April 12, 2012 at 3:37 PM ET
In the heart of the sprawling PAX East show floor, surrounded by gigantic booths representing all the movers and shakers from the world of mainstream gaming, was a comparatively modest cluster of independent game makers showing off their wares. But for many, it was where the real action was.
For those who weren't keen on standing in line for literally four hours to play just a few minutes of "Borderland 2," the wait was much briefer for "Skull of the Shogun" and "Super Time Force." Yet there was still a wait.
While the former is the latest from Jake Kazdal and his studio, Haunted Temple Studios, the latter is the most recent game from Nathan Vella and his outfit, Capybara Games. Both have traveled different paths to make games -- for themselves.
KAZDAL: MAKING "SELFISH" GAMES
"Skull of the Shogun" is the first offering from Kazdal's studio. It's a turn-based strategy game that has a decidedly action-oriented, very arcade-like feel. The action has the immediacy of a fighting game -- yet also shares many elements found in real time strategy titles -- but without the grid or all the cumbersome menus.
It's basically the kind of game that Kazdal has long wanted. Despite being a fan of the genre -- including games such a "Shining Force" and "Advance Wars" -- he has "very little tolerance" for the detailed tactical systems that are a staple of the genre, which take him "out of the zone" -- which is why everything is so streamlined and simplified.
"People aren't making the kinds of games I want to play anymore," Kazdal explains. "I've lost all interest in the big budget 3D games, they're all the same. Guess I just don't like realistic games, I think? I'm more of an artsy sort of guy."
Kazdal is no stranger to the business of making games. He's best known as being the lone American to work on "Rez," one of the first titles to seriously spark discussion among those who believe games are a medium of artistic expression, and which has been an inspiration for countless game designers since, mostly in the indie space.
After spending years after that as an art director for many big budget studios, three years ago Kazdal decided to take a stab at making games on his own terms. Kazdal is upfront about "Skull of the Shogun" being a "selfish game."
And that's because no one else is making the games he would like. Why is that? "Because games can produce awesome 3-D visuals, why would anyone want to buy a 2-D game with awesome hand drawn art?" Kazdal responds, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “I believe otherwise.”
VELLA: FILMMAKER TO GAME MAKER
Then there's Vella, a certified veteran of the indie space. But the road he has traveled, the one that led to the formation of his own studio, Capy Games, is quite the contrast to Kazdal's journey.
Vella went to film school and had aspirations to be a video editor, but quickly found out it wasn't for him. His friends at the time, whom he bonded with over booze and video games, were in similar ruts. Eventually they heard about the Game Developers Conference, and decided to go on a 52-hour car drive from Toronto to San Francisco. Discovering another side of the game making world, indies -- not just the big names -- changed their lives.
"Making movies was the closest thing to making games at the time," he said. So Vella and friends formed a company, Capybara Games, to make games. Their first big hit was an original title, "Critter Crunch," but they mostly did work for hire.
Despite being an independent outfit, Capy initially operated much like other studios. And in the process, they ran themselves ragged. Vella said, "We thought it was the right move: get a contract, make a game, get another contract… But then our friends from Toronto Jonathan Mak made 'Everyday Shooter' and Raigan Burns made 'N+.'"
These intensely personal journeys yielded great financial success. The first was a high profile acquisition by Sony, which was building its PSN catalogue for the then-debuting PS3, and the second was the first indie hit on Xbox Live. And both games, along with similar success stories at time, also among friends, turned on a light bulb.
"These were our friends, making beautiful, important games, and they're doing better than us?" recalls Vella. "How do you look a friend in the eyes, who's making 'Everyday Shooter' and you're making 'Pirates of the Caribbean?' We seriously felt shame. They're doing so much more of value and we need to do that."
Since then, Vella and his team have made quite a name for themselves. Their most recent, noteworthy game was the critically acclaimed iOS hit "Sword & Sworcery." And PAX East was the first time the public got their hands on the upcoming "Super Time Force."
Taking cues from classic 16-bit runs and guns like "Gunstar Heroes" and "Contra: Hard Corps," Capy's latest also adds space and time to the mix. When a player dies, he or she assumes not only another life, but all the actions from the previous playthrough repeat. The end result is a single player, multiplayer affair.
Not only is dying encouraged, but because of the several different characters to choose from, there's plenty of strategy gained from knowing when and where to bite the bullet. Vella explains they're still trying to balance things out, but theoretically, gamers can have hundreds of iterations, all playing in unison.
Given the widespread success of Vella's games, does he still consider himself an indie game maker? "I don't even know what indie games mean anymore and I don't care." With an attitude much like Kazdall, he said, "We make stuff we want to make."
HOW INDIES VIEW LARGE PUBLISHERS
The one thing these indies don't see eye to eye on are the big guys that surround them.
When asked about the relationship between the mainstream and indie game landscapes, Kazdal responded, "If you walk to [mainstream] creators, they love the indie stuff, but the CEOs could give a crap about the indie game movement. They have their own things going on, they have their big budgets, their big numbers to hit. It's a very different world."
Meanwhile, Vella still has love for what the larger publishers are still putting out. "I definitely don't want to see AAA developers go away," he said, in response to what he hopes the future of game development might be like 10 years from now. "I love 'Street Fighter,' I love 'Uncharted'… They mean a lot to the culture of games."
Vella also sees independent game development becoming more pervasive.
"Plenty of folks are moving from AAA to iOS," he said. "Sure there are money blinders guiding them, but because so many big studios are closing down, the next step obviously for many has been to go 'F*** it, time to make my own game.'"
Matthew Hawkins is an NYC-based game journalist who has also written for EGM, GameSetWatch, Gamasutra, Giant Robot and numerous others. He also self-publishes his own game culture zine, is part of Attract Mode, and co-hosts The Fangamer Podcast. You can keep tabs on him via Twitter, or his personal home-base, FORT90.com.