Indie Science (And The Science Of Being Indie)

I was interviewed for Develop Magazine last month and it’s just going out in their latest edition. It was all very fun to do and the final piece is a great description of where my research is and where I hope it’s going. My favourite part is where we talk about how doing games research can feel a bit like being an indie developer, but since reading over the interview I think there’s more there than I initially thought.

I said:

…the indie games industry, and the indie games ethic, has made [gamers] amenable to the idea of research projects… people are in that mind set already…

We’d been talking about my interactions with the indie community on TIGSource, and I’d said that I felt that many indie projects were like my work with ANGELINA – rough and ready, something new but unpolished. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, and many indie games are incredibly polished, very well-rounded affairs; but the core of the indie community has a lot in common with the world of research. Let’s do a tour.

1. We’re funded by the public, but we share the benefits with everyone
The research I conduct here with ANGELINA is funded by taxes. My bursary, the MacBook I’m working on right now, the exciting bits and bobs I’ll be purchasing next month (stay tuned!) – they all come out of public money, which is given to us with the understanding that we’ll advance science and technology and publish notable work. Crucially, our work is published in public for everyone to see and make use of. Hopefully, the research will contribute to industry, to further academic research, and maybe just satisfy the public’s curiosity about the world (which is one reason I run this blog).

Consider the Humble Bundle-style ‘pay-what-you-want’ model of indie game purchasing. Everyone benefits directly from these sales – you can get these games for as little as one cent in some cases. Those that pay in aren’t really paying for the games specifically. They’re funding the developer – the ideas behind the specific games. Terry Cavanaugh’s VVVVVV appeared in the Humble Bundles of last year, but Cavanaugh is hugely prolific and experiments with mini-projects frequently. When someone drops $20 on a bundle, they’re not doing it to get a copy of his game (you could get it for a buck, after all). They’re doing it to support his work in the future.

And indie game devs don’t just benefit the players or the investors. Take Tarn Adams, developer of Dwarf Fortress. He survives by a similarly research-like funding model, where players can optionally donate money each month to keep the game being developed. Public funding, and results shared with everyone (Dwarf Fortress is, of course, a free download). While DF is a very niche game that many find hard to get into, it gives a lot back to the gaming community in many ways besides the game itself. Take the many and diverse ‘Let’s Play’ diaries of extended games, for example, or the procedural generation projects inspired by its superb world-creation algorithms. Culturally, technologically, and more besides – Dwarf Fortress enriches the games industry, yet at its heart is a deeply experimental game design.

 2. We like to prototype, and we don’t always know where we’re going
I really like this article by Derek Yu (total indie hero) about Spelunky. It’s often linked to, but pay attention to the bit about his two-stage working process. Major releases were often inspired by smaller games, prototypes or explorations of game ideas. Many developers don’t have a grand vision of their next five games – some don’t think far beyond the next few lines of code. One of the reasons why things like the Experimental Gameplay Project and Ludum Dare exist is because making small games to explore ideas gets you thinking about the big ideas in new ways. Not knowing where things might lead can create amazing results in the indie scene. Take Minecraft for example – starting off as a tiny block-placer, the game grew organically, adding new ideas as it went along and tweaking the bits that players loved the most. That led to great new ideas – Redstone wiring, better terrain generation. These things couldn’t have been predicted at the start of the project when it was a lowly Infiniminer pastiche.

We’re careful in the research world to present work that is stable and interesting, but our actual process is far more haphazard. Most importantly, I don’t know exactly where this research is heading – the next project might produce some unexpected result or unintended new direction, and ANGELINA could develop along entirely different lines. To that end, we’re encouraged as researchers to dabble and prototype, to wonder about a certain system design or a new way of solving an old problem. We work small, build example systems, and then scale up to something that’s worth writing a paper about. Both indies and researchers are exploring areas of their fields that are usually unexplored – and that makes an experimental attitude invaluable.

3. Interaction helps us thrive, both with the public and our peers
Everyone knows about peer review in science, and how important it is. There’s nothing I like more than talking to people about my research (or their own) and hearing what they have to say about it. Peer review helps scientists improve and refine their ideas, and ensure they are backed up with a modicum of approval. Similarly, great organisations like the British Science Association help scientists get out into the wider world and talk to the public not just about photosynthesis and black holes, but about what individual researchers are doing, right now, to push the boundaries of what we know and are capable of as a species.

