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Leigh Alexander

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IGF mwegner.jpg[This article was written by Leigh Alexander and appeared originally on Gamasutra.]

The Indie Soapbox session at GDC is theoretically a "rant session," but "rant" is generally a misleading prompt for some, says host Matthew Wegner (pictured). Instead, he asked 10 indies to share what's on their mind and what their anxieties are.

The result was a fast-paced but fascinating session of condensed ideas on what indies need -- as creators, innovators and as a community -- to transcend current limitations and address common problems. From 10 speakers came 10 pieces of passionate advice.

Innovate Better

Lazy 8's Rob Jagnow made Extrasolar, a game about land rovers -- and is fatigued of being asked about "how rovers kill each other." We've built up assumptions about games over years that tend to box us in, constrain our thoughts and limit our ideas, he says: "We made this box; it's ours. So if we want to, we can think outside this box, we can reshape this box, we can destroy this box. That is our option."

That's not to say there's no innovation going on in the game space: they just aren't quite in the right spots. Innovations occur in promotion, but it focuses on putting applications into top ten lists in a fashion where quality becomes irrelevant. Cloning what works is a rampant strategy, and companies pay to out-promote one another.

"You innovate and you get cloned; you fail to innovate and you get ignored," he says.

So what can indies do? They can innovate in form, in ways that will be protected by copyright and set the games apart from competitors. Aesthetic, story and characters aren't steal-able and make games stand out. Another solution is to take giant risks -- high risk design behaviors tend to set products far apart from the idea-stealers and static market leaders.

Constraint is one way to help engender innovation, Jagnow asserts; for example, in an era with more console buttons than ever, the idea that you can make a game with one button created a hit like Canabalt. Even the idea that there must be a screen is an assumption that, when discarded, results in fascinatingly innovative games, such as IGF nominee Johann Sebastian Joust.

Think Like A Web Developer

Eliss and Faraway creator Steph Thirion has only been in game development for about three years; his background is in web development. He shared the story of 37signals, developer of the Ruby on Rails language whose roots were in the goal not only of productivity, but "to be happy and to enjoy programming." In other words, the co-founders placed their professional future in an obscure language for the sake of their own happiness -- which might seem like a "suicidal" move, but now Ruby on Rails is used by thousands of companies.

"Small shops have the ability to redefine the tools of their industry, because they still have the flexibility to think outside of the box," says Thirion. Tools from small houses have ended up remaking the landscape of web development -- why is this not happening in game development? Dozens of games use the Flash game library Flixel, for example, but Thirion wonders. "who's working on making Flixel better?"

If the indie community got out of the mindset of "solving our short term problems as they come" and instead toward the goal of creating better abstractions in tools, a wider array of simpler toolsets and scripts for the long term. Thinking like web developers -- creating and improving toolsets and generating a more active and open-source community -- can actually reinvigorate and empower the indie community, he argues.

"We should have tools that make us more productive; that make us happier... that we have control on, that we improve, and no one else knows better what these tools should look like than us. A movement like that must come from us, the people in this room," he concluded.

Can The Ego

Although he admits he might be liked less for speaking up, Time Donkey and Blurst developer Ben Ruiz says evolution in the indie community may need to come from honest self-evaluations of some of its personalities. Stressing that he doesn't intend to identify particular individuals -- rather "the independent games community as a whole" -- he urged everyone to "quit being so fucking egocentric. It's completely out of control," says Ben Ruiz.

"We end up not being able to metabolize the essence of others that contrast with us... how fast can we grow when we behave like this?" He pointed out the tendency to speak in absolutes, as well as the virulent distaste for the mainstream game industry.

The low-hanging fruit, like popular complaints about Zynga's soullessness or EA's laziness, is destructive and short-sighted, to say nothing of the personality conflicts among indies. "Look at the discussions that happen every time IGF happen each year... over and over and over again just because there are contrasting viewpoints, and it's so silly."

Adds Ruiz: "It becomes so much personal when we're all in the same space with one another... it's almost like an affront on one's very being." Indies have philosophies and core values in common, and can benefit from the removal of "walls that don't need to be there."

