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Interview: Dan Silvers and Aerjen Tamminga, co-directors of the BostonFIG 2014

The BostonFIG takes place Saturday, September 13. Doors open at 10 AM.
The BostonFIG takes place Saturday, September 13. Doors open at 10 AM.
photo courtesy of BostonFIG, used with permission

Ever since the arrival of PAX East, going to a game convention in the Boston area has become an extravagant show. Big displays, bright lights, and big names such as Blizzard or Privateer Press. So imagine what it was like for The Boston Festival of Indie Games when they started the years that PAX East was coming our way. Talk about having to live up to big shoes. Now entering it’s third year, the festival has come all into it’s own - being one of the biggest highlights for indie gaming (digital and table top) on the East Coast.

The BostonFIG has come to show you don’t need all of those fancy signs, bright displays, or big time companies to attract a crowd. Although, one thing they are finding that they are in need of is more space. Just three years in and they have expanded each time. The first year, the festival was held within the classrooms of MIT. The second year, they had found their way to the Johnson Athletic Center and part of the Student Center. This year, they’ve opened up the entire Athletic Center for both showcases.

With such a rapidly growing show, it can be hard to grasp the complexity and hard work that goes into producing the show. Boston Games Examiner caught up with Co-directors, Dan Silvers and Aerjen Tamminga. Through an e-mail interview, Silvers and Tamminga talked about what it takes to put on the BostonFIG, their commitment to MIT, and what they hope people walk away with at the end of the show.

Q: Can you tell me your names, and what exactly you do in regards to the BFIG? What do you do outside of the BFIG if different?

Dan Silvers: My name is Dan Silvers, and I am the President of the Boston Festival of Indie Games. My job is to make sure the show happens and keep the team on the same page in order to achieve that goal. Outside of BostonFIG, I also run a small independent game studio called Lantana Games. We are making the American Revolution-based kid's stealth game Children of Liberty, now available on Steam Early Access.

Aerjen Tamminga: My name is Aerjen Tamminga, and just like Dan, I am a Director of the Boston Festival of Indie Games. We support the producers in their efforts to keep the festival moving forward. What's great is that Dan is very immersed in the world of digital games and I'm very familiar with the tabletop scene, so we complement each other very well.

Next to working on BostonFIG I run an organization for game designers called the Game Makers Guild and I have my own game design studio called Aerjen Games. Recently I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for my first game Pleasant Dreams and I'm excited to now be working with Zapdot to create a digital adaptation of the game. Stay tuned for some exciting announcements down the road.

Q: Now that we’ve got the logistics out of the way. Can you tell me the story of how this year's show came together? What made getting this year's show ready any different from the past festivals?

Silvers: Getting this year's show together was a lot different than putting it together in past years. Most of the founding members of the festival left the show, and we established ourselves as a non-profit business. We had to rebuild the team from festival veterans and other incoming, highly qualified members of the community. We all knew what we were in for after last year's show, though, and so were able to plan accordingly, keeping a similar format while making sure we are better prepared for what's in store.

Tamminga: Dan definitely described some of the major differences and challenges for organizing this year's festival. What I'd like to add is that last year we wanted to see how much we could do. Next to the showcase, talks and the Figgy award ceremony, we were showing movies, hosted a concert, ran a game jam and numerous other activities. This year we wanted to bring the focus back on the games. We've got many more games and both the tabletop showcase and digital showcase are now in the same building. We've also increased the number of talks and decided to specifically invite speakers that are able to engage the audience with an interactive element. After all, we're all indies and for me being an indie is a hands on experience that can be shared with everyone.

Q: For those who don’t understand, can you explain why this year tickets cost $10 this year? ($7.50 if you registered as a group).

Silvers: In the past, attendance to the show was free for everyone. However, we were also working under a fiscal receiver. Now we are established as a non-profit business with a focus on improving education in game development (especially for kids). Being a non-profit comes with all other manner of responsibilities, particularly to achieve our charitable goals. We still wanted to make sure the show was affordable, even cheaper if you bring a friend (or eight), and still free for kids.

Tamminga: The ticket fee is something that will help us in pursuing our non-profit goals. As a non-profit organization our goal is to support and foster the Indie community. One important aspect is finding and nurturing the game developers of tomorrow. The festival provides one way of doing that, but we have many other ideas (e.g. providing expertise to game design summer camps) of how to do that.

Q: Each year, the festival has grown larger and larger. I’m sure, at some point, the festival may outgrow the grounds of the MIT campus. What do you have planned if you end up “too big for MIT?”

Silvers: At the moment we have no plans to leave MIT. When you run a show like a gaming festival, there are major concerns for the safety and well-being of not just your attendees but also the space. Being at a school as prestigious as MIT is not only exciting to anyone who exhibits at the show, but also makes everyone just a bit more well-behaved than they would be if it were at a convention center. It's a space you want to respect. Furthermore, we have a very strict anti-harassment policy and have our volunteers and MIT Security on standby. I've always felt like we're in good hands at MIT, and what with us having an educational focus now, it's just a great fit.

Tamminga: MIT has been a great space for us and has allowed us to keep growing over the years. Right now we don't have any intention of leaving MIT, especially now that the new festival space allows for an even larger audience. Last year our goal was to discover what we could do with BostonFIG and this year we're putting even more focus on the games. I feel that the next step is to consolidate our efforts and make sure the festival remains sustainable towards to future before thinking about further growth.

Q: This year, the festival saw more entries than ever before. First of all, what were your initial reactions to so many people/groups wanting to be a part of your show? Second, how did you take on such a heavy load?

