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Coming Together: The Indie Open House

What do indie developers get out of working together in a shared office environment? GameSpy's Indie Open House selected six teams to work in its San Francisco offices, and Gamasutra speaks to the developers about the experience.

Brett Bates, Blogger

March 29, 2011

10 Min Read

[What do indie developers get out of working together in a shared office environment? GameSpy's Indie Open House selected six teams to work in its San Francisco offices, and Gamasutra speaks to the developers about the experience.]

Last September, media firm IGN Entertainment announced Indie Open House, a six-month pilot program designed to help talented independent game developers complete their projects and find an audience.

Selected teams would share office space in IGN's San Francisco building and get free access to the matchmaking and social networking technology provided by subsidiary GameSpy, retaining all rights and revenue for their games.

For IGN, the program allows its GameSpy engineers to work closely with actual game developers to better implement their products.

It's also part of a sustained effort over the past two years to "broaden the footprint of who could potentially benefit from our technology," explains Drew Curby, senior director of sales and marketing for GameSpy Technology Group.

That effort began with the GameSpy Open Initiative and acting as a sponsor for the awards show at the Independent Games Festival. The company also recently announced a new licensing program aimed at indie developers.

Around 50 teams applied to Indie Open House, and of those, five were chosen. These members of the inaugural class, who have now been working out of the IGN offices for some months, represent a wide swath of the independent game landscape.

Their experiences range from Carnegie Mellon students working on a school project to an indie veteran with well-known titles (Gish, Bridgebuilder) under his belt. The games they are making are equally diverse, and are profiled below.

Cryptic Sea

Cryptic Sea consists of Aimee Seaver and Alex Austin. Austin is the elder statesman of Indie Open House, having worked in the industry for over nine years. During that time, he created the popular Bridge Builder and developed Gish with Josiah Pisciotta and Super Meat Boy's Edmund McMillen.

He and Seaver are now at work on Invasion of the Balls, a massively multiplayer 2D platformer for up to 100 people. Players take control of tiny, fuzzy aliens intent on wreaking havoc on Earth. The goal is to cause as much damage as possible -- sometimes working with, sometimes against other players -- in the game's human-sized environments. Think of the balls in Invasion of the Balls as an overtly malevolent version of Star Trek's tribbles. (A beta is currently available on the Cryptic Sea website.)

Seaver and Austin have devised an intriguing -- if ambitious -- method to market their project: they plan to include a demo of it in an "album" of smaller games packaged at a single price point.

"They're kind of our take on old games but with new graphics -- and multiplayer," says Austin. "We want to get more people playing The Balls, and we figure if we include it as a demo with a packaged game, it'll be a way of getting it out there."

The other "tracks" in the album are a word game, a physics-based match-three puzzler, and a side-scrolling motocross game similar to Excitebike.

Invasion of the Balls

Being a part of this project means helping them with what they consider the most difficult part of being an independent developer: Simply getting games done. "It can be pretty isolating working on indie games if you're just working by yourself or with one other person," says Austin. Motivation can be difficult. So being in close proximity to the other teams, swapping tips and ideas with them, has inspired him to follow through on his own projects.

Seaver adds that they also benefit from the quality of their new colleagues' advice. "They're going to give better feedback than, say, some random friend who doesn't know much about games," she says.

That kind of feedback is especially important when testing a massively multiplayer online game, and Cryptic Sea is making sure they take advantage of it. "We did one [test] here where we got five or six people here playing and people online," notes Austin. "That's definitely something nice, to be able to have everybody in one room playing it and getting that instant feedback."

But the most important benefit of the project for Cryptic Sea is exposure. "Normally we're not that good at getting press," says Austin. "We tried getting it on web pages but didn't have too much success. So it's nice to have this interview, for example. We couldn't have set this up on our own."

Adds Seaver: "The people who see our game and play our game, they keep playing it. But it's really hard to find people to try it."

Team Ethereal

If Austin represents the elder statesman of the concept, then the seven members of Team Ethereal -- Dan Driscoll, Mark Piszczor, Noah Bench, Kent Vasko, Martin Montgomery, and Ross Treyz -- make up its incoming freshman class. Each of them is enrolled as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center; their project doubles as class credit.

That project is a 32-player medieval combat game with a strong emphasis on realism. "There's nobody throwing fireballs," says Treyz. "Nobody's riding a Pegasus into battle. It's really how people were supposed to fight back then. I don't think that's an angle that really anybody has captured effectively in the market."

Montgomery elaborates: "We're trying to bring out the visceral nature of medieval combat... We want it so that you're actually holding a physics-collidable object that you swing, and when that object actually strikes the guy, it acts appropriately."

The team is hoping that the realistic nature of battles will encourage players to dynamically band together for the betterment of all, like the emergent behavior found in the Counter-Strike series. In other words, "medieval Rambos" won't last long.

Like Cryptic Sea, they're also hoping the Open House connection will increase their game's visibility. "You can make an awesome game all day long," says Montgomery, "but if nobody ever hears about your game..." Getting the word out is particularly crucial to a multiplayer game; without a robust player base, the game fails.


