Indiecade 2012 Reflection

IndieCade 2012 was the most exciting yet– great games, interesting talks, and an impressive crowd of makers and players. I met scores of new indie designers as well as old friends, and was impressed with the vision, energy, and enthusiasm of the folks I met. Glad to meet you all!

I missed the awards ceremony, but I heard it was fantastic. Some truly incredible games won awards, of many diverse genres and media including this really cool pervasive media game from USC called Reality Ends Here; a game called The Stanley Parable; Gorogoa, a hand drawn puzzler;  a beautiful point and click adventure game in the plant world; the board game where die are spaceship called Armada D6; a weird fantasy role playing game; and a physical art installation-game. I’d recommend learning as much as you can about all of these games– for great play, and inspiration!

The first keynote had none other than industry great John Romero chatting with Steve Russell, one of the inventors of the early game SpaceWar! Russell, a Dartmouth dropout, worked on PDP-1 computers as a research with mathematican John McCarthy and invented the game with a small group to create an awesome demo of the latest computing technology at the time (1961/2). It was a charged time of invention, when artificial intelligence was under great debate and scholars were using games as one means to see if computers could someday pass the Turing test. A very compelling era of computing! I was impressed with Steve’s insistence that game makers need to love other things besides computers. In Steve’s case, his passion was theatre and model railroads- they allow for creativity, fantasy, performance, and collaboration. Lovely! (I will admit, like many, I had a train set as a kid, but was not allowed to install it on a full time basis.)

Saturday’s keynote was an interview of game designer Bernie De Koven by Eric Zimmerman. Bernie, part of the New Games Movement and a playful person in general, continues to create games that create a renewed sense of community and physical, lived reality. Bernie shared his years of wisdom in creating games in which people truly interact. In my view, DeKoven has a 6th sense and gets at the essence of what it means to be human, and he brings this sense to his game design. Bernie had some excellent definitions on Friday: “Fun is what you do when you don’t have to do it” was perhaps my favorite definition for the problematic term “fun.”  He noted, “Play is a manifestation of health!” What a great observation, for people and animals alike. Happy people play. Play implies freedom.

Talks throughout the event ranged from practical (“How Indie Developers Are Redefining the Publishing Model”) to personal (“Influences”, where designers shared the inspirations that brought them to their current state as successful designers). I missed Eric Zimmerman’s talk on game design (was looking forward to that!), but I had a good reason — I was one of three designers invited to compete in the Iron Game Design Challenge! Iron Game, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a live challenge between three small teams to design a game on a audience-created theme and a “secret ingredient.” The Theme was “Government Manipulation” and the ingredient ended up being “candles.” The three teams had 15 minutes to design and playtest the game; then we presented the games. A panel of judges would vote on their favorite as winner, and there would be an audience choice award as well.

I selected as my co-captain and conspirator the famous Naomi Clark, a fantastic indie designer from NYC who has been helping us out on some Tiltfactor design projects (at Tilt, we’ve grown!).  From a passed around top hat, Naomi and I drew two more names to constitute our team, and proceeded to get down to design business.

In situations where one has to think fast, I find that certain patterns from game theory can serve as rich initial starting structures. Indeed, I find game theory tends to encapsulate the most vexing of human relationships. As soon as I heard the theme of “government manipulation,” I had the urge to work with the prisoner’s dilemma. How that well-known pattern played out, thought, was up to our team.

We quickly came up with a game idea that posits players, one by one, in a situation of conflict between loyalty and possible betrayal:


Players are brought up to the stage in pairs, and turn to face in opposite directions. They are given candles to represent their spirit of loyalty–these are lit to represent their inner beliefs. The persecutors (recall the theme) want players to blow out their candles as their way of swearing fealty to the corrupt government. They are promised favors, cajoled, threatened. But if players both keep their candles lit, they are believers, and there is nothing much the government can get out of them at this time.

If all players were to  ignore the incentive, and continue to do so, the game would quickly be over. Luckily for the game designer (but perhaps sadly for humanity), an offers of a reward was enough to sow discord amongst the playing populace!  Players acted in a united fashion until the third and last pair (remember these games were created fast — we didn’t have much time to play either!). The last players changed the system; one subverter blew out his candle, winning rewards for himself, but erasing his colleague. . . It was a betrayal, make no mistake.

Our team’s game was chosen by the judges as their favorite! U rock team! Naomi, Young, Haley!  Our game didn’t use extra props or outlandish elements, but could grow (someday) to a spell-binding game with another 20 minutes or so of design time ; )

Meanwhile, at the Gamer Gardens booth, Tiltfactor games Buffalo, awkward moment, & ZombiePOX were played by many!!

These are such awesome players!!!

Night came to IndieCade after this event, and good conversation and play took over  . . . we had our new sport critiqued by folks at USC’s Experimental Game Lab — thank you colleagues! If any of you are interested to test and give us feedback, please by all means email. Like all designers, we need feedback and good conversations about what we are working on.

On Sunday I gave my keynote address, Hippies, Hackers, and Wargames: A Secret history of War (& Peace). In this talk, I wove together the two great themes from our esteemed keynote speakers —  the history of computer gaming and the clandestine birth of computer science on the one hand, with the peaceful play of hippie visionaries on the other who saw games as a means to get in touch with one’s essential humanness. In my design practice I find myself a synthesis of these two threads — I learned computer animation on a PDP-11, but I also design urban games and sports and create installations that bring one bak to the experiences of the body. In the talk I looked to some heroic figures who straddled the complex zones between games, war, and peace, and then I looked at how each of these pioneers influenced indie gamers today. I had some great feedback on the talk–someone even suggested it become a book — so perhaps a longer print version will make its way to the world?

Thank god for IndieCade. It really is a place where people’s games get new eyes and a fair shake — you can be a student, a lone wolf, or team of crazies and still get your games out there for others to play. I am really proud and excited that IndieCade exists for both the veteran and the new voices in our growing field. Huzzah!