Microsoft's Community Games launch party in San Francisco.
The historic Mezzanine bar in downtown San Francisco drips trendsetting cool from every inch of its rustic warehouse interior. Hosted in the cavernous space are concerts, video shoots, fashion shows, art exhibits and film screenings. In the past, musical acts like LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A. and Grizzly Bear have pumped the room full of noise. But tonight, the indie artists schmoozing with journalists are videogame developers. Microsoft has rented out Mezzanine for its XNA Community Games launch party and flown in some of the channel's star talents.
Because AAA blockbuster games currently require the combined effort of hundreds of programmers, artists and animators, it's easy to forget that the industry's early hit games could be developed by a single dude working feverishly away in his bedroom or garage. But individuals haven't stopped making games. Some have even abandoned lucrative jobs at major studios to work on their own indie projects.
Nathan Fouts, the man behind Weapon of Choice.
"You feel like crap," says Nathan Fouts, who left Insomniac Games to begin working on his indie debut, Weapon of Choice. "You're leaving people that relied on you."
The news that Fouts would be leaving Insomniac Games blindsided many of his friends at work. But he had been planning his departure from the world of AAA game development for some time. He'd already logged a decade in the industry, working what he refers to as "retarded hours." While employed at various studios, he'd tried to make games on his own after work, but found that he didn't have enough fuel left in his tank after burning it dry each day in the office.
While Fouts was still at Insomniac, he and his wife Amy saved for two solid years, socking away every bit of extra cash that came through the door. Once the Insomniac job drew to a close, the couple moved back to Indiana -- Fouts' home state -- because its cost of living was better than that of sunny, expensive L.A. It was such a family effort to get his indie outfit up and running that Fouts decided to call his new company Mommy's Best Games.
Fouts' son tries Weapon of Choice in order to get a sense of whether or not Dad's game will pay for his college education or just a few bags of diapers.
"We had a baby in 2006 ? I'd think, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to fail him. I'm going to sink my whole family if I don't do this right,'" says Fouts.
The channels to get indie games out into the world have been relatively scarce until just recently. The Internet would seem like the golden bullet, but it also introduces the concern of rampant piracy. Now, Microsoft's XNA tool set allows developers to make games for the Xbox 360, digitally distribute them on the console, and keep 70 percent of the revenue. Indie game designers can also develop games for the iPhone and iPod Touch, thanks to the App Store and Apple's downloadable SDK tool set. For the first time since the early '80s, when you could bag up your indie game and take it down to the local computer store, indie developers have distribution options readily at their disposal.
Ian Bogost in the classroom at Georgia Tech.
Unless you've been in a coma -- or consumed in a World of Warcraft raid that began two years ago and still hasn't concluded -- you've watched the economy collapse on itself, taking the games industry with it. Every day brings a new report of massive layoffs or a studio's closing. While one might expect such a grisly economic climate to discourage people from making the leap to indie development, it's quite possible the opposite is true.
Ian Bogost, assistant professor of game design at Georgia Tech and founding partner at Persuasive Games, argues that studio layoffs and closings have the potential to spur tremendous growth in the indie games sector.
"Where are these people [who get laid off] going to go? What are they going to do?" Bogost wonders. "There's a pretty natural flow of folks in and out of the games business -- mostly out and back into the software business. But it's possible we will see more small efforts and even studios emerge -- like the guys who split off from EA to make World of Goo [2D Boy]."
Word Soup developer Scott Campbell in the Manchester offices of Fuzzy Bug Interactive.
There's a romantic notion of developers jumping ship to work on indie projects for absolute creative freedom, but the reality is that it's sometimes a matter of needing to pay the bills. And it's easier to hire yourself than to update your resume and go in search of game industry jobs that are already in short supply.
"Creative control wasn't the reason I started working as an indie developer, to be honest," says Scott Campbell, co-founder and director of indie studio Fuzzy Bug Interactive in Birmingham, England. "For me, it was a matter of needing to put food on the table and pay my rent. It was only after we got a little bit of stability that we could allow ourselves creative freedom ."
Word Soup began as a touch-screen pub game in the UK.
Campbell's Word Soup started out as a touch-screen pub game in the UK, but has quickly become one of the Xbox 360's top-selling Community Games. "You live in a closed box when you're working as a coder," he says. "You're just one gear in the whole mechanism, whereas you've got to see the big picture when you're doing a game by yourself."
