At Free Play (http://www.free-play.org), the independent game developers conference sponsored by the Next Wave Festival in Melbourne, Australia, over 300 programmers, artists, musicians, and others of an independent, unfettered mindset came together to learn and to share, to meet and to find, and to drink a lot of beer.
Like the Indie Games Con (IGC: http://www.indiegamescon.com), Free Play proved to be a high-energy affair, rising above its somewhat unorthodox venue (overheard: "Is that blood on the floor?" "No. It's fake blood. From a band playing here last night.") to bring together a diverse group of people, all with something to say, and with a passion to make games. Developers and artists of all experience levels attended, from aspiring students to industry veterans.
I was fortunate enough to have been invited to speak at the inaugural Free Play conference, along with two others from the United States, Harvey Smith and Brody Condon. This article is less a blow-by-blow description of what happened than a combination of my impressions and observations, mixed with some actual reporting.
At the last panel discussion of the conference, Katharine Neal asked those of us on the panel about our impression of the Australian indie game development scene, and what we thought the future held. In a way, this article is my after-the-fact, more-complete answer to that question.
First, A Word About Melbourne
Melbourne is amazing. Really amazing.
Admittedly, I've never visited Melbourne before. On the other hand, as I write the first draft of this article in my hotel room after yet another day spent walking about the downtown area, I must confess that I've never left Melbourne before either. So perhaps my judgment is still under the sway of the city. Regardless: Melbourne is great.
The cultural diversity, the sheer volume of art galleries, the bustling life of the city throughout the day and into the evening, the hospitality of the people I met: it all just blew me away. The few days I've spent here have allowed me to only scratch the surface of this complex, deep city, and I look forward to coming back to explore Melbourne in all its richness.
My thanks again to Next Wave and Free Play--and Fiona Maxwell and Katharine Neal, specifically--for the opportunity to share in this conference.
More Than Coding and Coders
Many game developer gatherings, even the annual Game Developers Conference, seem to have a definite programmer bias. Though artists are represented, of course, the programmers often outnumber them by a significant margin. At Free Play, though, the ratio was at least 50-50, and possibly tipped in favor of the artists.
And when I say "artist", I use the term at its most general. There were pixellers, modelers, animators, and texturers, as one would expect at a game conference. But there were also many traditional artists, including musicians and filmmakers, looking to push the boundaries of computer games, to use computer games as a new form of personal expression.
This high ratio of artists, not just as GUI designers and creators of in-game eye-candy, has had a discernible impact on the Australian indie scene. The social consciousness displayed by such games as "Escape from Woomera" (http://www.escapefromwoomera.org/) and "Street Survivor" (a game "based on the lives of young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness") provide lessons in how to take games into larger arenas, beyond being just entertainment.
3 Days, 3 Nights, or Where Did the Time Go?
The sessions offered by Free Play included many you might see at GDC, like "Women in Game Development" and "Trade Secrets of Character Animation". There were also some topics covered that the GDC hasn't discovered yet, like "A Game Developers Place in Society and Culture" and "Open Source and Free Art Tools". Finally, there were some very Australia-specific sessions, like "Financing Avenues and Government Support for Game Development" and "Independent Developers and Public Funding".
There were many sessions that I would've loved to attend, but missed for various reasons. That's what happens, though, when you have a lot of great topics all happening at the same time.
I attended the panel discussions about "Creative Game Interfaces", "Women in Game Development", and "Politics of Games, Political Games and Political Art Mods". I attended the keynotes of Harvey Smith and Brody Condon. I had my own keynote presentation on Saturday, and I participated in panel discussions about "The International Indie Game Developer's Scene", "Perspectives on Indie Game Distribution", and "Building the Independent Game Development Community".
The panelists in "Creative Game Interfaces" talked about the history of game interfaces, suggested some modifications to traditional devices, and, in general, rebelled against immobile gaming. I mention more about this session in a bit.
"Women in Game Development" covered the topic in much the same way as the roundtables of the same name at the GDC. The biggest difference at Free Play was that the audience was mostly male. The roundtables at GDC are usually 80% to 90% female. Overall, it seems that women in Australia face many of the same challenges as women in the US.
Harvey Smith's keynote described his growth as a game designer, especially during his years at Ion Storm. His emphasis was on inspiring the audience, and presenting a philosophical approach to game design. I wish I remembered more of his session, but it was on Friday night, right before a period of free beer. I have a favorable impression of what he had to say, though.
