E3 2011 – IndieCade In-Depth

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IndieCade
The “Sundance of videogames” is the shorthand used by Stephanie Barish, the founder of IndieCade. This four day festival, scheduled this year October 6-9, showcases the talent of international independent game creators and highlights the best of the best.

But don’t be mistaken, it’s not just about videogames at IndieCade. Everything from strategy boardgames to action card games, all the way to prop-less games involving a circle of people acting like ninjas (I watched but didn’t catch on) are invited to participate at IndieCade. And everyone is encouraged to attend. As Stephanie explained, “It really is a community event… everybody that wants to know what’s happening at the cutting edge should be there”.

Not convinced that the indie game market, let alone an event dedicated to the sector, is worth your attention? Ever heard of Defcon, Everyday Shooter, N, or a little game called Braid? Well they were all independent developments and they were all originally showcased at the very first IndieCade. Still not convinced? The talent highlighted at the festival has been so consistent that the ESA (the big guys in charge of E3) have been sponsoring IndieCade’s booth since 2008 (the first festival was after E3 2007).

I had the privilege of talking with three different developers about their three very different games, as well as their opinions on independent games.

Desktop Dungeons
First up was designer Danny Day from the three part team of Quarter Circle Forward Design. This South African team was presenting the retail version of their largely successful freeware game Desktop Dungeons.

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This rouguelike-style RPG tries to keep everything a little more manageable than its competitors by offering single-screen dungeons with an improved random generator that helps prevent trappings by high level monsters. There are also variations to the generator that, while always random, can abide by particular patterns such as a maze or island.

Players control a single character of customizable race and class as they trek through a dungeon, searching for the strongest opponent. You start fresh at level 1 each time and must strategically defeat the various enemies to earn enough experience to challenge the level 10 boss. There are boosts to be found, items to be bought, and gods to be allied with throughout your bite-sized adventures. Health and mana are replenished to a degree after a fight but only do so when you uncover a new piece of the map. This interesting twist makes exploration a conscious effort as you risk replenishes for hidden treasures.

The retail version, built on Unity so that it can be mobile-ready, also offers improved graphics, a larger viewing area, a new kingdom and inventory system, adjustments to the glyph conversion system, and tweaks to the gods. If you’ve played Desktop Dunegons you’ll love everything about the retail version and if you don’t know what any of those improvements actually meant, give Desktop Dungeons a try yourself.

Skulls of the Shogun
The guys at Haunted Temple Studios bring a different set of skills to the independent game market. With over thirty years of “AAA” experience in the major industry this trio is looking to free themselves from the bureaucracy and concentrate on making focused high-quality downloadable games.

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With Skulls of the Shogun that focus is on a fast-paced easy to learn strategy game. But if the word “strategy” doesn’t really fit into your classification of fun Haunted Temple’s representative was quick to remedy your concerns, “We like to call it action-strategy, or arcade-strategy… no grid, no menus. Everything we have to display is part of the world”.

Indeed Skull’s slick flash-esque art style and presentation does maintain the feel of player control and limit any obtrusive stats or menu panes. All that you see on screen are the beautiful environments and the units of both your team and the opponent’s. Moving the Left Analog Stick highlights a unit and A selects. A circle appears to display your movement range and the player is given free control within this area. Choose an opponent to attack and flags are drawn to compare health. Press A to attack and that’s all there is too it. The enemy moves its units and before you know it you’ve just played a turn-based strategy game.

The tactics arise out of the unit management. Cavalry can move farther but deal less damage, infantry behave in an opposite fashion, and the General offers a high risk:reward consideration as he’s the strongest on the field, but losing him spells immediate defeat. It’s simple stuff but you have to rethink your strategy for every battle. The pretty visuals, tight sound, well-aimed humor, and stacks of accolades make Skulls of the Shogun one to watch for at the beginning of next year.

Deep Sea
Robin Arnott, a professional Sound Designer by trade brought a very different exhibit to IndieCade. “It’s kind of a science project for me, to be honest. I’m really interested in immersion, I’m really interested [in] making someone forget their surroundings and just feel somewhere else.”

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And that’s what Robin (mostly) achieved with Deep Sea, a game involving a laptop, joystick, headphones, and a gas mask. The limited graphics, consisting of two small arches and two small lines at the bottom of the screen are meant more for outside observers then the player. That’s because when wearing the mask, the player is cut off from all light. “It’s a very lonely experience”, Robin explains.

Playing the game for myself I quickly understood what he meant. At the beginning of the demo I am audibly hit with crackly communications from someone warning me that I am not actually alone in the depths of the ocean. There is some kind of creature down there and between the static the only information I get is that it’s “big” and a “she”. A huge crash and the lines go dead. It’s then that I hear the creature’s voice, a mix of a whale, dolphin, and some ancient entity.

The creature makes its noise and I attempt to move the stick in the direction of the sound and fire upon the monster. This is where the real limitation of the demo is apparent. The headphones often made the sound appear to be directly behind me. When it’s accurate though the effectiveness of the immersion is remarkable. Though I was still on the busy E3 showfloor the noise quickly faded away as all of my concentration filtered into my underwater survival. Focusing was pertinent for more than just finding the monster.

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The most engaging aspect of Deep Sea arose from the small microphones hidden within the gas mask peripheral. These microphones listened for the rate of my breathing and amplified the sound of surrounding bubbles accordingly. This was meant to simulate having a respirator underwater and it worked great. Though the fear level was minimal, should a player have gotten worked up, their heavy breathing would have made hearing, and thus surviving, more difficult.

Overall Deep Sea was a wonderfully effective experiment. The small technical issue of the headphones and a lack of real escalation with the monster (until the very end) aside, I think Robin is definitely on to something. His next experiment is focusing on the use of positive emotions to create immersion and I think it’s in all of our best interest to keep an eye on the future his studies could bring.

Reflections on the industry
After talking to the developers about their individual projects, I was curious to get their takes on the independent videogame market and its relation to the larger industry.

Speaking with Borut Pfeifer of Plush Apocalypse / Haunted Temple gave me a feeling for how restricting the big publisher model for games can be. “We have an idea [in Haunted Temple] that we know will work so we just do it. But before, you have fifteen people you need to convince.” This ability to gain efficiency also seemed to motivate their choice to write Skulls of the Shogun in XNA (a framework not used for major releases). “We can just get things done faster”. There was an obvious and immediate level of connection between the small team that allows for a better distillation of ideas.

When I asked Danny Day of QCFDesign how he felt about major players like Tim Schafer getting into the realm of digital downloads he was optimistic about their influence. “I don’t think it influences the indie market that much, I think it’s more a function of those guys wanting to have their creativity they used to be able to have… If they’re bringing in more resources, what I find the best is that they can convince publishers to get on board there, which basically legitimizes the whole indie process.” My concern that these big time developers would raise the bar of the indie market too much is apparently unfounded.

Ultimately there is a ton to get excited about in the indie market and it’s well worth keeping your finger on its pulse. Be sure to check out IndieCade this October 6-9 and check out GameFront for our full coverage.

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