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Buddy can you spare a dollar? Indie game developer makes you think about being homeless

This week I played a game called Homeless on my Xbox 360 game console. The game involved bumming quarters from passers by, trying to scratch enough money together to get through another day. It was pretty simple to play, and I didn’t place on any high score table, but the game told a story, and it made me think. I was left wondering if that was enough to expect from a game, or whether it had actually delivered far more than I had expected.

Intrigued, I got in touch with Silver Dollar Games’ Jon Flook, who talked to me about the inspiration behind Homeless, and the challenges he faces as a developer on the Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) platform.

Flook is based in Toronto, a large city with a homeless population like many others. The bridge next to Flook’s apartment plays host to a homeless couple every summer, and he is always amazed by how many people can’t be bothered to help them. When it comes down to it though, many of us are guilty of the same. As Flook says “How many times have I passed a homeless person and said “sorry” when they ask me for money?  Sorry?  What does that even mean to them?  Does it mean, I’m sorry I’m too cheap to spare a dollar?  Does it mean, I’m sorry that you’re too lazy to get a job?  Of course not, but when everyone ignores the problem it comes off that way.”

Inspired to try and tell a homeless story, Flook began to create a game in his head. His initial plans were much grander than the final product, but budgets are tight in the independent game arena, and “we had to cut out the seasons, weather effects, multiple locations, just about anything that would bring the costs up.” Initial plans to use a real homeless person and their surroundings in the story were also abandoned as “it’s just not practical when you can barely make rent yourself.” Instead the script and voice work were put together by Flook and his friend.

Flook very nearly didn’t make the game at all, thinking that “no one was going to even look at Homeless. Who wants to play a game about a homeless man after all?  It’s just not what Xbox users want.” Having created more than 50 Xbox Indie games already, Silver Dollar Games knows the market well enough to realize that “we would probably sell 100 units or less, but my brother said, “If it’s a story you want to tell, let’s tell it.””

Silver Dollar Games has what can be best described as an eclectic back catalog. The company is perhaps most famous for titles like the geek dating sim “Don’t Be Nervous Talking To Girls”, which featured on the Conan O’Brien Show, or the self-explanatory “Try Not To Fart”. Flook admits his company makes “a lot of stupid games”, not least of which is the gloriously silly, but sadly unreleased Xbox on The Go!. Homeless is a more somber and thoughtful title though, and it is one that Flook is clearly proud of.

Even on a minimal budget, Homeless still cost over $1000 to make, and selling the game at 80 MS Points ($1) a pop on XBLIG, Flook doesn’t expect to break even on the project: “In spite of the fact that we lose money on most of our projects we’ll continue to make games like this. They will probably be few and far between because we simply can’t afford to do it more often.”

Looking at those numbers, it becomes apparent why Flook didn’t take the game down a charitable route, giving the profits to a cause like The United Way, as he had first imagined. Silver Dollar Games had attempted this approach with a previous title, Help Fight Breast Cancer, with somewhat disappointing results.

“Ultimately it was a complete failure” says Flook.  “I wrote to the NBCF [National Breast Cancer Foundation] and told them the following “Since April 2011 there has been only 215 purchases at a $1 per unit, with a mere 4980 trial downloads.”” Having failed to make a difference with Help Fight Breast Cancer, the developer “knew it probably wasn’t realistic for us to try again with Homeless.”

Lack of commercial success for the company’s more esoteric titles doesn’t seem to phase Flook at all. Despite the fact that he doesn’t see a viable market for Homeless on XBLIG, that is precisely the reason he wants to put it out there, saying “Maybe, just maybe, there’s a slim chance someone will look at the game and it will open their eyes to something different.”

Homeless offers no rewards or incentives for players to continue, in the traditional sense. There is no high score table, and no achievements to be gained, other than surviving another day, and hearing more of the story being told. It also lacks the closure so often associated with a traditional ‘Game Over’ screen. For Flook though, “the lack of closure to me is a little heart breaking, and in many ways so is the story of Homeless.”

There is an ongoing debate about whether games can be considered an art form, and Flook weighs in, saying “maybe games don’t have to be all about unlocking, progressing, attacking or defending.  Maybe video games can be all that and also a medium for telling a story or showing art. There have been many articles on whether video games can be considered art. Well our games, Fatal Seduction, Game 35: The Experiment, Sins of the Flesh and Office Affairs are our way of experimenting with video games as an art form.  Whether a game gets noticed or not, I think XBLIG is a great place to try new ideas.”

Despite achieving greater commercial success with the more “stupid games” in the Silver Dollar Games portfolio, Flook remains convinced that XBLIG is the perfect medium to encourage experimentation with video games as an art form. Having played Homeless, which is far from perfect, but as intriguing as anything I have played this year, I find it hard to disagree.

Homeless can be purchased on Xbox for 80 MS Points. A free trial is also available.


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