Boston Festival of Indie Games: The next step

This past Saturday, 2000+ registered attendees, 30+ digital game showcases and 10+ tabletop game showcases graced MIT's campus for the first ever Boston Festival of Indie Games. It was the first big event put together by the local indie game development community, one that showed off Boston as a hub for game artists, designers and programmers, many of whom work in two- or three-man studios.

A smaller version of PAX East this was not. In fact, the state of Massachusetts officially declared Sept. 22, the day of the event, as Independent Game Development Day. This was a chance for local game-makers not only to network and get feedback about their projects, but also to make a statement about Boston: That, despite what people may think, it's one of the top towns for fostering video game creativity and independence.

Most of the event's action took place in two rooms inside MIT's EG&G Center, where developers were showing off local-brew gems. From what I saw, the rooms were packed throughout the event, and BostonFIG ran all day beginning at 10 a.m.

I particularly liked playing Owlchemy Labs' Jack Lumber, a lumber-chopping iPhone game that's essentially Fruit Ninja but with more plaid and Canadian wildlife. And there's Photons, designed by student designers Electric Coffee Games, which dropped players into a decrepit, steampunk-styled research facility with only a flashlight to get outside. Popcannibal's Girls Like Robots, on the other hand, was a brilliant algorithm-based brain teaser dressed as a lesson in social seating arrangements: Place girls, nerdy guys, robots, tennis thugs and a variety of other types of people in a way that'll maximize the groups' overall happiness, based on who's next to who.

Speaking as a fan of tower defense strategy games, I had a blast with both Fieldrunners 2 (Subatomic Studios in Cambridge) and Go Home Dinosaurs! by Fire Hose Games, whose owner Eitan Glinert I've seen speak around the area.

Upstairs, in the tabletop show room, attendees enjoyed games like "2-8 Business Days Later" and "Lesbian Cat Wars." These custom designed games emphasized original ideas and challenged players to be open enough to play a quirky board game with its creator.

With keynote speeches from games journalist Leigh Alexander and filmmaker Jason Scott, the 12-hour event was jam-packed with stuff to do in a relatively small area of the building. I found the stories behind the games to be even more interesting than the games themselves. At Boston FIG, you can play a piece of interactive art and then ask its designer, art director or programmer (sometimes all the same person) how the idea started.

If you've seen Indie Game: The Movie -- which was one of five films screened at BostonFIG -- you'll know the struggles indie developers deal with day to day. Boston has some big studios, including Harmonix (Guitar Hero) and Irrational Games (Bioshock). But it's also home to a hodgepodge of individuals who happen to love and make games. Many of them banded together over the years to share ideas, calling themselves BostonIndies.

Some members of the group tossed around the idea of an indie game festival around February 2012, in the weeks before the popular annual PAX East 2012 convention. One of PAX East's popular segments was the Boston Indies Showcase, designed to feature games made locally. But this year, PAX changed its policy to include only mobile and iPhone games and accepted submissions from around the country. Local developers lost one of their only chances to interface with the public.

Meanwhile, other venues for promotion, like San Francisco's Independent Games Festival, were just a little too big for micro-sized studios to compete.

"We combined the frustrations that formed from the PAX indie megabooth with the lack of fulfilling promises from IGF, which led to the creation of BostonFIG. We said, let's do this right," said Dan Silvers, an organizer who works with the Back Bay-based Lantana Games.

"Our original plan was to do this as a party. Get some pizzas and a keg, and get some indie games and have a party. But, eventually, MIT got involved. They said, ‘Why don't we make it prestigious?' Suddenly, sponsors came aboard. It got a lot bigger than we had originally intended," he said.

A core staff of about 6 volunteered their time in the coming months to put all of this together. When I spoke to some organizers about three weeks ago, they were enthusiastic about seeing 600+ people signed up for the event. They said the event could hold as many as 2000 people, and they got their wish. Deval Patrick's announcement that the state would honor the efforts of its indie developers with an official day was icing on the cake.

"We weren't intimidated by the idea of organizing an event that serviced our community. But everything was done on such a short cycle," said Caleb Garner, who acted as the event's press director and owns Part12 Studios. "So next year, we're going to be in great shape. We can present the numbers from this year to sponsors and let them know, ‘This is a big deal.'"

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