Curling up in front of a screen on a cold, snowy day is one of winter's underrated pleasures, and it's one that wasn't lost on the crowd at the Denver Indie Games Expo at Clutch Gaming Arena in Arvada on Saturday. Players and creators who had braved the slippery roads milled about, schmoozing and trying their hands at local games on the computers arranged around the room.
In one corner, Brad Schumacher fiddled with the knobs on a cluster of homemade synthesizers, one of them constructed out of a jewelry box. Schumacher, who performs under the name Night Grinder, makes noisy, atmospheric music using everything from stringed instruments to recordings of light bulbs and concrete being crushed in a vise. (Westword's sister paper Riverfront Times named Schumacher, a recent transplant from St. Louis, the city's best noise musician in 2013). He said he came to the Indie Games Expo hoping to find local developers in need of someone to soundtrack their games.
"Composing music for video games is just a dream of mine," he said. "I like making music that sounds psychedelic. I think I'm attracted to that because of virtual reality and how big a part of my life it was growing up."
Organized by the Colorado chapter of the International Game Developers Association, the Denver Indie Games Expo was a chance for programmers, artists, musicians and publishers to network and show off upcoming projects to like minds from across the state. Five local developers presented finished or in-progress games, alongside demos of virtual reality systems like the Oculus Rift and smartphone-powered Durovis Dive. Many more, like Schumacher, showed up hoping to meet new collaborators.
"It's great to work together, said Jet Ternlund, the expo's organizer and the president of Limn Interactive, which held a mini-tournament for its upcoming multiplayer battle game Zen Pathz at the event. "If we work together and we cross-promote each other, it makes it that much easier to compete with the companies with deep pockets."
One of the biggest guests was Boulder's Serenity Forge Games, who were exhibiting an early version of their bullet hell shooter Pixel Galaxy. In the game, players have to shoot a swarm of incoming enemies while dodging their attacks; The twist is that they can't pull the trigger themselves, but instead must absorb smaller attackers and use their weapons against the game's bosses. It's a mesmerizing little game, flashy but complex enough to demand players' full attention.
"A lot of math goes into it," said Serenity Forge's publishing director, Hadi Gooyabadi. According to Gooyabadi, the game began as a project between a high school intern and the company's CEO, Zenghua Yang. The company handled it in-house from nose to tail, programming the game, creating the art and composing the music themselves. The majority of the games on display came from far smaller efforts. Programmer Wes Selker brought Time Swap, a puzzle platformer that give players the ability to control a father and son exploring the same locations in two different eras. Next to Serenity Forge, visitors played Data Helix, a 3D puzzle game created by three graduates and students from Denver University's game design program.
The game, which puts players in the role of an artificial intelligence going through testing, was born as a senior capstone project. After being selected as a finalist in a college games competition, the developers, Thomas Divelbiss, Daniel Hanna and Andrew Bustrack, had the opportunity to exhibit their work at E3.
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The recent and soon-to-be grads all said that they were looking outside of Colorado to find full-time work in the games industry. Sony Online Entertainment, one of the only AAA presences in the area, closed its Denver studio in mid-2011; Louisville's Play Well Studios, a subsidiary of LEGO, shuttered later that year, putting 115 employees out of work. Aside from a handful of studios like Boulder's Leviathan and Backflip, which focus on free-to-play games for Facebook and smartphones, most developers in Colorado either work day jobs or make ends meet with contract work for other companies.
But even if it's hard to make a living creating games in Colorado, Divelbiss said that the scene's creative output is far from lacking.
"A lot of people here, me included, don't want to become just another cog in the machine," he said.
Follow Adam Roy on Twitter at @adnroy