The homegrown video games at last Thursday night's local Indie Arcade night at Robinia Courtyard were, in a word, quirky.
A game where wizards try to banish a flirtatious ghost that's infatuated with them. A game where a family fights over food at the dinner table — or in literal terms, hover their hands over a keyboard to try and mash the right keys before other players do. A game that brings to life a sprawling open city, but where all the characters are cats and you fly helicopters instead of driving cars.
"It's like 'Grand Theft Auto,' with a focus on helicopters and non-violent gameplay," explained developer Aaron San Filippo of the game "Cat-copter" (a working title for the unfinished project).
Madison is a fast-growing hub of video game development. The Middleton-based Raven Software has been involved in the production of the juggernaut Call of Duty franchise for the past seven years. The Korean studio behind one of the biggest titles of 2017, "PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds," recently opened its first American office in town.
But the colorful, whimsical and inventive games that dozens of onlookers at Robinia queued up to try out last week came from humbler origins. They were from indie developers, like San Filippo — entrepreneurs who decided to take a gamble on a passion project.
San Filippo previously worked at Raven, but felt like the magic of game development was lost in the “slow, painful process” of working on a giant product like "Call of Duty."
So in 2012 San Filippo launched his studio, Flippfly, with his brother Forest.
“You see a lot of people (in the games industry) who get laid off at one company, then move to California...and then a year later from that, they get laid off again after crunching 60 to 70 hours a week,” said San Filippo. “If I'm going to crunch 60 hours a week, i'm going to do it by myself.”
San Filippo’s team is currently hard at work on Cat-copter. San Flippfly said that they still have lots of work to do on the project, which is only a few months old. One goal is changing the city so that it’s modeled after Madison.
The studio is funding the project with the money they made off of an earlier release, “Race the Sun,” a minimalist game where players zoom across alien landscapes in a spaceship, dodging obstacles and trying to hit speed boosts to keep up with the setting sun. The indie game was a sleeper hit. One visitor to the event, Josh Poulin, said he played it casually before, not realizing that they were a local company.
“Knowing that they came from Madison is really awesome,” he said. “I had no idea.”
Justin Terry is the maker of the of Take-Out Takeout, the family-table food-fighting game. He developed the game specifically for the event with his business partner, James Palermo. The two comprise the local studio, Hot Mess Games — "it accurately describes our development process," Terry explained.
Terry was also the Indie Arcade’s organizer. He said he was inspired to do the event based on the popularity of Bit Bash, an annual Chicago games festival that celebrates alternative gaming. The goal, he said, is to celebrate the creations of local developers, while showing newcomers that the barriers to creating your own games is low.
Terry said Madison is a rich gaming community, and one that’s inclined to be engaged with indie gaming.
"The culture in Madison tends to have a lot of interest in local homegrown things. When you have a quirky event like this, you can expect a certain subset of the Madison culture to be interested,” he said.
Terry added that he hopes to organize more events that fold in not just indie developers, but some of the larger studios as well. He said that connecting small-timers with industry professionals is integral for the gaming community.
“Getting the newbies up to a level where they can contribute is only possible when you have veterans to pass that information down,” he said.