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IndieCade: Gaming’s Magic 8-Ball

on Wednesday, Oct. 15th

IndieCade, the International Festival of Independent Games, which takes place in Culver City every October holds an important role in the game industry ecosystem. I’m tempted to say “niche,” but given the prominence of indie games in the launch of the current console generation cycle “niche” undersells the influence these games have.

While the first thought is to compare the festival to the Electronic Entertainment Expo what IndieCade resembles most is the early years of ComicCon. There a growing tribe freaks and geeks discovered they were not only into the four-color antics of spandex clad heroes but the very personal stories of people who had discovered a medium perfectly suited to express the way they see the world. This revelation provided a cultural depth to what would otherwise be an exercise in entertainment marketing.

The festival is concerned with more than upcoming releases on Steam, Playstation, Nintendo and Xbox it exists to celebrate the culture of independent games. Not “independent video games” but “independent games,” every breed of game is represented at the festival.

Each year certain perennial favorites return giving a new audience the opportunity to connect with favorites. Granted some of these favorites are still in early stages of development: the independent process often taking just as long as a multibillion-dollar publisher would take to pump out the latest first person shooter sequel

Another perennial phenomenon is the vision of the future that’s always present at IndieCade. One that’s just at the tip of the horizon can be found sometimes literally at the periphery of the show.

What follows are just a few of my highlights of the show.

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LyteShot

On its surface LyteShot looks like the latest iteration of Laser Tag: a blaster and a sensor. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Laser Tag as much of the next guy, but for various reasons it’s never caught on the way that Paintball or Airsoft has.

The team behind LyteShot is positioning their creation as a sensor-based real world multiplayer gaming platform.

The system incorporates Bluetooth technology and can sync with mobile devices. Creators will be able to design games on an open software development platform and deliver them over the cloud to owners of LyteShot peripherals.

What kind of games? Right now the focus is on “campus classics” like Assassin and Humans vs. Zombies. The later is an IndieCade favorite. These are games that are traditionally played with no real technology, and a minimum of gear. One thing that would set the LyteShot versions apart would be the ability to create geofences and other location based effects. The possibilities are limited only by the ingenuity of designers and the reliability of network infrastructure.

While the blaster peripheral featured on the LyteShot site resembles a stubby rifle, an early prototype on display looked more like a Star Trek: The Next Generation phaser. Into the top of this a thumb track-ball had been embedded, this was specifically designed to pair with augmented reality devices like Google Glass.

There are a lot of good ideas going into LyteShot, the only question I have is if there’s really a demand out there. The company will be putting that question to the test in an upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

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Mini Metro (Dinosaur Polo Club)

If you’ve ever stared at a subway map and thought you could do a better job of designing a transit system Mini Metro is the perfect game for you. (Which makes it the perfect game for me.)

The core of the game is incredibly simple. Players need to get commuters from one station to another as efficiently as possible. The commuters are represented by the different symbols: circles, squares, triangles et cetera. Match the commuter type to the station they need to go to, represented by the same shape.

It all starts simply enough on a stylized subway map but increases in complexity as the game goes on. This is one of those games that’s simple enough to zen out too but complex enough that I know I’ll losing a lot of time to playing it. FUN FACT: the developers are from New Zealand and we’re on hand to show off their game. (What? You thought the “International” tag was a hollow boast?)

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Cuppa Quest (Team Aet)

This two- or three-person cooperative game draws inspirations from the cult hit Spaceteam and, obviously, the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil,” trope.

The game uses two tablets to create a simple quest adventure in the fashion of an old 8-bit RPG.

One player is able to see the game, yet another player can hear the dialogue being spoken by the characters—but doesn’t see the screen—and the final player has the control panel. That player is able to move the character around and respond to the non-player character’s dialogue.

In order to complete the mission—which is making a cup of tea—all three players must cooperate to move their avatar through the game. (The two person variant gives the eyes and ears to one player, controls to the other.)

The game is still roughly a proof of concept, but the team behind it has an interesting pedigree. Of the two creators (out of five) who were on hand when I played a demo one has done design work for the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and the other is a social strategist at the famed ad firm Wieden+Kennedy.

These are the kind of people attracted to the indie game scene, bringing fresh perspective to an ever growing community.

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Gear VR (Samsung & Oculus)

The good folks at Oculus VR had an airstream trailer on hand to show off the latest demos on the newest version of the Oculus Rift. Right outside the trailer was what I was most interested in: the recently announced Samsung Gear VR, which Oculus has built the software for.

The industrial design on this peripheral for the Galaxy Note 4 phone is organic and clean. It feels like it could show up on the bridge of the JJ Abrams U.S.S. Enterprise without anyone batting an eyelash. It is by far the most comfortable iteration of an Oculus-related device I have ever worn. Amazing what the lack of a cable does for the VR experience.

More amazing is the screen. The Galaxy Note 4 screen is far superior to the second Oculus development kit. For the first time I wasn’t able to notice pixels in VR. I spent some time in a game demo, but what really got me going was the cinematic. This was produced by Oculus and Samsung by the Montreal duo Felix & Paul, whose Strangers – A Moment with Patrick Watson made a splash at SXSW earlier this year.

The quality of the work blew past what I experienced from Jaunt VR just a month ago. Beyond that it included the first uncanny cinematic moment I’ve had in VR. While “sitting” on a stage with Cirque du Soliel performers I turned my head to the left just at the moment that one of the performers turned to look at “me.” It was like that moment when you pull up to a stoplight and find yourself staring into the eyes of the driver next to you.

I wasn’t expecting to have that kind of experience in cinematic VR so soon, but here it is. A friend who had seen the short film reported the same thing. If you get a chance to play with the Gear VR seek this demo out.

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Close Castles (Sirvo)

I’m looking forward to Asher Vollmer’s Close Castles with a certain degree of trepidation. I actually had to remove his last game, Threes, from my iPhone because I was far too addicted to it. I don’t want to know how much of my life was spent playing Threes even though I only had it on the phone for less than a year. I suspect it might rival the amount of time I’ve spent on Tetris.

Close Castles, however, isn’t likely to cause quite the same problem. For one it’s what we call a couch co-op game, meaning that it is meant to be played with a group of people gathered around the old home entertainment console. At least in that style if not that’s actual device.

Up to four players representing two teams—Bears and Birds—compete to control a game board.

Players build towers and barracks, then set waypoints for the little bird or bear soldiers to try and take over enemy territory. It’s simple with the clean graphics that I already associate with Sirvo’s style.

The game is the kind of frantic fun that you could imagine fourth-graders shouting over for hours. Or college students hopped up on—let’s call it sugar for the same amount of time.

So why won’t I get stuck in the same addiction loop with Close Castles that I did with Threes?

It’s the couch co-op factor. Games that are meant to be played together, in person, don’t create the same kind of addiction loop that solo and online multiplayer games do. For that, I’m thankful.

And Beyond…

IndieCade has almost reached the point of overwhelming. In addition to what I mentioned here there was the latest build of Nonny de la Pena’s Use of Force, a selection of biofeedback games curated by conscious hacker Mikey Siegel under the direction of SoundSelf designer Robin Arnott, a Nintendo tent, a Playstation tent, a VRLA tent, and board and card games galore.

It has been a difficult few months for gaming, with reactionary cultural forces within the broader community doing whatever they can to chase diverse voices out of the cultural conversation. This only makes what happened over the weekend at IndieCade all the more important: this festival is the future of gaming incarnate and it is broader and stranger than reactionary imaginations allow for.

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