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Boston Festival of Indie Games brings together devs, fans and families

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The registration booth outside at the Boston Festival of Indie Games was still a hive of activity Saturday as the showcase floors began to clear out. Overseeing the outdoor areas of Boston FIG, Caroline Murphy, a main coordinator for the festival, returned her radio to its shoulder holster and confirmed: Nearly 7,500 attendees.

Once again an all-volunteer army had brought together thousands of gamers of all ages to celebrate the growing culture of indie gaming in the city of Boston.

Despite flying under the gaming community radar for the second year in a row, the Boston Festival of Indie Games hosted almost 130 unique independently developed games, drawing submissions mostly from New England and nearby Montreal. Veteran development teams from sponsor companies were easy to spot, with polished graphic displays and multiple machines for festival attendees. Others brought little more than their game, with nothing but a laptop and a hand drawn sign to indicate their presence. Indies invited the Boston gaming community to spend time with their untried ventures, asking for critical feedback and (hopefully) a digital vote in the Figgies Award competition in return.

In order to support the growing BFIG demand for 2013, the festival's staff turned to Kickstarter. The project asked for $15,000 to support necessities like larger space rental, and travel expenses to attract stronger keynote speakers. At the same time organizers also promised that no funds would go towards paying event staff.

Ending with $17,832 from less than 400 backers, the organizers began the process of trying to live up to expectations.

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After complaints in 2012 that the cramped space and un-air conditioned classrooms detracted from the experience, festival organizers moved the showcases out of classrooms and into the MIT Athletic center. Unfortunately the new space was also not designed to support the show, and for several hours during the busy afternoon, almost half the digital showcase lost power or suffered continual power surges. Joe Mirabello of Terrible Posture Games was forced to shut down one of his two popular demo stations for Tower of Guns after a power surge resulted in a smoking machine. Similarly, the Blocks of Explosive Dismemberment booth was unable to accommodate play testers for most of the morning when local area wireless networks supported by the venue failed.

Despite setbacks and frustrations, the feel in the digital showcase room was like the glee, anticipation and geekery of a high school science fair, especially with unconventional displays for games like a blanket fort for Depression Quest.

"If there's something that doesn't exist that you want to exist, make it happen."

In the MIT Stratton Student center, over 30 independently designed tabletop game submissions attracted analog game fans, and filled the space nearly to overflowing.

Prototype Castles of Carabaga consistently filled rounds with its maximum allowed four players, and at one point had a wait three games deep. Developer David Wilkinson actively solicited feedback from observers of each match, offering written surveys to players who inquired about release information, and offered up a chance to win the game's prototype in exchange for an email address.

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Fighting for attention at a nearby table, colorful waterproof table lining called curious gamers to Ice Cubris, a game of stacking cubes of real ice on a precarious platform. While most tables showed copies of painstakingly hand cut cards, pieces or boards, a surprising number of titles were available for sale at the festival or included manufactured figurines and glossy machine-cut cardstock. Ideas that may never get a chance at traditional commercial publication because of their impracticality drew crowds in the Boston FIG tabletop showcase.

Surprisingly, families with children made up a large part of the crowd. Mike Flood, lead designer for Play Nimbus shared a realization the Wobbles team had early in the festival.

"We didn't design [Wobbles] for kids, I mean sure a kid could play, but the three star levels are pretty challenging. We had a four year old just walk up and get it, we definitely weren't expecting that."

This was a common theme throughout the festival, as developers took this unexpected audience to task and actively gathered feedback from children and families on games originally not developed for them. The BFIG crowd seemed to be largely compiled of families with children ages 4-9, a much different demographic than Boston's big gaming event, PAX East.

"Boston is really just independent, they did such a great job here showing the indie culture."

For many, the festival was all about the chance to hear from some of the more than 20 speakers hosting keynotes and DevTalks at BFIG. Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail recounted his surprise at how strong of a show the volunteers had put on, reveling "I never realized how many companies are here developing with no real publisher on hand. Boston is really just independent, they did such a great job here showing the indie culture."

After a last minute invite from the festival, Ismail flew in between scheduled events to host a brief DevTalk, where he advised a lecture hall of hopeful creatives with a message that the volunteer staff of the event could surely relate to: "If there's something that doesn't exist that you want to exist, make it happen."

Nicole Tompkins-Hughes is a mom moonlighting as a freelance journalist; when not working as a paralegal or behind the scenes of Polygon as a community moderator, she's a featured correspondent on GameSkinny.