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Us and the Game Industry: an other look at the indie scene

Let me preface this a bit. This is an article I wrote last year after E3 and Indie Game: The Movie just had come out. Another film I was following had set out to tell a story about the indie scene, so I interviewed some of the people that appear in it and the director. I also asked the indie devs about their thoughts on E3 and some other topics. Never got to publish it so I really hope you like it!

With Indie Game: The Movie just out, it’s easy to forget about the other white meat.

Us and the Game Industry, funded on Kickstarter back in March, followed a handful of independent game makers over the course of three years. Produced and directed by Stephanie Beth, it had a simple objective: tell their stories and be “in the moment” as they create.
“I think that people are excited to be expressing themselves,” Beth told me over the phone, “and I think that people are having a great time using the internet to construct - and a game is a construction.”

I asked her if she was a gamer. “I’m a mother of a computer gamer and a concept artist. Before my son established himself, he was working out of our back office at home. Around 2007/2008, after he had had success for a little thing he drew for a company on Kongregate, he started showing me how the DIY (Do It Yourself) explosion was occurring. I realized that I could get a handle on game development from the point of view of individuals as opposed to companies. [...] I’ve always approached this as a filmmaker, not as a fan.”

Such a refreshing perspective might just be what we need. Coming in from the outside, I wonder if she had initial thoughts that got challenged as she made the movie. “I had preconceived notions that there would be a possible gap of perception between the science and the art, I was curious about that. How much does engineering carry the day and how much the aesthetic suddenly become generously foregrounded. I’d like to think that’s what a lot of my film is about.”

Indie Game: The Movie showed a lot of the hardship and pressure that can result from the completion of a game. Would Us and the Game Industry also show that darker side of the creative process? “I haven’t got those types of dramatic highs in the lives of the people in the film. It’s a film really where people are working quite regularly, and quite secure you might say in their process. It’s informative. You get an insight into their world, in such a way that some people may wish to become game developers, because this is the big question: how many people do want to be? That’s often the question when you have a new film coming into the culture. [...] I do have some of those personal management discussions that sometimes come up to give insight into the enjoyment of the long working process over a project.”

I inquired about a release date. “We’re still working on which festival to apply for based on when we get final cut.” She assured me it was a 2012 film and to look forward to it.

The independent scene has been at the forefront of innovation and taking risks. It has evolved and grown tremendously over the past years, to become a movement that ironically isn’t underground but has a sense of its own identity. Indie studios are often at the forefront of innovative ideas and gameplay. They take risks, they don’t hesitate to be different, and many are rewarded for it. Platforms like Steam, Humble Bundle and Good Old Games have provided an audience for titles made with a smaller team and budget, skyrocketing some to financial and critical success. I decided to talk to some of the developers in the film.

Jason Rohrer, creator of Passage and Inside a Star-filled Sky among other things, has been making games since 2005. “The market and the ability for creators to actually make a living by making independent games, that has changed dramatically over the past four years.” He has been a part of this ever changing landscape. “I think the audience has evolved to the point where it’s very comfortable buying an independent game.”

Douglas Wilson is the maker of the non-video video game Johann Sebastian Joust, where players holding a Move controller must eliminate each other by touching the other’s device, while moving to the rhythm of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music. He came onto the scene in 2007 and wholeheartedly agrees with Jason. “I think the last few years have been particularly exciting. [...] What you’ve seen in a lot of cities is really local culture. Rather than more of an internet based scene, you see [...] lots of game collectives and groups organizing public meet ups, and game parties and exhibitions. You’ve also seen indies embrace multiplayer a little bit more than before, than they used to. No longer is it just single player platformer games. Now you’re getting all these kinds of crazy multiplayer games that bring people together. If I had done Joust a few years earlier, it would have been harder for me to gain traction showing it around, because that game really does best in public.”

As E3 happened a few weeks ago, I asked Jason and Douglas what they thought of the biggest video game trade show in the world.

“Right now, all of the most interesting work in the games that are worth playing are being made outside of the traditional triple-A studio system,” Jason Rohrer told me with confidence. “When I look at what was going on at E3 and the games that are being announced there, every single one is like a third or fourth sequel in a series. No new ideas, nothing. And even the few sort of new ideas that are there, that aren’t sequels, are very derivative in terms of other games that have been out before.”

