On Point Click Killer, and Game Making as Cultural Connection

Why do some developers spend so much energy making free jam games? We ask Point Click Killer developer Dace Kelly.
Point Click Killer

Imagine, within two weeks of its release, 2000 people download your free game. Perhaps 30 stream it and share it with their audiences. Some love it, other impressions are mixed, but everyone wants more, given it’s only 5-10 minutes long.

This was Dace Kelly’s experience, when Point Click Killer won the Host’s Choice award in Scream Jam 2023. “It’s still currently hitting around 200 downloads a day,” he says. “The support and feedback we have been receiving is incredible.”

Recently, I’ve become fascinated by the cultural significance of game making and game sharing, even more than the output itself. In researcher Brendan Keogh’s book, The Videogame Industry Does Not Exist, VicScreen’s Paul Callaghan likens non-commercial gamemaking to “writing a poem for your wife” or “learning to dance so you can dance at your wedding”; engaging in a cultural practice.

So, why make small games? Why release them for free? Why watch someone play your game, or reply to feedback? And what makes a free game more or less likely to find its audience? Kelly has insight to share.

Highway to Hell

Point Click Killer. Image: Dace Kelly

In Point Click Killer, a weary protagonist arrives at a run-down motel after eight hours of driving. When night falls, things get messy, and that’s (almost) the entire game. I was completely hooked. I had to search for streamers being similarly captivated, just to validate the intensity of my experience.

Kelly says, “It’s gratifying and extremely funny when there’s a strong reaction, and you can see genuine fear. Point Click Killer is not exactly a typical point-and-click adventure, given the faster-paced action sequences, sounds and scares.”

The mashup of genres works well for this gory vignette. My eye was initially drawn to aesthetic elements; the protagonist’s earrings, dress, even her posture, the retro curtains in the motel room, and so on. Given that it looks like an adventure game, I was not expecting jump scares. They are surprisingly effective.  Kelly even explains watering down “potentially frightening moments” by “panning sound to the left, at half volume”, based on player feedback.

Point Click Killer. Image: Dace Kelly

There’s a charmingly “not quite finished” quality here, too. I spent some time wondering if I’d missed an important aspect to the story, which was Kelly’s intent. He says, “Act 2 will follow a detective putting clues together, but we didn’t want to make things too clear cut initially.” I love that releasing a small first chapter can unearth what people appreciate and understand about the story, as well as build a community around a developer’s work.

Kelly says, “The main benefit we have found in releasing our jam games for free is that player expectations are lower, while the number of potential players is much larger. There is nothing preventing content creators and casual adventure game enthusiasts from downloading a free game that looks interesting and isn’t going to take too much of their time.”

Humour Is Key

Like many, Kelly participates in game jams to “have a break from the grind and embrace creativity,” while working a day job and also on a larger, commercial game – Havenview. It’s a “couch co-op, rogue-lite, looter-shooter.” So why is Kelly also making small, free adventures, specifically? 

PowerQuest, the accessible Unity plug-in designed by Powerhoof (Crawl, The Telwynium, The Drifter), has become a common factor driving participation in adventure jams. Kelly describes it as the “magical missing link” that can do the “heavy lifting”.

Like many of us, he has also played adventure games forever, which is immediately clear upon meeting the protagonist of another one of his jam games, Shrouded Space. He’s named Roger Roger, in a reference to Roger Wilco from Sierra’s Space Quest

Shrouded Space won the $107 Adventure Game Challenge 2023 and is still downloaded 20-30 times a day, a few months after release. It was somewhat less viral than Point Click Killer, but I found its blend of fourth-wall-breaking humour and Australian humour no less engaging. 

Roger is a prisoner of the empire, sent to mine volatile Chrys ore. After making a series of bumbling, but well-meaning, mistakes, he finds himself in a position of great power, when all he really wants is to have a bit of a swim on a water planet. It’s about 30 minutes long and includes some neat little memory and hotspot-based puzzles.

Two Plus Two

Having enjoyed Kelly’s two game jam winners, I downloaded two more, Yowie and Frontier Fugitive, made for Adventure Jams 2021 and 2023. I noticed a theme emerging. If I were to invent a name for this current collection, it would probably be ‘Adventure Plus’. These were the tiny point-and-click adventure games I was expecting, but always included a simple twist.

Frontier Fugitive. Image: Dace Kelly

In Frontier Fugitive, you shoot bottles and wolves, and hide behind rocks as a bandit looks back and forth. So, adventure, plus shooting and stealth. Yowie circled back around to jump scares and gore. And Australia, obviously, given its titular monster. 

Loom, by LucasArts, is the perfect example of an Adventure Plus game. Adventure games in the 80s and 90s were actually quite diverse in terms of story, mechanics, interface and aesthetic, as developers riffed on sequentially available technologies. Loom’s puzzle-solving, musical staff was unique – and it’s had clear inspiration on Kelly’s own work.

A Tree with Roots

In my day job, I introduce tertiary music students to game engines, so that they can make their first games. My managers like that I teach technical skills, but I think of this more as a culture of game making and sharing; laughing and learning together.

Why have I been learning to speak Bulgarian? To connect with my husband’s culture. Also, so I can order him to ‘hurry up’ (бързo, pronounced ‘burzo’) like his mum did, before she passed away. Does Ken (a non-gamer) try to connect with my gamer culture, in return? I’m afraid so. One year, for my birthday, he made me a Geralt of Rivia collage, with suggestive speech bubbles. Do I want to ‘drink wine’? Go on a ‘side quest’? Um. Maybe?

I’m not sure ‘Ken of Rivia’ is what Keogh had in mind when he framed the cultural significance of game making as to communicate, express ideas, and understand our world. But, I am quite sure he is describing Dace Kelly, and his collaborators’ jam games.

So, get cultural. Download a free game. Leave a comment. Бързo. What are you waiting for?

Meghann O’Neill is a videogame roustabout, with a patchwork career spanning reviews, composition and education, often all three at the same time. She loves the creativity and cleverness that independent developers bring to the medium, especially in Australia. She’d love you to tell her about your game at @indiegames_muso on Twitter.