Whether their game succeeds or fails, the future of Team Ethereal beyond this project is up in the air. They're all students, remember. "That's a gaping hole in our business plan, honestly," Piszczor says with a laugh.


Interabang's name has the force of an exclamation, a good reflection of the type of games the team makes. Its first game, the iOS-based Shinobi Ninja Attacks, dropped the rap-rock band Shinobi Ninja into a colorful brawler reminiscent of classic titles like Final Fight.

Now the studio -- currently comprised of Justin Woodward, Colin Callahan, Chris Sauquillo, and Evan Washington -- has come to the project to finish Super Comboman, a physics-based 2D brawler starring a Samoan character named Struggles who sports what Woodward terms a "three-point mullet."

Fittingly, the word "struggle" also defines the day-to-day life of Interabang and other independent developers -- even ones with finished products on their resume. It's a struggle to find investment. It's a struggle to attract media attention. It's even a struggle to simply get people to understand that you actually have a job.

"When you're working at home, people don't take it seriously that you're working," Woodward says. "Maybe there's not a check coming in, but we're doing things."

That perception is compounded by the fact that they all left relatively stable careers to follow their passion.

After college (all four graduated from the Art Institute of San Diego), Woodward got into graphic design, Sauquillo and Washington worked on Sony's MLB series, and Callahan performed printer quality assurance for HP.

They're hoping the scheme will convince naysayers that what they're doing is worthwhile. It already has, in some ways; Woodward says they've been in talks with some investors, and they've finally managed to get their families on board.

Still, they had trouble articulating to people just why joining the program was so important to Interabang.

"People were saying, 'You're not getting paid by IGN!?'" Woodward recalls. "But there are a lot of things worth more than the actual money. It's the networking and being in proximity to all of these people. And having the office space is just awesome." In San Diego, they each worked from home and had to communicate remotely. Now, Woodward says, his coworkers "can just look over the desk at me."


Evanatiks' Evan Ike and his partner, Randy Bares, are here working on their first title, an online tactics game similar to Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics mixed with the trading-card elements of Pokémon. (The team also includes Nathan Christie, who works off-site.)

The program has helped the two improve communication between each other. Previously, they worked remotely, and Ike's art background combined with Bares' programming history meant that they often had difficulty getting on the same page.

"When I'm talking about value, I'm talking about shadows," Ike says. "When he's talking about value, he's talking about numbers. When you're here face-to-face, you can make gestures, you can draw things on napkins and show it to them."

For his part, Bares enjoys the focus that the program allows. Like many independent developers, he takes on freelance work to pay the bills, which means that he rarely has time to concentrate solely on the game.

"It's nice to say, 'This is the only thing I have to think about today,'" he admits.

Evanatiks' Horizon

Runt, Inc.

Runt, Inc. formed just over a year ago, when Tobias Batton teamed up with longtime friend Richard Horne to make an indie game, despite one small problem: Neither one of them had done much coding.

That's not to say they lack experience. Batton, a serial entrepreneur, has plenty of small-business acumen, and Horne's background as an artist at 2K/Visual Concepts allowed them to quickly define the look and feel of their project. They also brought on Horne's brother, a musician, to score the soundtrack and write the script.

Eventually, Batton says, they solved the coding conundrum: "We downloaded Unity and just started making things as we were defining them conceptually."

The result is a currently untitled parkour-based action-platformer with what Horne calls an "old-school NES mentality" to difficulty. "Let's make this game real tough," Horne recalls telling Batton, "and have people maybe break a few phones here and there."

Batton and Horne applied to Indie Open House to bring some structure to their workdays and avoid the many distractions that plagued them while working from home.

"I've put out a lot of SKUs not as an indie," Horne says, "and I know the amount of dedication and effort and willpower to drag something across the finish line is tough. I think that's what we're dealing with right now. We know what we're doing; we've got that locked down. We just need to do it and finish it."

"We were working in a vacuum before," Horne says. Seeing the response their game has generated among the other development teams has convinced them that there's a legitimate interest in what they're doing. In Horne's words, "You want to know you're not drinking your Kool-Aid."

Batton sees a value in the program beyond their current project. "One of the big things for any game, no matter what platform you're making it on, is distribution," he says. "A lot of these -- you have to know people there if you're an indie. Well, now we know people."

More than that, he's excited to maintain relationships with the other developers in the program. Batton and Horne have already become close with Cryptic Sea's Alex Austin and Evanatiks' Randy Bares, who's been using his real-life parkour skills to help Runt, Inc. nail the climbing and jumping aspects of their game.

Horne agrees. "It's almost like a graduating class," he says. "We're here with these guys, and as they develop and we develop, we're able to grow with them and see how they do in the future... You never know who one day is going to blow up."

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About the Author(s)

Brett Bates


Brett Bates is the managing editor of Bitmob.com, a community-driven video game editorial and blogging site. He has appeared on the video shows CO-OP and Press Pause, and he is a regular member of Bitmob's podcast, the Mobcast. His work can also be found in Electronic Gaming Monthly and the Indie Game Magazine.

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