The emerging frontier of indie video games

By Jason Free, Executive Editor

As the video game industry and its culture continues to gain traction in mainstream media, one might wonder what the industry will become now that is squarely center-stage in pop culture.

SixFinger Learning reached out to independent game developer Gregory Avery-Weir, best known for creating masterpieces such as (I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors and How to Raise a Dragon. We asked Avery-Weir his thoughts on the constantly changing nature of the industry.

“We’re seeing a lot of video games lately that are being heralded as being the most ‘cinematic’ video game that’s been released so far. You have your Last of Us, and so on.” says Avery-Weir. “They seem like great artistic works, but we’ll eventually realize that making video games to be like movies is not the way to go, and that people enjoy video games for their inherent qualities that distinguish them from other media.”

Jason Free: How did gaming, art or creativity in general play into your childhood?

Gregory Avery-WeirGregory Avery-Weir: I’ve always been creatively inclined in one way or another. My strongest focus in creativity from a young age was writing. As for video games, they were something that I came to from a very young age, very early in my development. When I was a kid, we had an Atari 800 that came with a few cartridge games, some of which you had to assemble yourself. So, from the beginning, I was presented with the idea that video games were both something you could play and something you could make. Many of the games that we had for that machine were text adventures, and so the link between writing and artistic imagery and video games was really cemented for me early on.

I have always been inclinded to go into some sort of creative field.

I tossed around graphic design. I tossed around visual arts, and I tossed around creative writing. In the end, I went with computer science, in part, because of my interest in programming and in video games. I got a computer science degree from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a small engineering school in Terra Haute, Indiana. It was a fairly general programming and computer science software design program. It wasn’t particularly focused on video games, but I was able to take other courses in artificial intelligences and graphics and so on, but it was not in any way a special game development program or anything like that.

Throughout high school and college, I played around, creating various video games and other creative things. I released a few tiny games in middle school, using a tool called MegaZeux, which was a game creation engine. I also made a few text adventures during college. Other than that, I had not yet really produced anything that I considered to be a complete product. After graduating college, I got a job doing web development, and it didn’t really seem like a good fit for me. That’s when I left that position, and tried to make a living for myself making video games. I guess that’s when my game career started.

Free: Does that mean that you didn’t get any formal programming training until you went to college?

Avery-Weir: That’s correct. I graduated high school in 2003, and the programming classes that we got in middle school were only teaching us things like typing and using Office applications. There was very little actual programming there. I was primarily self-taught. I found that I could use specialized tools that were made to be more accessible, but until college I had no formal programming training.

Free: How were you supporting yourself in these early days, after college? You didn’t go straight into a traditional job, correct?

Avery-Weir: After college, I spent about six months working at realestate.com doing web development. During that time, I built up some savings that got me started with video game development. By the time I had my first substitute income from video games, I was almost out of those savings. If I hadn’t gotten a good sponsorship from a game called (I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors, I would’ve gone back into web development, and I don’t know where my career would have gone from there. The Majesty of Colors kind of fits the pattern of overnight successes, taking much longer than overnight. I wouldn’t call it an overnight success, but it was definitely the first game that brought in enough money where I could say, ‘Hey, I think I can make these often enough to bring in an income and support me.’

Free: When you first entered the video game realm, where were you, and what was it like?

Avery-Weir: It’s hard to draw a line between experimentation and full releases. I released a game for a interactive fiction competition in 2005 called Snatches, which was my first full work. Excluding that and the little games I made with MegaZeux, my first commercial game that I completed as an adult was in late 2008. I released a game called Necropolis, which was a Flash game that I released for sponsorship.

Free: Describe the environment in independent gaming at that time. You didn't come in and try to join a studio, you tried to do things on your own.

Avery-Weir: I had a pretty solid programming background, thanks to the degrees that I had and the classes I had taken. Regarding the physical development environment for me, I was working by myself out of my home. As far as the early environment from my commercial video game creation, it was just myself and my computer working in a very self-directed way.

One of the biggest challenges when I’m developing is just motivating myself and keeping myself on task and keeping organized. From a physical perspective I was completely alone, but the video game community online was really helpful, providing tutorials, being on forums and answering questions. I definitely, at that point, started forming relationships. I’ve continued to grow and carry on with those relationships, many of whom I’ve never met to this day.

