IndieCade 2015: A cavalcade of curious coders cram into Culver City

Last week, downtown Culver City submitted to the will of an invading army. Like the brigands of "The Seven Samurai," they come every fall. They pitch their tents and take over government buildings. They conduct rallies and speeches in front of crowds of passionate supporters.

They come to be seen and to be heard. They come for glory and immortality. They come for money and recognition. “They” however, aren’t an army of enemy combatants, but one composed of game developers, artists, and innovators. They come for IndieCade.

Originally squeezed into a single room at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), IndieCade, dubbed the “International Festival for Independent Games," quickly expanded and found a new home in Culver City where they've been since 2009. However, it did take some convincing.

"When we first came here we had to explain what [independent] video games were," said Stephanie Barish, the CEO of IndieCade. "We had to explain everything. But [Culver City was] open to the idea, it was just really new to them. [Now] it's expanded its footprint. Our audience is bigger and the number of games submitted is bigger. Everything's up, I'd say, at least 30% over last year. Easily."

Check out the Corsair's top game picks from Indiecade 2015 here.

She wasn't exaggerating. IndieCade was packed this year. Throngs of attendees flooded the City Hall, the Fire Station, the Ivy Substation and IndieCade Village, a parking lot on Main Street and Culver Boulevard where hundreds of game developers had set up shop to show their creations. There was plenty to see, hear and play as over a hundred games, from the classic to the experimental and weird, were on display.

“That’s why IndieCade is so cool. Because it’s all about art games," said Kyle Seeley who was showing his game "Emily is Away," a twist on the text adventure genre where you play a college student exchanging instant messages with an old flame from high school. It's the type of unusual game that IndieCade was made to exhibit, and this year it was filled with plenty of offbeat games.

There were bizarre experiments like "Line Wobbler," a one-dimensional game shown on a string of LED lights, and arthouse phenomena, like USC product, "Walden The Game," a virtual re-creation of Henry David Thoreau’s journey while writing the eponymous book. Pieces like these don't get much fanfare in a market that craves adrenaline-fueled excitement, but they’re the beating heart of the festival.

USC students showed off "The Meadow," a performance art project where players explored a glade in virtual reality through the Oculus Rift while sitting on a set designed to feel like the environment they were seeing.

"It's definitely an installation piece meant to be shown at festivals," said Martzi Campos, one of the creators. USC staffers would simulate the events triggered in the game by doing things such as rolling a boulder toward the player when they touched one in-game.

Check out the other side of IndieCade - the activist spirit behind the art.

Besides the avant-garde, there were plenty of traditional games as well. Tabletop games like James Pianka's "Roots," an "Apples to Apples"-like party game of inventing new words, were well represented as were industry heavyweights. Both Nintendo and Sony set up tents displaying titles that they were publishing through partnership programs with independent developers, and it’s through partnerships like these that many developers can find financial success.

Thomas Happ, the sole creator of the PC hit, "Axiom Verge," said, "['Axiom Verge'] was at IndieCade 2 years ago. They have an IndieXchange where they try to set up indie developers with various publishers, and each person gets a 10-15 minute pitch session. I got mine with Sony."

The meeting helped spur his current success. “At the rate I was going I might have been able to finish it in like 2018," Happ said. “Because of IndieCade, it exists and it actually has attention, which is something I don't think it would have had if I hadn't had that meeting with Sony."

In many ways, Happ’s experience makes him an exemplar of what IndieCade can achieve, but there are limitations. Happ commented that the over-saturation of indie titles flooding online marketplaces means fewer developers are able to separate themselves from the herd.

The day after the festival ended, on October 26, IndieCade Co-Chair John Sharp stepped down from his position, citing the inability of the festival to provide stable income for many of its attendees as the reason why. Sharp wrote on his blog, “I fear these events are not providing sustainable, long-term benefit for those outside academia and game development companies.”

Sharp had a point. The majority of games drawing attention were either already finding success, partnered with a major publisher or, like The Meadow and Emily is Away, were pure art projects never seeking solvency in the first place.

Still, IndieCade provides a forum for unknown, first-time developers to have their passion projects exposed to a number of people that would otherwise have never heard of them. It allows them to network with other developers and publishers and provides a tract of fertile ground in an arid landscape that can turn a small sapling like "Axiom Verge" into a fully-realized hit, and every year this garden of potential grows.

According to CEO Barish, with the measurable growth this year, further expansion is a likely possibility. “I think the independent movement is really taking over,” she said, “[First] downtown LA and then the world.”

So be prepared. The Army of Independents is going to return. And next year, it’s going to be even bigger.

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