Slamdance’s 800 Pound Gorilla

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The world of video games has, since its inception, been undergoing almost constant metamorphosis. As the production costs of mainstream games have increased so has the demand for simpler games that dare to step where their mega-sized kin won't. The backlash against the "mega games" of today includes a nostalgic attraction to old school and classic video games as well as a need for video games that can offer something new to even the most experienced gamers. As Sam Roberts, games competition director for the Gorilla GameMaker Competition explained, "It is in independent video games that we see almost every genre you can imagine." Within this fiery nebulous of ideas the games that will change gaming's future are forged.

"The industry began in a very independent fashion," Roberts said. Before the hardware was in place to make video games a profitable industry, most games were written by gamers for gamers. Then in the 1980's things began to change. About the same time that the Apple II was introducing the world to the power of the personal computer, Nintendo was shaking off the video game console crash of '83 and taking the home video game console to a new level with the NES. While game manufacturers focused much of their efforts on the more secure and more profitable console games, PC gamers were left to their own ends. And as the console market grew into the giant it is today, a void began to grow in the PC video game landscape and the independent video game was born.

For the last three years Slamdance Film Festival has included the Gorilla GameMaker Competition, a chance for independent video game developers to put their hard work up against others in the industry, not just for glory but also for a chance to have their games seen and played by other developers and distributors. Although the main competition will be moved to L.A. this year instead of (overcrowded) Park City, during the film festival there will be a 'Gorilla's Greatest' lobby for people to play four favorite titles (Cloud, Facade, Rumble Box and Steam Brigade) from previous competitions. If you've got a PC and an Internet connection you can download these games for (gasp) free, giving you a very good idea of where independent gaming is coming from and heading towards.

In an ironic twist of events, the latest generations of video game consoles (Wii, Xbox360, PS3), instead of remaining the "anti-independent" game icons they have been in the past, have (or soon will) began to embrace independent video games. With the Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network, gamers anywhere can now purchase and download a huge variety of games to play on their home consoles. It's a win-win situation because these smaller titles cost a fraction of the big games and the developers are exposing their work to an entirely new legion of gamers. Although getting independent games onto these networks in no small task, competitions like the Gorilla GameMaker Competition are in place to help the little guys take their shot at the top.

Although there were no official winners from last year's competition, (one of the finalists was forced to be dropped for legal reasons) this year there will again be achievements recognized in several categories, including: The Jury Award, Audience Award and Accomplishments in Physics and Philosophy. Most independent game developers are either giving their games away for free in hopes of selling some ad space on their web page or simply charging a very modest download fee to help compensate for the cost of developing their games. By placing in competitions like the Gorilla Gamers Awards, developers increase their exposure and therefore increase demand for their products. You never know when the next "Tetris" (written by Russian computer scientists and never patented!) will be born.

Because of the enormous costs associated with producing today's top games, (it's estimated that Halo 3 cost Microsoft about $30 million, without advertising) there are tons of restrictions put on the developers of these games. In order for developers to explore their more abstract video game ideas they must go back to the independent platform and detach from all of the corporate money that wants a more secure return on their investment dollars. However with the incredible leaps in game development software, the difference between how some independent games and their more expensive rivals look and play has lessened. "One of the things that allowed independent filmmaking to become so big is the growth in low-cost tools," Roberts explained. Similarly better tools provided to game developers are making independent video games much more appealing to the ever increasing video game audience.

As for what the future holds for Slamdance's Gorilla GameMaker Competition, Sam adds, "We're looking forward to the new summer competition in L.A. and hoping that this new venue will benefit the game developers." The future of independent video games is wide open, but if you want a glimpse of what it may have in store there is no better chance to get a glimpse than at this competition.