Upping Utah’s indie gaming scene

First Published      Last Updated Sep 09 2015 10:06 am

DIY community » Indie developers link up and find ways to break into the industry.

Lyle Cox has put it all on the line for his homemade video game.

A year ago, Cox quit his software job to chase a dream of creating and selling his own video game: "Together: Amna and Saif," in which two players have to work together to solve puzzles. Since then, he's been digging into his savings, including paying for a writer, a composer and an artist — then a different artist, when he couldn't afford the first one for the long term. After moving around to different apartments, he, his wife, and their 8-month-old have moved into Cox's father's home in Riverton.

A successful Kickstarter — which earned $4,000 more than its $10,000 goal — has helped. But with "Together" not slated for release until early next year, Cox is holding out hope that their sacrifices have been worth it.

"My goal is for ['Together'] is to benefit the relationships of those who play the game," said Cox, talking about how he hopes parents and their children, or partners, will bond as they talk to each other about how to solve the game's puzzles. In a world of big studio games focused on explosive action and adventure, "Together" stands out for its quietier, human focus.

But whether that can find a big-enough audience is the question. There's no guarantee, and never is, with indie game development. And Cox isn't alone; he's just one of dozens of indie developers along the Wasatch Front.

The once isolated and fledging Utah indie scene is growing, thanks to relatively new video game curriculums at Utah universities; the overall tech boom taking place in Salt Lake and Utah counties; and the state's low cost of living enticing people to move in, to name a few reasons.

But on top of all that, Cox, and others like him, are trying to bring their do-it-yourself community together, and help each other succeed. Cox is a founding member of the Utah Games Guild, a new group of other indie developers that wants to give everyone in this growing community the help they need to win the game that they're all in, together.

Everyone needs it. When it comes to indie gaming, the difficulty level isn't set to easy.

'It's hard to earn a living doing games' • Indie game development might not be a walk in the park, but for Josh Sutphin, it's a lot better than working at a studio.

The Salt Lake City developer spent years working for studios in Austin, Texas — at the exhausting pace of 70 to 80 hours a week. As his mid-20s gave way to his late-20s, Sutphin said he realized that this couldn't last forever, not if he wanted a life outside of work. The Utah native moved back to Salt Lake and drew on his savings and years of experience to make his own game full time: "Legacy of the Elder Star," an arcade-style shooter.

"Indie is really, really hard in a different way, because of course I'm responsible for everything now," Sutphin said. "I have no marketing team to take care of that for me, I don't have a boss making the decisions, and [there's no] 'Oh I can just hand this off to the programmers.' I have to do all it."

At the same time, he loves the challenge of realizing his vision; making "the game that you want to play," as a lot of indie developers describe their pursuit.

Paige Ashlynn agrees. It's hard to make a living of indie video games, but the "sheer love" that developers pour into them is a big part of why Ashlynn, who worked on games like "Magnetic By Nature," loves the indie world.

"Really, I think it's very similar to an underground music scene," Ashlynn said. "[There are] lots of people working their butt off to pursue something they love, peers supporting but also challenging one another, providing a space and an excuse to share skills and create art."

Though some people get into making indie games as a creative outlet, and others tire of the taxing big studio demands, a lot of others graduate from college with their sights set on working at a studio. But after graduation, they find a crowded field that doesn't have an opening for them yet. In the meantime, they go indie to hone their skills and improve their portfolios.

"It's like any entertainment industry. It's very competitive," said Josh Jones, president of the International Game Development Association (IGDA) Utah chapter and a member of the Salt Lake-based studio WildWorks. Even the local studios are largely founded by friends, who often hire people they know, and almost everyone is there for the long haul. Like Hollywood, getting a job often boils down to who you know, Jones said.

But when they go indie, they find out first-hand that the DIY world presents a whole new set of challenges.

Creating a game can be a lot like running your own business, which means an intimidating realm of contracts, tax forms and marketing. Booth space at expositions, to spread worth-of-mouth and test the game with a real audience, is expensive. And unlike a studio environment, you're on your own, with no coworkers to encourage you or lend a hand when you've hit a programming snag or a bout of discouragement.

