GZStorm: Making The Most Of Being Indie

Vidiot Game

Take a look at the many games produced by Jesse Ceranowicz (aka GZStorm) over the years, and you’ll probably find it hard to pin down a specific style. Silly RPGs about potatoes, educational language tools, playful surrealist mini-games and experimental horror interactions mark Jesse’s efforts.

“It’s really hard to get bored of a medium that can be used in so many different ways,” he tells me.

Therein lies what makes Jesse unique as a game developer – the ability to see potential in a crazy idea and see it through to a finished creation. We all have silly game ideas, but Jesse piles them up and brings all of them together, and it ensures his games are fresh and different. His main aim, he says, is usually to entertain the player somehow, and he uses that word very liberally as it can be applied to so many different types of experiences.

Jesse’s keen to emphasize that, as he understands it, games don’t have to provide a “fun factor” through their gameplay, so emphasis can be placed on another element for the player to cling onto. It’s this focus that gets switched up from game to game for Jesse, especially as he likes to work within different genres, and that results in such a variation in his output.

Potato Ship

Working on games happened naturally for Jesse. There wasn’t much interest in computers or game development among the rest of his family, with his grandfather being a newspaper writer and his brother following in his footsteps; the rest of his family history is comprised of working-class people that presumably lacked his creativity. It was having a “really junky” Mac and not a lot to do when he was younger that led to Jesse’s messing around, and eventually stumbling upon HyperCard. Luckily, there were a bunch of HyperCard programs on the computer, so he was able to look them up and learn how to make his own stuff. And he did so.

“In the HyperCard days, I mostly made sports simulators because I was into sports back then, but I also made bizarre choose-your-own adventure games. HyperCard, combined with the limited power of the computer, didn’t really allow for genres with moving action, so that was a factor in my development choices as well.”

The Real DilbertThese first formative games made by Jesse are not available to play anywhere, unfortunately, but it’s possible to trace his games back to 2002 as on his website, he still has download links and information for the games he made from this year onwards. It was in 2002 that he moved over from HyperCard, which he had been using since he was 11 (about five years before then), and transferred over to GameMaker.

Obtaining GameMaker was a result of having the internet and learning about the community behind the game development tool, as well as the ease it allowed for those looking to make games. Before this time, Jesse’s discussion of games and the feedback he received on his own efforts was limited to his two brothers. So, even though Jesse and his games were fairly closed off from the world, the motivation was never really to make games for himself, but to share them with others. Having the internet meant he could thrive, despite the basic GameMaker community back then, but it gave him aspirations of becoming a “shareware developer.”

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Armed with the internet and a small community of people, Jesse soon started to find people to collaborate with, and it’s something he’s done ever since. While he has his own peculiar tastes, a lot of Jesse’s credited work as programmer has seen him become associated with the most bizarre games out there. Take a look at 78641, Sewer Goblet and Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden if you haven’t already, and you can get a taste of the kinds of creative minds that Jesse sometimes works with – a stirpot of the bizarre and humorous.

“Getting into a collaboration has always been easy for me. Getting into a collaboration that actually produces a game and is mutually beneficial to myself and everyone on the team is what has been difficult.

The great thing about collaborating is that with the right people, you can produce a much better project than you could on your own, but the downside is having to rely on their work and being able to resolve any problems the other members may have in addition to your own. As for the inner workings of a collaboration, things can get crazy at times, especially on longer projects, so you need to be prepared to face a lot of problems. The projects themselves usually turn out bizarre because those I worked with had a shared interest in strange subject matter, and when collaborating, you need to work where the most common ground is.”

The Spice of Life

How Smart Are You?But Jesse doesn’t JUST make strange adventure games and RPGs. As said previously, he likes to work in different genres as much as he can. This became prevalent when Jesse started to make games for the Xbox Live Indie Games marketplace. His goal was to make short and simple projects so that he could get an understanding of the market and the process involved with getting a game published on XBLIG. So the first few projects were just quiz interfaces with some content within them, and these subjects were those that stuck out to him.

“When I make something, it’s because I have a temporary interest that is strong enough to warrant some kind of game being made of it. There probably isn’t a genre I haven’t thought of making at some point, and I typically don’t like to stay in the same genre on back-to-back projects.”

More recently, Jesse has been making Japanese language educational games called Let’s Learn Japanese, despite having no background in education, not that it’s a necessity to design an educational game. The reason this took his fancy is because he’s a big believer in self-learning and engages in it himself a lot. He noticed that his brother was staring to learn Japanese and noted how easy it was for beginners learning a new language to become overwhelmed and confused. Jesse saw a lot of value in a comprehensive stand-alone learning program that could get people started with the basics. It’s a project that he’s continued to expand upon and turned into a series due to the positive reactions of those who have used his game as an educational tool.

