When you work in the independent scene, you have to expect the unexpected. As Gwen Frey tells me, the way you go about making your game is never the same one year to the next.
Gwen Frey, 33, got her start in the mainstream scene 13 years ago. If you've played BioShock Infinite, you've seen her work. But despite this, she tells me that nothing can prepare you for the jump to indie.
“The landscape is changing. It’s scary. But the landscape is always changing, and it’s always scary," she shared over Skype, taking a break from developing her latest title. “Think back two, three years ago; Kickstarter was amazing, it was the one way to do it. But after that it was a terrible idea because no press would cover you.”
And of course, we couldn't avoid talking about the biggest change of all: COVID-19.
Over lockdown, Frey has been working on Lab Rat. This satirical puzzle game debuted at Gamescom last month and perfectly illustrates both the opportunities and drawbacks the coronavirus has caused for some in the indie scene. The upcoming title follows players as they complete the tasks, occasionally stopping the action to be interrogated by a metrics-obsessed A.I.
In this vein, Frey doesn’t sound offended by the comparisons to Portal.
“Yes, I’m making a game about an A.I. and… I loved Portal. It was one of my favorite games, so I think that’s probably showing through there," she said.
The responses you give the A.I. help it learn more about humanity—although as Frey tells me, not necessarily accurately. And it is through this unreliable machine-learning algorithm that you interact with players, not directly.
“Because we’re in this lockdown right now, I had this feeling of being trapped. And the only way I communicate with other people is through the internet, which is being filtered,” Frey explained. “I’m communicating with other people through social media and I’m being tracked and monitored. I just wanted to capture what that feels like, but in a way, poke fun at it. Find a way to make it funny, to point out this absurd situation we find ourselves in.”
When I point out that this could put her at the forefront of COVID-esque games, Frey agrees but is quick to mention that this isn’t going to be a dark game, “because there is enough of that right now.”
And indeed there is. As we discuss how the global pandemic influenced the themes of the game, we couldn't avoid a discussion on how this affected the development.
“What I’m doing with Lab Rat is the exact same thing I did with Kine [her previous title], just kind of sadder, because I can’t escape,” she laughed, telling me how she’s been working from home, being the only full-timer on the title, and delegating work to a team virtually. “I wanted my next game to be a bigger title, I wanted to start building a team, maybe get an office. But obviously that’s been put on pause."
It doesn’t end at development. Perhaps the biggest challenge of creating an indie is getting some eyeballs on it. But while Lab Rat was revealed at Gamescom, Frey tells me that this can’t compare to showing off your project in a convention hall.
“What is marketing now? I don’t feel like these events are the draw they used to be. People weren’t following Gamescom to the same degree they were when it was a larger physical event," she said. "It’s just less special when it’s all online, because there are just so many more online shows.
“There’s something so special, motivating, and important about watching people play your game. There’s no better QA than watching a six year old run up and roll his face across the keyboard and just break your game at a convention.”
From AAA To Indie
Frey founded Chump Squad in 2018, releasing puzzle platformer Kine. Before that, she founded her first independent studio seven years ago.
Frey tells me that she loved her time in AAA, especially working on BioShock, as there was a great sense of camaraderie in having everyone work on their own aspect of a game, only to bring it all together and see it form the final product. But in a story that is all too familiar in this industry, the job security didn't last forever.
“I got my start out in California. And there’s a spirit in Silicon Valley about, ‘Oh if I was in charge, it would be like this. Someday I’m going to start a company,’ and when I was out there I just got this… this vibe that someday I’m going to go indie," Frey said.
And that feeling was only exacerbated when in 2014, Irrational Games shut its doors, just a year after BioShock Infinite’s release. Living in Boston at the time, a place without many other studios to work at, Frey told me the decision seemed clear.
“I wanted to go indie. I managed to collect a bunch of other people that did too," she said. "It just seemed like if I don’t do it now, I never will.”
As Frey already shared though, this leap of faith hasn’t come without its own uncertainty. While it doesn’t sound like she regrets the jump to indie, she does admit to missing some of the perks that came with the big team, such as having experts in particular fields, rather than having to be a jack of all trades.
The market is ever changing, and you're always having to keep up, but as a woman in game development, this wouldn't be the first time she had to do something differently.
“Obviously there were very few women in game development. But I was used to that… I wasn’t nervous going in because I didn’t know to be nervous. I just knew I’m going to do this forever, so there’s not really a choice," she said.
“So I guess a bit of ignorance and luck helped a lot there”—Frey started laughing—"This is going to be really boring to write up, ‘Gwen was lucky and ignorant.’”
What Comes Next?
The overall theme of our chat is that you always have to plan two steps ahead, even when you have no idea what the path looks like, or what sort of goal you're meant to be heading towards.
“I have many months left on this game. I can’t see after Lab Rat. I can’t see after the end of this year. There’s so much changing all the time. In the world, in the industry," she said.
Frey does say that she has “too many” ideas of what comes next; she just doesn’t have the luxury of having any idea what that might look like right now. Even though Lab Rat is now open to the world to check out through online testing, it is far from over in her life.
"There’s so many things I’m experimenting with in Lab Rat. I’ve never done voice overs before. I’ve never had to be the one to implement voice overs. I’m going to find that there’s things I did right and did wrong," Frey said.
In fact, the one thing she can guarantee is that there is going to be a giant postmortem when this is all over. Because after all, what will the market be like for indie devs as we enter the next console generation? Or as we end lockdowns, and conventions open up again?
Lab Rat is set to release on Steam early 2021.