The IGF Is Not Going To Make You

On a similar theme, Mikengreg's Mike Boxleiter spoke up about some of the "drama" circulating the IGF -- he disputes the common idea that the IGF "makes" stars, in the wake of the narrative arc presented by Indie Game: The Movie. The idea that the festival makes an indie's life perfect is a myth, he insists: "The only reason that Fez is anything is because the [people on that project]... didn't give up for five fucking years. That is what makes you a superstar. It's giving everything that you have, every day."

For Boxleiter, his previous IGF win with Solipskier was hardly a blip on the radar of his career. "I gave my pitch document to Shigeru Miyamoto in the hallway; he signed it and politely bowed and walked away," he joked.

"The IGF shouldn't be as big a deal as it is... it gets you a lot of press, and it's cool to have your announcement be with the IGF because it shows you've got some big balls," he asserts. "But it's just an award show. And a lot of people are saying we have to preserve how the IGF 'brings up' small indies, but it totally doesn't do that."

He thought Jon Blow's simple advice -- "just make a great game" -- was elitist and exclusive, but he now agrees with the Braid creator. "If you have something you want to show other people, you're just going to have to work your ass off," Boxleiter concludes.

Explain Games In A Way That Even An Asshole Can Understand

Gunpoint developer Tom Francis comes from a writing background, and advises that explaining games is very difficult to get right. "I've been explaining other people's games for eight years," he says. One can't assume the reader is a "reasonable, intelligent human being," he jokes. "In the worst case scenario, your reader might be me, and I'm an asshole."

Many creators mistakenly assume that their games speak for themselves, and simply release screenshots and trailers. Or they assume that the description of artistic intent is enough -- but those elements don't have anything to do with how to play the game or what makes it interesting. Explaining the plot won't do, either, and nor will hyperbolic adjectives. Developers that describe their games as "innovative" don't sound innovative -- "they think, 'oh wow, they sound like a tool,'" says Francis.

Start instead with the type of game -- "summarize drastically," and get to the coolest unique thing about it. Provide context of who the player is and what he or she is trying to do. Describe a moment the player can experience that's typical of the game. "Most of your readers aren't assholes... but reasonable people still respond better to writing that doesn't waste their time... to gratify the writer's pretensions," says Francis.

Don't Be Afraid To Stick Your Neck Out

Antichamber creator Alex Bruce shared the story of a random day in Shibuya where he suddenly decided to chase a stranger down and introduce himself. He had bailed on his university work to go and speak at TGS about his Unreal Tournament mod, and recognized then-IGF chairman Simon Carless in a crowd.

After some hesitance, Bruce ran up to Carless and introduced himself, discussed Sense of Wonder Night and mentioned working outside of Australia; Carless advised him to meet The Behemoth and Q Games' Dylan Cuthbert at the event. In the event program, he noticed Epic president Mike Capps was speaking, and despite missing half the session, he decided to take a risk and try to talk to the man.

"I knew that if I didn't at least try to talk to him, I would regret that decision," says Bruce. Expecting to be brushed off, he instead got to talk to Capps about the then-unannounced Unreal Development Kit, and Capps promised to put him in touch with sales VP Mark Rein. He realized at that moment that "everyone is just another person;" he went on to meet Steve Swink and a number of other colleagues that encouraged him to go independent.

"Despite people in Australia telling me that I was wasting my time, in Japan I'd met someone... who was telling me I was onto something," he says, deciding to attend GDC and subsequently - after winning Make Something Unreal - deciding to make the leap into an indie career.

"The desire to always make the most of whatever situation I'm in and not talk myself out of whatever opportunities before I've even tried... is the reason I'm here today," he says. His success wasn't about lucky enough to have been in Japan -- it was about seizing and chasing down minor moments, and being willing to take risks big and small.

Your Tech Is More Than A Tool

Tool users tend to take the path of least resistance, says Metanet's Raigan Burns. For example, one only had a marble and a chisel, one would never make a painting -- games are heavily bound aesthetically by the limitations of their technology.

