Game On: Indie devs play by their own rules

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I wrote this article on the lives of student game developers for the Klipsun magazine’s “Current” issue. It was published on April 2, 2014 in print and online.

Story by me, photo by Jared Chang.

Dressed in a dark suit and matching fedora, Western alumnus Alexi Pors bears a striking resemblance to the film noir characters on the cards he deals out in neat stacks on the empty tables in front of him. Pors stops every now and then when he comes to a new suit of cards, making new stacks until five piles of cards sit next to short poker chip towers and a rulebook on all four of the tables around him.

The cards belong to a game called “The Big Fix” Pors designed and presented at a prerelease event on Jan. 25 at Bellingham’s Dark Tower Games. Unlike many of the tabletop games lining the walls of Dark Tower Games, Pors created “The Big Fix” without a publisher.

Independent game development is not as hard as it used to be, Western senior and computer programming major Adam Murgittroyd says. Thanks to free software for video game design and crowd funding websites such as Kickstarter, independent game development has exploded in the last five years, Murgittroyd says.

That explosion has led to saturation in the gaming market, Pors says, although he doesn’t consider market saturation a problem. If anything, it’s a motivator for Pors to make his game stand out from the rest.

“My talent is seeing where there’s a hole in the market,” Pors says. “I designed [“The Big Fix”] because there was no other game like it.”

More than 400 supporters on the crowd funding website Kickstarter successfully financed “The Big Fix”. The $13,000 Pors got from the Kickstarter campaign was more than enough to cover the costs of publishing nearly 400 copies of his game on high-quality materials.

Releasing “The Big Fix” is Pors’ dream, but his lack of a reputation in the industry makes selling a new game challenging.

“The first time someone plays the game is basically my only chance to get them interested,” Pors says.

Some people are willing to buy a tabletop game even if they don’t enjoy it initially because they trust the maker, he says.

“I don’t have that luxury with ‘The Big Fix’,” Pors says. “Nobody knows who I am. It’s only cards. There are no figurines. It’s a pretty small box. Basically, if you play it the first time, you have to like it, otherwise people probably aren’t going to be coming back.”

Pors designed the gameplay of “The Big Fix” and tightly controlled its film noir feel and experience, but Kevin Maxon drew the unique art adorning every card. Maxon, a Western alumnus, is no stranger to independent game design.

“EIDOLON”

Maxon is the lead designer of “Eidolon,” a video game he used as his thesis before graduating Western in 2013 with a degree in game design.

Several friends helped Maxon work on “Eidolon,” including Meagan Malone —­ a Western senior and English and theater double major ­— Murgittroyd and several other people from Western. Maxon and his friends formed the studio Ice Water Games, and each member of the team contributed to the creation of “Eidolon” with expertise in writing, history, sound, computer programming or graphic design.

After Maxon graduated, he continued work on “Eidolon.”

“I get up in the morning and I work on it until dinner time and then I cut myself off from it at night,” Maxon says.

Maxon works on “Eidolon” 40 hours per week, and doesn’t plan to join a larger studio or sign up with a publisher any time soon, he says. The game industry carries a culture of sexism and immaturity he is hesitant to embrace, he says.

CULTURE

Factors such as the anonymity of the Internet contribute to the game industry’s culture, and have resulted in gamer demographics generally stereotyped as white, middle-upper-class heterosexual males, Murgittroyd says.

“I think it’s portrayed as being more that way than it might necessarily be, and I think publishers are more afraid to push the boundaries because they’re being told the gamers are that demographic,” Murgittroyd says.

Other boundaries in the game industry, such as its disparity in gender representation, were part of the reason why Malone says she was interested in joining it. In addition to contributing to the story of “Eidolon,” Malone is planning a career as a writer in the game industry. She is a columnist and game reviewer for the website fanpup.me and is designing her own tabletop game, of which the title is a work in progress. She does not attempt to hide the difficulty of game design.

“[Your game is] going to be bad when you start,” Malone says. “No matter what. The thing you start off with is not going to be the thing you end up with.”

All the hard work put into a game’s creation won’t pay off if the game isn’t marketed correctly.

“People are going to have to realize that even if they make a bad game, if they market it well, it will still be more successful than a good game marketed poorly,” Malone says.

SUCCESS

One of the most exciting moments on the team for Maxon was the week after Ice Water Games released its first online trailer for “Eidolon.” News of the game spread on 14 online publications, including the popular Kotaku and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Followers on the game’s Facebook page and the studio’s Tumblr blog skyrocketed. By Jan. 18, 35 people had pre-ordered the game online, and that number continues to climb, Maxon says.

At Pors’ prerelease event for “The Big Fix”, dozens of Dark Tower Games regulars and his friends played his game for the first time.

The event exceeded Pors’ expectations. Players didn’t struggle with the complex rules of “The Big Fix” their first time playing. Many had a genuinely good time as they huddled close to the cards and watched with excitement as the gameplay unfolded.

*
Background

This story was the result of nearly a month of intense research, writing and interviews. I know I’m a gamer and writing a story about video games did raise some conflict of interest flags for myself, so I deliberately focused this story on the developers rather than the games they were making. Suffice to say I was astonished by the amount of dedication the developers had and just how tuned-in to the industry they were. I learned more than I ever expected about what games are and what it’s like to devote one’s self to one’s art.

Pors’s comparison of a game like crossword puzzles to data entry was especially eye-opening for me, and Malone’s bluntness about how difficult it was to make the idea in your head into a reality is a message I won’t soon forget. But more than anything else, this story made me realize video games are really just one part of gaming, which itself is a much broader topic than many people realize.

I was completely overwhelmed with joy when my story was selected for publication. Few Klipsun writers have their stories published in the Klipsun magazine, and I’m still honored by the fact that my editors thought it was worthy of publication.

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