The 4th Wall

By no means does that suggest his interest in developing every other type of game that comes to mind has dwindled, though. Last year, he released The 4th Wall, which is an experimental first-person horror game. It was picked up by press and players for its entirely different approach to the genre, when everything else seemed to a clone of Slender: The Eight Pages at the time. Jesse’s playfulness with perception and space, as well as glitch material, ensured that The 4th Wall was surprising and daunting, and not just out to make you jump at an opportune time.

“The development of The 4th Wall was rapid, and it came naturally, with very little experimentation. I am always mentally cataloguing ideas that span different genres and themes, so when I started the project, I just used relevant ideas I had stored away, combined with the interactions I had with my friend. This is not always the case, though. I’d say half my projects are a struggle to develop at one point or another, and those projects require tons of experimenting.”

Another game released last year is the even more renowned, and certainly more surreal, Vidiot Game. This is a series of rapid-fire mini-games that play with surrealism, flirt with the bizarre and seem to be filled with nonsense. Playing Vidiot Game is comparable to flicking through TV channels very quickly, just getting a glimpse of the content and understanding the situation before moving on to the next. Thoughts and interactions just bubbling away at your fingertips, but never existing for long enough so that you may examine or make any resolute sense of them. Soon, glitches start to enter the fray and confuse matters even more. It’s a wonderful exercise in messing around with player logic and ignoring traditional game design in favor of creating a rush of fleeting and silly systems.

I wonder what this side of games Jesse has interest in. Something like Vidiot Game seems to be begging to get the player to react in a big manner as it takes away their power of control, but remains surprising and humorous.

“There’s two sides of that. One on end is my creative satisfaction from making games, and most of the time, I need elements that are uncommon to even consider pursuing and finishing a project. On the other end, I measure success based on how much players are entertained by the game. The goal is finding ideas that I like, but I also think other players would enjoy. So trying different things is to satisfy myself and making it as entertaining as possible is to satisfy others.”

Vidiot Game

A GZStorm’s A Brewin’

Over the years, Jesse has become quite a prolific developer, with not only his own free and commercial game releases, but filling in the programming role for a number of his friends for plenty of other celebrated creative games. His recent interest has been on XBLIG, though, and as the Xbox 360′s life cycle comes to an end with the release of its successor, the Xbox One, which seems to have nothing to replace its XBLIG effort, I ask Jesse what his plans for the future are.

“The main reason for porting to consoles was to make more money with my games. The XBOX Indie marketplace in particular made it easy to sell your game, and you would get a fair exposure on the marketplace. However, it’s not very exciting creatively for me to port to other platforms, and I’m not sure if I’ll continue this approach in the future.

Porting does make more money and expand my audience, but I want to transition to mostly the desktop market so I can just focus on one general platform and not have any downtime when porting to specific devices. I don’t care much for purely technical work, and that’s what porting is most of the time. I plan to port the next few games I make, but after that, I’ll likely have transitioned to desktop operating systems only.”

Gythol Granditti: At Death's Door

In the more immediate future, he’s working on an RPG sequel called Gythol Granditti: The Lord’s Exile, though he tells me that the title has been changed to “Gythol Granitti: At Death’s Door” now, because he’s integrated gender selection for the protagonist.

“I always end up gravitating towards RPG-based projects every so often; now is just one of those times. Despite being a fan of RPGs and RPG elements, I have serious issues with the genre, and I try and tackle them with each RPG I do. I could write an essay on the problems I have, but the short of it is that I intend to address as many of these problems as I can with this game. Most likely, I’ll only scratch the surface, but I hope players will notice, and, most importantly, enjoy, the difference in pace and style.”

One of aspects of RPGs that Jesse is addressing with this new project of his is the pace and dialogue elements. Essentially, the player can pick their own pace by opting into the dialogue and background information in the game, as well as having cinematic scenes and dialogue choices that allow for players to miss a lot of it if they wish. It differs from the original game as its tone is comparable to Fallout 2 in as much as it can shift from dead serious to completely ridiculous at any time.

I wanted to highlight Jesse’s work mostly because of how imaginative a lot of it is, but also to better understand a creative mind that isn’t stuck on genre constrictions and enjoys creating such a varied bunch of games. Let’s not forget that he’s been making games for 15 years or so now as well, and Jesse maintains a great work ethic as strong as it’s even been during that time. There aren’t many indie game developers that can match that passion.

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