Having been a weapons designer at Insomniac, on projects like Resistance: Fall of Man and the Ratchet & Clank series, Fouts naturally centered his debut project, Weapon of Choice, around over-the-top guns. (And his 2-D, side-scrolling, acid-laced homage to Contra gives you plenty of things to shoot.) Once he'd indulged his primary area of expertise and the initial adrenaline rush had worn off, however, he found himself paddling around in the deep end without arm floaties.
A gun that shoots spinning sword blades. It's amazing what you can buy from late-night infomercials.
"I was writing down all my ideas for operatives and weapons, thinking, 'I have so many good ideas; I'm so glad I did this!'" Fouts says. "A couple months in, after writing my level-editing software, I realized, 'I can't make levels! What should I have the player do? Walk flat? Go in a hole, maybe? Up a hill?' I had to read up on sound effects -- frequencies, editing, blending. I had to learn from scratch the most obvious, basic things because I realized I just didn't know how to do everything."
One of the freshest ideas in Weapon of Choice is a mechanic called "Death Brushing," in which the game lapses into slow motion when you're about to die and a giant, menacing skull materializes onscreen -- in case you need a more straightforward cue to leap to safety. The skull looks like something a budding heavy metal junkie might doodle in the margin of his high-school algebra textbook.
"That stuff is so much fun to draw, and you get a zero-percent chance of doing it [in a major studio]. So many 3-D games are bent on realism, and all these artists working for game studios are making cabinets and office chairs and bottles. Wouldn't you rather be drawing a skull with moss on it and nasty fangs?"
Less than a minute into Weapon of Choice, you encounter the Teat Walker.
Like Fouts, Campbell came out of school and ended up at a large studio. It dawned on Campbell that a programmer might spend an entire project toiling away on the game's front end -- the opening menus -- and never touch actual gameplay.
Bogost, for his part, doesn't view creating indie games and working for a major studio as an either-or dilemma.
"There is a difference between industrialized ideas and independent ideas," he says.
"There have always been examples, even at the highest levels, of people who have the heaviest pressure on them and still manage to get stuff done on the sly. Take Rod Humble, who runs the Sims division at EA. It doesn't get any more 'videogame corporate' than that; he's an executive vice president. But occasionally he makes whacked-out art games that [represent] exactly what he wants to do, and people play them."
An attendee at the Community Games launch puts down his drink long enough to check out Word Soup.
Designing games, Bogost points out, is significantly different from other independent creative pursuits like, say, learning the guitar and starting a band. Designing games is primarily a technical craft -- and, as such, it requires a herculean amount of computer-programming know-how. As a result, there are far fewer examples in our culture of people designing videogames in their off-time.
"I've played some of these Community Games and I'm blown away," says Chris Satchell, head of Microsoft's Game Development Group. "They didn't spend $25 million on production, but it doesn't matter when you've given the gaming world a new, innovative concept."
800-lb. guerilla marketing
Now that there are more channels available to indie games developers, not to mention a modest-sized financial carrot to incentivize their efforts, maybe we can expect a surge in the profile of indie games and the people who make them. Let's all take a momentary break from Left 4 Dead multiplayer and observe a moment of appreciative silence for indie developers who've busted their asses so that we can enjoy the gaming equivalent of art-house films, community stage plays, Polaroid photography and blog-based citizen journalism.
"I'm trying to keep the momentum up for the marketing," Fouts says, several months after previewing Weapon of Choice at the Community Games launch party and the game is available for purchase on the Xbox 360. "I've got to keep rolling this giant ball. Every day I wake up and see the ball slow down a little bit, and I can't believe it's as much work as it is."
The original art for the glossy "game cards" Fouts and family handed out to gamers as a cost-effective means of promoting Weapon of Choice.
Just because an indie game is for sale, that doesn't mean that anyone's going to buy it. "People underestimate the marketing dilemma," Bogost says. "How do you get people to your work? Even with the Community Games channel, you have to get people from somewhere else to their Xbox 360, and then to the right place on the channel."
To address this concern, Fouts has printed up glossy promotional cards for Weapon of Choice and mailed them to family to hand out at their local GameStops. Even though he's sick as a dog, pulling the receiver away from his mouth and unleashing a hacking cough every few seconds, you can still hear the irrepressible excitement in his voice. Verve is contagious and it's only a matter of time before other game developers follow his lead -- especially if that first royalty check from Microsoft clears the bank.