GDC '08: State of the indie union

Creators behind Everyday Shooter, Eets: Chowdown, and more talk about the ups and downs of the independent gaming scene.

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SAN FRANCISCO--It wouldn't be a gaming conference without a "State of..." panel, and the Game Developers Conference Indie Games Summit fulfilled that requirement Tuesday evening with the final spot on its two-day schedule, a panel discussion titled "The State of Indie Games." The panel expressed a range of attitudes toward the future of indie gaming, with degrees of optimism running the gamut from cautious to unbridled.

Jamie Cheng, president of Eets: Chowdown developer Klei Entertainment, kicked the session off with a hope that the future of indie gaming will see the niche shed some of the assumptions people have about the scene. Specifically, he takes exception to the notion that indie games have to be "quirky," since that's often a code word for "not commercially viable."

"That's the kind of stigma we can fight to change," Cheng said. "We can educate distributors that any developer should and can create different games, but also if they choose to, that they can create mass [market] games."

That hope reflects Cheng's personal view of indie games. As president of Klei, Cheng must handle both business and development concerns, two tasks he loves so much that he said he could never make a game purely for commercial or artistic success. Presumably, Klei's current project, a microtransaction-driven, free-to-play game set to be published by Nexon, is a satisfactory balance of profit potential and artistic endeavor.

Grubby Games cofounder Ryan Clark was slightly reserved in his appraisal of indie gaming's future. While he was confident the medium would thrive, he was less confident about the prospects of any individual developer or studio in an increasingly competitive section of the market. Having a great game is by no means a guarantee of continued success, he noted.

"It's not for the faint of heart... The bottom line is it takes more than great hair to be the next Jon Mak," Clark said, referring to his fellow panelist and Everyday Shooter creator.

For his part, Mak focused less on business prospects and more concerned with the way the gaming medium will evolve. When he first started developing, Mak said that programming even the simplest of actions was an intricately technical process. As such, he said, technical-minded people were more commonly successful with game development, and that has led to a preponderance of games built on lots of rules.

Mak pointed to 2006's Xbox 360 hit Gears of War as an example of a rule-driven game. Players must keep a wealth of rules in mind during the game's moment-to-moment gameplay. How much ammunition is left in the clip? Which actions can be performed in cover mode? Which actions can be performed while running?

However, with the barriers to game development lowering and the process becoming more open to novice coders, Mak said the creative forces behind the games will drift further from the rule-driven action of Gears of War. As for how to turn those ideas into reality, Mak stressed the need to get straight to the heart of the matter.

"Just go and code the game you want to make," Mak said. "A lot of indies think, 'I want to make this game but I can't because nobody will buy it.' That's bulls***. Just make it. Or they'll say they can't work on a game yet because they need a design document first because that's how you do it. That's bulls***. Just go and do your game. I didn't really start feeling like I was doing what I wanted until I adopted that. Before I used to try and make design documents and do things the proper way, define indie games and all that. But once I dropped all that s***, that's when the good stuff happened."

That message aside, Mak did end the session's question-and-answer segment with a tongue-in-cheek definition and a shameless shill for a peer. "If you don't go and buy N+ tomorrow on XBLA, you're not indie," he declared, prompting a volley of laughter.

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