Funding is another huge hurdle, said indie developer Becky Pennock. There's no sure-fire solution. Crowdfunding through Kickstarter is one, but it has mixed results.

"The veterans and the indie dev noobs are all grasping to find their own answers to this problem," Pennock said. "It's a journey, it gets messy, and you have to be too stupid to stop trying to see it through, because it gets tough."

Indie development took a toll on Ashlynn's health. Ashlynn was not only coding "Magnetic By Nature," but negotiating contracts, booking hotels, interviewing, and cleaning up the table and floors after team meetings. "I was firing on all cylinders for non-stop for about 2-and-a-half years, and it left me in not the best shape of my life, shall we say."

Sutphin quit studio work for a freer life, only to find his sleep schedule devastated. He regularly goes to bed at 4 a.m.

"You quit your job and you do this full time, there's nobody to tell you what's right or wrong," Cox said. "There's no guide with that."

But that's where groups like the IGDA, and grassroot groups, come in. Working together, they want to help indies enjoy as much success as they can, with as much guidance as they can offer.

'Indies helping indies' • In the past year, Cox would bury himself so deeply in the development of "Together" that he could no longer see what was good about it.

So he took it to the Utah Indie Game Nights. The event, held every other month at a university campus along the Wasatch Front, lets developers get together to hear advice — from life-work balance, to running a Kickstarter — and get feedback on their projects. There, Cox watched people spend anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours playing "Together." That was just the boost he needed to keep going.

As an indie developer, "that support system is vital," said Brianne Christiansen, who attended several Game Nights and released her music game "Vinyl" last year. Echoing that sentiment, Sutphin said that if he "didn't have some people with similar experiences to bounce ideas off of, I would have gone cuckoo long ago."

Attendance has kept growing since the Game Night's first meeting several years ago, when 11 people got together in an Orem basement. Now the Game Nights sports a mailing list of about 200 people, with 30 to 50 of them attending any given night, depending on where it's held.

The nature of indie development means everyone is in their own world, so bringing the indie community together can feel like "herding cats," said the Game Nights leader and founder Greg Squire. But lately, he's seen the scene come together more and more.

"It's been a fun thing to see how the community grows," Squire said. "Our group is always about indies helping indies. A lot of [people] are very willing to share their time with others and share their experiences with each other."

That's where Cox met Sutphin and Tim Rowberry, the fellow developers he formed the Utah Games Guild with in 2014. Together, they want to help that community grow closer, and help them succeed.

The Guild • The trio's first mission was to rent booth space at conventions as a group, which cuts down the otherwise expensive cost for any one developer to show off their game. The Guild debuted at the 2014 Salt Lake Comic Con, but took off in a much bigger way at Salt Lake Gaming Con in early August, where 12 developers shared a large chunk of the con floor.

At least 150 people stopped and played Chris Crabtree's puzzle game "Gnomium," which is nearing a launch date. The father of six works on the game in his spare time, and both he and the developer next to him enjoyed a lot of feedback that "helps propel you forward," he said.

"It was this happy moment… knowing you can create something that's exciting, that people love to play."

The conventions were "a big boost to our motivation," said Marc Call, who's working on an arena-style shooter, "Crashnauts," with his brother. Call loves the creative freedom of an indie game, though he admits it's taxing on his otherwise busy schedule. Besides working on his computer science degree at UVU, he's a father of two.

"I've had to sacrifice a lot of family time to work on 'Crashnauts' but my wife is very supportive and believes in what I am doing," he said. Besides that, the biggest hurdle is getting exposure "with a zero dollar budget" — which he's grateful to the Guild for offering. Not only did they provide cheaper entry to big conventions, but the Guild features "Crashnauts" and other indies on its website.

Sutphin was too busy to watch people play the demo of his own game. So many people stopped by the general information booth that he spent all three days fielding attendees' questions about the Guild — like, do they offer classes?

