Madison videogame developers seek critical mass, and just might reach it

Bridging the gap between large studios and scrappy independent projects is key to the future of the local games community.

  "Platinum Kill," developed by Madison-based Fun Infused Games.

"Platinum Kill," developed by Madison-based Fun Infused Games.

Judging by the crowd at Robinia Courtyard on a cold Thursday night in February, Madisonians are getting curious about the videogames being developed in their backyard. They turned out to support the second edition of Indie Arcade, a showcase of games from independent developers around the Midwest, and the event raised more than $1,000 for Maydm, a local nonprofit that focuses on getting more students—specifically girls and minorities—into STEM fields.

Perhaps more important than the turnout at Indie Arcade, the games themselves spanned an impressive array of styles. People crowded around the game-as-art Centenntable, a literal button masher with 100 buttons, mounted on a knee-high table, controlling two on-screen fighters. It seemed as much fun to play as it was to watch others slap the unwieldy controls. They played two old-school themed games from Madison-based developers: Platinum Kill, a Contra-inspired run-and-gun where up to five players square off against zombies and monsters, and the Metroid-meets-vintage-arcade-game-homage Mechagami, whose protagonist is a shape-shifting blue robot. 

Brawlers had several choices, between the SNES-influenced bouncing platformer Indie Pogo, the dreamy visuals and platforms of Bombsworders, and the multiple characters of The Moon Fields with choices of items and weapons. Puzzle fans got lost in the beautiful labyrinth of Manifold Garden and piled boxes on boxes in Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks).  

For those wanting to escape to outer space, gamers flew experimental spaceships in the beautiful Risk System, which rewards daring pilots who fly close to enemy ships. They planted gorgeous, hand-drawn flowers and started new colonies in the otherworldly farming game Verdant Skies. In Cosmo's Quickstop, they serviced spacecraft and mopped bathrooms until they sparkled.

Justin Terry, the creator of Indie Arcade, wants the rest of the country to see Madison as a prime destination for game developers. The city's videogame community has seen several signs of progress on both scrappy and more formal terms, between the success of the inaugural M+Dev Conference last fall and a new studio opened by Bluehole—PUBG Corporation—for the hot game PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.

"With this Indie Arcade, we're really trying to make an event that we can use as proof in the future that Madison has a scene that is ready to support the game development community," Terry wrote prior to the second Indie Arcade. "Bringing developers from various states and having those same developers talk about it within their communities helps get the message out that we have a great place for developers here."

According to Tyler Krucas of the Wisconsin Games Alliance and Madison-based Local Route Labs, there are 55 studios in Wisconsin supporting different aspects of game development, with 35 located in Madison alone. 

"AAA studios and indie studios can support each other," Krucas believes. "In Madison and the rest of Wisconsin, there's a lot of crossover between indie studios and larger companies. Larger shops benefit from potential employee draw and provide a soft landing for indies who need something stable." 

Krucas says the Wisconsin Games Alliance plans to develop more skill events, such as game jams and hackathons, this year as a way to get more developers together to collaborate, as well as looking at more consumer-facing events like Indie Arcade. Between these events and last year's successful M+Dev Conference, things are looking good for Madison.

"The atmosphere [at M+Dev] was quite cool. It sparked energy to keep moving forward because of example after example of hobbyists becoming successful," Krucas said. "We're well positioned to be a hub."

Raven Software, which has a long legacy in the PC gaming world and has more recently worked on several of the popular Call Of Duty titles, is arguably the most famous of the established Madison studios. Former Raven employees have created their own companies, like Human Head Studios, which is currently working on Rune: Ragnarok, an open-world, action-RPG. Fantasy Flight Studios launched in 2017 and was founded by Tim Gerritsen, one of the co-founders of Human Head Studios. Filament Games is another active studio in Madison, with over 100 learning games. 

Many indie developers have to work on their games outside of their full-time jobs, which can also involve working or contracting with some of the larger studios in the state, like Joe Rheaume. Rheaume, whose game Mechagami was featured at Indie Arcade, works full-time at the local studio Lost Boys Interactive, but has been working on a Human Head game through a relationship between the two studios. 

According to Krucas, having "AAA" studios is important to the indie scene. AAA studios, while not defined in any official terms, are those with the most resources to invest in games, often because they have publishing deals with major players in the game industry. In other words, they're higher up the food chain than a scrappy developer working alone or with a small team.

"A vibrant indie scene is not only a source of hirable talent for the larger studios, it also acts as a draw for out-of-area developers. The more options a developer has in an area, the more likely they are to select a city for relocation."

But studios and developers alone do not make a community.

Milwaukee-based developer Raphael Azcueta, whose game The Moon Fields was featured at both Indie Arcade events and drew the attention of  PC Gamer in December, wants to see more events in Wisconsin that bring together indie game developers, and he personally invited many of the showcased developers to apply to the most recent Indie Arcade.

