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Variable State: "Indie is the real cutting edge of games"

Variable State: "Indie is the real cutting edge of games"

Tue 03 Jun 2014 1:00pm GMT / 9:00am EDT / 6:00am PDT

Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny introduce their new studio

It's not unusual for GamesIndustry International to talk to a brand new indie studio, but it is surprisingly rare to talk to one that's focused on creating a story-led title, funding itself and resisting the temptation to go free-to-play. Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny are Variable State, and they're eschewing the usual start-up cliches in favour of creativity and culture.

"Indie is the real cutting edge of games. It's not about the technical frontier any more, it's not like better lighting or better AI or transitioning from 2D to 3D or any of that," says Burroughs.

"The tools are there now to go and make incredible experiences, and that's what indie is doing and what mainstream is perhaps not able to do because of the commercial inertia that it's caught up in."

Burroughs worked as a writer and designer on House of the Dead: Overkill, Battalion Wars 2 and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat to name a few, while Kenny is an animator and artist with House of the Dead: Overkill and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to his credit. The two joined forces after their last employer, DeepMind Technologies, was acquired by Google and they found themselves at a loose end. Their shared love of story-based games like Kentucky Route Zero, and their love of the indie culture, were key to forging a new working relationship.

"Indie developers have shown just how far you can stretch the definition of what a video game is"

"Indie developers have shown just how far you can stretch the definition of what a video game is," says Kenny.

"They often embrace practices that larger studios avoid or have abandoned, and are prepared to work in styles and themes that a AAA studio would never go near. So I guess they have the freedom and the courage to experiment and, by doing so, innovate a bit more often. I also think there is a lot to be said for having an open development process and engaging with people who might be interested in what you're doing from the beginning."

The pair are currently working on their first project, which will be a "reflection of our personal tastes and interests." Burroughs mentions Gone Home and talks about games where you can see the intent and the craft of the developers, where, "you can see the brushstrokes, like it's the rough edges that had not been polished away to a fine sheen like you'd get in a AAA game."

Kenny says so far the journey for Variable State, and making their development dreams a reality, has been both liberating and stressful.

"The liberating part makes the stress a lot easier though, and the stress of working on a personal project is different to the kind of frustration I've felt on bigger titles. It's easier to address the project related problems that are stressing me out because we are a small team and we can decide to just go ahead and fix or change something."

Burroughs is enthusiastic about being part of the indie scene, about being part of a scene that's collaborative and open and interested in pushing boundaries. You get the sense that he can really embrace that now, in a way that wasn't always possible at other studios.

"You can be completely switched on to what's going on in the culture around you - in other media or just in the news and in society - and bring that into your personal experiences. The things that affected you in your life up until that point you can bring into your game, and that can be reflected in the game in a meaningful way and then can go out and influence the culture," he explains.

1

"It scares me a little bit thinking too much about the commercial implications of it and worrying how that might taint the actual substance of the game in some way, which is a slightly na´ve way to think about things because I know I've got to pay my bills at some point."

Of course it's not all roses and cupcakes in indie land, and Burroughs is well aware of that. He expresses his concerns that Steam might start to see the same avalanche of titles as the mobile market, one that hides all but a few lucky games. He worries that will make marketing more and more important, and could even affect the type of games that get made.

"I don't want to be worrying about marketing and making the game commercial"

"Games like Goat Sim and all the sim genre of games that has emerged, you can see it exists because it creates viral marketing opportunities and creates headlines," he says.

"I wonder if we are going to see more of that in games tailored to attracting an audience in the indie space. And that worries me and upsets me slightly because I feel like indie to some extent is set apart from the mainstream, partly because it's trying to avoid those commercial imperatives - it's trying to avoid being poisoned by money. I don't want to be worrying about marketing and making the game commercial. I'd much rather tell a great story."

For now the team is using its savings to fund its first project, but Burroughs is adamant that even if the money runs out the enthusiasm for Variable State won't.

"We figured out that we both probably have about a year where we can just stay at home and work on this full-time until we probably have to start panicking and looking for a job, or looking for another source of income or backing of some sort to help the game carry on," he explains.

"We are both very much in agreement, though, that even if we got to that point we are not finished with the game. We would carry on with the game, no matter what."

