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These Developers Decided to Start Making Games in a Van

After years working on Star Wars: The Old Republic, a group of Austin creatives bought a van, and started touring the country.

Perhaps the most radical move a developer could make is going from years crafting games with multi-million dollar budgets to traveling the country and making them in a van. That’s Binary Solo’s Indie Van Game Jam.

Almazon (bottom), Stewart (top), and West (right) are not only making games, but filming the whole creative process.

Programmer Chad Stewart, artist Diego Almazan, and designer Zeb West previously worked on BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic in Austin, Texas. Some left on their own, others laid off as the development staff started to contract after release.

“A lot of this was inspired by the fact that I did want to travel and get out there in some form,” said Stewart.

The project first tried to get off the ground with an ambitious $50,000 pitch on Kickstarter, but the proposal didn’t manage to raise more than $5,000. Instead, the team decided to go on their own, and make Indie Van Game Jam happen anyway. The first episode went live last month, in which the trio travels from Austin to Chicago to visit designer Rob Lach. The team’s task is to build a game in the time it takes to drive to their destination city, and all the work happens inside of a stuffy van.

“We settled on a conversion van,” said West, “the ones with a ladder on the back and an extended roof space on top that’s got sweet wood panelling and track lighting and a console with an old CRT in there. And it came with a VCR that didn't work.”

In reality, Stewart’s pointed out that it was probably fortuitous the VCR didn’t work, since the only movies brought along were The Last Unicorn and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

“The tapes were a little sacrilegious for our journey,” said Stewart. “They were all final! Last crusade! It would have ended us if it worked!”

Once in the van, the team found the biggest problem was the sheer logistics of sharing files with one another. At most studios, developers use version control software to ensure changes made to the game can be tracked, monitored, and recorded. This prevents people from doing something twice, deleting work, and generally making it easier to understand where the project is headed. Without everyone on the same network, this quickly became a nightmare. Their solution? Share USB sticks. That didn't really work.

The group later purchased a wireless hard drive. (That also didn't really work.)

“We were editing the second episode, and there’s this moment where I have two windows open,” said West. “One is my local version of the game, one is the version that’s on the hard drive, and I just start deleting what I think is my version of the game, so that I can copy the fresher version on. But I started deleting the wrong one, and there’s this moment where I stop, turn to Chad, and [go] ‘I think I really fucked up.’ [laughs] I crapped my pants in that moment.”

It’s Not Me, It’s You was the game Binary Solo made while en route to the Windy City.

“This game challenges the concept of a first person shooter. It's Not Me, It's You puts the player in the role of plane crash survivor in the midst of a bizarre experience.”

You can download the game right now, and the others will be available as new episodes go live.

One of the big reasons motivating Binary Solo to start travelling and meeting other developers was trying to establish what the term “indie” even means in 2014. While Valve is technically indie, it doesn't really seem to embody the same spirit of the developers featured in, say, Indie Game: The Movie.

“To me, a lot it has to do with that creative spirit,” said Almazan. “Especially for smaller groups, a lot of it for me has to do with small groups. When you embark on a project, when you start something, it becomes that much more personal, compared to something like a triple-A thing, where there’s all these people involved. Everybody’s only got a very tiny piece of it that they’re responsible for, and it’s very difficult to see everything else. Very, very compartmentalized. Very sterile. Whereas for what we consider indie is very intimate, very fluid. There’s a very focused vision about what it’s trying to be.”

“It feels great to show people how things are so fluid and they change all the time. I feel like it can illuminate why big companies don’t always say everything that’s going on."

The Old Republic was a monstrous project with a lengthy development, and big budget games are notorious for keeping process a secret. Indie Van Game Jam is the opposite, with games both being designed and the entire creative process being laid out for viewers to see. This type of performative design has become much more common in the past year or so, with both Double Fine and Vlambeer often filming or live streaming the creation of its projects.

Though Binary Solo's embracing its freedom, it understands why companies aren't willing to spill everything.

“It feels great to show people how things are so fluid and they change all the time,” said Stewart. “I feel like it can illuminate why big companies don’t always say everything that’s going on. There is a lot going on, and it seems like ‘oh, maybe they don’t know everything every minute, until the release date, what’s gonna happen.' Big companies don’t want to put out that perception of 'well, things could change, and we’re doing things as the come, we have problems.' They want to seem like they’re put together, and they've crafted this best experience for you.”

That’s often not the case with smaller, independently-made games in 2014, in which many developers are leveraging the ability to personalize themselves and the games they’re making.

“With a game jam, you can experiment with a lot of these things, and get a feel [for it]” said Almazan. “It’s okay to have things that don’t quite work because it just doesn't feel so permanent. It’s a chance to get your hands dirty and look at all the possibilities.”

