Arcade Fire 

How Richmond's programmers are taking the world of indie video games by storm.

click to enlarge cover20_videogames_no_headlines.jpg

While rain pelts against the windows, tension simmers inside a building two blocks north of the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue.

It’s 8:36 on a Sunday night, and about a dozen people are staring intensely at their computer screens. The projects they’ve worked on for the past two days must be completed within the hour.

The contest is called Ludum Dare, and it drives computer programmers around the world to create video games out of thin air in 48 hours. Locally, competitors connect through RVA Game Jams, an indie video-game collective where mere mortals can play God.

These programmers make up their own rules, controlling space and time in their created worlds. Gravity, perspective, difficulty — these are just a few elements they must consider, and what they ultimately construct is limited only by their skill and imagination.

They’re gathered inside 804RVA, a shared co-working space at West Broad and Allen streets. At one table, Will Blanton is uploading his “Bedhogg,” a two-player pillow-fighting game. Nearby, Ruthie Edwards is building a website for her virtual re-imagining of the schoolyard game rock-paper-scissors. Behind a partition, Tyler Rhodes puts the final touches on a game in which players act as moss, greening rocks and cliffs by rolling over them. A few computers down, Zachary Helm is trying to add a high score page to a game where players fight each other using oversized trout as weapons.

For some, this gaming challenge is an avenue to instant riches. For others, it’s a creative outlet for artistic expression and exploration. And it could be both. But one thing is certain: From slapping friends with fish to impersonating moss, this isn’t your parents’ “Pong.”


click to enlarge A still from game designer Will Blanton’s “Redshift Blueshift.”
  • A still from game designer Will Blanton’s “Redshift Blueshift.”

As with anything carrying the label independent, the definition of an indie video game is up for debate. But generally it means that programmers are working outside the corporate structure to bring their projects to life.

A company such as Electronic Arts might throw millions of dollars and hundreds of designers at the next incarnation of the “Madden NFL” franchise, while an indie video game could have only one or two people working together toward its completion.

The games can be as commercially driven or artistically motivated as their creators desire, and the movement has led to an explosion of inventive options. Fighting an opponent with a large fish is just the tip of the iceberg — programmers can create personal narratives, explore issues of mental illness, or simply emulate blockbuster shoot-’em-ups like the “Grand Theft Auto” series.

RVA Game Jams has sprung from this movement, turning what’s often a solitary undertaking into a community. Founded by Will Blanton and Lauren Vincelli in 2012, the group meets every couple of weeks to discuss video games and programming techniques. It also holds events for programmers to create games together in competition, such as Ludum Dare.

Vincelli and Blanton’s road to friendship is an unlikely one, beginning with their meeting at a dance in grade school.

“Will was my fifth-grade boyfriend,” says Vincelli, 31. “We had so many wild nights of drinking chocolate milk and not holding hands.”

Between attending different schools and the onset of puberty they drifted apart, only to reconnect as adults through the magic of another mutual love: karaoke.

Closer than Mario and Luigi, the duo once won a contest by making an exact replica of samurai armor from Little Caesars delivery boxes. Donned by Blanton, photos of the outfit won them a year’s supply of pizza and made them the darlings of Buzzfeed.

By the time they met again as adults, Blanton was programming his own video games. Vincelli, it’s fair to say, has an obsession with pizza — she’s written pizza blogs, decorates her apartment with knitted pizza slices and has a large tabby cat named Dr. Yummy Pizza. She also turned that passion into a pizza-themed video game for a college class.

Soon they founded RVA Game Jams and became the de facto gurus of Richmond’s indie video-game scene. The collective was recently named a finalist in the RVA Creativity Awards, sponsored by the local nonprofit creativity hub C3 — which will announce its winners Thursday.

“It wasn’t until several years ago that I started making games, but it’s the thing that I’ve wanted to do my entire life,” says Blanton, 30, who originally attended school for illustration and contemplated a career as a professional musician. “Out of all the creative things I’ve done in my life, programming actually seems like the most creative process I’ve experienced.”

click to enlarge From fifth-grade sweethearts to promoters of Richmond’s indie video-game scene, Lauren Vincelli and Will Blanton are closer than Mario and Luigi. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • From fifth-grade sweethearts to promoters of Richmond’s indie video-game scene, Lauren Vincelli and Will Blanton are closer than Mario and Luigi.