Brody Condon's keynote was an interesting look at making art with games as well as games as art. His "Adam Killer" game (a Half-life mod) sticks in my mind as a very simple concept that still managed to take a whole new look at violence in games.
The "Politics of Games" discussion taught me some things about Australian politics that I had never encountered before, and featured images from "Deus Ex" (unintentionally political) and "Velvet Strike" (intentionally political). Though the session got derailed into a violence-in-games discussion several times, it was a very good session, presenting compelling arguments for how games can be used to promote political messages and agendas--at least if you're an indie and aren't overly concerned with your project's commercial prospects.
I enjoyed the sessions I participated in as a panelist, but it's hard to comment on them. In "The International Indie Game Developer's Scene", David Hewitt promoted the IGDA, trying to get an Australian chapter started, and Andrea Blundell gave a good talk about the IGF. I talked briefly about the Association of Shareware Professionals, and the indie community in general.
In "Perspectives on Indie Game Distribution", Brett Rolfe gave a great presentation about online marketing, talking about using the "3 C's" of corporate presence on the Web, a campaign to drive traffic to the Web site, and interacting with consumers to get your message out. Alyson West talked briefly about how she promotes indie bands in Australia. I talked about using Web sites that list software and games, and the importance of tracking your traffic so that you know where to advertise so that you can get the best return on investment.
"Building the Independent Game Development Community" was the last session of Free Play, and became a sort of post mortem for the conference.
"We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto."
I've attended GDC three times, and the IGC twice. In addition to those, I have also attended other conferences, for other industries. This hardly makes me a conference aficionado but does show, I think, that I'm hardly new to conferences. What I had never realized before, though, is how "US-centric" these events can be.
The US and Australia have many cultural similarities, and, to use the words of one person I talked to this weekend, many "shared experiences" (like growing up playing the same games, seeing many of the same movies and TV shows), but as an American observer of a conference by Australians for Australians, there were several times when I knew for certain that I was a long way from home.
One of the first moments came during the panel discussion, "Creative Game Interfaces", on Friday afternoon. That panel discussion went from a history of "computer space interfaces" to a discussion of sequined, strap-on joysticks (with both "flaccid" and "erect" positions) and "teledildonics" in a way I had never witnessed before, and likely would never see at the GDC. Great stuff.
Then there was the "Women in Game Development" session, also on Friday afternoon. Serious talk about forming a game developers union to combat the ridiculous working hours and pay scales (for both sexes) in the industry underscored the very different viewpoints on unions held on the different sides of the Pacific. On the other hand, the horror stories of extended crunch times and sexual harassment sounded about the same as I've heard in roundtable discussions at the GDC.
Another time was during the panel discussion about "Sex and Games". I've been to 2-3 "Sex and Violence in Video Games" roundtables at the GDC, and I've never seen it discussed or presented the way it was Saturday evening. The frank discussion of sex in games, taking the subject seriously and not engaging in the histrionics so typical in the US was very refreshing. It doesn't bother me to say that I was not entirely comfortable with all of the material presented (can we say "phallic"?). After all, art isn't about respecting comfort zones. And not all art has to be suitable for children. On a more typical note, the session also included the standard discussion of the rather infantile presentation of women in games, and in promoting games (AKA "booth bunnies").
Finally, the amount of government funding, in various forms, available to Australian game developers was nothing short of astounding to my American eyes. Australia wants to support its arts and "exportable" businesses, and it includes games in that mix. Australian indies should definitely take advantage of this.
I have always had a sense of the international potential of indie games, and have had more than one team member across national borders. Free Play, as what is quite possibly the first such conference outside the USA, underscores that potential in a big way.
Hello, World. The independent game developers are here--and we're everywhere.
And so it ends...
I head back to the States Tuesday morning. In a sort of "final breath" of Free Play (for 2004), Brody Condon is presenting Monday night at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. I will be attending that, and then heading to bed for a short night before a long flight.
Eye-opening at times, entertaining at others, this trip has definitely broadened my horizons.
About the Next Wave Festival
Free Play was a part of the biannual Next Wave Festival (http://www.nextwave.org.au). Melbourne is considered the cultural heart of Australia, and the Next Wave Festival adds to that. With its provocative "Unpopular Arts" motto, Next Wave has been around since 1985, sponsoring numerous shows, acts, and events.
About the Author
David "RM" Michael has been an independent software developer for over 5 years and is the author of The Indie Game Development Survival Guide (Charles River Media; ISBN:1584502142).