San Francisco's recent Alternative Press Expo was the last place I expected to turn up videogames, but it took less than a few minutes of circulating amongst the self-published sprawl until I stumbled on my first controller. I suppose it shouldn't have been as much a surprise as it was: the phoenix-like rise and return of indie/self-published and otherwise bedroom-coded gaming has followed near identical trajectories as indie music and publishing, it's just taken a bit longer to get here.
But surprisingly, few indies have fully mastered the art of cross-media, whether by lack of interest, resources or knowledge, even though all of the necessary tools and channels are already directly in their hands.
It was Martin Robaszewski's controller that I stumbled on: a former programmer for Bay Area studio Secret Level (now Sega owned), Robaszewski's indie imprint Bioroid was showing off its debut Xbox Live game Cyborg Mice Arena, recently released on the console's 'Indies' channel.
Befitting of its label and bargain price it's a game that's rough around the edges (and is meant to serve as a proof of concept before refining the engine further), but with a core that's clearly well devised: designed as a simple 1-4 player party game, Arena lets players collect, unlock, and customize weapon and bio-mod enhancements for their individual mice, part of an underlying idea Robaszewski says he's had for years.
But it wasn't the game itself that got me thinking, it was the accompanying spread of merchandise at the Bioroid booth (at top), most notably a tag-along illustrated book/comic that tells the origin story of the Cyborg Mice — something Robaszewski's taken even further cross-platform with a freely downloadable iPhone app that includes the comic and other Cyborg-ephemera.
Arena wasn't the only game at the APE: just a few tables down, Spelunky creator Derek Yu and fellow illustrators Hellen Jo and Calvin Wong were showing off the game they'd created for Giant Robot and Attract Mode's Game Over show (above) — a game they'd spun off into print via a pitch-perfect faux-NES manual.
And across the concourse Brutal Legend creators Double Fine were proving themselves as gaming's most mainstream indie-at-heart with a humble collection of xeroxed comics, buttons, and T-shirts from the studio's staff, sold next to a small pile of the then-just-released game itself.
The concept of indie merchandising is, of course, not a new one: Polytron's opened their Polyshop well in advance of the release of Fez, and even Canabalt recently got its own limited run of work-wear.
It's more that it would seem that not enough have realized how much additional promotional power is in their hands (Team Meat withstanding, who created the cutely nostalgic comic above right as part of a promotional pack for their forthcoming PC/WiiWare game Super Meat Boy), and how much more involved players can be with the characters and tiny worlds we're creating.
We're well past reaching the point where everyone's a publisher, a print-maker and a merch manufacturer (and to the point where every console or PC indie can quite cheaply have its iPhone counterpart), and especially in this time of ubiquitous digital distribution, a little something to hold on to goes a long way.