GDC 10: the Indie Game Maker Rant

The final IGS talk I attended Wednesday, the Indie Game Maker Rant consisted of about a dozen extremely brief presentations by the likes of Adam Saltsman (Canabalt), Jonatan Soderstrom (aka Cactus), Anna Anthropy (aka Auntie Pixelante), Jarrad Woods (Captain Forever), Offworld editor Brandon Boyer, Randy Smith (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor), Nathan Vella (Critter Crunch), Craig D. Adams (Superbrothers), Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy), Robin Hunicke (thatgamecompany), Ryan O’Donnell (Area 5 media) and Babsi Lippe (Papermint).

Hit the jump for my (considerably less parenthetical) summary of the talk.

Adam Saltsman

No slides. Saltsman presented a written speech that he hadn’t memorized. Old school. Saltsman championed the new race and gender diversity in game development. Games don’t give out meaningless rewards at random intervals anymore. Gaming universities are no longer pointless vocational schools. Digital distribution is less predatory than the publisher model. We convinced Roger Ebert that games are an art form.


Nathan Vella

Why indies win, and mainstream loses. “Beards are not mandatory, but recommended” in indie groups. Mainstream focuses on competition, indies focus on love. But why does that matter?

“Everyone here is trying to drive quality up,” he said, illustrating this with a picture of a car. “Get it? Drive? Car? No?” Mainstream guys have to drive really hard schedules, and if you can’t abide by these oft-unreasonable schedules, you have a risk of getting shit on your face. On the indie side of development, there’s a risk of receiving presents.

Camaraderie = quality, Vella says. You don’t wake up worrying about getting shit on your face, indies help one another out, and indie games keep getting better. “We win,” Vella ended with, “and they lose.”

Ryan O’Donnell

Another canned speech. O’Donnell admits he’s not a game designer, but a journalist. “In general, the gaming press drives me nuts. So much of the writing is garbage, isn’t it?” Quality, in O’Donnell’s mind, has been set aside in favor of immediacy. It’s actually cause for celebration when you find a blog post without spelling errors.

Yet, he still has hope. Would it be insane to have journalists compare No More Heroes and the French New Wave? Would it be insane for journalists to get full access to studios, so that the actual process of development can be studied and discussed?

The number of journalists O’Donnell respects has increased, but most of those people are moving to game development. We’re losing not only all this potentially great and moving insightful game criticism, O’Donnell says, but also the possibility of keeping the industry honest. The money being poured into immediacy and attention-grabbing could easily be moved into editorial quality and simple web design.

O’Donnell urged the press to treat all games equally: they’re all competing for our time, from indie games to AAA games. They’re all important to the future of our medium. Don’t compartmentalize your indie coverage while devoting pages upon pages to God of War III. It works for O’Donnell – he gets a lot of messages from readers who are grateful to Area 5 for putting them on to new stuff.

Craig D. Adams

Adams’ talk was entitled, “Less talk, more rock: the native language of videogames can neither be spoken nor written.”

According to Jordan Mechner and Eric Chahi, Adams summarized, the process of game development breaks down into three stages. One: inspiration. Two: planning and talking. Three: doing it. Mechner and Chahi’s advice was to just skip talking and thinking, and just jump right into the design. “It’s awesome advice — I have yet to live it,” Adams admitted to some audience laughter. But that’s the kind of vibe you get from the works of indies like Messhof and Cactus.

“I wanna talk a little about Moses,” Adams said. Moses brought down the alphabet, he said, and we put the alphabet into books, and our civilization is based off books — “Moses is a good guy” —  but in focusing on literal scholarship, we lose out on something else. Adams compared a picture of a person to the word “dude.” “Your mind kinda goes in different directions,” Adams illustrated Talk can appeal to your intellect; pictures and music and interactivity can appeal to the other 90% of human experience.

Older games didn’t have tutorial tips or voiceovers or scripts — they just let you play, and experience. Miyamoto – or, in Adams’ words, “that guy who made that game about plumbers” — focused on the aesthetic aspects of play like the sound of coins, and the way blocks break. That’s what Adams would like to see more of.

Tommy Refenes

Refenes originally planned to do a talk about how being an indie means you can do what you wanna do, but he ultimately decided to go in a different direction: a discussion about the iPhone App Store. “I absolutely fucking hate the iPhone App store,” he said. Five months ago, Refenes started an experiment to prove the iPhone App store is garbage. Adam Saltsman may have gotten lucky with the App store, but the majority of people who work for it “kind of get screwed over.”

