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Erik Svedang
The whimsical "Blueberry Garden" is one of five finalists for the prestigious grand prize at this year's Independent Games Festival Awards.
By InGame reporter
NBC News
updated 1/22/2009 7:26:19 AM ET 2009-01-22T12:26:19

Prognosticating is usually a thing best left to palm readers and Ouija boards. But if you want a look at the future of video gaming, you can’t go wrong by taking a gander at the recently announced list of finalists for the Independent Games Festival Awards.

Here you’ll find a game that drops you into a mysterious garden populated by creatures who run around wearing party hats perched atop their heads. You’ll also find a game “about self-replicating mining machines,” and a game that promises “elegant, physics-based gameplay, dreamlike visuals, and a minimalist, electro-acoustic soundtrack.” And while this list may leave you scratching your head at times (how, exactly, does one make a video game about “an old lady who visits a graveyard”) any one of these games could be the biggest hit of 2009.

OK, maybe not the game about grandma’s stroll through the headstones … but still, just take a look at the list of past IGF award winners and you’ll find the likes of “World of Goo,” “Braid” and “Narbacular Drop.” All of these games — unusual games in their own right and relatively unknown at the time of their IGF win – went on to knock the socks off of game enthusiasts and critics alike.

In fact, “ World of Goo ” — a puzzle game made by two guys working out of coffee shops — went on to top too many “Best Game of the Year” lists to count. Meanwhile, “ Braid ” — made by one guy and his life savings — remains among the highest rated Xbox 360 games of all time. And while you may not recognize the name “Narbacular Drop,” most gamers know the name of the smash hit it became: “ Portal .”

The Independent Games Festival — a festival started in 1998 as a celebration of the crazy, creative and adamantly free-spirited games and game makers of the world — takes place every year in San Francisco as part of the Game Developers Conference. This year marks the 11th IGF and finds the annual competition — designed to reward the best independently produced video games with both buckets of praise and buckets of cold hard cash – growing by leaps and bounds.

Back in 2005, a far smaller indie game community entered a mere 78 games into the competition. By last year, that number had swelled to 173. But Simon Carless, chairman of the IGF, says this year saw the biggest increase in competitors yet. There were 226 games submitted to the 2009 competition, which will culminate with an awards ceremony on March 25th.

“The indie scene is definitely exploding and getting much more diverse and much more interesting,” Carless says.

But what gives? Why the influx of games made by scrappy developers funding their projects with what often seems like mere scraps of cash.

“I hear game developers have replaced rock stars as the new seductive career option, so it's not surprising we're seeing more people making games,” says Kyle Gabler, one of the two men responsible for the wonderful “World of Goo.”

The rock stars of gaming
Gabler might be joking … or he might not be. After all, the indie game thing is about as cool as it gets right now, with free-spirited designers and artists working on the shoe-stringiest of shoe string budgets and still producing some of the most creative, provocative and talked about games out there. It’s all very punk rock.

It certainly says something about the state of indie gaming that Jason Rohrer — one of the most arty and philosophical of the independent game developers and one of this year’s IGF finalists — was the subject of lengthy profile in the December issue of Esquire Magazine.  This is a guy who makes perhaps the exact opposite kind of video game than the kind most people know about and buy. “Halo” his games are not. Instead, Rohrer makes short, thought-provoking pieces that play out as metaphors on life, marriage and child-rearing, all done in old-school graphics.

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His game “Between” — a multiplayer mediation on consciousness and isolation — is a finalist for the IGF’s Innovation Award and can be downloaded and played for free here.

“I think it comes down to the increasing ease of creating games and the possibilities offered by digital distribution,” Carless explains.

Both he and Gabler point out that the development tools used to create games are more affordable, more accessible and easier to use than ever before, while broadband is allowing indie game makers to successfully launch and sell their games not only on the Web but also through download services now offered on all three of the gaming consoles.

Meanwhile, the impact that an IGF nomination and win can have on a game and its developer has also grown over the years. The word is out: the IGF’s panel of judges — a combination of previous award winners, game journalists and industry notables — does a superb job sifting through the growing wave of indie offerings and selecting the best of the best.

“Even getting nominated as a finalist in IGF has a giant impact,” says Gabler. “Suddenly publishers mysteriously begin to return phone calls and e-mails.”

At last year’s IGF, “World of Goo” was still in the early phase of development when it won both the Design Innovation and the Technical Excellence awards.

“If it weren't for IGF, it's likely we would not have finished ‘World of Goo,’” Gabler says. “We were still deep in the development process with no end in sight. IGF gave us a burst of confidence and made us feel that maybe we were on to something, and maybe we weren't wasting our time with a little game that nobody would ever play.” 

Much like the Academy Awards, the IGF bestows awards on games in a variety of categories – visual art, audio, design and innovation among them. There are currently five finalists in each of these categories as well as five finalists in the biggest category of them all — the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. The grand prize winner gets a whopping $20,000 and the warm glow of the spotlight – both of which can be critical to a struggling game maker’s success.

“The IGF prize had a huge effect on my life,” Petri Purho recently told me. He’s the 25-year-old creator of “Crayon Physics Deluxe” — the game that won last year’s Seumas McNally Grand Prize. “I would say that it was the turning point for me, when I went from being someone who does games for a hobby to being someone who does games for a living.”

Games of the future
“We feel a lot of responsibility and pressure because we know the IGF is very important to people from a career standpoint,” Carless says. But he says the festival organizers have worked hard to maintain the IGF’s indie cred — working closely with the growing community of independent game developers and trying their best to reward the projects that most deserve it.

Like last year, this year’s IGF finalists include games that are still works in progress as well as games that are recently completed and available to play. (Be sure to try “ PixelJunk Eden ,” a finalist in three categories and available for download on the PlayStation 3).

They also include games that seem destined to earn mainstream success as well as more esoteric fare. For example, grand prize nominee “Night Game” with its physics-based puzzle play and striking visual design, seems like it could be the next “World of Goo”-style success story. Meanwhile, “The Graveyard” (a finalist in the Innovation category) will never earn legions of players with its slow-moving exploration of death, but it will certainly be appreciated by those who enjoy games that dare to push toward the realm of fine art.

Among the games nominated for multiple awards are “Osmos,” a dreamy game about consumption and survival nominated for the grand prize as well as for the Technical Excellence and Excellence in Design prizes, and “Blueberry Garden,” a fantastical and otherworldly game of exploration nominated for both the grand prize and the Excellence in Audio category.

Meanwhile, the IGF earlier this week announced the winners of its Student Showcase — 10 university-spawned games that will all vie for the Best Student Game Award. But looking at entries like the “The Unfinished Swan” — which the University of Southern California creator calls a “first-person painting game” — you wouldn’t know they were the work of neophyte game makers. (Check out the above video.)

All in all, the IGF finalists represent an impressive collection of intrepid ideas, stunning visual designs, and innovative gameplay. We can only hope this really is what the future of gaming has in store for us.

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