Screenshot: Indie games growing in Iowa

Sunset Overdrive
Sure shot: Game designer Lisa Brown, formerly of Insomniac Games — known for Sunset Overdrive (pictured above) — spoke at this year’s EPXCON on April 25.

For the past several years, gamers have been in the midst of what will surely be looked back on as the heyday of independent gaming. The number of available indie games continues to increase, in large part thanks to online distribution and crowd-funding sources like Kickstarter. But if you find yourself, a couple years from now, wondering where all these indie games are actually coming from, the answer might be closer to home than you expect.

Indeed, if the student-run animation and gaming studio EPX’s annual conference EPXCON (pronounced “ep-ex-con”) is any indication, Iowa City’s importance as a cultural hub may soon extend to the world of indie games. This year, its fourth, the conference drew speakers from a variety of high-profile gaming and animation studios, and exhibited the work of local artists and game developers. Eager attendees were treated to presentations by animators from Pixar (Chris Burrows) and LAIKA (Ty Johnson, who worked on 2012’s Paranorman and 2014’s The Boxtrolls), as well as game designers from a number of independent video games.

EPXCON co-director Megan Mathews says one of the goals of the event is to “engage and enhance our animation and game development community at Iowa.” To this end, EPXCON emphasizes the more social aspects of professional conferences: Attendees are encouraged to find guest speakers and ask them questions after the presentations; the pizza in the Play Lounge never seems to run out; the Play Lounge itself is an open space that facilitates not just communal gameplay, but conversation. Saturday’s session even ended with a party at Forbidden Planet, our local bar and arcade, to which all were invited.

Skull Shot
Iowa City’s Virtually Competent demoed several games at EPXCON, including the remarkably original Skull Shot.

On display in the Lounge were games by independent or local developers like Iowa City-based Virtually Competent, whose games, like their logo, have a decidedly retro feel—the 8-bit aesthetic common in the indie game world. A couple, notably DikDik and Lonk’s Awakening, are playful remakes of other portable games (a minigame in WarioWare, Inc. for Game Boy Advance, and Flappy Bird, respectively), but their best game, Skull Shot, is remarkably original: It’s a challenging multiplayer game involving rapidly descending platforms and skeletons who hurl their own skulls at flying creatures. Virtually Competent offers their games for free play on their website,

Also on display in the lounge were digital shorts by animators at the University of Iowa. Assistant Professor of Animation Peter Chanthanakone, who is the faculty advisor for EPX, taught the Intro to Animation course from which many of the shorts came, in fact. He also directed and produced one of the animated shorts, DancePro, which featured several animated characters breakdance such recognizably Iowan places as the steps of the Old Capitol Building.

Chanthanakone will be presenting his animation at the Society of Animation Studies in London in July.

What is particularly remarkable about this animation is how it was created. Peder Goodman, one of the students who worked under Chanthanakone’s guidance, says DancePro made use of a 3D scanning program to capture the environments, and used appropriated Xbox Kinect devices to perform motion capture on real dancers without the need for “markers.” (Markers are the little balls you see plastered to Andy Serkis’s face on Lord of the Rings behind-the-scenes specials.) Although motion capture using markers tends to be more precise, Goodman says markerless motion capture has the benefit of being cheap and fast.

“The most expensive part is the program,” Goodman said. “Other than that, it’s just one or two Kinect controllers.”

I was particularly struck by the fact that Xbox’s body-sensing Kinect controllers were used to create the animation. These controllers were originally designed purely for consumption, as a new way to interface with products already packaged and sold. DancePro, on the other hand, strikes me as an inspiring example of how such devices can be put to creative ends.

Independent game designers who gave presentations at EPXCON, meanwhile, came from a number of different backgrounds and fields. Lisa Brown, formerly of Insomniac Games (known for Sunset Overdrive [2014]), and Hanger 13’s Harrison Pink, formerly of Telltale Games (The Walking Dead games [2012]) both discussed their unique experiences working within the industry. Speaker Greg Wohlwend has designed over 20 games, largely for mobile formats—most notably Threes! (2014). The presentations focused on advice for a variety of areas, both theoretical and practical—story and character design, business practice, sources of inspiration, resilience in the face of the eternally difficult task of making a game.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch
In Octodad, players attempt to complete every day tasks while keeping friends and family from discovering your shocking secret: You are an invertebrate.

Also in attendance was Devon Scott Tunkin, the co-founder of Young Horses, a Chicago-based independent game studio whose game Octodad: Dadliest Catch (2014) was picked up for distribution by Sony as it launched the Playstation 4 last fall. Octodad is a game that succeeds in large part thanks to its execution of a simple, yet golden, premise: The player’s character is an octopus masquerading as a human who must, at all costs, keep his family and others from discovering the truth. The game compels the user to perform seemingly simple tasks, but with purposely awkward controls that reflect the difficulty of living in a human world as…well, an octopus.

Tunkin earned his bachelor’s degree in art and art History from the University of Iowa. After graduating from Iowa, Tunkin was part of a group of DePaul University graduate students that designed the first version of the Octodad game in 2011. In both versions (Octodad and Dadliest Catch), the design of the main character’s impossible body was Tunkin’s primary responsibility for the project. And said body, in all its weirdness, is the game’s focal point, as well as its best—and simultaneously most frustrating—feature.

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“The game gets frustrating really quickly,” Tunkin acknowledged during his presentation. “Some people just power through that, but some people just rage-quit.”

With a variety of speakers and opportunities to engage with people making games right here in Iowa City—not to mention free pizza—EPXCON 2015 showed that video games aren’t as alienating and corporate as they sometimes seem. In fact, they can be downright communal.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 177