Lessons from the New Game Boys

Indie Game’s creators learned about life and fundraising from their subjects, independent video game developers.

16 mins read

There is a shot in Indie Game: The Movie that is repeated several times and it has nothing to do with video games. The scene fades in slowly to a silhouette of a man, right before dawn, on a beach in Santa Cruz, the sky soft sorbet colours of orange and pink, the ocean lapping at the shore. The man is holding a metal detector, his back perfectly arched, as he searches for lost treasure buried in the sand. It is a beautiful shot and could be seen as just that, a pretty filler scene, an intelligent editing decision to separate the string of tense interviews that come before and after it in the film.

But for Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, the Winnipeg-based couple who have become an overnight success since shooting, directing and producing Indie Game, that shot has a significant message. “We liked the idea of this guy searching and searching. Maybe not finding anything, but he keeps on searching because he wants to find something, even though he knows it will take time and effort,” Swirsky says. It’s not unlike one of their subjects in the film, Edmund McMillen, who searched for a decade for a successful concept for an independent video game, dedicating his life to finding it. After getting to know Swirsky and Pajot, I find the story also resembles their own: a hard-working duo from the Prairies who spent the last decade searching for that perfect story—and subjects—to create their first film.

Indie Game, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and won the festival’s World Cinema Documentary film editing award, is proving to be a gem for all types of audiences. The documentary tells a gripping tale of three independent video game artists who sacrifice everything while creating surprisingly personal games. It follows the subjects during their ups and downs and ultimately, the release of their games, for the world to judge and react to their work. Independent games, which are usually defined by their small team of creators and lack of video game publisher’s financial support, have been on the rise recently, thanks to online distribution methods and development tools. Despite the film’s being focused on the creation and development of such games, Pajot, 29, and Swirsky, 34, say they made the movie to appeal to a wide range of people, not just members of the indie gaming community.

“We made this film about people, not games. We aimed for people to relate and invest emotionally in these characters early on, and then have people really feeling for them as they face challenges and experience success,” Pajot said. It appears they succeeded at that. Audiences, even ones that didn’t grow up playing with Nintendos or, in the most archaic cases, Gameboys or Colecos, will find themselves hooked by these creative, hardworking, likeable characters.

Swirsky and Pajot followed 20 games-makers at first before choosing to focus the film on four developers and three games. Probably the most fascinating is Phil Fish, who created the puzzle game ‘Fez’. Fish has been working on his game for four years, experiencing several personal and professional challenges that stood in the way of completing his work. Pajot and Swirsky captured Fish during crunch time, when the pressure was on for his unfinished game to perform well at a prestigious demo. They take the audience on a tense journey through Fish’s troubled relationship with his former business partner, who may stand in the way of his completing ‘Fez‘—a game that cost him his relationship with his girlfriend but helped him through his father’s battle with cancer.

Also intriguing are developers Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, who created the exceptionally successful game ‘Super Meat Boy’ in 2010. The men are captured on camera experiencing their own personal triumphs and tribulations, and expressing them in the making of their game. Interviews with Jonathan Blow, the man who is credited with starting the indie game craze in 2008 with his highly acclaimed game ‘Braid’, round out the film.

Pajot and Swirsky manage to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, wondering if the characters they’ve spent time watching and connecting with will succeed in their quest to create the games they’ve put so much of themselves into making.

“People haven’t talked about what goes into making a video game. It’s strange that hasn’t happened yet because games are absolutely massive. They’re this cultural force, like music or movies, and there’s been tons of stuff about what goes into making those,” Swirsky says. He hopes the way they captured their subjects in the film shatters some stereotypes about the type of people who are game developers.

“People often think it’s these nerdy dudes typing away at a computer because they can’t make friends. But that’s not it. It’s people who have played these things all throughout their lives, and that’s their language. So when they go to create something, they go to the language that they identify with and they value most. It’s a whole new generation of artists,” Swirsky says.The film not only explores foreign territory in terms of capturing the journey of creating video games but it also taps into something universal. Pajot and Swirsky think it’s the reason why people in the audience who don’t have an interest in games connect to and enjoy the film.