During a Ludum Dare competition last fall, Blanton created the prototype for “Redshift Blueshift,” a game he describes as “’Pong’ with spaceships.” Out of nearly 1,500 entries to the international competition, he placed sixth. After that Ludum Dare, Blanton expanded “Redshift” into a full game, which was selected to be featured in last year’s MagFest, an annual gaming festival near Washington.

One outlet for indie developers to sell their games is Steam, an Internet platform for the PC community that essentially functions as an iTunes for gamers. Though it sells corporate games, the platform also sells independent games that receive approval from the Steam community. The approval process can take anywhere from a few months to a year. “Redshift Blueshift” got the green light from Steam in 11 days.

“Right now I’m trying to polish it up and make a living on it,” says Blanton, who brought in his friend Alan McCosh to help develop the complete game. “We’re just adding feature after feature and focusing on what doesn’t work.”

Another local developer hoping to crash the gates is Momin Khan, a 23-year-old who got into video game programming as a third-year student at the University of Virginia. A Northern Virginia native, Khan says he was so focused on finishing his game “Retroverse” during his final year at U.Va. that he neglected to search for a job.

But after graduation Khan landed at SRRN, pronounced “cern,” Games in Midlothian, and began developing games for clients, including one called “Stormwater Sentries” for the Chesapeake Bay Alliance. It shows players how to avoid polluting nearby waterways.

After SRRN was acquired by the Timmons Group to focus more on Web development, Khan began a gaming company on the side. Root76 is composed of five people, and the biggest game they’ve worked on is “Clash Cup Turbo,” in which dueling players attempt to knock a puck into the opponent’s goal. The game was inspired partly by Khan’s desire to create a game that anyone could pick up and immediately understand.

Khan showcased the game earlier this year at IndieCade East in New York, he says, attracting the attention of Microsoft and Sony. He’s now working with both companies to upload the game to their platforms.

“We’re really fortunate to live in this time because it is as simple as finding someone who likes your game and getting them to vouch for you,” Khan says, “whereas in the past you needed a lot of connections, a lot of money.”

click to enlarge Created for the Chesapeake Bay Alliance, “Stormwater Sentries” shows players how to avoid polluting waterways.
  • Created for the Chesapeake Bay Alliance, “Stormwater Sentries” shows players how to avoid polluting waterways.

But if video games have been around for decades, why has there been a sudden rush to create games independent of the system?

There are a number of reasons, says Nathan Altice, a kinetic imaging instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

First, the Internet and such platforms as Steam have allowed programmers to work outside of the establishment, sometimes using crowd-sourcing sites like Kickstarter to get off the ground. Next, game-making tools, such as Twine and Stencyl, have allowed even novices to create simple games in a few hours. Also, having grown tired of mainstream fighting games, segments of the gaming community want to explore more experimental types of play.

Altice — who teaches video-game programming in some of his classes — likens the difference between mainstream and indie games as similar to those of a blockbuster movie and an indie film.

With mainstream games, “a lot of this stuff is made by committee, and they have capitalist interests in mind,” says Altice, who recently published “I Am Error,” a book about the history of the 1980s Nintendo Entertainment System console. “Alt games and indie games are often made with not making money in mind. They tend to be smaller, they tend to be more personal, they tend to be weirder items.”

Many elements of the trend aren’t new. As the craft brewing movement was proceeded by the microbrewing movement, there have always been individual programmers creating their own games, if only on a smaller scale.

In the 1970s and ’80s, it was common for programmers to create computer games in their garages and sell them via floppy disk at their local computer stores. Many of the gaming companies known today — “Carmen Sandiego” creator Broderbund, for instance — began with a couple of people working out of their garage.

“You saw a very similar diversity of styles and types of games before the industry became a big, multimillion-dollar business,” Altice says. “We always think that we are unique in our moment in history, but I don’t think that’s always true.”

click to enlarge Momin Khan helped create the "Stormwater Sentries" game for the Chesapeake Bay Alliance. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Momin Khan helped create the "Stormwater Sentries" game for the Chesapeake Bay Alliance.