"There's a tendency to consider the computer to be a generic tool," he says. But thinking differently about it -- like a musical instrument -- helps tech become an integral part of the entire creative work. There are more ways to represent shapes than most developers use. "What if every musician only played guitar... ultimately you're all in the same parameter space," Burns says.

Seek Inspirational Visuals

Maquette's Hanford Lemoore says there isn't much in video games that looks like his favorite works of art. We avoid the uncanny valley in games, for example, but the Royal De Luxe theater company's eerie-eyed puppet dolls are beautiful and fascinating art objects because they embrace it. And games focus on rational architecture, but absurd, textured places are extremely compelling.

"I'm not just talking about visual inspiration for your art style... there's all sorts of things in real life that can do that for you," he says. Lemoore saves all kinds of Images that he finds creatively stimulating, but they only help if you find a way to proactively expose yourself to things that inspire you.

This is fairly simple to do, he says, explaining how he made a primitive screen saver tool that kept the images visible and fresh, and a dropbox account that could house all of his inspirations. Instead of using sketchbooks and tucking them away, he pins notecards and pictures to his wall so that they're always in his view.

It influences not only him, but his friends and coworkers, and has the effect of encouraging him to seek out further inspiration and things he can keep from his environment. Proactively seeking out inspirational visuals is a simple but potent creative tool.

Game Development Is For Everyone

Mike Meyer is the organizer of the all-inclusive IGF Pirate Kart talked about GloriousTrainwreck.com, founded in the philosophy of old-school train wrecks orchestrated simply so they could be compelling spaces to people. There are communities of people who make games, and it's important to continue including others. That was what Meyer most wanted to enforce -- that while many indies might seem like "unapproachable nerds... we'd love to have you."

Indies should do more to encourage new voices, he suggests. The "Pirate Rant" -- the manifesto of the Kart's contributors -- plead for everyone to stop fearing fun, to finish their games, and remove anything that's in the way of their development, among other nuggets of advice. "Don't just fucking sit there -- help or encourage someone to make a game," he concluded.

Think In Endless Dimensions

Fez developer Phil Fish recently had a conversation with comic book artist James Harvey, from which he took away a particularly interesting idea about comics: that they allow the viewer to see across time all at once -- what Harvey meant by that, says Fish, was that by breaking down a series of moments across a page, the viewer gets an almost godlike view of the action.

"I thought that was really interesting," he says, inspired to think about how this metaphysical take on comics applied to games.

Video games, by logic, is a 3D media object with many possible outcomes depending on inputs. "In games, engaging with the medium changes the medium -- different things happen in different times," Fish says. "You project yourself in time... you consider many different outcomes all at once."

"The media itself... becomes this fractal, and you consider all these different versions of that same piece of media," says Fish. "It's like a giant cloud of possibilities, of which you can only ever materialize a small slice."

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vita indiegames.jpg The PlayStation Vita launches today in both wifi and 3G models in the US and EU territories. Digital titles Super Stardust Delta, Escape Plan, and Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!!! have hit the US PlayStation Network, and Frobisher Says is a free preorder incentive to those in Europe.

Independent studio Housemarque brings Super Stardust Delta, a spherical arena shooter that uses the dual analog sticks to handle the core mechanics. It also makes use of Vita's touchscreen to create black holes and fire missiles and tilt mechanics to view what's on the other side of the planet. The action looks pretty frantic and fun below:

Fun Bits Interactive (whose producers worked on Fat Princess) made touch-intensive puzzle platformer Escape Plan for the Vita. Players swipe, squeeze, poke, slap, and tilt to manipulate the characters and interact with the environments. Escape Plan also has pretty slick gray-scale visuals:

The final US indie launch title is DrinkBox Studio's Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!!!, a follow-up to its 2011 PSN puzzle platformer About a Blob. The charming retro sci-fi '50s vibe is felt throughout the trailer. The music, visuals, and 2D platforming seem all to be rock solid in this title, too. Finally there's a load of indie puns plastered in the game (And Yet it Moos!).

