and bounds, but for me, the whole subject of fangaming is something I have started to drift away from. Of course, long time followers of Squirrel will note I used to run a fangaming website - arguably the most popular one of its day, but times have changed, and fangaming... isn't the same anymore.

Here's why.

I can't begin to explain the history of the video game industry, but if you're ever inspired to read Wikipedia's sketchy timeline of events, you'll note that even forty years after its inception, it's an industry which constantly changes and evolves.

Building a video game in 1981, sans all marketing personnel and those responsible for the tools and systems involved, could theoretically be done entirely by one person. Ten years later, in 1991, that was no longer possible to remain at the top - development would be handled by small groups of four or five, with team members boasting impressive job titles such as "artist" or "musician". Come 2001, and the size of the teams were well into the double figures to keep up with modern trends, and today it takes hundreds of people to bring a triple-A game to market.

Nobody can say whether this is a good or bad way to run an industry. Obviously the more pairs of hands you have, the more work can be done, but this comes at a price as by delegating responsibilities, the game is no longer "yours". There may not be an upper limit to group size, so if you're wanting to put your name up in lights like your predecessors of yesteryear, you're often forced to go down the "budget" route, making smaller games for less capable platforms.

These days we have methods for doing this (which I will come on to), but back in the early 2000s, this wasn't much of an option. You could build for the handhelds, but this required funding for expensive development kits. You could build for the PC, but anything that wasn't cutting edge was deemed unacceptable by the majority of the platform's users back then. Distribution was also an issue as the internet was yet to hit its stride, and of course you'd be competing against teams and big publishers.

The bedroom programmers of the day needed a leg up, and this is where the concept of fangaming became worthwhile. Building on an existing character (with existing assets) allows for speedier game creation and interest from the get go. With competent development tools shut off to the general public, products by Clickteam and later Game Maker were a fine option, reinventing the concept of building games as a cheap hobby.

Sonic fangaming in the early-to-mid 2000s was ace for two key reasons. Firstly, the freedom allowed for all sorts of bizarre scenarios, meaning if Sonic the Hedgehog wanted to fight aliens on Mars, it was doable. Secondly, the quality of "real" Sonic games was in decline, and there was an opportunity to succeed where Sonic Team were failing by making 2D Sonic games, just as playable as they were in 1994. Dozens of great Sonic knock-offs hit the internet in a ten year period between about 1998 and 2008 - it was pretty great.

However, as the demands grew for more precise engines and higher standards of quality, the same issues stalked Sonic fangaming as they had to the entire industry just a decade prior - teams became essential to compete, and high levels of skill were required to make an impact. What differs in this scenario is that without a pay incentive, you were never likely to get to this stage.

Fangaming simply can't keep up with modern trends - it leads to pedestrian ideas forced by compromise, and without prior training, team members can be flummoxed by the hefty development process. Grouping a handful of teenagers based all over the globe isn't going to work - at that age, real lives will get in the way, and there is no glue to stick the components together. The end result would be a free-to-play game built on the cheap that is neither guaranteed to be good, played by the public nor stand the test of time.

Middleware such as game engines were inevitably created to speed things along, but this also encourages repetition. Suddenly a once varied set of games becomes a list of similar platformers (or demos of platformers), sharing identical gameplay and resources and offering nothing new to the world. Once upon a time it was an entire community working to solve a problem - now that the problem has been solved, the result is merely to pad that solution out with new levels - there's no incentive to find a better one.

As it lacks the same vision of the original Sonic Team of the early 90s, artwork and design starts to be scrutinised at a high level, and suddenly fangames are compared unfavourably to official products and criticised in public, as opposed to being praised as a quirky side-show. Nine-tenths of the (notable) games featured at SAGE 2011 used the same engine (and half a dozen at SAGE 2012), and the novelty of pushing hedgehogs up a half pipes wears off after a while. The pool of ideas becomes ever more shallow, and it leads to difficulties differentiating between games.

