Saying goodbye has never been one of my strong suits. I just can’t seem to get it right. Other people seem to know all the right moves – crying at a funeral: getting drunk with that friend who’s about to leave the country. Me, on the other hand – I’m the sort of person who hangs around wondering where the nearest exit is.
Nevertheless, I have to try today, because of Indiegraph. Indiegraph – .net, .org – was an indie game review site that I began, way back in 2011 Notice the past tense. I say “was” because it’s dead: it’s been dying for some time; today was the final nail in the coffin. We’ve been hacked. Rather than reviving the site, I’ve decided to put it down for good.
Now you probably haven’t heard of Indiegraph – that’s okay. An indie game review site, by its very definition, is limited – both in terms of scope and audience. We never got the kind of traffic that IGN or MMOhuts would get. We never even made any money – right from the start, it was a free show. It never stopped being a free show. But I’d like to think that we mattered. To those coders, artists and designers who, operating out of their bedrooms in moments snatched between jobs and schoolwork, would set their eyes on the big leagues – those hallowed circles orbited by legends like Peter Molyneux, Will Wright, Ken Levine, Jonathan Blow – and toil feverishly, bringing their imagination to life as video games, sharing them out, hoping that somewhere, someone would stand up and pay attention. For a while, Indiegraph, alongside a handful of others – was that someone.
But even more than that, Indiegraph mattered to me, because that website changed my life forever.
A little bit of backstory
It started in 2011. I was an aspiring software engineer-slash-game-designer (like many things, I hadn’t made up my mind about this). I’d taught myself six programming languages: I knew Chris Crawford’s Art of Computer Game Design almost by heart; I already had two diplomas under my belt. A previous stint in game development – both alone and as part of a startup that I founded – had left me with a burning passion to get into game development. I read Game Developer’s postmortems with almost religious zeal. I wasn’t sure about many things in life, but I was sure about two things. One, that I wanted to write and two, that I would get into game design.
Like many others, I was obsessed with the possibilities of game design (I still am): the power to create your own worlds, your own characters, and bring your wildest imaginings to life. Others my age wanted to be millionaires. Screw money, I though: I wanted to play God.
It was around this time that I started getting sucked into developer communities. Or, to be precise, the YoYoGames forum – a small fringe group that orbited the official Game Maker forums. Game Maker was growing at a staggering pace and developers were churning out some amazing games. Games from 12-year-olds experimenting with custom physics code. Games from 35-year old software devs who blew off steam creating strange sights. Things like Battleships Forever or Iji. Awesome pieces of freeware. Unfortunately, the big game news site didn’t give a rat’s ass about most of these games.
I can’t say I blame them. Most indie games fail. Most are really bad. The first inkling you have of a good game is when it starts to roll in the dough or make waves at conventions. Success is where the money is. Nevertheless, a whole lot of amazing talent goes completely unnoticed. And so, sometime in 2011 (December 12th, to be precise) I started reviewing games.
Those were good times. There was a lot of shit going on in my life: writing became my escape. I’d lock myself down in front of the computer and hammer out an article a day like a robot. Now, not to flatter myself, but I’ve always been a damn good writer, but Indiegraph taught me schedule and consistency. In the midst of all my stuff, including studies, freelance work (mostly bespoke blogging and creative writing) and the ever-persistent game programming project on the side, I would find an hour here and an hour there to keep working. Pretty soon, the blog gained attention. Nathan – who I knew then as Super Guy on the YoYoGames forums – joined in. We migrated to a WordPress site and bought a domain (indiegraph.org). We started growing.
Enter the dragon
Much has been said about the ironies of life, some of it by better writers than me, so I’ll not go into those. But Indiegraph had an effect on my life I’d never have foreseen. Our reviews were gaining traction. Writers came on board: the little blog was starting to grow into a proper, distributed indie game review network. One day, I got a message from Indi Samarajiva (YAMU, anyone?). He’d seen Indiegraph, and I assume he liked the stuff I was doing there. A friend of his wanted to start a local tech magazine: would I be interested in writing? It was real money, not dollars stuck in a PayPal account somewhere. I said yes. Heck, being paid well to write is rare enough in Sri Lanka, where you choices are mostly ad agencies or newspapers. Writing about tech? It was an almost impossible chance.
