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GDC: Analyzing Innovation in Indie Games

Wild and disparate presentation styles backlit impassioned voices on innovation in independent game development during the Independent Games Summit at GDC, as the creators of fl0w, Braid, and Everyday Shooter discussed the state of the indie
Monday afternoon continued in high style at the Independent Games Summit, as Jonathan Blow, Kyle Gabler, Jon Mak, Jenova Chen, and moderator Steve Swink of Flashbang Studios gathered in a panel looking at the space and place for innovation in independent game development. All were extremely excited as they delivered impassioned speeches to an attentive audience. Gabler, of Experimental Gameplay Project fame, began by taking the audience on a wild ride through predictions of the future, from life lived continuously in virtual reality to computers wired directly to the senses. Computing power in the next 25 to 35 years will exceed our ability to use it. For Gabler, this is comforting. “As computing power become ubiquitous, the only thing left is artistic expression,” rather than concentrating on creating new technology. Innovation will always happen, he’s certain. “The sad thing is that it probably won’t be done by you or me, but by some kid with the pirated version of Photoshop and Visual Studio, and he won’t even know he’s innovating.” Chen, designer of the recently released Fl0w for PlayStation 3, focused on the importance of feelings, stating that people have to sate their appetites for various feelings. Throughout his presentation, Chen likened entertainment as a whole to food. “Entertainment can satisfy your needs for certain emotions with embarrassing yourselves under the constraints of society.” With that in mind, he stated the importance of designing based on feelings and emotions, rather than on features. Jon Mak, who created the IGF-nominated Everyday Shooter, maintained that innovation is not what’s important in the games industry. He thinks that while mainstream game makers have a problem in being the same as everyone else, indies have a problem in trying to be different. “It’s still based on what everyone else thinks.” Mak believes independent game developers should strive to make “pieces based on your heart and not the hearts of a thousand others.” Jonathan Blow continued along the lines of the previous presenters, by stating that innovation is not required for a work to be great. In fact, innovation can be used just to distract the audience, in which case it’s merely a gimmick. Gimmicks don’t create great art. “But even the mainstream game industry can’t do gimmicks, and isn’t that sad?” For Blow, innovation is important because it helps the game industry explore new territory, and working within this explored territory is no bad thing. Swink asked the panelists to offer concise takeaways to the audience, resulting in some fantastically different approaches. Blow asked developers to focus on finding the idea that has to be made more than simply good ideas. Gabler insisted that developers not fall in love with their ideas as the make lots and lots of different games. Mak told the audience, "Don't innovate, go home, play a bunch of games, figure out which ones you like, and make a game based on that.” Chen took a different approach, asking developers to look at the games industry as a whole. “If you love games, figure out the best way for you to contribute.” For Chen, this includes things like reviews and critiques, not just game design. As the panel ramped down, one audience member asked about why games still aren’t considered art like other media. Mak insisted that not being art is not a bad thing, while Blow said it’s largely because so much of what’s come before is not very good. Gabler answered by noting how when playing Space Quest IV, he was overwhelmed by the interactive world presented to him. “That feeling of wonderment is not something that I can just find... gosh, that’s art for me.”

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