Full Indie on a Winter’s Evening

It’s a cold December night in Vancouver, and I’m sitting with Kimberly Voll, Alex Vostrov, Alain Bourdages, and Ola Rogula in a small Yaletown apartment.  The five of us are sunk deep into a couch or an armchair, assuming the kind of Rodinian pose one takes when they are in the middle of debating something with intensity.  Of course then, we’re talking about video games.

The group I’m talking to is the executive team behind Full Indie, a community for independent game developers in Vancouver that meets every month at Ceilis’ pub to show off games, network, and share their knowledge.  I’m here to ask some questions about the meet-up, but it’s been three hours and we’re deep in the midst of a discussion about the developer-publisher model, and I’m too fascinated to notice that we’re not quite on topic.

“There’s a really interesting shift happening now,” says Kim.  “I see in large part that we’re shifting away from AAA.  You’ve got PS3 games out right now, and companies can’t even cover the cost of those with the piece of market they’ve got, and now they’re going to cut into that with a new console?  You’re going to see a lot of AAAs sink now.”

“Also, AAA is kind of getting left behind right now,” Alex Vostrov adds.  “The people who are going to form the perception of games in the future is not going to be AAA.”

At last, something we can all agree on.

I’m also speaking with co-founder Jake Birkett via Skype, who recently returned to his home in England after living in Vancouver for four years.

“I guess I’m like one of those producers you see in the movies,” Jake says.  “I don’t obviously take part in the meetings because I’m quite far away now, but I’m still one of the founders and they would probably run any large decisions past me.”

Jake and Alex held the first Full Indie event in May 2010, but the idea was planted long before. “In England I went to a couple of meet-ups with other indie developers,” says Jake.  “There was a forum called Indie Gamer Forum, and I went to a meet-up just with 6 other developers, and it was really good to meet somebody else who was doing what I was doing and knew where I was coming from and encountered the same kinds of problems as me.

“When I went to Vancouver a guy called Ryan Clark used to run a company called Grubby Games, and he set up an indie meet-up and there were about 15 Indies.  It was really good to meet them and it was just a kind of one-off thing.”

“I worked at EA (Games) right out of university, and I liked that so much I decided to go into banking,” Alex laughs.  “The whole indie thing started to happen when I was doing that, and then the whole idea of making games for a living went from an insane lunatic dream to a lunatic dream that is actually possible to do.  I quit my job and was going indie, and I was looking to hook up with people in Vancouver who were trying to do the same stuff.  Somehow I found Jake’s twitter.”

“I was working at Big Fish,” Jake adds.  “And I thought I would really like to have more of these meet-ups more frequently but no one was running them.  So I’d been posting about this on Twitter and my blog and Alex said, ‘hey I’ll help you set one up,’ and it just seemed to be that he was the catalyst.  We set the first one up in May 2010, and now it’s grown to 1000+ members.”

At the start, Alex and Jake would frantically try and find a place to host the event every month, but whether it was because of space or money, most places turned them down.  “Which is strange,” Alex says, “because then we found Ceili’s and they were like ‘yes! Come over!  What’s this?  100 people who all want to drink beer?  Yes!’”

Since starting Full Indie as a monthly meet-up, the community has expanded to include many other kinds of events, such as developer showcases, workshops and game jams.  “Originally, that was the vision,” says Jake.  “Full Indie is a brand.  It was to become A) a website where people can show off their games and share resources and tips, and B) to have many different kinds of events.  We ran several showcases at the Vancouver Film School cafe, where people show up and they’ve got 5 minutes to show their game off.  I think they did a sound workshop recently, and we’ve had ideas for speed dating – not literally going out with someone – but an event to find a programmer to work with.

“There were plans to expand it more and even combine up with an indie meet-up group in Seattle.  We talked about maybe having a joint venture possibly in somewhere like Bellingham, some middle ground and having a weekend event.”

As the group has grown in size, Alex and Jake have added executive team members Kimberly Voll, Alain Bourdages, and Ola Rogula to help out with the organizing.  “I asked Kim to help out when I left,” says Jake, “because she had run the Global Game Jam before, worked at one university and was teaching at another, and I thought she’d be a great person to help out and keep it going forward and I think that’s proven to be true.”