I took to Metacritic to see how these indie titles fared against their AAA counterparts. The currently EU-only Frobisher Says hadn't been reviewed yet. In the developer's defense, Honeyslug only got review codes to email IndieGames (and I assume the rest of the press) two days ago. However, Pocket Gamer gave it a generally favorable preview.

DrinkBox Studios' Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!!!, the only independently published PSN title, was reviewed the least of all US launch titles with 4 times (edit: and a 90/100 from Vox Games). However, it currently has a high 87/100 average. Super Stardust Delta had 10 reviews and averages 83/100, and Escape Plan had 8 reviews and a 76/100 average.

To give an idea of how many reviews exist for the AAA titles, Uncharted: Golden Abyss has 50 reviews and averages at 80/100. Modnation Racers had 28 reviews and an average of 62/100. Little Deviants, the title Sony chose to bundle with the PS Vita's First Edition pack, averages out at 58/100 from 37 reviews. Sony later gave away the stronger Super Stardust Delta to pre-purchasers of the $299 3G-model.

Currently, the indie titles have a review average of 81.3/100 collectively, whereas the AAA titles bring up the rear with 70.2/100.

Not only do indies average better overall, they so far avoid lower-tiered review scores individually:
games reviewed below 80/100:
80% of AAA launch titles and 33% of indie launch titles
games reviewed below 70/100:
45% of AAA launch titles and 0% of indie launch titles
games reviewed below 60/100:
30% of AAA launch titles and 0% of indie launch titles

In Leigh Alexander's intriguing opinion piece on Gamasutra, she asks if the Vita casts too wide a net. In the case of Sony's $50 million marketing strategy, I hope Sony figures out how to cast a wider "net" with all that money to get its hardware and indie software in the right hands to review. Promoting and ensuring a strong digital library (filled with indie and AAA games) may help make the Vita more relevant as it competes for portable gamers' time and money.

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joust igf.jpgPlayStation Move-controlled Johann Sebastian Joust is the sort of thing that truly needs to be played to be understood. The improvisational, highly-physical experience has captivated indie gaming fans worldwide -- chances are you've heard the flood of enthusiasm from those who have tried it.

It's earned an honorable mention in the Excellence in Design category for this year's Independent Games Festival, and -- as an unconventional, experimental game -- has earned a nod in the Nuovo category. The galvanizing title also has a nomination for the IGF's Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

In this extensive interview, we catch up with Douglas Wilson of Die Gute Fabrik (who's also long been an inspiring figure in the Copenhagen Game Collective) on the genesis of the project, the idea of digital folk games, and the strength of the indie community.

What background do you have making games?

I've always been an avid player of games, but it didn't occur to me until college that I might seriously study or develop them. In 2003, I took a class with Professor Henry Lowood, called the History of Computer Game Design. So, I actually started writing about games before I started making them. But fortunately I complemented my humanities degree with an MS in computer science. For one of our project assignments, some friends and I developed a game called Euclidean Crisis. It was nominated as a Student Finalist at IGF 2007. I suppose that was my first "proper" computer game.

In 2007, I moved to Denmark on a grant to research games at IT University of Copenhagen. Beyond just my studies and research, I started hanging out with a some other students and artists who were also interested in developing games. Together, we started making all sorts of games, both digital and non-digital. In fact, that year worked out so well that I decided to settle in Copenhagen more permanently. I'm still living here today!

My best known projects are probably Dark Room Sex Game, a cheeky Wiimote game which we developed in 2008, and B.U.T.T.O.N., a highly physical party game which we developed in 2010. B.U.T.T.O.N. even ended up getting a nomination for the Nuovo Award at IGF 2011.

But I have no commercial development experience. I'm just an egghead researcher!

What development tools did you use?

I'm actually using the engine Unity, mostly because I prefer to code in C#. To get the Move controllers working with my MacBook Pro, I'm using Thomas Perl's Move api, which in turn is based off Alan Ott's hidapi. That code, including our Unity bindings, is freely available online!

