It's the Sundance of gaming. Or is it? That was bandied about (and overheard) a lot at this year's Independent Games Festival. Sure, the festival has been around for ten years, but this year, things were different. What, with the PlayStation Network, Xbox LIVE Arcade and WiiWare providing very real outlets for indie games, these games suddenly have a market with publishers are looking for the next Everyday Shooter.
"This year was kind of a perfect storm for the IGF," says Wired Magazine editor Chris Baker. "For one thing, we're well-ensconced in the current generation of game consoles, so there were no big surprises."
Independent games, however, are a breath of fresh air. And with digital distribution coming into its own, something that just continues to grow.
"I think this year further reinforced that indie game creators are getting better and better at conceptualising ideas that likely aren't 'mainstream' enough to thrive in a $US 60 AAA Xbox 360 game," says IGF judge and Gamasutra editor Simon Carless, "and making them into totally fun, extremely playable titles."
Year after year, indie games are looking more and more polished. Slick, even.
"Tools are only getting easier to use, and digital distribution is increasing in scope and popularity every day," points out Andrew Maneri, character designer and AI developer for Synaesthete. "These were the two big barriers to entry for many developers."
But what about the winners of this year's IGF? Did anyone get any deals? Advance their career? We chatted up some of the winners, and got a glimpse of why deals don't really matter and how IGF changed their lives. Or didn't.
Oh, and we totally forgot to ask about indie gaming groupies. Sorry.
• Crayon Physics Deluxe Seumas McNally Grand Prize
When asked what memories of IGF stick out, Crayon Physics creator Petri Purho replied, "English isn't my first language so I had to google out what "stick out" means. And this is the only definition I found: stick out with my dick out." Purho, a student at Helsinki Polytechnic in Finland, continues, "It might be early Alzheimer symptoms, but I don't remember anything like that happening during the IGF. Or then my mind just wants to shut it down. Or then I was just too drunk to remember my penis hanging out while trying to be important during the IGF. The last sounds like the most probable scenario."
Since he was eight, Purho has been making his own QBasic games. He started up his kloonigames blog in late 2006 to focus more game design. "Idea was (and still is)," he says, "that I'd do one prototype of a game every month to learn and experiment with game design." Leading up to this year's IGF, Purho says getting his Crayon Physics Deluxe ready was a crunch. "I had to grind my way through the dungeon of C++ and fight level 5 bugs there," he recalls. "The end boss, called Change-physics-engines-one-week-before-the-IGF-deadline was particularly nasty. Especially with the lacking a proper save game system and the time limit." Lessons learned? "To spend a little bit more time working on the game, before the last week of the deadline."
While Purho only submitted Crayon Physics Deluxe to get a free GDC pass, his delightful virtual crayon physics title charmed the IGF judges, winning the grand prize. "There have been some emails and contacts from various publishers," he says. But he hasn't gotten any deals out of his IGF win. In the mean time, while the rest of us wait patiently for the long overdue DS version of Crayon Physics, Purho's keeping busy churning out games for his blog and with other things. "I'm planning on growing enough hair to beat John Romero in the hair length contest."
Good luck, Petri. That Romero was a Rapunzel.
• Synaesthete Best Student Game
Is game school the new film school?
"I wouldn't say it's the new film school," says Will Towns, Synaesthete technical director. "Maybe it's film school's illegitimate sibling. The film industry and the gaming industry share a lot of the same aspects: both contain a corporate piece and an independent piece, both fostering the same advantages and disadvantages."
What are these corporate disadvantages you speak of?
"I don't want to work on the next 20 million dollar EA genre game," says Synaesthete's designer Joseph Tkach. "Someday, I would like to have my own dev studio, where I and my team can have complete creative freedom."
Meet the new generation. Armed with gaming degrees and a fierce sense of independence. Knowing that it's possible for small teams to deliver satisfying game experiences, these guys aren't happy to be "fortunate" enough to crunch code on some bland $20 million sequel. No way.
Tkach and Town, along with Zach Aikman and Andy Maneri, are the team behind Rez inspired, music driven arcade-style shooter Synaesthete. Since the team snagged Best Student Game at IGF, it's safe to assume that they are, well, students. All four study at DigiPen Institute of Technology, where they were pulling late night after late night, preparing their game for IGF. After their win, the team says they've been in talks.
"There's exciting news on the horizon," says Zach Aikman.
Game deals or not, the Synaesthete guys are sitting pretty for college kids.