Free: Who are the people or companies right now who you think are doing it right, either creatively or from a commercial standpoint?

Avery-Weir: Boy. There are a whole lot of them. Anna Anthropy has been doing and is doing amazing work. She’s shifted more into writing about video games than in producing larger works lately, but she’s a great inspiration for me. Companies like Vlambeer are doing some really impressive stuff; work that is both aesthetically unique and accessible. As far as pure artistic works, I really have been impressed by Kentucky Root Zero, which is an episodic game being produced by Cardboard Computer. It’s excellent.

There are certainly very large companies, very large from an independent perspective, and rather small from a commercial perspective, where people like Double Fine are doing pretty impressive work. Of course, their company is with hundreds of people that are making full commercial work, and have the full cache of previous work under their belts, but I still think that a lot of the work that they’re doing is really impressive.

I haven’t talked much about Kickstarter and other various crowdfunding strategies. I don’t have very much experience with those as a content creator. They seem very cool, but they also seem like a bit of a crap shoot. They’re another thing that depends on luck and existing popularity and being in the right place at the right time. I don’t really have any recommendations, pro or con, on them, but that might be an avenue that will continue to pan out, or it might have already had its bubble burst and we just don’t realize it yet.

Free: You decided to go your own route. You’ve also decided to take your work in a specific direction that some people call ‘art games.’ Can you describe, in your own words, art games, and what attracts you toward this type of work?

Avery-Weir: I don’t tend to use ‘art games’ as a category, I don’t like fitting games into slots or into genres. ‘Art games’ is a general term that when people use it, they tend to mean games that have a focus on story, possibly over gameplay. These games are trying to evoke emotions that are unusual for video games.

Video games are very good at making you afraid. They’re very good at making you excited. They’re good at making you nervous, and making you feel a sort of flow of accomplishment. That’s something that video games have historically been very good at, but a lot of so-called art games are an attempt to evoke emotions like nostalgia, or sadness, or longing. They tend to have a different mood or a theme than traditional video games typically do. They often have visual art styles that are less representational, and they tend to be more abstract or more impressionistic. They often are different lengths, usually shorter.

Since ‘art games’ are less accessible to the kind of people who like the average video game, they tend to get less funding. They tend to have less accessibility to the market, so they tend to be released on platforms that are a little more unconventional. Often, they are released on things like Xbox Live as indie games or as freeware releases for desktop computers. It’s very rare to get what people would call an ‘art game’ for a major console or with a major full price release. That’s not to say there aren’t any. There are a lot of titles that I would say are very similar to what people call art games that have had major releases, but it’s less common.

Free: In general, video games are dominating popular culture, just from the notion of talking about the idea that video games are almost analogous to the novel. When Charles Dickens’s novels were first released, people were up in arms about their lack of morality and how they were going to corrupt the youth on England. The overall belief was that novels were really just empty mindless engagement. How do you see pop culture’s current perception of video games, whether it’s an independent video game or a commercial game, and how do you think that video games play a part on our overall psyche?

Avery-Weir: Your comparison to the novel is apt. Video games are very close to having a place in our cultural awareness that’s equivalent to novels or movies. There is a decent amount of theoretical disagreement about this, but I think that video games are an inherently narrative form. They are a different way of telling stories than any other form of art or entertainment. People are beginning to appreciate them for their artistic expression, and, at the same time, video games as a medium is encountering this adolescent identity crisis, where it’s trying to figure out what it is.

We’re seeing a lot of video games lately that are being heralded as being the most ‘cinematic’ video game that’s been released so far. You have your Last of Us, and so on. They seem like great artistic works, but we’ll eventually realize that making video games to be like movies is not the way to go, and that people like video games for their inherent qualities that distinguish them from other media. They’re fundamentally a vehicle for learning in an artistic context, and for experiencing an interactive narrative. There are a whole lot of concepts that are best experienced through interaction and simulation.

It’s also a very social art form. Art has always been very social. Discussion and socialization has always been a part of any art appreciation, but video games are one of the few works where people who are not producing the content can interact and collaborate with each other directly during their experience with the work. The fact that video games can incorporate that social aspect much more easily than any other media is really important, and we’re beginning to appreciate that more and more.

