IndieCade co-chair steps down

John Sharp departs festival after deciding conference model doesn't help marginalized developers

IndieCade co-chair John Sharp stepped down from that position this week, framing his decision to leave the festival as one prompted by a gradual disillusionment with the standard game conference model's ability to help participants.

"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," Sharp wrote in a blog explaining his departure. "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."

Sharp, who is an associate professor of games and learning at Parsons The New School for Design, comes from an academic background, where conferences are common and the costs of travel and lodging for speakers can frequently be covered by grants or institutional funding. Such opportunities are far fewer in the world of game development. And for creators outside of academic circles or established game development studios, the cost of attending conferences can hardly be justified by the expense put upon people already dealing with limited resources, Sharp said. He likened the conference model in games to reality shows like Project Runway, where participants can have their profile raised (made "conference famous"), but ultimately receive little tangible benefit.

"I've come to see sustainability as the most pressing issue for keeping the margins of indie games from fraying and leaving people more disenfranchised than they were before entering our communities," Sharp said. "I'm not sure how this problem is solved, but I am increasing certain that developer-focused conferences can mask the real problems."

Sharp suggested following the model of New York City's Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which runs inexpensive workshops helping non-commercial artists with everything from money management to grant writing. He also pointed to Creative Capital, a philanthropic fund modeled after a venture capital firm, but designed to support artists instead of entrepreneurs.

"The catalyst for all these artist support initiatives is funding," Sharp said. "We are starting to see some government support for games as an art form, but for things to happen, we need individuals and companies to get involved. For companies to really help in this area means doing more than simply sponsoring conferences. It means recognizing the importance of creating an infrastructure to support the medium and not just the commerce. We need non-profit foundations that see the importance of supporting games along the margins-not to help turn them into developers of saleable games, but to allow them to make games from the messy, fragile lens of art."

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Latest comments (5)

James Coote Independent Game Developer 2 years ago

I'm a "commercial indie" but then sometimes I do a game jam for the fun of it or for artistic expression, so maybe I'm an artist as well. In any case, with the cross pollination of ideas and support the indie community provides to everyone, regardless of whether their game is art or commercial or both, I'm not sure the distinction is all that useful.

Especially when you consider that the same issues with events affect more business minded Indies as well. No event is cost effective in terms of sales, and for exposure, there's a big survivor bias.

The real problem for all Indies (artists or otherwise) is that there are no tools for them to reach non gamers.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Coote on 31st October 2015 7:34pm

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James Coote Independent Game Developer 2 years ago
When you dig down into the motivations for indies making games, it gets very fuzzy, very quickly. Many indies aren't even able themselves to articulate exactly why they are doing it.

More business minded indies secretly like to believe their product is the real foundation and edge to commercial success. It's their USP, even if they emphasise the critical importance of the "marketing" in bringing that out. Otherwise they'd just take the view to produce something conventional with investor backing and an established IP (at which point most would probably agree they're no longer indie). Why else mess around with the incredibly risky process of making unique or interesting games?

For artists, it's more obvious why they want to produce unique and interesting games, but putting the brakes on that are the need to pay rent, and (for most) to spread the influence of their art to as many as possible.

Really though, for both, the underlying sentiment is "my game is special". The belief that commercial and critical success are two sides of the same coin. Success in either one gives you a huge boost in your chances when it comes to the other (even if it's for next game).

To put it differently, both artist and commercial indies face the same little triangle of interdependence: "find money", "make game", "get exposure". That's why both occupy the same space, literally in the case of conventions and events.

Both face the same problem that the tools available to them are very good at just hitting a small section of people. Social media, youtubers/twitch, games press, gaming conventions - Affordable or on the edge of affordability for indies, they are only going to reach "core" gamers. For commercial indies that means there is an oversupply of games within a tiny niche. For artists, their games are only visible to a small (relatively conservative) subset of society. Versus drowning in the app store.

Finally, the indie communities I hang out in, there's a spirit of creativity and of helping each other out. Even if everyone's final aim or motivation is slightly different. Making a distinction would be somewhat antithetical to that "spirit of indie". Moreover, those communities are the infrastructure John suggests is needed. It's already there, just critically underdeveloped.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 2 years ago
My guess is that the term "indie" was adopted from the music industry, and I'm going to suggest that the gaming industry/world use it in the same way. An "indie" band is simply a band working in more or less the same commercial world as bands on "major labels," but without that kind of funding or resources behind it. It's an utterly different thing from the "art" world (what we in that community in music usually term, "new music" or "avant-garde"), though of course there's always a bit of cross-over (e.g., The Residents).

A good bit of separation between the indies and the art guys would be really helpful, I think. I'm not making a value judgement about either, here, I'm just saying that the goals of each are so different that I don't see how you could even begin to cater to both in a conference.
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James Coote Independent Game Developer 2 years ago
It's a terrible idea! Yes the current system doesn't work for anyone, but creating unnecessary divides won't help! It'll just make gamedev less vibrant and exciting
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 2 years ago
James: this isn't creating unnecessary divides; the divide is already there. Here are a couple of examples of where the aims of indie developers and avant-garde developers are going to be not only completely different, but even incompatible:

1. Indie developers are (or should be!) fairly concerned about keeping their potential audience happy and not alienating their own or the "mainstream" gaming community. For avant-garde developers, on the other hand, whether or not you've pissed off large numbers of people is usually unimportant, and is sometimes even an expected indication of your success.

2. A sustainable business model for indie developers pretty much invariably means charging some of your players in some way, at some point. For avant-garde developers this may be the last thing you want to do; charging some or all of those who play might, for many reasons, be something that hurts your game or career rather than helps it.

John also makes a good point point about developers getting exposure in the wrong category sucking up attention that could be much more profitably given to someone who needs it more.

If we want to best help both indie and avant-garde developers, or even help just one of these two, we need to take in to account their huge differences and focus our help accordingly, so that we support their very different strengths rather than ignoring or even undermining them.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Curt Sampson on 1st November 2015 10:13pm

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