This might not seem like the most obvious parallel with the indie gaming, and about ten years ago you might have been right to doubt this one. Today, however, the indie community has strong links both internally and externally. Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, podcasts and blogs have forged new links between players and developers, and indie devs in particular benefit from a good relationship with the people who buy their games and enjoy their work. Like scientists, indies get feedback and new ideas about their work from talking to people, even if they aren’t specialists in their field. You don’t need a degree in Computer Science to ask me if I’ve considered doing X or thought about Y when it comes to ANGELINA – and if I haven’t, you might send me in an amazing new direction. The flexibility and openness of many indie developers means that they, too, benefit from this close interaction with the wider public.

I’ve also seen a lot more interaction between other indie developers than ever before too. TIGSource, the Super Friendship Club and Cambridge Indies are just a handful of examples of indie developers forming strong bonds, sharing their work with each other, and gaining meaningful input from people with similar skills and interests. Like the academic community, chance encounters with other developers can lead to fruitful collaborations and ad-hoc development teams that come together for a single title and then part ways once again. It’s what keeps science so vibrant and inventive, and the same goes for indie gaming too.

4. We like our heroes, but anyone can break through
I met Dan Ashlock at last year’s Computational Intelligence in Games conference. Dan’s name had come up on so many interesting papers I’d read, so I was hugely excited to see him. The man himself was interesting, generous, and incredibly clever – someone who gets lit up at the slightest idea if it clicks with him just the tiniest bit. Not only that, he’s a great writer of many papers, and an hour’s conversation with him showed me how many diverse fields he’d dipped a toe into. In short – an amazing guy who is (and has already) done loads for science.

Julian Togelius talking at CIG 2011 (click for more)

Despite that, I also saw some incredible presentations by young researchers I had never seen or heard of before. Work of great ingenuity, delivered in an entertaining way, that came out of nowhere and impressed a lot of people (I wrote about one such project for the Escapist). This stuff got people talking too, and the ideas resonate far beyond just that one conference.

It’s fair to say that the indie scene has its idols, those that shine brighter than most and get a lot of attention in the press when someone needs to represent ‘the scene’. Great minds like the aforementioned Terry Cavanaugh, Team Meat’s Edmund McMillen, or the venerable Derek Yu of Spelunky and Aquaria fame. Like the scientific community, we love our larger-than-life figures, people who have great ideas and know how to communicate them with others. They help organise people (Cavanaugh is the main force behind Cambridge’s indie scene, I believe), drive change (Adam Saltsman defined a new era for Flash gaming with his Flixel engine) and represent indie development (are you listening to the BBC’s fantastic 99 Coins podcast? You should be!)

But no matter how many big names appear and leave their mark on the industry, indie gaming is open to all comers, and one great idea can penetrate right through and burst out onto gaming blogs, news feeds and inboxes. The indie scene, helped through the advances in mobile gaming and digital distribution, is an incredibly open and ideas-centric world, where anyone can stand on a soapbox and say their piece with a prototype and a few lines of text.

5. We do what we do because we love it
One of the easiest associations I’ve made between indie developers and scientists is that neither are in this game for the paycheck (or if they are, they’re delusional and don’t hang around for long!). Both groups are doing the job they do because it gives them an amazing reason to get up in the morning – and while it may not feel like it when they’re in the middle of a crunch period or hard up against a deadline, it’s evident at almost all other times. Speak to a researcher or an indie dev about their work for just a few minutes, and you’ll see all the years of accumulated passion and fun and drive just pouring out. It’s why I enjoy talking to people from these two disciplines so much, and why I think they should work more closely in the future (a blog post for another time, perhaps).

Photo courtesy of IEEE CIG 2011 (click image for more)
Photo courtesy of Size Five Games and #indievisibility (click the image to see more)

As academia begins to dip its remaining toes into the waters of the games industry, and indie researchers find themselves increasingly able to financially sustain their independent status, we need to encourage cross-pollination between these groups and give them as many opportunities to get creative and team up with one another as we can. I’m looking forward to A Bit Of Alright this week, where I’ll be trying to make some links so we can do just that.

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