After a long battle, GameTheNews finally pushed Endgame: Syria through Apple’s approval process; but it ended up coming out the other end as the watered-down Endgame: Eurasia. GameTheNews’ Tomas Rawlings agreed to talk to us about Endgame: Syria, its troubled journey to the app store, and developing newsgames.
For those not in the know, what is Endgame: Syria?
Endgame: Syria is an interactive exploration of some aspects of the ongoing Syrian civil war. In it you take the role of the rebels and have to make the political and military choices that they face. There are multiple outcomes to the game so winning the war does not guarantee you will win the peace. It’s free and on Android, PC, Facebook and (not quite) iOS: http://gamethenews.net/index.php/endgame-syria/
What do you think it teaches people about the real conflict?
It shows that conflicts come with costs both long and short term. It shows that the boundaries of a conflict are not limited to the two sides, that others use such situations as proxies to fight at arm’s length and that the sides themselves are made up of smaller factions, each with their own agenda too. It will show you what factions are at play and where they are active. I hope that a player comes away from it knowing more about the situation than when they started.
Why did you decide to offer players only the rebel side, and not also that of the government?
The aim of the game is to explore the question around arming the rebels – a real debate ongoing now – so to show that I chose as the designer to put the player in the rebels’ shoes and so they can decide if to accept foreign aid, if to accept weapons and what tactics to deploy. We created the original in two weeks as a newsgame, so we’re exploring some aspects of a situation. Just like you’d not expect to watch a single news report and get the whole history of the war, nor did we aim to create a game that gives you the whole situation.
As we know, you only got Endgame: Syria through Apple’s approval process after heavy censoring. What were Apple’s main problems with the ‘true’ version?
Apple’s main issue is that they don’t want games that target real people or groups. It would not matter what we portrayed, if there are real groups in it, the guidelines say no. You can explore such issues via book or film on iTunes but they have decided not games.
Do you feel they were completely honest with you about their objections?
I interpreted their guideline to mean that you could not have groups and people as in, say, the Free Syrian Army or Assad. We did a version without all that so it says ‘rebels’ or ‘regime’ only. However their take, as I understand it, was that Syria itself counts as coming under that guideline and so can’t be featured in the game either. I get why they have such guidelines, but feel they really do need to revisit them.
At some point, it clearly became obvious to you that the game would not make it to iOS without being gutted. How and why did you decide that a weakened version of the game was better than no version at all?
To make a point really. Endgame:Eurasia is us planting a flag in the App Store that shows we’d like to be there using games to talk about serious issues. I hope it will at least mean some users encounter it, ask questions and find their way by whatever means to the HTML5 version, which they can play.
Do you anticipate trouble having any future newsgames approved by Apple? Will this situation influence the development of future projects in any way?
It’s an issue for us as developers. Remember there is a week plus turn-around time with each submission to the App Store, so it’s not like a dialogue between you and them gets resolved fast. That speed is a major issue with topical games, as they may no longer be news by the time a game is out. We will factor it into our process, but I’m still going to make the games on the topics we planned anyway. It’s important to us that we follow our instincts as developers first and foremost.
As a UK based developer, do you plan any newsgames highlighting the activity of the UK government?
The UK is in Endgame:Syria already, but we’re open to any topic. If it’s news then it may well be gamified by us. We say that the project is at beta – and it is because we’re still trying to figure out what a newsgame means to us, hence we make such varied output in topic and style: compare Endgame:Syria with Cow Crusher for example.
Are there any stories you feel would be inappropriate to turn into a newsgame, or that you’ve previously abandoned for another reason?
We ponder and abandon ideas all the time. Some get a bit further before we decide no. For example this story on Wired got well into the design stage before I decided the game wasn’t working. I feel most stories can be turned into a game, it’s just that it might not be in the way you first think of. So if you take a terrible incident like a mass shooting – I might choose not to focus on the killing at all in the story but create a game to celebrate the efforts of paramedics in saving people. Creativity is the key.
Newsgames still have a long way to go in being accepted by society as a whole; they have little to no exposure in mainstream media, for example. Why do you think this is? What needs to be done to improve the situation?
About a third of the UK population is a gamer. The mainstream needs to update its perception of games and acknowledge that they are a primary medium for many people and so inform the way they think about news, politics and morality. Bioshock for example is an exploration of the political ideals of Ayn Rand and where they might go wrong. Deus Ex: Human Revolution is in part a meditation on the tension created by human augmentation. Game are already doing this sort of serious work, newsgames are just more overt – and of a smaller scale. If these big AAA titles are the novels of gaming, newsgames we create are magazine articles or blog posts.
Are you looking at getting any newsgame projects onto consoles? What are the main reasons we’ve yet to see this happen?
We’ve up for it, it will be interesting to see how new consoles open up their platforms to indie devs. That is key as if the approval process is long and drawn out, then games about topical issues are already in trouble. I’d like to see the point when you switch on your console and have the choice to blast some aliens or to ponder an ongoing political crisis – all via gaming. If people want to see what we’re up to then you can follow us on Twitter and/or Facebook. Thanks!