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GDC 09: The Indie Game Maker Rant

5:40 PM on 03.24.2009 // Anthony Burch

Imagine a dozen indie game devs in the same room at the same time, each given exactly five minutes to rant about anything on their minds. If it sounds enlightening, entertaining, and relatively difficult to cover if you're a crappy journalist on a laptop with a low battery life, you're correct on all counts.

Steve Swink (IGS organizer), Phil Fish (Kokoromi, Fez), Heather Kelley (Kokoromi), Erin Robinson (Wadjet Eye Games), Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns (Metanet), Kellee Santiago (thatgamecompany), Petri Purho (Kloonigames), Mark Johns (Doomlaser), Chris Lobay (Infinite Ammo), and Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harey (Tale of Tales) all had something interesting to say, and after the jump I will attempt to, with varying degrees of success, convey the general gist of each of their rants. 

I've also reached my comma quota for the day.


Phil Fish – one of the minds behind Fez, organizer of the rant collection, and someone who perfectly matches my mental image of what an american Doctor Who would look like – introduced the first speaker, Heather Kelley of Kokoromi.

Heather's rant was called “Games to get her off: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the female orgasm (game).” Heather created a 2005 game called Lapis for MIGS that is a female masturbation training simulation game” that uses a blue bunny character on the DS touch screen where you stimulate the bunny in right areas and “take it to its happy place. Four years later, people still ask Heather when Lapis is coming out, not understanding that it isn't really a full-fledged game – indies aren't actually trying to legitimately appeal to women or sexual aspects of the female condition in a way that isn't perverted.

“Can you imagine a bunch of guys saying 'I can't figure out how to jerk off?'” Kelley asked. This remains a problem for many women, however.

Women are still interested in having orgasms, Kelley argues, from Oprah to Sex and the City back to Lapis. The game can't actually get on the DS, however, because of Nintendo content filters. The iPhone, however, interests her. There are still difficult “gatekeepers” to overcome with the iPhone or Android, but it's worth looking at games that can “actually, physically get you off” like Rez's trance vibrator. “We need to make good at the promise of that technology,” Kelley states.

Kelley showcased a tool called the OhMiBod, a vibrator that can be plugged into iPods or can feed off the simple audio sounds around you and vibrate in time to them. The content possibilities for integrating this stuff with actual games are very interesting. In closing, Kelley admitted that she didn't know exactly where she was going with the idea, but that it'd be a “very interesting development process.”

Mark Johns, Doomlaser: He made a game called Shit Game, which makes him feel qualified to answer the question, “can games be art?” The answer is yes, obviously, because art is “something that people do” in a medium that is relevant. Creating an exploration space for the player via rules provides the potential for art. After reminding us of Roger Ebert's position on games as art, he mentioned that he actually spoke with Ebert about this, asking how one would convince someone centuries ago that the pornographic animations in nickelodeons would eventually be high art, which Ebert admitted was a good argument before dismissing it entirely later.

People who think that games aren't art will die off pretty soon, Johns argues, citing increased media attention toward indie games.

Steve Swink, IGF organizer: Ethical Game Design. “I was gonna make a total sweet artgame but I'm not Cactus so I couldn't make it in time.” Indie game designers live in an age of unparalleled freedom in terms of national freedom, political freedom, personal freedom (illustrated by a slide of a guy in a fursuit), yet we almost invariably end up being fat, lazy, and stupid.

Ethical game design is about doing worthwhile activities. If you're going to make a game, don't make a game that “wastes peoples' fucking time.” Don't make the videogame equivalent of fast food. There's having better hand-eye coordination – Swink argues that playing Counterstrike gave him the reflexes to avoid a car accident earlier – but there's more to be done. There's an argument that being happy in and of itself is a good goal, but you could also argue that “a heroin addict is really unhappy when they're not shooting heroin.” Swink thinks that if you design games you should design them with a moral compass because “sometimes people forget their children and they die in sweaty closets, and that's all.”

