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Closing Vancouver’s Indie House

We visit the home of Towerfall and others during its final days.

For the last four years, a group of independent game developers in Vancouver, Canada established and refined a model of how to make games together. In the process, the members created a lifestyle for themselves that’s uniquely catered to what they want to accomplish, and they built a community of like-minded creative people around them.

The basic concept was simple: It’s a bunch of friends who happen to all be game developers, living and working together in a big house in the suburbs. They get to collaborate and help each other out with any hurdles they come across as they develop their games, and they save a bunch of money by not needing office space or renting separate places to live.

Over the years, the house grew into something much bigger than that initial idea. It became an important social hub of the Vancouver development scene with all sorts of parties, game jams and other gatherings that bring people out into the depths of Richmond, one of Vancouver’s biggest and most sprawling suburbs. Countless friendships were forged in front of the big TV in the basement and around the giant kitchen table piled high with sticker-coated laptops. And now, much to the dismay of many of Vancouver’s independent developers, the people behind Indie House have decided to call it quits, and a new habitat will need to be found for the community that was born in its well-worn halls.


What it was

To many, it’s clear that Vancouver was a natural place to give birth to this sort of arrangement. Over the past decade or so, the Canadian city has become infamous for its lack of housing affordability and a wild real estate market, leaving many local artists and creative types scrambling to find ways to survive. Indie House is just one example of a solution to that problem.

However, the larger catalyst behind Indie House’s success, and the reason the model is now being adopted by developers in a handful of other cities, isn’t the specific geography or economic climate of Vancouver. It’s the fact that indie developers don’t live like other people; they don’t work normal hours, they don’t pursue a traditional career path and they don’t structure their lives in a conventional manner. The result is an almost accidental rejection of mainstream society.

"We didn’t come here because we were particularly interested in participating in a counterculture thing, but because our lives are just so different from the average person’s," says Greg Lobanov, one of the five residents of Indie House and the creator of the upcoming Wandersong. "We just really like each other, because we make sense to each other in a way that pretty much no one else does. So when it came to pick people to live with, no idea sounded better than living with these other game devs who just get it."

For seemingly all of Indie House’s residents, that same feeling of having finally found their people was present. It allowed them to be constantly inspired and enabled by each other rather than having to navigate the challenges of their particular set of priorities alone.

Noel Berry, one of the founding residents of Indie House, describes it as "still just living with your friends, but your friends are all also people who don’t have a normal nine to five and who want to try making art as a full time job. This is what we do — and what we want to try really hard to be able to keep doing — so it makes sense to surround ourselves with people who are also trying really hard to make that their life."

It’s hard to deny that most of the house’s former residents are on a path that’s entirely separate from most people’s — Lobanov and Berry both confess that they’ve never had "real" jobs and have been working as freelance creatives since they were teenagers. Matt Thorson, the creator of Towerfall and another of the house’s founding members, almost sheepishly admits that he worked a couple of normal jobs before taking up game development full time.

How it helped

The nature of Indie House had a large impact on the lives of the people who lived there over the years, as well as on the games they made.

Describing this phenomenon, Lobanov says, "All of our games benefit. Being in proximity to all these other creative people, everyone is a huge resource to everyone else here for advice and feedback and stuff. And for me, it was really inspiring being around people who were super talented while trying to understand the way different people think about games. A lot of that high-level structural stuff, and then low-level advice stuff, like, ‘Here’s this scene I’m working on — what do you think about it?’ all helped shape Wandersong into a game that I think is way better for it."

Thorson feels even more strongly about the impact the house had on Towerfall. "All of our games are influenced by Indie House, but Towerfall was about Indie House," he says.

"A lot of the game was based on the feeling of having a community and the feeling of having fun with your friends and partying and being sort of extroverted and wanting to connect with the people around you. A communal living situation was perfect for that and also for the practical stuff, like testing, getting lots of feedback and just being able to see how it works in that situation."

As much as Indie House shaped Towerfall, so too did Towerfall shape Indie House. The now-legendary parties the house hosted over the years were started, in addition to being a great way to get a bunch of friends together and have fun, as a way for Thorson to get more people to playtest Towerfall in its natural environment. Now that Thorson and the other developers in the house have moved into working on more single-player oriented games, the frequency and intensity of Indie House’s social gatherings have been dialed back a little bit.


