Sharply dressed Chris Charabaruk is standing at the front of the lecture theatre.
"I don't want to be buried in a cubicle farm that's a mile wide. But I want to survive."
"You have to pimp yourself," calls out someone in the audience. Others nod and murmur their agreement.
Someone at the back of the room adds, "If you tell an investor you don't care about the money, they'll run the other way."
Welcome to the Toronto Independent Games Conference, where hobbyists, students and aspiring entrepreneurs have gathered from August 31 to September 2 to share ideas on how to succeed in video gaming on their own terms.
While others are out enjoying the late-summer sun, the gamers have locked themselves inside classrooms at George Brown College's Casa Loma Campus for sessions on everything from the technical aspects of game audio to ways to get government tax breaks for their projects. This session is a round table on the state of independent games, a term that is still open to debate.
"It's a bit of a transitory term," says Julian Spillain, co-chair of the event, "They're games that are developed by people who don't necessarily have big financing behind them, ragtag developers who make something new and unique and come together for business. They're not following the mainstream ideology of cookie-cutter games, like, you know, Madden NFL 2KN. That's what we want to see in games - we want to push innovation any way we can."
The actual conference seems underwhelming - 40 participants is hardly a movement - but it's a start. And among the gamers here you can see the connections happening. They're fierce, yappy, scrappy, ambitious. And they might actually do something amazing.
"When The Sims came out, no one knew there was a market for games that allowed you to manipulate people," says Charabaruk. "Great games create their own categories."
"Independent" movies and music are seen as a source of creative exploration, where raw talent can still shine. This hasn't quite translated yet into the current video game market.
In the early days of gaming, wannabe coders with the help of a few friends could fire up a company right out of their garage. Now, the high-end demands of consoles like the Xbox or PS2 and companies that employ over 100 people on a single title alone make breaking in seems impossible. That is, unless you adjust your expectations.
"We're interested not just in the games, but in the casual games market," says Matt Durgavich. "It's sort of the antithesis of the hardcore gaming market, the games that are traditionally sold for consoles or seen in arcades. Instead, move toward the games people pick up for five, 10, 15 minutes and then put down - things that appeal across a wide age range, both genders, accessible to a wide group of people, less traditional video games and more the interactive media we see today."
Durgavich is part of Gone Gypsy Games, a three-person team who've come from the States for the conference. His partners, Tom and Victoria Long, are so invested in their project that they sold their home to help finance it and started living in an RV. Back at the round table, Long is one of the more enthusiastic contributors.
"You talk about Grand Theft Auto and Rockstar Games - well, the first two sucked!" he says. "We should set that as our model, to put out one or two games that suck!"
It's a tricky point to make, but the crowd gets it, and a grey-haired attendee concurs. "The difference between success and failure is that success got up and tried again."
The only game I see at the conference is a showcase of Hegemon, a real-time strategy game based on the historical conquests of the ancient king Philip of Macedon. A little bit boring for my taste - but that's kind of the point. Indie gamers aren't trying to make games for everybody. Their success will depend on finding niches that aren't being filled by the mass marketers while in the process exploring the possibilities inherent in the form itself.
And if recent movie history has taught us anything, we can expect future industry superstars to rise from the ranks of the independents. You've been warned.