Arcade Fire 

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

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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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