We Built Glitch City: Lessons learned by LA's indie dev collective

A group of L.A.-based indie developers have gained more than they ever thought they would by uniting to form Glitch City, a development collective they jokingly refer to as the "indie Voltron."
The practice of creators banding together to support each other is nothing new — artists, writers and artisans have been doing it for centuries. But it’s somewhat new to game development, and among the practice’s pioneers are a group of L.A.-based indie developers who have united under the banner of Glitch City, a development collective they jokingly spoke of at GDC Next today as the “indie Voltron.” Glitch City was founded in early 2013, when a group of indie game makers signed a two-year lease on a commercial space in Culver City and established a permanent coworking space for game makers. Donut County developer and Glitch City cofounder Benjamin Esposito says he started taking the idea of an "indie collective" seriously after working with some friends on another project out of a shared space. "I just felt like it would be really cool to get developers and artists together so we could do this all the time," said Esposito, adding that he's been much more motivated to make games since establishing Glitch City. Esposito was speaking as part of a panel session at GDC Next in Los Angeles, alongside Glitch City members Sam Farmer (Last Life), Akira Thompson (Stop! Thief!!!), Asher Vollmer (Threes), and Teddy Diefenbach (Hyper Light Drifter). "I didn't have problems with motivation, so much as I was going stir-crazy," noted Diefenbach, explaining why he made an effort to stop working from his bedroom and found the collective.

The perks of communal development

"I like the accountability of it, personally,” said Diefenbach. He does his best game development work when he can talk through his projects with others, in part because he then feels compelled to deliver on what he’s talking up. Having a small group of people he can talk to about game ideas without having to officially "announce" or "launch" anything is freeing. "I can be very open within the confine of the 20 people in this space." "What I like about Glitch is how connected I feel to this community; you guys all see what I’m working on," agreed Vollmer. "Indies are always in such diaspora, traveling to all these conferences around the world. When indies come to L.A. they come to Glitch, and that helps us really define what the L.A. indie scene is all about. I feel very validated by that." The collective has roughly doubled in size in the past year and a half; it's now nearly twenty members strong, and new developers are welcome to express interest but carefully screened by Glitch City members before being asked to take part. "Right now our policy is like, if you see someone interesting who you think would be a good fit for the space, the onus is on you to bring them in and introduce them," said Esposito; Vollmer quickly added that Glitch City and other coworking spaces need to take pains to avoid the "Rolodex problem" by taking pains to actively reach out to a diverse array of developers and artists. Esposito agreed, and noted that indie developers establishing collectives need to take something as ephemeral as "workspace culture" as seriously as any big studio.

Mistakes to avoid

"One of the mistakes we made when forming Glitch was not establishing the culture we wanted upfront, with like a manifesto or something," added Esposito. "Now, when we meet new people, we don’t have an easy way to communicate what we’re about." On the other hand, Glitch City ran into trouble in trying to duplicate the workflow of a typical studio by holding regular check-in meetings. "It was terrible," notes Diefenbach, who says they had much more successful (and enjoyable) meetings when they started approaching them like "family dinners" where everyone could hang out, eat and informally check up on what everyone else in the space was doing. "The family dinner isn’t meant to be a responsibility," added Farmer, and that's why he found it so much more enjoyable in a collective atmosphere where all members are equal. "It’s meant more to be a chance for everyone to get together, hang out and see each other." And that often leads directly to new projects; the members of Glitch City say that working together allows them shore up each other's professional weaknesses and embark on new projects that would have been impossible before they joined the collective. "Glitch City has enabled me to do things I couldn’t do before," said Vollmer; one of his current projects is a multiplayer game that he couldn't have attempted without guidance from other multiplayer-savvy developers in the group. And while Vollmer prefers to focus more on his work than on the business of organizing and running Glitch City, he says that developers shouldn't be worried about getting distracted from their work by the demands of a collective; he's gotten far more out of his participation in events like family dinners and community game nights than he puts in. Vollmer also says the collective's role in helping to define L.A.'s indie game culture has been more rewarding than he expected, and his fellow Glitch City members seem to agree. "I feel like Glitch City has become an anchor for me, in business decisions and career decisions," said Diefenbach. "When I was by myself, I don’t know what to do with ideas. Glitch gives me an enclosed space to share them." "And to make sure you keep your sanity while you're working," chimed in Esposito. "Making sure you keep your spirits high; that's been the biggest benefit of Glitch City." You can catch up on Gamasutra's GDC Next coverage all in one location. GDC and Gamasutra are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.

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