Homemade games didn’t make the jump from computers to video game consoles because corporations such as Nintendo and Sega owned the patents for gaming cartridges. If you tried to sell a game you created in a bootlegged cartridge, you risked a lawsuit, and Nintendo was known for being litigious.

But the corporate fortress was invaded in 2006 with the creation of Xbox Indie Games for the Xbox 360 console. Suddenly, indie developers could create and easily sell their games to the masses with less interference from the corporate world.

One of the movement’s earliest successes was 2008’s “Braid.” As its protagonist moves through time to better understand a failed romance, the game becomes a rumination of the meaning of life. Hailed as a masterpiece by critics, “Braid” was a huge success with gamers, turning creator Jonathan Blow into a millionaire.

In late 2013 and early 2014, newer consoles such as the Playstation4 and Xbox One made it even easier for developers to sell their games.

“Over the course of 2013 and 2014, there have been really awesome games that have come out on the consoles,” Khan says. “For a lot of independents like us — who don’t have studios, who don’t have $100,000 to buy a license — companies like Sony and Microsoft are making it easier to publish on their platform.”

Early games like “Braid” made a big splash when they were released, but now that so many programmers are getting in on the action, Khan says there’s more competition.

“One or two people can make a game and get rich, but there’s a danger in that. Right now the indie game community is focused on this idea that’s it’s easy to be successful,” Khan says. “You have to be really the top of the top to be successful, but still the vast majority of game developers make no money and lose no money.”

While most indie games don’t make money, there are enough success stories to keep the dream of big money alive.

“It’s still probably the top 1 percent who sustain themselves, but the perception is it’s all open now, anyone can go in and make money,” Khan says. “It’s weird, because it’s half-true, if you put the effort in.”

Altice points to “Indie Game: the Movie” as a promoter of this idea.

“It’s problematic when we have a film like that, because it romanticizes the process of making video games,” he says. “Most people toil in obscurity, and do it for the love of it.”

The sudden deluge of success that falls on the shoulders of some developers can also have negative aspects. After his iOS game “Flappy Bird” became a huge success, Vietnamese-based creator Dong Nguyen pulled it from the market, saying that fame had ruined his “simple life” and that he felt guilty about how addictive some found the game.

click to enlarge Tyler Rhodes wears a pair of Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, for which he created a game populated by crayon drawings. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Tyler Rhodes wears a pair of Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, for which he created a game populated by crayon drawings.

The reverse of the fortune-seeking mentality can be found in Tyler Rhodes, whose games are more art than entertainment. A graduate of VCU’s kinetic imaging department, Rhodes has spent the past four years working sporadically on a project titled “Evolution,” which includes a game where players travel through a bizarre world of plants and animals.

Rhodes collected thousands of crayon drawings of animals and plants from nonartists for the game, including children. Wearing Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, players journey through a surreal landscape populated by these crayon drawings, which Rhodes compares to walking through a diorama. Like “The Sims,” Rhodes says you don’t actually win the game — it should be enjoyed more like a toy.

“It’s an exploration game, like my ‘Moss’ game,” says Rhodes, whose virtual work recently helped him receive a fellowship with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He says players are sometimes confused or annoyed by his games. “The things that I like are evolution-based programs. They aren’t really games; they’re something a scientist made, like watching worms evolve.”

In addition to experimental play, indie games also have opened the door to groups that the traditional gaming establishment doesn’t always make games for. Women, people with disabilities, racial minorities, members of the LGBT community — they can now create the games that don’t exist for them.

“It gives people power to express themselves,” says Catt Small, co-originator of New York’s Code Liberation Foundation and the Brooklyn Gamery. “We don’t need a giant corporation, because the tools are so much more accessible now. It’s a beautiful thing, because you’re starting to see more interesting, creative games.”

While women make up half of all video game players, a 2014 survey by the International Game Developers Foundation found that women make up only 22 percent of the game-making industry.

