Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Indiecade happened and it didn't kill me

We showed off Seltani at Indiecade! To lots of people. Lots and lots. Not everybody was interested -- it was, after all, a text game in a hall crowded with flashing lights and VR headsets -- but plenty of people thought it was worth a look. Some were Myst fans (or even Myst Online fans); some were old MUD users; some were familiar with Twine but had never seen a multiplayer Twine-like.

I gave out stacks of postcards with this map I did of the Seltani District (the game's initial hub area). It had the URL on the back, obviously. (Note to self: next time I reprint the postcard, boldface the URL.)

In a wiser and more organized world I would have a story to tell about Indiecade, but it's not, I don't, and I'm moderately exhausted in a hotel as I write this. So you get lists.

People I met or re-met (in no order): Tory Hoke (of Sub-Q Magazine), Squinky, Zak S, Rich Lemarchand, Tablesaw, Sam Barlow (Her Story won the big festival jury prize), Cat Manning, one of the Chaosmos designers (I have lost which one), Zoe Quinn, Naomi Clark, Mark Marino, Matt Weise, Patrick Smith (Vectorpark), Jim Munroe, Kyle Seeley, Michael Mateas, Michael Carriere, and a lot of others who I am failing to bring to mind because it was a packed weekend.

Games I recognized, played, or intend to check out: Emily Is Away, Desolus, Kairo, Nevermind, Museum of Simulation Technology, Darknet, Metamorphabet, Pygmalion's Challenge, Pavilion, Walden, The Meadow, Line Wobbler, Memories of a Broken Dimension, Thumper, Consentacle, Red and Pleasant Land. This too is an incomplete list. Very, very incomplete. I am not knocking your game if it's not mentioned here.

Bonus points to Sam Barlow for trying to get me to play Consentacle. I declined. It's not you, Sam, it's me.

I am grateful to everybody who came up and introduced yourselves to me. Or re-introduced yourselves to me -- I'm bad at faces. (Have I told the story of how I've met Chris Klimas three times and each time thought it was the first?) I had interesting conversations with writers, teachers, musicians, artists, and (obviously) gamers and game designers. I collected a centimeter-thick stack of business cards (which helped me write this post, at minimum). I had a gelato.

Special thanks again to Carl Muckenhoupt (of Baf's Guide, fondly remembered) who volunteered to help me out with the Seltani demo for hours and hours.

Oh, and I visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology! That was... a trip. Describing the Museum is probably the least useful thing one can do about it, so I won't.

After I wrote the above, as I waited in the airport for my flight home, I saw this post from one of the Indiecade organizers:

Implicit in my work with IndieCade was a belief that conferences—the talks, the panels and the interstitial moments of community—are vehicles for change. Looking back at the last six years, I no longer believe this is a meaningful way to sustainably support marginalized communities. And so I’ve made the decision to step down from my conference co-chair role [...]

[...] For me, a big motivation for volunteering my time to co-chair the IndieCade conference has been giving marginalized voices a platform to share their work. Events like IndieCade and GDC’s diversity track give these developers and critics a platform to share their work, but I fear these events are not providing sustainable, long-term benefit to those outside academia and game development companies.

[...] But within marginalized communities of gamemakers, outside the academic and game development ecosystems, it is unfair to assume everyone can afford to take on the opportunity costs and financial burden of attending a conference. Even with the free conference pass given to most speakers, travel, lodging and food can easily eat up $1,000 or more for a weekend event. Over the last couple of years, IndieCade has made efforts to provide some financial assistance to conference speakers who need it, but it has been a token gesture at best [...]

(--John Sharp, Conferences and sustainable diversity)

(I've selected just a few lines from his post. Read the whole thing.)

That had a wee bit of resonance for me, let me tell you.

Obviously I am not "marginalized" in most senses. I'm a straight white guy with a CS degree and a software industry background. I have savings to fund my attempt at an indie career. But still, this is exactly the stuff I think about. I'm not in academia; I do not work for a game company; I have not achieved sustainability. Zarfhome Software has never made rent for me for more than a couple of months in any given year.

I submitted Seltani to Indiecade on a whim. (A whim with a $100 submission fee!) When it was accepted, I did the calculation: will this trip be worth it? It's a business decision. Crudely, I was gambling that the contacts and handshakes and business cards I collected would add up to more than the cost of travel, hotel, prep work, and the time I took from other tasks. (Which is, yeah, over $1000.)

You can't measure that outcome on the spot. The payoff is in future projects and potential jobs. I'd like to be optimistic about this, but here's a conference organizer saying he's not. He thinks I wasted that grand. (And, again, I'm one of the folks who can afford to lose it. Plenty of people can't.)

As I said on Twitter -- the most valuable "networking" I did this weekend may have been going up to a Boston compatriot and saying "Hey, your company does iOS work, right? I might need some of that next year." Not game work, just pay-rent work. And I didn't have to go to Indiecade to talk to him; I see him around Boston all the time.

So this is all depressing in various ways. I can still be optimistic, but it's a nervous optimism. Going out to dinner with IF people was fantastic, but what did we talk about? Sustainability. Money. Jobs. Trying to figure out what we're doing with our lives.

(Also community tensions within IF and IF-adjacent groups, which is not the same issue but touches on it. There's been some arguments recently about the role of IFComp in the modern indie-dev world. When IFComp started in 1995, nobody was asking "Should I enter my game in this competition or sell it on my web site for money?" That just wasn't a question on anybody's radar. Things have changed.)

John Sharp's article goes on to talk about positive possible directions. It's not a surrender post. He likes IndieXchange, the pre-Indiecade biz-dev event, which I also liked and found valuable. (It didn't turn me into an instant business success, but there were good talks on marketing and on the dirty details of outsourcing audio for your game.) (I might have to outsource audio for a game someday, right? I can't get away with banging the cheese grater forever.)

There may be more possible paths in the future. I hope so.

And look! I've signed up for GDC in March! The last GDC I went to was in 2012, and that gamble did not pay off. I hung out with friends, it was fun, but was the benefit worth that $700 Summits-and-Tutorials pass? Plus plane and hotel? I think it's safe to say "heck no."

But here I am taking another spin of the wheel. I think the odds are tilted my way now. I've got the more modest Indie-Summit pass -- not that this saves much compared to travel costs. Mostly, it's that I've met more people and done more work, so I'll have a wider base of contact. (I'm bad at meeting people, but I can tell that four years of putting myself out there have slowly accumulated some results. See lists above!) I'll have finished Flashpaper by March -- I'd better have finished it by March -- so I'll have a game to promote.

Maybe I'm stupid, but this is the point in my life when I have to be.

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