IndieCade: Video Games’ Sundance

Last week, in our lead-up to GDC, we advised visitors to makes some time to stop by the Independent Games Festival (IGF) Pavilion for a look at what’s happening in the world of experimental and original games. Maybe you’ll be too busy with other GDC duties, though, or maybe you just can’t make it out to San Francisco this year. Maybe you just need more indie gaming – a distinct possibility! That’s where IndieCade comes in.

IndieCade doesn’t make indie gaming part of a larger gathering – it is the gathering, happening October 4th – 7th in Los Angeles. The LA Times calls it “the video game industry’s Sundance.” You’ve got networking, workshops, awards, bastions of the scene (and maybe scenes from Bastion?), and a great big street fair full of games, all open to the public.

The door has just been opened for submissions, and IndieCade is looking to bring in the indies by the (humble) bundle: Any team that submits a game automatically receives a pass to the main festival, and an invitation to participate in “IndieXchange,” which is “a day long program offering practical workshops, networking opportunities and one-on-one meetings with art leaders, publishers and potential funders.” Games can be ready to ship, or can be works-in-progress.

Got a game you want others to play? Want to play some games made by others? Want to get in on a city-wide game of zombie tag? Check out the festival’s website and keep your October calendar clear.

Growing Up with Games: the Bright Future of “Retro” Gaming

Duck Tales for NES

Like many of the people who’ve found their way into the video games industry, I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can recall. I have incredibly fond memories of playing Duck Tales on the NES at a friend’s house, staring at the black-on-green screen of my original Game Boy for endless hours on long car trips, and spending lazy summer afternoons exploring every nook and cranny of Super Mario World and Mega Man X.

In the last year or so, I’ve found myself turning back to these memories more and more often, largely because the entire industry seems to be doing the same thing. Hundreds of classic games have already been repurposed for XBLA, PSN, and WiiWare, and a number of new titles seem to be pulling their design inspirations directly from the late 80’s and early 90’s. Heck, both Mega Man 9 and 10 pull their graphics directly from that era.

I have no complaints about this trend, but I keep finding myself coming back to one question… where is this all coming from? Is it simply the result of shared nostalgia among an aging consumer base, or was there genuinely something better about games “back then?” I’m not sure I had a good answer to that question before last week, but a few of my conversations at GDC have provided some new insight into the matter. To put it simply, most of us just don’t have as much time to play games as we used to.

While there is undeniable value in titles with “hundreds of hours of gameplay” like Dragon Age: Origins and WoW, the average gamer in their 20’s and 30’s may not have more than a handful of hours each week to sit down and play. This generally leaves them with two options: play through “big” games in bite-sized chunks or look for smaller gaming experiences that fit their schedule. The growing popularity of Facebook gaming, an increasing focus on smaller downloadable titles, and the overwhelming success of “casual gaming” companies like PopCap says quite a bit about how many people are choosing the latter.

What’s not apparent at first glance is that these smaller gaming experiences are, in their own ways, just as compelling as their larger counterparts. They may not have 20-to-50-hour storylines and sandbox gameplay, but titles like Mega Man 9, Castle Crashers, Bejeweled, and Braid are focused, fun, challenging experiences that tap into the core of what it means to be a game. The reduction in scope also lets developers do some absolutely amazing things that wouldn’t work in a larger title, and that innovation has never been more apparent than it was at the Independent Games Festival during this year’s GDC.

MONACO: What's Yours is Mine
IGF Award Winner Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

The IGF booth was consistently the most packed, energetic, and exciting stop on the show floor, with lines of developers, press, and other industry folk in front of every demo station. From the unflinchingly retro difficulty of Super Meat Boy to the “why didn’t I think of that?!” thieving gameplay of Monaco and the atmospheric platforming of LIMBO, the IGF games were an unquestionable display of the entertainment that can still be drawn from retro-inspired gameplay.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo. Despite the humble beginnings of most of the IGF finalists, a number of them are headed to one of the three major consoles before the end of this year. Super Meat Boy is slated for release on WiiWare and XBLA, LIMBO is coming to XBLA this summer, Joe Danger is on its way to PSN, Shank is being published by EA for XBLA and PSN, and Shatter is already available for PSN. A number of the other titles were also being demoed with console controllers, so don’t be surprised if more IGF entries are added to that list before the year is out.

Does all this retro love mean that big-budget games are on their way out? Not in the slightest, especially considering the sales numbers of Modern Warfare 2. That said, as the gaming population continues to grow and age, their taste in games must necessarily continue grow and age with them. Ironically, this may cause more developers to look back to their own fond gaming memories for inspiration… and if that means we keep getting titles like the ones at this year’s IGF, we’re all in for a treat.

VVVVVV and the Power of PR for Indie Games

It’s only the second week of January, and 2010 is already shaping up to be another incredibly strong year for independent game development. Derek Yu’s freeware colossus, Spelunky, and past IGF Grand Prize winner Darwinia are both coming to XBLA. Newgrounds sensation Meat Boy is headed to WiiWare, as is indie classic Cave Story. Many of the recently announced finalists in the 12th annual Independent Games Festival look poised to take the gaming masses by storm, if they haven’t already, and you can bet there will be plenty of talk about them as GDC approaches. Despite all the buzz surrounding the IGF and these heavyweight indie titles, some clever PR outreach by Terry Cavanaugh has ensured that his cruelly entertaining puzzle-platformer “VVVVVV” is the first big independent game of 2010.

Over the last week or so, talk of VVVVVV has been popping up everywhere, from EDGE (who gave the game an impressive 8/10) and BoingBoing to Destructoid and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Some people might chalk that up to word-of-mouth and the fact that VVVVVV is a great game, but the true culprit is Terry himself. He’s kept his fans up to date and provided behind-the-scenes details with a regularly updated blog, taken his game on the road to big events, done interviews with the right outlets, and weathered bad news honestly and gracefully.

Even more importantly, his well-planned preparations for VVVVVV’s launch, including an incentivized preorder campaign, have caused a plethora of stories about VVVVVV to hit the web in an incredibly short period of time. Buzz can be built up in a wide variety of ways, but one of the best things you can do to get people interested is make sure they see your game mentioned so many times they can’t NOT look it up.

At the end of the day, VVVVVV’s success does, truthfully, hinge on the high quality of the title. If the game wasn’t fun to play, we wouldn’t be hearing about it. That being said, the simple PR tactics Terry used to get his game out there and get people talking are what may take it from being a good indie title to a top game of 2010.

Whether you’ve got a team of 250 people making a million-dollar title or you’re a one-man studio with almost no budget, spending some time (and sometimes a little money) on public relations can ultimately be the difference between a good game and a great one. VVVVVV, the first great indie game of 2010, is living proof. Do yourself a favor and give it a try!