Dr. Geek: The Indie World of Chicagoland

At the C2E2 extravaganza that was last weekend, there were panels on the game development industry in the Chicago area. These panels ostensibly had two roles: to let the con-goers know that yes, there is a game development industry still around in Chicago, and to discuss just what that industry currently looks like. What also emerged from the panels were discussions about how to become, and survive as, an independent game designer. As we here at CBR are currently experiencing an Indie Invasion!, I thought it would be a good time to reflect upon Chicagoland’s game development industry, and how they see their community of independent game developers as important to the continuance of the whole industry.

The two panels I attended had tremendous overlap in who participated on them, which indicates how interconnected the industry in Chicago is, and thus the importance of creating a community to the maintenance of that industry.  The panelists were from studios licensed to produce product for the big name publishers in the gaming industry, such as Wideload, who has developed Wii games for Disney, and NetherRealm, who developed the most recent Mortal Kombat game for Warner Bros.   There are also the independent game studios, such as High Voltage Software and Phosphor Games, who have developed content or entire games for a number of publishers, such as Microsoft and Sega.  But among these mid-range producers, there were also very indie, very small-scale producers, such as The Men Who Wear Many Hats, producers of the upcoming game The Organ Trail, and Young Horses Games, developers of Octodad and its upcoming sequel.

So what did all of these men — and, yes, they were only men, which was disheartening for this fangirl to see — talk about?  Well, given that one of their panels was titled “Chicago Exists!  The Games Industry in Chicago”, I think it is safe to assume that what they wanted to do was let all of the con-goers know that videogames, computer games, apps, and so on do not just originate on the coasts of the United States.  At the beginning of these panels, each panelist took pains to introduce himself, his studio, and a representative game.  From Wideload, we were shown an extended trailer for their Disney Wii game, Guilty Party.  From High Voltage, we were told of the experience of animating a cut scene for Kinect Star Wars.  And so forth until we could be rest assured that Chicago is a playa.  Being at the con, having two well attended panels, all of this was a strategic move by the local community to make sure that the con-goers, many of whom were undoubtedly avid gamers, knew who was making their games, and just how much the games they played were local-born.

Another big topic, understandably, was how to get into the biz.  Many of the attendees asked for advice on how they could become like the panelists — living the dream of designing games, so to speak.  One nugget was that would-be designers need to focus on developing one particular skill useful for designing games — such as storytelling or artwork or computer programming — and specialize in that particular area so as to develop a unique style.  This advice emphasizes the collaborative nature of developing games, especially those that are more complicated than basic flash games.  Even the small-scale indies, who are producing and publishing their own games, are not always solo attempts.  Ryan Wiemeyer from The Hats regularly commented on how The Organ Trail would not be where it was if not for working with his friend on the project.

The panelists also regularly discussed the usefulness of being in a game design track in school.  Jay Margalus, chair of the IGDA Chicago division, urged for more community collaboration, especially between developers and educators. DePaul University, with its Game Dev Program, was often cited for offering such academic preparation — in part because a number of the panelists were either students of or instructors at that program.  There are other Chicagoland universities and colleges that offer coursework on game development.  Tribeca Flashpoint Academy offers a two-year associate degree with their Game + Interactive Media concentration.  The Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago offers a bachelor degree in Game Art and Design.  And those are just in Chicago itself.  At my own university, I am trying to get game design incorporated into a focus on community-minded media production.  With all this potential for educating the next generation of game designers, Chicago would be amiss to let all of them fly away to the coasts.  That’s why Margulus and others think it is so important to reach out to would-be designers, through con panels and educational programs.

Perhaps the most important bit of advice the panelists offered — advice that transcends this field and applies to any pursuit one has — is that you have to find the fun in what’s in front of you.  Game design can be tedious: you can spend days working on the same few seconds of gameplay, and that is if it doesn’t go buggy on you.  If you cannot find the fun in it, whether its computer programming or 3D modeling, then you are going to burn out.  Bring to the game your passion, and your passion will sustain you through the hard times.

Finally, the panelists also ruminated on the current state of the field, and how mid-range and small-scale developers can stay competitive, or just outright survive, in a world of free-to-play games, used games, and download games.  Used games drew some rational wrath from the panelists as a culprit for cuts in their revenue. Used games cut into the revenue that publishers receive, which means they cut into the percentage of the revenue that the developers receive. The panelists argued that gamers should respect the developers’ revenue needs by not selling and buying used games until after a good sell period has passed — perhaps six months to a year. Other panelists argued that digital downloads would replace the sale of hard copies as a way to prevent used sales from undermining their revenue.  As for free-to-play and micropayment games, such as Facebook games and the increasing trend for MMOs, some questioned whether or not developers and publishers will start to be stingy with their quality content, keeping the really good stuff behind a paywall for the people willing to pay for their fix.

One payment option for all gaming types?

But these developers didn’t just lament about how they were making money.  Those working with large publishers also lamented having them as middle-men, mediating their access to gamers.  The publishers were seen as hurting the industry — a complaint heard across media industries these days, whether one is talking about book publishers, record companies, or movie/television studios.  Part of this lament, according to the panelists, is the aversion of the publishers to risk.  Risk in terms of developing original content, and not just adaptations and sequels (hello, Hollywood, they are calling you out as well!).  The publishers appear more willing to put more money into a “tried and true” title rather than invest in something that may be cheaper but less certain in returns.  For some panelists, the publishers would do better if they were smarter with how they invest their money to produce games.  For other panelists, the answer is in more direct connection with the gamers, such as through Kickstarter funded development and self-publishing online — which means developing a community of developers and gamers, and excluding publishers from the club.

For those latter panelists, the idea of fostering a community of developers in Chicago is a strength that Chicagoland can offer.  Chicago is not NYC or LA, with all of the pretentiousness and expectations that come with being a producer or developer on the coast.  Chicago developers, from these panels, appear more interested in building up collaboration, camaraderie, and community — the idea that if one does well, then it can help others do well.  So while NYC and LA are the lands of the big publishers, and the developers can secure lucrative production deals with them, it does not necessarily mean that they are great places to work as a developer.  Indeed, some panelists argued that the strength of Chicago is in the ability for developers to be more independent and thus in control of their own destines.

Chicago, doing it’s own thing, could be the motto for this community.  So what if the famed Midway Games is gone?  There is a community of developers here who want to become famous in their own way — not necessarily kowtowing to big publishers, but working through collaboration to build smaller games that may meet today’s, and tomorrow’s, needs for browser-based and mobile games, or games that you can jump into and out of.  Maybe if they can develop that niche of indie gaming, then Chicago will be considered a hub of game development, and show a way for other communities of game developers to succeed.

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About CarrieLynn Reinhard

I've been a scifi fan all my life, so I figured I should actually make money being so. And since I've always wanted to be a scientist -- at one point I was convinced I knew how to clone dinosaurs from their hollow bones -- the career path of being a scientist who studies fans and their media obsessions made the most sense for a woman obviously way too influenced by Jurassic Park. I've been all around the world studying fans, superheroes, virtual worlds, digital games, the media industry, and various media technologies. Now I'm an assistant professor in new media studies and audience reception studies at Dominican University just outside of Chicago, and discuss my research and other issues in the world of geekdom at my blog, www.playingwithresearch.com.