And that was how I wound up exchanging emails with one Andrew Jebaraj, who showed me the cover page for this new magazine. “README” it said in red and black. Two (+0.5) years later, this is where I’m at, as the editor of the coolest tech site in Sri Lanka. I still want to get into game design, but software engineering? Nah. Not only have I found what I love doing: I’ve also made a career out of it.
Unfortunately, Indiegraph went through some troubled times. I haven’t ever been particularly good at multitasking, but I have (or rather, had) the bad habit of consistently taking on far more than I could handle. Not only was I involved in Interact and half-a-dozen other pursuits: I also had studies, was in a very difficult relationship AND work that was making me actual money, and writing, editing and uploading to WordPress (a strangely time-consuming affair) simply took up far too much of my time.
Indiegraph also had a problem: it was a nonprofit. It never made money, and as a consequence, the people who joined us to write could stay only briefly. Since there was no payment involved, we never had the luxury of demanding content on anything like a workable schedule. Soon – towards the end of 2012 – I burned out. We’d outgrown our teething issues, but it never stopped feeling like an engine misfiring on all cylinders.
In hindsight, had I focused, I could have made Indiegraph better. It had its challenges – one thing being that it was a product catering to a very niche market. By and large, a lot of people love game reviews on major games: a lot of people love making indie games: too few people love reading about indie games. Similar sites regularly went down, resurfaced, died down again. Even Indie Game Magazine, which was (and still is) the biggest indie game review site, has has its fair share of difficulties (see http://www.continue-play.com/news/editors-blog-an-open-letter-to-chris-newton-owner-of-the-indie-game-magazine-3/ and http://indiestatik.com/2013/12/06/im-sorry-rise-fall-indie-game-magazine/ (the last one written by the founder of IGM) . But even more than that, I stopped liking the work. I didn’t want to work in a vacuum. There were all these passionate developers out there, but they were on the other end of an ocean. Back then, it just cost too much – both time and effort – to remedy. I dropped it, handed it over to Nathan and quit.
I’m not entirely sure of what happened in the periods between my occasional “Hey, how are things?” emails and poking around, but I do know that Nathan held on doggedly and tried to restore Indiegraph. Even as Indiegraph grew (in traffic and on Twitter), it was bleeding people. We briefly had Paul Hack (Indiestatik, Gamejolt) come in as Editor and attempt a resurrection (it actually almost worked). I came in twice – once, a disastrous failed rebranding – (I was quite bad at taking input from others). Eventually it ended up in the hands of Jake O’ Neal, aka Frolacosta, who also made a valiant attempt to get it rolling. Didn’t work. It eventually ended up back in my hands – sealed, zipped and paid for. This is where the the buck stops.
I think the biggest thing I learned from Indiegraph was the importance of money. People often say money doesn’t matter. That’s absolute bull. Money is the ultimate enabler. It’s like the air you breathe: you don’t notice it if you have plenty lying around. But the moment that supply dies out, you realize how many of the things you take for granted are made possible because of the green stuff. If you have enough of it, you do get to play God – in real life.
The second thing I learned was how much people matter – and how much it matters that you love what you do. Sure, Indiegraph wasn’t sustainable. But it was a completely not-profit operation – investment was minimal (just the cost of hosting and a domain name), and the very fact that we somehow stumbled along for a few years is a testament to love of the work. We dug out some great games and gave a leg up to some really amazing developers – all the way from 12-year old Nosahasa and Patrick Specek’s Genetic Garden to full-fledged indie MMOs. If I, or Nathan, hadn’t loved Indiegraph enough, it would have fizzled out mere months after starting (so many rival sites did). And at the same time, if we’d loved it more, it could have been bigger. There’s two sides to that particular coin.
Anyway, it’s time for this long rant to end. This chapter of my life is over. It’s time to move on.