Austin's Indie Game Scene Boosted By Failure Of Larger Companies

Partner content from Turnstyle

On the last day of South by Southwest's Interactive conference, Youth Radio reporter Noah Nelson explores the growing base of independent game developers in Austin.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

There's a new element at this year's South by Southwest Festival in Austin - a gaming expo. Austin is a good place for it. The city has strong ties to the video game industry and its home to an estimated 7,000 independent game developers.

Reporter Noah Nelson, of Turnstyle News and Youth Radio, went in search of the indie gaming scene.

NOAH NELSON, BYLINE: Before I go looking for the heart of Austin's indie game scene, I better define what an indie game is.

(LAUGHTER)

BRANDON BOYER: That's kind of the million-dollar question.

NELSON: Brandon Boyer is the lynchpin of the community and chairman of San Francisco's Independent Games Festival. Here, developers introduce popular games like "Braid," which turns a classic like Mario on its head with puzzle challenges. They market their latest work either to triple-A publishers like Microsoft and Sony or directly to gamers. Here's how Boyer defines indie.

BOYER: It's a game that's basically created without someone on top kind of making demands of the game itself. So it's one that typically is kind of truer to the creator's original vision because there wasn't, like, a marketing team, you know, there wasn't shareholders to please.

NELSON: Boyer seeks games that break away from military shooters and sports games that sell millions of units for big publishers; games that emphasize discovery: odd narratives, out-of-the-box thinking.

In Austin, Boyer shows those games off at Juegoes Racheroes.

BOYER: Next up is another, like, really curious little, single idea game. It's called "30 Second Life." It's from a guy called...

NELSON: Juegoes is a monthly gathering held in a pizza and beer joint just east of downtown Austin. Boyer is the master of ceremonies, leading the crowd through the month's latest indie releases. The audience even gets to play demos of games.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME)

NELSON: I'm here looking for indie developer Robin Arnott. One way developers raise cash is through online crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter. Arnott is launching the Kickstarter campaign for his new project onstage tonight. It's a trippy meditation game called "Sound Self" that you control with your voice to create digitally generated mandala-like images.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NELSON: Arnott and his business partner Davey Welden have invited college students and developers to their house for a party the next night. They'll show off art-driven games like "Sound Self," the kind of work they want to spend their lives making. Tonight, Arnott is nervous about the upcoming party

ROBIN ARNOTT: It could just be a disaster.

DAVEY WELDEN: Uh-oh. Oh, no...

ARNOTT: It's not going to be, I don't think. I hope not.

WELDEN: Is it too late to cancel?

ARNOTT: We have to cancel.

NELSON: Arnott has chosen the indie path, but some developers find themselves on it unexpectedly. One reason the Austin indie scene keeps growing is the boom and bust cycle of game production. Layoffs at the multi-million dollar selling triple-A studios here are annual events. Developers inside those studios look to indie games for a way out.

Arnie Jorgensen is the art director of indie studio Stoic. He says the indie community went into triage mode last month for newly jobless developers. They slapped together a conference in a matter of days.

ARNIE JORGENSEN: We talked about things like how do you do taxes. You know, how would do you do a Kickstarter? How would you crowd-fund it? How do you come up with an idea?

NELSON: Austin has a long tradition of making games and every time a studio goes under, the talent sticks around. Developers come for jobs and stay for Austin's creative-is-cool culture.

At Arnott and Welden's party, Arnott is still a little on edge.

ARNOTT: And, of course I'm so nervous about the game because it's so weird. And I think I'm so afraid that people aren't going to get it or aren't going to like it.

NELSON: Dude, you saw the crowd.

ARNOTT: Yeah.

NELSON: Like, everyone is super into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

NELSON: Online, Arnott has already raised $4,000. And here at the party in Austin, the crowd is eating "Sound Self" up. Kids pile into the tool shed where the game is set up, laying on their backs on a pile of pillows. Which is how I wind up surrounded by a motley crew of hippies and indie gamers, chanting into a microphone.

WELDEN: More and more, more people. More people.

NELSON: This is what I always imagined South by Southwest would be: music, tech, and Austin's famous weirdness brought together. I just never thought I'd find it in a tool shed.

For NPR News, I'm Noah Nelson.

CORNISH: That story was produced by TurnstyleNews.com, a project of Youth Radio.

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