The question had never occurred to them before. But Sutphin is excited by the idea, and is exploring the possibility with his co-founders. After all, Sutphin wants the Guild to help put Utah "on the map as an indie community," the way that cities like Austin, Toronto and San Francisco have reputations as hubs of indie game development.

Room to Grow • To Ashlynn, who hasn't joined The Guild yet, the group is a sign that the indie scene is maturing. But as their community grows along the Wasatch Front, Ashlynn would like to see it mature into a more diverse crowd, too.

"We have a lot of very dedicated, hardworking people in our community, but many of them have very similar life experiences, and I think you can see that in our output; we tend to make a very particular kind of game here," Ashlynn said. While that might be good for establishing Utah's style, in the way that cities have been associated with certain musical styles, "I think we would all benefit from a more diverse pool of developers."

Specifically, Rachel Helps — who recently published the sci-fi marriage simulator "Our Personal Space" — pointed out that there aren't a lot of women. It's a problem not only for indie gaming, but the industry at large: women make up only 11 percent of game designers and 3 percent of programmers, according to The Boston Globe.

"It's normal to be the only girl on a large team," Pennock said.

Sometimes fellow team members unintentionally exclude people who are different, "without any malicious intent," Pennock said. But the consequence is that "a lot of the themes or ideas you'd suggest get brushed aside."

Pennock wants to see more "spaces where women, people of color, queer [developers]," and other people who feel disconnected or isolated, can get together. Women and minorities come to Utah Indie Games Night, but Pennock would like to see events where a bunch of developers can experiment "with unusual people making awesome unusual stuff together."

"Bringing the community together more will give people of all different backgrounds a space to help their ideas grows into actual, playable games," she added.

Fear of Failure • A lot of indie developers haven't gone full time the way that Sutphin, Cox and Rowberry have. The fear of failing can become all consuming, Sutphin said. "It's really hard not to get terrified and paralyzed by it."

But Sutphin would love to see more people take a chance, if they know the risks.

"No one talks about failures," which is a big hurdle for the indie community — not just in Utah, but around the world, Sutphin said. It's "not that celebrating the successes is bad," he said, "but when that's the only thing you talk about, people get really skewed ideas in their head if they don't mitigate risk."

"We see news stories about the guy who made 'Minecraft.' Well that guy was an indie, he made a game by himself, and he owns a freakin' mansion in the West Hills or whatever," Sutphin said. "… And people see that and think, 'Oh, I can do that, too.' But [most people] probably aren't going to hit that same level of success."

'Together' • Cox and his family have sacrificed to see "Together" through. But for the young Riverton father, "the rewards are worth it to me."

It seems to be paying off. At the end of August, Cox showcased the game at PAX Prime, a big video game conference in Seattle, Wash. Attendees, like Asia al-Massari, fell in love with the journey of Amna and Saif, an mother and son. Cox hired writer, Saladin Ahmed, to pen their story.

For Cox, going full time has meant more than success on his own terms and creative freedom. From the day his son was born, Cox has been home for him, instead of rushing out the door every morning.

"One of the best things that I've enjoyed about it is I can play with my baby until he goes down for a nap," Cox said. He's also able to spend more time with his wife.

After a year of work, Cox is putting final touches on "Together's" last few levels. Most co-operative games can still be beaten with one person doing the heavy lifting, or even on their own, Cox said, but he's designing "Together" to truly require two people who talk to each other on the couch. It's not just a game, it's a way for two people — a mother and son, a boyfriend and girlfriend — to work together.

"You depend on each other to progress," Cox said.

So in a sense, Cox's game is a lot like the indie game community around him. It might seem like a long road ahead, rife with obstacles at every turn. But, ideally, no one should have to tackle them alone.


Twitter: @MikeyPanda



For more information about Utah Indie Games Night, visit the public Google group at groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/utah-indie-games.

For more information about The Utah Games Guild, visit www.utahgamesguild.com.