There are artistic avenues for all sorts of different kinds of games, and that if you do mainstream games, you’re absolutely doing art and being artistic. What we talk about when we say ‘art games’ tends to mean ‘outsider art games’. It’s not making games for the sake of entertainment. It may be that in order to get your start and be able to be self-sustaining, that you’ll need to temper your pure art with a decent amount of entertainment.

I believe that in order for art to be financially successful, it needs to be accessible enough that you’ll get a large enough audience attracted to it. I don’t think that accessibility is at all a dirty word when it comes to artistic expression. You have the more chance of success if you combine artistic expression and interesting aesthetics and moods and themes with accessible gameplay design.

Free: Where do you see the market in terms of ‘art games’? Do you see independent game development as being a viable future for somebody who may be just starting their college career right now? Do you think the environment will be, in four to six years, suited for artists to start out their careers in the manner you did?

Avery-Weir: I hope that there will be an equivalent way. Things are looking good. The indie game community is continuing to move and evolve in such a way that there will continue to be opportunities for newcomers. But it won’t be the same way that I did it, because it’s looking more and more like Flash sponsorship is a model which is going to change dramatically. It’s already less accessible. There’s a higher bearing of entry, and there’s less money going around in that area from what I can tell. Likewise, some of the ways right now that people are considering to be promising, like mobile development and free to play models, those, in turn, will become obsolete. I don’t want to declare that Flash gaming is dead, or mobile gaming is dead, or anything like that, but the people who are starting college now that want to be able to get started making money off of art games need to understand the best method doesn’t exist yet.

Something new will come along. So, the people who are going to be able to support themselves making artistic games are going to need to keep an eye on trends, and they’re going to need to get in on ground level opportunties. It’s going to involve a decent amount of luck, and a healthy amount of privilege is going to help, because in order to be successful, you’re going to need to get in on the ground floor of something.

Free: Today, if someone wanted to be an indie game developer, where would you suggest they try to place their work?

Avery-Weir: There’s been a recent growth in downloadable game sales on a small scale. There are a lot of games that have recently gotten a great amount of success despite being very much outsider games. The game Gone Home has been really, really popular, even though it’s a lesbian coming-of-age story. We’re seeing a lot of very artsy titles that are downloadable for consoles, so there’s an opportunity to do that, but you’re going to come up against a lot of gatekeeping. You can certainly sell a game yourself and sell some copies, but in order to get eyes on it and to get enough sales to be sustainable, you need to have a combination of luck, marketing skill and quality of what you’re producing.

I’m actually running into that right now. I’m part of a small company called Future Proof Games, and we released a game around Thanksgiving of last year called Ossuary that I’d call an artsy game. We have had some sales, but we’re definitely struggling. It’s not going to go under or anything like that, but it may have to be that I have to supplement my income with a normal desk job for a little while to build up savings or something like that. It’s a situation where in order to get on Steam, which is one of the major commercial downloadable storefronts, you need to get through their Greenlight process, which is essentially a Catch 22 popularity contest. It’s one of the most accessible ways that exist to get onto a large storefront, but it’s still a strong gatekeeper for access into the commercial space.

Free: What kind of advice would you give to an independent developer from a business standpoint? What do you think is the ideal way for an independent developer to manage themselves and also manage their own product?

Avery-Weir: My advice for someone that’s getting in right now would be make to sure that you’re willing to familiarize yourself with marketing. Much more of your time will be spent on marketing than you expect. I encourage you to be personable, make sure that the person you're communicating to the journalists, the potential business partners. Make sure you are showing them you as a genuine person. Be nice, and remember that people who are already successful and people who are potentially going to work with you are actual people who are also trying to make money themselves.

I encourage people from an artistic perspective to make a game that only they can make.

Often, I see people making games and making all sorts of artistic work that are what they think people will like, and what they see being popular on the market already. That’s a recipe to just blend in and become overlooked. It’s far better, from an artistic perspective, to make a game that is unique and to make a game that is you, and it will resonate with people. It won’t necessarily translate to economic success, but at least it will be something that stands out.

Editor’s note: As part of our Living Case Study series, I plan to post additional interviews with Avery-Weir over the course of the upcoming academic year. I will trace the development of his latest project as well as his decision making as he seeks a career path as a full-time game developer.

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