best of the independent games festival
'It's Midnight December 10, 1993 and Jay Wilbur from id Software is trying to upload the shareware files for the first installment of their new game Doom onto the server at the University of Wisconsin. There is a big problem however, he can't get on! Gamers eagerly awaiting a taste of id's new game have crowded the site. Jay boots up the chat channel and explains that everyone needs to get off to allow the upload. They all scurry off, Jay hits the button and Doom is on its way. After a half-hour, the final bit of Doom data makes its way to Wisconsin, the moment it does, ten thousand gamers swamp the site. The weight of their requests is too much, the University of Wisconsin's computer network buckles and crashes. The world has never seen anything like it.'
Taken from David Kushner (2003), Masters of Doom: How two guys created an empire and transformed pop culture, Random House p.153
The history of videogames is short but dramatic. It wasn't very long ago that videogames emerged as a new and powerful form of media. In the beginning there were no established conventions for how to produce games and distribute them beyond the arcades. Console games - tied to brand names, propriety systems and established retail conventions - quickly fell into existing commercial structures whilst PC games, with their plugged-in geek audience, explored new models for production and distribution.
The infamous id Software began as a bunch of guys in a rundown lakeside house playing and making games on "borrowed" hardware. They used a friend's access to large university servers to post their demos to bulletin boards frequented by fellow gamers who, once hooked, bought the rest of the game direct. Growing out of an active community of player-producers, game developers like id Software would release their code as shareware, providing access to the engine software and allowing others to mutate, rework and extend their designs. Today's game developers still release their software and game players still actively engage in modding, hacking and reverse engineering game engines, but there has been big changes to game development and distribution since 1993. Videogames have grown to become a massive global entertainment industry worth over $38 billion in 2004. While id Software has managed to stay independent thanks to the wealth generated by their early successes, most game developers today need a publisher to finance production and distribute their work.
When publishers fund developers millions of dollars to make a game, they want to ensure a return on their investment. This often means they are risk-shy, opting for a 'Hollywood blockbuster' strategy of known formulas and big budget graphics. And while more-of-the-same may be what the mass market thinks it wants - is it good for games? The film and music industries recognise the need for independent practitioners to keep pushing the boundaries and reinventing the form. Game culture also needs to be regularly reinvented and reinvigorated. Just as film needs indie leaders like Tarantino to reshape the mainstream, and indie critical successes such as Adam Elliot to inspire emulation, so too games need quirky and idiosyncratic independents to further develop the art and, in the process, discover new commercial and creative possibilities.
Established in 1998, the Independent Games Festival (IGF) is the creation of the CMP Game Group who for over a decade have been providing resources to professional game developers. Their initiatives include Game Developer Magazine, Gamasutra.com and the Game Developers Conference. The IGF has been likened to the Sundance Film Festival especially in relation to the role Sundance has played in launching new talent and vision in the film industry. Since 1999 the IGF has been hosted annually at the Game Developers Conference (USA), offering both an independent games competition and a Student Showcase. In 2005, the IGF Competition was split into two categories: one for web browser-based and small games (those whose download is less than 15 megabytes), and another for all other games. Each category supports six awards: Seamas McNally Grand Prize, Technical Excellence, Innovation in Visual Art, Innovation in Audio, Innovation in Game Design and the Audience Award. In addition the Student Showcase selects ten games from among its entrants. All of the finalists in each area exhibit their games at the Game Developers Conference, where they can be viewed and played by the thousands of attendees. The IGF awards ceremony is held alongside the prestigious Games Developers Choice Awards. The IGF winners for 2005 collected their awards in the company of the creators of Half Life 2, Halo 2, World of Warcraft and Katamari Damacy.
Over the years the festival has supported a diverse series of games; ranging from the critically acclaimed Tread Marks, by the gifted young programmer the late Seamas McNally to Virtual U, a simulation for modeling university management systems in America. In 2004 it showcased challenging works such as Oasis: a turn-based strategy game designed to be played in minutes instead of days that offered a complete rethink on how and when you might play games, Façade: an artificial intelligence-based art/research experiment in electronic narrative exploring storytelling and agency in games, and ACMI's own acmipark: an exploration of virtual placemaking. 2005 offerings include Gish: a physics-based 2D platformer where you play a ball of tar, Steer Madness: where, as a cow, you take your pro-veggie message to the dangerous city streets, and Global Defense Network: an addictively playable game that reads as an ironic reflection on the language of videogames and contemporary warfare. Since their success at the Festival in March this year, two of the IGF winners, Alien Hominid and Wik and the Fable of Souls, have gone onto acquire commercial publishers and distribution. Not all games however seek commercial success and a vibrant and inventive independent periphery for games is just as important.
As videogames become further established in the mainstream and development costs continue to spiral, the independent developers become essential to the overall health of game culture. The Independent Games Festival has a vital role to play with continued support of originality and experimentation, by profiling offbeat and critically challenging games and by fostering new talent.