[Writer and designer Patrick Dugan catches up with IGF Nuovo finalist and thought-provoking independent game creator Daniel Benmergui, quizzing him about his titles and his thoughts on game creation in today's market.]
Daniel Benmergui worked at Gameloft Argentina for years before saving up and going indie. With enough cash to live for about 18 months he started making small, experimental Flash games, eventually putting together a cadre called "Moon Stories"
that earned him a place in the Tokyo Game Show's inaugural Sense Of Wonder Night
in 2008. His 2009 title, Today I Die
, was a 2010 IGF Finalist for the Nuovo Award.
We caught up with Daniel to dig deeper and explore making video games, inspirations, and the meaning of independence - particularly independence in his native Argentina.
You're an Argentino, how do you feel about that?
Pretty well... I'm sort of proud of being able to end up doing what I always wanted to do in my own homeland, despite the lack of supporting infrastructure.
Your games, I Wish I Were The Moon in particular, are popular among female players, what do you think it is about the design that made that possible?
Probably because the initial impression from those games are more closely related to our everyday life than most... you can make a very good game that is very hard to get into for non-gamers (VVVVVV
), but most games out there won't cause a very good impression on first look (elves? marines? cute robots? what?).
The game design in both Moon and Today I Die is pretty light and doesn't demand a lot of engagement to able to navigate through the games... You can tell right away what these games are about just by taking a glimpse.
What's your impression of the IGF, Indiecade, and similar forums? Which one do you think is doing the best job of promoting innovative work? Do you think the IGF's Nuovo Award should be seen as a model for process governing the rest of the awards, or should it be kept as its own thing?
The IGF reflects the "institutional" part of the indie community. Its rules and worldview define what most people in the industry believe "indie" is. Thus, the IGF has quite a bit of power. But of course, it's not as large as indie games as a whole are.
Indiecade is a very intimate meeting for a bunch of the best indies around... many games Indiecade selected ended up as finalists in the IGF. I only wish the event would grows not towards the IGF, but towards the general public, somehow.
The Nuovo Award's definition is very close to "innovative games", in my opinion, and it's not the indies job to innovate, despite being a common occurrence. I would make the Seumas McNally Grand Prize the "Important Game" award and be done with it, making the aspect prizes (design, aesthetics, etc.) a mention instead of a prize itself. Of course, there should be room for plenty of "important games".
Does South American culture have more potential to espouse great game design work than Northern Hemisphere cultures?
I wouldn't know. Before that happens, LATAM (Latin American) culture should make an effort to spin away from the northern influence. I have no idea what a local culture would mean, gamewise.
What do you think is holding back the Argentine game industry, and where could it go if these limitations were removed?
The Argentinians are holding Argentina back. The country is exploiting itself into oblivion, from the government up to most of the local "entrepreneurs", who are often as hypocritical and exploitative as the government they claim to hate. But if we remove the Argentinians we run out of a country, so either the few who are true manage to gain and wield power for the growth of the country, or we'll eventually become Haiti.
I trust the former will happen.
What was it like trying to get games in the '90s in Argentina? Since the peso was at par with the dollar, you could have bought the same systems as in the U.S. for the same price, right? Did a lot of kids get game systems before the crisis kicked electronics importing in the shins?
I am guessing by "system" you mean a PC. No consoles here ever, except horribly overpriced. Getting games in the 80s, 90s, 00s and 2010s here was always easy, since piracy is a very efficient distributor. Middle classes could always afford a decent enough PC to run most games.
How many truly great game designers are there alive right now, on this planet? Off this planet?
A bunch of them! There are also designers that are going to be legendary if they don't stray from the path. Jonathan Blow, Jason Rohrer and Frank Lantz are geniuses to me. Terry Cavanagh is probably going to join them at some point. But you don't need truly great game designers to make something that matters... we are still too young.
I do believe Jonathan Blow was brought from outer space. He's that strange.
In your 2009 EVA keynote, you spoke about the different ways independent developers can directly get into a cash-for-satisfaction trade with their audiences. If this starts to work for people, how would you expect the industry to change? How far could it go?
In the past decades, researchers and companies tried their hardest to figure out how to shove people into spending to buy products. Using this body of knowledge and having money, you can always force the "market" into buying your product, regardless of what it is. You can't beat that right now.
But getting in touch with your audience can make you a good living, while at the same time having an honest business relationship with the people paying. That's the best thing about these alternate models.
You've once commented that you'd like to live like Jason Rohrer, growing your own food and whatnot. Do you still feel this way and do you think that's a broadly applicable model for "rightsizing" the life of an indie developer?
Not only indies need to rightsize their lives. Everybody should. The amount of power you gain by controlling your expenses cannot be overemphasized. The less money you need, the more leverage you have to control your own life. The more leverage you have, the more money will come your way. I believe it just works like that.
You don't need to live at a total minimum like Jason, but being able to renounce to expensive luxuries is very liberating and puts your life back into your own hands (warning: that's pretty scary). I started by giving away my TV.
What's the most important thing in life? If you ranked all the most important things, what rank would games have?
Pretty low. I was looking at an ad on the subway that asked what would you pick if you were stranded on a desert island: books, movies and games. I picked in that order.
The most important thing in life is to scrap and rebuild every five years.