How long has your team been working on the game?

I first prototyped the game at the Nordic Game Jam last year. At that time, it was for the Wiimote. I quickly realized that the game would work even better using the LED light on the Move, and in May I got Thomas Perl's Move API working on my computer. We debuted the Move version of the game in June, in the streets of Copenhagen. Since then, I've been slowly adding new features and fixing bugs in my free time. I'm currently finishing up my PhD dissertation, so until now I've only been able to work on the game very gradually, on the side.

Where did the concept for Joust come from?

It's very unconventional. At the Nordic Game Jam last January, I prototyped the first version of J.S. Joust using three Wiimotes. Partially inspired by the Animal Tracker mini-game from Nintendo's Wii Party, as well as my own game B.U.T.T.O.N., I originally wanted to develop a racing game where three players would carefully inch towards a fourth controller on the other side of the room.

The breakthrough moment came when Nils and I were walking around the room with Wiimotes in hand, testing the controllers' sensitivity values. At one point, we found ourselves walking towards each other from opposite sides of the room. Both of us silently hatched the same mischievous plan; as soon as we were in range, we shoved one another in an attempt to make the other lose. In that instant, it became clear to us that the game we actually wanted to play was a more antagonistic duel.

The game was also inspired by several non-digital folk games that we play here in Copenhagen. For example, my obsession with slow-motion games is no doubt influenced by Liste Lanser (translation: "Sneaky Lance"), a game invented by some friends of a friend. In Liste Lanser, two players faceoff blindfolded, each with a wooden spoon in hand. The first player to hit the other wins! The twist is that both players must move in slow-motion, enforced by the cheering spectators. To make the whole thing extra silly and cinematic, we often play loud drum and bass music!

What do you mean by "folk game"?

Good question! I'd say that "folk game" encompasses a diverse variety of sports and games. As I use the term, "folk game" suggests a relatively simple game played with commonly available equipment (a ball, a rope, dice, etc.) or no equipment all, such that the game can be easily spread by word of mouth. A defining feature of folk games, as I use the term, is that they facilitate "house rules" and player modification. They generally evolve over time, and are appropriated by different player communities in different ways. Often, they involve physical interaction between players. Some examples might include Duck-Duck-Goose, Freeze Tag, Ninja, Solitaire, and Mafia.

But I also have my own, more idiosyncratic definition. For me, "folk game" suggests festivity, laughter, and bodily physicality. I write about this in my PhD research (see here). When I look towards folk games for design inspiration, I'm usually trying to capture a particular kind of physical comedy and humor of the absurd. I'm not sure if that more specific interpretation holds for other people, but for me it's been very useful.

Does J.S. Joust itself qualify as a folk game? I'm not sure. I've called it a "digital folk game" for lack of a better term, but there are some reasons one might be a little skeptical of that description. Sure, the game is very amenable to player modification, but the software isn't even available yet, and the hardware (i.e. the Move controller) is still somewhat niche. Of course, now that many of us have smart phones, accelerometers are becoming commonplace. Are smart phones, then, going to become a general-purpose gaming "tool," like the jump rope or deck of playing cards before it? And does a game's code have to be open-sourced in order for it to qualify as a folk game? These are tricky questions.

One notable thing about your game is it challenges the idea that video games require graphics. Getting outside the bounds of what we normally think of as "video game design" is something you've worked with for some time. Why is this compelling to you?

J.S. Joust embodies two core interest of mine. First, ever since I worked on Dark Room Sex Game, I've been interested in digitally-mediated games where players look at each other rather than at a screen. Obviously, that's something we're used to doing when we play non-digital games like sports, boardgames, etc. But it isn't typically what you do when playing a computer game. So there's something fun in it of itself in the subversion of re-purposing gaming technology towards different ends (this is the same trick behind B.U.T.T.O.N.).