Chris Lobay, Infinite Ammo: Chris went to film school and thus decided to talk about auteur theory, which asks critics to look at films as the creative vision of a sole director. Lobay feels this should be applied more frequently to games, because after the 80's auteurs like Wright and Miyamoto there haven't been that many to pop up with interesting personal visions between then and now where the mainstream is concerned. There are, however, tons of auteurs in the indie scene. Two or three people could be considered a collective auteur of their own indie game.

Lobay says he got into indie games because every indie game he's ever played hits him with a very strong, personal opinion that teaches him “more about the world and more about other people” in the way he wants movies and books to hit him. People should look more for games that are from individuals for these reasons. There are gray areas where the teams get bigger and certain members of those teams try to push for certain things but don't get the attention or fame, but publishers, in Lobay's opinion, need to support these indie auteurs more often than they have been doing. Again drawing a line to Hollywood, movie companies used to back up their eccentric little auteur directions. “I want to see stuff that I hate, I want to see stuff that I totally disagree with.”

Erin Robinson, Wadjet Eye Games: Robinson discussed humor in games, citing the TIGSource retro demake competition as inspiration. She found the games legitimately funny, but couldn't understand why more games didn't try to follow these avenues. Mainstream games try to be funny, but they have work to do.

Robinson then did a dramatic reading of the greatest dialogue exchange from Gears of War 2: “there's a shitload of locust down there.” “More like ten shitloads.” After the laughter died down, Robinson said, “I can tell you how much money went into this game:," followed by a slide reading, “SHIT-TONNES.”

Robinson brought up some of her favorite “funny” games like Crayon Physics Deluxe, LittleBigPlanet, and Noby Noby Boy. She also finds user-generated content inherently funny, citing all the soulless Star Wars/Star Trek/Starship Troopers ripoffs in Spore.

Robinson moved onto satire, citing PETA's Cooking Mama: Mama Kills Animals. “I couldn't really understand why they chose a game to illustrate their point, but it got a lot of attention...I kind of get it,” but she didn't get Majesco's response to PETA. “They felt the need to explain that their fictional character did not harm any fictional animals.”


Both members of Tale of Tales: What are independent games independent of? Publishers, developers, quality time spent with one's loved ones? The powerpoint kept on like this – independent of play, addiction, art? – with Samyn and Auriea alternating every bullet point as piano music grew louder and louder from the computer speakers. The lecture continued in this vein and didn't really say anything terribly enlightening, but got pretty consistent laughs (my favorite slide: a picture of a cat wearing a monocle, explained by Samyn as “the TIGSource forums”).

Kellee Santiago: What comes after you recognize games are art? Santiago argues that you have to admit they have an impact on us, as all media does. The growth of radio and TV seems to suggest that these mediums were developed under the assumption that media doesn't have an impact on us, which is why crap like Keeping Up With the Kardashians got greenlit. These shows are “honoring...superficial actions and ways of being.” Santiago wonders if we can decide, right now, where to take the medium of games and undo what TV and other popular media forms have turned into.

Current indies could be “the future of the industry,” and thus Santiago feels it'd be interesting to get all these people together and, in her words, “pull all these little flames together, start a bonfire, and set the industry aflame.”

Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard from Metanet each took two-and-a-half minute mini-sessions. Mare focused on the importance of demos. Trailers are inaccurate, she said, and can be dishonest. A game developer knows that demos provide good feedback and sales, but that they also take a great deal of time. For the consumer, however, demos are an opportunity to try before one buys, and vote with one's wallet rather than blindly spending money on a game they've never actually played.

Raigan's “rant” was really more a series of optimistic suggestions for indie developers who insist on working in 3D. Raigan's simplification techniques might not only make things easier to handle computationally speaking, but could also provide interesting gameplay. First, he asked: what if you made a game where all the character models and environments were made of boxes? It'd make texturing easier, it'd look interesting and, as Rumble Box proved, can be conducive to really interesting gameplay. Or, what about nonphotorealistic rendering techniques other than cell shading? NPR Quake, a simple hacked version for Quake 3 which makes the renderer draw the graphics in unique, sketchy styles, looks damn cool and requires no extra effort of the engine. Finally, Burns argued that post-processing procedures were being woefully underused by 3D designers. In mainstream games, the designers spend 90% of their time on making super-sexy realistic graphics then spend very little time using post-processing which leads to boring repeated bloom effects. He showed a screenshot from ASCII Quake, which is exactly what it sounds like, and looks as cool as it does because all the graphical effort went into the post-processing.

