Indie Video Games – Vancouver’s Extra Life

Chunkadelic, by Chevy Ray Johnston

It can be difficult to talk about Vancouver’s Gaming Industry these days without also mentioning the slew of recent events that seems to question whether there’s even anything left to talk about.

It’s true; sweeping studio closures, layoffs, and general bad news has hung over the Vancouver games scene, like a dark cloud all year.  But after having a chat with three of the city’s most prolific and successful indie developers, I’ve had to ask myself if maybe, there’s really no problem at all.

Indie games are the young, artsy, and wild little siblings to the Hollywood-blockbuster AAA studios that spawn mammoth games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft.  They are smaller, quieter, weirder, and like the life that grows on the massive fallen husks of trees after a storm, they are quickly taking over the local development landscape.

Over the last week I took some time to speak with Nick Waanders of Slick Entertainment, and Shane Neville of Ninja Robot Dinosaur, who worked together to create Shellrazer, an action game recently released to widespread acclaim on iDevices.

I also spoke with Chevy Ray Johnston, who is constantly creating a wide variety of indie games, from atmospheric platformers to wacky shoot-em-ups, and posting them to his site.

Between the three of you, there is a wide array of experience with different studios. Can you talk a bit about the difference between working independently and working in a larger corporate environment?

Shane:  Less talk, more rock. I’ve pitched ideas much more conservative than Shellrazer and they were often poo-pooed because people are afraid to try anything new. People are always worried about ‘appeal’ and ‘target market’, and they have to be.

When you are independent, you can decide to make something if you think it’s cool. Seriously, nobody would have green-lit a game about a giant turtle with guns on his back. Nobody.

Nick:  I have found that being independent and small means you’re nimble and fast because there is no committee that needs to be convinced, no emails that need to be sent out before you can do something. I’ve tried to surround myself with people who are really good at what they do, and have no ego about it. When you have that combination, I feel you can get more done than with a team of 30 people who almost never gel completely.

Chevy:  So far, every game I’ve made myself has been completely self-published.  I’m not sure if I’d want to go AAA big, there is a sense of authorship that is lost when there’s so many people working on a project that huge.  The games I make are so personal because everything is coming from me.

My experience working with distributors like Microsoft and Sony has been that it’s just frustrating.  They’re so big, they respond very slowly, and so you can go weeks without knowing anything.  They also give you very limited resources to work with.

But it’s being proven that you don’t need big teams to make popular mainstream games anymore.  Ubisoft’s Rayman Origins started development with something like five people.  And there are so many successful indie games like Aquaria that have had even less than that.

Shellrazer, by Slick Entertainment

Do you think these differences have had anything to do with the recent “restructuring” that’s been happening with big studios in the Vancouver area and elsewhere?

Shane:  I don’t think so. The industry is always changing. While the low and mid-budget console game market is fading, the free-to-play PC market is booming.

Nick:  I think Shane’s right. The reason for Vancouver’s demise in the games industry is probably more a result of the strong Canadian dollar (preventing foreign companies from investing here because it’s too expensive), and massive tax credits elsewhere. Combine this with an insane housing market, and you’ve got a combination of companies wanting to move elsewhere, and probably a bunch of your developers wanting to move elsewhere too.

Chevy:  I don’t think indie games are necessarily the reason any of the layoffs are happening.  When you really look at some of these bigger companies, it seems like they’re almost built to fail.  Their model is problematic.  The graphics and art load on these projects is immense, and so artists are hired in huge batches.  What happens after a project is finished?  A lot of those artists get cut loose.

What is your opinion of the current Vancouver game development scene? What do the studio closures and layoffs actually mean for the health of the local industry?

Shane:  We’re in a period of transition, both in platforms and business models. It’s really hard to change business models, especially when the old business model is still bearing fruit. The Vancouver dev scene is only a few AAA free-to-play PC start-ups away from being bustling again.

