The movie follows three independently-developed game projects through interviews with the developers. The three games are at three places in the development cycle. Jonathan Blow has completed his game Braid, and it has been a huge commercial success. The team of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes are actively releasing their game Super Meat Boy to the XBox. Developer Phil Fish approaches a key marketing milestone in his development of Fez, still some time away from release (as of the making of the movie).
I don’t know much of anything about platformers or the XBox Live gaming world. As a result, at the beginning of the movie, I had no idea whether these projects would be successful, fail, or even never make it to release. Well, not entirely true – the movie opens up on the release day for Super Meat Boy and shows Tommy Refenes agonizing about the lack of marketing from Microsoft, so I knew they’d get it that far. In fact, as you watch the movie the scale of their success is shown. The movie ends (the film was released in 2012) before the development Fez of is completed, so an eventual release of Fez was not assured at that time.
For those that know these games, the movie probably had a slightly different feel. Clearly both Jonathan Blow and Phil Fish were celebrities of that world, and so for the initiated, it is a, perhaps revealing, closer look at some known personalities. One remark I read in one of the reviews from when the film came out was that, for many viewers, the most dramatic point of the movie was [trying to avoid a spoiler here] around an emotional breakdown of one of the developers. The statements said developer made were probably considerably less shocking to me, simply because I had never heard of the guy before.
So that wasn’t my experience.
Art can be just as much about the consumer as the artist. When I watched Indie: The Movie, naturally, I tried to connect it back to the historical gaming genre that I’m fond of. I made two connections.
First of all, and somewhat trivially, for Braid. While I’m unlikely to play either of the other two games, Braid seems to have something that might be worth going outside my zone to try. In the film, developer Blow laments that his customers simply didn’t understand what the game was all about, although he doesn’t elaborate on what it is that they missed. One interpretation of the underlying story is that it symbolizes the project to develop the first atomic bomb. Although Blow didn’t back that interpretation, he seems less dismissive about it than some of the other interpretations out there.
The second point of interest is the insight into the development process.
The film presents a narrow view of the gaming industry. The three games featured are all within a pretty focused genre. They are, as I said, platformers, based on the running and jumping puzzles. Furthermore, they are a “retro” version of that genre, deliberately reflecting the look and feel of much earlier games. They are, each in their own way, both tributes to the classic games (e.g. Super Mario Bros.) of the developers’ childhoods and critiques of the current state of the gaming industry.
Of the three games, they all stretch the definition of DYI. Fish was employed at a console game company when he came up with the idea for Fez. He left his job to make his own game, but operated with startup money from the Canadian government. Blow was a contractor within the gaming industry before developing Braid and has stated that he invested some $200,000 of his own money into the game. Team Meat were also former game industry employees who were working with Microsoft from the concept state of Super Meat Boy.
It makes one wonder how important the industry connections were in the ultimate success of these games. Could any of these have simply come out of left field and sold as well? How important in the multi-year hype that preceded the game release?
The film also illustrates a difficulty of the development process that could be an extra issue for an outsider. Blow says that this initial concept of the game took a matter of days to program. Scenes are shows of gameplay that it remarkably like the finished product. From there, he spend more than half a year developing a prototype that was shown publicly and differed mostly in terms of the final artwork. From there, it was almost another three years (and that $200,000) before the released version.
This can be a very frustrating experience for the inexperienced, want-to-be indie developer. Your vision can be “proven” quickly, seemingly putting you right on target for a release. But then the real issues come into play. Add to it that for most people, including the developers in the movie, the creative part of the process is fun while the testing, debugging, and reimplementing cycle is excruciatingly unpleasant. Your brilliant idea may be buying you into a world of pain.
I was also interested in some of the design philosophy, where that did come up. At one point, McMillen lectures on the proper design of level games. His exposition on the proper method of introducing game mechanics – in this case the ability to jump up a vertical wall – illustrates one of the more important factors in making a game that is enjoyable. Again, I assume this comes from his experience in the gaming industry. However, his lecture on the subject seems prompted by the inability of that industry to do it right. Again, how important was his resume as compared to his experience as a gamer?
Beyond all that, it was a pretty decent film. Particularly as I didn’t know “the ending,” the story was done in a very suspenseful way. This is probably a must-see for would-be developers and fans of the platformer genre. It is also going to be enjoyable for a much broader audience of tech-types.
Once again, thanks Netflix, for pushing me into watching this.