With blockbuster releases like Skyrim and Call of Duty, today’s big video game companies rival big Hollywood studios in sales and clout within the entertainment industry. But many of the most innovative and successful games come from small independent companies. We explore advances in technology and storytelling in the indie gaming world.


  • Deborah Solomon Professor and Coordinator of the Computer Gaming and Simulation Program, Montgomery College
  • James Portnow Independent Video Game developer; CEO, Rainmaker Games; co-host, Extra Credits
  • Keith Shepherd Co-cowner, Imangi Studios

Related Content

Major video game studios often invest tens of millions of dollars to push the technological envelope and create immersive virtual worlds. But many of the most popular and innovative new video games come from smaller, independent companies with significantly smaller budgets.

James Portnow is a co-creator and writer for Extra Credits, a weekly web series that explores the nuts and bolts and philosophical underpinnings of video games. One of his collaborators, Daniel Floyd, argues that video games are pioneering new and exciting platforms for storytelling

New, Innovative Games

The folks at Extra Credits offered suggestions for recent interesting games you might not have heard of, or tried – loosely categorized by genre. Among the games they highlighted:

  1. Super Crate Box:
  2. Everyday The Same Dream

Portnow also recommends The Stanley Parable, an “experimental narrative-driven first person game,” that explores choice, freedom, storytelling and reality, “through the lens of what it means to play a video game”:

Mobile Games

Keith Shephard is co-owner of Imangi Studios, a DC-based video game developer on the iOS mobile platform. Imangi’s Temple Run, was recently ranked as the number one free game on the Apple App Marketplace. His list of interesting and noteworthy mobile games includes:

  1. Tiny Tower
  2. Zombie Gunship
  3. Sword and Sworcery
  4. Tiny Wings
  5. Mega Jump

Games for Kids / Immersive Worlds /Games with a Conscience

Deborah Solomon is coordinator of the Computer Gaming & Simulation Program at Montgomery College. Her list of interesting games includes:

  1. Dragonvale: An Indie kids game (on the iOS and Android platforms) about hatching and caring for dragons on floating island worlds
  2. Stack the States & Stack the Countries: a fun way to learn US states & capitals
  3. Solar 2: a short but compelling indie game, where you start as an asteroid, crash into other asteroids to form a planet, and finally turn into a black hole that absorbs other solar systems
  4. Gamestar mechanic: an indie game and also a game building program for elementary & middle school kids.
  5. Food Force: A Facebook game by the World Food Programme (developed by Konami). Farm crops, prepare goods, deliver food, and respond to crises around the globe, while generating donations for international aid.
  6. Freerice.com: A simple online trivia game created by an independent developer and donated to the UN World Food Program – for each correct answer they donate 10 grains of rice to end world hunger. Quiz topics include languages, geography, math, chemistry, art and literature. $94 billion grains of rice donated.


  • 12:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. A great video game can bend the rules of time. Whether you're exploring a pixilated world in the latest high-tech role-playing game or firing angry birds through a slingshot on your smartphone or mobile device, somehow, minutes become hours, and sometimes hours morph into days.

  • 12:07:20

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday, we're literally surrounded by video games, not just on traditional consoles and PCs, but on mobile devices, social networks and social apps that gamify our day-to-day lives. Big video game companies spend tens of millions of dollars pushing the technological envelope of photo realism. But many of the most cutting-edge games with the most innovative storytelling and the most addictive time-bending qualities come from relatively tiny independent companies.

  • 12:07:51

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis Tech Tuesday, we're exploring the anatomy of great games and how indie game developers fit into this billion-dollar industry. Joining us in studio is Deborah Solomon, professor and coordinator of the computer gaming and simulation program at Montgomery College. Deborah Solomon, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:10

    PROF. DEBORAH SOLOMONNice to see you, too. Thanks for inviting me again.

  • 12:08:13

    NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Keith Shepherd, co-owner of Imangi Studios, a local mobile video company. Imangi's game Temple Run is currently ranked the number one free game on the Apple app store. Its other titles include Harbor Master and Words Squares. Keith Shepherd, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:34

    MR. KEITH SHEPHERDHi, Kojo. Thanks for having us on the show.

  • 12:08:35

    NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at KUOW in Seattle, Wash., is James Portnow. He's an independent video game designer who has worked for a variety of major game projects, including the Call of Duty series. He's also the writer and co-creator of "Extra Credits," a weekly video series on the website Penny-Arcade.com, which explores the technical nuts and bolts and philosophical underpinnings of games. And he's the CEO of Rainmaker Games, a company that consults with small game developers. James Portnow, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:09:12

    MR. JAMES PORTNOWThank you for having me out.

  • 12:09:13

    NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation that you, too, can join by calling 800-433-8850. Have you dedicated days and weeks to a single great game? What makes, for you, a truly great gaming experience? 800-433-8850. You can also send us -- by an email to kojo@wamu.org. Go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there, or tweet at #TechTuesday. James, let me start with you.

  • 12:09:45

    NNAMDIWhat goes into a great game from a developer's perspective? For most users, we know it when we play it. There's a point when we find ourselves completely immersed or compelled, for some fiendish reason, to keep on playing. But from a developer's perspective, what goes into a great game?

  • 12:10:05

    PORTNOWWell, honestly, a lot of iteration. I mean, it's not a science yet. This is alchemy. It's somewhere between an art and a science. And so, from a developer's perspective, honestly, as much I would love to say that we know exactly what we're doing, usually, the best games are produced by getting them out there early, getting them in the hands of real people because what we're doing is we're crafting experiences. And we're crafting experiences for human beings.

