Ben Kuchera / Dabe Alan
Antichamber developer Alexander Bruce explains why EVERY opportunity is important to an indie
“I have to finish and release the game. I have no more competitions, I’ve been through every single one, and some twice,” Alexander Bruce, the man behind Antichamber, told the Penny Arcade Report. “I’ve got no more conferences, they’re becoming too much of a time commitment. We’re getting pretty much close to release.” It’s hard to describe Antichamber. The game is played in a first-person view and asks you to solve a number of puzzles that require you to ignore everything you know about how reality and video games work. It’s designed to mess with your preconceptions, and it does so in amazing ways. There is a teaser embedded in this story, and you should watch it to get a sense for the game. It’s not something that would easily survive an elevator pitch.
The game was a finalist for Best Design in the 2011 IndieCade festival, a finalist for the Nuovo Award at the Independent Games Festival, a winner of the Make Something Unreal contest, a finalist in the 2011 Indie Game Challenge Showcase, a winner for technical excellence from IndiePub, and a winner of the 2009 Sense of Wonder Night showcase at the Tokyo Game Show. This isn’t a full list of awards the game has won. The game has enjoyed positive write-ups in damn near every game publication and blog, and Bruce has spoken at any number of industry events detailing his approach to creating Antichamber. This isn’t a sudden success, as he’s been working on the concepts behind the game since 2006, but it makes for an impressive list of accomplishments, even before the game is released.
I made the mistake of calling Alexander Bruce “lucky.” He takes exception to that word.
“One of the things that people need to keep in mind is that I put myself in this position,” he said. “I started the concepts for [Antichamber] back in 2006 and I’ve spent years thinking about them and working on them on the side for no reason.” He went to college and did some work in the industry, but Antichamber was always in the back of his head. “So it just got to the point where in 2009 I was still studying in my degree, and I thought that my core focus in life was to finish my degree. However, that also gives me a whole lot of time to dedicate to something else. So I’m going to take 2009 to dedicate to this and see if this can go somewhere. If it can’t, that’s fine, I’ll put it down and move on, but if it can, then I’ll continue seeing where that can take me.”
Where that took him
It’s important to note that Bruce failed just as many times as he succeeded when chasing his dream of making Antichamber a success. There were discussions that went nowhere and awards he didn’t win. Each misstep just made him more sure to take another swing the following year. Bruce’s story is the story of relentlessness in the face of a very hard business that offers very long odds for anyone hoping to make a dent with their game. The story began when Bruce decided to enter a very early version of Antichamber into the Sense of Wonder Night competition, and was told he had to travel to Japan in September to present his game. At this point he was in college, and was told that the time spent in Japan would only take him away from what was important: His school work. “A statement I will never let them live down,” he said.
He traveled to Japan and was spending some time in a busy mall in Shibuya when he thought he recognized another foreigner in the distance. He debated whether he should chase this person down, and finally decided that if he didn’t, he would always wonder what would have happened. So he introduced himself, and the person ended up being Simon Carless, the gentleman who oversees the Game Developers Conference, the gaming news website Gamasutra, and Game Developers Magazine. They chatted about the Tokyo Game Show and the Sense of Wonder Night competition, and Carless said Bruce should speak with The Behemoth Games and Dylan Cuthbert from Q Games.
This wouldn’t be the last time boldness helped Bruce break through to the people that mattered. Bruce watched a presentation given by Epic Games president Mike Capps, and debated on whether he should go introduce himself. Capps is the president of one of the most influential publishers in the business, and Bruce was someone with a few ideas and a working mod for Unreal Tournament 3. “It got to the end and I said fuck it, I’m going to walk up and give him my business card and find something to say, and if he brushes me off that’s totally fine,” Bruce said.
The developer approached Capps, introduced himself, and said that he was showing off an Unreal Tournament 3 mod and wondered if Epic had anything that could help smaller developers release their own projects. It’s the sort of thing people like Mike Capps hear on a daily basis but, in fact, Epic Games did have a solution: The unannounced Unreal Development Kit. Capps told Bruce about the project that would help smaller developers work with a standalone version of the Unreal Engine, and told him to get in touch with Epic Games CEO Mark Rein to discuss it. Not only would Bruce gain access to the Unreal Development Kit, he would go on to win the Make Something Unreal competition.
He had also spent days trying to track down The Behemoth team and Q Games’ Dylan Cuthbert, and was tempted to stay inside the last day and rest. Once more, he realized that he might never be in Japan again, and went out in search of the developers. He ran into Cuthbert and the two men talked about games, but nothing much came out of the conversation. Bruce did run into Steve Swink, Matthew Wegner and Scott Anderson, other indie developers who tried to talk Bruce into showing his game at the Game Developers Conference as an independent developer. The idea was to take this Unreal mod, “which was worth nothing,” according to Bruce, and turn it into a standalone independent game, “that was worth something.” People in Australia again told him that he was wasting his time, but people who knew about games had encouraged his work. Mike Capps was getting him in touch with Mark Rein. He had seen and spoken to other people who had been successful with their games, and he had faith in his ideas.
Not only did he decide to show his game at GDC, but he was invited to speak. The game caught on, and he has since won a pile of awards and Bruce presented at a large number of industry events. The game is close to completion, and everyone who has played it walks away in awe of the ingenious use of puzzles and counter-intuitive level design. It feels fresh and new, and Bruce is already something of a “name” in the independent community even without the game having been released. He has traveled relentlessly, using each show and event as a way to gain feedback from players, meet with the press, and keep the game fresh in people’s minds. He chased every possible opportunity, remembering the lessons he learned from speaking to people early in his career.
“I’m not doing any of this thinking I can make a quick buck,” he said. “I’m not chasing fame and fortune. I have had a lot of success with this, but I wasn’t making it because I expected it. I wanted to make something really good and do the best I can and continuously put myself out there and meet people and see what I can make happen,” he explained. “If you do that enough, you find yourself in the position you want to be in anyway.” Each step in the process of getting Antichamber noticed may seem like a happy accident, but the truth is that Bruce’s dedication to the game and networking paid off more than it let him down. By taking every shot, he made sure that at least a few of the big ones landed.
It all came down to a few moments: He decided to say hello to a stranger in a Japanese mall, and to introduce himself to an important person giving a speech. Bruce had very little to lose in both situations, except his pride if he was brushed aside. Luck may have at least a little to do with your successes and failures in life, but the other old saying is probably much more apt: Fortune favors the bold.
A quick note: Antichamber will be playable at Booth 770 at PAX East. See you there!