The recurring theme of E3 seemed to be the overt presence of violence. “Some of the things I saw, some of the trailers I watched shocked me in terms of how quickly they rolled out the extreme, disturbing violence. People’s throats being slit, and other kinds of person to person direct physical violence that’s meant to provoke and disturb you. The audience would cheer when that stuff would happen.” He paused. “It seemed very strange to me, made me feel sick.”

Rohrer isn’t against all video game violence. Just as some films use violence to have an effect, he believes game violence can achieve something. But in this case he felt sick to the point of not wanting to play the games and his sentiment was echoed as publications criticized the hyper violence following E3.

“Games have traditionally been a celebration of violence [...] but not realistic violence. Now it’s not violence at a distance where you shoot somebody from far away and they kind of crumple over and you run away and shoot somebody else. This is like somebody being surprised and all of a sudden having your throat slit.”

I asked him what he thought of Nintendo’s showing. He admitted not having seen the Wii U and its line up, but suggested it was just the other extreme. “They get rid of the violence, but they also get rid of any sort of sophistication. The alternative to a Quentin Tarantino movie is not necessarily My Little Pony. We can have things that are interesting and sophisticated and not have disturbing violence.”

Douglas Wilson, while also being exasperated by the violence, had a different take on the Electronic Entertainment Expo and the mainstream industry at large. “It is somewhat of a tipping point. [...] Mainstream media is starting to speak out finally, at least more than I’ve ever seen before. It’s in the water, just as a developer and a fan of games, I’m reading more about these issues. That’s encouraging. I do think that the media coverage shows that something is changing. I think the triple-A industry and the main three consoles are facing some challenges going forward.” He mentioned Steam, and the iOS platform as tough competition looking at the future. “It seems this exclusive focus on violent first person shooters is a little out of touch with where gaming is going.”

“Someone made a nice point, I think it was in Kris Graft’s editorial [of Gamasutra] that some of these games aren’t even as violent as the marketing makes them out to be. Some of them use violence in kind of a nice way but the marketing hones on that and focuses only on that.”

Did E3 feel relevant to him at all? The answer was a surprising yes. “As indies, it’s often nice to develop in reaction to a trend, to try and do something different. It is relevant, but there are other events that are more relevant to me as an indie, like Indiecade which is every October in Los Angeles. Even though that’s not really a commercial event, it’s more a showcase of these really great games independent creators are working on.”

I asked him if the lack of hyper violence in indie games was a response to the very popular trend in mainstream development. “Indie developers tend to have the luxury of being a little bit more political and ideological about what they design. That said I think there are a few indies who make ultra violent games, almost as a satire, and I think that’s great. It’s not that violence in games is bad, it depends on how you frame the violence, why are you using the violence, to what end.”

His stance isn’t categorically pro indie however. I mentioned how independent titles seem to have a better convergence of story and gameplay (citing Passage and Braid as examples), in a way that triple-A gets criticized for either not doing or rarely doing well.

“I don’t agree that indie games are necessarily doing a better job. Games like Braid and Passage are one attempt, and that’s nice, but [...] in terms of traditional storytelling, I’d argue that indie games have not been exploring good writing. For a lot of practical reasons, indie games tend to be more mechanics focused. There’s this ideology that story and games should be somehow beautifully melded into one perfect whole, and that mechanics is what makes games unique so we should be exploring that. To me that’s all a bunch of bullshit. There are all this other beautiful art forms: writing, visuals, music. These are all part of games. Games aren’t just systems and rules, they’re these really complex multimedia things. I think sometimes indies have this ideology when you look at Passage and Braid, that’s the way that games should be made because that’s what the essence of games is. I think that’s really constraining. There is this reaction because people got bored of triple-A games that have a lot of in game cinematics. I think it’s problematic when indie games start claiming that that’s the right way to do it. To me it’s a diversity argument. I think triple-A sports games are one really compelling example, [...] how a lot of these sports games have a nicely built in player narrative.” He concluded with “It’s a different type of innovation.”

