While the annual E3 event is typically known for reveals of the hottest new and upcoming video games and gaming products from the biggest studios, a number of indie games made a splash at the 2014 event, especially at the Sony booth, which showcased a number of independent titles to a large audience.
Among them was the 8-bit inspired Axiom Verge, programmed Tom Happ, who began working on the game several years ago.
"I have an education in computer science and animation, so for my first few jobs I was a programmer or an animator, depending on what was needed at the time. I worked at small, unknown studios until EA bought one of them," Happ recalled. "I was then a character animator then on Arena Football and NFL Street 3, and a technical artist on Tiger Woods 2008 and 2009. I started working on Axiom Verge in early 2010, just as something to do in my spare time. I didn't move to full time until this February, when Sony accepted me into their Pub Fund."
Axiom Verge could be found center stage at the PlayStation 4 booth at E3 2014, where it not only drew a large audience but also recognition from the media in attendance.
"It was amazing and surreal. My suspension of disbelief is being stretched to its limits," Happ said of the reaction. "Generally, people like it. Some people really, really like it. GameSpot awarded it best of E3, and IGN nominated it in two categories, which seems absurd to me, but maybe that's just because I'm trained to think that way. I've had one or two complaints from people who simply don't like the genre. It's most useful when people give me specific criticism, like when a certain part is making them frustrated, or confused, or want to give up - things I can actually go back and fix."
While the game is drawing many comparisons to an all-time Nintendo Entertainment System classic, Happ states that he is quick to somewhat downplay the similarities.
"I think it's more that I want to avoid that dismissive tone of, 'This looks the same as Metroid so I don't like it'", he said. "I think people respond first to the visual style of discrete 16x16 tiles making up the environment, then they see the level structure resembles Super Metroid, and then their knee jerks: it must be the same as Metroid. That's kind of like saying Scream or Cabin the Woods are the same as Halloween or Evil Dead. Not to say that Axiom Verge is a satire, but it's postmodern in the sense that it has greater meaning in the context of previous games. You're playing a game, but you're also glitching the game that you're playing, and, somehow, the glitches are part of that same game. But even that base game is not the same, the weapons are completely different, the abilities are completely different, the story is different, the music is different, etc. It's overall a very complicated thing to explain when people are walking by your display and you only have a few seconds to talk before something shiny distracts them."
While Happ appears to have a hit with Axiom Verge, he states that the future of the growing indie video game market might become more and more challenging for game developers who are still seeking their big break.
"The level of accessibility is only going to increase, so, I'd expect that on the whole, indie games will keep getting better, though this might also mean that the bar gets higher," he said. "It could mean that percentage-wise, it becomes even harder to make an impact on Steam, or to catch the eye of a publisher. So, more and better indie games, but harder to be noticed? Possibly analogous to writing; billions of people can do it, but not everyone can make a living from it. I'm optimistic, though, that somebody will think of a way to equalize this to where a game becomes easier to be discovered by the kinds of people that would play it, rather than just ranked by global popularity in a giant, flat list."
In the meantime, Tom Happ says he enjoys the buzz for his indie creation, but that the buzz for his game leaves him with a brand new question.
"How do I get work done when I'm getting all this attention?" he asked.