Due to a combination of closures of big-budget Austin game studios in recent years and the newly available digital channels through which indies can sell their work, the city has seen a resurgence in small developers setting up shop. We speak to Semi Secret Software co-founder Adam Saltsman and Venus Patrol founder/IGF chairman Brandon Boyer about how they’re nurturing a community, along with Karakasa Games founder Wiley Wiggins, where indies can meet up, drink a few beers, and get inspired.
First off, the name Juegos Rancheros is loco.
Brandon Boyer It’s a stupid pun, and it’s kind of silly compared to a lot of other names, but there’s something about it that makes it a little more inviting, because it doesn’t sound like a serious hardcore nerd game thing. It just sounds like it’s a goofy, funny thing about game culture, and we’ve seen that reflected in the audience that we get in.
Adam Saltsman It’s the farthest other end of the spectrum from ‘Local Austin Game Developers Business Association’, or something like that. Who’s going to show up to something called Juegos Rancheros with a stack of business cards, saying, “I’m going to collect some social networking resources today”?
BB There’s a lot of academic stuff about games and business stuff about games that a lot of people don’t really care about, and they just want to see something awesome. That’s always been my emphasis in what I’d like to give them – an awesome show about videogames, most of which they’ve never seen or heard of before, and just cut out all the rest of the stuff.
How connected were the various indies in Austin prior to Juegos launching?
AS I was hanging out with some artist friends who were at bigger studios, and we would have lunch once in a while. But as those studios folded and people struck out on their own, we went from six or seven people who were trying to independently run companies to make videogames in Austin to like 20, 30 or 40 in the space of a year or two, between roughly 2008 and 2010. But it’s still kind of snowballing. I feel like our definition of our community is growing at the same time.
Semi Secret Software co-founder Adam Saltsman (left) and Venus Patrol founder/IGF chairman Brandon Boyer
Why didn’t these developers just get absorbed back into the existing industry?
BB Austin’s indie second wave took off in early 2009-ish and I don’t think it’s coincidental that it was around this time that the App Store was becoming a viable alternative. I think those early people were people like Tiger Style that had literally just come out of big studios and were saying, “Oh, we can make this iPhone thing possibly work.”
AS My whole reason for going independent in the first place was that I was tired of people forcing me to do a worse job. That was a common thing. You turn something in that was really good and they would demand that you make it worse. A lot of people can only do that for so long, but they love what they do. I think if you combine the opportunity of digital distribution and the obvious sustainability problem of big studio development, you just get this really natural springing up of small shops. People were burning out, but they didn’t have to leave the industry completely. They were able to set aside a little money and take some risks on creating their own work, which is kind of cool. We talk very little business at Juegos, but there’s a community sense of, ‘OK, this isn’t hopeless.’ You can survive, you can eat food, and you can be creatively fulfilled.
Have collaborations between indie devs emerged as a result of the collective?
BB Despite the ‘nobody swaps business cards’ thing, Juegos has been really good for this. Right out of the gate, Austin newcomer Dale Austin helped Shay Pierce out with artwork for Connectrode, then Bobby Arlauskas ended up doing freelance sound work for Tiger Style on Waking Mars, which [got] it an IGF audio nod, and most recently, Robin ‘Deep Sea’ Arnott ended up topping off the sound for Capsule, Adam’s soon-to-be-released Venus Patrol game. However indirectly you want to call it, it’s hard to see any of that having happened without the group getting together this regularly.