Indie developers spew rapid-fire rants

GDC 2010: Developers behind Super Meat Boy, Critter Crunch, Flower, and more line up to lay down their gripes with the gaming industry.

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Who was there: It might be quicker to go over who wasn't there, as GDC boasted plenty of panelists for the session, including Adam Saltsman (Semi Secret Software), Jonatan Soderstrom (Cactus Software), Anna Anthropy (Auntie Pixelante), Jarrad Woods (Farbs), Brandon Boyer (Offworld), Randy Smith (Tiger Style), Nathan Vella (Capybara Games), Craig D. Adams (Superbrothers pixel artwork and films), Tommy Refenes (Team Meat), Robin Hunicke (thatgamecompany), Ryan O'Donnell (Area 5 Media), and Babsi Lippe (Papermint & Track Record).

Don't expect to see Super Meat Boy on the iPhone anytime soon.
Don't expect to see Super Meat Boy on the iPhone anytime soon.

What they talked about: While most multi-person sessions at GDC 2010 consisted of interaction between the panelists, the Indie Gamemaker Rant session was an orderly procession of five-minute spiels from a dozen people with an interest in the independent development community. Actually, it was only 11 spiels, as Soderstrom capped the session off by insisting it was time to start the party and play a video for electronic act Familjen's "Det Snurrar I Min Skalle."

But before the party could begin, the ranters needed to get a few things off their chests. Canabalt artist Saltsman had the first tirade of the session, talking about gaming's origins as a business pursued by white males with hygiene problems who don't sleep.

"Thankfully those days are behind us," Saltsman said, offering the audience the first hint of sarcasm in his rant. A trend was quickly established as he expressed gratitude that faceless companies no longer squash innovation, crunch time is a thing of the past, and publishers and storefronts are no longer gatekeepers and middlemen that separate gamemakers from players. Saltsman capped his rant with a bit of honesty, saying, "I have never been more proud to dedicate my life to this art form and this industry."

Vella's rant painted a rather cheery picture of the indie development community. Perhaps that should have been anticipated, as Capybara's Critter Crunch made even the prodigious vomiting of its gluttonous forest denizens cute. In Vella's illustrated rant, he portrayed mainstream developers as wearing suits and bring pushed by competition, while friendly, bearded indie developers operate on a steady supply of love. With mainstream development, Vella said there's a significant risk that developers will wind up "with s*** on their face," being pushed to do unreasonable things by higher powers. On the other hand, he said there's a significant risk that developers in the indie community will wind up receiving presents from peers and fans. By not waking up every day worried about s*** on their face and by fostering a supportive community, Vella said indie developers automatically win, while the mainstream makers lose.

However, Canabalt is available on the iPhone App Store now!.
However, Canabalt is available on the iPhone App Store now!.

For his rant, pixel artist Adams talked about the problems of applying words to games. He showed a picture of a game character that he called a "dude," next to the word itself. Though they refer to the same thing, Adams said the word uses an entirely different (and narrower) part of the brain. He then compared the phrase "a joyful reunion" with a pixel-art picture of a person running to his computer with hearts a-flutter. The impact was not lost on the audience, which chuckled in appreciation. The language of video games, Adams said, is equivalent to the sound made by getting a coin in the original Mario Bros., "and that's what we need to focus on."

Refenes did not mince words with his rant. "I absolutely f****** hate the iPhone App Store," the Super Meat Boy developer said. "I think it's awful. I think it's horrible."

To demonstrate, he started an experiment five months ago. His theory about the App Store is that it is the Tiger Handheld Game of this generation. When he was younger, Refenes said he had a bunch of Tiger games that were "horrible, LED crap." He asked if anyone in the audience beat Mega Man 2 or Sonic on the iPhone. Nobody had. He mocked the idea of playing the just-released iPhone version of Street Fighter IV using the touch screen, likening it to playing Street Fighter IV on a Tiger Handheld.

To prove his point, Refenes talked about his joke game Zits and Giggles. He put it on the store and it wasn't selling, so he jacked up the price to $15. Three people bought it, so he jacked the price up to $50. People still bought it. He began to check the game's sales sporadically and jacked the price up every time people bought it. Currently, it's selling for $349.99. He finished saying that the App Store is nothing more than a way to sell a brand, just like the Tiger Handheld titles were.

Quote: "Wah."--Hunicke, delivering an understated wail on diversity problems in the game development culture.

Thatgamecompany's Flower was a product of a diverse development team.
Thatgamecompany's Flower was a product of a diverse development team.

Takeaways: Lots of problems are facing the indie gaming scene. Games are too long. Diverse development teams will lead to better games. The joy of games can't be captured by words. The iPhone App Store is fundamentally flawed. Indie developers should be jacks-of-all-trades, able to handle art, programming, or anything else their game needs. Games aren't a new medium; they've been around thousands of years, and video games are just a new form of an old thing.

The word "indie" is designed to exclude people, which runs counter to the ideas of the indie community. Storytelling in games doesn't mean cutscenes or static text. The gaming media does an inadequate job copyediting and covering the indie sector. It should also be less snarky. It hurts to layoff a development team because a deal with a major publisher fell through. People need to learn how to talk about game design. People shouldn't denigrate new gameplay by describing it as a "gimmick."

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