  • 12:10:31

    PORTNOWAnd so letting humans get their hands on it, seeing how that experience plays out in a live context and then going back to the shop and iterating on it to refining it and coming back. That's really where the magic happens.

  • 12:10:46

    NNAMDIBut it would be -- would it be an exaggeration for me to say that there's a whole lot of psychology, a lot of math and even philosophy that goes into storytelling and game play?

  • 12:10:56

    PORTNOWNot at all. I mean, this is a true interdisciplinary art. And from the outset, you're absolutely right. I mean, in experienced crafting, we draw from all experience, both the psychology of how humans work and, of course, all the lore and myth and philosophy that humans have generated over the last 4,000 years.

  • 12:11:19

    NNAMDIDeborah, the latest installation of the Call of Duty game series earned a billion dollars faster than "Avatar," the Hollywood blockbuster. That's billion with a B. "The Elder Scrolls V" or fifth or "Skyrim" sold more than 3 million copies in its first two days. But we're talking here about much smaller companies. Give us the lay of the land for the indie gaming industry.

  • 12:11:44

    SOLOMONWell, indie games are games that are published -- usually, the definition is published without a publisher. So a small company is the developer and also distributes and funds and publishes the game by themselves. And there's a whole range of different indie games out there from very small mobile companies that are making, you know, a small amount of money to games like "Minecraft," which made -- I think, has made about $50 million now and is getting to be a huge game in the marketplace.

  • 12:12:19

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Keith, five or six years ago, there really was no mobile marketplace for games, and you were working in an entirely different industry. But you saw an opportunity to set out on your own in the mobile sphere. Tell us about Imangi Studios.

  • 12:12:36

    SHEPHERDYeah. So we founded -- my wife, Natalia, and I founded Imangi Studios in 2008 right when Apple first announced that there was going to be this possibility to sell apps on the Apple app store. And neither one -- both of us were working in the health care industry, but we decided that this would be a really fun opportunity to, you know -- to do something fun and, you know, maybe make a living out of it.

  • 12:12:59

    SHEPHERDI kind of always wanted to make games, so that's why I got into learning how to program. And here was this great opportunity where it didn't take a team of hundreds to create a big game like "Skyrim" or "Call of Duty" and where we could make a game with one or two people and get it out in front of the world.

  • 12:13:16

    NNAMDIYou were working in the health care industry?

  • 12:13:18

    SHEPHERDThat's right.

  • 12:13:20

    NNAMDIWell, you actually have a staff of three people. But this holiday season, we mentioned you actually had the number-one ranked free app on the Apple app marketplace, a game called "Temple Run." This seems like a space that is surprisingly democratized, isn't it?

  • 12:13:34

    SHEPHERDIt's pretty amazing that a small studio, such as ourselves, can, you know, make a product that we can get in front of the entire world. I mean, we have, you know, over 20 million downloads of "Temple Run" at this point. It's really pretty mind-blowing. On the way over here in the Metro, you know, I saw someone playing our game in front of me...

  • 12:13:50

    SHEPHERD...and that just really blows my mind that...

  • 12:13:52

    NNAMDITell us about "Temple Run."

  • 12:13:53

    SHEPHERDYeah. So "Temple Run" is -- it's an endless running game where, essentially, you're an explorer who's just stolen an idol from a sacred temple. And you're on your way out, and these evil monkeys are chasing you. And you're -- you know, you're running over -- down this endless path and running over -- jumping over trees and jumping over pits and, you know, sliding around, just trying to escape with this stolen idol.

  • 12:14:15

    NNAMDII had 30 seconds of it before coming on the air, and I'm already hooked.

  • 12:14:19

    NNAMDII can't wait for the show to end to see if I can play it again. We're talking indie video games on this edition of Tech Tuesday and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to kojo@wamu.org or a tweet at #TechTuesday. What games have you played that pushed the envelope of technology and storytelling? 800-433-8850. James Portnow, many blockbuster games like "Call of Duty" are pushing the technological envelope and creating more realistic, immersive environments and new, better controls.

  • 12:14:51

    NNAMDIBut that's not the only kind of innovation happening in the gaming world, or even the most interesting. Indie game developers are breaking new ground in how they tell stories. You actually liken this process of innovation to the way film and filmmaking evolved in the 20th century. Please explain.

  • 12:15:12

    PORTNOWSo akin to the film schools in the '70s where we get many of our modern classics from, we're experiencing a renaissance in games because -- five years ago I was working at major studios. You had to be spending $20-, $30-, $50 million on a project. You had to be building for the PS2. And today, it's incredible. It's back to the day where, as Keith mentioned, you can with two people in your home for $20-, $30,000, build a game that 10 million people might see.

  • 12:15:54

    PORTNOWAnd that has allowed for a revival of innovation because, just like in film when all the money was on these big budget spectacles when all the money today was in triple-A games, you can't really take risks. You -- it's hard to gamble on $50 million. And so, while we had better and better graphical innovation, better and better technical innovation, people have always played it safe on the narrative side, on the design side.

  • 12:16:25

    PORTNOWBut then you go look at the app store. You look at Facebook. You look at some of the indie games available on Steam or even Xbox Live, and you see this wild innovation, people trying radical new things, people even getting past the concept of fun and exploring this idea of games as looking for engagement, games being able to deliver tragedy or romance or (unintelligible)...

