Just before Christmas last year, sci-fi author Nate Crowley put out a joke tweet that would eventually spawn a book publishing deal. Distracted while working on a December deadline, and looking for things to keep his brain moving, Crowley put out a simple offer on Twitter. For every like his tweet got, he would come up with an idea for a fictional video game in 140 characters.
Ok, why not. One like = one fictional video game.
— Regular Frog (@FrogCroakley) December 5, 2016
At the time he thought very little of his tweet, but it picked up steam far faster than he expected. Quickly amassing around 1,000 likes, what started as a gag became a long-term quest to come up with 1,000 silly ideas for video games.
Thanks to the support of his followers, who kept the tweet around a stable 1,000 likes, Crowley’s video game concept creation experiment quickly went from small-scale distraction to long-form creative endeavour. He was even offered a book deal working alongside video game and book publisher Rebellion (who brought us Sniper Elite).
Titled 100 Best Games (That Never Existed), Crowley’s book takes a number of his tweet-length game concepts, fleshes them out with lore and detail, then pairs them with high-quality fake game assets created by Rebellion’s own internal game development artists. The result is a charmingly silly book, which makes for great short-form impulse reading.
Nate says he was still determined to commit to the full scope of his promise. "I was absolutely adamant that there would be no retreats, so I did 1,000!" he said, speaking to Kotaku earlier this week. "I think for the sake of transparency, in the end we had about 1,026 likes, but I said, 'please can a few people unlike this so we can finish on a neat 1,000?' and there were some real heroes out there.
"I think there’s a number of silent watchers bearing a vigil over it to make sure it never gets too far beyond 1,000. I think it currently stands on 1,004 which, considering the number of articles it’s been embedded in, shows a great deal of mercy on the part of the population! When I reached the 1,000 cap, I think it was February 27th, so it had been going 2.5 months at that point. I did say, "right, that is it. You’ve had your lot!". But of course I didn’t know the book was going to happen at that point."
While the book largely sticks to light-hearted, silly and totally impractical video game ideas, many of Crowley’s original tweeted game concepts were more plausible. While most of these did not make the book, Crowley hasn’t thrown the concepts out entirely. Somewhere on his PC, many of these game concepts apparently have found refuge in a special document for safekeeping. "When I was coming up with a list of 100 from 1,000 I did siphon a number off onto a spreadsheet of games I reckon would actually work, and there are quite a lot of weird strategy and sci-fi games in there that I reckon were quite good concepts," he says.
"Unfortunately, they weren’t proper ‘laugh out loud’ ones... Pub Fight Architect, for example. It’s a sandbox game where you create a pub. You can put your bar wherever you like, and you can select where to put the patrons. You can have furious coked-up city boys, a mob of angry yokels, and then get a pissed ex-bouncer wandering in and you can time the events - place different characters, different objects around the pub and then press ‘play’ and let the ultimate boozer confrontation play out based on the elements you’ve scattered around. I think that would be quite cathartic for people! Let’s face it, that’s what people try to do with The Sims."
While many of the ideas in Crowley’s book might work as full games, Crowley doesn't want to actually make any of them. He explained that the realities of even simple game development were beyond his realistic ability - his one and only game development effort didn't end well. "I applied for a micro-publishing scheme that Failbetter Games was running where it offered micro-funding for very small devs to try weird games projects," says Nate. "I was trying to make a Twine adventure game about a haunted sales training manual from the 90s. The writing - well, I write for a living so that was alright. The design of the game was quite good; I mean, I’m really interested in interactive narratives and I’ve done quite a lot of odd little Twitter fiction bits, so it was all kind of there.
"The problem is I’m really rubbish at coding... I was getting through it, but what would take an experienced Twine developer a month was stretching out more than a year for me. In the end, I had to say to the guys at FailBetter, "look, I reckon I’ll do you a good game here but it could take years. I don’t think you want that." And they didn’t, which was fair enough.. I’ve still got the Twine file. I’d like to finish it at some point, but it’s given me a massive respect for people who can sit and plug away — not just at the writing and design of a game, but just the cold, hard mechanics of making it work, for night after day after night after day. It’s a very impressive amount of discipline involved."
Nate is actually giving a talk at EGX on Sunday about the difference between a great idea and a playable game. "Let’s face it, apart from at the slim end of the indie wedge, there is far less innovation than there should be in the theming of games. There’s still a massive focus on violent confrontation," he says. "Diversity in AAA games is still nowhere near where it needs to be. It’s still basically a vast amount of the industry by revenue comes from men wandering around hostile landscapes with rifles. So yeah, innovation is important and ideas are important, but they are only one part of the work."
Crowley wouldn't mind if other people took ideas from his book and turned them into games, though. "I think that’d be brilliant!" he laughs. "I mean, I don’t want all 100 to be made because that would make the title of the book a balls-out lie. But no, it would be fantastic if an idea I’d had gave someone the motivation they needed to start developing something. I mean, obviously, if they were looking to go on and make a AAA behemoth out of it, my agent would probably like a word..."
Crowley gave some really interesting insight into some legal aspects of creating a book that dabbled with parodies of pop culture. While most of the book’s first draft was signed off by lawyers, there was one very amusing game concept that had to be pulled at very late notice due to potential issues selling a product that touched on BBC properties. "We had game number 50 in the book as Monkey Tennis," Nate explains. "I don’t know if you’re an Alan Partridge fan, but Monkey Tennis is, of course, one of the TV shows he pitches during an increasingly desperate lunch with the commissioning editor for the BBC. It’s sort of gone down as a bit of a favourite among Partridge fans.
"These games don’t exist, but I’ve sort of created my whole own fictional history of gaming, indeed a fictional world in which all these games are real, and in this world, Partridge pitched Monkey Tennis to EA, who made it, and it was an absolute smash success, making him an overnight millionaire. We had artwork and everything for it. It was really lovely, but yeah, it was decided we couldn’t use Partridge’s likeness in that way, so I replaced it with ‘Moulin Luge’, which is a burlesque winter sports game."
100 Best Video Games (That Never Existed) is out now on Kindle and Paperback. Having read it, I can attest that it is a great short-form read.