Independent video game designer from Davis hopes for commercial success

Independent video game designer Jason Rohrer can take a complex idea and turn it into a colorful 2-D reality with a few clicks of the mouse and strokes of the keyboard.

The award-winning veteran creator/developer is already hard at work on his 19th game, “One Dollar, One Hour, One Life,” where players pay one dollar to live for an hour in the Neanderthal beginnings of a society that will develop over time on the Web – with no respawning. He released his 18th game in May.

While the Davis designer has been artistically recognized – his “Passage” is part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art – he is struggling to achieve a higher level of commercial success in a market that he says values visual presentation over interactive, thought-provoking stories.

“I’m trying to figure out how I can sort of check more commercial boxes in terms of like making a game that would appeal to more people in some way while still feeling like (it’s) something I’m really proud making,” the 37-year-old said. “Something that really touches on deep issues.”

He has a lot of competition. California has the largest number of video game employees, more than 41 percent of total industry employment in the nation, with direct employees bringing in an average of $94,747 annually, according to a 2014 Entertainment Software Association report. Software revenue brings in $2.8 billion statewide and $15.4 billion nationwide in software revenue, with game sales topping $93 billion worldwide in 2013.

In a 2015 report, the organization said 155 million Americans play video games. And four out of five households have a gaming device with an average of two game players per household, according to the association.

“Passage,” a 2-D, five-minute journey that asks players to contemplate the inevitability of death and the power of choice, is Rohrer’s most downloaded game. It’s been downloaded for free 465,783 times on PCs, but in the Apple store, where it is available for 99 cents, it has only sold 14,200 units.

His best-selling game, “The Castle Doctrine,” has brought in around $200,000. But the audience reach is still only about 20,000 people for the burglary and home defense game, which examines societal constructions of manhood.

“It’s kind of like you haven’t really made something valuable to people yet because they’re not willing to pay for it,” said Rohrer, who is married with three children.

Gabriel Gutierrez, producer and creative director for 2011 Sacramento startup Nascent Games LLC, said most independent video game designers fight between creative integrity and commercial success.

“The struggle is believing that your game idea is going to be something that someone even cares about,” he said. “If what you’ve done causes enough conversation, then you’re on to something.”

Gutierrez, who works as a recruiter for a construction company to pay the bills, said that gamers have to be dedicated to their idea while also keeping commercial expectations low and focusing on diversifying their skills as developers.

“It’s not a matter of whether you succeed or fail, it’s that you put all your eggs in one basket. And you cannot do that,” the 38-year-old said.

While Rohrer wants to branch out commercially, he is determined to stick to his artistic vision. He said he is tired of seeing what he calls repetitive, mind-numbing video games dominate pop culture.

“The amount of meaning you get out of a certain amount of time of playing should be more concentrated than what you get in playing some sort of big, long game that’s meant to sort of chew up your entire week,” he said.

The designer said he is trying to understand more about commercial success in the gaming industry, using the fame of his colleagues “Fez,” “Braid” and “Super Meat Boy,” to name a few, as models, along with the independently launched “Minecraft,” the second best-selling video game in history after Wii Sports (which is bundled with Wii purchases).

“Fez has sold over a million units, right? That’s a million people,” Rohrer said. “My biggest selling game is 20,000 people. So it’s an order of magnitude different in terms of the number of people impacted by it, the number of people whose lives it touches. And I’m sitting here making game No. 19, still trying.”

Ashiah Scharaga: 916-321-1673, @AshiahD