11 Comments

J.K.
Studying Game Design Specialization

7 10 1.4
One thing confuses me about this article: What boundaries exactly are indie developers pushing?

Posted:3 months ago

#1

Jonathan Burroughs
Game Developer

20 73 3.7
Popular Comment
Well, I can only speak for our ambitions, but going indie does mean we get to take on our own liability. We're not working at the behest of an investor or a parent company. Or a marketing department. So there are fewer opinions to absorb, fewer arguments to win. It means we can be more experimental, thematically, aesthetically, mechanically - those are the boundaries which we can push. I feel we can take risks a bigger company wouldn't be able to. When specifically compared to big budget game development or any game development which is heavily commoditised.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jonathan Burroughs on 3rd June 2014 4:51pm

Posted:3 months ago

#2

Samuel Verner
Game Designer

131 243 1.9
Indie developers have shown just how far you can stretch the definition of what a video game is
...and I thought Zynga did that already - often it was very hard to say if their products are still games or not. :-D

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Samuel Verner on 3rd June 2014 5:26pm

Posted:3 months ago

#3

Jonathan Burroughs
Game Developer

20 73 3.7
When your game becomes a shop front I think you've relinquished most of your creative aspirations. The interactive equivalent of a fairground ride.

Posted:3 months ago

#4

Julian Beck
HR Consultant

39 45 1.2
"Indie is the real cutting edge of games. It's not the technical frontier any more, it's not like better lighting or better AI or transitioning from 2D to 3D or any of that," says Burroughs.
"The tools are there now to go and make incredible experiences, and that's what indie is doing and what mainstream is perhaps not able to do because of the commercial inertia that it's caught up in."
"It means we can be more experimental, thematically, aesthetically, mechanically - those are the boundaries which we can push."
Thanks for going into detail in refer to the article with your comment, Jonathan.
I'm no developer but I definitely see that topic very similar. I think of "The Cat Lady" - deppression and suicid game content, "The Stanley parabel"+"Gone Home" - the thin line between novel and game, "Papo & Yo" - alcohol addiction. The developers are mostly indie or at least no big studios which grab the difficult topics and gameplay approaches. Examples in AAA or mid-budget are very rare to find in comparison, the "escape slavery story" of Assassin's Creed Black Flag's DLC adventure is one of the few exceptions I remember at the moment.
What I find a very good thing is that the currently two very important 3D game engines UE4 and Cryengine 3 are now available for quite cheap subscription fees. I hope that some smaller developers now take the opportunity to realize their very creative games finally in a 3D environment. I do like good 2D games, but it gets tiring to see such a flood of new games which often seem to appeal only by being "cool retro pixel stuff" than having good gameplay.

Posted:3 months ago

#5
Great article and I agree with Jonathan and Terry. Indies are free to chase their own passions and ideas, indies are not boxed in by bean counters, ideas aren't diluted by lame corporate group think, the safe common denominator does not take precedent. Indies are free to go and create what they want to create within reason. I agree Part 6 of some commercial FPS shooter is not going to forge the way for gaming, it will be a few daring knuckleheads who dont know any better, aka, the indies.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 3rd June 2014 8:04pm

Posted:3 months ago

#6

Jonathan Burroughs
Game Developer

20 73 3.7
I absolutely don't want to just shit on AAA. As I said in a post on another forum some of my favourite game experiences are vast cathedral-like enterprises like Saints Row and EVE Online. But as a matter of personal taste I'm more interested in games which speak to the intent of their creators. And I think there's a better opportunity to make something meaningful when you're not subjected to the creative abrasion of working on a multi-year project, spending each day negotiating the politics of earning the buy-in of a large team.

Posted:3 months ago

#7

George Kotsiofides
Game Designer

6 2 0.3
I don't often comment on here, but just wanted to wish you the very best, Jonathan! I think you're off to a great start! :D

Posted:3 months ago

#8

Jonathan Burroughs
Game Developer

20 73 3.7
Thanks, George. That really means a lot! <3

Posted:3 months ago

#9

Jim Burns
Research Asisstant

44 85 1.9
Indie games are cutting edge? I disagree.

Posted:3 months ago

#10

Jonathan Burroughs
Game Developer

20 73 3.7
/rolls up sleeves

Let's go, Jim.

Posted:3 months ago

#11

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