Momocon 2018 might be over and done with, but the echoes of its success can still be seen and heard across the gaming community. During Momocon 2018, the annual Indie Awards Showcase was held during the convention, and 20 finalists were chosen as a part of the event. One of the finalists, Michael Hicks, developer of The Path of Motus, had the chance to talk with us about being chosen as a finalist for Momocon, working on indie games, and the indie game environment at large.
mxdwn: What made you want to pursue video game development?
Hicks: I played video games growing up, so it started off as an “imitation is the best form of flattery” type of thing. I grew up playing Star Wars: Rogue Squadron and other space games… so my first couple of games were space shooters like the games I grew up playing. I started making games as a hobby, but after my first game came out on Xbox 360 I was surprised at how many people were downloading it. At that point I decided to shift gears and begin pursuing it as a full time endeavor.
mxdwn: How did you come up with the idea for The Path of Motus, and what was the driving factor that made you say “I need to make this game happen”?
Hicks: In college I started to get frustrated at a lot of video games I was playing. I feel that many games are about escapism, and rarely offer experiences you can take back into real life. Around this time I was consuming a lot of film and music that changed my perspective on things in life… I wondered if video games were capable of doing the same thing. So I started experimenting with this idea and made an early version of The Path of Motus called Sententia for Xbox 360. I wanted to make a game about the struggles of staying true to yourself while pursuing your dreams. A lot of people will think you’re crazy, it’s a lot harder than what it looks like etc. I wanted to express that in a way that’s unique to video games, and since games are largely about challenge I felt it made sense.
The game came out after 3 months of development and did pretty poorly; I think I executed some of the higher conceptual ideas well, but basic things like movement felt really clunky. I decided to make another game called Pillar that was based around human psychology; I spent two and a half years making that one…. it did a lot better! After Pillar came out I finally felt confident to return to Sententia and do it justice.
Ironically, after three years of development on the remake, it’s grown into something a lot more interesting than the original game. Due to how different it is, we’ve renamed it to The Path of Motus!
mxdwn: How did you feel when you found out that The Path of Motus was a finalist at Momocon’s Indie Awards Showcase?
Hicks: It was a surprise! I danced around the house when I found out. Honestly, I’ve submitted for so many of these things and was never nominated for anything. Eventually you start to realize it’s not about the awards, it’s about working on something you’re passionate about and love. I think external rewards, like awards and money, are the last thing to come. Everyone has a different philosophy around creating things, but mine has always been to make something that I love and would want to experience as a player… if I execute the idea well then I think other people will see the love and passion I’ve put into it. So with that in mind, it feels validating to be nominated for an award! We didn’t win though, which is totally fine with me. Awards aren’t everything, but they certainly help your confidence.
mxdwn: Recently, you talked about the difficulties of being an indie developer in 2018. Would you mind briefly going over what those difficulties have been?
Hicks: I came into indie games right before the floodgates opened and everyone started releasing indie games. My first published game came out in 2011, and I’d say 2012/2013 is when the gates really opened up wide and the marketplaces became flooded. Starting around this time and going up until around 2016 there was a huge focus on indies inside the gaming industry. We had “indie darling” games like FEZ that were championed by the press, there were sites focusing on the creators behind indie games… “look everyone, small teams are making games in their bedroom!” etc. You don’t really see that as much anymore. In fact, when we announced Motus last year I had several sites straight up tell me that they’re not covering indie games until they actually launch. These were writers from mid to top tier sites that covered my games in the past, so that really brought me down to reality. Also, my last game Pillar had decent support from Sony… it came out around the time that Sony was championing indie games on PS4. Their focus is more on VR now instead of indies, so after experiencing all of this I realized I needed to come up with a different strategy to get the game in front of an audience.
mxdwn: You also talked about a workaround for promoting indie games by reaching out to markets outside of gaming. Do you think that this is going to be a major shift for the future of indie games, or do you think that major news outlets will eventually put more focus on indie games?
Hicks: Indie developers need to start thinking outside of the box with their promotional plans to get their games in front of an audience. The old ways of relying on the video game media to hype your project isn’t a reality anymore except for a lucky few, or the more established “AAA indies”. The major news outlets are only interested in covering things that they think their audience wants to hear about (AKA games that are already established and have proven interest)… if you follow some of these writers on Twitter I’ve seen them openly express that they don’t think audiences are interested in smaller titles. In my view, they want to play it safe with their coverage. I think the major outlets will only report on an indie game if it’s built up an audience or had big success in other areas. For example, I don’t think the media covered Papers, Please at all until it took off on Youtube… now you see them covering Lucas’ latest game and paying attention to him. This is unfortunate, because as a consumer I’d like to read a website that discovers “hidden gems” or has some focus on experimental games, but that’s unfortunately not the focus of these sites. A few years ago Kill Screen kind of filled this void, but they shut down. The only active sites that fulfill this purpose are very small in readership.
Regarding my approach of focusing on other markets… this approach only makes sense to me because it fits what I’m trying to do with my games. I’d like video games to have an impact on the world at large, not just the inner gaming circle that we’re all a part of. I’d like to play games that address major issues in the world, or help people with illnesses…. things like that. So it could be that each developer has to come up with their own promotional strategy. However, several developers reached out to me in the last week and told me that they’ve been using the same strategy lately.
mxdwn: Do you have any closing statements or additional advice regarding indie game development?
Hicks: Most indies don’t make enough money to live. In America we have this mindset that if you make a quality product, take the right business steps, find an audience that your product appeals to etc. then the market will provide you with enough money to live. This is a complete fantasy, and the more you work in this space the more you can clearly see it. Very few developers I knew back in 2011 are still doing this, and from the outside most people assumed some of them were doing pretty well financially. There have even been games lately that had lots of press / great reviews / great player response and still didn’t make enough money to continue. Luck plus hard work seems to be the formula for financial success. I think indies should reflect on this before making a big life decision to put all of their time and money into a project. If it’s something you’re really passionate about, something you just HAVE to express to the world regardless of the financial outcome, then I’d say indie games is a good field for you. If you need a steady paycheck and financial security, I would warn indies to look somewhere else for work.
If you’re young, still in school, or live with your parents… I think the best advice I could give is for you to churn out as many games as possible and put your work ethic into turbo before you get older and have all of these financial responsibilities. Don’t let older people discourage your passion, I think the game industry needs passionate young people working in the indie space… hopefully you innovative and try new things that lead the way for the rest of us.
I have a Youtube channel where I cover topics like this and teach people to program games. If readers are interested, they should check out my video Making Video Games From Nothing:
mxdwn: When can we expect The Path of Motus to be released?
Hicks: The game will be out in less than one month! We’ll announce the release date within a few weeks! It will launch on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Steam. You can learn more about the game at http://pathofmotus.com