Second, I'm interested in games in which players are actively encouraged to negotiate and improvise their own "house rules." That's actually the core focus of my academic research. Some people have argued that the main benefit of computers is that they relieve us the "burden" of having to enforce the rules. I disagree. In the right context, it can be deeply enjoyable to argue about and modify the rules. In J.S. Joust for example, are you allowed to kick other people? What would it be like to try playing with the controllers in your pockets? There are a lot of physical world actions that the computer isn't able to monitor, and that can actually work to the players' advantage. Often, the most enjoyable game of them all is making up your own game.

Actually, we've always talked within the context of the Copenhagen Game Collective. When did you form Die Gute Fabrik, and who's involved?

Die Gute Fabrik is a small indie games studio founded by Nils Deneken. Nils is an illustrator by training, but got sucked into the gaming world when his adventure game Ruckblende was nominated for IGF in 2008. Nils and I met each other at IndieCade 2008 in Seattle. I was there showing Dark Room Sex Game, and he was there showing Ruckblende.

We both loved each other's games, and so we got to hanging out. He lives in Copenhagen (though he's actually German), and I was about to move back to Denmark myself, and so we decided that we should try working together. In early 2009, we worked together on a silly Flash game called 5 Minute MMORPG (along with some other friends). Since then, we've been collaborating a number of projects, including our party game B.U.T.T.O.N.

This summer, we decided to finally make our partnership more "official." When I finish my PhD this Spring, I'll be joining Die Gute Fabrik as a co-owner and Lead Game Designer. I'm going full-time indie! It's both exciting and terrifying.

Nils and I are the main owners of Die Gute Fabrik, but there are also a few more people in the extended Die Gute Fabrik family. Our friend Bernie Schulenburg is the lead designer behind our recent PSN game Where is my Heart? My roommate Christoffer Holmgard does web development and biz dev for us. Finally, our friend Alessandro Coronas (based in Italy) does sound and music for us. Alessandro did the soundtrack for Where is My Heart? and he'll also be working on our upcoming game Mutazione.

Nils and I have indeed been involved in the Copenhagen Game Collective, which we helped co-found in 2009. However, these days I'm not so involved in the Collective, as I'm trying to focus on Die Gute Fabrik and my own projects. Beyond my work with Nils, I'm increasingly interested in collaborating with friends back in North America. This past year I spent a few months in Montreal, San Francisco, and New York, and I'm very excited about the game dev scenes in all three areas. I'm already working with David Kanaga (based in Oakland) on my upcoming Beacons of Hope installation. There are also a number of indies in New York (e.g. Matt Parker, Zach Gage, Ramiro Corbetta) who I'd love to work with some day.

What's next for Joust? Anywhere further you want to go with it?

Oof, good question! I can't say too much right now, but we're still trying to figure out release plans. We're considering a variety of different platforms. There are a lot of opportunities, but also a bunch of challenges. I'm delighted that the game seems to appeal to a wide variety of people - even people who didn't think they were interested in digital games. So, I'm hoping to find a way to reach that broader audience.

Ultimately, I'd like to release the game with a ton of optional gameplay features, so that players can more easily invent their own variations. For instance, I recently added a "handicap" feature that allows you to make some controllers more sensitive than others.

As suggested by one of my playtesters, Mikhail, this allows for a "Protect the King" mode where two "guards" need to protect a third player whose controller is ultra-sensitive. I'm also quite happy about the "invincibility" feature that I recently added, where you can press the trigger button to go invincible. The thing is, the invincibility only lasts for a few seconds; if you ever use up your entire meter, you kill yourself. The feature opens up some fun defensive tactics.

The LED light on the Move controller helps a lot here - just simple things like color changes and brightness allows me to signal a bunch of different gameplay information. Man, that controller is so underrated! A lot of people dismissed it as a Wiimote knockoff (see this Penny Arcade satire), but as I see it, that LED light changes everything. The radical thing about the Move controller is that each player essentially carries around with them a giant pixel.

The controllers act as a kind of distributed screen. I find that affordance so exciting that I'm currently working on a whole series of no-screen Move games. One of them, Beacons of Hope, is a horror-game played in a large pitch dark room. The Move's LED light is particularly beautiful when it shines out in the darkness. You can get a glimpse of that in this video we shot in Death Valley National Park.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any you particularly love?

