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On success, failure and ‘the scene’.

The above tweet about a Gamasutra Postmortem set off a bit of a discussion that I’ve been following with great interest. The postmortem discusses a game called Monkey Labour and how it sold seven units in total. A similar discussion happened a few weeks ago, when Andy Moore released Ice Burgers – a game he created in about a week, that moved on to do absolutely disastrous in terms of money.

A while ago, in an interview I argued that ‘indie games’ as a scene might be heading towards a bit of a ‘personality crisis’. On one hand, we have the increasingly polished and qualitative titles like Fez, Super Meat Boy, Braid and the upcoming Spelunky. These are all games that have had a production cycle of at least two years and required relatively monstrous amounts of resources. The result is a beautiful, finely tuned game.

On the other hand, you have tiny games like Glitch Tank, zaga-33, Ice Burgers and pretty much everything on Terry Cavanaghs repository or the Glorious Trainwrecks compilation. These games are raw, tend to be somewhat more exploratory or experimental. Some of them are good, some of them not so much & a lot of them are horribly bad. Most of them don’t make money, but then some of them do.

Three years ago I was unaware of most of the independent scene. The things I cooperated on were polished, commercially released games that, if things went smoothly, took six to twelve months to develop. When I first met my fellow Vlambeer, Jan Willem Nijman, we instantly disliked eachother. JW created what were – in my mind – crappy prototypes that would never have any value beyond a tiny niche and prided himself in creating those games in three hours. I like to think that in his mind I probably created things that were overly complex and ugly and mainstream.

It took a mutual dislike of our university to get us to start talking to each other. I showed him my work and what kind of things polish and some sense of business can add to a game. Jan Willem showed me dozens of prototypes he made, some of which he made in three hours. He showed me Strangers, The Gutter, If You Really Want It You Can Fly and Pro Killer Man and about three dozen of similar platform shooters. These ideas were rough and the execution was quite often terrible, but they had something to them I had never seen in games before. I was intrigued.

So when the time came for big choices, we decided to drop out of university, team up my business & development background with his design background and properly execute a prototype called ‘Crates From Hell’. Until that moment, I had grown to only play games like Evochron Alliance, Metal Gear Solid and Mass Effect. Back in 2008, 2009, the only indie games anyone would ‘incidentally’ run into were Braid, World of Goo and Castle Crashers. I had never heard of TIGSource, or The Poppenkast. I made games and games make money. That was that.

Through starting Vlambeer, I was rapidly introduced to the many wonders of the indie scene. I had never heard of Cave Story, nor had I never played Flywrench, Nikujin, Space Funeral or Hero Core. They took me a lot of time to get into, but when I did they were all great games. I simply wasn’t completely convinced that these games had any impact on the world. They were amazing, but they felt inaccessible, unwieldy and unpolished.

When ‘Crates from Hell’ – which had been renamed to ‘Super Crate Box’ – was nominated for an Independent Games Festival award, the two of us at Vlambeer headed for San Francisco and I got to talk to all those amazing people working on games like these. Their goals in making games were so divergent and their methods for making them were as diverse as they were personal. More impressively, these people were inspiring each other with discussions, talks, 3 hour prototypes and game jams.

Working at Vlambeer for two years made me realize that, commercially seen, a lot of games are silly, strange and inaccessible. Some aren’t even ‘good’ in any sense of the word. Most of those won’t make money, or just enough to keep going. But nevertheless, these people were not taking the easy way out.

That’s why I fell in love with the indie scene. There’s room for every type of expression, for every type of game and there’s room to experiment with business models or without them. There’s room for people to make mistakes and learn from them – even though any aspiring indie developer can avoid many of those mistakes just by talking to other developers.

In my mind, there’s some value in every game that’s made. There’s value in any post-mortem posted online. There’s a lesson for everyone in every failure. There’s room for quality games and crappy games. There’s room for game jams and depth jams. There’s room for yet another Game Maker platform shooter and there’s room for Antichamber. There’s room for the business-savvy and room for those who are not. There’s room to try if a Minecraft will sell & there’s room to release a Cave Story or any other high-quality game for free. And when all is said and done, there’s the willingness to share experiences and to discuss and learn.

More than the games or the people, that mentality is what defines the scene for me.