“My theory about the App store is that it is the Tiger handheld game of this generation,” Refenes said. He loved the Tiger handheld games, but they were horrible. “Honestly,” he asked, “who has beaten Mega Man 2 on the iPhone? Anybody? No. Anybody play all the way through Sonic on the iPhone? No.” Refenes is sure that Street Fighter sucks on the iPhone, because “it’s a fucking touchscreen.”

Anyway: the experiment. Saltsman and Refenes made a game called Zits & Giggles, and nobody bought it. Out of curiosity, Refenes raised the price to $15, and 3 people immediately bought it. Refenes raised the price to $50, and four people bought it. Refenes decided he’d raise it to $150, and keep raising the price after someone bought it.

Zits & Giggles currently costs $350 dollars.

When you get games like Street Fighter or Assassin’s Creed on the iPhone, Refenes argues, that’s just a bullshit way to sell a brand.  Just like the Tiger handhelds.

Robin Hunicke

Having worked at EA, Hunicke didn’t understand why she was being asked to speak as an indie. “Because you have tits,” organizer Phil Fish said. Hunicke used this anecdote as a jumping-off point for her talk, concerning diversity in game development.

Over the last five years, only five percent of game designers have been female.

According to Dr. Mary C Murphy, Hunicke said, there are many pragmatic reasons for having a diverse development team that have nothing to do with political correctness.

All-male design teams, for example, can make mistakes ranging from the creation of a video conferencing system that ignores women because the program can’t process female speech, to artificial heart valves that don’t fit into female bodies because the male engineers never thought about female dimensions.

Hunicke also cited several studies showing you have better creativity, performance, and organization if your team is more diverse.

Brandon Boyer

Brandon’s speech opened with a picture of a dog in a suit.

As a game journalist, he spends hours and hours a day reading the Internet. When you take in media like this, he argued, you begin to see a pattern emerge. A rumor broke out about the possibility of a UMD drive in the PSP Go, and everyone posted about it. Boyer then showed IGN’s article covering the news: it was two pages of pure conjecture followed by an update on the very, very bottom, explaining that Sony was never working on it and never would be.

But Boyer argued that there’s problem with videogame journalism, and that’s Seanbaby. “SEANBABY HAS RUINED VIDEOGAME JOURNALISM FOR AN ENTIRE GENERATION,” Boyer’s slideshow proclaimed.

Seanbaby taught people that all you need to be a journalist is, in Boyer’s words, “an Xbox and a sneer.” Journalism isn’t about surrealism and stupidity — it’s about informing the reader, and “if you’re not doing this, you’re wasting your time.” Seanbaby also helped create a cult of personality where the person covering the story is more important than the story itself, which is problematic.

The few blogs that do things “right” don’t really get a lot of traffic. This is an issue for the indies in the world, because they need the press to take them seriously.

Boyer expressed his desire that 2010 to be the year game journalists “sunk snark,” and moved forward with more sincerity.

In summary, he posted a picture of a lolcat wearing sunglasses with the caption, “fuck your bad vibes, bro.”

Randy Smith

Smith’s presentation was titled “GAMES ARE TOO FUCKING LONG.” As a kid, he could spend 8 horus playing games. He’s an adult now, and doesn’t have as much time to play videogames. Film takes only two hours — “the right amount of time for my lifestyle.” Games are 40 hours, but why should he spend 40 hours playing your game? Your story? “Most videogame stories are pretty crappy,” Smith argues. You might like the story of GTAIV, but if you watched all the cut scenes back to back, would that nine hour film still be compelling? Of course not — you’d leave the theatre. It’d be like watching all three Star Wars prequels back to back, Smith said.

Maybe players are supposed to spend 40 hours on your gameplay, but most games are derivative, and even more games pad their length by making you do the same basic stuff over and over again with slight upgrades to your weapons and enemies.

Five hours is a great game length for Smith. After he’s played five hours of a typical mainstream game, Smith feels that he’s pretty much fully explored the game mechanics. But unfortunately, “the game is usually arguing with me” – at the five hour mark, most games say that you’re only at the beginning of the adventure.

Why not just make the entire game five hours long?