Nick:  I’ve worked in the AAA industry when it was booming in Vancouver, and it seems that since I’ve left to start my own studio in 2007, the AAA industry has been collapsing (as well as the entire economy of course 🙂 ).  Interestingly enough, the indie scene (which was just a bunch of separate companies back in 2007) has been growing, has become extremely tight, and in my opinion has become much much stronger.

Chevy:  One thing that happens when all these studios start letting people go, is everyone goes job hunting.  A lot of smaller companies suddenly have a ton of available talent they can hire, and people start getting together to start new companies.  A lot of people start going indie.

What are your thoughts on the general industry shift towards (or at least consideration for) smaller games that are traditionally made with smaller teams on shorter cycles – i.e., iOS and browser-based games?

Nick:  For us Indies it’s great! For larger corporate companies, I think it’ll be a rough transition. When we tried to pitch a smaller game when I was working in a AAA studio, it was shut down because the overhead costs were so large and the salaries were so high that there was no way to recoup the money invested in the smaller game. It seems like the big companies are all set up for multi-million dollar projects, and a lot of these smaller downloadable games just aren’t.

Chevy:  Mobile phone and tablet games are really just the casual games that have always been on the web, that are now being put in our pockets.  But there’s a lot of gamers who don’t take the casual games market seriously, when they really should be.

Hothead Games for example, someone could look at them and make a judgment because they’re doing mostly causal games now.  But I’d say they’re actually doing very well for themselves, because they’ve started focusing on casual games.  That’s where a lot of indie success is coming from.

Gaming interfaces are changing from being dedicated devices like controllers, handheld machines, and peripherals, to simply being ubiquitous devices like “phone”, or “internet”. Do you have any thoughts on how this is going to affect the future of dedicated gaming consoles?

Shane:  I don’t think that the dedicated gaming console exists anymore. When I’m on my Xbox, most of my friends are watching movies on Netflix or streaming something. Thanks to updates and a robust system, this generation was able to morph into entertainment consoles, as opposed to dedicated consoles.

I think the much bigger difference is in business models. The days of the game-in-a-box-on-the-shelf are almost over and AAA console developers need to figure out the new business models.

Nick:  I think that ubiquitous devices have become so powerful that they can be used for the same level of entertainment as the games consoles used to. If you go back to the 90s, arcades were everywhere. The machines had graphics that were so good, no way would you ever get those kinds of graphics at home. Then a few years later game consoles came out with equal or better graphics, and arcades died. I think the same thing is happening now with mobile devices. The thing that mobile devices have is connectivity (without having to pay for access to the online part of the console), and a person always has the device close to them the entire day. I think mobile devices are the future of dedicated gaming consoles. Not ‘dedicated’ because they are only built to play games, but dedicated because it’s the device people will use the most to play games on.

What stood out as some differences in developing Shellrazer for iDevices as opposed to if you went for consoles or PC? Is the audience different?

Shane:  While the audience is a lot broader on mobile, I’m not sure the audience for our game is different than they would be on the traditional video game. Shellrazer is a gamer’s game. The interesting thing is the difference the price makes. At .99 you are making a game that will likely be an impulse buy and if you can’t get the player into the game in the first 30 seconds, you are done, they just delete the game and go on with their day. That’s a lot different than a $60 game where the player is willing to invest an hour just to learn how to play.

Nick:  The main difference functionality-wise is of course the multi-touch. It’s funny actually, I have to sometimes tell people that they can actually use more than just their index finger to play the game. It’s almost an epiphany for them because everybody is so used to single mouse clicks. Except for kids of course, they have grown up with multi-touch, and they expect it. I love watching kids play Shellrazer, they just get it.

Indie games seem to have different strengths than AAA products. What do you think of their potential to communicate ideas through gameplay?

Shane:  I think all games, AAA, indie or otherwise can communicate ideas through gameplay. The question is whether the developer is interested in saying something and whether the player picks up on it.