Yes! I've been lucky enough to play several of them. As I've written before here, I particularly love GIRP and Proteus. In fact, I'm so obsessed with GIRP that I was even inspired to build an entire physical installation around the game, called Mega-GIRP. Proteus, meanwhile, is one of the most genuinely moving games I've ever played. David Kanaga's dynamic soundtrack is truly stunning. The game itself is like an indie take on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, but infused with the spirit of Boards of Canada, James Turrell, and Carl Sagan. It's magical.

I do want to add that I wish Where is my Heart (also by Die Gute Fabrik) had made IGF too. I didn't work on it myself, but I love that game to bits! Where is my Heart received three honorable mentions (Audio, Design, Seumas McNally). I'd give them my finalist spot if I could. They deserve it.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

The indie game development scene has quite literally changed my life. Ever since I was a kid, I always thought I'd go into academia (my father is a professor). Now I find myself leaving the ivory tower to run my own indie studio. It's so strange for me because I never figured myself for an entrepreneur. But there's just so much energy in the indie scene right now. There was no way I could resist its gravity! In just the past year, I've met so, so many wonderful game people across Europe and North America. I feel so blessed.

More than anything, I'm excited about all the localized gaming events and "scenes" that are popping up around the world. One of my favorite examples is New York City's Babycastles indie arcade, which I've been fortunate enough to collaborate with over the last year. More generally, game collectives, artists, and passionate gamers around the world are making things happen. I think this development is fundamentally changing what it even means to be "indie." There are now more opportunities than ever for game makers to show work in public and physical contexts.

Indie games can be more than just "products" distributed over the Internet. A game like J.S. Joust, for instance, is more of an "event-based" game. There's a lot of fertile ground to be explored at the intersection between games and more experience-based creative traditions like performance art, new media art, LARP, etc. If Babycastles is any indication, I think we'll see more indies exploring installation art, and more artists interfacing with the indie games world.

All that said, the gaming scene is obviously haunted by a number of thorny diversity issues (i.e. in regards to race, gender, age, etc.). Some intrepid game developers (for example, Toronto's Difference Engine Initiative) are working to change things for the better, but obviously we still have a long way to go. This is part of the reason why I'm so eager to reach out to collaborators in other cultural traditions like dance, music, contemporary art, etc. I think we need to expand the indie gaming "tent" as much as we reasonably can. For this reason, I'm far less interested in "advancing" the medium of games (ugh, the age-old myth of cultural "progress" - such bullshit) than I am in exploring the territory between games and other traditions.

Like DJ Spooky says: "It's the twenty-first century. Things should be really wild. Anything else is boring."

[This article originally appeared on Gamasutra, written by Leigh Alexander.]

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beat sneak bandit IGF.gifMobile developer Simogo has quickly distinguished itself with the charming, musical aesthetic of iOS titles Bumpy Road and Kosmo Spin. Its newest game, colorful Beat Sneak Bandit, takes the studio's affinity for rhythm games further still -- and has earned a Best Mobile Game nomination in the IGF for the effort.

Players control a sprightly bandit who must "sneak to the beat" in the clock-controlled mansion of the aptly named Duke Clockface, who has stolen all the world's... clocks. The guy loves clocks, it seems, which makes sense because of the role timing plays in Beat Sneak Bandit, which employs repeating puzzle loops with the aim of creating a true rhythm game.

Gamasutra spoke to Simogo co-founder Simon Flesser about the development of the game, the evolution of the rhythm-action genre and Beat Sneak Bandit's clever aesthetics.

What background do you have making games?

Me and Gordon [Gardeback] started Simogo in late 2010. Before that we worked a few years at Southend Interactive, making ilomilo and a few remakes and things for XBLA and PSN.

What development tools did you use?

We use Unity and Photoshop as our main tools. But there's quite a bit of 3D animation in Beat Sneak Bandit too -- it's the first Simogo project we've used Maya in.

