September 22 is now Independent Game Development Day in Massachusetts, by proclamation of the governor. This year, the day also played host to the first Boston Festival of Indie Games, a free all-day event welcoming and celebrating the local gaming community.
There was a schedule of films like Darkon and Indie Game the Movie, and a pair of keynotes: One from computer historian Jason Scott, creator of Get Lamp (also shown at the festival) -- and one from me, where I talked about new ways of looking at the culture of experimental design.
I was excited to be invited to talk at the first Boston FIG, because I've gotten very interested lately in the ways different cities have such strongly-identified developer communities thanks to the kinds of schools, businesses and even social opportunities that create their infrastructure.
For example, in New York where I'm from, we've almost no lasting AAA studios. There's the sort of city-living entrepreneurial culture that encourages biz dev professionals exploring social games and work in advertising, but the diverse and focused programs at NYU, Parsons and their ilk also breed a fiercely creative culture that unites with other arts around incredibly social public events (just last week I spoke to New York's Ramiro Corbetta about Hokra and group spaces).
Boston also has the lack of a single publisher-led "anchor studio" combined with a strong academic community that tends to lead indie culture to flourish, but with many of the nation's top unversities concentrated in New England, I get the impression that Boston's indies are even more focused on problem-solving and experimentation within the research institution than other communities I've visited.
My friend Darius Kazemi is director of community at Boston web tech company Bocoup, and has been a Bostonian since 2005, when he worked on D&D Online and Lord of the Rings Online at Turbine, before running his own company doing game metrics middleware for some years. It's worth noting that I rarely meet anyone, anywhere in the games industry who has never met Darius.
"[Boston is] not like a Vancouver, or an Austin or even a San Francisco where there's usually a big publisher that trains people up and feeds the ecosystem," he tells me, when I ask what Boston's dev culture is like.
"We've managed to do very well, partly because of the really strong education that we have here. I think that's one of the reasons we can be resilient: We don't have a big studio that, if it closed, the entire ecosystem would tank."
But New England was rocked this year by an incredibly visible failure: The expensive collapse of 38 Studios. From what Kazemi can tell, the hiring economy has been relatively kind to the former 38ers -- those who uprooted their families and are now stuck with relocation costs are the ones suffering most. But many were able to return to open positions at Turbine or find work in other cities, he suggests.
"It didn't completely tank our ecosystem here," he adds. There are a wealth of smaller and midsize studios in the area, and a wide range of independent mobile and social teams. By comparison, the game industry in a city like vancouver thrives on its bigger companies and struggles much more when there are closures.
Boston's community is also extremely diverse, not apparently built around any specific industry hub, versus the West Coast, land of the AAA studios, or the Austin community, where teams are often online-focused. As a result community events and organizations proliferate, many of them themed around constructive programs for professional learning rather than simply social events (though there's that element, too).
One downside, though, is that developers with specific disciplines are somewhat limited. Let's say you want to work on online games, and you lose or leave your job at Turbine: You'd have to leave Boston. If you want to make high-end AAA games without working at Irrational? You'd have to move. That kind of brain drain is happening less and less, in Kazemi's view, but it's still an issue.
Another event relatively significant to the local community is the transition underway at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, a six-year collaboration between the Media Development Authority and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that has produced over a hundred research papers and some 55 games, all aimed at discovering innovative design solutions in a collaboration between students and teachers who often also did research.
The partnership is ending, although MIT will continue to support a game lab team. GAMBIT's Clara Fernandez Vara, post-doctoral researcher, was at Boston FIG to showcase some of the GAMBIT team's last round of games, including The Last Symphony, a fascinating project she led that aims to bring meaningful narrative into the hidden-object genre.
She'll continue her research work at MIT. Many within the exciting community around GAMBIT have long had a special focus on storytelling and adventure-style games, another quality I've come to associate strongly with the Boston community (this time last year, I spoke to GAMBIT's Todd Harper and Abe Stein about innovative A Closed World, now an IndieCade selection) -- and Fernandez-Vara also specializes in storytelling.
Specifically, she's interested in a practical approach to blending design and storytelling, and ultimately MIT's transition from GAMBIT to the new MIT Game Lab will offer her more opportunity to focus on research and design rather than tech, to which her research is frequently applied. Lately she's been increasingly focused on strategies for encouraging the players to make and interpret their own stories, with an emphasis on environmental storytelling (she'll be speaking at GDC Online's Game Narrative Summit on this very idea).
"I think the new game lab is going to try to keep its ties with the community a lot," says Fernandez Vara, who herself is involved with Boston FIG and will continue to help with maintaining those bonds.
"The worst thing we've lost is the space at GAMBIT, but I know they're trying to find a new place we can have that physical space."
But like many of her colleagues, Fernandez Vara has roots in the Boston community, where people seem to do everything they can to continue to network, collaborate and share ideas.
For disciplined, independent-minded designers with broad skill sets and a desire for a strong event-oriented community, Boston definitely has a unique feel.