The slaughterhouse was packed wall-to-wall with indie game developers from across the Nordic region. I was up on stage to give the welcoming speech. A little nervous of coming across too mainstream, I played Mega64’s “IF YOU’RE NOT INDIE F**K YOU” to great effect. Part game showcase, part party and part formal discourse, the Nordic Game Indie Night was a roaring success – especially for the first-ever indie focused activity of the annual Nordic Game Conference.
With the diversification and economic viability of online and mobile platforms, we’re seeing more and more focus given to indies within conferences from around the globe, as well as stand-alone events. The common perception being that anyone can isolate themselves in their garage for a weekend, quickly bang out a little game and make millions via Facebook and iPhone. But, we’re starting to see tension between how fast is too fast, and whether going at it alone is the best approach.
That gathering of dozens upon dozens of indies – including scene darlings like Cactus and Petri Purho – debating and sharing and dancing was in stark contrast to the classic stereotype of the lone wolf basement dwelling indie developer. Jump back the previous month to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and the indie uprising looked assured. Beyond the dedicated Indie Games Summit and the ever inspiring Independent Games Festival, the best party that week was hosted by a small collective of indie collaborators called Kokoromi as a showcase for their annual GAMMA competition. The real irony was that they used the same venue that had been used for the big exclusive PlayStation party in years prior.
The positive indie vibe at GDC 2010 was at an all time high, and then Chris Hecker (himself recently reclaiming indie status after one of several EA axe drops over the past year) took to the stage for the annual rant session. Lamenting the current fixation over speedy development times and 48-hour game jams, Hecker challenged developers to please finish their games. He was very careful to recognize the value of small speedily developed games, but felt there was a lack of games that went deep and fully explored a specific game mechanic. Braid was put forward as the example of taking the time to go deep.
Hecker’s GDC rant sparked extensive debate and discussion within the indie community. Hecker even posted his email exchange with Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström, whom he had mentioned specifically for listing project completion times (some games only taking 4 hours to create).
Gorm Lai, a co-founder of the Global Game Jam, is quick to dismiss the idea that what participants are actually producing are games: “We do not necessarily claim that games can be built quickly, however we do claim that most ideas and mechanics can be prototyped quickly to see if it will result in something fun. This is the essence of what a game jam is about; taking a crazy idea and seeing if it will hold. I am not sure many game jam games and to some extent many smaller indie games, should be seen as more than research into a single component of a game.” The most recent Global Game Jam had over 4000 participants across 150 locations worldwide and produced nearly 1000 games in 48 hours.
Self proclaimed “bad game designer” Purho, of Crayon Physics Deluxe fame, similarly views the majority of his games as prototypes built to learn game design: “My main reason is just to get feedback on the game idea and also to learn game design. I figured that the best way to do that is to do a lot of small games and get feedback.”
As such, each game can be seen as a step in the designer’s evolution as an artist, much like how you can trace the growth of a given painter’s or musician’s craft across their body of work. Award-winning art game designer Jason Rohrer likens it to an ongoing conversation about game design, where each game is an “utterance” in the dialog. Rohrer comments on his own trajectory: “I’ve done a bunch of small games and prototypes during my career as a game designer. Looking at that collection, you can really trace the evolution of my thoughts on game design because you’ve got 14 points to plot.” Though appreciative of the polished quality of Braid, Rohrer is sad that he has to wait so long to plot points between each of Jon Blow‘s utterances.
Kokoromi co-founder Heather Kelley views all this as “hallmarks of a maturing medium.” To her, there is no right or wrong approach, we need all of it. She also points to the diversification of funding and business models for indie games as a key to being able to support deeper/longer projects – a current reality being that many indie developers simply cannot afford extended times of exploration.
Another potential creative outlet for deeper independent games is academia. Tracy Fullerton, who heads up the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, reiterates that “going deep takes commitment, persistence and some kind of ongoing support, even if it does come from a day job. I think one of the best places to go deep in indie development is actually an academic environment, where you may have the option of doing a longer development.” Of course, USC’s lab helped to incubate Cloud and fl0w and spawned indie studio thatgamecompany. Co-founder Jenova Chen “leans toward the deep approach when making something for a considerable amount of others, throwing in more time and care” as evidenced by their ambitious announcement of Journey at E3. Though, it should be noted that it took seven prototypes to fully explore their design ideas for Flower, their previous game.