Jarrad Woods

Rather than bitch for five minutes, Woods compressed his bitching into one minute. Indies should learn everything, because there are lots of disciplines of game development and you need to get them all working together to make a game really shine.

Go all in. “if you have an awesome idea, then don’t be embarrassed or shy about doing it properly.”

Share the love — not just amongst indies, but among the mainstream. quit arguing about whether games are art.

Differentiate gameplay from gimmicks. People calling different gameplay “gimmicky” really pisses him off: “if we start belittling attempts to innovate in this phase, we’re doing something really destructive.”

At this point, Woods asked anyone under the age of thirty to raise their hands. More than half of the audience did so. “BE OLDER,” Woods bellowed.

Moving onto the non-bitchy stuff, Woods presented a concept called nu-lo-fi. Lo-fi, meaning pixel art and chiptunes. We love these things because they’re cheap, restrictive, informative (pixelated sidescrollers don’t work as well as vector art sidescrollers). Nu-lo-fi is all of that, but new. Crayon Physics Deluxe is nu-lo-fi. The 3D bits of Fez are nu-lo-fi. Nu-lo-fi isn’t retro, which can elicit irritation from players, and it can allow you new settings and new gameplay.

Babsi Lippe

As an Austrian, Lippe needed to figure out what “rant” meant. Finding that the word was connected to intense anger, Lippe figured you have to really care about something to be angry enough to rant about it. Lippe subsequently decided to talk her own game, since nobody wanted to buy it for many years. After last year’s GDC, her team thought they’d found a publisher and that things were good. Unfortunately, they were forced to fire their entire staff. After  they were forced to fire their entire staff. after firing one of their employees, they found a video on his computer. Lippe played the video for the audience.

Created entirely using footage of Papermint gameplay, the video consisted of a bunch of characters crying in different game environments before eventually deciding to get up and meet other people and try new things, until finally sailing off into the horizon. I’m really not doing it justice through text – it was actually quite sad.

Eventually, Avaloop finally got a publishing deal and was able to rehire many people. After the game launched, however, The Sun ran a piece on the game depicting it as a “sex game” that encouraged children to get pregnant. Lippe felt incredibly depressed to spend so much time working on the game and watch a mainstream news outlet completely fail to get it, but she didn’t let it get to her because “luckily, nobody reads the Sun anyway.”

Anna Anthropy

Entitled “a Series of Rants,” Anthropy confessed that there were too many things she was angry about. She ranted that:

Videogames aren’t a medium, they’re a form, and games are the oldest cultural artifacts in experience. Digital games aren’t essentially different from the other games that have been around us for forever like board games, or hide n’ seek.

The term artgame implies that other games aren’t art, which is bullshit.

The “indie” label enables “scensterism,” which is an act of exclusion, when nonmainstream game design can potentially include everyone.

There are outsider musicians and outsider artists. Games will come into their own when anyone can create their own outsider games. More game tools need to develop that allow people to create games who aren’t already immersed in programming and gamer culture.

Storytelling in games has nothing to do with cut scenes and text: we need to start telling stories through rules and play rather than aping other cultural forms.

Videogames have lost the social aspect since the death of arcades, and we need to start looking at galleries and so on as new avenues for social gaming.

The mainstream games press is owned by the mainstream games industry. The enthusiast press give consumer reviews rather than criticism, when criticism is what games “desperately need.”

We need to develop a critical vocabulary to talk about our games. the language games journalists pass on to their readers is the language of marketing. “Stop saying ‘epic.’ Stop saying ‘win.’ Stop saying ‘fail.'”

Nobody knows how to teach game design.

The eighty-hour game is a dead-end because eighty-hour games have really big budgets, which means it needs to appeal to everyone in order to make its money back, which means the game will end up cluttered.

Achievements are artificial attempts to pad out the game, and games in general don’t respect the player’s time.

Anthropy conlcuded her talk by pimping out her new game, Redder.

Jonatan Soderstrom

“I’m not gonna take up time with ranting,” Cactus said. “I’m just gonna start the party tonight.” Soderstrom played a somewhat surreal music video, and left the stage without another word.

Once a healthy section of the audience started clapping to the beat, session organizer Phil Fish stepped up to the mic and said, “Hey, to everyone sleeping out there — dance party.”

Nobody started dancing, sadly.


Anthony Burch