How long have you worked on the game?

We started working on Beat Sneak Bandit in August, but back then it was a very different game, in which you controlled time like a DJ. It was sort of a weird reality scratching time puzzle thing... In late September, after trying to make this concept understandable in loads of different ways, we shifted to the more rhythm-based gameplay we have today. So the line between prototyping and actual development is a bit blurred.

The rhythm genre is a personal fave of mine, but I don't get nearly enough games like that for my taste! What are some of your favorites, and how might they have helped inspire Beat Sneak Bandit?

Rhythm Tengoku (and its sequel) is by far my favourite rhythm game. I would actually argue that it's the only true rhythm game, since it can be played with your eyes closed, while most other rhythm games are more about pattern recognition and reaction. That said, Beat Sneak Bandit is a game that is very much based around studying rhythm patterns, so I wouldn't call it a traditional rhythm game by definition since the actual rhythm input from the player is very basic in itself.

Gameplay-wise maybe Rhythm Tengoku didn't inspire Beat Sneak Bandit a whole lot, but it definitely influenced the way everything is animated so snappy to the beat and the way it creates challange by mixing beats and backbeats. I think we were more inspired by classic logical puzzles and rhythm theories and how to create puzzle designs based on rhythm, more than rhythm games, actually.

I love the music based games from iNiS as well -- Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan and Gitaroo Man are big favourites, but their influence on Beat Sneak Bandit is pretty limited.

Why do you think attention to the genre seems to come in fits and starts? It's hugely popular, but iterative evolution seems sort of rare.

Tough question, and I don't think I have a good answer to it. Like all things, I would guess it's about trends. It's indeed weird how the rhythm genre is still so much about matching button presses to basic signals on screen, when there are games like Ouendan or Gitaroo Man that do something new with the interface of rhythm based gameplay.

It's a shame that rhythm games that are not so much about matching button presses to falling tiles, but that are more about actual rhythm and music at their core (like Rhythm Tengoku or Wii Music) are even more rare.

You've set the gameplay against this sort of delightful absurdist aesthetic and storyline. Why do you think that kind of bold choice helps highlight your gameplay?

Even if we're not big storytellers or anything, I think having some sort of context, characters or motivation is important. Gameplay is always king, but it's a king of nothing if you don't have a good presentation to fit it in.

We wanted to make something that felt cool, but in a silly cartoon show kind of way. The way everything is pretty self aware in its silliness in cartoons is something we wanted in this game, because the concept of a house in which everything moves to the beat is in itself pretty absurd.

Played any of the other IGF finalists? Any you particularly loved?

I'm a big fan of ASYNC Corp! I just started playing Pugs Luv Beats too and it's a very fascinating little toy.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Most of the games I find interesting is coming from small independent teams, so I would say the state is fantastic. The only thing missing, and I'd say this is an overall problem for the game industry, is the lack of diversity among game makers. We need more people from different backgrounds with new perspective.

[This article originally appeared on Gamasutra, written by Leigh Alexander.]

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The Internet’s Leigh Alexander gave us her take on visual novel, Katawa Shoujo.

It’s with a mix of amusement and chagrin I admit my career as a game journalist might well have never taken off if it weren’t for the erotic visual novel genre. Some of my earliest writing explored the “weirdest” games I could find – bunny girl dating sims, teenage girl “training/raising” games, brutally sexual supernatural murder mysteries, and stuff like that, and I think my work was recognized fairly early on in my development as a writer just because I was pouring so many words onto stuff no one else would touch.

I put “weird” in quotes, by the way, because I actually tasked myself with understanding and explicating them. And when you do that, these games don’t actually seem all that weird. What else would a niche, shut-in audience of otaku want but a gameplay experience that blends anime porn tropes with emotional simulations of human drama – without any possibility of becoming stuck or frustrated, since visual novels are indeed more “story” than “game”?
(more…)

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At GDC Online, Atari co- founder Nolan Bushnell discussed opportunities for new storytelling forms in gaming's near future -- and what he learned from writing his own science fiction novel this year.

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