How it ended

As of October 2016, the level of social activity at the house has taken another, far more terminal blow. After four years of successful operation, Indie House Vancouver is coming to an end. The current crew of developers who inhabit the house are moving out into separate places, and their landlord plans to tear the house down once they’re gone.

A lot of the impetus behind the closure comes down to how the lifestyles of its inhabitants have changed. Particularly with Towerfall being a huge success, and their upcoming projects like Celeste, Wandersong, Skytorn and Ikenfell all ramping up for their launches next year, the Indie House developers are at a different stage of their lives now than they were four years ago.

"The house has been around for four years, people's lives are changing, and personally, I just want to be closer to downtown, be near other people again," says Lobanov. "As we shifted away from being a community hub, I could definitely feel the lack of people around here. Once the novelty of the place wore off and people stopped coming by as often, we started to feel more and more isolated, I think."

"And in general, I’m ready to live with less people," Thorson adds. "I’ve been here for four years, and this is my first time living in a communal living thing. And I’m glad I did it, but I’m totally ready to go back to a different kind of living situation."

"Having cats will be nice," he adds, laughing.

The thing everyone who lived at Indie House seems to agree on is that it was a successful experiment, and that they’re happy with how it all worked out. Chevy Ray Johnston, one of the developers who helped get Indie House started in the first place, stresses that he’d love to see other developers try it out.

"It is worth it, especially for young people," Ray says. "For us, we’re all pretty established and we’re doing well, which is kind of why we’re separating — because everyone’s doing okay in their own right. But for people who are, like, just about there, it’s perfect, because helping alleviate that stress [of not having much money] can really help them get to the next spot."

Several of the housemates are moving into the same neighbourhood, closer to the center of the city, and plan to continue making games together in the future. Despite living and working together, for four years in some cases, the Indie House members say they aren’t sick of each other just yet.


The sendoff party

A couple of weeks before the end of October, when the last of the house’s denizens would be moving out, Indie House threw one last big party. In many ways, it looked just like the parties that had come before it — people drank, talked, played video games in the basement and danced in the living room. Thumper was on the big screen, and about two dozen people were gathered around it, yelling and cheering on whoever had the controller in their hands at the time.

Underneath this scene, which was familiar to anyone who had spent time at the house in the past, was an undercurrent of something new. In the back of everyone’s minds, there was the knowledge that this party was the last of its kind; even if no one was outwardly too bummed out about it, everyone was keen on reminiscing about their time at Indie House and waxed nostalgic about what it meant to them.

"To me it feels like Cheers. It’s like you can always come in and everyone knows your name," says Shane Neville, a local indie developer. "For me, some of my best memories aren’t the parties, it’s coming with my laptop and my game and just sitting down and propping it up on the kitchen table, and somebody wakes up at two in the afternoon and sits down and plays your game and gives you a bunch of good feedback. It’s the development side of it; the parties are always great, and I have lots of memories of those, but the memory that always sits with me is us gathering around the kitchen table with our laptops open, making games."

The idea of Indie House being an always open, always welcoming space comes up a lot when talking to people who spent time there. Kramer Solinsky, a developer at the Vancouver-based studio, East Side Games, says, "In all the time I’ve been here, the biggest thing is just that it’s so inclusive. It’s really nice to be in a group of these people, and they’re really open with the stuff they work on, and you just get to come and hang out and check it out."

"I will always remember that morning when I woke up and walked into the kitchen at like 4 a.m., and Noel was just making eggs."

Nick Yonge, another local developer, expressed a similar sentiment: "It’s a really friendly place where you tend to know lots of people, and if you don’t, it’s a comfortable environment where you can be introduced and meet new people. More than anything, it’s just been a safe space for independent game developers in Vancouver, and it’s fostered a nice sense of friendliness — I want to say a sense of community, because that’s here too — but more than that, it’s just a bunch of friends coming together and talking about making cool stuff."

One story that was shared that night encapsulated the atmosphere of the house perfectly. A developer named Grayson Evans recalled how, when he moved to Vancouver, before he really knew anyone in the city, he was invited over to Indie House on a day when everyone was playing one of Thorson’s famous Super Mario ROM hacks.