You can watch the first episode of Indie Van Game Jam below:

A few other notes:

  • What are your thoughts on the term "indie"? The struggle over coming up with a definition seems to have died down, but remains a term we throw around without much thought behind why we do it.
  • I really like the fact that these guys decided to just go for it, even though their Kickstarter failed. I'm sure that's not possible for everyone, but it's cool.
  • It's hard to imagine what it would be like if a major game developer decided to be as open as Double Fine. One can dream, though.
Patrick Klepek on Google+
24 Comments Refresh
Posted by Y2Ken

This is a fascinating story. Good on them for just going for it. Thanks for bringing it to us, Patrick!

Posted by MEATBALL

Sounds like a group of dirty hipsters to me!! (I haven't read this yet, I'm just being a jerk, I'm sure it's actually awesome.)

Posted by sravankb

"Indie" is the underdog.

There is no other definition for it that is consistent. Cause if we look at "independent" studios, no one actually calls a company like Valve an indie studio.

So yeah - "indie" is basically the term for a game that is between $10 and $20, and as a result - is judged based on far lower standards and is scrutinized a lot lesser than a $60 title.

Also - this might sound a little callous, but I genuinely stopped caring about how many people or how many resources were involved in making a game. While admirable, it tells me absolutely nothing about the game itself.

Online
Posted by patrickklepek

The comments section on this disappeared for a few hours. Sorry about that. Should be fixed now...

Posted by kdrudy

This must be where the Bob's Game guy got the idea for his Kickstarter. He's trying to raise 10k to get a van he can code out of.

Posted by pizza_blood

Oh! I was in a group interviewed by these dudes! They came through Eugene, Oregon, where we had kind of an impromptu interview session at a barcade, right after the Global Game Jam. Very cool!

Posted by MeAuntieNora

They seem like a group of funny, creative dudes.

Anything that makes me think of Comedians of Comedy can't be that bad.

Anyone know the name of the van? It's not Further... It's not The End Game. It must be New Game +.

Posted by Goldanas

@kdrudy said:

This must be where the Bob's Game guy got the idea for his Kickstarter. He's trying to raise 10k to get a van he can code out of.

This was my first thought as well.

Power to anyone who pursues their desires so damn vehemently. That's passion, dude.

It's good to keep in mind though that in some situations, persistence eventually leads to success, but many other times it just leads to aggravation, frustration, annoyance, and depression.

Best of luck to anyone throwing themselves out there.

Posted by Hunter5024

Down by the river?

Posted by soulcake

So its like road trip with games in it :P

Posted by Slag

@patrickklepek

  • What are your thoughts on the term "indie"? The struggle over coming up with a definition seems to have died down, but remains a term we throw around without much thought behind why we do it.

I don't like it. Well rather I don't like how people use it in terms of games. It makes a lot more sense the way it's used in music.

I feel like people use Indie to contrast with AAA when really they are describing different things entirely. One is descriptor for budget size of a title, one is a descriptor for the company making the game

So they describe different attributes about different things.

e.g. So using that you could basically make a schematic something like this

Game's Budget SizeDeveloper and/or Publisher Structure
AAA (mega)Corporate (Publicly Traded Companies)
AA (meso)Indie (Privately Held)
A (micro)

I figure what most people usually colloquially call indie really would be a combination of "Indie A". Like the dudes in the article. Games like Limbo, Rogue Legacy, Bastion, Braid, etc.

Of course on the flipside you have your Call of Duty's, GTAa, Metal Gears and Madden's of the world which would be "Corporate AAA" which most people just call AAA.

but a naming convention like this would allow people to be have a way to refer to a company and games that don't fit neatly into that box.

A game like Child of Light , a small game made by a large company (Ubisoft), could be a "Corporate A"

a Game like like Left for Dead 2, a big budget game made by an independent (Valve), could be "Indie AAA".

Not the catchiest thing so I doubt many would ever use it, but that or something similar would more effectively convey what people mean more accurately.

Edited by Vuud

What does it take to become a "creative"? A screw it, I'M a creative. I'm also indie as fuck.

Indie really has no meaning in the video game industry, which is a very loose industry. Indie came out of the Hollywood studio and record label producer systems, whereby you had to go through them to get your film distributed to theaters, or to print thousands of records, which is expensive. Video games never had that, sure there are big publishers now who can finance big expansive games, but video games were always made by small groups or just one dude. Heck, I got demos from the Big Blue Disk, and if you wanted to buy it, you put $5 in an envelope and mailed it to the guys P.O. box in the readme and he'd send you back a floppy. And with the internet it's even easier. Video games skipped that whole part that other industries went through of having huge systems controlling interests.

"Indie" in the video game world is really just a fashion thing, to be cool you have to look like a sensitive caring underdog artist, and have a big villain or system that you're against. Which in this case I guess is EA, or Microsoft.

