This article was originally published in Grafik magazine, issue 190.
I’m soaring through a candy-coloured world, to a soundtrack of soft chimes. Against a backdrop of transluscent clouds, my snakelike body floats merrily along, and above propellers whirl in the breeze, castles hover in the air and colourful characters gather in groups on the parapet, waving as I glide by; occasionally, one or two hop onto my back, hitching a lift to higher ground. It might sound as if I’ve indulged in some seriously high-grade hallucinogens here, but fear not—I am, in fact, playing a demo of the videogame Hohokum, brainchild of Richard Hogg and Ricky Haggett.
For the past three years, the pair have ploughed their efforts into the creation of Hohokum, which debuted at this year’s Independent Games Festival with a nomination for Excellence in Visual Art—not bad when you consider that of its two creators, one has no real background in game design. Until recently, we knew Hogg as an artist and designer (you might remember his illustrations for former Grafik column How To Be Green), but behind the scenes he’s ventured into an entirely different field. I visited his studio recently to discover just how someone from the design world ends up working on a videogame, and to gain an introduction to indie game design.
Hogg and Hackett are old friends—brought together by a mutual love of videogames (and an old Amiga console of Hogg’s which needed a new home), they’d talked about creating one together for years. Talking turned to doing when Hogg considered some of the drawings he’d done in his spare time, and wondered whether they might make a game of them. “Our early ideas for Hohokum centred on devising a way to navigate around these elements and interact with them in some way,” he explains. “That’s one of the things about Hohokum that’s different from other games—gameplay was never our first consideration. It was always all about the visuals.”
In the intervening years, they’ve spent their spare time working on the design and development of Hohokum, with Hackett (a founding member of indie games developer Honeyslug) coding and building it and Hogg refining those visuals. The resulting game sees the aforementioned snake engage in a mix of racing, rescuing and exploring in the airborne world composed of Hogg’s elements. There are few instructions, and players are encouraged to make their own way through the game, unearthing its nuances along the way.
Hogg maintains that little technical prowess has been required on his part—and in many ways, his inexperience has been something of an advantage. “Ricky actually found it refreshing to work with someone who wasn’t a game designer, because I didn’t take the conventions of game design for granted,” he says. “I didn’t really know the rules, so I thought about the construction of the game in a different way.”
His enjoyment of the game design process and the incipient success of Hohokum have left him wondering why fewer designers have made a similar jump into the world of videogames. “It’s often surprised me that there are huge numbers of people interested in videogames who work within design, yet hardly any of them ever cross over and get involved with game design,” he says. “It’s a pity, because their skills could be so valuable there, and are actually quite easily transferable. I’m not sure what holds people back - maybe they think there aren’t any opportunities for them, or have the misconception that they need to be some kind of coding whiz.”
If they were thinking about the mainstream videogame industry—behemoth companies with hordes of employees and a competitive jobs market—they might have been right. Not so with the world of indie gaming. It’s a scene that sprung up alongside as individuals and groups decided to go it alone, using whatever resources they had to have try out game design for themselves. Indie games seem to have experienced a groundswell of attention in recent years, Hogg tells me; perhaps due to the development of the Internet as both a platform and a forum for dissemination.
Hogg’s involvement with Hohokum has brought him in contact with the indie gaming community, whose accommodating attitude has come as a pleasant surprise. “The scene itself was a revelation - full friendly of people eager to support what each other is doing. There’s very little cliquiness,” he says. “Even when someone’s really successful in indie game design, there are no hard feelings or accusations of selling out—just a great sense of camaraderie.”
That wasn’t the scene’s only appeal for Hogg. “It’s frustrating that within game design there aren’t really any auteurs, or people who have complete control of the creative process from start to finish,” he says. “The thing with mainstream games at the moment is that their design process is too fragmented, with so many people involved that any really interesting ideas end up getting diluted. They’ve almost been designed by committee.” Within the indie gaming world, however, it’s a different story. Outside of the big-budget game studio juggernauts, independent game designers often take on a more comprehensive role in their games’ design and development, either out of choice or financial necessity. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal of indie games—they acknowledge authorship and allow a human story to accompany their final incarnation, increasing gamers’ personal engagement with the thing they’re playing.
For him and Haggett to fully achieve that with Hohokum, they need to find a backer. Their next step is to secure the funding to develop Hohokum from its current flash-based demo into a fully-fledged, multi-levelled game that works on a major platform like Playstation or Xbox. “I think my own personal goal with the project now is to see it grow to the extent that I can find photos on Flickr of people’s Hohokum fan art, or their Hohokum-themed birthday cake,” says Hogg. “Things like that would mean that we’d reached people in some way, and created a game in which people had made a real emotional investment. If that doesn’t happen, then what’s the point?”.
Illustrations © Richard Hogg, taken from the game Hohokum, 2011.