  • 12:16:48

    NNAMDIWell, some video game developers are experimenting with storytelling and asking deeper philosophical questions. James, tell us about "The Stanley Parable".

  • 12:16:57

    PORTNOWWell, "The Stanley Parable" is a great piece. "The Stanley Parable" is sort of meta-narrative discussing the possibility of choice in games, and more than that, the possibility of choice in our modern world and how we're often overwhelmed by choice in our daily lives. We've got this world that is no longer simple, not the world that we evolved in at all, and so "The Stanley Parable" really digs into that.

  • 12:17:25

    PORTNOWAnd, I mean, it's not what most people think of as a video game because it doesn't have any shooting. There's no violence. There's not even a ton of action. It's making a series of choices. And, in that sense, it really shows us how we can deliver more through this medium and give people something to take with them when they turn off the machine or get up off the couch.

  • 12:17:53

    NNAMDIDeborah, we talked to you earlier about the lay of the land for the indie gaming industry. But just listening to what James is describing here also makes it not only possible for there to be a lot of smaller companies but a much greater variety in what's available to us. I mean, here, we're talking about pondering philosophical questions.

  • 12:18:10

    SOLOMONYeah. And I think in "The Stanley Parable", there's a narrator that kind of mocks and encourages and discourages the player as you're going through. And the narrator says, at one point, push escape and press quit. It's your only true escape from this game, and you are made for pushing buttons. And it really kind of mocks in a...

  • 12:18:31

    NNAMDIYou're being taunted, in fact.

  • 12:18:32

    SOLOMONYeah. Exactly. And that's something that is -- I've seen a lot more games now with narrators that kind of break the fourth wall and engage the player and mock the player as they're trying to achieve a goal in the game.

  • 12:18:47

    NNAMDIOn to Tom in Pikesville, Md. Tom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:50

    TOMHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. What I see as a -- I'd like to know about the connections between pen-and-paper, tabletop gaming and the video gaming of today. I wanted to know if any of your guests had played (word?) games and if they still play them today as adults, and if that's helped (unintelligible).

  • 12:19:19

    NNAMDIDeborah Solomon?

  • 12:19:21

    SOLOMONVideo gaming today owes a lot to the original tabletop games, like "Dungeons & Dragons," which, yeah, I have played, and games like that, as well as the renaissance of new board games that are bringing new -- out of tabletop games that are bringing new life to the industry. So, for example, "Settlers of Catan" is a relatively new board game that kind of revived the whole board game industry that's been made into now an iPad and, I think, an Xbox Live game.

  • 12:19:52

    SOLOMONAnd the early video games -- RPGs owe so much to "Dungeons & Dragons" and are, in fact, based on "Dungeons & Dragons'" rules. If you look at "Baldur's Gate" or "Neverwinter Nights" and so many RPGs that came along, they came out of that whole "Dungeons & Dragons" game-play style.

  • 12:20:10

    NNAMDIKeith, in the mobile space, you've been really impressed with a game called "Tiny Tower." This is a game designed by a company called NimbleBit. It's owned by two brothers. It was recently recognized as the game of the year on the Apple app store. How does it work, and why is it so popular and apparently so addictive?

  • 12:20:27

    SHEPHERDYeah. "Tiny Tower" is a fantastic example of another indie game developed by a small studio. The basic premise is that you're essentially running a virtual skyscraper, and you have these little bitizens, they call them, that live in the skyscraper. And you're -- you know, you're always constantly working on building the next floor in your tower and providing jobs for your bitizens in the various shops and markets that run inside of this tower.

  • 12:20:53

    SHEPHERDAnd what's really interesting about it is that it's a completely free-to-play game, where, you know, you never have to -- you know, if you don't want to, you never have to pay for it, and what's also interesting about it is that it's always on. So the bitizens are still working while -- you know, while you may be have your phone off. And, you know, when you come back a few hours later, things have happened.

  • 12:21:13

    SHEPHERDYou know, your shops have grown, and pieces have -- you know, have developed from there. So it's really kind of an interesting game where it's just persistent, kind of with you, with your life, and it's always progressing forward.

  • 12:21:23

    NNAMDIDeborah Solomon?

  • 12:21:24

    SOLOMONOne thing about the mobile games especially is that you see one game become a hit, and then, all of a sudden, there are lots and lots of copies of almost exactly the same game, so that -- the game that you're talking about reminds me of another game where you're building a hotel in Las Vegas and trying to attract all the people to your hotel. And "Angry Birds," which, of course, is such an enormous hit. They now have their own merchandising store in Helsinki, I think, and TV shows and shows on Nickelodeon.

  • 12:21:53

    SOLOMONThere are so many spin-offs now of that physics kind of game. There is "Trucks and Skulls." And it's always interesting to me to see which one made it and why when there are so many almost exactly the same games out there on this device.

  • 12:22:08

    NNAMDIWhy do games make it, in your view, James?

  • 12:22:12

    PORTNOWWell, I mean, it's a combination of timing, innovation, marketing. I mean, "Angry Birds" is a very interesting case because it was (unintelligible) right. It was a very small team making that game in a very short period of time. It was highly polished. It's -- "Angry Birds" is a curious place for a lot of designers because we had all seen games of that nature before and never seen them hit, make the runway success that "Angry Birds" did. But if you look at it, I mean, there's a lot that's compelling there.

