Todd Gillissie is pretty much a one-man game-development studio unto himself. He's also a computer programmer, occasional musician, lifelong gamer and former rock-magazine publisher. Mash that all up and the result is "Shady O'Grady's Rising Star," a game from Gillissie that allows players to start a band, write songs, play gigs, hire and fire managers, and trash hotel rooms. If money is tight, players can get their rockers some pocket change by having them mow lawns.
The most popular music-based video games these days — "Guitar Hero," "Karaoke Revolution" — are all about the fun of rocking out onstage. Gillissie's game is about everything else — except the sex and drugs.
"I've seen a couple of other games that covered the subject, but they never covered it the way I think it needed to be," Gillissie told MTV News via phone from a suburb in Michigan.
Gillissie's game starts the player out with nothing more than a name, some cheap clothes and an interface to input a taste in music — if the gamer is a heavy-metal-loving trombonist, for example, they can discover if they have a shot at making it big. The first task is to drive to a music store to buy the proper trombone. Will it be a Blessing B128 Scholastic? Or an E.M. Winston Standard, perhaps?
Next, the player hits the classifieds and recruits bandmates. Someone who chooses to play as a headbanging trombonist won't find too many metal guitarists and singers eager to join, but some will sign up. The band's chemistry is indicated on a menu screen by the colors of the lines connecting its avatars. The red and yellow lines connecting the members of a heavy-metal trombone ensemble indicate things aren't exactly clicking.
The game presents a bird's-eye-view of cities named after — but not designed to resemble — major and minor towns in the U.S. Using the computer keyboard arrow keys, players drive a customizable van to local clubs, hoping that attending shows will give them the connections to be asked to play there. It's all crunched in stats in a way that would be familiar to gamers used to managing wars and fights against sorcerers via their personal computers. Attending a gig nets +7 happiness for the band, +7 inspiration and +3 to the relationship with the bar staging the gig.
"It hasn't been easy to explain to people who aren't gamers," Gillissie said. "People who are gamers understand. I can say it's sort of a band-simulation sort of role-playing game, where you have to form a band and try to be successful."
Want to play a set? Gillissie's game doesn't allow for cover bands, so songwriting is an essential skill. "I was trying to think of a mini-game that would encapsulate all of the factors that go into writing a song in the game — which includes the songwriting skill, the inspiration, the relationship between the members that are writing the song — and try to figure out that it was also music-oriented," Gillissie said.
It's an abstract process in the game: Players aren't actually writing notes and lyrics — they're trying to find matches by flipping tiles, like in the old board game Concentration. The better the relationship between bandmates, the fewer tiles there are to flip and match, meaning the easier it is to write a good song. Other factors affect the quality of the song and how well it will play with audiences at various venues.
"I didn't want songwriting to be this mind-boggling complex process," Gillissie said, even as he acknowledged the shortcomings of his solution. "To be honest with you, I wish I could have come up with something better," he said, laughing.
Humility is required of an independent game developer. Gillissie doesn't have the time or money to compete with full-time developers at big game companies. His game's graphics are simple and has flaws he doesn't try to hide.
"I think a lot of independent game fans understand that with a limited budget it's almost acceptable to a certain level that the graphics aren't going to be as sharp and polished," he said. "As long as the gameplay is good. That's what people care about."
Gillissie started scraping together "Shady O'Grady" in summer 2004 when he was on a weeklong East Coast tour with friends in an experimental-music project called 8-Bit Porno. To keep himself entertained in the car, Gillissie started developing the game. "When you're on tour, you have a lot of time in the car, so I bought a sketch pad and I just started drawing designs and ideas for interfaces for this game."
Gillissie has been programming computers since the sixth grade and a member of more bands than he can remember. In 2002, he made his first game, "Space HoRSE," his homage to an Atari favorite called "M.U.L.E." "I'd work my day job and then I'd go home. All my friends were like, 'Hey let's go out and do something.' And I'd be like, 'Actually, I want to go home and work on my game.' I sounded like such a total dork."
Gillissie, who is now a father of two, says he worked the new game into odd hours, into periodic binges of daylong marathons and then weeks of inactivity. He got a little local help, dropping four songs by his current band, Mime Bomb, into the soundtrack. He added music from a lot of other independent Michigan bands too.
He said he only needs to sell a few hundred copies to break even. That's what it takes to be the littlest of little guys in game development, one with a big idea about making it big onstage — if not in this world, then one rendered in a computer.
"Shady O'Grady's Rising Star" is available for download at GilliGames.com.
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