When game developer Zach Aikman graduated from DigiPen Institute of Technology in 2008, the world of indie game development was not yet the vibrant landscape it is today.
While a handful of breakout hits like Braid and World of Goo were beginning to emerge on new digital platforms, the resources available to individual developers were few and far between.
“Back then, we didn’t have [game engine] Unity. Steam was really just a burgeoning marketplace, and there definitely was no Kickstarter,” Zach says. “All these tools that have helped to democratize game development and help independent game developers make their vision — that wasn’t really around.”
Flash forward to the present; the number of people making small and personal game projects — whether for mobile devices, consoles, PC, or new platforms altogether — has increased dramatically.
Having worked in the indie sphere for close to six years and counting, Zach has experienced both the benefits and the struggles that go with the territory.
His first major success came about during his senior year at DigiPen when his class project Synaesthete won the Independent Games Festival award for “Best Student Game.” As part of the competition, Zach and his teammates traveled to San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference and met with other indie creators.
“Just getting to meet the guys behind [indie game] Fez and chat with them and see their game and just be around other people who were making cooler stuff than we were was really inspiring,” Zach says. “That’s just stuck with me.”
The event made such a positive impact, he says, he decided to launch his own game studio shortly after graduation.
He then went on to work at eight different companies — both large and small — over a four-year period (a practice he jokingly refers to as “nomadic game development”). It was an experience, he says, that allowed him to explore many facets of the game industry, including four months spent working at developer Q-Games in Kyoto, Japan.
For the past two years, Zach has worked as the lead engineer at independent game studio 17-Bit, currently based in downtown Seattle. Their newest game, Galak-Z: The Dimensional, is a top-down space shooter with a visual style modeled after popular anime shows from the ’80s and ’90s. The game is set to launch in early 2015 for the PC and PlayStation 4.
“It very much feels like an old-school arcade shooter, with a lot of emphasis on procedural generation,” Zach says. “The dungeons are different every time, different missions to do and things to see.”
Throughout the course of his career, Zach has continued to pursue his own indie game projects. Last year, he was invited to demonstrate his solo game Voronoid at two IndieCade events in California.
“I really like the sense of authenticity that goes into [independent] games, because a lot of the times it’s one or two people doing something that they love,” he says. “I also tend to like the art aesthetic for indie games more. They tend to go in weird places, like Minecraft. I don’t think you could have sold any publisher on that look five years ago when it first came out.”
Despite the many positive steps forward, Zach is quick to point out both the difficulties and the risks involved with independent game development. Without the opportunity to interact with other employees on a daily basis, going indie can be an isolating experience for some. And with more games being made, he says, the challenge of making one’s product stand out becomes a much bigger concern.
While he admits to not having an answer for the latter problem, he’s also a firm believer that there’s strength in unity and that developers are better off when they join together — a value that traces back to his time at DigiPen.
“I think that probably the most valuable part of the DigiPen experience was the networking and meeting people who I still have ties to now,” Zach says. “That’s something that I would never have had if I had tried to teach myself.”
While working at 17-Bit, Zach spends much of his free time actively giving back to the local developer community.
As a volunteer organizer for the Seattle Unity User Group, he helps other game developers discover best practices for working with the Unity game engine. He also — along with his coworkers — helps organize Seattle Indies, a casual meet-up group for local developers that gathers monthly.
“We want to be a community for independent game developers dedicated to helping each other succeed,” Zach says. “Sometimes that is done by networking. Sometimes it’s people teaming up to work on the same projects. Sometimes it’s sharing code or resources.”
In 2015, Zach will begin the next stage of his professional journey when he and his coworkers at 17-Bit migrate with the company overseas (another perk of being a small, indie studio) to Kyoto — a place with which he’s already familiar. While it’s difficult to anticipate what new challenges and opportunities await, he looks forward to the adventure.
“[My time in Kyoto] was only for four months, but it was enough to see just how much of a community-based culture they are,” Zach says. “I fell in love with it when I was over there … and I’m overjoyed to be going back to the same city.”
If you’d like to learn more about indie game development, be sure to check out the new “Indie Game Revolution” exhibit at EMP Museum in Seattle. The exhibit features a rotating lineup of 20 playable games, including a demo version of 17-Bit’s Galak-Z.