  • 12:22:45

    PORTNOWAnd I've seen my nieces and my nephews -- the youngest of whom is three now -- that can easily play that game. It's something very core to us to understand that type of physics as -- one of the things that human beings are particularly good at is judging trajectory. When running across the savannah, throwing spears at things, this is something that we had to be great at. And so, evolutionarily, it's a core part of our DNA.

  • 12:23:11

    PORTNOWAnd this play is on that core desire, that core engagement, and that core understanding, which helped allow even the youngest of us to be able to pick it up and play without any instruction, and, to me, that's really the power of "Angry Birds."

  • 12:23:29

    NNAMDIIndeed. In one of your episodes of "Extra Credits," James, you explore how complex these simple games are. We're going to take a short break. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation about video games, a conversation you can join by calling 800-433-8850. What makes for you a truly great gaming experience? 800-433-8850. Send a tweet to #TechTuesday, email to kojo@wamu.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:25:47

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our Tech Tuesday conversation on indie video games with Deborah Solomon, professor and coordinator of the computer gaming and simulation program at Montgomery College. Keith Shepherd is co-owner of Imangi Studios. That's a local mobile video game company. Imangi's game "Temple Run" is currently ranked the number one free game on the Apple app store.

  • 12:26:08

    NNAMDIAlso joining us from studios at KUOW in Seattle, Washington, is James Portnow. He's an independent video game designer. He's worked for a variety of major game projects, including the "Call of Duty" series. And he's the writer and co-creator of "Extra Credits." That's a weekly video series on the website penny-arcade.com. It explores the technical nuts and bolts and philosophical underpinnings of games.

  • 12:26:31

    NNAMDIHe's also the CEO of Rainmaker Games, which consults with small game developers. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8550. Let's go directly to the phones. Here is Justin in Ellicott City, Md. Justin, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:26:48

    JUSTINYes, hello. Thank you taking my call.

  • 12:26:51

    NNAMDIYou're welcome.

  • 12:26:52

    JUSTINAll right. Well, what I wanted to ask your guests today is what their opinion is on the old versus the new when it comes to upcoming games. An example has been of recent indie games -- "Minecraft," in particular, has been a rather new concept, or at least it's the first to handle the concept really well of being a truly open world with no goals.

  • 12:27:14

    JUSTINWhereas, say, I believe 2010 indie platformer "Super Meat Boy" is a lot more of a throwback to older classic games, whether it's just cut-scenes mimicking intros from classic games or the game play itself, which is -- to use an -- a term, Nintendo Hard, being as hard as some of the really old NES games, which only have their difficulty to elongate them.

  • 12:27:38

    NNAMDIStarting with you, James Portnow.

  • 12:27:40

    PORTNOWSure. I mean, I think, especially in indie products, one of the ways they all differentiate is innovation. And even looking at something like "Super Meat Boy," the reason that "Super Meat Boy" works is, unlike the old Nintendo games, which were frustratingly difficult, you take "Super Meat Boy" and the design decisions they made to make those levels sort of small, so that way there wasn't a lot of punishment when you died.

  • 12:28:03

    PORTNOWYou could learn by losing 10 times in 30 seconds and not mind. And then, additionally, the decisions to make that enjoyable, right, to show you that replay at the end of every level, these are really innovations where they're taking an old paradigm and realizing everything that was wrong with it, that created an experience that wasn't optimal for the player, and revamping it. And so even in those spaces where we're throwing back where the indie games really differentiate is in that innovation in looking deeper into what experience we're delivering.

  • 12:28:39

    PORTNOWSo, I mean, to me, that -- I mean, most of those indie games we're seeing really do bring the new, even if on the surface they look like old games.

  • 12:28:50


  • 12:28:51

    SOLOMONThere's a saying that everything old is new again, and I think we're seeing that with "Minecraft" and many of the other games that are coming back around. And "Minecraft" actually is based on "Infiniminer," or came out of "Infiniminer," which was, you know, a few years older game with that same kind of Lego cubist, blocky structure and wasn't the first open world game. Before "Minecraft," there was "Second Life," which, you know, you could say is a game or isn't a game but is certainly and open world building construction area.

  • 12:29:22

    SOLOMONAnd even "Grand Theft Auto" is an open world, sandbox kind of play area if you choose to treat it that way.

  • 12:29:30

    NNAMDIAnd we got this tweet from a J.J. Madden wondering if Imangi games collect or redirect the data of users.

  • 12:29:40

    SHEPHERDYeah, that's -- I mean, that's a hot topic and privacy and collection of data. And, you know, we don't collect any personally identifiable information about games and our games. You know, we, you know, strongly believe that, you know, it's important for users to, you know, have privacy of their data and, you know, only allow them to, you know, do things with their data that they want to do.

  • 12:29:59

    SHEPHERDWe do collect metrics on -- that's totally anonymous on, you know, usage of a game, so that we can figure out how people are playing our games and so that we can tune them. Things like, you know, if the game crashes or if the -- you know, the game has problem, we can use that information to make the game better and update it later in a future product.

  • 12:30:18

    NNAMDIBut here's the, I guess, $64,000 question, if you will. Many of your games are free. How does Imangi make money?

