SAN JOSE, California — There comes a time when playing the next first-person shooter isn't enough. And for those times Cory Davis and Kenneth Mayfield suggest a video game of dodge ball. Jenova Chen would recommend a flight through the clouds in a nightshirt.
Those three game designers, all in their early 20s, showcased their game ideas as part of the Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers Conference here last month. In its eighth year, the festival took the shape of a few dozen kiosks set near the escalators at the San Jose Convention Center, ensnaring those en route to meet Microsoft and Sony reps back in the building's main chamber and those simply wandering the concourse level looking for chips and soda.
The IGF pavilion's real estate didn't exactly match the festival's reputation as the closest thing gaming has to the Sundance Festival, but the spirit of originality was there. Young designers demoed their games for any interested wanderer, who ran the risk of discovering games like the 3-D adventure "Narbacular Drop," a game that messes with space by letting players fall upward. Another, the half-finished side-scrolling "Braid," messes with time with a level in which time flows forward and backward when the player runs left and right.
Some IGF games were more traditional, falling into recognizable genres like golf and car combat. And some, like the bloody cartoon brawler "Dad 'N Me," are the work of teams like Behemoth, whose acclaimed "Alien Hominid" wowed at the 2005 IGF and cost $1 million to make, festival director Simon Carless said in a subsequent phone interview.
So what actually makes a game indie? "I guess the simple answer to what is an independent game is it has to not be funded by an extremely large company," Carless said. That rationale disqualifies creative but corporate-funded efforts like "Katamari Damacy" from Namco or "Wario Ware" from Nintendo, instead emphasizing those who can truly say they made their games their way.
Nowhere was that quality more on display than during the GDC week's gala awards show, which featured several IGF categories. A game called "Darwinia" from British developer Introversion took the top award for best independent game. The Introversion guys dressed in tuxes, a more polished choice than most other winners, and elicited the night's most exuberant ovation when director Mark Morris said in his victory speech, "We didn't take any money from publishers because we didn't want any publishers f---ing up our game."
Publishers may not be welcome to tweak developers' creations, but a change in the IGF program showed that developers might be welcome to toy with each other's work — the IGF even included a special showcase for doing just that. That's how the dodge ball developers Cory Davis and Kenneth Mayfield and a few of their friends in Arizona got involved. Calling themselves Urban Legend Games, the friends dreamed up their mod for the first-person shooter "Half Life 2" last year.
"What the world needs is more dodge ball," Davis said as he demonstrated some first-person dodge ball action at the IGF pavilion.
"It's everybody's favorite past time from grade school," Mayfield concurred.
Where others who looked at "Half-Life 2" saw mod potential for re-creating a futuristic war, the two had seen the potential for re-creating gym class. "When we were creating the game we actually started using grenades," Mayfield said. "In 'Half-Life,' to throw something you have to throw a grenade so we worked off the grenade and made the dodge ball. And everything was good."
They created some extraordinary dodge balls, like a flaming one helpful for those with bad aim and a slime ball that slows opponents down. They created outlandish sky-high venues but also made a school gym.
Were they being indie rebels? Davis said they were at least responding to those who have tried to ban dodge ball from U.S. schools because of the domineering social values it supposedly teaches. "That was one of the reasons we wanted to do this because I know there's a lot of people who are trying to turn dodge ball into something that it isn't," he said. "To us it's just a fun game that young people and old people can enjoy."
For the even less violent, IGF featured Chen's game. He and eight classmates at the University of Southern California created the game "Cloud" on a $20,000 grant, released it for free online in November and saw their server crash four times from the sudden demand.
"Cloud" depicts the mellow drifting of a boy who can fly, gently corralling clouds and pushing them into new puffy shapes. Chen said his team's breakthrough is not the subject matter or the gameplay but how those things were chosen. According to Chen, most game designers typically conceive their games by first picking a gameplay genre, like first-person shooter or real-time strategy. That's the wrong starting point, he says. The "Cloud" team started with the desire to convey a specific feeling: the sense of wonder a child has by looking at the sky. "We really encourage everybody to start to think from emotional experiences and design the game around that," he said. That approach seems to have appeal, as "Cloud" has been downloaded more than 400,000 times, according to Chen.
Independent gaming is no sure thing. Off-roading from a conventional development path can be interesting, but it can also push an indie game designer over the edge. "A larger percentage of independent games are complete busts," Carless said. "If you have room to experiment, you have room to make something crazy and unplayable." Those that avoid the pitfalls can thrive, or at least secure a spot at the top of the GDC escalators, taking a stand for some free thinking.