The Independent Games Movement (Part Three): Behind the Scenes at Indiecade

>Independent gamemakers, like their counterparts in film, make products that can be a lifelong passion, that rely upon the creative inspiration of innumerable collaborators, and that often deplete a life savings or run up credit card debt to create. Like independent filmmakers, they compete for support, publicity, and distribution against established producers and productions that can cost millions of dollars... But the game industry, unlike cinema, has no comprehensive, public venue to introduce, explore, and celebrate groundbreaking independent work. Worthy independent games, prospective funders, and players hungry for new experiences rarely find one another. Imagine an annual global crossroads and marketplace, open to the general public - a yearly celebration of this community's new voices and their trailblazing work. Imagine thousands of independent creators, developers, thinkers, players, and fans, traveling from across the world to be at the same place at the same time....

--Indiecade website.

This is the second of a series of interviews I plan to run over the next month or so with key movers and shakers in the independent games movement. I am running this series out of a belief that we may be at a vital crossroads in the history of computer and video games as a series of announcements and developments this year may pave the way for greater innovation, diversity, and experimentation in game design. For a long time, the games industry seemed in danger of being completely swallowed whole by Electronic Arts and a few other major publishers. Suddenly a number of institutions are emerging which will enable distribute and critical engagement with works by smaller games developers or will encourage amateurs to produce and distribute games. Like many of my readers, I love many mainstream games but I also believe that there need to be an alternative games culture if we are going to avoid standardization and stagnation.

A little over a week ago, I featured a two part conversation with Greg Costikyan about Manifesto Games, its support for creator rights, and his critique of the mainstream game publishers.

Today and tomorrow, I will be talking with Stephanie Barish, Founder and President of Creative Media Collaborative, the group which is organizing Indiecade, which they hope will function for the independent games industry the way Sundance has functioned for the independent films movement -- a gathering place, a training ground, a focus for critical attention, and a showcase for the best new work from around the world. Full disclosure dictates that I acknowledge that Barish asked me some time ago to serve on the board of advisors for the festival and through telephone conversations and e-mail correspondence, I have watched her and her team grapple with some of the challenges of building the infrastructure and identifying the sponsors needed to pull off a pretty ambitious plan. The first Indiecade is going to be held in Santa Monica, California in the fall of 2007.

I first met Barish when she was working as the producer and director of multimedia publications at Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and then later as the executive Director of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center. Barish comes not from the heart of the games industry but rather from the world of independent media production and multimedia literacy education. She brings an alternative sensibility and perspective to the effort to promote independent games.

Here, Barish suggests the ways that the Indiecade has emerged from a particular analysis of what's working -- and what isn't -- in contemporary games culture and explores some of the ways that a games festival might contribute to greater public awareness of the independent games movement. Along the way, she speaks to the question of games criticism, which was a central focus of discussion across the blogosphere earlier this year. Tomorrow, she will speak more fully about what it means to create a festival around games and how games might be understood as reflecting differences between different national cultures.

Barish has asked me to acknowledge the contributions of other members on the Indiecade team who helped her think through how to address some of these questions: Scott Chamberlin (Partner) , Janine Fron (Conference Chair), Sam Gustman (CMC V.P., Partner), Kirsten Paul (IndieCade Program Manager), and Celia Pearce (IndieCade Festival Chair).

How are you defining an independent game?

It is funny that there is not a standard answer to this question. For the festival we are using a simple determinant: an independent game is one that is created without the umbrella of a deal with a major publisher. This also excludes games funded by the majors or their subsidiaries, using the industry standard, as others have before us, to define these majors as the 30 companies on the ESA board -- those included in the new E3.

We have had a lot of very interesting conversations about the definition of independent in this community, and the particulars can obscure the real issue, which boils down to an independent game being one in which the creative decisions are not made down the hall at Marketing. Obviously, there are gray areas, but independence can be found at the other side of that spectrum, where inspiration is the motivation.

Some have argued that the conservativeness of the games industry (tending to make franchise titles or games that fall into familiar genres) is simply a reflection of the conservativism of the hardcore gamer market (which tends to judge new titles against prior play experiences.) Do you agree or disagree with this claim? What can independent games designers do to encourage the public to experiment more with alternative forms of gaming?

First the industry finds itself having to cater to the appetite of hardcore gamers for increasingly impressive and sophisticated graphics and technologies. Given the financial premium of all this innovation, it's no wonder the industry then takes safe harbor in marketing decisions they know will appeal just enough to what is in fact a very dedicated following. We should not expect the industry to eschew proven formulas, but need to encourage parallel development streams that meet a known taste for altogether-new flavors and ultimately drive the industry forward. This is not even to say that there are not some beautiful and highly original games created by the industry, like the newly released Okami for the PS2. But the state of the industry is such that as one of our advisors, a lead game designer, recently pointed out the irony that he could get millions of dollars for the design of another licensed title, but could not get a few hundred thousand dollars to do something new and creative.