  • 12:30:26

    SHEPHERDYeah, so that's -- our game, "Temple Run," is what you would consider a freemium model, where the entire experience is free to play. And in "Temple Run" specifically, as you're playing, you're collecting these coins as you're running around in the world. And then later on after you finished your play session, you can spend these coins in this virtual store, or you can unlock different players or upgrade your player or add -- you know, add these various power-ups and download wallpapers or, you know, things like that that kind of enhance the game.

  • 12:30:59

    SHEPHERDSo as you're playing, you can earn all this virtual currency and upgrade your player, or we also offer the ability for players that perhaps don't have as much time to play. They can purchase coins in the game and then use those same coins to, you know, to get the same upgrades. But everything is accessible. We try to design our games so that it's -- you never feel like you need to buy coins, and we actually see that a very, very small percentage of our players actually ever do buy coins.

  • 12:31:27

    SHEPHERDBut when you're -- when you have a free game -- and I think this is why freemium games work -- you can reach, you know easy -- easily, you know, 100 times more players than you could have at even 99 cents. So that the kind of economy at scale there is that even when a small percentage of your players are -- do choose to purchase these, you know, purchases, that, you know, you're able to make revenue for -- as a product.

  • 12:31:53

    NNAMDIHere is...

  • 12:31:54

    PORTNOWWould you mind if I jumped in on some of the freemium stuff?

  • 12:31:56

    NNAMDINo, James. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:31:57

    PORTNOWBecause I do a great deal of work in emerging markets, places like Brazil or Turkey. And one of the very interesting things I've seen in freemium is we're starting to discuss this trend. Originally, we had our boxed products. We paid $60 upfront, and you purchased (unintelligible). And then we went to subscription. And then we went to this freemium model where we got the game, and then you paid for in-game things.

  • 12:32:22

    PORTNOWBut now we're seeing a wholly new model where you are passing along the expense to do positive things. For example, I can give away a game entirely free and not charge the user anything and just ask them, hey, can you give me 5 percent of your CPU? And I'll use that to crunch data for NASA or for the American Medical Association, all these institutes which just need massive processing power.

  • 12:32:53

    PORTNOWAnd so we can use games to help people farm out the processing of things we need, and I can make my money that way. Or another one is -- a friend of mine, Zoran Popovic from here in the University of Washington, built a game about protein folding. And, recently, big breakthroughs were made in the understanding of HIV through basically people at home playing this game and just trying to fold proteins themselves and discovering structures, which there simply weren't enough researchers to work on and build out.

  • 12:33:28

    PORTNOWIf, in my game, as part of the game, as part of your crafting system or what have you, I have you do that or maybe tag, label images for sites like Google, I can get human beings to do activities which are very valuable to humanity en masse in these games for this virtual currency. And then I can pass along that cost, the cost of making the game, to third-party entities, which are very interested in this data and utilizing it. And so I think that there's a model even further -- there's a step further that we're just beginning to explore.

  • 12:34:04

    NNAMDIOn to Jonathan -- I'm going to get back to that theme in a minute, but I wanted to get some of our callers in. Here's Jonathan in Silver Spring, Md. Jonathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:34:15

    JONATHANHi. OK. My question is about ROM hacks. In the Internet, there are people who can -- who create ROM hacks. Would creating a ROM hack be a practice for somebody who wants to become a video game designer in the future?

  • 12:34:32

    NNAMDIHow old are you, Jonathan?

  • 12:34:34

    JONATHANEleven years old.

  • 12:34:37

    NNAMDIHere is -- I'll start with you, Keith Shepherd.

  • 12:34:40

    SHEPHERDSure. So, yeah, a lot of people get into designing video games in different ways. And I think a great way to kind of get started, if you don't know how to program or if you're still getting into things, is to figure out how existing games work and figure out how you can maybe make small modifications to games. I think, you know, this is something that was really popular in my childhood where people would make levels for games that maybe came out with a level editor or something like that.

  • 12:35:05

    SHEPHERDAnd I think it's a fantastic way to learn a lot about game design and level design without -- you know, without ever really having to know how to program. So, yeah, I think that there are so many different ways to get into that.

  • 12:35:16

    NNAMDICould you, for us, define ROM hacking?

  • 12:35:18

    SHEPHERDI am not 100 percent sure exactly what the term refers to. I think it relates to the ROM. This is -- you know, that's the chip that games use that typically we burnt onto that would be popped into a console. And I think that, back in the old days, you could take ROMs and you could tinker with them and make little modifications to them and perhaps, you know, kind of hack the game into doing things that it wasn't designed to do.

  • 12:35:43

    NNAMDIIs that what you're talking about, Jonathan?

  • 12:35:46


  • 12:35:47

    NNAMDIOK. Jonathan, stay on the line because there might be some more advice for you. Here's an email we got from Amber in Arlington, Va. "My 11-year-old son has expressed interest in becoming a video game designer. We found a number of excellent online resources for basic design and also local programs. In case his interest continues as he gets older, and I predict it will, are there any preferred educational and experiential paths that your guests would recommend?" Deborah. Well, we do have a link that you recommended on our website. It's called Gamestar Mechanic.

  • 12:36:20

    SOLOMONYeah. I was just going to say Gamestar Mechanic is a game and also a software program where middle school and elementary school students can make their own games. So they go through the Gamestar Mechanic game. It teaches them about game design. And then, using the tools on that site, they can make their own games and then even enter them into the National STEM Design Challenge contest, which -- for which there are prizes.