Phil Fish, Kokoromi: Phil had a talk ready but his PC exploded, so he decided to try and take requests from the audience. The first request, “what is most important to you about Fez,” caused him to silently think for about twenty seconds until finally admitting, “...this was really stupid.” Another audience member asked about the Independent Games Festival, however, which launched Fish into a spirited rant against PixelJunk Eden's inclusion in the IGF. The IGF judges had evidently been arguing about whether or not Eden was an indie game, which led to a discussion of what “indie” means in the first place. According to the IGF guidelines, participants must be self funded and developed in an independent spirit, which Fish acknowledged as laughably vague. Fish likes Eden, but has a problem with “a guy who fucking made Star Fox” entering into an indie competition. How can Eden, Fish argued, be in the same competition as something like Blueberry Garden that was made by one guy in his room?

Winning an art award at last year's IGF awards made Fish's entire career, and he considers it important that that sort of boost be reserved for people who really need it. There are kids on TIGSource who can't even enter the IGF because they don't have $100 for the entry fee, whereas Q Games can spend that kind of money entirely without guilt. Fish also found that new Eden DLC is scheduled to be announced around IGF time, which led him to the conclusion that the game's submission was a cynical marketing ploy. At this point, Simon Carless, one of the Independent Game Summit advisors, went to the mic and explained that the Pixeljunk games were some of the first entered in the IGF and thus might not be deserving of all this ire. After getting the mic back, Phil mentioned that the real problem at the heart of his IGF rage is that there is no real definition of indie. Being an indie is a great point of pride to him, but the word doesn't hold up to any scrutiny; “the word falls apart, it's meaningless, and that makes me sad.”

Petri Purho went last with the absurdly ambitious goal of creating a game in five minutes. He considered this “the most indie-est thing” he could possibly do for his rant. Audience members had written a bunch of random game ideas down on pieces of paper and Petri promised that he would try to make a game out of the first suggestion. The first suggestion turned out to be “Peggles,” which received a round of boos both for its derivativeness and the fact that the extra “S” made no sense. The next suggestion, “ragdolls,” almost received similar treatment until Petri decided to conflate the two and make “Ragdoll Peggle.” Petri had done some ragdoll work before in his monthly prototypes, so he began copying and pasting code from an old archive in his framework.

Three minutes,” he was warned. “FUCK!,” Petri shouted. “This was the worst idea ever!” Petri tried to compile the code, but error messages swamped the bottom half of the screen. After adding some quick fixes, Petri ran the code he'd copied and the audience cheered as a single, wireframe ragdoll person fell from the top of an application screen and crumpled awkwardly on the ground. He was only halfway done, however, and, with only one minute left, Petri stood up and pounded on his keyboard, typing code at the speed of goddamned light, opening and closing windows quickly enough to induce a seizure. With 30 seconds left, Petri, his head banging back and forth in effort and parody, screamed: “I can't do it! Cactus, help me!” With that, Jonatan “Cactus” Soderstrom approached from the sidelines, stood by Petri, and motioned toward the keyboard. Petri typed for a few more seconds, compiled the code, and executed the program.

And there it was: Ragdoll Peggle, with spontaneously polished art, and a point system. The crowd went apeshit and began to laugh.

And I felt like a total idiot, because I don't know if it was a prank or not. I know literally nothing about programming so I couldn't tell if I was supposed to be laughing at how obviously Petri had rigged the situation and activated a premade game at the last moment , or amazed that he'd actually done it. His scream to Cactus felt a little too theatrical not to be scripted, but hey – this is the guy who created Crayon Physics Deluxe. Maybe he did really do it.

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