Even the most innovative games need funding however and it seems like, for the past few months, Kickstarter has been a nexus for independent developers and studios, with budget records being broken regularly.

Jenova Chen co founder of thatgamecompany, the team behind FlOw, Flower and the critically acclaimed Journey, had a very blunt opinion about the crowdfunding platform. “David Jaffe was saying it’s a dick measuring contest, who has the bigger dick basically.” Chen agreed with Chaffe’s take. “You’re probably not going to raise as much money as Tim Schafer. And then Wasteland 2 happened.”

Brian Fargo’s kickstarter for Wasteland 2 raised $2,933,252 while Tim Schafer’s project got $3,336,371. “Every game we make, at the beginning we don’t even know what the game is going to be, because we try to push the envelope, we try to make something new. If we don’t even know what that game is, how can we describe it to the audience. And we have the funding to make it, so it’s not a really good story for Kickstarter.” (Our phone interview took place in March, well before thatgamecompany announced a $5.5M fund from Benchmark Capital to make their next titles.)

Kickstarter and online distribution seem to go hand in hand these days, with many of these projects promising a release on Steam. EA’s platform Origin had just announced it would be waiving distribution fees of crowd funded games for 90 days, in a clear attempt to boost its indie catalog, and declared Wasteland 2 would be on it. Jason Rohrer admitted he had heard of Origin some time ago but had no clue the service was up and running. “It’s clearly not making any kinds of ripples in my world.”

“[Steam] is a force to be reckoned with in terms of anybody who’s trying to get onto the PC. There are all these other portals out there, and if you put your game on any of those portals, you will literally not sell any substantial amount of games. You might sell five. I’ve had my games on a couple of other portals and sold almost nothing. I’ve talked to other people, even well known established games, and they say it’s not even worth doing. They just don’t have any audience. Nobody’s spending money there.”

“Really?” I said surprised. He mentioned Direct2Drive and GamersGate as examples, where people got talked into putting their games on those platforms, his included, and never got much out of them.

“Steam has been the only one who’s ever been worth doing at all. All those portals have a minimum: you have to get your balance up to a certain level before they’ll send you a check. In any of the portals I’m in, I’ve never gotten up to that minimum. Except Steam. I’ve sold a few copies here and there, but never enough to make any money out of it.

Does it end up being detrimental to his games? “No, it doesn’t really matter. It taught me that I shouldn’t waste time. It does take time and effort and energy to get your game ready and bundled and ready to go and tested on portal. [...] Over time I’ve learned to just say no to all of them because it’s just not worth the time.”

Steam has clearly been a resounding success with gamers and game makers. “A lot of these platforms are much less discriminating in terms of what games they allow on their platform. I had another game a year and a half ago that Steam would just not accept. A year ago I had a game that they finally would accept, and it took a lot of energy and effort on my part to get them and convince them to put my game on Steam and allow it to be there.”

He’s talking about Inside a Star-filled Sky. “Because of that, they only have one or two games coming out each day. And when your game comes out on Steam, it’s at the top of the list for a whole day and everybody sees it. Everybody gets the chance to see the game, hear about it and so on. [...] They schedule your release date so that none of the other games are released that day. You have to negotiate a release date with them and they’ll say ‘No no, this big game is coming out on Monday you can’t release that day. We have this big sale on Tuesday so you can’t release that day. Oh maybe we can squeeze you in on Thursday.’ They really try to find the time for your game where you’re going to have a little bit of a spotlight. [...] I wouldn’t release on the iOS platform either, it’s just as much as a crap chute. You’re pretty much guaranteed not to make nothing if you release on Steam.”

You could argue that Joust isn’t really a video game or thatgamecompany isn’t really indie. The movie tries to figure out what it means to not rely on the big publishers and make games as an individual.

“The film expresses some of those inherent tensions between the independent and the idea of the industry, because it is a conflict that every individual needs to work out, in order to work and be a happy person.” Beth told me at the end of our interview. “If you choose a profession you have to figure out how to sustain yourself.”

It seems like there’s never been a better time to explore that than ever before.

PS: Wanna see some crazy Japanese games? Check out my favorites of Comiket 83!
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About Isshak Ferdjanione of us since 6:49 PM on 05.16.2011