Kim has years of experience helping the indie community in her own way before joining Full Indie.  She taught computer science at UBC for six years, and now works at the Centre for Digital Media teaching game design.  “Most relevant to me was trying to get my students better positioned to get into the video game industry.  That’s not something the department was particularly strong at, and it was my own passion, having dabbled in it ever since I was five years old.”

However, Kim’s largest contribution to the video game world may be that for the last four years she has run the Vancouver Global Game Jam, growing it from 25 people to well over 200.  The jam is a massive event where people who want to make games show up, get into teams, and try to crunch out a finished product in 48 hours.  “It’s amazing, it’s magical, it’s really intense,” Kim says.  “I start in about June each year to get ready for January.”

“Full Indie does a jam too,” says Alex.  “It’s cheaper and it’s also a lot easier to do a jam that’s small.  It’s definitely a bigger undertaking than putting on the meet-up, but one of the great things about having a bigger executive team now is being able to spread out into other things.”

Even with new team members bringing their special skills to the group and adding great new events, the most valuable part about Full Indie remains the opportunity to talk to experienced developers and get them to take a look at your own work.  “Turning up to Full Indie for the first time, I would advise that ideally people bring along some kind of prototype they can show off to other people,” says Jake.

Going to an event like Full Indie and being part of a community is important for several reasons.  One is morale.  “Sometimes you’re working on your own, you’re on your own project, you don’t speak to many other people, you’re stuck in a basement, you’re the stereotype,” says Jake.  “But once you actually get out to meet other people and see how they’re doing you can get infused and you go back and feverishly work on your own game.”

A place for Indies to get together and be part of a physical community is important since the world of indie development is constantly in a state of change.  Being developers themselves, the Full Indie team is familiar with the difficulties of creating in the modern games industry, and have first-hand experience with new revelations like Kickstarter, the iPhone, and social gaming.

“I did a Kickstarter back in May for my game, Hungry Fins,” says Kim, “It was so much harder than I thought.  I thought you let it out there and before you know it you’re another Double Fine!  It wasn’t like that at all.  Double Fine was this hot amazing sexy project and we were about fish.  It was just really hard to gain purchase in Kickstarter when there was all these insane huge projects.  We were just not as sexy as them.”

Having a support network like Full Indie during the stress of doing something like a Kickstarter can help keep morale and focus where it needs to be.  “I’ll bring my game and I’ll be thinking ‘this is such a crappy game, like it’s a stupid fish swimming game, who wants to swim as a fish!’ and then I’ll hand it to somebody in the bar and they’ll be like ‘wow, I could play this all night this is really cool!’   Hungry Fins six months ago was a totally different game from Hungry Fins today and that’s in large part because I go to Full Indie and I show it to people.”

In Kim’s case however, she found some extra support that you probably won’t usually find at Full Indie.

“I was really excited about this,” Kim says, laughing.  “I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s playing graphical adventure games, and one of my favourite games of all time is The Secret of Monkey Island, and Tim Schafer helped us on our campaign.  Tim gave us all this great advice, he told us not to panic.  We were at about 75-80% with about 48 hours to go, and he said that any campaign that’s at that point will make it with 100% certainty.”

Alex laughs.  “One important tip for indies is that if you admire somebody, send them an email.”

Everyone here is an indie game developer in their own way.  Alex started Rocket Bear Games, and is currently working on a game called Infested Planet, a top-down strategy game.  Kim is working with PepperDev to release an iPhone game called Hungry Fins, a mobile side-scroller.  Jake started Grey Alien Games and creates casual downloadable games on the web.  Alain is working on his own Android game with his company GreenCod, called Bad Traffic, a top-down action game.  Ola creates dress-up games on her website Doll Divine.

Just looking at the five members of the Full Indie team, it’s clear to see that indie development covers a broad swath of different styles of game design, genres, and tones..

“Even though our group is disparate and we all do many different things, there are many commonalities to do with marketing, to do with platforms.  I believe there’s a lot of crossover,” says Jake.

“Whether you’re making causal games or ‘hardcore’ games, there’s an overlap,” says Kim.  “There’s a more practical overlap in that many of the tools you’re using are going to be in common, but there’s also game design overlap, there’s the community overlap, business, all of that.”

