Deep Under The Sky, a game about glorious glittering jellyfish, isn't selling so well by creator Colin Northway's own admission—especially not in comparison to his previous game, Incredipede. He still wants to give you the game for free, though. You just have to sit down and create something of your own first.
Northway has named the program Art To Play, and it serves two purposes: to get the word out about Deep Under The Sky and to let people who might not be flush with cash get their tendrils on his game. Art To Play has been running for a little while now, and—as you can see—the results have been pretty diverse.
You need only spend at least 30 minutes on a project with the game's name somehow attached, and you're golden. First, here's what the intergalactic jellyfish momentum puzzler (yes, that's a genre now) itself looks like:
And here's one of many pieces of art inspired by its antics:
Art by Lindsay Jorgensen.
In a chat about Art To Play with Rock Paper Shotgun, Northway said he had to deal with the difficulty of being unable to simply buy a game when his travels took him to Thailand way back in 2006, but he didn't decide to let people trade their own art for games until a Twitter conversation sparked his imagination.
"I've had the idea for a while but the impetus to actually do it came from someone on twitter," Northway told me via email. "There was this kid haranguing me for a free copy before the game came out. It's kind of a tricky to deal with that because sometimes it's someone who really cares and honestly can't buy it but some people actually beg keys off of developers and then resell them. Art to Play is a good way to separate the two of them."
Art by Clemens Scott.
I was curious, though. Why 30 minutes? Why draw the line there, specifically?
"The game costs 10$ and minimum wage in British Columbia, where [my wife] Sarah and I are from, is 10$ an hour," Northway explained to me. "But I don't want to pay my players minimum wage so I figured I'd pay them 20$ an hour and require half an hour of work. In practice most people put in more than half an hour, though. A couple people have thanked me for giving them a reason to sit down and make something, generally they've been really wonderful."
Art by Jodediah Holems.
Northway further said that skill level doesn't matter. Even if you've never lifted a paint brush or touched a writer's quill, your art won't fail the test. On the Art To Play website, Northway specified that he simply wants, "a drawing, painting, short story, sculpture or a picture or anything that is rad."
Admittedly, it's not gonna turn Deep Under The Sky into the next Call of Duty—with buses, billboards, and buildings proudly wreathed in bioluminescent jelly glow—but Northway says receiving art from players has been helpful in other ways after a rather dismal launch.
The game, while quite good, hasn't really caught on. That's put a lot of extra pressure on Northway, who experienced "one of the saddest times of my life" when build-a-creature puzzler Incredipede flopped initially. It later made it onto Steam and mobile and gained a bigger audience, but the early goings were rough.
Art by Sean Keeton.
It's hard for Northway to get over a feeling of grim deja vu here. He chalks it up to his own failure to market the game particularly well (there was an ARG... that, like, four people played) and an art style that some might find intimidating.
"I think people see the art and get scared," he explained to me, "like it's going to be this super weird mentally challenging game and are intimidated. Thing is, it's [actually] this zen game about flowing through the clouds of Venus as a jellyfish. It's designed to pull you into a nice flow state and just keep you there through the whole game. It's a nice mellow drug trip with a lot of hallucinogenic visuals."
Admittedly, seeing tens of other pieces of wildly different, equally out-there art associated with the game might further confuse some people, but it sure looks nice.
Art by Lisa and Till.
Northway, meanwhile, has begun to wonder if changing his own art might not be such a bad idea.
"I've actually been thinking about cloning my own game," he said to me. "Like, giving it super boring iOS style cartoony graphics. I got a quote from a game art company in India: 5k to re-art the whole game in Angry Birds style."
"We probably won't do it, though. I think it would be too painful to have a version of our beautiful game walking around wearing a cheap Angry Birds Halloween mask."
Through it all, though, seeing other people's art has helped Northway keep his head above water even as a tiny, furious rain cloud storms over it.
"I knew pretty early that our sales weren't very good but the Art to Play stuff was coming in and that felt amazing," Northway said. "If all I wanted was money I'd be writing banking software. The Art to Play stuff is so creatively validating. People are engaging with the art and the way the game moves and putting their own spin on it. It feels amazing to get this stuff. It makes my life so much better."
Art by Creative Brainiac.
And while that won't foot the bills or let Northway and co-creator Rich Edwards add new modes to the game (which they want to, but sadly can't), it's something. Something small but triumphant in its own way.
"It's frustrating," Northway confessed. "People just aren't paying for it. I'm not bitter about it, though. You have to try stuff, you have to always be experimenting."