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GDC 2012: 10 indies, 10 ways to think outside the box

The Independent Games Summit closed with a "soapbox" session, where ten indie developers each offered a thought or idea devoted to helping improve the community and its games -- and about thinking in new ways.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

March 6, 2012

12 Min Read

The Indie Soapbox session at GDC is theoretically a "rant session," but "rant" is generally a misleading prompt for some, says host Matthew Wegner (pictured). Instead, he asked 10 indies to share what's on their mind and what their anxieties are. The result was a fast-paced but fascinating session of condensed ideas on what indies need — as creators, innovators and as a community — to transcend current limitations and address common problems. From 10 speakers came 10 pieces of passionate advice. Innovate Better Lazy 8's Rob Jagnow made Extrasolar, a game about land rovers — and is fatigued of being asked about "how rovers kill each other." We've built up assumptions about games over years that tend to box us in, constrain our thoughts and limit our ideas, he says: "We made this box; it's ours. So if we want to, we can think outside this box, we can reshape this box, we can destroy this box. That is our option." That's not to say there's no innovation going on in the game space: they just aren't quite in the right spots. Innovations occur in promotion, but it focuses on putting applications into top ten lists in a fashion where quality becomes irrelevant. Cloning what works is a rampant strategy, and companies pay to out-promote one another. "You innovate and you get cloned; you fail to innovate and you get ignored," he says. So what can indies do? They can innovate in form, in ways that will be protected by copyright and set the games apart from competitors. Aesthetic, story and characters aren't steal-able and make games stand out. Another solution is to take giant risks — high risk design behaviors tend to set products far apart from the idea-stealers and static market leaders. Constraint is one way to help engender innovation, Jagnow asserts; for example, in an era with more console buttons than ever, the idea that you can make a game with one button created a hit like Canabalt. Even the idea that there must be a screen is an assumption that, when discarded, results in fascinatingly innovative games, such as IGF nominee Johann Sebastian Joust. Think Like A Web Developer Eliss and Faraway creator Steph Thirion has only been in game development for about three years; his background is in web development. He shared the story of 37signals, developer of the Ruby on Rails language whose roots were in the goal not only of productivity, but "to be happy and to enjoy programming." In other words, the co-founders placed their professional future in an obscure language for the sake of their own happiness — which might seem like a "suicidal" move, but now Ruby on Rails is used by thousands of companies. "Small shops have the ability to redefine the tools of their industry, because they still have the flexibility to think outside of the box," says Thirion. Tools from small houses have ended up remaking the landscape of web development — why is this not happening in game development? Dozens of games use the Flash game library Flixel, for example, but Thirion wonders. "who's working on making Flixel better?" If the indie community got out of the mindset of "solving our short term problems as they come" and instead toward the goal of creating better abstractions in tools, a wider array of simpler toolsets and scripts for the long term. Thinking like web developers — creating and improving toolsets and generating a more active and open-source community — can actually reinvigorate and empower the indie community, he argues. "We should have tools that make us more productive; that make us happier… that we have control on, that we improve, and no one else knows better what these tools should look like than us. A movement like that must come from us, the people in this room," he concluded. Can The Ego Although he admits he might be liked less for speaking up, Time Donkey and Blurst developer Ben Ruiz says evolution in the indie community may need to come from honest self-evaluations of some of its personalities. Stressing that he doesn't intend to identify particular individuals — rather "the independent games community as a whole" — he urged everyone to "quit being so fucking egocentric. It's completely out of control," says Ben Ruiz. "We end up not being able to metabolize the essence of others that contrast with us… how fast can we grow when we behave like this?" He pointed out the tendency to speak in absolutes, as well as the virulent distaste for the mainstream game industry. The low-hanging fruit, like popular complaints about Zynga's soullessness or EA's laziness, is destructive and short-sighted, to say nothing of the personality conflicts among indies. "Look at the discussions that happen every time IGF happen each year… over and over and over again just because there are contrasting viewpoints, and it's so silly." Adds Ruiz: "It becomes so much personal when we're all in the same space with one another… it's almost like an affront on one's very being." Indies have philosophies and core values in common, and can benefit from the removal of "walls that don't need to be there." The IGF Is Not Going To Make You On a similar theme, Mikengreg's Mike Boxleiter spoke up about some of the "drama" circulating the IGF — he disputes the common idea that the IGF "makes" stars, in the wake of the narrative arc presented by Indie Game: The Movie. The idea that the festival makes an indie's life perfect is a myth, he insists: "The only reason that Fez is anything is because the [people on that project]… didn't give up for five fucking years. That is what makes you a superstar. It's giving everything that you have, every day." For Boxleiter, his previous IGF win with Solipskier was hardly a blip on the radar of his career. "I gave my pitch document to Shigeru Miyamoto in the hallway; he signed it and politely bowed and walked away," he joked. "The IGF shouldn't be as big a deal as it is… it gets you a lot of press, and it's cool to have your announcement be with the IGF because it shows you've got some big balls," he asserts. "But it's just an award show. And a lot of people are saying we have to preserve how the IGF 'brings up' small indies, but it totally doesn't do that." He thought Jon Blow's simple advice — "just make a great game" — was elitist and exclusive, but he now agrees with the Braid creator. "If you have something you want to show other people, you're just going to have to work your ass off," Boxleiter concludes. Explain Games In A Way That Even An Asshole Can Understand Gunpoint developer Tom Francis comes from a writing background, and advises that explaining games is very