"For a long time making video games meant big budget development," says Frank Lantz, the Director of NYU Game Center.
High rent undercut the mainstream video game scene in New York in the 1980s and 90s. In its place, says Lantz, weirder, smaller communities — interested in stuff like web, mobile and downloadable games — took root.
Lantz is moderating the New York Comic-Con panel "The NYC Game Design Underground." He's joined by Naomi Clark, Doug Wilson, Zach Gage, Phoenix Perry and Syed Salahuddin, whom represent the city's independent game designers, scholars, promoters, educators, artists and curators.
Before beginning discussion of the New York game scene, Lantz provides some additional cultural context. Thanks to new distribution models (download storefronts) and platforms (cell phones), now there are all sorts of ways for someone living in New York to easily release their games. Alongside this shift, and perhaps because of it, the independent game scene has taken off, with small groups of people doing riskier and more creatively ambitious work.
There are all sorts of new ways for people to easily release their games
Lantz says New York City has long been a place where people of all types come to make strange, progressive and avant-garde works, from film and music to art and theater. Now, finally, he believes that energy is flowing into the local game design community.
After allowing the panelists to introduce their diverse creative backgrounds, Lantz asks if they believe scenes are important to a medium. Scenes are obviously important to music, says Lantz, but are they to games.
"For the stuff I've been making," says Doug Wilson, the creator of Johann Sebastian Joust, "it's hard to make games alone in a basement." Performative and social games, he says, require an environment, an incubator of sorts.
"[Scenes are] also important as a support structure," says Zach Gage, the creator of Spelltower. Gage says games that push boundaries are a lot more difficult to make than you'd expect. "It's hard to find success and acceptance," says Gage, "Scenes provide a lot of that [support] right away."
When Phoenix Perry switched from making indie film to indie games, she was dropped by her arts curator and told by friends that she was committing career suicide. But in New York, she quickly found a supportive scene and a place to exhibit her first game.
Scenes are a support structure
Wilson also points out the the tone of a scene may influence a designer's work. Where he found San Francisco often focuses on the business side of games, his conversations in New York drifted towards creativity.
"What's missing from the New York game development scene?" Lantz asks.
Almost at the same time, Phoenix Perry and Naomi Clark, a co-creator of Wonder City, say, "Money."
Wilson says time. "Culturally and financially," he says, "New York is a very busy city." While studying in Copenhagen, he found people could slowly collaborate on things. In New York, everyone is doing so much that there's rarely enough time.
Syed Salahuddin, a co-creator of the indie game installation venue Babycastles, says the sense of urgency in New York City is taxing. "Every few months I break down," he says, "and cry and go some place and come back [...] it's this vicious cycle of burring out over and over again."
"This probably isn't the best comment to follow that comment," says Gage, "but I think Babycastles should go back to its every two week schedule."