Gimmie Indie Games DIY Designers Make A Mark

Gimmie Indie Games DIY Designers Make A Mark
Gaming may be a multi-bazillion dollar biz based on ever-advancing technology, but the definitive moment at the recent Game Developer’s Conference came courtesy of brightly coloured balloons. Real ones.

During February’s annual gather in San Francisco, a number of game gurus participated in a public rant session. Most offered the expected gripes — one challenged peers to add emotion to their programs; another complained about internet-fuelled fan overreactions; a third demanded intellectual titles for adult gamers. But what will be remembered was Jonathan Mak’s "rant.” The 25-year-old Torontonian — and CEO of one-man company Queasy Games — simply handed out balloons covered in slogans like "1point” and "I am a misunderstood robot." Instead of nodding in agreement or shaking heads in communal disgust, the crowd just started playing. With no instruction, little money and staggeringly simplistic gameplay, Mak had created instant joy.

The unspoken lesson was equally simple — you don’t need a big budget triple-A title to give gamers the fun they crave. He should know; after all Mak’s trigger-happy music game Everyday Shooter, a homemade interactive rock album where each shot essentially adds a song element, has become a hit download for Sony’s PS3 and one of the flagships of the indie gaming scene, a DIY movement that has unexpectedly exploded with the arrival of the now-gen consoles.

"This scene that we’re in today is actually pretty good,” mutters Mak about his rant. "There’s no reason to get angry.” Mak sees the rise of indie gaming as being similar to that of punk — as commercial games become overblown and over-polished, people crave the realness of smaller games with charming flaws. "A lot of interesting things happen in the indie space because in the mainstream those publishers employ tons of people so if they mess up people lose jobs. Whereas with indie games, it’s like we’re just going to make games we think are cool.”

Indie gaming isn’t new by any means, but for much of its history it was relegated to computers, which are open-source, as opposed to closed consoles. In 2004, programmer Tom Fulp and artist Dan Paladin migrated their online flash game Alien Hominid to consoles. But though the hand-drawn side-scroller was critically acclaimed, it bombed sales-wise. Maybe the price was too high for what it was, or perhaps retailers preferred to devote valuable shelf space to shit they knew would sell. But last year the game staged a comeback as an Xbox Live Arcade download where the price point didn’t need to cover manufacturing and there was no shelf space to worry about.

Thanks to now-gen console hard drives, Sony’s PlayStation Network and Microsoft’s XBLA (Nintendo’s WiiWare download store will open for business mid-May) indie developers can compete with the big boys. Hell, while Sony’s big budget titles like Lair were being savaged by critics, acclaim poured in for Jenova Chen’s flOw which has been the top-selling PSN game since launch. With a groundbreaking player-controlled difficulty design, this Zen game involving underwater microorganisms went from graduate thesis project to the PS3 and Mak says it could be the Arcade Fire or Pulp Fiction of indie gaming.

"[The consoles are] certainly a new avenue but it still takes a shitload of money to put your game on PSN or XBLA,” Mak says. "I’ve been lucky in having the opportunity to go through PSN, but I get emails a lot asking how do I get on this? Even I don’t know how. All I know is that someone from Sony looked at my game and thought ‘Yeah, let’s put this on.’”

Well, it sure helps to win awards at GDC’s Independent Gaming Festival, as Everyday Shooter did in 2007 and Metanet’s flash-based N did in 2005. The latter game, since upgraded to N+ for XBLA, is a 2D platformer inspired by old-school classic Lode Runner. Starring stylized stick ninjas and evil robots, N+ boasts advanced ragdoll physics despite intentionally low-tech graphics — one review declared it "a triumph of minimalism” — and boasts not only 300 levels, but a built-in editor so gamers can add their own.

It, too, was conceived in Toronto by Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns, who incidentally introduced Mak to the indie scene (via a burnt compilation disc titled "Best Games Ever”) when all three were students at U of T.

"Metanet Software is just two people. We were founded in 2001 and incorporated in 2004 because we thought that would be funny,” deadpans Sheppard. "It’s not really so funny, but it’s worked out pretty well because it means we can work with Microsoft. We just wanted to create a forum where we could make our own games. We didn’t want to be cogs in some huge game corporation.”

This plan was enabled by government funding from Telefilm, which meant they didn’t have to go through a publisher and could retain ownership of their intellectual property. "We wanted to have creative control. But we’re not very professional, we’re really laidback and totally indie — so it’s a challenge.”

Still, they’re more professional than the hobbyists and homebrewers Microsoft is enabling with its XNA Creators Club. At the Game Developers Conference, Microsoft announced it would be distributing free software that would enable folks at home to not only build their own games (which they’ve been able to do for a while now) but also share them via Xbox Live. While not a full-blown dev kit, XNA Game Studio worked pretty well for the initial run of demos, including James Silva’s hilariously violent side-scroller Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. However, though the software is free, Creator’s Club membership will cost $99 annually. Eventually, the best of these DIY games will be for sale in XBL’s Marketplace.

It’s yet another opportunity for aspiring developers to get into the game, all of which helps the Big Three console makers because it garners street cred amongst hardcore gamers while nurturing young, innovative talent and acting as a farm team for the next generation of game auteurs.

"It’s a better time to be developing as an indie,” Sheppard says. "The popularity of Live Arcade and PSN is incredible. It’s great to get our little indie game out to a wide audience because, well, we think it’s awesome. Along with XNA and being able to play flash games on Wii and PS3, it’s nice to have all these options other than PC, Mac and selling out.”