Posted by Mr_Creeper

Indie is meaningless to me now. With how it's tossed around willy-nilly it can refer to any number of developers. To me, the names of the companies and those people working for them are what's important and what helps me form my personal opinion on what their games might be.

Posted by shorap

The Last Unicorn kicks ass!

Posted by Seeric

I think the word 'indie' is largely used to convey perceived ownership of a game.

If a game can be said to be owned by a single person (ex: "Pixel owns Cave Story") or by a group/company with a small enough core to name the handful of individuals who own it (ex: "Team Meat owns Super Meat Boy" is largely equivalent to "Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes own Super Meat Boy" ), then it is indie.

On the other hand, if the ownership of a game or franchise is not equivalent to the creator of the game, it is probably not indie. For example, one could say "Shigeru Miyamoto created Super Mario Bros." and it would also be valid to say "Nintendo owns Super Mario Bros.", but one could not truly say "Shigeru Miyamoto owns Super Mario Bros.".

While it is tempting to say that team size factors into if something is 'indie' or 'not indie', I think this may be a mistake as there's no clear line; even games which are largely considered 'indie' may have a decent number of people hired for things such as art and music. Also, NES games are generally not considered 'indie' despite being made by small teams and this once again likely ties into the fact that the developers of these games are not equivalent (or even nearly equivalent) to the creator(s) of these games.

In short, I think it's generally safe to say that if you can point to the main person(s) behind a specific game and say that they didn't only create the game, but also own it (which is not to be confused with owning a franchise, ideas, or characters), then the game can be classified as an 'indie game'.

Edited by AngriGhandi

I would say "indie" is the general idea of something having a people-focused, do-it-yourself approach which leads to a more specific sense of personality showing through in the final product.

As opposed to "independent," as a more technical term, which only requires that a group not be part of a larger corporate or bureaucratic entity.

In some gray-area cases in the middle, "indie" can be up for debate... but it's pretty obvious when something definitely is, or definitely isn't.

This definition applies to video games, music, and movies in pretty much the same way.

...The word has also picked up baggage as some sort of vague culture war indicator that basically means "video game hipsters," but that's dumb and beside the point.

Posted by exfate

'Indie' simply means not being beholden to people outside of the creative team/individual that have non-creative goals for the project. Valve are indie because that's how their company is run--the creative process calls the shots in terms of the direction of the company and the business side just takes the product of those efforts and turns it in to money. If it weren't run that way then we'd be on Half-Life 7.

So, while big, private companies like Valve can be indie if they're run and owned by the right people with the right structure, publicly traded companies can never be indie. Their very nature is about maximizing value for shareholders.

Small developers can be non-indie just as large developers can be indie.

--

Cool video anyway. I wish it was longer and showed more of the process though.

Posted by T3MPLESMITH

I already know how this ends; they all die in a horrible car accident.

Posted by pocketroid

Oh cool! I remember the Van Game Jam video from Worth Reading.

I'd still totally call Valve indie. I think they do embody the same spirit as IGTM, they were even the first movie on Steam because Valve totally grooved with their whole thing. Valve does what they want creatively, and in the spirit of moving the industry forward.

Meanwhile, 'roguelike' remains skewed and niche because real roguelikes are too hard for anyone to popularize.

For me, an independent developer is one who funds themself or a small team, and doesn't compromise their creativity just to sell more units. It's strange to me that people shy away from the term 'indie', as the definition seems obvious and complimentary. Another aspect of indie game development, for me, is direct, personal, and influential audience engagement. You're not talking to some robot of a PR guy who's reading bullet points which were painstakingly checked and rechecked for demographics and political correctness; you're just talking directly to the human being making the game. Also, Early Access and public alpha/beta are magical things. Being able to help influence and beta test a game you're passionate about as a fan. 20 years ago you'd never be able to do that unless you made it into a career.

I've lived in a car before, and it was the coolest part of my life so far. These guys are only getting a taste of that, just driving a few days, but it's still such a cool thing.

Posted by Unilad

Old news.

Edited by Generic_username

This is a great feature. Glad I didn't miss it.

Oh, and to add to the discussion about what "indie" is, consider the music industry. "Indie" has become an essentially worthless term, as bands signed with major labels are still touted as "indie" just because their music sounds a certain way. It makes actually talking about independent bands pretty damn difficult. I'll say I'm listening to an indie band and I'll get responses like, "oh you mean like The Killers or Naked and Famous?" and I'll just want to stop talking there. Nothing against those bands, I actually really like The Killers, but they're not indie at all.

I wonder how long it'll take before the term becomes completely meaningless for games, too.

Edited by Gyrfal

"You won't BELIEVE what happened next!"

Posted by Gul_Pirak

Down by the river?

Ahhhhh, you beat me to it.

Edited by ajroo

Was that dude wearing a Giant Bomb t-shirt at the beginning of the vid?