Hot off the universal acclaim for Limbo, Playdead Games CEO Dino Patti puts it more succinctly: “If you want to succeed, make your life depend on it!” Patti believes that one of the main challenges for indies is they have many ideas and lack the resources (i.e., time, money) to focus the allocation of abilities. As opposed to viewing it as a deep versus fast issue, Patti sees fast games/prototypes as the way to discover which ideas to go deep on – a necessary process to prioritize the ongoing allocation of resources. Or, as Rohrer puts it, “designers are sniffing out the road to commercial success.”
Jumping back to the Nordic Indie Night, the Kokoromi party at GDC and all the other indie meet-ups and jam weekends, you can’t help but wonder if it is all just one big exercise in collectively sniffing for success. That, despite all the advances in virtualizing work and the lone wolf developer stereotype, indies seek out each other to collaborate and share and help each other succeed.
Sure, many developers still fit the garage-tinkerer stereotype. “I think I match the stereotype pretty closely. I make small games. I make them rather quickly. I do it totally alone,” Rohrer wanted to make clear. Likewise, Söderström claims that past attempts to collaborate have failed 75 percent of the time: “Mostly I do work on games alone in a room somewhere.”
Daniel Benmergui, who garnered lots of praise for Today I Die, warns against isolation: “I can say from personal experience that working alone for a long time tends to twist your perception in a not-so-healthy way. At some point, I remember having trouble keeping up with normal conversations in social gatherings, as I kept being distracted by my own thoughts.”
That’s why, for example, Hecker leaves the sanctuary of his garage (where he doesn’t even allow email to distract him), to participate in “work days” with fellow indies. Sometimes at a coffee shop, sometimes in someone’s living room, the work days enable them push each other to be productive – and not just sit around all day surfing the web.
More formally, some indie studios are sharing office space. Nathan Vella was quick to rattle off all the collaborations going on within Toronto’s vibrant indie scene. For example, his Capybara studio shares office space with Jon Mak’s Queasy Games, (a handful of other studios are just around the block), and how their current game, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, is a collaboration among three local indies. Even Purho is in Toronto, having moved all the way from Finland, currently working on a game with fellow indies Michael Todd and Anna Zajaczkowski.
Another great example is the “Game House” in Copenhagen, which is home to several game studios and indies. Partially formed to save on rent, the Game House also amplifies the value of working closely together, sharing knowledge and providing support. This is a concept that Kelley has been pushing recently, dubbed “GameSpaces.” During a lecture at FMX in Stuttgart, Kelley encouraged indies to band together and create such GameSpaces, which she defined as “a real (as opposed to virtual) place where people with common interest in games and interactive art can meet, socialize and collaborate. A GameSpace can be viewed as an open community lab, workshop and/or studio where people of diverse backgrounds can come together to share resources and knowledge to build/make games.”
Not by coincidence, Kelley suggests that a GameSpace is ideal for enabling indies to take something they create during a 48-hour jam and build upon it over a longer period time (i.e., go deep). In fact, one of the studios in the Game House, Copenhagen Game Productions, did exactly that. Bonded by their intense experience at the Nordic Game Jam, Douglas Wilson, Dajana Dimovska and Lau Korsgaard bootstrapped the studio to further work on the prototypes and ideas that were spawned from the Jam.
But, to Wilson, it was less about the prototypes than the relationships that evolved from the Jam experience: “For me, co-location isn’t just a matter of facilitating the development process in an organic way – though that’s certainly a big plus. As I see it, game design is just as much about the people making the games as it is about the game itself.”
Wilson claims that criticizing the small/fast games that come out of jams is missing the point. That the jams, or more largely the indie “scene,” isn’t necessarily about games, but about the human relationships that emerge from working on the games.
Or, as Wilson puts it: “My friendships with the people I work with are invaluable. I wouldn’t sacrifice those relationships for anything in the world – even a million fucking Braids.”
Jason Della Rocca is a jet-setting strategy consultant for the game industry. He plays small (mind)games with his friends via RealityPanic.com.