In a small tent on a Los Angeles parking lot, I am sitting in a crowd listening to New York-based games developer Shawn Allen talk about the parallels between the independent game development community and the rise of New York hip-hop culture. He speaks about how tools like the turntable—tools that were originally meant for big studios—suddenly became affordable for hobbyists. He explains how those hobbyists started making things and eventually built on those existing tools to create their own tools. Eventually some of those hobbyists grew into amateurs, some of them grew into minor celebrities in the underground circuit, and just a few of them became household names.
The reason we’re gathered there is the yearly IndieCade conference, an outdoor curation of some of the most interesting alternative games in the world. IndieCade is one of dozens of major events hosted every year to celebrate the art and craft of independent game development—a festival for the strange and interesting games that major game development corporations can’t risk making. You won’t find Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto V, the massive hit games with revenues that can make Hollywood seem like a yard sale, here. Instead, there are people playing a bizarre version of tag. Others sheepishly grin at How Do You Do It, a comically innocent pseudo-autobiographical game about a young girl’s exploration into her sexuality through playing with her dolls.
Just like hip-hop, in their first few years, independent games had a very distinct, counter-culture flavor to them.
Throughout the ’90s, the evolution of games was focused on how realistic a game could look. For decades, the biggest story in the games industry was whether the visuals a new device could render to a screen would be even more realistic. That didn’t stop hobbyists from making games that were different. In the shadows of the overwhelming graphics of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, small teams continued to make small games as a personal challenge. In 2005, a Japanese developer released Cave Story—a game he had created over five years. He taught himself how to code, draw, compose, and write in the process of creating the game, and it received a cult following among game connoisseurs.
As technology became more powerful, the tools to make games became more accessible. No longer did one need thousands of dollars for a computer, nor did one have to understand advanced mathematics to display an image. Suddenly, a single line of code could do that and far more. Like digital photography, technological democratization brought an amazing influx of new people that were suddenly empowered with the ability to create.
New ideas and perspectives about games and what they could be started to emerge. Without the risks involved in running a company with 300 employees with mortgages, lone wolf developers and small teams built fascinating experiment after fascinating experiment. Games suddenly started to explore bigger themes than armed conflict, competition, and dexterity puzzles.
Games suddenly started to explore bigger themes than armed conflict, competition, and dexterity puzzles.
A vast community of enthusiasts, fans, thinkers, artists, and creators grew around independently created games. Awards ceremonies, websites full of thinkpieces and curations, and events started celebrating this more experimental side of game development. These events are where developers like Allen can explore the parallels between hip-hop and independent game development to a mesmerized audience in a little tent in a parking lot. Allen is exploring how certain parts of hip-hop commercialized and what effect that had on the creative community. Growing pains that plague independent development affected hip-hop the same way.
Just like hip-hop, in their first few years, independent games had a very distinct, counter-culture flavor to them. That’s an attitude lost now, as independent developers release more games than the big studios ever could. These are smaller games on smaller budgets, but it is a veritable tidal wave of them. Discoverability—the act of introducing a game to the people who might be customers—has gone from a given to an almost unachievable dream. A few developers amid bright, colorful computer screens are embroiled in a serious discussion about the problem.
The independent game development scene has figured out a simple solution to the modern struggles of their work: They cooperate.
The independent game development scene has figured out a simple solution to the modern struggles of their work: They cooperate. Independent developers see one team’s success as a community-wide success. Instead of a competition, they approach it like a collaboration. The more people work together, the more likely more of us will be able to make a living.
The sun has set, and two famous developers play music through the early hours of the night as hundreds of people dance and play and talk about interesting, weird games. They might not agree about everything—sometimes they argue vehemently—but they’re all creators with a passion for games. Tomorrow, they’ll open up Twitter to argue passionately about their views again.
For tonight, we celebrate that independent game development is not one thing. It many things.
Rami Ismail is the business and development guy at Vlambeer, a Dutch independent game studio known best for Nuclear Throne, Ridiculous Fishing, LUFTRAUSERS, Super Crate Box, GUN GODZ, and Serious Sam: The Random Encounter.