The Indie Game Craze
Dedicated Independent Developers Delve Into the Arcade World With Renewed Creativity
by Casey Minter
One look at the most successful equipment that was released last year will show you a lot of familiar faces. Pac-Man and Galaga made massive comebacks with upgraded reinterpretations of their classic cabinets. Sonic and Mario sprinted back onto the field in a new Olympic-themed game and a host of other new machines from Sega. Even Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies and other huge franchises that made their names on tiny smart phone screens have expanded into full size arcade games.
Manufacturers have diligently released exciting updates to these familiar franchises and have been reinventing their cabinets, designs and gameplay. However, there seems to be rigidity in the ideas that make it from the drawing board onto the showroom floor, with manufacturers (understandably) focusing on traditional characters and game models that continue to perform well.
This rigidity is thrown out when the fans of arcades themselves – a generation born on weekends spent in dimly lit rooms full of pixelated worlds – take the creation of new arcade games into their own hands. A community of indie software developers, cabinet designers and game makers exists around the country who share a passion for arcades, and hope to entice a forgotten creativity in the games they love.
“I know indie arcade games can add a lot to this industry, and break through the rigidity of what people have come to expect from arcade games today. The idea that arcade games are stuck is absolutely antithetical to my experience growing up,” said Nik Mikros, co-developer of Killer Queen, a 10-player arcade strategy game. “When I was young, I’d go down to the arcade every weekend and see a brand new game. Back then, a brand new game meant a totally new idea, revolutionizing what people knew about playing and winning.”
Mikros believes the market has shifted away from those revolutionary ideas and along with Josh DeBonis he created Killer Queen. The massive game promotes camaraderie and competition between two five-person teams that play against each other on back-to-back monitors.
Mikros and DeBonis initially produced every aspect of the machine on their own, selling over 20 to bar arcades and high-traffic FECs around the country. They’re now working with Raw Thrills to manufacture the machine for a larger market, and addressing a backlog of orders they couldn’t handle while working on their own. Raw Thrills is excited to test the game in sports bars, bowling centers, movie theaters, FECs and the emerging bar arcade sector. Several minor changes have been made to the original cabinet, including a slight adjustment to the monitor size (55” to 46”), adding cup holders and reimagined side art that has a distinct retro vibe.
“The Killer Queen game is a very innovative concept and we’re interested to learn more about how the game performs on location,” said Mark Struhs, Raw Thrills’ Sales Manager. “Based on the test results, we will determine the best strategy moving forward.”
Mikros and DeBonis are excited that a traditional manufacturer like Raw Thrills is willing to embrace their independently created game. They believe multiplayer games are an especially good way to entice new customers because they are harder to recreate in a home or on a smart phone.
“The traditional manufacturers have fine tuned their games to the point they can predict how well the game will do and how much money they will make. But it won’t get past their projected markets because they’re still attracting the same audience. What new ideas and indie designers could do is bring a whole new audience to the arcade, a bigger pie to pull from,” said DeBonis. “Other people have perfected the single player game for smart phones and so many other devices. They don’t need an outside venue for that. But if we can convince those players that social interactions matter more than graphics, we can bring people back into the arcade. That’s what’s so magical about Killer Queen. We’ll see the most fierce battles, 10 people screaming and yelling, and then they’ll shake hands and share a beer.”
DeBonis and Mikros are far from the only developers out there working on custom arcade games. A team that calls themselves Griffin Aerotech has recently developed a side-scrolling shoot ’em up game called Skycurser. This beautifully drawn, brutal game pits the last man on earth against an apocalyptic, space-based plague and is available as a prototype.
Skycurser’s designers initially began working on the software as a potential iPhone (iOS) app, but due to the hand-drawn graphics and nostalgic feel of the game, they decided to build a cabinet for it.
“If we were building a game on iOS, we’d be another drop in an infinite bucket,” said Chris Cruz, the game’s video and audio designer. “But instead we can now contribute to the arcade industry, which is very exciting to us.”
Griffin Aerotech and Cruz – who’s drawn every pixel in every frame of this game – had higher ambitions than simply designing one game, though. They also built a whole new gaming platform, called Airframe, which is specifically designed for arcade cabinets and controls. They hope other indie developers will design games specifically for Airframe, which means that any arcade or FEC owner who purchases Skycurser could also gain access to other games that Chris and his team, and the multitudes of other indie designers, create.
“We want to be able to say when people purchase the Airframe hardware that they’ll get these four or five other games that are incredible, unique and easily swapped out with a USB stick,” said Cruz.
The team hopes to expand both Skycurser and Airframe to a wider audience by the middle of 2016, and is currently working to promote their new hardware to other indie designers in hopes of having several titles to release alongside Skycurser. Their current prototype has undergone extensive testing, with the street operator and FEC owner firmly in mind.
“We’ve seen this hardware handle marathon gaming sessions, and a lot of consideration has gone into the thought of these actually working on the floor, making sure it runs for 12 hours straight with minimal hiccups,” said Phil Golobish, the team’s developer and programmer.
Griffin Aerotech expects to sell a conversion kit that would cost less than $1,000, making it a reasonable way to completely renovate an old cabinet into something new. Killer Queen on the other hand has been sold previously for $12,000, which includes two cabinets and the constant updates and tweaks that team is currently providing. It’s price after collaborating with Raw Thrills has not yet been decided.
A final, albeit less practical, indie game that has developers excited is Vec9. This throwback is built in a utterly unique smorgasbord of a cabinet that throws together an old Asteroids vector monitor, an M1 Abrams tank controller, an air horn and an innovative take on vector graphics. The game is currently on location at the Logan Arcade in Chicago, a venue that also houses Killer Queen and an Airframe-kitted Skycurser game.
For many developers, building games like the ones mentioned here is a labor of love. Money and hours are spent delving into the problems that constantly crop up when attempting to design, develop and build a new game with new software in a new cabinet.
“There was a lot of blown transistors and a lot of smoke and flames,” said Mike Dooley, one of the creators of Vec9. “No one could have paid us what we dumped into this. But seeing the faces of people playing it for the first time, cheering, competing and sweating for the high score was indescribably rewarding.”
The designers are there, the games are coming, now it’s up to arcade owners, FEC operators and the fans out there to contemplate picking one of these machines up. If you’re looking for a way to attract a new crowd, renovate your current arcade or simply enjoy a great new arcade game, seek out these developers and support them. They’re all arcade-lovers and want to help revitalize the industry that revolutionized how we have fun.