difficult to get right. "I've been explaining other people's games for eight years," he says. One can't assume the reader is a "reasonable, intelligent human being," he jokes. "In the worst case scenario, your reader might be me, and I'm an asshole." Many creators mistakenly assume that their games speak for themselves, and simply release screenshots and trailers. Or they assume that the description of artistic intent is enough — but those elements don't have anything to do with how to play the game or what makes it interesting. Explaining the plot won't do, either, and nor will hyperbolic adjectives. Developers that describe their games as "innovative" don't sound innovative — "they think, 'oh wow, they sound like a tool,'" says Francis. Start instead with the type of game — "summarize drastically," and get to the coolest unique thing about it. Provide context of who the player is and what he or she is trying to do. Describe a moment the player can experience that's typical of the game. "Most of your readers aren't assholes… but reasonable people still respond better to writing that doesn't waste their time… to gratify the writer's pretensions," says Francis. Don't Be Afraid To Stick Your Neck Out Antichamber creator Alex Bruce shared the story of a random day in Shibuya where he suddenly decided to chase a stranger down and introduce himself. He had bailed on his university work to go and speak at TGS about his Unreal Tournament mod, and recognized then-IGF chairman Simon Carless in a crowd. After some hesitance, Bruce ran up to Carless and introduced himself, discussed Sense of Wonder Night and mentioned working outside of Australia; Carless advised him to meet The Behemoth and Q Games' Dylan Cuthbert at the event. In the event program, he noticed Epic president Mike Capps was speaking, and despite missing half the session, he decided to take a risk and try to talk to the man. "I knew that if I didn't at least try to talk to him, I would regret that decision," says Bruce. Expecting to be brushed off, he instead got to talk to Capps about the then-unannounced Unreal Development Kit, and Capps promised to put him in touch with sales VP Mark Rein. He realized at that moment that "everyone is just another person;" he went on to meet Steve Swink and a number of other colleagues that encouraged him to go independent. "Despite people in Australia telling me that I was wasting my time, in Japan I'd met someone… who was telling me I was onto something," he says, deciding to attend GDC and subsequently – after winning Make Something Unreal – deciding to make the leap into an indie career. "The desire to always make the most of whatever situation I'm in and not talk myself out of whatever opportunities before I've even tried... is the reason I'm here today," he says. His success wasn't about lucky enough to have been in Japan — it was about seizing and chasing down minor moments, and being willing to take risks big and small. Your Tech Is More Than A Tool Tool users tend to take the path of least resistance, says Metanet's Raigan Burns. For example, one only had a marble and a chisel, one would never make a painting — games are heavily bound aesthetically by the limitations of their technology. "There's a tendency to consider the computer to be a generic tool," he says. But thinking differently about it — like a musical instrument — helps tech become an integral part of the entire creative work. There are more ways to represent shapes than most developers use. "What if every musician only played guitar… ultimately you're all in the same parameter space," Burns says. Seek Inspirational Visuals Maquette's Hanford Lemoore says there isn't much in video games that looks like his favorite works of art. We avoid the uncanny valley in games, for example, but the Royal De Luxe theater company's eerie-eyed puppet dolls are beautiful and fascinating art objects because they embrace it. And games focus on rational architecture, but absurd, textured places are extremely compelling. "I'm not just talking about visual inspiration for your art style… there's all sorts of things in real life that can do that for you," he says. Lemoore saves all kinds of Images that he finds creatively stimulating, but they only help if you find a way to proactively expose yourself to things that inspire you. This is fairly simple to do, he says, explaining how he made a primitive screen saver tool that kept the images visible and fresh, and a dropbox account that could house all of his inspirations. Instead of using sketchbooks and tucking them away, he pins notecards and pictures to his wall so that they're always in his view. It influences not only him, but his friends and coworkers, and has the effect of encouraging him to seek out further inspiration and things he can keep from his environment. Proactively seeking out inspirational visuals is a simple but potent creative tool. Game Development Is For Everyone Mike Meyer is the organizer of the all-inclusive IGF Pirate Kart talked about GloriousTrainwreck.com, founded in the philosophy of old-school train wrecks orchestrated simply so they could be compelling spaces to people. There are communities of people who make games, and it's important to continue including others. That was what Meyer most wanted to enforce — that while many indies might seem like "unapproachable nerds… we'd love to have you." Indies should do more to encourage new voices, he suggests. The "Pirate Rant" — the manifesto of the Kart's contributors — plead for everyone to stop fearing fun, to finish their games, and remove anything that's in the way of their development, among other nuggets of advice. "Don't just fucking sit there — help or encourage someone to make a game," he concluded. Think In Endless Dimensions Fez developer Phil Fish recently had a conversation with comic book artist James Harvey, from which he took away a particularly interesting idea about comics: that they allow the viewer to see across time all at once — what Harvey meant by that, says Fish, was that by breaking down a series of moments across a page, the viewer gets an almost godlike view of the action. "I thought that was really interesting," he says, inspired to think about how this metaphysical take on comics applied to games. Video games, by logic, is a 3D media object with many possible outcomes depending on inputs. "In games, engaging with the medium changes the medium — different things happen in different times," Fish says. "You project yourself in time… you consider many different outcomes all at once." "The media itself… becomes this fractal, and you consider all these different versions of that same piece of media," says Fish. "It's like a giant cloud of possibilities, of which you can only ever materialize a small slice."

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About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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