The Rise of Indie Games in Austin

Besides being famous for being a “Weird City” and the “Music Capital of the World,” Austin, the capital of Texas, is increasingly being recognized by a growing video game industry that includes studios of all sizes (from big AAA to micro studios) and orientations (mainstream and independent). In a powerful convergence between an official creative city discourse and high technology driven economy, video game developers, publishers, organizations, and fans are making of Austin, one of the important places for designing and playing videogames in the 21st Century. From the hosting of major industry gatherings such as the yearly Austin Game Conference to the development of blockbuster games like “Star Wars: The Old Republic” by Bioware in 2010, to the emergence of the indie game collective Juegos Rancheros, the gaming scene is thriving in the city with a variety of players. Although the history of the video game industry in Austin can be traced decades back to the 1980s with some small local studios and game design pioneers, it was not been until the 2000s that the city became a magnet for national and international creative workers interested in making games. It is precisely in the context of a growing and diversified videogame industry, a booming high tech sector, and the popularization of the creative city discourse, that Juegos Rancheros was born in 2011 as an organization that supports the indie game culture, builds community, opens opportunities, and fosters innovation processes.

In Between Sectors

Dubbed as “Silicon Prarie,” “Silicon Gulch,” and “Silicon Hills,” Austin reputation of a high technology mecca started to be recognized since the 1960s when big companies like IBM, and Texas Instruments moved to the city. Today, however, Austin technology sector does not only focus on chip manufacturing, but has diversified into a variety of services such as computer programming, system design, and software publishing. High tech service companies such as eBay, and Paypal, big software firms like Oracle and BMC, and information giants such as Google and Facebook, have opened offices in the city. According to a recent study on the impact of the technology sector released by the Austin Technology Council last year (2013a), one-third of the city’s jobs are supported by technology, the sector contributes $21 billion to the local economy, and accounts for 21% of the Central Texas’ gross regional product (GRP). The report reveals high technology not only as the main driver of the local economy (one-quarter) with more than 100,000 direct jobs, but also as a mature sector that has grown up and diversified with a range of small and big companies that are in different stages of growth and employment.

The growth of the technology sector in Austin has been supported by the local government and city planners who have created incentives for entrepreneurs and high tech professionals such as lower taxes, a formal innovation ecosystem, and a carefully branded “creative city” urban environment. The latter, in particular, has been designed by city policies and agendas in order to offer high skilled technology workers a “creative class” lifestyle full of outdoor activities, social and recreational amenities, food quality, arts, and live entertainment (especially music). The construction of the image of a creative city, however, has not only helped high tech companies to recruit skilled professionals, but has also opened a space for the convergence of sectors and the thriving of an entrepreneurial culture across industries. The videogame industry, for instance, seems to be one of the most interesting cases of that kind of convergence, and AAA studios such as Activision Blizzard and Multimedia Games, appear in reports of the technology sector such as the Map of the 100 high tech employers of 2011 (Austin Chamber of Commerce 2011). Given the nature of the work in the gaming industry and its reliance in high skilled professionals and computer technology, such kind of convergence happens naturally as both workers and firms diversify their products and services and easily cross boundaries between the high tech and the creative sector.

The videogame industry is also located as a major player in the creative sector and the local arts and culture. Quantitative data on the local industry is available in studies about the impact of a creative sector (film, gaming and digital media, music, visual arts and tourism) in the local economy. A recent report by TXP Inc (2012), for instance, found that during the first decade of the 21st century the gaming industry was the fastest growing segment of the creative sector (grew three times its size) generating in 2010 an estimated of 7,274 jobs, and earning $122.58. The Economic Impact of the Creative Sector in Austin (2012) and the CreateAustin Cultural Master Plan (2009) reflect how city planners and consulting agencies have embraced the creative city narrative in order to re-define the creative sector in a broader way that included making games as one of the important cultural activities. The Cultural Master Plan released by the Cultural Arts Division in 2009 recommended that one of the key strategies for invigorating Austin’s “culture of creativity” to the year 2017 was to extend the brand and opportunities that the city has developed for live music and film to all creative disciplines and endeavors. (2009)

Juegos Rancheros and The Rise of Indies in ATX

Despite the presence of AAA giant game studios in town such as Bioware and Activision Blizzard, and subsidiaries of major industry players such as Nintendo’s Retro Studios, and Microsoft’s Twisted Pixel, an increasing number of small independent studios such as Tiger Style, Finji, and Minicore have been sprouting in Austin during the past decade. Instead of making blockbuster games that require the management of big teams, are expensive, conventional, and take a long time to be made, small indie studios are making games that are experimental, innovative, and cheaper, with teams that can fit in a bedroom or a garage. Several factors have contributed to the growth of independent game development not only locally but also around the world. On the one hand, access to powerful game design tools has been democratized thanks to the availability of sophisticated software that is either free (e.g. Unity, GameSalad, Flixel) or cheap (e.g. Flash, Unreal Engine, GameMaker) and that is relatively easy to use and learn for people with high levels of computer literacy. On the other hand, due to the popularization of mobile devices (e.g. smartphones, tablets) and networked computers, and to the development of web-based distribution platforms (e.g. Steam,, google play, app store), the possibilities for alternative modes of content circulation and consumption have multiplied, lowering the barriers to entry the videogame market.

Further, because the videogame industry relies in labor practices that are cyclical and unstable according to the ad hoc production of new games, studios regularly layoff their staff. As Jason Schreir explained, waves of layoffs are common at both independent and mainstream developers and big and small studios. “Even mega-publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision regularly downsize, shutting down studios and laying off staff on what seems to be a cyclical basis.” (Schreir) Such precarious labor condition have also contributed to the rise of the indie game culture, encouraging many high skilled creative workers to: (1) collaborate in passion projects outside the commercial logic of production; (2) start their own enterprises and micro-studios independently either during their free time while working for the mainstream industry or after they have lost their jobs; (3) start organizing communities for supporting each other. The global indie game culture has become an important force in the transformation of the videogame industry in the last decade, promoting the democratization of distribution practices, aesthetic experimentation, and alternative forms of production. Indie practitioners have felt the necessity to start building communities that support their grow, open opportunities, and help them to do innovation.

It was precisely in the context of an emergent and vibrant worldwide indie game culture that Juegos Rancheros (JR) was founded in 2011 by Brandon Boyer, a game journalist and the chairman of the Independent Game Conference; Adam Saltsman, a developer and CEO of a local indie game studio; and Wiley Wigins, an UX/UI designer, new media artist and film actor. In an effort to formalize different thematic meet-up groups that each of them were having with friends and fellow practitioners, they started JR as a regularly monthly event with the goal of promoting the independent game culture and building community. Inspired by other organizations such as the HandsEye Society in Toronto, Canada, JR had the objective of creating an event where developers, fans, artists, and other creative types could come together as a community, and, by celebrating the indie game culture, be able to network, help, learn, and inform each other. Four years after being founded, JR has become a globally and locally recognized community that besides organizing regular monthly events, also hosts global game jams, builds pop-up indie games arcades and cabinets, puts together a local indie game developer symposium, collaborates with regional film festivals, and participates in international videogame industry conferences.

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