If you're reading this, you're likely aware of Adult Swim's existence. Many of us have fond memories of watching Cartoon Network's late-night block, with formative programming that included offbeat humor (Sealab 2021, Aqua Teen Hunger Force) and cream-of-the-crop anime (Cowboy Bebop, FLCL). That penchant for unique, eccentric content has kept Adult Swim going strong since 2001, creating a brand that reaches beyond the realm of television. So it's no surprise that, as of this year, the folks at Adult Swim Games started publishing on Steam--and their approach is turning them into one of the few fascinating publishers worth following.
Super House of Dead Ninjas
The Adult Swim brand has always had a hardcore cult following, given that it resonates with a generation of proud, socially adjusted outliers. Gamers, geeks, weirdos, potheads, wastoids, dweebies--they all adore it; they think it's a righteous network. To the outsider, the fandom can be a bit baffling; what exactly is it that has these devotees hooked? Steve Gee, product manager for Adult Swim Games, has some idea: a willingness to stray outside the norm, be it with TV shows or video games. "I see us as the mom-and-pop record store in your town, with indie band posters on their walls," says Gee. "To me, that's the true spirit of Adult Swim Games. Being experimental, trying new things."
Out of the ordinary
Of the four Steam titles currently under Adult Swim Games' belt, none of them feel quite alike--and it's tough to think of what other publisher would've given them all a shot (besides those champions of all things indie at Sony). There's Super House of Dead Ninjas, a blazing-fast action platformer that marked the Adult Swim Games' debut on Steam. With elements of Ninja Gaiden, Spelunky, Castlevania, and Elevator Action all mashed into a single game, SHODN is the perfect high for adrenaline arcade gamers. After that was Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe, which might best be described as Mega Man trapped in a game of Puyo Pop. Fist Puncher came next, a Streets of Rage throwback that has you beating on white supremacists and stripper nuns in place of generic thugs.
Volgarr the Viking
That leaves Volgarr the Viking from Crazy Viking Studios, an uber-difficult 2D platformer that's been curb-stomping our egos since its release last Friday. It's a callback to an era of gaming when a sense of ever-improving skill was its own reward, as you struggle to adapt to levels that punish, teach, and better you in equal measure. "You just don't have a hardcore old-school platformer [like Volgarr] anymore," says Gee. Sure, tough-as-nails sidescrollers have made quite a resurgence in the modern indie scene. But none can evoke classics like Rastan, Actraiser, or Super Ghouls n' Ghosts as vividly as Volgarr, and it's the kind of love letter to brutal 16-bit difficulty that's only possible for a small, dedicated team. "Indie devs make games that they want to play, not what a suit tells them," says Gee. "And out of that passion comes great new experiences."
Though the Adult Swim Games library might seem wildly divergent in theme, they all share an excellence in quality. "I want Adult Swim Games titles to represent three things," says Gee: "captivating style, great gameplay, and offering something different than what's on the market today." As long as a game is good, there's no reason not to take a chance on it. Jeff Olsen, vice president of Adult Swim Games, sees no problem with a little variation. "The quality point can't be underestimated," says Olsen. "If you look at Adult Swim the TV network, what does Aqua Teen Hunger Force have to do with Children's Hospital, The Boondocks, or Robot Chicken? Nothing--but it's all good stuff."
Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe
Diamonds in the rough
Adult Swim Games is always scouting for the next exceptional indie game--and if you're a fan of PC indies, the publisher's choices could be the next best thing to discovering new indies from word-of-mouth hype. In fact, Gee has already done a lot of the work for you, digging through heaps of small-time projects to see what meets his standards. "I'm always on the Internet looking at Kickstarters, TIGSource, IndieGames.com, anywhere you can imagine," says Gee. "Anything that we like, we go back to them and find a way to work together. They always think I'm a fake person. They're like 'What? Adult Swim is emailing me?'"
That was the exact reaction from Andrew Morrish, creator of Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe, before Adult Swim Games had a foothold in the PC domain. "When they originally approached me," says Morrish, "it was pretty simple. It was just like 'Hey, we see this game, it looks cool, we like the original. Do you have a publisher?' I called over my roommates, like 'Hey, check it out, Adult Swim wants to publish!'" In time, that initial surprise over a TV network publishing games may be replaced by recognition of their eye for curating indies. "I want us to be the premiere indie game label, and that's how I see Adult Swim," says Gee. "That really fits the spirit of what we are--finding great, talented free thinkers in their medium."
The three releases in the pipeline for Adult Swim Games are just as unusual and dissimilar as their predecessors, yet intriguing and appealing all the same. There's Soundodger+, the enhanced Steam release of a Flash game that Gee describes as "Bullet hell meets Lumines." The free version is already solid; Gee promises that Plus will add a level editor with custom tracks and double the song library. That'll be followed by Super Comboman--"a 2D Devil May Cry," says Gee--the quirky tale of a comic lover who can't help but air-juggle everyone he meets with a string of kicks and punches. Further out is Jazzpunk, which garnered a good bit of attention at PAX 2013. Its concept is staggeringly out-there: a first-person adventure comedy set in a 1950s cyberpunk world.
"When you see all seven of our games at one time--they're all great games in their own right, no doubt," says Gee. "But when you see them all together, it's kinda like you see the vision that we had, and how different they all are. They're not all bizarre or absurd or funny, but they all have that quality and uniqueness that I'm hoping to build with our brand." Olsen adds that gimmicks won't get a game far. "One consistent theme that I see in pitches that we don't accept is that people try to push things to be--to use an overused word--edgy," says Olsen. "I think we like things that are unique, new, unusual, bizarre, funny, and have great gameplay. Something that's exploitive, or sensational, or over-the-top in a way that's just trying to get a rise out of people--that's not what we're looking for."
It's when weirdness meets merit that the Adult Swim Games team gets excited. "A game like Soundodger, for example, is not a game that a publisher would tell a developer to make for them," says Gee. "Same with Volgarr--no one's gonna say 'Make a hard-as-hell platformer for the market.' It's genuine--all the games from the developers we work with, these are games that these guys would make on their own, whether we worked with them or not." And publishing these games doesn't mean meddling with them. "When we release a game, 99% of that game is the true vision of the developer," says Gee. "With our producers and QA in-house, most of our [playtest] notes are very much usability comments, like 'Oh, the menus here don't make sense.' In terms of level design, humor--that's all the developer. What I see is what I like."
Doing it their way
Truly great indie games often come from a very personal place--an expression of an experience or memory that the developer holds dear. Long before Morrish created Super Puzzle Platformer, his design sensibilities were shaped by the most unlikely of sources. "There was this demo disk I had as a kid that had all these really weird, short games on it for Windows 3.1," says Morrish. "That was probably my biggest influence. It's scary to think of if I didn't have that CD. I probably would be doing something completely different."
Gee and the team at Adult Swim Games don't want to get in the way of these passionate developers--they only want to provide a platform for indie works to shine. "We're not here as a publisher to come down with a heavy hand, [or dictate] what developers do," says Gee. "I definitely sent many messages to the Volgarr guys about the difficulty--I'm a hardcore gamer, and I was still like, man, this game is hard. But props to them: They stuck to their guns and said 'This is the game we want to make. We want to make it very skill-based.' And now that I've seen the final product, you know what, I'm happy they stuck to their guns."
"That's Adult Swim," says Gee. "Being different and being true to what the creators want to make."