The Game Developers Conference is first and foremost about discussion and celebration of the science and art of videogames. The product reveals and demos at GDC are somewhere between secondary and extraneous, potentially unwelcome distractions from the business at hand. GDC is about learning, and what I learned this year was why independent games are important, and why I both want and need to pay much more attention to them.
I’m a prototypical “hardcore gamer” at heart. I like my games triple-A, my explosions deafening, and my trigger finger is usually itchy. For most of my life I had no awareness of indie games outside of a single friend who used to complain about his boredom with mainstream games and shed effusive praise on indies. Writing about videogames changed my awareness of the indie scene but I rarely embraced it. When I received an invite to the Indie/Games Press mixer the Sunday night before GDC, I decided to accept in the spirit of broadening my horizons.
A dozen or so independent game developers set up shop in the lounge of IGN’s San Francisco offices. That’s where I met Jamie Fristrom, a 20-year veteran of the videogame industry and one of the founding members of the development studio Treyarch, who was showing off his Google Chrome game Sixty Second Shooter. Fristrom had a contest going where the highest score at the end of the night would win a bottle of Silver Patron. Being a fan of tequila I set out to get that highest score, and chatted away with Fristrom while I learned the game. He’d been the Creative Director on Spider-Man 3 for one year of the game’s three-year development cycle and left the project to go indie when he didn’t like the way things were progressing, a decision Fristrom was glad for in the wake of Spider-Man 3’s critical reception.
He then co-founded a company called Torpex Games that was meant to develop triple-A games, but instead began working on smaller games like Schizoid and Bejeweled Blitz for Xbox Live Arcade. Sixty Second Shooter is Fristrom’s first solo project. While I continued jockeying for the highest score, I asked Fristrom why he left triple-A development. “I dig indie games because that’s where all the games I want to play come out of,” he said. “I don’t see new or interesting game mechanics coming out of triple-A.”
Next to Fristrom was Finn Morgan, who had come all the way from Brisbane, Australia to show off his physics puzzler/platformer Colour Bind. I watched someone give the game a try while I talked to Morgan about working on Colour Bind in the top floor of a farmhouse in rural Victoria and how crossing the road in Melbourne was his inspiration for the game. The first levels were built for a contest in Australia that he won, so he decided to come to GDC and promote the game.
Independent games are professionally interesting to me because their creators aren’t hidden behind layers of marketing or public relations staff. If you ever feel like videogame journalists can be cynical, I think it’s because it doesn’t take long to get tired and bored with the public relations veneer and theater we are constantly fed by the big publishers. At the Medal of Honor: Warfighter reveal at GDC, Executive Producer Greg Goodrich sat down on stage with two former members of the military who were Tier 1 operators, or knew Tier 1 operators, and had what was supposed to be a casual discussion about their role in helping to shape the Medal of Honor franchise, by way of stressing how authentic the franchise has become.
When the interview was finished I turned to a colleague and asked, “How many times do you think they rehearsed that?” Said colleague shrugged and said something along the lines of “Probably a lot.” I hate having to bring that cynicism to the job, but it’s precisely that cynicism that allows videogame critics and journalists to cut through the PR and see things clearly. Everything from the triple-A publishers is washed, pressed and hung up neatly on PR coat hangers. They sketch out a consumer narrative for their products and stick to it like glue.
I understand why. There is big money at stake. But the end result is difficulty trying to have real conversations with the men and women who create those triple-A games. Indie developers, on the other hand, more often than not won’t have a marketing staff. They might not want to hide behind public relations. They might want to actually talk to the press because they need the publicity, and their games can be as much personal statements as consumer products meant to earn them a living. Indie devs like Jamie Fristrom and Finn Morgan can and often do open up about their personal lives and tell us stories. Talking unguardedly to the press is always a risk, but so is trying to go it alone as an indie developer, and I think that passion and acceptance of risk-taking comes through in their games, as well.
During the Experimental Gameplay Sessions panel on the Friday afternoon of GDC, I saw the prototype of a puzzle game called Scale that requires the player to scale objects up or down in order to trigger switches and unveil objects. The prototype build with its rough sort of pixel art marveled the audience. The mechanic of shrinking and growing objects seems so obvious that it’s amazing no one’s thought of it before, but my throat tightened up and my eyes welled for the childlike wonder at seeing an idea so simple turned into an experience so enthralling
It harkened back to something Sid Meier had said in his “Forgotten Tales” panel the day before, in reference to comparing the potential of modern games to the potential of the medium back when he was making games like Pirates!. “Our games are a hundred times more powerful, but are they 100 times as cool?” he asked.
Another inspiring game at the Experimental Gameplay Sessions was Storyteller, which won the Independent Game Festival’s Nuovo Award. Storyteller uses comic book frames as the play space and pixilated actors and props as the playing pieces. It seemed like such a simple game but managing the relationships between actors and props, and the relationships between the contents of each panels, was deep and complex. I’d never seen anything like it before.
I want Scale and Storyteller right now. I’m less bullish on Medal of Honor: Warfighter, because it looked a lot like Call of Duty: Black Ops, which I’ve already played. I’m looking forward to the two new online MechWarrior games I previewed at GDC because I’m a BattleTech nerd from the days of hardboard maps and cardboard Mechs, but I’ve been playing BattleTech games for over two decades. I really enjoyed my time with the Tactical Intervention demo because I love a frenetic first person shooter, but I’ve also played Counter-Strike.
I look at all these games, and think about the indie titles I saw at GDC, and finally understand what Jamie Fristrom and other indie developers I’ve met over the last year and a half, and all my friends and colleagues that love indie games are always talking about. There’s nothing innovative in Warfighter or MechWarrior Online or Tactical Intervention. There’s plenty of iteration on established genres and conventions, but there’s nothing new. That doesn’t make them bad, or lesser-than. I imagine I could enjoy them all immensely. Experimentation and innovation doesn’t automatically make indie games good or superior-to, either, but they take risks that triple-A games can’t afford to because the stakes aren’t as high, and as a hardcore gamer I play so many games that I’m always looking for the different and the new.
Words like “hardcore” and “casual” are used to bifurcate the gaming audience into easy-to-understand packages by attaching gamers to genre preferences. I subscribe to the idea that these words actually represent levels of devotion, not preferences, and by that measure it seems like hardcore gamers would be the first people to appreciate the value of independent games. I might just be looking for an explanation as to why, after years of ignoring the indies, one week spent studying them and meeting their creators has turned me around on the subject completely, but how often do you see the most dedicated, vocal videogame players complaining vociferously about buying the same game over and over again?
That feeling of being ensconced in sameness has only increased for me since I began writing about videogames and therefore felt the responsibility to widen my awareness of them. I play so many more triple-A games than I used to, so perhaps that experience gave me the context I needed to finally appreciate independent games. What I learned at GDC this year was how to fall back in love with videogames as a whole by grasping their possibility and potential, and to see the value in broadening my horizons not just as a journalist covering an industry, but as an enthusiast who wants to share all of these experiences with you. That’s probably the most important part of writing about videogames, and I’m thankful for the reminder.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.