“I think all the best indie projects have that sense, that this might come to nothing.” Game designer Ben Johnson is talking about game development, but he might as well be referring to LA Game Space, an ambitious community project envisioned by Adam Robezzoli and Daniel Rehn. Rather than seek funding through corporate sponsorship or government grants, Robezzoli and Rehn turned to the Internet and Kickstarter, a popular fundraising website which allows potential creators to explain their project and offer goodies to those who pledge money to back it. If the fundraising goal isn’t met, no money changes hands and everyone goes back to square one. For a while, it looked as though LA Game Space might fall short of its $250,000 goal—even as it offers a package of 30 indie games to anyone who donated at least $15—but a funding surge in the closing days of the campaign put this internet telethon over the top. (The project is still accepting donors.)
As it’s imagined, LA Game Space will convert a warehouse into a game design art emporium, complete with galleries, research labs, workshops, and, perhaps most intriguingly, artist residencies. This latter will throw game designers together with people from other fields—artists, architects, zoologists—to collaborate in unconventional ways, in the hope that unconventional games will result. “Our focus is going to be to really push the residents to do stuff that’s really out there, stuff that’s uncomfortable for them, and sometimes uncomfortable for people to play,” Rebezzoli said. “A residency like that is going to have a high rate of failure, because when you do have successes, they’re going to be groundbreaking successes. We want the effort and the focus to be, ‘Don’t do things that are expected, and if you know you’re going to succeed, then you’re not doing the right thing.’”
It’s difficult to assess a project where failure (or, at least, the prospect of failure) is the benchmark for success. If viewed in terms of existing institutions, LA Game Space would seem to be a mixture of the academic and DIY aesthetics of some indie game communities. The NYU Game Center, for instance, hosts talks and lectures by established game developers and features new work in its annual No Quarter exhibition. And Babycastles, another New York-based outfit, installs indie-game arcades throughout the city and curates exhibitions of experimental games. (Babycastles’ latest event, Babyharvester, is at Manhattan’s Clocktower Gallery right now.) But neither of those entities provides an exact blueprint, and both of them have advantages LA Game Space will probably not enjoy.
“One of the things that I have learned from working at the academy, where we don’t have a huge amount of resources—but we do have a huge institution backing us up, you know?—there is something to fall back on,” said Charles Pratt, a researcher at the NYU Game Center. He noted that LA Game Space’s mission statement is remarkably broad. “When you feel like you know what the scene needs, you want to do it all at once.” Kickstarter is aptly named: It’s a great way to get a project going, but without institutional or corporate backing, the long-term sustainability for a project this size is untested. If measured failure is the goal, it could be difficult to convince your many shareholders (i.e., people of the internet) to continue donating money, no matter how many games you entice them with.
Babycastles is a low-cost operation. To fund resident artists for six months at a stretch is something else entirely, and where the money comes from in the future is uncertain. “It’s going to be difficult to maintain, in that you want it to come to something, especially early on,” predicted Ben Johnson, a Babycastles organizer. “You want to have successes that you can show. You know, ‘We sponsored this person, and they created this thing, and it was amazing, and the world is forever changed.’ When you’re going around trying to figure out if you can pay your rent next year, that is a good thing to be able to say.”
Rebezzoli believes that the world is ready now and that the Kickstarter campaign offers the best route toward making LA Game Space a reality. To encourage pledges, the project directors offering never-before-seen games from the likes of Keita Takahashi (creator of Katamari Damacy), Cactus, and other indie luminaries, creators whose work is part of the project’s inspiration. Rebezzoli insists, though, that the Game Space isn’t going to be some kind of indie insider’s club. Its doors will be open to commercial game designers as well, or anyone with an interest in games. It’s not even going to necessarily be a local thing, as there are plans to broadcast talks and projects on the web.
Pratt suspects that this sprawling vision might hit a few snags. “It’s something I really want to succeed, and there’s a bunch of really talented people involved in [LA Game Space],” Pratt said, “but when I look at it, the two questions I want to know are what is it this thing does, which is very hard for me to discern. And the other thing is who is doing it, and do I understand that personality. A feeling for what that aesthetic is. And I don’t immediately get that from LA Game Space. It just wants to be this big awesome thing. And it can be a big awesome thing, but I think it’s also important to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘This is the thing we believe in.’” Pratt emphasized that all of the NYU Game Center undertakings are meant to advance the program’s sole mission—teaching people to make games.
And while it does seem like LA Game Space doesn’t have as concrete a statement of purpose to hang its hat on, it’s also a young enterprise, and it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of an idea. People have been making video games for more than 40 years now, Robezzoli said. “It’s not like we’re the first people to do this. I think [in] the last five years, we’ve seen tons of growth of people saying like, ‘I don’t need to sell my games for money. I don’t need to be a part of an industry.’”
“We’re going along with that idea—that this medium is incredibly powerful and amazing, so there should be a place that can help nurture that and help people who want to do that kind of thing, give them a place to talk and show their work.” As of this writing, the Game Space’s Kickstarter funding is at $253,000 and growing, so it looks like we’re going to see just how powerful that idea is.