Thorson had cooked up a particularly difficult level, and Evans recalls, "It took a group of 16 people a total of an hour and a half to figure out that you just had to jump maybe 20 extra pixels to the right at the start of the level. And I’d never met a group of strangers who all collectively got mad together at one person, and then were like ‘Huh, this is nice, this is fun, we’re all friends now.’"

The residents of Indie House had their own memories to share, too, and a list of things they knew they were going to miss about the place.

Describing the feeling of going back to a more conventional living arrangement, Lobanov says, "It really makes you feel that difference in your lifestyle, when you're at home by yourself working when everyone else is off doing something. Just that distinction between what you’re doing and what the rest of the world is doing, it feels kind of lonely, I guess. Even when you’re with people, it feels kind of lonely because it’s so different. Indie House was a respite from that — I didn’t have to think of that — but now I will probably a little bit more."

Thorson laments, "I feel like I’m never gonna live in a place where everyone's so obsessed with games, and there’s so many of us. Like, I won’t say never, but it’s never gonna be the same." Other developers from out of town would often come stay at the house when they were passing through Vancouver, and Ray mentions that he’ll miss that opportunity to see those people. "There’s something to be said for having a lot of internet friends and having a lot of people you meet at conferences or that you’ve collaborated with online, but being able to spend face-to-face time with them is always really good. I treasure those moments," he says.

Myriame Lachapelle, who looks after PR and social media for Celeste and some of the other games being made in the house, adds, "I will always remember that morning when I woke up and walked into the kitchen at like 4 a.m., and Noel was just making eggs. And I was like, ‘This feels weird — I know after this you’re going to bed and I’m going to work, but we’re having breakfast together.’"

Night in the Woods

Filling the void

With Indie House gone, a void has been left in the social fabric of Vancouver’s indie development scene, and the discussion amongst the house’s residents inevitably turns to what might be able to replace it.

Thorson and Lachapelle want to start a coworking space of some sort where local developers can come together and work the way they did at Indie House without the necessity of also living together. One of the things they feel Indie House didn’t offer was the ability to separate their work lives from their personal lives, and a coworking space would solve that problem.

Berry and Lobanov are also looking into the idea of having a regular meetup for developers and other creative types to get together, get some work done, and bounce ideas off of each other every couple of weeks. One of the crucial functions of Indie House was to allow people who make games to get help and feedback from each other, and they’d like to keep that support structure alive in some form.

Meanwhile, Ray wants to see someone else carry the torch and put the Indie House model back into action. "I hope a lot of people who are here get inspired to do similar things but do even better than we did," he says.

Describing the value of the Indie House format, Ray continues, "We had to come up with a house and a system to do this, and look what came out of it. Night in the Woods, Towerfall, Skytorn, now I’m making Ikenfell, all these amazing things that I’m super excited about and I think are all gonna do well … and a lot of this stuff happened because we set ourselves up and gave ourselves a place where we could do it.

"Hopefully it becomes more understood, because I think great things can be achieved when you don’t have to conform too much. Being creative sometimes happens at one in the morning, and you can’t always abandon it. Being creative has a weird schedule, it changes your sleep schedule, it changes your work schedule, it changes the times and the ways you interact with people, and you have to accept that. But if you do, really fucking cool things can happen, and hopefully people will start to understand that. Hopefully Indie House is an example."

Whatever happens, the Indie House residents are intent on continuing work on the projects that were born there. Thorson and Berry are finishing up Celeste and hope to have it finished by the middle of next year. Berry’s other project, Skytorn, is also on the home stretch. Ray ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for his current project, Ikenfell, and he’s aiming to release it in mid-2018. Alec Holowka, an earlier resident of the house who moved out long before the final shutdown, is finishing up Night in the Woods. Lachapelle has taken a job at Sauropod Studios in her hometown of Montreal but is still helping the Indie House folks with marketing.

Asked what he has planned, Lobanov says, "I’m working on my game Wandersong, probably for another year, and then I’ll finish it, and it’ll bomb and I’ll quit games, or it’ll make just enough money and I’ll make another game."Thorson replies, "I think you’ll be a millionaire."

Lobanov laughs and says, "We’ll see."