Day Two of the GDC: What Does It Mean to Be “Indie”?

The theme of industry continues in full force, even within the “indie” crowd. Here were some of the talks I saw today:

Indie Fund: Lessons from the First Year

Kellee Santiago, Nathan Vella, Ron Carmel (funders); Andy Schatz, Steve Swink, Daniel Da Rocha (developers)

Overview: The funders and developers from the first year of Indie Fund talk about what worked and what didn’t. Funded projects (Andy Schatz’s Monaco, Steve Swink and Scott Anderson’s Shadow Physics, and Daniel Da Rocha’s Q.U.B.E.) were announced.

Impressions: Indie Fund is an attempt to allow independent developers to fund their games outside of the traditional monolithic publishers. Their goal is to help make indies self-sustaining, so that after getting funding for one project they will be able to pay back what they owe to Indie Fund and use the rest to fund their next game. Although they spent most of their time discussing technical issues (problems with the system they started with and modifications they made to try to address those problems), the real interest of the talk was in the projects that had received funding. Andy Schatz and his game (a cooperative multiplayer heist simulator) are already fairly well-known, but Q.U.B.E. and Shadow Physics are newcomers. Q.U.B.E. appears to be a first-person puzzle game about moving blocks around. Both the visual style and concept seem heavily influenced by Portal. Shadow Physics is a platforming game where your character is a shadow on the wall, and you can not only stand on the various platforms throughout the level, you can also stand on the shadows that they cast. When the camera–or lights!–move, the level changes. These guys seemed like very smart and talented people, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from them.

The Next Steps of Indie: Four Perspectives

Luke Schneider, Jeff Hull, Brian Provinciano, Dajana Dimovska

Overview: Four indie developers give their take on the future of “indie”. Luke spoke about the strategy he employed of making a game every month and distributing it via online distribution channels. Focus was mainly on ways to maximize sales while minimizing hassle and frustration. Jeff Hull talked about his company, Games of Nonchalance, which makes games designed to be played in real-life San Francisco; scattered clues and hidden messages lead the players on a treasure hunt across the city. He called himself a “situational designer” and believes that his approach is the “future of entertainment”. Fascinating stuff. Brain, the developer of Retro City Rampage, didn’t talk about the future of the indie scene so much as the development process of his game–what he did right, what he did wrong, why he did it, etc. It was interesting stuff, but seemed a little out of context for the talk. Dajana Dimovska talked about the Copenhagen Game Collective and their latest efforts such as B.U.T.T.O.N., which might best be called a “computer-facilitated” party game due to the fact that the game does not enforce all the rules–other players do. As you might imagine, this can lead to some pretty zany gameplay.

Impressions: Although Luke and Brian’s talks were interesting, Jeff and Dajana seemed to be the ones really trying to experiment with the “future of indie”. Their ideas are mechanically very interesting, but I wondered if they had considered how they might use such mechanics to tell meaningful stories. I asked them during the Q&A section if they had any thoughts on how to integrate narrative and gameplay. Dajana responded that they didn’t really have anyone on their team that was interested in narrative, so that was something they hadn’t explored. What Jeff said was that his games did have embedded narratives, and that some players really got into those narratives while others basically ignored them. What was really interesting, however, was that players who got really involved in the narrative would often start creating their own! It seems to me that such “player-mediated” narrative could do for RPGs what B.U.T.T.O.N. did for party games. Imagine, for instance, a game like World of Warcraft where, instead of the focus being on endless quests and grind, the focus is on interaction with other players, and the collaborative creation of a coherent narrative. The computer would then become less of a dictator and more of a facilitator. How might such a game play?

How to Win the IGF in 15 Weeks or Less

Andy Schatz

Overview: Andy’s talk was not actually about how to win the Independent Games Festival. Instead, he talked about the design and development process of his latest game, Monaco: a multiplayer cooperative action-stealth game about robbing people, which he describes as “a cross between Pac-Man and Hitman”. As with Brian’s bit in the previous talk, it was simply a general overview of his processes in designing, developing, and polishing the game. The talk ended with a live demo, which looked like fun.

Impressions: Not much of interest for me here; Andy himself admits that Monaco is “a popcorn flick, bubble-gum pop” sort of game. Fine by me, I like popcorn as much as the next guy. There were a couple of points I think are worth mentioning, though. For one, he speculated that trying to make games for money (as an indie developer) is actually riskier than just making the games you want to make; his rationale was that if you make a game for money, you either succeed (big $$$) or fail (no $$$, you’re out of business). If you just focus on making good games that you and others will like, however, then if you succeed you may get just as much money, and if you fail you will at least get some prestige from making such a great game. If you have prestige, you have some leverage in making and promoting another game, and eventually one of the games you make is bound to sell and make you lots of money. The other thing I found interesting was a very brief discussion of the two (seemingly conflicting) elements of game design: “mechanics” (the abstract rules of the game and their implementation on the computer) and “experience” (sound, graphics, story, animation, etc.; perhaps better described as “aesthetics”). Games like World of Goo and Braid, he claimed, succeed because they marry these two elements so seamlessly. I would agree that those games are great examples of games that marry mechanics with aesthetics well, but I can’t help but wonder if maybe we’re missing the point. Is it possible that mechanics and aesthetics might not be so different? Would it be possible to make a game where they were one and the same? What would that even mean?