With indie and casual games still occupying such a new and undefined space in the games industry, there remains some trepidation when talking about where social gaming fits into the new geography.  While Full Indie is open to anyone, specific meet-ups for social games have started popping up to accommodate the differences in design.

“What are social games?” Alex asks.  “Genres are defined in weird ways.  First person shooters are a camera perspective – social games are defined by their distribution method.”

“There’s this weird tension that exists between making money and your passion,” says Kim.  “When you go to the social sphere, it feels like it’s driven a lot more by analytics, it’s driven a lot more by the numbers.  How can you make a game out of a metric?  We are – certainly within this room – defined by the very experience itself and the pure love of the magic of games.  And money is great, money is swell, but games are even more amazing.”

Perhaps the reason that social games and other kinds of indie games are so often clumped together is due to the dominance of the iPhone.  Alain, the lone Android developer in the room, quickly admits that iOS is just the easiest platform to go to.  “There’s more money made per game on iOS,” he says.  “But the gap is closing.”

“iOS is incredibly democratic, more democratic than Steam for sure,” Alex adds.  “There’s no easy way to get on Steam, you need to have mad connections.  Apple’s also very careful to curate their market and make it an ecosystem where people will buy stuff.  But I will say that you’re probably not going to see any success from iOS unless it’s your second, third, or fourth game.  It’s a very competitive market.  Maybe it’s been over-invested into.”

Kim notes that maybe the biggest problem with the platform is that it’s so easy for people to get on it.  “You might have this real gem and you’re just going to be washed over by this wave of crap.”

“It’s 1983 all over again,” Ola jokes.

To the 100 people who make it into Ceili’s every month for Full Indie, games are more than a quick diversion on an iPad.  They are discussed with a seriousness and passion that is sometimes hard to find elsewhere.  Game development is a mix of illustrators, animators, programmers, designers, musicians, and so many other disciplines, that when they come together it’s hard not to feel a sudden urge to collaborate and create, which might be the best perk Full Indie has to offer.

Despite how clear the answer might appear when you’re sitting between four passionate game designers, there is a simmering cultural conversation about whether games are art.  Anyone who makes games knows the answer.  “Art is creating,” Ola says.

“The argument is tired,” says Alex.  He suggests that it might not even matter how people label video games.  “If we all agreed games aren’t art, would we care?  Games will still be emotional.”

Making it as a one or two person indie team can be extremely difficult.  The uncertainty of success on absurdly over-saturated platforms, the need to market yourself endlessly, the financial balancing act, the time-sinking commitment, and the emotional toll is not something that everyone is able to do.  But having a solid support network of others who are struggling to achieve a similar dream is what Full Indie is all about.  If you’re a game developer, it’s a community of people just as crazy as yourself.

Jake made business software for nine years before going indie in 2005, and knows the difficulties of trying to make it in the games industry.  “First thing I would say is make sure you’ve got enough savings to live for a year or more while you make your first few games.  Don’t expect to get rich quickly, it takes work and time and effort.  The other thing is, start small.  Make sure your first game is small, and get it out the door just to see what it’s like to actually ship a game and have to market it, and see what the sales are, which probably are going to be crap for your first game.  And that’s the sad truth, but you need to find that out quickly.  Because once you’ve found that out you can see where you went wrong and start thinking about how to improve it,” he advises.  “The last thing is a good old Tony Robbins equivalent of ‘believe in yourself’.  Believe you can achieve it, stick at it, don’t give in, and give it your best.  If you want it enough, you’ll make it happen.”

The road may be difficult, but nobody here regrets making games.  “When you meet people who say you affected their life, it’s amazing,” says Alex.  “Interactivity is the original killer app, the original art form.”

When it comes to games, people can be affected in special ways.  Games can be emotional, intense, and personal, but most importantly, they’re a reason to get together.  The executive team behind Full Indie truly believes in the power of games, and are bringing game makers together so that better and more creative games can continue to be made by small passionate teams, as big studios are closing all around us.

“I believe with games we can change the world,” says Kim.  If there’s any doubt that games still have a chance in Vancouver, Full Indie is a community that is eager to prove that games might very well have a better chance than ever before.