No doubt it is a challenge for independent game designers to compete with the kind of graphic and technical expectations and experiences regularly offered by the big players. But we don't expect the latest special-effect blockbuster to render all previous films and future non-technical films obsolete, and we have to start painting game design and marketing with a subtler brush. There are more kinds of play experiences than those repeatedly offered by the majors, and not all audiences are interested only in those particular types of experiences and narratives. IndieCade Festival Chair Celia Pearce, an Associate Professor at Georgia Tech, conducted a study on Baby Boomer gamers and found they were much less demanding in terms of graphics technology, but far more interested in artistry. "The people I studied prefer games with story, classic point-and-click adventure games ... a genre that big publishers simply abandoned in the late 1990s." Just think about industry precedent, the enormous underserved audience that emerged to play The Sims. Or look at casual games, which tend to be minimized by the big companies in the industry, despite games like gameLab's Diner Dash, which have garnered remarkable followings. It is not insignificant that the major audience for these games are women, who have a markedly different set of expectations and requirements than those supposedly demanded by the hardcore gamer. Mods are also a case in point, as for instance Counter-Strike has more copies in circulation than the original game it was based on. As the audience for these independent so called niche games expands, it reveals a tremendous desire for diversity of play experience and a large audience underserved by the current mainstream industry.

Independent game designers don't need to figure out how to serve specific public needs; they simply need opportunities for voice. For every independent game that is a phenomenon a dozen never get seen except at the odd industry showcase. If they don't get picked up by short-sighted publishers, how are they going to have the chance to even FIND an audience? Right now the biggest marketing channel for independent games is word of mouth, but public forums and the Internet are really lowering the hurdles for distribution. Such outlets as Valve's steam system and the newly launched Manifesto are helping to propel independent game distribution forward. IndieCade, by bringing the independents together in a community and a marketplace, will also serve as a catalyst by uniting the community and throwing a spotlight on a lot of those user experiences that are not necessarily technical wonders. We believe the audience will expand in response to the exposure to this innovation and diversity.

Film festivals benefit enormously from the role of film critics who use them to preview smaller and international titles before they open in their markets. Can

one have the same impact as Sundance with an independent games event without

serious participation from games critics who are prepared to educate the public

about experimental and innovative titles?

We think this is a really big problem with the game industry, and we are glad you pointed it out. Since most of the game writers fall into the hardcore gamer category, the perspectives are not particularly diverse. (Most of the game magazines panned The Sims when it came out.) First, I think we should point out that there is a generation of gamers, fans, and critics, who are students of people like you, Henry, and are interested in better and more critical game writing. As a juried festival, IndieCade jurors will facilitate this discussion by writing reviews of all of the featured games in our catalogue -- there are many small steps we need to make as a community to begin to open this dialogue to the greater public.

But to more directly answer your question, we are optimistic about movement in different areas. Blogs and other online forums are becoming crucial points of reference across culture, and in our field some fantastic game culture blogs, fan blogs, and independent discussion forums are beginning to emerge. At the festival, we expect prominent game bloggers and other "netroots" gamers -- already accustomed to imparting and consuming information on laptops, PDAs, telephones -- to generate the kind of buzz and attention you're talking about. They will play the critic role in more ways than one, and they will do so with more immediacy, more energy, and more drama.

This is more appropriate to the medium. The use of participants' phones and laptops are integrated into the design of the festival itself, so they will already be wired and inclined to beam news of the latest works to remote lands. As the years go by and the media channels for independents crystallize and mature, a central annual event will create the same sense of anticipation and discovery that film festivals nurture so carefully through traditional media.

Given how totally commercial interests have dominated games culture, many wonder whether there are enough interesting independent games out there to provide content for a large scale event every year. Where are you finding the games you will feature at your event? What steps are you taking to identify new content for the initial festival?

Submissions are a hot topic for us. We honestly don't think that we will have any trouble finding high quality independent work, not this year or any other. There is a lot of independent work with phenomenal promise out there. We have a large international jury and we are being extremely aggressive about submissions. We have a system of chairs who will be responsible for evangelizing in their categories. We also have a category for works-in-progress, which will allow independent developers lacking the resources to take a great idea to fruition, to compete and get the attention of those who do. We will draw submissions from around the world, and we can expect to see some interesting submissions from students. We expect to launch our initial website just after the winter holidays, and will open our submissions by February, 2007 at

As years go by, we are not going to settle into familiar forms and comfortable media. Of all people, we have to have a very expansive sense of the types of games and play experiences to be included in the festival. We want games that are pushing the envelope and are interested in displaying hybrids of all forms, not merely the purely digital. At the festival itself, we want to put the practitioners, industry specialists, players, fans, and spectators together into a dynamic environment: we'll have round-robin tournaments, LAN parties, social game activities integrated throughout the festival; as well as both a "Big Game" that will take place across the city of Los Angeles and an international ARG game which is being designed specifically for the festival. Each year we expect these activities to grow and transform along with the festival and the industry.