Project Holodeck. Image: Noah Nelson

IndieCade 2013: When Indie Met Mainstream

on Monday, Oct. 7th

In most of the country, the first weekend of October is a turning point of the year. The summer heat has faded, and indoor activities are taken up to replace frolicking in the sun.

The heat in Downtown Culver City was anything but faded this past weekend, but that didn't stop crowds of enthusiastic gamers from descending on IndieCade, the annual International Festival of Independent Games.

This year the center of gravity of the festival, which invites game designers of every stripe to share their projects with the public, was the outdoor Game Walk.

Indiecade's Game Walk. Photo: Noah Nelson

A stretch of parking lot adjacent to the historic Culver Hotel had the vibe of a carnival midway at the height of summer. Two big tents set up by Sony and Nintendo showed off indie games on the Playstation 4 and WiiU, respectively. The makers of the Ouya, the indie-focused microconsole, had a rambunctious group gathered in their own tent at all hours competing in tournaments of the addictive "Towerfall".

Conspicuously absent from the GameWalk: Microsoft. While the XBox 360 controller remains–at least for this year–the controller of choice for developers making PC games, the company that manufactures that device had no corporate presence on the walk or in the Culver Firehouse where the IndieCade finalists were showcased.

While Redmond is behind the curve on indies (itself an ironic position, given that at the beginning of the last console generation they got out in front of the indie-wave) Sony and Nintendo are competing hard for love from indie devs.

As the gaming market has matured into a multi-generational one, more gamers of every age are gravitating towards unique experiences. While Sony made its desire to court indie devs clear at its E3 press conference in June, Nintendo has been under the radar with its interest.

The Nintendo IndieCade booth was a giant revelation when seen through that lens. While the Big N's E3 booth featured about 90% Nintendo-developed (first party) games to around 10% third-party releases, the Indiecade booth was pure indie. A source also explained to me that Nintendo is picking up the tab for porting some of the games that were developed on the Unity game engine (an indie-dev favorite) to the WiiU.

The attention that indie games are receiving from major publishers was my own biggest take-away from this year's festival.

Oculus Rift/VR Game Jam

The most consistently packed lines were for any and all things Oculus Rift related. While multiple independent developers–including the team behind Project Holodeck, pictured above–were on hand with their own copies of the hardware, the makers of the Rift had their own booth. There Oculus VR made a major public showing of the high-definition prototypes.

The Rift continues to be a compelling experience. I'm not one of the people who experiences "simulator sickness," but after multiple trips "inside the Rift" the seams are beginning to show.

The current HD hardware has what feels like a smaller field of vision than the standard definition version of the device. After playing with both within a small window of time I say this with a high degree of confidence. Unfortunately what I was not able to judge was just how much better the resolution of the new hardware looks, because the games I was able to play on the HD devices were themselves fairly low-res affairs.

The booth was demonstrating the finalists and winners of the IndieCade/Oculus VR Jam, a project that had lasted just a few short weeks but that nevertheless resulted in some fun games. Maybe "fun" is a better usage, at least when it comes to the first of the VR Jam games I tried: "Dreadhalls."

The name "Dreadhalls" pretty much says it all. You strap on the Rift and you find yourself in a dungeon. A dark, foreboding dungeon where the scrape-scrape-scrape of what could be gargoyles walking the halls echo. I had the good fortune of sitting opposite SoundSelf designer Robin Arnott (see our story from earlier this year) as I played "Dreadhalls" and narrated my experience to him as I explored the dungeon.

"It sounds like you're having a really bad trip, Noah," said Arnott.

He was, in a sense, right.

Immersive horror games might not be my thing, apparently . (Note to self: no haunted houses this year.) What was more my speed was the VR Jam winner E McNeill's "Ciess". This "computer hacking" game brought back memories of cyberpunk classics from William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

A series of nodes are spread out before the player, and after entering each node the "hacker" must defeat the security software by firing little "hack" packets at the security icons. A little bit of strategy and a lot of timing go a long way in this simple and fun game.

VirtuSphere. Photo: Noah Nelson

Two Rift experiences I was not able to take part in were the VirtuSphere–basically a human-sized hamsterball–and Project Holodeck, which used the Rift, the Razer Hydra motion controller, and the Playstation Move system to create a semiautonomous rig for walking around a play space.

In due time, in due time…

On The Transmedia Beat: Extrasolar

One of the highlights of this year's festival for me was a panel on "The Jejune Institute", properly known as "The Games of Nonchalance." This was the seminal alternate reality game that ran in San Francisco for a number of years before wrapping up in 2011.

I'm always on the lookout for similar experiences, albeit those that have a lower barrier to entry than some ARGs put up.

This year I found a candidate amongst the IndieCade finalists: Extrasolar, by Lazy 8 Studios. What looks to be a planetary exploration game on the outside is actually, according to the devs, a layered conspiracy novel that whose story unfolds across multiple platforms.

The studio was pulling in early adopters at the festival, and is aiming to have a the game running early next year after a three year development cycle. One thing that intrigued me was the studio's plan to use a variation on the "free to play" model to pay for the game.

The basic game will be, as the term suggests, free to play. There will be a small fee for those who want to temporarily speed up the core game mechanic, which revolves around detailed rendered photos of an alien world: think "Myst". Those who want that boost to be left "on" can pay a one time fee.

Given that ARGs have a hard time finding any business model–aside from being the marketing campaign of a larger effort–that works, it will be worth it to see if Lazy 8 Studios' plan works.

Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)

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