“It’s about creators and the process of creating something. We were watching these guys as we filmed and we kept thinking, I know how they feel. It’s about putting something personal into the world and wanting people to like it,” Pajot says. Swirsky and Pajot know a thing or two about putting a project into the world and hoping for the best. Before they took on their creative work as a team a few years ago, Pajot as working as a producer for CBC Manitoba and Swirsky was shooting corporate work fulltime. The pair worked for years doing commercial and freelance documentaries before stumbling across the dramatic and engaging stories of independent game developers at a conference in San Francisco. They were there covering the event for a work-related project; both found themselves floored after hearing the developers telling their personal tales of getting their games created.

It was there that they decided to make a film about indie developers together. They were sure they had interesting subjects and stories but of course, they needed to fund the project. Instead of going the traditional route of applying for funding through Telefilm or the Canada Council, the pair did something as innovative and tech savvy as the content of their film. They looked no further than their subject matter for ideas to get their cash. “We were looking at independent games and how they were successful. And it was our blueprint for success. We treated the film, in a way, as if it was an independent game,” Swirsky said.

Because indie games don’t have a publisher to count on for funding and promotion, they rely heavily on innovative digital marketing and word of mouth in the community. Swirsky and Pajot studied those aspects carefully and applied them when they went to raise funds and promote their film. “It made sense that we were going to take an innovative, tech-savvy approach to the way we did funding and promotion,” says Swirsky.

“[After all] our film is about people who are innovative and tech-savvy. If you’re doing anything creative these days, in starts, in a lot of different fields, with a conversation online.” And so the pair started talking to Kickstarter.com, an online website for financing creative projects. One of a new set of fundraising platforms dubbed “crowd funding,” Kickstarter facilitates gathering monetary resources from the general public, a model which circumvents many traditional avenues of fundraising. People must apply to Kickstarter in order to have a project posted on the site, and Kickstarter provides guidelines on what types of projects will be accepted.

As more people hear about the project, they can donate money to its development; in Indie Game’s case, they bought pre-ordered copies of the film.

“Other platforms were out there that were similar to Kickstarter but we knew right away we wanted to go with them. They have a great reputation, and if you don’t raise your money in the allotted amount of time, all the money goes back to the original [donors]. That trigger is necessary for people to confidently invest in the project,” Swirsky says. Pajot and Swirsky uploaded a few short videos they had cut that would give people a feel for what the film was about—and people started to invest. The duo launched their first Kickstarter campaign in May 2010. They gave themselves 60 days to raise their goal amount, although they were hoping they could get it in 30 days. As it turned out, they raised their goal of C$15,000 in only 48 hours. “Our minds were blown. We knew we were onto something,” Pajot remembers. That amount, in combination with their personal savings, allowed them to shoot their film. Over 300 hours of footage was shot entirely on Canon digital SLR cameras and edited with Final Cut Pro on their laptops in 18 months.

In May 2011, a year after their first successful campaign, the filmmakers reached out to the community again through Kickstarter, with another pre-order campaign to help with finishing costs of the film. This time, they reached their goal of $35,000 in just over 24 hours. They were shocked when that last campaign ultimately raised about $75,000. “We couldn’t believe it. It was almost double what we thought we’d get. It turned out that well because our audience kept growing and growing,” Pajot says. Beyond the money that Kickstarter got them, it created a conversation that lasted throughout their production until they began screening. Pajot says that you can’t put a price tag on that kind of promotion. “Basically, you have a huge number of people who are not only invested financially, but emotionally in what you’ve been doing for the last 18 months,” she points out.

The pair has been very active on Facebook and Twitter, keeping their fans and investors up to date on everything they’ve done as they made the project. Pajot says that made all the difference. “These people have watched us make this film for the last two years. They’ve seen our ups and downs as we’ve gone on this journey and they feel like they’re a part of it.” It’s been all downhill for the couple since Indie Game hit Sundance. While there, the concept of their film was auctioned to HBO to be made into a dramatic fictional TV series, directed by Scott Rudin. The pair will be consulting producers on that project.

Swirsky and Pajot both seem genuinely shocked and pleasantly overwhelmed by their Sundance and HBO success, but they admit that the most incredible moment for them had nothing to do with those two events. “To us, the most amazing moment was when we would see a person tweeting after the film that they were inspired to make something after seeing it. That was the whole reason we made the movie: to inspire people to create,” Swirsky says. Now they are using an online tool to help plan out their tour of screenings. Pajot and Swirsky will also spend time putting together a special edition of their film, featuring more of the 16 developers that weren’t seen in the original film. They plan to stay in Winnipeg and work on their HBO series and maybe take a well-deserved break—because it appears, after years of searching, they have finally found their treasure.

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