Nick:  I think Indie games are strong in telling a story you typically won’t see in AAA games, because all the ideas in AAA games typically go through a bunch of people who have to sign off on it, making all the edges nice and rounded, but also more dull. Indie games can be edgy, crazy, and tell a very personal story, because it’s likely developed by one or two people.

Chevy:  Of course, all games can communicate ideas.  I mean, if you want to get down to it, everything has the potential to communicate something to someone.  In a game, the language of communication is just different.  It can be abstract.  Take something like Mario for instance – just the act of jumping is going to communicate some kind of emotion to somebody.

When it comes to plots though, I’m not a fan of games that try to be movies.  Games like Metal Gear Solid that constantly take me out of the gameplay to show me narrative are not the right way to do it I think.  Cutscenes should be used to evoke gameplay, not boredom.

Shorter experiences are a nature of the indie game.  Do you consider this simply a drawback due to time and budget limitations, or is it generally an artistic choice that would still be made if the resources were limitless?

Chevy:  A lot of people who make indie games are simply hobbyists who don’t have the time to make big complex experiences.  But I’d be willing to bet that 90% of everyone who’s ever seriously been making games has tried making a big, complex game and just realized it’s incredibly hard to do.  I’ve been there for sure.  But I do think a game’s length has to be an artistic choice as well, or else your game just isn’t going to work.

Ray Ardent Science Ninja, by Ninja Robot Dinosaur

As indie games are becoming more popular, so is indie culture. It seems there is a lot more publicity surrounding things like game jams and small developer collectives. What’s been your experience being engaged in groups like Vancouver’s Full Indie, and how has an active developer community affected your game development process?

Shane:  I love Full indie and I love game jams. It’s so rare to meet with so many people who are all working on something new and different and are so willing to share it with people. There are no NDAs and people just share. That’s a wonderful thing.

Nick:  Shellrazer wouldn’t have been possible without the Full Indie meetup, simply because I met every person on the Shellrazer team at a Full Indie meetup. When I started Slick Entertainment in 2007, I knew a few other indie studios, but nobody was really meeting up on a regular basis. This all changed when Jake Birkett of Grey Alien Games moved to Vancouver and he teamed up with Alex Vostrov of Rocket Bear Games to create the monthly Full Indie meetup, which has since become extremely popular. Every time a new meetup is announced 100 people sign up in less than a few hours.

Game jams are awesome, and I would recommend all long-time game developers participate in one. It really drives the point home of having fun making games, which is something I feel is missing for a lot of people working in mainstream game studios, unfortunately. It’s a good way to hack something together and be able to say ‘hey, look at what I did in just 48 hours!’. It sometimes puts 2 year development timelines in a bit of perspective, too.

Chevy:  What the indie community does really well is cross-promotion.  Big companies just don’t support each other, because I mean, why would they?  At that level, they’re all competitors.  But indies need it for survival.  If you’re not promoting and supporting each other’s work, you’re going to find it very difficult to get your own work seen.  It’s a community that depends on the mutual success of the whole group.  It starts becoming really cool when you begin gaining a bit of a following, and realize you can really affect a game’s success just by publicly supporting it.

And it’s a worldwide network.  I saw developers promoting Shellrazer across the world basically.  It doesn’t really matter where the game is from.

You know, people ask me what the term ‘indie game’ actually means, and on one hand it’s kind of easy to pass it off as this dumb term that doesn’t mean anything.  But  I think it’s really this connection with a community.

A perfect example of this is a game that came out by Almost Human in April called Legend of Grimrock.  It’s an awesome throwback to old dungeon crawlers, with some modern updates.  These kinds of games have players moving on a grid, and used to include the option for players to move by clicking on-screen navigation buttons, but this wasn’t included due to the developers assuming nobody really wanted to use those buttons anymore.

That is, until a user of their forums stated that he was a disabled person, and has difficulty gaming with two hands, but loved playing those old games because he could easily play them using the navigation buttons.  So one of the developers went and updated the game, created all new art assets, and made an option for these usable on-screen buttons because of just one player!

That’s what indie gaming is to me.