"As my game gets bigger, people keep asking me if I'm going to leave Wisconsin, and that's because I'm constantly looking for the places that encourage creators to grow. Cities like Seattle or Portland or Austin provide the right cultural climate for developing games," Azcueta says in an email. "Places like Minneapolis and Portland are having public events to do stuff like Global Game Jam and then more public events to playtest/discuss the products. That's what builds the game community—making games and playing games." 

The Twin Cities does have a thriving indie game scene, organized around both a local chapter of the International Game Developers Association and the local group Glitch. Andy Korth, one of the developers of Verdant Skies from Howling Moon Software, has been involved with the local community there, teaching courses and speaking at events put on by Glitch.

"[Glitch] promotes the exploration of digital games as a culture, career, and creative practice," Korth said. "They organize game jams, offer an immersion program that introduces people to the world of game development. They also host speakers, run a yearly convention, and do all sorts of other things to cultivate the community." For all the progress events like Indie Arcade represent, Madison lacks an organization that operates quite as robustly as Glitch.

Chicago is home to two games featured at the most recent Indie Arcade: William Chyr Studio's Manifold Garden and Big Sir Games' Cosmo's Quickstop. Chicago hosts Bit Bash, an event created "to further the culture of independent game development in Chicago by hosting larger, public-facing events"—one of Justin Terry's inspirations to create Indie Arcade here in Madison. Bit Bash is part of the Indie City community, which also includes the Indie City Co-op, a co-working space that allows game developers the chance to work together. 

"There's a community that I can access when I need to," said William Chyr, who also organizes a small game feedback group. 

Amanda Hudgins of Amanda Throws Rocks drove up from Lexington, Kentucky to show off that 100-button fighting game, Centenntable, and she speaks highly of her local community group RunJumpDev, which facilitates an annual developer conference, a two month long games-as-art show called Rules and Play, and a large game convention for video game consumers called LexPlay.

"Our slogan is 'don't develop alone' and it's all about finding and thriving in communities as a route towards successful game development," said Hudgins.

Bloomington, Indiana also has a small but involved indie game scene. Ian Sundstrom, of Ian and Elie, applied to bring his game Stacks On Stacks (On Stacks) to Indie Arcade because Raphael Azcueta invited him.

"A lot of our development is centered around the university program [at Indiana University], but we do have our own monthly meetup, Bloomington Indie Game Developers (BIG) night," Sundstrom says. "We are currently working on reviving Sigma Play, a game development conference."

Indie Arcade is a step toward creating the culture Madison would need to support and showcase local indie developers, such as Scarybug Games' Mechagami and Fun Infused Games' Platinum Kill, who participated in the most recent event. 

Rheaume, the developer of Mechagami, found the response to his game at the most recent Indie Arcade invigorating. "When you're working on a game for so long you start to only see the flaws and places where it needs polish, so it was great to see people just enjoying themselves," he says. 

Aaron San Filippo, whose Madison-based Flippfly Games financially supported the inaugural Indie Arcade and participated with the game Race The Sun, said, "I think what Indie Arcade is doing for the games scene in Madison, is just making the general public more aware that local development is happening. There really aren't a lot of ways that's happening otherwise! It also creates a sort of intersection between game development and culture that I think is really crucial to a games ecosystem in a city that we really lacked before." 

One of Indie Pogo's developers, Christopher Atkins of Lowe Bros. Studios is a recent Madison transplant and has been working on the game full time. Before he moved to Madison he was involved with Wolverine Soft, a group at the University of Michigan. As Indie Pogo is getting closer to release, he's excited to get involved with the Madison scene.

Chris Ekins, part of Milwaukee-based Newt Industries and one of the developers of Risk System, would like to see more events like Indie Arcade at other locations throughout the state. Considering the city's presence at the February Indie Arcade alone—Risk System, Azcueta's The Moon Fields, and Anti Crunch's Bombsworders—Milwaukee seems like a prime location for another event in Wisconsin.

Another step toward building up the game culture in Madison is FemDev, a brand new meetup for women, femmes and nonbinary game developers. Organizer Katherine Stull, the Community Manager at Human Head Studios, plans to have monthly meetups and wants to schedule several game jams during the year. The group's inaugural meeting will take place on March 7 at Cool Beans Coffee Cafe near East Towne Mall. 

"I think that it's important for women who are doing awesome things in the field to encourage other women and affirm that they are a valuable asset in a male-dominated profession," Stull says."Having a game jam for femmes/enbies provides marginalized folk with an inclusive, diverse environment where they can feel comfortable. Some may feel less intimidated, more confident, and more productive when they know they're in a safe space. This is important in any field, including creative work. Really, creativity is what game jams are all about—finding creative ways to work through the constraints of your team, the time you have, and the scope of your project."