VENICE BEACH, Calif. — I was freezing atop the windy penthouse of a beachside building last night. But I didn’t mind, for the most part, because I was seeing the future of the game industry. The games I saw all came from independent developers, and they showed that there’s still a lot of innovation happening in gaming in advance of the industry’s biggest trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in mid-June.
Nathan Vella of Capy Games co-organized the event. He’s from Toronto, and he swears he didn’t know the rooftop penthouse he rented next to one of the most famous beaches in the world was going to be so cold. He gathered some of the best indie games he could find, with the help of game showman Geoff Keighley, Greg Rice of Double Fine Productions, Sony PlayStation, Microsoft’s ID@Xbox, Humble Bundle, and Nvidia. The event came at the end of a long week of corporate game presentations. The indies represented the creative part of the industry well.
While the corporate side of the business is full of safe sequels, the indies take more risks. They can create goofy games that makes us laugh. Robin Hunicke and Keita Takahashi (no relation to me), of San Francisco startup Funomena, had the whole room (inside a crazy geodesic dome with a waterbed) of jaded journalists laughing as they showed off the gameplay for their title, Wattam, for the first time.
Hunicke and Takahashi have been working on the title for a couple of years. Takahashi is best known as the creator of the zany Katamari Damacy, a 2004 game where you roll around a ball called a Katamari that collects things and grows bigger, like a snowball, until it becomes a ridiculous size. Hunicke was one of the co-creators of Thatgamecompany’s Journey. Takahashi and Hunicke worked together at Tiny Speck on a game called Glitch. That didn’t take off, and Hunicke started Funomena with Martin Middleton. Takahashi joined them afterward.
Takahashi’s inspiration was as strange as in his past games. He felt like people are disconnected from each other and they need to get together, hold hands, and play. In this game, you start out with ordinary animated objects such as a cloud, a mayor, a tree, and some sprouts. Each one has a name, and it comes to life as you interact with it. You get a lawn mower and you can mow over the grass, the flowers, and other objects. Each one of the objects starts to shine as you interact with it more. You can link the hands of the little animated characters. Once ten of them are linked together, the mayor can set off a bomb on his head and blow them all sky-high, like fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“We’re still working on making that explosion bigger,” Hunicke said, laughing.
As Takahashi demonstrated the explosion, everybody in the room cracked up. One by one, the objects came falling back to Earth. And then a new object arrived, drawn by the happiness of the funny explosion. Takahashi’s own son, now four, has been one of the playtesters for the game. The title is coming in 2016. It’s a lot of fun, but very hard to describe in a nutshell.
“It’s about how the world is made better when people are friends,” Hunicke said.
The indies such as Funomena aren’t going to replace the corporate titles. Warner Bros. has a huge title coming on June 23 in the form of Batman: Arkham Knight. Other big titles coming are sequels or giant brands: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain; Lego Dimensions; Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege; Call of Duty: Black Ops III; Halo 5: Guardians; and Star Wars: Battlefront.
But the indie games will give fans something to play in between the giant releases. They quench our thirst for original games, art, and stories. They’re like Miramax, delivering the Academy-Award-winning movies while Hollywood cranks out the blockbusters. But they’re also linked to the big companies, since they’re also often funded by larger publishers such as Sony or Microsoft.
Ian Dallas, the head of Giant Sparrow, is making his second game for Sony’s game machines. The creator of the phenomenal Sony game The Unfinished Swan, dug deep into his emotional life for his second game. The Unfinished Swan, inspired partly by his mother’s bout with cancer, was a creative game about what happens to a child in a fairy-tale-like journey after his mother dies. His second game is called What Remains of Edith Finch, a tale about a cursed family.
Dallas got the inspiration while scuba diving. He saw how the bottom of the ocean stretched out forever, and it was both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. The Edith Finch game takes that emotion, particularly about the fear of death, and turns it into a series of game episodes, akin to short stories. Each tale is about somebody who is about to die. In one part, a dying girl dreams about being an owl. She hunts rabbits and eats them, until she turns into a shark, falls from the sky, and then rolls and flops to the ocean. It’s all very nonsensical, like a dream. All of us laughed when we saw the owl turn into the shark and then roll down the hill to the sea. It’s a simple idea, beautifully executed with realistic 3D art. But it promises to deliver an emotional experience that you rarely get from a video game.
Giant Sparrow’s game, destined for Sony’s consoles is slated for next year, which means that some of these blockbusters will have to hold us over until we get our indie games. But when they do, you can expect to be pleasantly surprised at the creativity, inspiration, and thought that has gone into making these games into something totally different that you’ve never seen before.
These developers stood out in the group because they have created something innovative more than once. And that’s pretty rare.
All game developers should think about how they can accomplish this kind of creativity, innovation, and differentiation. And investors and publishers should seek out these kinds of games if they want to cash in on creativity.
That evening on the rooftop will be memorable for me. The games were all carefully curated. They have great potential, and they’ve renewed my faith in the artists of gaming.