“I spent three-and-a-half years on a game that wasn’t even ever announced,” David Kalina told me. The veteran developer was reflecting, with a hint of bitterness, on his time spent at big game companies, this stint specifically at Midway. “That was a little discouraging.”
Kalina, along with Randy Smith (formerly of Ubisoft and Electronic Arts), own Tiger Style Games, an Austin-based studio known for the award-winning iPhone title Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor and a more recent release, Waking Mars. And they don’t miss working for the big guys.
“I was a creative director at EA, never building something myself, mostly just talking to other people about what they were making,” Smith said. Like Kalina, he spent an exhausting amount of time working on a game that never came to fruition: the ill-fated Steven Spielberg collaboration LMNO. “With Spider, I got to hold the pen again—it was exciting, not being so distant to the software. That’s what appeals to me as an indie.”
Many designers in Austin like Smith and Kalina are eschewing larger studios, even those with local offices like BioWare and Activision, to stay small and make games on their own terms. Tiger Style even lives by a strict code that no major game studio could ever hope to adhere to, not with anxious board members and multi-million-dollar budgets: no guns.
“We make games without guns, not because we are against guns or violent games. It’s that it’s just overdone,” Smith said. “By not allowing ourselves to make games that are violent, we have to think, ‘How do we invent [a] new type of gameplay?’”
Tiger Style and other Austin indies—like White Whale Games, Stoic, and Karakasa Games, to name a few—are free from the fiscal and managerial responsibilities that work in a larger studio entails. The upshot is that they’re not forced to create, say, another first-person shooter starring space marines. “My last game at Midway was a failed clone of Grand Theft Auto,” Kalina said. “It’s the same ideas over and over again, repackaged. They’re evolving—to a degree—but it’s hard for a bold idea to crack through when the budgets are that high.”
Additionally, the creative freedom afforded by staying indie has created a community in Austin built not on competition but on camaraderie. Indie game creators and enthusiasts meet the first Thursday of every month at an art space on Austin’s East Side for an event called Juegos Rancheros, a name that gives a playful nod to the Mexican brunch dish eaten by thousands of Austinites every weekend. Here, game designers play each other’s games, give notes, hang out, and take the temperature of what is going on around town.
“I moved to Austin in late 2008, and at the time, while it was still a fantastic city for game development, there was very little that you could call a ‘game scene’ here,” said Brandon Boyer, a co-founder of the Juegos event. Boyer met Kalina and indie developer Adam Saltsman (Canabalt, Capsule) shortly thereafter—they both showed up for an impromptu indie game gathering at an apartment complex’s pool party. Over the next year, the gatherings became more frequent, and attendance swelled. By the end of 2009, the seed of what would become Juegos Rancheros was planted. “Just before the new year, we had a big drink-up at a local bar, mostly to celebrate the fact that Eliss creator Steph Thirion and Kokoromi’s Heather Kelley also happened to be in town, and I remember it being that night that I felt like, ‘This is what a local indie game scene should feel like,’” Boyer recalled.
Boyer and Saltsman joined up with local video game whiz Wiley Wiggins—famous for a few dozen nose-pinching moments as Mitch Kramer in 1994’s Dazed And Confused—and on May 1, 2011, with a helpful push by the owner of the Alamo Drafthouse theater, offered up the first public playable demo of Twisted Pixel’s The Gunstringer. The Kinect game undoubtedly helped prompt Microsoft’s buyout of Twisted Pixel not six months later. Juegos Rancheros was born.
“I’m mostly another pair of hands and wheels and a spare computer or two,” Wiggins said. “In Juegos, we are all equal parts community cheerleaders and equipment schleppers.” In reality, Wiggins is working on his first game, coordinates the annual Fantastic Arcade showcase, and has helped grow Juegos Rancheros from a couple “local indie game folks in a bar” into a must-see event every month.
If it seems odd that individual members of different studios come together frequently to champion and improve each other’s work through beta testing and constructive criticism, it doesn’t to the members of the tightly knit Austin scene. “I think Austin has a way of pulling in lots of interesting people with a plethora of unique backgrounds and interests, and that in turn helps things like Juegos flourish,” said Jo Lammert, a director at White Whale. “It’s a uniquely supportive city.”
Saltsman argues, though, that the collaborative spirit is more about vocation than location. “I think there is a pretty healthy level of camaraderie in Austin now, and it’s definitely good for my ego to pretend that I had something to do with that,” Saltsman said. “But I’m not sure if that is really unique to Austin, so much as it is a basic survival instinct for small studios anywhere, like little baby otters forming a pack to help scare off crocodiles.”
While the local talent is split on Austin as the singularly convivial city for game developers, they’ve all come—from Ann Arbor, Long Island, Chicago, and beyond—and stayed in a city that is without doubt a smaller market. Tiger Style’s Smith, who began his journey in the ’90s at Looking Glass Studios in Cambridge, Mass., sums up why being indie in Austin is 100 times better than most places. Cambridge “was a totally un-fun, uncool city,” he said, matter-of-factly. “And I learned of the existence of cool cities when I visited Valve in Seattle. Little did I know that Austin was 10 times cooler than Seattle, which is 10 times cooler than Boston.”
It’s simple math.
(Austin skyline photo: Robert Hensley)