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Eisenwald, IndieCade, and the Cult of Simplicity

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Eisenwald, IndieCade, and the Cult of Simplicity

Editorial - posted by Infinitron on Sun 14 September 2014, 10:37:24

Tags: Aterdux Entertainment; Craig Stern; Legends of Eisenwald; Sinister Design

Yesterday, the developers of Legends of Eisenwald published a new developer diary blog post on their site. The main topic of the post was their attempt to apply to this year's IndieCade. In case you didn't know, IndieCade is an annual indie games festival, described on Wikipedia as "the video game industry's Sundance", which is "focused on innovation and artistry in interactive media, helping to create a public perception of games as rich, diverse, artistic, and culturally significant". Here's how it went down:

In the beginning of the summer we applied with our game to IndieCade. We didn’t have many hopes to start with. Looking at the screenshots that are published on Facebook page of this festival one could think that indie games for them are almost exclusively pixel art, simple mechanics and other attributes of modern pop-culture. So, the response we were not selected for the final part did not surprise us. To the standard response there were attached a few sentences of a juror or a few of them:

"I kind of don’t get it… When the game is defined as a “classic old school RPG with tactical turn-based battles, simple economic model” why would you enter it in indiecade?"

"It seems weird to me, with no hook, no novelty and no tutorial, the game feels… Well, like a 90s game. It’s a “classic, yes, but “old school” doesn’t have to mean “old”."​

"This game is an impressive technical achievement! Indiecade however looks for games that innovate in design or other categories, and Legends of Eisenwald is largely a worthy but loyal recreation of a well-trodden category."
Clearly, there's indies and then there's indies. Not to mention that Legends of Eisenwald does in fact have a tutorial. So, what sort of games are prized at IndieCade? As it happens, there was another blog post about IndieCade yesterday, by Craig Stern, developer of Telepath Tactics. Its title is "Against the cult of simplicity", and it details Craig's thoughts about what he experienced at IndieCade last year. I quote:

While at Indiecade in 2013, I had the pleasure of listening to Brenda Romero give an inspirational talk (one which she has evidently delivered elsewhere since) themed after the movie Hiro Dreams of Sushi. It was a talk about seeking perfection in game design. She described a triangle with one corner labeled on time, another labeled on budget, and a third labeled great. She exhorted the audience to disregard the “on time” and “on budget” sides of the game development triangle, and instead aim for a game that is truly great at all costs.

Brenda is a funny and dynamic speaker, and it made for a very entertaining talk. I would have enjoyed it without reservation but for one moment where she exhorted the audience to design games centered around a single core mechanic. Romero indicated that that was the only way to design something truly perfect. I considered asking her to defend that position in the Q&A that followed, but I hesitated. “I already have a bit of a reputation as a gadfly in the indie community,” I thought to myself. “And I like Brenda. Is this really a battle worth fighting?” I chose to let it go–but the memory of that moment continued to nag at me.

Later on in the weekend, I dropped by a tent where Jeremy Gibson was giving a talk on game design. I don’t recall the name of the talk, but it struck me as an intro-level lecture for folks who had not been making games for very long. He, too, apparently felt obliged to spend some time telling the audience to make games with only a single core mechanic. He did not give a reason; he did not limit his statement to new designers who are just finding their feet. He simply said that game designers should do it. Full stop.

Now, here’s the thing: I genuinely enjoy games that employ only a single core mechanic. But I also enjoy highly complex games that leverage many different systems, and I admit that I am deeply uncomfortable with the thought that leaders in the indie community are running around telling everybody that one of these is somehow better than the other.
Craig proceeds to thoroughly debunk the notion that all games should have a "single core mechanic", rightly noting that it de facto disqualifies entire genres from consideration, including RPGs. It's an excellent article and I highly recommend that you read the entire thing. It concludes with this impassioned plea:

The nature of curated events is that some games will be chosen and others excluded. When that exclusion consistently keeps certain portions of the spectrum of gaming experiences from receiving proper consideration, however, something has gone awry. When celebrated developers tell other developers that using only a single core mechanic is good design, they provide a pseudo-intellectual veneer in which to justify their favoring more simplistic games. If anything, we should be giving festival judges the opposite message: slow down and take some time to appreciate the depth that more mechanically complex games have to offer.

I write all of this not to criticize Indiecade (which is a worthwhile event), nor to embarrass Brenda Romero or Jeremy Gibson (both of whom I have nothing but respect for). I write this piece because I love diversity in the indie community. I love the enormous spectrum of entirely different experiences that games can give us. And yet, I see these events consistently failing a significant chunk of our community year after year.

Bit by bit, I have seen our community growing, broadening, opening. For years, narrative titles fought a long and bitter battle to be included in the indie scene, and now we honor games like Gone Home and Depression Quest. We fought about whether games needed to have challenges and goals in order to be games, and now we honor titles like Panoramical, Dear Esther, and The Stanley Parable.

We’ve made strides–but there is more to be done. We have gotten to the point where we now honor architectural installations and games with literally no interaction at all–and yet, I cannot think of even a single video gaming event anywhere in the world that can be bothered to validate the type of complex, long-form works that I’ve spent my life playing, loving, and creating. It pains me to visit indie festivals and see hardly any strategy games selected for inclusion. It pains me to hear people considered thought leaders in our community publicly elevate minimalist games above all others. And I am very, very tired of supporting events that have rendered themselves structurally incapable of supporting us back.

I want to see games from all parts of the spectrum honored, not just the titles that are easy to grasp, fast to play, or which reflect a prescribed approach to design. Complex games with numerous mechanics are wildly popular with the gaming public, and they have been for decades. When will our legions of would-be indie taste makers catch up?​

In short, the IndieCade jury's reaction to Legends of Eisenwald should come as no surprise.

Let's face it - most of us have known for years that this was what the mainstream face of "indie" was becoming. There was a time when indie gaming was thought of as a brave opposition to big budget AAA decadence. But it's becoming increasingly apparent that the cure might be worse than the disease. Today, much of the indie games industry can best be described as existing in a kind of symbiosis with the AAAs. Both try to appeal to a certain lowest common denominator. Both stand in the way of the evolution of the gaming industry towards a sustainable model based on satisfying the needs of various submarkets and niches.

We here on the RPG Codex will continue to fight the two-front war against both types of decadence. As one of our more notorious posters once said: Fuck indies. Fuck AAAs. Support good developers.

There are 64 comments on Eisenwald, IndieCade, and the Cult of Simplicity

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