  • 12:36:47

    SOLOMONThere's also Scratch, which is a free programming language that's quite easy to learn and very visual. There's GameMaker with a lot of drag-and-drop functionality. There's game design camps that are held throughout the local area. There's lots and lots of ways to get started.

  • 12:37:04

    NNAMDIAnd, James Portnow, we got an email from Chris, who says, "My son is attending Savannah College of Art and Design and would like to work in video game design, graphics and animation. Do you have any suggestions that would help him achieve this goal?" James Portnow?

  • 12:37:20

    PORTNOWSure. And SCAD is a great school. Actually, my co-creator of "Extra Credits" went there before working for Pixar. But my recommendation, first, game design and game animation are two totally separate fields. You don't actually have the same person doing both. So I would recommend that he really decide which career path he's looking towards. Second, I recommend going to GDC. It's a little bit expensive, but it's the Game Developers Conference. And one of the key things at this point in this industry is that we all get a lot of resumes.

  • 12:37:54

    PORTNOWThe Game Developers Conference is a place where your son can get some face time with people in the industry, and that's going to make all the difference. Having someone whose email isn't jobs@whatever to send his resume to, but really having somebody who he's talked to who can take his resume and hand it to someone up the chain is going to be immensely valuable. And then, finally, as far as fields of study as a designer or an animator, just self improvement. This desire to learn is key, and make sure that he explores areas outside of just video games.

  • 12:38:30

    PORTNOWI see many people in this industry come in with the knowledge of just video games and "Star Wars" fiction, and they don't get very far. As an animator, he should be learning anatomy. He should be learning all the classical forms of visual arts and studying a lot of cinematographic techniques. As a designer, he should be extending himself into, as we discussed earlier, all the classic works of western literature, from your philosophy to mythology to drama because it's really these outside -- these external experiences which are going to give him the breadth to craft great games.

  • 12:39:15

    NNAMDIBecause what you studies in college -- what you studied in college, as my understanding, were the classics.

  • 12:39:20

    PORTNOWYeah. And this is one of the things, I mean, I teach at what "US News" and "World Report" usually calls one of the best game schools in the country. I hold a professorship at DigiPen. But even though I hold a professorship there, I would tell everybody out there listening who wants to enter game creation that you don't have to go to one of the game schools, that a traditional education is very, very valuable and just, while you're getting it, keep your focus on games. Keep exploring them.

  • 12:39:52

    PORTNOWGet a team together while you're at college. Try building some things. But don't forego that traditional education because you think you have to in order get into games.

  • 12:40:01


  • 12:40:02

    SOLOMONI agree with James' advice, and also something that I always tell my students is keep a portfolio online of your work, especially if you're an artist or an animator, but also if you're a programmer or designer or level designer or writer. You have to have that online portfolio ready so you're prepared if, you know, luck should strike and you are offered an interview for a job. You have your material online in a way that a player can see it and appreciate the work that you've done.

  • 12:40:29

    NNAMDIJonathan, thank you very much for your call and good luck to you. Are you there, Jonathan?

  • 12:40:36


  • 12:40:37

    NNAMDIAll right. We've got to take a short break. But, once again, Jonathan, good luck to you.

  • 12:40:41

    JONATHANThank you.

  • 12:40:42

    NNAMDIWe're going to take that short break right now. When we come back, we will continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on Indie Video Games. You, too, can call us, 800-433-8850, or send email to kojo@wamu.org. You can also send a tweet to #TechTuesday or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Have you dedicated days and weeks to a single great game? Or what games have you played that pushed the envelope of technology and storytelling? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:43:03

    NNAMDIWelcome back. It's a Tech Tuesday conversation. We're discussing indie video games with James Portnow. He's an independent video game designer. He's worked for a variety of major game projects, including the "Call of Duty" series. Keith Shepherd is co-owner of Imangi Studios. That's a local mobile game company. Imangi's game "Temple Run" is currently ranked the number one free game on the Apple App Store.

  • 12:43:26

    NNAMDIAlso joining us in our Washington studio is Deborah Solomon, professor and coordinator of the computer gaming and simulation program at Montgomery College. Deborah, human beings love games. They tap into some of our most basic impulses, our competitive urges, our learning impulses, our curiosity. Gamers have always known and embraced the power of video games, but today, games are pervading our entire lives.

  • 12:43:50

    NNAMDIWe play games like "Words With Friends" and "Farmville" on Facebook, and on our mobile devices, we earn rewards and recognition on Foursquare and Google News and digg.com. This has been referred to as gamification?

  • 12:44:04

    SOLOMONWell, gamification is the idea of putting a game layer on top of reality, so motivating people to do certain things by giving them game-like rewards. And this can be used in different ways. It can be used in a very cynical way by corporations rewarding you. For instance, if you are on Foursquare and you check in at a certain location and you compete with your friends to be the mayor at that location, maybe you'll earn a discount on some kind of Starbucks coffee or some kind of product.

  • 12:44:34

    SOLOMONSo it can be used by corporations for marketing or consumers perspective, or it can be used for arguably more positive things. Like, there's a hybrid car, the Leaf, that rewards players for -- or has a leader board for drivers who have the best gas mileage compared to other drivers. There's "World Without Oil," which is a game that encourages you to manage how much energy you are using in your daily life. So I think it's an interesting trend.

  • 12:45:06

    SOLOMONIt's one that's increasing. As we see with Google News badges and badges for almost any comment that you put on a website these days, you earn a badge. But it also has kind of a dark side as well of making -- or what should be intrinsic motivations, making them more extrinsic.