"Getting recognised by such a large industry is the best thing that can happen to us, being soon-to-be graduates," says Towns. "Anything else is just icing on the cake."
Like paying off those student loans, for instance.
• Fez Excellence In Visual Art
When Montreal-based Fez designer and artist Phil Fish took the stage at IGF to accept the Excellence in Visual Art award, he wore, well, a fez. The 2D-meets-3D game stars a fez-wearing character named Gomez. Fish had been kicking around the idea for Fez for ages. He wanted to make an inviting game, built on childhood gaming cliches, but turning them on their ear.
"Having no time or money," says producer and the game's soundtrack composer Jason De Groot. "It was made in our free time." What did they learn from that? "That we'd like to have more time and money."
De Groot first came on board last year. The Japan-based De Groot was in Kyoto on business and on his laptop watched the Fez clip Fish had put together of the prototype.
"It was a "Woah...." kind of moment," recalls De Groot. "Until then, I had only seen concept art and a couple questionable cell phone videos. Right then I knew that I had to be more involved in things."
Post IGF, Fez garnered considerable interest. Not just for an indie title, but for a game — a still very much in development game.
"No moneyhats yet," says De Groot. "But we've been getting a lot of interest."
We're sure of that.
• Iron Dukes Best Web Browser Game
"The IGF seemed very professional this year, both in terms of the competition and production of the festival," says Iron Dukes programmer Darren Koepp. "I was expecting a kiosk next to the sandwich tables."
He and the game's writer and designer Tynan Wales submitted the game to give themselves a deadline. You know, just to finish the damn thing.
Iron Dukes is about 19th century fictionalized treasure hunting made by two guys who ran out of money.
"I ran out of money," says Koepp. "Yes," confirms Wales,"we had money trouble."
Both Koepp and Wales, industry vets, haven't seen big profits from their win yet, but are in talks.
"The Sundance comparison was bandied about a fair amount this year," says Wales. "There was an air of indie camaraderie, but I'm not sure if the IGF is as much of a golden ticket as Sundance is now. I saw no one leaving with bags of money."
Still, the pure acting of winning is in itself satisfying.
Recalls Koepp: "During the IGF, the awards night was really a surprise. I remember one of the volunteers ushering me down to the "VIP" area. He called me sir. That was hilarious. Winning was nice too. I couldn't feel my knees."
Winning is always nice.
• World of Goo Design Innovation, Technical Excellence
Two former Electronic Arts employees make good.
"The first commercial game I worked on was an urban Sims game at EA, and we learned that putting 3D versions of the Black Eyed Peas into a game might not necessarily increase the funk," says World of Goo creator Kyle Gabler. "On the other hand, it has recently been discovered that putting dinosaurs into a game will increase the funk every time."
Blobs of goo work well, too. Gabler and co-designer Ron Carmel created gooey gaming goodness with World of Goo. The puzzle game has players overcome gravity and build goo ball structures that reach the in-game exit. A simple, yet brilliant mechanic.
"World of Goo is one big physics lab, so things move and interact exactly like you would expect," says Gabler. "It's fun just to fling things around."
"We spent most of September in a tizzy, working from the minute we woke up until the minute we fell asleep in order to meet the IGF submission deadline," recalls Carmel. "We didn't touch a computer for two weeks after the submission date."
Crunch time paid off in spades. The game charmed the IGF judges, and World of Goo won not one, but two awards: Design Innovation and Technical Excellence. Two awards? They're on easy street! For like, forever!!
"I was a little surprised that actually winning an award didn't help us much on the business end of things," says Carmel. "But overall, the IGF really helped us get the word out. In my opinion there's nothing else out there that is doing as much good for the indie game scene as the IGF."
True, true. So instead of waiting for some plum deal, Gabler and Carmel are selling the game through digital distribution on their 2D Boy site.
"I think people are realising that a game doesn't need to be complex or contain two zillion polys or 193 hours of gameplay in order to be worthwhile, it just needs to be fun," says Carmel. "This allows micro-studios like ours to actually make a living doing this... If I thought we'd need to find a publisher for World of Goo in order to get it out into the world I might not have left my job to work on it."
Gabler and Carmel are developing a Wii version of World of Goo on a profit sharing basis.
"If a team of three people make a game that brings in a million dollars in profits, they should each see a third of that amount, not get a $US 5k bonus and a round of applause."
Spoken like a true industry vet.