Silvers: The interest from the development community to come to BostonFIG gets bigger every year. My initial reaction to studios coming on board is always excitement, followed by minor horror. Luckily we have curation systems that have worked for us in the past, and a great curation team dedicated to testing every single game that comes in. There have been a few unexpected hurdles with curation this year (nothing ever goes as planned), but I am proud of the team for jumping over those hurdles and being dedicated to finishing the job.

Tamminga: A ridiculous amount of excitement that so many designers see our festival as a great place to showcase their games mixed with dread of how to get every single game the careful consideration and feedback it deserves. Like Dan said, we had a couple of unexpected hiccups, but I'm very happy with our curation coordinators Glenn and Brianna and am proud of how they've tackled this massive responsibility.

Q: Obviously, not every entry can make it into the showcase. Without giving any details away, can you give a few examples of how come they did not make it into the show? Were there any submissions you wanted to make the show badly, but there was something that was just keeping it out?

Silvers: We had a handful of submissions this year that were a bit more... out of left field than before. Games at the festival, we feel, show some kind of innovative feature that demonstrates where games could potentially go in the next five to ten years. While this is a show for families, we are also proponents of free speech and are not in the business of censoring. If there is a game at the show that you feel is inappropriate for your kids, we suggest moving onto the next booth. That said, when shock value is used just for the sake of shock value, we don't find that particularly innovative. Having not had much to do with the curation side of things, I'm not really in a good position to say what games I wanted to be in but didn't make it. So far every game that I wanted to see there has gotten in.

Tamminga: Next to a game that works and is playable we're most interested in seeing innovation and variety in the games. This year I've been most involved with the tabletop curation so it's easiest for me to speak to that aspect. In general I've seen virtually every game make it into the festival that I think should make it in. There's only one game that isn't making it in even though I wish it did. But that's because I played a later iteration of the game that was a lot better than the festival entry.

Q: Without giving too much away, can you hint at some of the things people might see this year? Both digital and tabletop?

Silvers: A lot of games, heh. Seriously, though, there is something for everyone, whether you like wizards, zombies, robots, cats, spies, detectives, aliens, monsters, ninjas, or even everyday human beings with everyday problems, there is a game about it and that game is probably going to be at BostonFIG.

Tamminga: Well, next to the plethora of themes that Dan mentioned, you can expect games in virtually any genre, many platforms (including the Oculus Rift) and and for any age. Other than that, let's just say that I'm sad that I won't have time on September 13th to play all the games.

Q: Just a couple more questions. I promise. You were able to score some really big names for your Keynote - Ashly Burch and Sarah Elmaleh. Who’s idea was it to get these two to come speak at this year’s show? Can you tell me the story of how you got these two great ladies to deliver the keynote this year?

Silvers: BostonFIG has a unique track record when it comes to our keynotes and gaming festivals in general. Year one was Leigh Alexander. Year two was Robin Hunicke.

100% of our keynotes have been delivered by smart, talented women and we want to keep that going.

Heck, even give it a bonus. Furthermore, we want our keynotes to come from different sides of the industry, and voice acting in games is starting to be taken a lot more seriously than it has been before. Ash and Sarah bring a young, fresh perspective to that side of game development. I've worked with both in the past, and I pitched submitting a keynote talk to them. When we got the proposal for "An Actor's Truth" there may have been dancing and other silly celebrations.

My hope is that their talk not only inspires more storytelling and risks in storytelling in games, but that this positive message of breaking away from the generic and the expected also carries over to other aspects of the industry. Games are art, and to art is human. When art is forced into a box of strict business models, it's no longer art, and thus loses its humanistic qualities. I could rant about this all day but, long story short, I love Ash and Sarah like sisters. They are two of the smartest and most talented people I have ever worked with and have been honored to call friends. This keynote is going to be something special.

Tamminga: Dan isn't saying it, but he should get all the credit for this one. He's played a large role in attracting Sarah and Ash and I'm just a ridiculously happy bystander.

Q: Please forgive me if I missed this, but the website only lists Ashly and Sarah as the only speakers. Will there be anyone else we can expect to give speeches or host panels this year?

Silvers: This year we did something different for our talks and panels: we opened them up to the community. In order to differentiate ourselves from other festivals/conventions, we also required some kind of interactive element be included with the talks, thus making the talks more like games than just about games. We had around 40 submissions in total, for talks we never would have thought of or been able to put together on our own. The schedule for talks and panels has just been finalized and should be online shortly, if it isn't already by the time this interview goes live. We are also opening up submissions for our one-hour-long Lightning Talks session, a series of 8-10 minute talks also given by the community that are a lot more fun and loose in nature than the others.

Tamminga: I expect that we'll have close to 30 talks and workshops by the time we announce the official schedule, so I'd say that's a definite yes.

Q: Finally, people come to these shows for many reasons. Some come to check out what could be the next indie game they might be downloading via PSN or it could be the next game on Wil Wheaton’s TableTop. I want to know, though, what is the one thing you hope to have people take away from the Boston Festival of Indie Games?

Silvers: My biggest hope every year is that people realize there is more going on in game development than the yearly entries to their favorite first person shooters or sports games. There are real people making really fun games. Most of us aren't trying to bleed our audience's wallets dry, we're just trying to bring some happiness into the world.

Tamminga: My biggest hope is that people get excited by talking to the designers of all these amazing games at the festival. It's a pretty rare opportunity to be able to do so and it would be great if this is an eye opener for people in terms of how wonderful indie games can be... Maybe they even get inspired to become an indie themselves.

The Boston Festival of Indie Games will take place at the Johnson Athletic Center located at MIT on Saturday, September 13. Tickets are still available at $10 for individuals or $7.50 each for groups of two or more. Doors open at 10 AM, and the festival runs until 9 PM. For more information, check out the official site for the BostonFIG.