  • 12:45:23

    NNAMDIAnd, James, you draw distinction between games as a storytelling and art form and games that are being used to try to sell us things?

  • 12:45:32

    PORTNOWAnd, I mean, it really goes back to the last question. I think it was a very key point. You just said that we have to talk about the line between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When you talk about gamification and all these badges, many of the design principles behind these badges come from the work of a man named Burrhus Skinner or B.F. Skinner. He was a psychologist in the early half of the previous century. And, like Pavlov, he was working on sort of the ability to compel a reaction.

  • 12:46:13

    PORTNOWAnd he found, which separates him out from Pavlov, is that not only our instinctual reactions but actually volition choice, he could condition by setting up specific rewards and reward schedules for us. And he would put pigeons in cages and get them to actually press a button. And, oddly enough, that's all -- that's the same research that's used for the slot machine industry. Actually, that's the basis of all that. And this has been ported over into things like "Farmville" and into all these badge systems that you see.

  • 12:46:47

    PORTNOWThe unfortunate thing about this particular type of compulsion mechanic is that while it's been proven that you can compel a human being to continue to do an action, you -- it's also very well-documented that you can't get them to get anything out of that action. You'll talk to "Farmville" players who realize that they are no longer enjoying "Farmville" but continue to play it anyway. And, unfortunately, in some of the areas that we try to bring in these badge systems and compulsion mechanics, for example, education, I have great concerns because things like learning mathematics need to be intrinsic.

  • 12:47:31

    PORTNOWThey need to focus on what is inherently compelling about mathematics, not about these extrinsic rewards because through a game, I can get a trial to do math problems all day. But I actually can't get them to learn anything from those math problems unless the game is about what's inherently interesting about games -- about math itself. So I hope that answered the question.

  • 12:47:57

    NNAMDIIt did, indeed. Here now is Eddie in Alexandria, Va. Eddie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:48:03

    EDDIEThanks, Kojo, for taking my call. I'm a 40-year-old casual gamer, and I do gaming at just about every platform there is. But my question really is, specifically, I've got an idea for a game. What's an avenue to take it? I'm not a programmer. I have no influence to be, but I've got a great -- what I think is a great idea.

  • 12:48:22

    NNAMDIHow do...

  • 12:48:22

    EDDIEI'll take the answer off the air.

  • 12:48:23

    NNAMDIHow do you start out -- what suggestions do you have for Eddie, Keith Shepherd?

  • 12:48:27

    SHEPHERDOh, that's a great question. I mean, we actually get a lot of emails from, you know, people just like him asking about, you know, hey, I have a great idea. Would you guys be interested in developing it? I mean, we -- I think that's really tough, and I think there are a lot of people that have great ideas. And I think they -- the best thing you can do is to try and find someone that you can perhaps partner with, someone that does have the game development skills to do that.

  • 12:48:51

    SHEPHERDAnd I think that the real challenges that you'll find that most people that are in the games industry or that are making games already, you know, they've got a laundry lists of ideas that they already want to work on. So they're probably not going to be as motivated to work on someone else's idea. I know that's kind of not a great answer. I'm not sure what the best thing is. We -- there are developers out there that all they do is develop games for other people.

  • 12:49:13

    SHEPHERDThey, you know, do contract work. You can always go that route, but, you know, I think it tends to be fairly expensive to develop a game. So you're going to have to be ready to do that.

  • 12:49:23


  • 12:49:24

    SOLOMONYeah. I agree with Keith's comments. And another thing you might want to consider is learn the skills to make a game. You can take classes, for instance, at your local community college on game design and learn how to make it yourself.

  • 12:49:37

    NNAMDIAnd, Eddie, apparently the idea itself will only get you so far, so good luck to you.

  • 12:49:44

    EDDIEThank you so much.

  • 12:49:44

    NNAMDIAnd thank you very much for your call. We move on now to Stan in Washington, D.C., who wants to raise a morality question. Stan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:49:56

    STANThank you, Kojo, for taking my call. I have a quick sort of question for your guests, and my question has to do with, like you said, the morality and the moral responsibility that game designers have when it comes to creating their games. Your guests mentioned earlier "Grand Theft Auto." I'm a teacher myself, and so, you know, I have teenagers -- teenage students who play video games quite frequently.

  • 12:50:19

    STANAnd, I guess, I am sometimes troubled, and we do have this conversation about, you know, the fact that you earn money and points by going around and, you know, shooting people and hitting people. So, really, you know, given that video games are much more prevalent today than, say, you know, five, 10, 15 years ago, you know, what is the moral sort of standard, if there is any, for gamers -- or, sorry, not gamers, but designers to hit when it comes to crafting the great pieces of art that they do?

  • 12:50:48

    NNAMDIAnd I'm going to put this question to James Portnow because he worked on the "Call of Duty" series. But, James, the Red Cross has floated the idea of asking video game developers to adhere to the Geneva Convention. The idea is that these games sometimes dangerously allow people to act out fantasies of war and, in the process, maybe coarsen our views towards war crimes. But I'd like to hear what you have to say, James.

  • 12:51:14

    PORTNOWWell, it's a great question. It's one that we are wrestling with in the industry right now. I was just this weekend in D.C., lecturing on the sociological impact of diversity in games and what it means when your generic enemy is always wearing a turban, right, what that does to future generations. On the other hand, you have the same questions in every medium, every mass medium, right?

