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PAX 09: Ron Gilbert: Indie Games Have 'Freedom To Fail'
PAX 09: Ron Gilbert: Indie Games Have 'Freedom To Fail'
September 4, 2009 | By Chris Remo

September 4, 2009 | By Chris Remo
More: Console/PC

"My name is Ron Gilbert, and I'm a World of Warcraft addict," the Monkey Island creator said in an opening keynote address at the 2009 Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle.

"I've been sober for five hours," he said, then added, "Just kidding. I was playing backstage."

Gilbert delved into his life experiences that led to him relentlessly pursuing the path of a game designer in an age when that job was almost unheard of, from his childhood through dropping out of his college computer science degree.

He painted the modern indie development scene as an inspiring return to the early days of game development, when new ideas and breaking boundaries were the norm.

"The original [The Secret of] Monkey Island team consisted of seven people," including programmers Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, who turned out to be funny guys with a strong faculty for writing, Gilbert recalled.

"Monkey Island's entire budget was $135,000, and that was a triple-A game back then," he went on. "The teams were small, the budgets were small, and it was all new. There were very few rules, and you made them up as you went along. We made games because we had a good idea, and inspiration was often our only approval process."

"The games industry today is just that -- an industry. Some games still come from raw inspiration, but it is not uncommon for them to be born out of marketing plans, and focus tests, and corporate strategy."

But the increasingly vibrant indie scene is adding a new dimension to that stagnancy, Gilbert said, resulting in "small teams making small games born out of pure passion, small teams trying new ideas, and small teams pushing the edge."

"They have the freedom to fail," the designer explained. "They have the freedom to be different, and the freedom to push beyond what's safe. This is what big companies cannot do. Big companies have to be safe. They are afraid of failure. Indie games have the freedom to be better."

That potential for failure is a crucial part of true creativity, he argued: "When indie games try something new, and push their bounds, we need to celebrate. Maybe they fall down, but that's okay. They were trying something better, something different -- pushing the medium into new territory."

And as to whether games are art?

"What is silly is we even have to debate the question," Gilbert said, almost offhandedly. "Of course games are art, and they may be the most important art form to emerge in the last hundred years since film."

When politicians and other grandstanders attempt to limit the form, "I don't get mad. I just smile," he went on. "It actually makes me happy. For thousands of years, there have always been leaders and rulers who have tried to ban art. Art is powerful and it scares them. We join the distinguished lists of artists and art forms who have been villified over the centuries."

In the end, the designer thanked the audience for loving games and allowing him to do what has always been his passion in life:

"I speak for myself personally, but I know I speak for many others. Thank you for loving games, and making them important, because God knows I have no other marketable job skills."

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Brian Perry
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I agree. Games aren't what they used to be. They used to be something that people put their heart and soul into. Now games are; mass produced, thin, and shallow. Like the author said, the game industry is an industry now. I think making games today are about the money now and as a result they are cheapened. This next generation of consoles and games are out and I'm not impressed at all by what's out there. I think we could be headed for another 80's game crash. I see all the same signs. Boring cookie cutter games made by uninspired companies just in it for the money.

Andrew Hughes
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I think you are taking what he said a bit to the extreme there Brian...sure indie games have the advantage of not having to answer to a huge corporation about whether their ideas are "proven money-makers" but that doesn't mean that every game one of those huge corporations makes is automatically shallow and worthless. And it certainly doesn't mean that the people who work and work on making those games don't have their heart and soul in it.

Gary Hutton
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Thanks for pointing that out, Mr. Hughes. Although he states the game industry is an industry, he also acknowledges the experimentation and passion that exists in indie game development as well.

And I echo your statement, there are probably many an artist/designer/producer suffused with passion and integrity put towards their final product, whether their current project may allow for it or not.

John Dossy
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I think you might just be onto something here dude!


Alec Fisher-Lasky
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Agreed Mr. Hughes. I would also add that a game born of marketing groups and safe concepts doesn't mean it won't be good, just that it is less likely to be wholly new or original. As with all industries, new ideas and innovations tend to come from less established industry players (indies) and then large companies take those raw ideas and refine them, improve them, and ultimately make them better than they were originally (and also more profitable). A healthy industry requires both small, passionate groups creating new ideas and large corporations willing to invest millions in refining that idea into a quality product.

That's not to say that indies can't make quality games or large companies can't produce wholly original products, just that it will never happen frequently enough to support a large industry alone.

Glen M
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I was able to include a craps inspired mini-game that used 2d10 (number 0-9) to simulate haking the net in ZenHak. I had fun coding and playtesting it, a few gamers enjoyed it as well. This would definatly have been considered too obscure by any company small or large, it was something you could only do in an indie project. I am a big fan of freedom and true capitalism, so the more app stores the better in my opinion. I also like the pricing we are seeing $1 apps make micopayments real.