Rapid-Fire Indies

Chris Hecker, Petri Purho, Eddy Boxerman, David Hellman, Kyle Pulver, Chris DeLeon, Andre Clark, Markus Persson, Scott Anderson, Anna Anthropy

Overview: Ten indies presented ten rapid-fire talks in under an hour, on various topics. Chris Hecker gave a presentation on what he called “AAA indie titles”, meaning games like World of Goo, Limbo, and Braid that are independent but have a very high level of polish and are highly anticipated; he outlined some theories/strategies for why/how these games gain such popularity. Petri Purho talked briefly about what he thinks it means to be indie, saying that “indies are game developers who create art instead of making products”. He then played a song for us that was about being a misunderstood artist. Wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Eddy Boxerman talked about turning forty, and the fact that there aren’t many older people in game design, even though the medium is starting to age a little. His talk addressed some possible reasons for this trend, as well as some possible parallels with the music industry. David Hellman didn’t talk at all, but rather presented a series of images depicting a conference attendee who gets into some trouble. The ending was kind of abrupt, and I’m not really sure if he was trying to say something or just being funny. Very strange presentation. Kyle Pulver talked about game jams and how they’re great, and Chris DeLeon talked about how staying in the spirit of a game jam even when you’re working on your own can be hugely beneficial. He also extensively misquoted Henry David Thoreau. Andre Clark talked about his team’s game pOnd, which is simultaneously a parody of and homage to the recent trend of “zen” art games. Markus Persson talked about piracy and copyright–a subject I already know a fair bit about–trying to clear up some of the misinformation surrounding the subject. Scott Anderson, the second half of the team behind Shadow Physics, gave a talk on the relationship between technology and creativity that was very interesting. Finally, Anna Anthropy talked about her frustrations with the term “indie” and encouraged people to stop using it, because it is a term that limits the kinds of people who can make games, when really we should be encouraging everybody to make games.

Impressions: By far the best talk yet. Not all who presented were great, but most were, and the good presentations had as much real content as some of the hour-long talks. I particularly liked Anna’s talk, because she addressed the idea that the power of game creation tools like Game Maker is that they allow anyone to make games, not just programmers or those already in the indie “scene”. I think this is an important idea: there are a lot of conventions that have stuck around for a long time in games because they are made by programmers, and I think a lot of those conventions are holding the medium back unnecessarily.

General Impressions:

What is it that makes gaming so susceptible to the “industry” mentality? Even the indie scene has internalized that the ultimate criteria for success is how many people are willing to buy your game. I don’t have any answers to this question right now, and it’s late and I’ve got too much text already, so I’ll just end it here. Tomorrow I take a look at some of the actual games of the IGF, and attend talks on some topics that will hopefully be more relevant to the question of game art.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Day Two of the GDC: What Does It Mean to Be “Indie”?

  1. DG

    “””What is it that makes gaming so susceptible to the “industry” mentality? Even the indie scene has internalized that the ultimate criteria for success is how many people are willing to buy your game. “””

    How does this compare to film? Is the independent film community similar?

    One crappy answer might be “because there *is* lots of money in it.”

  2. agj

    On mechanics vs. aesthetics: They ARE the same, in the sense that mechanics cannot exist without an aesthetic. Even if we try to avoid the connection, the mechanics will always convey aesthetically (as will _everything,_ as everything can be experienced aesthetically). Take Anna Anthropy’s analysis of Increpare’s Kettle for some thoughts on this same subject: http://www.auntiepixelante.com/?p=964

    • An excellent point. Clint Hocking addressed this in his talk on day three, “Dynamics: the State of the Art”. He pointed out that even if we left the mechanics of the game Tetris completely intact, a simple aesthetic re-skinning (making the pieces Jews and the playing field a Nazi train car, for instance) would completely change the meaning of the game. He referred to the combination of these two aspects of the game “dynamics”, which I’m not sure I like, as the distinction between “dynamics” and “mechanics” is not immediately clear. I think in coming up with the term he was trying to address your point while still keeping mechanics and aesthetics separate. Of course, as you say, “aesthetics” is itself a rather vague term, since everything that can be experienced has aesthetics! This leads me to wonder whether all these terms might ultimately be a dead end…bad news for Hocking and Hecker, since they’ll have to start from square one in describing how games convey meaning!

      Thanks for the link, by the way–Anthropy and Lavelle are two of my favorite developers.

      • agj

        I’m personally against such reductionist approaches to discourse. Programmers are very fond of that method, though, by education! I’d rather consider all things as part of an interconnected and inextricable whole. And that’s what comes from being a designer, perhaps.

  3. Not just programmers, but intellectuals in general. We really like giving names to things, even if doing so doesn’t really help anything ^^; Sometimes, though, having a name for something can make it much easier to think about. The trick is coming up with a name inspires more than it restricts…

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