I like it when great games research (and researchers) get seen by more people, and one of my favourite groups to show this stuff to are indie developers. I’ve poked and prodded at a variety of ways of doing this over the years, but one thing remains hard to organise: getting indie developers involved and recognised at academic events. It’s hard to explain to indies why they’d want to submit anything, and hard to get work potentially seen as ‘not academic’ accepted and taken seriously at some events. But I think it’s worth pushing for more, and I thought it was time to put into words why I think this is. So this is a short post about why you might like to submit something to EXAG 2016 as an indie, and why academic events should do their best to accept it.
Before I start, I should stress that not everything has to be for everyone. I’m going to make an argument here but, as I scramble to make a game in my spare time, I can see a host of very good reasons for just not bothering with any events, academic or otherwise, and just getting on with making games. What I want to do here is put some fears to rest, rather than make sweeping demands that all of you submit to EXAG right now (although, of course, we’d love it if you did).
My interactions with indie developers have generally been pretty awkward in the past (apologies if you’ve ever had to endure a conversation with me) but as I gain a little confidence in the games I make, I’m finding I’m getting better at talking about my work with people. When I manage to do it, even describing or showing a tiny sliver of a game, the feedback I get is fantastic. It’s honest, it’s educated, it’s offered without judgement (for the most part). It not only motivates me to go and work on my game, but it makes the game better by showing me new angles or new inspirations for what I can do. And I’ve noticed, watching indies interact with one another online or in person, that it’s not a rare thing. Indies support one another and help each other grow as designers and developers.
At its best, academic events work like this too. But I find they are rarely at their best. A lot of events foster hostile or combative audiences, they push people away with huge registration fees and far-off locations, they gatekeep heavily and circulate tight and serious Calls For Papers that are targeted directly at a very specific kind of academic. This is where every stereotype you know about academia comes from. But when they’re good, academic events are like little creative retreats for researchers. We come and show our newborn ideas, we catch up with family, we make plans for future months, and we leave with a renewed sense of purpose and energy (which, if you’re anything like me, is mostly sapped by an 11-hour return flight).
This is the third year of organising EXAG now, and each year (and years before that, in other events) Alex, Antonios and myself have all tried to make a friendly, welcoming, accessible and fun event. We’ve tried to make it an event that everyone can dip into and benefit from, even if only a bit. We’ve tried to make it a place that feels helpful, and full of possibilities, and a net positive for both academia and games as a whole. It’s not perfect, and it might never be, but I think it reflects some of the best things that academic events can be. And I think it has a lot in common with the vibe I get from indies when they get together.
So if you’ve got a game where you’re trying something new with AI – and it doesn’t need to be DeepMind (my projects certainly aren’t), AI can be a cool procedural generator or a weird bit of behavioural experimentation, or who knows what – maybe you want some friendly feedback from a different crowd? We’ll help you show it off to some of the nicest AI experts we know. If you’ve got a cool technique you invented for something and you want the world to know about it, we’ll help you archive it and promote it to a community of researchers. If you’ve got a question, or a vision, or a problem that you can’t solve, maybe telling EXAG’s community about it will spark off a new collaboration or a fresh perspective?
We can’t solve every problem that academic events have, but we can promise to do our best – if you’re interested in being a part of EXAG this year, whether you’re sending in a demo from far away, or coming to hang out with us in person and give a tutorial, whatever it might be – please get in touch with us. We will do our best work around every limitation, every problem, anything you might think is holding you back. I can’t be more explicit than this but seriously: I want to try and solve any problem you might have. We’d love you to be a part of the event, and help add a bit more energy to the room this October.
And if not, don’t worry, I’ll be pestering you about PROCJAM very soon too 😉