The famed indie developer on why the Indie Game Summit is her highlight of GDC

GDC 13: Kellee Santiago on the IGS

What is the Indie Game Summit at GDC conceived to offer?
The Indie Game Summit offers a wide variety of talks from the independent game community. This is my second year as co-organiser, and I’ve been going for years, and it’s fantastic to see the dialogue change over time.

At the summit we try and capture what has been happening over the past year in independent game development, and also we try to look a little at what we’d like to see in the year ahead, and what we expect to see.

In that context what are the key themes that the Indie Game Summit is addressing this year?
Well, one of the talks I’m really excited about is Matt Gilgenbach’s talk on his experience developing Retro/Grade, which is a game that he expected to take two years to make. It ended up taking four years. It was very well received, but it didn’t sell well. What I really like about his coming talk is that it reflects the imperfection of indie game development. We aren’t just talking about those lightening in a jar moments, but about what it really means on a day to day level to be an independent developer.

We have two talks this year about free-to-play development and in-game monetisation; one from Aaron Isaksen from AppAbove Games and another from Ninja Robot Dinosaur Entertainment, the developers of Shellrazer. We definitely as organisers wanted to include some perspectives on that. Aaron’s bringing a tonne of data, which is another thing I love about the Indie Game Summit. Everyone in the room there s their own boss so they can share whatever data they want. So Aaron is really opening up his free-to-play project, and the Shellrazer guys are doing a talk titled ‘how to do in-game monetization without loosing your soul,’ and I’m very interested to hear how they feel that they were able to accomplish that without, of course, a lot of the negative stigma that free-to-play can get.

And in terms of the culture of the summit, how does it compare to the main GDC on the following days? It seems there’s an emphasis on openness.
Yes. Even just as an attendee before coming on as an organiser I found myself going to just the Indie Game Summit talks because the speakers can be more transparent, because they not working within large companies or large teams. And they’re not just transparent, but open to talking about what went wrong without trying to soften the facts. And you learn more from what went wrong rather than what went right. It’s great like that.

And outside of the panels themselves, what else can attendees take away from the Indie Game Summit?

It’s definitely a good opportunity to connect with other indie developers, and I think so far we’ve done a good job as a indie game development community in really maintaining that community. In that sense, no matter what kind of games you work on, or what kind of background you have, we all face very similar struggles, and I think the conversations and the tone of the talks and the panels that happen then bleed over into the conversations you can hear in the hallways during the coffee breaks. Hopefully in that way we can bring new indies together.

And is this event as relevant to the experienced indie as it is the fledgling bedroom coder? What can somebody of your level, or even somebody from triple-A get from attending?
Because of the nature of indie development, and because it happens at an individual or small team level, its also probably the most dynamic arm of our industry, and reflects a lot of the past, current and upcoming trends in the games industry the most.

That’s because these are the teams and the companies that react immediately to what players are asking for and what the current trends are, so even a seasoned professional, perhaps from a large company, can gain a lot from hearing the variety of voices and topics that we cover in the Independent Game Summit.

Often indie is romanticised. Does the summit address the other side of things; those challenges that face indies?
I think one of the biggest challenges I see is that ‘over-romanticisation’ of the indie games development space. There’s this idea that you sacrifice everything and then work, work, work, then it will all pay off and you’ll be super rich one day. One of the talks last year, also by Aaron Isaksen, talked about a survey of the community, and looked at what a small percentage of the community actually are financially independent. He started to open up the conversation to look at our day-to-day practices and work out how we can be more sustainable and how we can have more fulfilling, meaningful lives in independent game development. I personally find that conversation to be very important in our community, and it’s important to the Independent Game Summit.

So it’s a pragmatic, frank look at indie today?

I hope so. We have some talks about how you can aim to be really successful, but I do find sometimes with indie that can be the dominant conversation, which could lead to unhealthy practices in games development, and we want to be realistic too. I want indie developers to be making these cool games for at least my lifetime, so we’ve tried to shape the conference so as to give them the tools to do that.

And, beyond the summit, you’re optimistic about the present and future of indie?
Yes, I’m very optimistic about it. We certainly seem to be in a golden era right now, where you can have, for example with a case like FTL, people working on a game that they love and they make a really great game and a lot of people come and play that. I think it will be interesting to see the next generation of digital distribution channels, just like the way the design of the brick and mortar stores effected disk distribution games and the kinds of games made. These digital platforms can absolutely have that same impact. I just hope that there is a push to create channels that allow for discoverability and allow for new voices to emerge. That would be great.

To find out more about GDC’s Independent Game Summit, click here to visit its official webpage.

Image credit: Official GDC Flickr photostream.

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