  • 12:51:42

    PORTNOWAt this point, we have to recognize we're a mass medium and have the responsibility that comes with being such. But there are a lot of positive things that you can learn from most of these games, and I do think there's also responsibility for parents and educators to work with kids to get the positive things that you can draw from these various experiences. I briefly worked with a underprivileged school district, and one of the things I found is that, across the board, the kids didn't have a feeling of agency.

  • 12:52:18

    PORTNOWThey didn't feel like they had any control over their lives. They didn't understand that their choices matter -- pregnancy, the ability to go to college, these sorts of things that just sort of happen. And games are great -- I mean, universally are a great way to really empower and develop a sense of agency because you got this compressed time factor. You make a choice. You see the result, and then you go back. You make a different choice, and you can improve that result, right?

  • 12:52:48

    PORTNOWAnd that really actually got across. It was an incredible thing to me, not with all the students, but, I mean, with a lot. And so even in an experience like "Grand Theft Auto," there's actually a great deal there. But if you just leave a kid in front of the TV, in front of "Godfather," he may not get anything but the shooting. But if you really sit down with them, I mean, there's so much there to dig into.

  • 12:53:13

    PORTNOWAnd so, while there's a great deal of responsibility that we have to take, we cannot hide behind this idea that we're just making a children's pastime any longer. And there is examples of what I consider moral turpitude within our industry. I think that as educators, as parents, we also have to look and understand this not as something that can just be harmful, but really think about, hey, if I sit with my kid, what can we draw from this experience?

  • 12:53:47

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Stan. Following along the same line, in a way, is Vee (sp?) in Falls Church, Va. Vee, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Vee wants to talk about the other side of the coin, the educational value. Vee, go ahead, please.

  • 12:54:01

    VEEHi. This -- hi. Thank you, Kojo. And, James, I love "Extra Credits." I've been a fan since season one on the "The Escapist." But you guys are doing an awesome job, and you devoted an entire episode on gamifying education itself. And what I want to know in a more specific manner is, are there any indie games available that are working on the principle that you talked about? And if you can, just give quick notes of that episode as well.

  • 12:54:33

    PORTNOWOh, well, thank you very much. I appreciate that. So we had, for anyone who hasn't seen it, done an episode talking about this gamifying of education and how we can do more than the Skinner box to bring the engagement that games provide to the educational sector because you look at the educational space right now, especially K-12 education.

  • 12:54:56

    PORTNOWAnd while the rest of the world has made great strides in being more engaging because we spent hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars over the last century on learning how to engage and entertain a human being through film and television and music and all that, our education is really the same 1850s Prussian system that we've had since the Civil War, right?

  • 12:55:22

    PORTNOWAnd it was a system designed to bring an agrarian society to become an industrial society. And really, today, we need to move from an industrial society to an information society, and games are fantastic for that. And so we started discussing those principles because, in the 21st century, we're going to need teamwork and lateral thinking and logical analysis and, of course, familiarity with electronics. These are all things that games bring.

  • 12:55:52

    PORTNOWBut interestingly enough to me, one that I always point out to educators is a game that sort of sounds as a joke because of everything else that's on the Internet. But it was -- it's called Notpron, N-O-T-P-R -- P-O-R-N -- P-R-O-N. Yeah, look at it. But the amazing thing about this particular piece is that it's a series of puzzles, very simple. Any educator can build it, and yet it relies on one core idea that you, as the player, have access to Google. So you have access to all the information in the world.

  • 12:56:38

    PORTNOWSo our puzzles, so long as they hint that, what you should be Google searching can rely on any knowledge whatsoever. And as the player crawls through this experience, as they solve puzzle after puzzle, not only do they get better with their browser and with their ability to search, but you learn a ton of tangential things through this experience and through simply this idea that, as human beings, it's no longer about retaining information, but it's really about processing the limitless information we have at our fingertips.

  • 12:57:09

    NNAMDIWe're almost out of time, and one of the things that is really significant about what you said is that the District of Columbia's Chancellor Schools -- Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson was on this broadcast, talking about how we need to look into the future to talk about how kids will learn in the future, given the experiences they've had today. But since we are almost out of time, can you talk a little bit, Keith, about what's next for Imangi? Because, after all, you're here.

  • 12:57:33

    SHEPHERDYeah. Yeah, we're -- you know, what we love doing is making games, so, you know, we're gonna continue to make games. Right now, you know, "Temple Run" is doing extremely well for us, and we're trying to bring that to as many platforms as possible right now, and so that's our primary focus. But we always have game ideas in our head, and we're always thinking about the next one. So...

  • 12:57:51

    NNAMDIKeith Shepherd. He's co-owner of Imangi Studios. That's a local mobile video game company. Its game "Temple Run" is currently ranked the number one free game on the Apple Apps Store. Good luck to you, Keith. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:01

    SHEPHERDThank you.

  • 12:58:03

    NNAMDIDeborah Solomon is a professor and coordinator of the Computer Gaming and Simulation Program at Montgomery College. Deborah, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:10

    SOLOMONThank you.

  • 12:58:11

    NNAMDIJames Portnow is an independent video game designer. He's worked for a variety of major game projects, including the "Call of Duty" series. He's the writer and co-creator of "Extra Credits," a weekly video series on the website penny-arcade.com, exploring the technical nuts and bolts and philosophical underpinnings of games. Thank you for joining us, James, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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