By Ryan Smith
For Sun-Times Media
As Phil Tibitoski sat next to a person-size poster of an octopus in a suit and tie, he felt the whole fish-out-of-water thing.
The video game designer was at a Sony PlayStation 4 launch party in New York last fall, alongside the developers of “Madden NFL 25” and “Call of Duty: Ghosts” — games with serious titles and huge budgets.
His indie game, about an octopus who awkwardly tries to fit into society as an ordinary father, was created on a shoestring by a handful of recent DePaul grads. “Octodad: Dadliest Catch” is set to come out on PS4 in March.
“It’s pretty weird,” Tibitoski said, as a documentary film crew followed him around. “It’s only been a couple years since most of us graduated college and this is our first real commercial game. We definitely didn’t expect to be anywhere near here.”
Most popular fare on PCs and consoles still relies on Hollywood production values, but, like Pac-Man on power pellets, DIY-style independent games are suddenly gobbling up a bigger slice of the massive electronic entertainment pie — a trend that bodes well for Chicago’s burgeoning development scene.
Lured by the promise of an underground hit, empowered by free software and emerging from the vestiges of the city’s once-mighty gaming industry, these rogue developers are churning out quirky games by the dozens.
“What has emerged is a community of weird, creative, interesting, risk-taking game-makers,” said David Wolinsky, who taught an indie game business course at DePaul. “It’s allowed people to experiment and find their voices.”
The gaming industry pulled in $14.8 billion in 2012, up 56 percent from five years earlier, according to the NPD Group. The company doesn’t break out data on sales of indie games, but there’s plenty of evidence that business is blowing up too.
“Minecraft,” the brainchild of Swedish programmer Markus Persson, has sold more than 33 million copies despite primitive visuals and gameplay that involves asking players to dig in dirt for raw materials. Persson took home more than $100 million in 2012.
Developer Tim Schafer, something of a cult auteur in the gaming world, raised $3.3 million on crowdfunding website Kickstarter in 2012 for an unnamed point-and-click adventure game now known as “Broken Age.” Meanwhile, attendance for LA game festival IndieCade grew to 6,000 in October, up from an estimated 900 in 2009.
And in the most telling sign, Sony and Microsoft, maker of Xbox made their latest game systems — PS4 and Xbox One — easier for indie game developers, like Tibitoski’s Young Horses studio, to self-publish on.
Right now, there are at least a dozen buzzworthy titles in development by a loose collective of rough-and-ready teams designing in apartments and coffee shops around the city. Among games in the works:
“Kentucky Route Zero”: Art Institute graduates Jake Elliott and Tamas Kemenczy are finishing the third act of their critically acclaimed adventure about a truck driver who stumbles upon a magical highway.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, more than 25 programming whizzes — many of them bearded, bespectacled men in their 20s and 30s — packed into a Ravenswood space called Indie City Co-Op to discuss Unity 3D, a popular game-making tool. Though some of the developers are competitors, they’re busy exchanging tricks to navigate the software between sips of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.
Eight months ago, game designer Ryan Wiemeyer spent $10,000 to rent and furnish the 900-square-foot loft, with little intention to make money off the endeavor. Instead, he hopes to help strengthen community among Chicago game-makers.
An informal organization called Indie City Games has met twice a month since 2010 to let developers play show-and-tell with their projects, but Wiemeyer was still tired of working alone.
“This is way better than sitting in your room by yourself,” he said. “It’s good to see other people’s work and get inspired.”
To pay for it, Wiemeyer reached into his considerable piggy bank for money gained from his pet project, “Organ Trail” — a zombified parody version of the Apple II “edutainment” game “Oregon Trail” ubiquitous in school classrooms in the ’80s. He and former DePaul classmate Michael Block launched a Kickstarter in December 2011 with a goal of $3,000 for a “director’s cut” mobile phone version of their brain-munching game but ended up with more than five times that amount.
Wiemeyer’s since sold about 500,000 copies of “Organ Trail” on PC and mobile phones, bringing in “several hundred thousand dollars,” he said.
But odds are most of these Chicago-made boutique games won’t cash in on the indie-game gold rush.
Only about one-third of gaming campaigns meet their goals on Kickstarter, less than the site’s overall 44 percent success rate. With countless ideas launched every week, developers have to work overtime to get their project noticed.
“[“Organ Trail”] was an outlier. We had a great idea and we got really lucky. You cannot force a good idea and you can’t force luck,” Wiemeyer said. “I tell my friends to do this because I want them to be happy, but for most people, I would tell them not to quit their day job and go indie. There’s usually a lot of struggle to this profession.”
The pair left comfortable jobs at the midsize studio in 2012 — on the same day that Wiemeyer and several others quit to go indie — to risk it as a tiny outfit called Ragtag Studios.
Carter and Cobb have been making games professionally since the mid-’90s, the tail end of Chicago’s run as the world’s capital of arcade game and pinball machine production.
In the ’80s, Williams Electronics (now WMS Gaming; maker of “Defender” and “Addams Family” pinball) and now-defunct Midway Games (“Mortal Kombat,” “Ms. Pac Man”) filled the quarter-eating dens of American youth culture in the days before kids stayed home to play Nintendo.
What developed in Chicago were significant players in the console game business, including “Halo” founder Bungie and a studio owned by publishing giant Electronic Arts. But Bungie fled to the Seattle area after landing a deal with Microsoft, and EA Chicago dissolved in 2007.
Wideload Games was conceived as a smallish indie studio by Bungie founder Alex Seropian, but it was bought by Disney in 2009 and endured a corporate restructuring. It eventually strayed from making inventive games like the 2005 Xbox game “Stubbs the Zombie,” starring a 1950s-era zombie who learns the tragic secret behind his own death, and worked instead on a mobile phone game based on The Avengers.
“It stopped being much fun,” Cobb said. “It’s like, ‘Here are the games you must make, here are the characters you must use.’ And already when you’re on a bigger team, you’re a very small part of the creative process and you don’t really get involved.”
Cobb and Carter — along with friend Shawn Halwes — decided to return to their zombie roots and pour resources into “Ray’s the Dead.”
The title character is a self-aware zombie who finds himself with a light bulb protruding from his head that grants him power over the rest of the walking dead.
It was alluring enough of an idea for Sony, which plans to publish “Ray’s” for PS4 this year. A May Kickstarter campaign to help pay for the PS4 version fell short of its $76,000 goal, but Ragtag plans to give crowdfunding another go soon. Money is tight till then.
“Psychically, it’s been very challenging to not contribute to our households for the last few months,” Cobb said. “Luckily, we have very supportive wives and they’ve been working and paying the bills.”
Even the financial success of “Octodad” isn’t a sure thing. It’s generated media attention and was nominated for a Game Critics Award for best downloadable game at last year’s E3 gaming conference, but Tibitoski isn’t banking on Wiemeyer’s confident claim that the eight-man Young Horses team will soon be millionaires.
“I hope it does well, and signs point to that, but I’m not sure how well,” Tibitoski said. “It could all blow up in our face, who knows.”
For Cobb, getting rich isn’t the point.
“Let’s face it, we don’t wanna buy houses in LA,” he said. “We just want to make enough so that we can keep making our next game.”
ABOVE: “Ray’s the Dead” creators Chris Cobb and Matt Carter work and play at Indie City Co-op in Ravenswood. Photo by Heath Sharp