Indie Development: Not Just Fun And Games
Bit of Alright showed joie-de-vivre and creative flare in the UK indie scene - but it could do with some hard graft, too
In the Grand Hall of the Battersea Arts Centre, David Hayward points to a grey triangle, projected onto a screen. "This was part of the most boring PowerPoint presentation I've ever seen," he explains. So starts Hayward's introduction to Bit of Alright, an indie game development conference that pointedly avoids the stolid analysis and rigid formalities of the games industry lecture circuit. Under Hayward's curatorship, this feels more like a get-together than a conference, intended to inspire playfulness and spontaneity in its attendees, rather than subduing them with a deluge of instructional slides, as they sit passively before a droning speaker.
At least, this is how you sense many here would characterise the other industry events that dot the calendar. Other opinions are available, albeit not in abundant attendance. Some might find those supposedly grey and unlovely conferences, with their focus on practical advice and technical detail, pretty useful when it comes to the task of actually producing saleable games, and ensuring the survival of an independent developer in such tricky economic times.
Bit of Alright hints at something of a crisis of identity when it comes to the UK indie scene, which sometimes seems to like everything about self-employment but the employment part itself. The talks reflect that hippy-ish suspicion of structure: there's an informal pass-the-mic style, which causes Dan Marshall's session on the mechanics of death to disassemble into semi-audible group chatter.
For some indie development is a pose rather than a profession, and Bit of Alright is almost guilty of mollycoddling those who equate being creative to being a creator.
The murmuring contributors have to compete with a constant background buzz of real-world play - some youngsters lurch around dressed as zombies, others fire Nerf guns, while tooting recorders echo from a presentation by music-app maker My Note Games. A few tables in the centre of the Great Hall are stacked with lemons and spoons, inviting delegates to duel, each attempting to unseat the carefully balanced fruit of the other.
Are these things playful reminders of the freewheeling ingenuity at the heart of the indie community, or are they trappings of a people more interested at playing indie developers than actual development itself? You suspect for some, indie development is a pose rather than a profession, and A Bit of Alright is almost guilty of mollycoddling those naïve dreamers who equate being creative to being a creator.
But Hayward has been canny in his line-up of speakers - this is a conference that has its cake and ultimately eats it too, enticing people in with the lure of carefree chaos and then dropping them into the ice-bath of reality. This comes close to conference's end by way of Cliff Harris, the man behind Positech games, maker of the highly successful Gratuitous Space Battles.
"You're all fucking lazy and you should work harder," he half-jokingly informs an increasingly crestfallen audience. This is your job, he says. It's not even a hard one in the grand scheme of things (a slide with a picture of the D-Day landings flashes onto the display behind him), but you must still approach it with some degree of rigour and professionalism or you will not make money enough to continue.
He cites the increased competition from overseas, and bemoans the attitude to work that permits 10pm starts - "a complete joke." But as well as telling the audience what they shouldn't do, he has productivity-boosting suggestions, too.
Keep a daily log, so that you know immediately what your first task is when clocking on, and remain motivated by checking-off that list. Turn off Twitter and get a dedicated workspace away from distraction. If you find your attention wandering, compartmentalise your work into intense periods of concentration, dictated by an egg-timer or similar. Invest in a comfortable working environment and good equipment - multiple monitors, and a snazzy chair may seem like luxuries, but consider them in the context of their hours of usage, and their value is apparent. Buying the software you need is essential too, and yet some discretion is needed in purchases, as often older, cheaper versions will more than suffice.
Others, talking in the pub afterwards, dissent. Part of the reason for going indie is to avoid the strictures of the workplace, some say. Clocking in at regular times just isn't conducive to creativity. But it is, perhaps, conducive to graft - and that, Harris maintains, is what the majority of the game development process involves. Harris' advice is practical; it could apply to any freelancer in any profession - but, given his references to the laissez-faire approach of his past employer Lionhead, it clearly also has implications for larger development studios.
Grown from an entertainment industry aimed at adolescent men, it's little surprise that many development studios feel more like adult crèches than places of work. Harris says this poor work ethic will simply be steamrollered by the professionalism of competitors in China and India. If the UK is to have an indie development scene, or a development scene at all, it will simply need to buckle down.
A poor work ethic will simply be steamrollered by the professionalism of competitors in China and India. If the UK is to have an indie development scene, it will simply need to buckle down.
Though this sort of tough love was far from the primary currency of A Bit of Alright, there were a few other talks which focused on the practicalities of creation. Kicking off the day, James Wallis of game consultancy Spaaace expounded on the merits of paper prototyping. Once described, it's a sort of smack-your-forehead kind of revelation: pool together the boards, pieces, cards and dice from all your defunct board games, and you have the tools for a level of rapid iteration that is simply impossible in the digital world. While it's not a perfect match for every genre, most games have individual mechanics that can be represented in paper and pen, allowing developers to get a feel for the flow of play, eradicating cumbersome pauses, unnecessary complications and inconsistencies without fiddling with a single line of code.
Other instructive talks included a QA session with lawyer Alex Tutty from event sponsors Sheridans, and Claire "Minkette" Bateman's overview of the mechanisms by which games addict players, for good and (more commonly) ill. But despite the dearth of sessions looking at development from this practical stance, the talks which dealt in the more nebulous field of themes and inspirations were no less stimulating for being more plentiful.
Kerry Turner and Simon Parkin from LittleLoud were on hand to discuss the function of emotion in games. As with many of the other talks, this was built upon an entertaining, if familiar, analysis of the usual suspects - ICO, Final Fantasy VII, Shadow of the Colossus - but then went further, unpicking the workings of Littleloud's own superb game, Sweatshop. It has a tough juggling act - on the one hand it has an educational remit regarding the tough conditions and moral compromises involved in running a factory in the developing world. But it must do so while being neither too grim nor too flippant and all the while an engaging game - quite a feat.
Also on display was event sponsor Introversion's forthcoming Prison Architect and a meditative big-screen play-through of Ed Key's Proteus - a game of dreamlike exploration with no explicit goals, and a gorgeous dynamic sound track by David Kanaga. Certainly, these last two projects represent a healthy swathe of the indie spectrum: Proteus is the sort of ethereal development that emerges from a casual collaborative jam, and for all its zen qualities is unlikely a mass-market blockbuster, while Prison Architect is an intricate and overtly structured game, with clearer commercial appeal.
Neither of these games would be possible to develop anywhere but the indie scene, and should remind us of the boons that a freeform development process can bring. But it's worth remembering that Prison Architect is nearing release after a number of close calls: developer Introversion has narrowly survived ruination on more than one occasion, and scrapped several years of hard work on a previous project, Subversion, which failed to attain coherence. The indie scene does not lack for creativity and genius, that much is clear from A Bit of Alright, but perhaps a bit of rigour wouldn't go amiss, either.