The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Minke Rescue

Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, Leigh Marlow of The Apptivist Studio presents a game with a greater purpose -- to stop the violent whaling in Antarctic waters -- named Minke Rescue.


What's your game called and what's it about?

Minke Rescue is a new iPhone game. You play the part of a minke whale in the beautiful and harsh Antarctic Ocean. Best of all, it's only $0.99 -- and 30 percent from every game purchased goes directly to Sea Shepherd.

What inspired you to make Minke Rescue?

I wanted to raise awareness and funds for specific causes that I'm passionate about. However, I'm not noted for my cake making, t-shirt designing or car washing, nor do I have a sufficiently cashed-up network of friends to host a (successful) charity ball.

In early 2010, after acquiring my first iPhone, I soon discovered the power of apps -- how regularly I was willing to spend small amounts of money -- and how addictive the very best apps can be. An ah-ha moment occurred and my direction was set -- to create a cool little iPhone game that benefited Sea Shepherd. The key ingredients were that the game had to be fun, addictive and not too preachy.

The best part is I get to combine my passion for gaming and my passion for the environment.

What is Sea Shepherd and how much has Minke Rescue raised for it?

Established in 1977, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is an international, non-profit marine-wildlife-conservation organization. They are the only organisation using direct action tactics to stop whaling in Antarctic waters. For instance, without them, another 2,000 or so minke and fin whales would have been slaughtered last year.

So far, Minke Rescue has raised around $1,000 for Sea Shepherd. But it's very early days, and we've been delighted with the response to date.

Explain more about the apptivist mentality and how you see games and activism colliding.

"Apptivism" is a term coined to represent a form of activism -- using entertaining, engaging and inexpensive games and apps to deliver an environmental or social message.

So consider this: By late 2008, the gaming industry was worth more than both the US movie and music industries combined. But then something even more remarkable happened: Along came Wii and iTunes. The App store and video games were no longer the domain of 15-32 year-old males. We now have Android too!

So just as certain articles, books, movies and documentaries have long provided entertainment and insight, I (and many others) firmly believe games are the next frontier. The key thing for me is that the games actually have to be good for them to make any meaningful difference.


Was it more important for Minke Rescue to encourage activism or to be an entertaining game?

Definitely the game always came first. For instance, the minke whale you control uses sonar. Apparently minke whales don't have sonar! But it makes the game better. In a nutshell, we wanted the game to stand alone and not rely on the charity aspect.

Having said that, after playing the game a few times -- and reading some of the interesting and macabre whaling facts contained within it -- you'll likely conclude that whaling is a violent and unnecessary thing to do!

However, the key was always that the game had to be fun, addictive and not too preachy.

What's the coolest aspect of Minke Rescue?

There's currently nothing like it in the App Store. Harnessing the concept of mass micro-donations, Minke Rescue provides a unique and interesting way to engage people on the plight of Antarctica's minke whales.

Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?

Know what you're good at and know what you have to outsource. I worked full-time and saved up so I could outsource the things I sucked at!

I can definitely see pros and cons for each path. For me, I liked the idea of having complete control over the concept, gameplay, design and artwork. Having said that, there were some incredibly talented and passionate people who worked on the project too -- and most definitely improved the game.

The advice I'd give to any indie game designer starting out, is to know what you're good at and know what you have to outsource. I worked full-time and saved up so I could outsource the things I sucked at!

Additionally, if you hire the right people you'll inspire each other. The "sum is greater than its parts" kind of concept. I guess what I'm saying is that don't be afraid to collaborate. Everyone is different, but I work best when I can bounce ideas and work with people more talented than me in certain areas.

Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?

Absolutely. I actually see myself as part of two movements. The iPhone (and other smart phones) have allowed genuine indie developers to not only create games, but also compete with the bigger developers. I love the idea that seemingly simple games can be highly addictive and find a genuine market.

And secondly, the concept of using entertaining, engaging and inexpensive games and apps to deliver an environmental or social message. If any developers are curious, Games for Change is a great resource.

Do you have any other advice for fellow indie developers?

Well, apart from outsourcing the things you're no good at and utilizing the talents of people who are good at them, there are three things:

Spend time researching and playing popular and addictive games. But more than this, actually take the time to learn and determine what makes them popular and addictive. There's no formula, but there are definitely things to avoid.

When you start developing your game, make sure you take the time initially to nut-out the gameplay and determine what will make someone play the game again. This can take a while.

And finally, understand why someone is going to purchase your game. If you're just creating a game for yourself to prove you can do it, that's fine. But if you want to sell it, it has to do something new, different or better than what's currently available.


Sell Minke Rescue in one sentence:

For not much more than small change you'll be entertained for hours, and you're directly contributing to the protection of Antarctica's minke whale population.

What's next?

A fellow game designer once said to me that the making of the game is only 50 percent; the other 50 percent is marketing. I'd actually go as far as to alter the balance to 30 percent creating the game, 70 percent marketing and upgrades! So for the next six months I'm focused on marketing and improving Minke Rescue.

I'm also developing some concepts for some other charity-related games and apps. When they're further developed, I'll be sure to let you know.

Minke Rescue is available now in the App Store for $0.99. Get your apptivism on!

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.