It might have been the buckets of beer or just the balmy San Francisco night that had me feeling so upbeat after the Game Developers Choice Awards and the Independent Games Festival but even in sober retrospect it was pretty remarkable. On a basic level, it was simply seeing the best videogames of the year take awards they deserved: notably, Half-Life 2, Katamari Damacy and Toronto’s own N. It’s rare that I see my taste vindicated in such a forum.
On another level, the ceremony had a unique and forward-thinking structure: indies and industry establishment were fêted at the same event. Since the two sets of awards were scheduled at the same time, I wondered if they would be in different rooms. As I took my seat at one of the hundreds of tables in the huge ballroom, large enough to necessitate Jumbotron-style screens, I realized that unknown developers from Veggie Games Inc. and game superstars from Valve Software would be accepting awards from the same podium. It’s an acknowledgment and celebration of the importance of bringing new turks into the creative community and quite revolutionary — we won’t be seeing Sundance rolled into the Oscars any time soon.
As we waited for the thing to start, I got a chance to talk to some of the game developers whose games had made it to the finals of the Independent Games Festival. I had played Jeff Evertt’s Global Defense Network (Evertt.com, 2004) and found out that he had a day job at a game studio but had this idea for a game that evoked the “demos” made by hackers to showcase their visual and computational wizardry.
Music was a big part of the demo scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and at his day job Evertt could have just hired someone to do the proto-techno MOD music — but not with his own no-budget game. “So I started to look into it and get in touch with the original guys who made the music and they were like, ‘Hey great, you can use it — I haven’t touched it in like 10 years.’ Tonnes of great MOD music out there that people haven’t heard.” Working around this budget limitation turned out to be his favourite part of the project. “I really enjoyed talking to the guys. A lot of them are in Denmark and Sweden, really strange but really cool, doing their own thing.”
Dustin Quasar Sacks was also at our table and I talked to him about Lux (Sillysoft, 2004), his strategy game based on the board game Risk. “My original reason for making it was that I liked the game and I was unhappy with the current computer versions of Risk that were available for the Mac at the time. So it was either wait and hope that something came out or, since I was a programmer, I could do it myself. I scratched my own itch.”
But the world is full of itchy programmers and most of them leave projects half-finished. What was different with his approach? “The very first version was very small, it only had the basic parts. No multiplayer, no custom maps. When I first had the project in mind, it was this huge project with multiplayer and a ranking system and people could write their own AIs [artificial intelligences to play against] … if I had tried to do all that it probably never would have been done. But I enjoyed playing the game and slowly but surely I added the other features. That’s something that’s not really possible in retail games — once the CDs have been made they can’t be changed. Shareware is a lot more forgiving.”
The shareware model isn’t just forgiving, it’s also supportive. The Montreal-based Sacks offers a limited version for free download and the full version for $20, and is currently making his living off of this, although a modest one. “I don’t have a house, car or wife, and I live relatively cheaply. But most people would take a cut in pay not to have to work 9-to-5.”
I can’t help but wonder if someone from a nearby table overheard that — say, someone working under the sweatshop conditions big game studios like Electronic Arts are reputed for — whether it would make them grind their teeth or really think about another model to pursue their passion.
Sharing notes on these models probably doesn’t make management happy, but it’s important. As great as the creative cross-pollination is at such a mixed event, it could also simply function as a way for mainstream game companies to cherry-pick the most innovative ideas from the indies. But the indies don’t just experiment with the idea of what is possible creatively in games but also how it’s possible to make games: what different models of production and distribution have to offer.
Even more oppositional to the $50 console game than shareware are freeware games. When N, which is freeware, won the audience choice award and Metanet Software’s Mare Shepperd and Raigan Burns took the stage, they credited the community that had inspired their superb platformer game. “We’re just lucky the people who make freeware games couldn’t afford to be here,” Burns said, at once modest and inflammatory. “‘Cause none of us would have had a chance against them.”