When we think about videogame conferences, E3 and the Penny Arcade Expo are usually what comes to mind. Massive booths with loud music and multi-colored lights, huge convention centers packed to the brim with near unnavigable throngs of people, and all the games you could ever want, both big and small, vying for your attention. There’s certainly some fun to be had at such massive events – the last three years I’ve attended E3 have been fantastic – but they don’t quite compare to intimate, earnest nature of smaller, more low-key conferences.
On October 4th of this year, a small independent games event was held in Eugene, Oregon by the name of Indie Game Con. It brought together developers from all around the state into a single, small room to showcase their wares to the public. People of all ages and backgrounds could be seen among the crowd, the air thick with excitement as everyone ran about playing whatever they could get their hands on.
Games of every sort lined the room, ranging from loud, rapturous multiplayer games like Hard Lander, Laser Lasso Ball, and Super Pollywoggle (all of which drew the largest crowds, unsurprisingly) to quiet, story-heavy games like Hunters Moon and Travelogue, and even some just plain weird stuff like Smooth Operator, a kissing simulator for mobile devices. Every demo station had droves of people crowded around them. The center of the room was the only place you could easily walk through because it was the only part of the room not mobbed with attendees. As such, I didn’t get to try many games myself (hey, it’s an event for the public), but those I did try were fantastic.
Aponivi is a side-scrolling platformer being developed by a group of students at the Seattle Institute of Art. In it, you control a cloaked figure wearing an animal skull through a series of rudimentary platforming challenges – floating platforms, spike pits – by jumping and grappling hooking around. The build on display was still early – the developers told me they just finalized the mechanics – but it was still solid. The jumping was fun and fairly difficult. The game is going to be available for free upon release (again, student project), though the current build can be played online right now at the game’s Website.
Travelogue is a role-playing game described as “The Oregon Trail meets Skyrim,” which pretty much says it all. You select one of three classes, each with their own goals to achieve (the warrior seeks to slay a certain beast, for instance, while the merchant wants to raise enough money to start their own trading house). You travel about the land in an attempt to meet these goals, but due to the sandbox nature of the game, you basically do whatever you want. Like patrolling the dark alleyways in cities for crooks or invest in a local business, along with plenty of random events that occur on the road.
Hunters Moon is a self-described “free-roaming atmospheric exploration adventure,” which follows a women named Sev on a mission of some sort. The art was striking and, though the demo I played barely scratched the surface, the world and story were intriguing. Not quite sure what the story entails, exactly, since the dialog was purposely ambiguous, but that only fuels my curiosity to see more. Hunters Moon is the (free) prologue to larger episodic series titled The Seven Sisters, which will be available via Itch.io once finished.
Laser Lasso Ball sees two players attempting to take the other out by smacking a ball back and forth along strings attached to the players. At the center of the arena is a poll partially protected by a shield, which moves with whoever currently doesn’t have the ball and repels the ball whenever struck. The goal is to get the ball past the shield so that it can reach the other player and hopefully take them down (assuming they aren’t fast enough to whack it). The controls were a touch awkward – left and right would make your character circle the arena, while up and down would move them along the lasso – but easy enough to pick up on.
And lastly Krystlr, a three-dimensional gem-matching game for mobile platforms. You rotate a sphere of disparate gems and attempt to match them together. By touching gems, you anchor them so that you can move the sphere around while you look for a potential match. The demo build was limited to minute-long runs, which gave the game some urgency while still feeling relatively relaxed. We ended up talking more about the exciting possibilities of virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift and controllers like Leap Motion than the game itself (though some of that was with regard to making those work with Krystlr), but being able to talk to developers about their craft is part of the fun.
Indie Game Con was born out of a desire to bring Oregon’s indie scene together. Eugene in particular has always had a history with videogames, with studios like Dymanix, Garage Games, Pipeworks, Buzz Monkey (now known as Zynga Eugene), Mad Otter, and more having been in business here for some time. Hardly premiere studios, but a strong pedigree all the same. Indie Game Con hopes to bolster the profile of the indie scene, and this conference is only the beginning.
“My explicit goal is to get more people here,” said Ted Brown, organizer of Indie Game Con and owner of local development studio Oreganik, “to create a really viable ecosystem for people trying to make a living as independent or professional game developers. I can’t guarantee that will happen, but I know that stuff like this is what will ensure that it can.”
The other part of this plan is BitForest, a community site for Eugene-area developers much like PIGSquad is to Portland. The idea is to use these two hubs of information to help spread word about events like Indie Game Con and other development initiatives (Epic Oregon Game Jam, for instance), and generally help each other find success as a game developer in this area by promoting each other’s work and so on.
Indie Game Con came about as part of an initiative to create a tech event to drive travel to the city. Travel Lane County approached Brown this past Summer to make that happen. Brown’s always had a desire to put on a game conference, and this opportunity gave him the means to do so. And based on the success of this year’s conference, this will be around for years to come.
“This is year one; we’re gonna keep doing this,” Brown told me. “This a 5-10 year plan. It’s already too big for this space. It has to go bigger.”
Bigger not only referring to a venue larger than a single room in Eugene Mindworks, but the scope of the conference as well. The plan is to keep drawing in more developers, expand the selection of tabletop games as well. The show will only accept independently-owned projects, however, as the organizers are committed to keeping this as an indie-focused event. That means no big publishers like Activision or Ubisoft, or any publisher-owned projects because “this is all for people who doing it for the love, who are really trying to make a living doing this on their own.” And besides: it’s in the name.
But what makes Indie Game Con worthwhile, what drives Brown to put on a show like this is to see people discovering something new and exciting.
“What really counts is people coming off the street, seeing a game they’ve never seen before and, like, tweeting about it, Facebooking it; basically using their own social networks to spread the word about it, so it’s raw, it’s real, and it’s viral. What gets me excited is people discovering something and being so excited about that to show it to their friends, they share with their friends and, you know, you see little things happen like that. That’s really what this is all about.”
Indeed. There’s nothing quite as valuable as a developer as seeing people discover and enjoy your game. It’s part of what makes attending events like this so invigorating. It was a nice reminder of how games can bring people together, the joy they can bring. In light of recent events, it’s tough to remind yourself of that sometimes; easy to lose sight of what drew us toward games in the first place.
For me, Indie Game Con was special because it revealed the thriving game development scene in Oregon. I’ve lived here my whole life, but I’ve never been aware of Eugene’s history with games. Never would have guessed there were so many people making games around here. It’s kinda crazy that there’s never been much chatter around it. Maybe that will change now that we’ve got an event dedicated to the community around here.
Regardless of what the future holds, Indie Game Con was a fantastic, invigorating show. I can’t wait to go again next year.