I saw them as I arrived in Culver City, packs of highschoolers smiling at one another on Washington Blvd. in orange bandanas labeled "Zombie." There were younger zombies, too, walking hand in hand with their zombie fathers.
This infestation was the responsibility of the Indiecade festival, which for four years now has been turning the streets of Culver City into a playground for big games like Gnarwhal Studio's "Humans vs. Zombies." To house the festival's indoor games, Indiecade takes over galleries and working spaces and even Culver City's firehouse, where games were projected on the walls, played on interactive tabletops and in circles.
Though the finalists at this year's Indiecade don't have the financial backing from major video game publishers yet, their relatively-thin budgets served to sharpen the games into single, well-executed ideas. Witness "The Depths To Which I Sink," which uses anaglyph 3-D to fly the player into (and out from) the screen. Or "Hohokum," which proves that art direction is different from (and more important than) graphical horsepower. "Fez" has after three years delivered on its promise of twisting another dimension out of a 2-D sidescroller.
If what is most important about a game is how fun it is to play, $500 consoles and $60 releases might be besides the question. The most popular game at Indiecade was staged in a corner of Culver City's firehouse, where six competitors tried to throw each other off balance. It could've been played with musical chairs or brimming teacups, but was instead played with motion-sensitive PS Move controllers.
In fact, the latest rumbling from stock analysts is that November's marquee release of "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" might be the last of its kind. In today's economy, indie games are starting to make more sense than their console brethren. The touchscreen app "Angry Birds" was valued at $1 billion, but the game's execs expect to get even more than that when parent company Rovio files its I.P.O. in 2012. Their confidence comes less from the number of paying customers they have and more from knowing how many hours non-paying customers devote to in-game advertisements. With cheap distribution to millions of wired customers willing to part with pocket change, indie game developers have at least a few glorious years ahead.
Optimism for this fresh market drove the L.A. Times to call Indiecade "the video game industry's Sundance." I did see one young blazer-ed dealmaker on the streets of Culver City, literally woo-hooing into his cell phone, and tablets have brightened the twilight years of this current console generation. Tablets live and die with their Apps. Why go to work as a tester for a corporate gaming monolith when you can create your own game and have it distributed by Apple or Microsoft to millions of subscribers? These days, the major competition for handheld indie games exists two taps away on the same device.
Back in the firehouse, game developers mingled in cross-armed conversations, showing each other how to play their games, happily exchanging information the old-fashioned way, in person. While the chance to play games for free attracted plenty of players, Indiecade was really a place for developers to talk shop and commiserate, to network and share in the joy of creating, and to hear "Braid" developer Jonathan Blow discuss his design philosophy right before donning the orange bandana of a zombie and running off into the evening light in Culver City.
Can't wait for next year.