To change this, Small started Code Liberation Foundation with Phoenix Perry, teaching women how to create video games. The impetus for the foundation was Perry’s frustration with how she was being treated as a female programmer.

“She had gone through a lot of different experiences where she was being singled out for being a woman in the games industry,” Small says. “She wanted to create a space where women could learn to create games, because the games industry tends to be pretty hostile toward women.”

A recent example is the highly publicized Gamergate controversy, which attracted attention from outside the gaming community. While the origin of the dispute is complicated, it resulted in an onslaught of misogynistic attacks against three women involved in the gaming community.

Being involved in the local indie community, Ruthie Edwards says she hasn’t seen anything like that. An animator by profession (and the cartoonist behind the comic “Ruth and Nail,” which formerly ran in Style), Edwards has been making video games for a little more than a year.

In her game “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Attack,” a gang of mutant rock, paper and scissors are trying to storm the warehouse of the players, who must fire back with the corresponding items. At the 804RVA space, she shows off a screen filled with code.

“That looked totally foreign to me a year ago, but now I can read it and make sense of it,” Edwards says. “I’m definitely proud of this.”

click to enlarge Last spring, professional animator Ruthie Edwards won first place in Ludum Dare’s humor category for her game “Teddy and His Cat.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Last spring, professional animator Ruthie Edwards won first place in Ludum Dare’s humor category for her game “Teddy and His Cat.”

While classrooms look to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers, computer programming is now taught to younger and younger students. Some grade schools are incorporating video game design into their curriculum. The Richmond-based nonprofit CodeVA trains teachers and teaches code to children through after-school classes and summer camp.

Ryan Patton, an arts education professor at VCU, also has received grants from the university and the National Endowment for the Arts to instruct teachers and children to design their own games.

“The kids learn how to make games, and we reinforce code games and code constructs,” he says. “After they make their first basic game, they can do more, and then develop their own games.”

The games themselves also can be educational. Edwin Huertas, chief executive of Shockoe Mobile Design, created the mobile game “Letter Lasso” to help his children learn vocabulary words. Huertas launched the game three years ago, and says that players in other countries — Mexico, Japan and especially China — are the biggest purchasers of the game. Players complete levels to unlock new categories of words.

“We came up with a way to make it easier for kids so they don’t have to go over the words 20, 30 times,” Huertas says. “It’s just through playing.”

As for the recent Ludum Dare competition, RVA Game Jams cleaned up. Helm’s “Fish Fencing” game ranked No. 2 in the theme category; Rhodes’ moss game was named No. 21 for mood. Khan’s keyboard typing game “keyTD” was named No. 2 for innovation.

But the biggest winner was Blanton. Of 2,821 international entries, his pillow-fighting game “Bedhogg,” was named the best game overall.


click to enlarge Suley Soffee, 9, tests “Redshift Blueshift” at Bits and Pixels while Will Blanton watches. The prototype for Blanton’s game placed sixth in the Ludum Dare competition last fall. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Suley Soffee, 9, tests “Redshift Blueshift” at Bits and Pixels while Will Blanton watches. The prototype for Blanton’s game placed sixth in the Ludum Dare competition last fall.

On a sunny Saturday in Carytown, Blanton is testing “Redshift Blueshift” on customers at video game store Bits and Pixels.

With its retro-inspired design, the game is right at home in the store’s Atari section. Playing the game with an Xbox controller, Suley Soffee, age 9, is hooked.

“The graphics are nice, because they’re pixelated, but not too simple. Like ‘Pac Man,’” Soffee says from behind his pixel-themed sunglasses. The voices in the game sound familiar: The blue pilot is voiced by Blanton, the red by Vincelli.

Given the game’s color scheme of red, white and blue against the blackness of space, Blanton says the Fourth of July is a possible launch date, though he won’t release it till it’s ready.

Is that when Blanton becomes a millionaire? For him and co-programmer Alan McCosh, their goals are more modest.

“For me, I’d like to make some moving-out-of-Mom’s-house money. Alan is a new proud parent of a baby girl,” Blanton says. “We both want to make a career out of it.

“You’ve got to keep the power on, you’ve got to keep yourself fed, and that’s it.” S


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