The world of Super Mario fangaming, an area I used to be heavily involved in, was a different story. A 2D Mario clone is less demanding than a Sonic one, and so the limits I have described were reached much earlier. This problem is exacerbated by Nintendo's reluctance to innovate, which in turn rubs off onto the fans - producing another Super Mario Bros. 3 clone is seen as a brilliant idea to many of them, and although one could argue innovative games still exist in the Mario fangaming scene, the sheer volume of near-identical clones (some of which coming directly from Miyamoto) is enough to turn me off from the series entirely.

These days fangaming is an almost pointless venture. To stay on top of the competition, you're required to have leet coding skillz, and if you're educating yourself in Game Maker Language... it makes more sense to jump to Java, C++ or similar skills which can then be applied in the real world. Graphics require drawing and modelling skills. Audio needs respectable software with talented musicians at the helm. Amateurs aren't welcome, even though SAGE is meant to be geared around them.

With the advent of iOS and Android app stores (not to mention things like XBLA, better channels for PC distribution and technologies on the horizon such as Ouya), it makes sense to produce something original and make some money from it - wasting the time, talent and maybe even funds on something which can't sell isn't going to get you far in life.

Fangames used to recycle old content - that was largely why continued to exist, but this is seen as a no-go area by many today. Furthermore, the content is showing its age - many of the sprites seen at SAGE this year were drawn twenty years ago, and I can't think of anyone who has managed to master the sounds of Sonic (including recent iterations of Sonic Team). What we have at SAGE 2012 are a plethora of Sonic Worlds-powered platformers which will never be finished, some unappealing 2D experiments and a couple of 3D engines. The quality is better than ever, but the quantity (and therefore amount of games forced to innovate to stand out) is seriously lacking compared to the days of old.

There is one game worth noting, and that's "Sonic: Before the Sequel" which has improved significantly since SAGE 2011. But also of note is that this year SAGE is being run by men in their twenties acting like children, so there's a lack of credibility in the air this time, detering people from submitting products. It's debatable whether I should mentioned the existence of this event at all, let alone take it seriously, but I guess it's an excuse to blurt out some noise about a subject I was once entangled in.

So yeah, I'm not here to make any demands, nor openly criticise anything related to the subject of fangames. There will always be a place in this world for good games, regardless of subject, but I think the time is ripe to embrace a more varied future. Big publishers have lodged themselves in corners thanks to the risk of big budgets, forcing themselves to produce the same games for an eternity. There's no reason to emulate these methods on a small stage, and in many ways we owe it to the industry not to do so. Maybe the tools will improve or new platforms will emerge to make fangaming a worthwhile endeavour once more, but for now, I'd say embrace innovation and improve the industry as a whole.


  1. I heard that SAGE 2011 was a management flop. And somehow I'm not surprised it happened again. I was actually looking to really get involved in at least following it.

    I follow NCFC like a creepy stalker, yet never touched SAGE. I was looking around for info on when in was about a month away, and curiously couldn't find a way to actually register a "booth" (i don't know what the webpages are called on SAGE, it's booth in NCFC).

    So that didn't shock me two much to learn it misstep.

    1. I don't recall many problems with SAGE 2011. These things are always mismanaged to some degree and slip-up on timed things like interviews, but it wasn't their worst, and didn't affect the content on show too much.

      This year there's been public rants and ego-fueled hacking allegations, to the point where it's put people off from entering. Sadly this seems to happen a lot in the Sonic community - the subject attracts the mentally unstable for whatever reason.

      I would say that NCFC is better, but seeing as I've heard nothing about their plans for this year, I'm sceptical. It's too big and important to be rushed at the last minute - I was working on NCFC 2011's graphics for months before it was opened, and even then I had to fight to get a lot of it through.

  2. When I read this I come to think of one Sonic fangame that is very worth waiting for, I hope the one developer has energy to finish it.

    It's Sonic Nebulous 2, it's like the game I've been dreaming for since I read the SatAM style Sonic comics 15 years ago:

    - Yet the game proves your point, I'm sure the maker of SN2 is spending an almost unhuman amount of effort on it, hard to say if it's worth it ...It depends on the developer I think, is he making it for the public, or for his skills, or for his own enjoyment.