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Oct 09th
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Gamers, Not Geeks

gammersnotgeeksTwo Santa Cruz video game designers break down life as a gamer

At Sundance, they wear Ugg boots, hair is coiffed, and “independent” movies are splashed across the screens. Glamour is in full force. At the Independent Game Festival (IGF)—which was held in San Francisco in February this year—it’s a vastly different independent scene. This one is without the paparazzi fuss and the Hollywood hoo-hah; it honors independent artists who make video games.

There, you might see guys like Edmund McMillen, a 27-year-old with muttonchops, wearing a black T-shirt, black shorts and boots. Or maybe you’ll see Alex Austin, 30, with his buzzed head. You’ll find gamers—lots of ’em—people who love to make and play video games as much as you loved playing with your Atari, growing up.

Two years ago, McMillen and Austin won top honors at the fest, when they, and a few others with their previous company, Chronic Logic, launched the wildly popular video game, Gish. At the time, the company was located in a cozy office off Mission Street on the Westside of Santa Cruz. Following Gish’s blast onto the scene, the company splintered and McMillen and Austin went on to form Cryptic Sea, basically the same idea—a company that creates independent video games, out of a new office on Lincoln Street, just seconds from Pacific Avenue.

Now, two years later, the duo are hard at work plugging away on other games, they just got back from this year’s IGF and they’re pondering the deeper levels of video games. (And I’m not just talking about ‘levels’ in terms of video game heroes going deeper into dungeons, or something like that. I’m talking about video game theory, learning, doing something good with a video game, and all the other types of things you never thought you’d hear a gamer talk about.)

Yes, making video games is an art, and its creators are fundamentally artists, people like McMillen and Austin, who sometimes get pegged as nerds, but are savvy guys. Without any sort of an academic degree behind them, McMillen and Austin have carved out their own legacy and niche in the video game industry. Both acknowledge that they could snag well-paying jobs in the mainstream video game industry—if they were interested, which they’re not.

“The vision gets lost,” Austin says, of working in the mainstream. “Mainstream games have a huge amount of money and 30 people working on a game.”

McMillen adds, “The whole point of trying to do this and not going into the mainstream is the fact that it’s just more true to the art of game design. We have the freedom to do whatever we want and make up our own rules. We’re making games because we want to make games that are fun for us.”

And they also want to make games that offer some sort of learning tool, that go beyond pure fun, into serving a deeper purpose. “They are supposed to be fun, but there is still depth to them,” McMillen says. “It’s the same thing as someone who goes and says, ‘I saw The Fast and the Furious and that was a fun movie to watch.’ Great. And there are people who say that 8 1/2, you need to see that movie because it’s a great art piece. … The misconception is that video games are video games. There’s an incredible depth. People see video games and it’s a little guy jumping on a screen and that’s it. There’s so much more that can be expanded on.”

McMillen goes on to explain that some people might write video games off as childish, which he believes just isn’t true. In addition, the pair doesn’t want to create mindless games that are addictive and a waste of time. In fact, surprisingly, Austin hardly ever plays video games, finding most of them boring. So what does he do? He create games that he’d actually like to play.

The path from a video game black hole, to winning a top prize at the IGF, can sometimes be a long one. It might start with the pair (along with occasional collaborator Luke Hetherington) brainstorming ideas, then moving into a rough outline. While McMillen designs the art and visual conception of the game, Austin works as the programmer, making the nuts and bolts of the game come together. Then they put it on their Web site, and begin spreading the word. Fans find out and start purchasing the game online. Then the Cryptic Sea team finally takes their game to the IGF and hope for some success.

While this isn’t the multimillion-dollar mainstream side of the industry, they can get by. Gish profited them a $120,000 publishing deal. Up next? The pair, along with Hetherington is collaborating on a series of projects including the sequel to Gish, a golf game, a flight simulator game and more. Oh, and they’re looking for another programmer and someone to handle the business end of things. Just remember, these aren’t your average gamers—they’re looking for depth.

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