Seeking The Heart Of Indie Games In Austin

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For the first time, the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, has added a Gaming Expo. Since the 1980’s the city has been the spiritual heart of computer gaming. Austin’s strong ties to the $67 billion dollar video game industry are now being recognized by the festival. This puts the 7,000 game developers who work in Austin– according to the IRS by way of the International Game Developers Association — in the spotlight. While conventioneers have been gathering downtown to hear about the latest trends, I went in search of Austin’s burgeoning independent game scene.

Before I go looking for the heart of Austin’s indie game scene, I better define what an indie game is.

“That’s kind of the million dollar question,” said Brandon Boyer, lynchpin of Austin’s indie game community, and chairman of San Francisco’s Independent Games Festival.

At the IGF, developers introduce popular games like Braid, which turns a classic –like Mario– on its head with puzzle challenges. They market their latest work either to AAA publishers like Microsoft and Sony or directly to gamers.

Here’s how Boyer defines indie: “It’s a game without… someone on top making demands of the game itself. So it’s one that typically is kind of truer to the creator’s original vision because there wasn’t a marketing team, there wasn’t shareholders to please.”

Boyer seeks games that break away from the military shooters and sports games that sell millions of units for big publishers. Games that emphasize discovery: odd narratives, out of the box thinking. In Austin, Boyer shows those games off at Juegos Rancheros.

Juegos is a monthly gathering held in a pizza and beer joint just east of Downtown Austin called The North Door. Boyer is the master of ceremonies, leading the crowd through the month’s latest indie releases. The audience even gets to play demos of games.

I went to Juegos in search of indie developer Robin Arnott. One way developers raise cash is through online crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. Arnott is launching the Kickstarter campaign for his new project onstage tonight. It’s a trippy meditation game called SoundSelf– that you control with your voice to create digitally generated mandala-like images.

Arnott and his business partner Davey Welden have invited college students and developers to their house for a party the next night. They’ll show off art-driven games like Sound Self, the kind of work they want to spend their lives making.

Arnott has chosen the indie path, but some developers find themselves on it unexpectedly. One reason the Austin indie scene keeps growing is the boom and bust cycle of game production. Layoffs at the multi-million dollar selling AAA studios here are annual events. Developers inside those studios look to indie games for a way out.

Arnie Jorgensen is the art director of indie studio Stoic. He says the indie community went into triage mode last month for newly jobless developers. They slapped together a conference  in a matter of days.  ”We talked about things like how do you do taxes, how do you do a kickstarter, how do you crowdfund, how do you come up with an idea.”

Austin has a long tradition of making games, and every time a studio goes under, the talent sticks around. Developers come for jobs, and stay for Austin’s “creative is cool” culture.

At Arnott and Welden’s party in Austin, the crowd is eating SoundSelf up, a day after Arnott raised $4,000 for the game online. Kids pile into the tool shed where the game is set up, laying on their backs on a pile of pillows. Which is how I wind up surrounded by a motley crew of hippies and indie gamers, chanting into a microphone.

This is what I always imagined SXSW would be: music, tech, and Austin’s famous weirdness brought together. I just never thought I’d find it in a tool shed.

UPDATE: This post was reformatted on March 13, correcting errors that made it into the published version thanks to the lovely wi-fi at the Austin airport.

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