A line of fans had already begun to form when I walked up to Day of the Devs two hours before it opened this past Saturday. Only the fact that they were predominantly younger and wearing gaming paraphenalia betrayed the fact that they were there to see video games; otherwise, it could have been any one of the many independent showcases that dot San Francisco these days. With rent constantly rising, artists, hackers, and craft brewers have taken to using old industrial spaces to show their wares, and so are game developers.
This particular events showcases indie games in a comfortable, community-friendly space, free from the noise of E3 or PAX. Set in an industrial-looking space not far from Hunter's Point, a former naval shipyard in the southeastern part of San Francisco, it's filled to the brim with kiosks showing everything from Nidhogg 2 to A Mortician's Tale—the latter a stylized isometric game in which you embalm dead bodies.
This year's event was more packed than ever, with some developers traveling thousands of miles to participate. I ran into Q-Games founder Dylan Cuthbert, who was showing the studio's VR game Dead Hungry, and asked him what about the event prompted him to travel all the way from Kyoto to participate.
"It's kind of the American BitSummit, so we thought we'd come and support it," Cuthbert said, referring to the annual Japanese indie event in Kyoto. Behind him, a gamer wearing a VR headset frantically flipped burgers and fed them to hungry zombies.
BitSummit isn't a bad comparison for Day of the Devs. After all, both were started by midsized indie studios with the intention of giving indie developers a spotlight. While Day of the Devs is part of a much bigger and more established ecosystem, the energy is much the same, with artists in colorful outfits standing in for the marketing types that tend to dominate other such events.
And like BitSummit, it's getting bigger. According to several attendees, this year's event was noticeably busier than last year, thanks in part to a strategically timed Humble Bundle release, as well as sponsorships from Sony, Unreal Engine, Devolver Digital, and others.
Once the event was properly opened to the public, large crowds streamed in to see games like Yooka-laylee, the "Rare-vival" 3D platformer that saw lines that were up to two hours long. Bars stocked with alcohol as well as food trucks catered to the attendees, and musical acts began to appear later in the evening.
The games were packed together throughout the venue, without hardly an inch of wasted space. They greeted fans in the hallway as they entered, and were clustered together in mini-islands in the main event space. Two more side rooms held even more games, helping to keep the venue from becoming crowded to the point that it was a fire hazard. Devs greeted fans near their stations, or wandered out to see what else was on the floor.
Felix Kramer, a freelance business manager working on the isometric Zelda-like adventure Secret Legend, told me she preferred the more intimate venue. "I think when PAX was a little smaller and more intimate made more sense [for indies]. Now it has 75,000 people, and it's kind of intimidating."
Greg Rice, who helped to organized the event four years ago in an effort to promise Broken Age, agrees. "We wanted to have a show where it was easy for devs to meet fans."
Events like Days of the Devs have become increasingly common in recent years. Aside from BitSummit, there's Indiecade, which hosts events in Los Angeles and Europe, and the Boston Festival of Indie Games. At large events like PAX and EGX, the Indie Megabooth showcases large numbers of indies for the public.
In that light, Day of the Devs may not seem all that special, but it does serve to highlight the trend toward the democratization of game development. Game development is no longer limited to industry events or expensive studios—developers can now bring their games straight to the public. And if the success of the Day of the Devs is any indication, the public is hungry for more.
My favorite games at Day of the Devs
But what games did I like the most at Day of the Devs? There were quite a few, and I obviously didn't get to play all of them, but there were a few that stood out to me.
- Pyre: The new arena battler by Supergiant Games has their customarily outstanding art direction and sound design. Other than that, though, it's a big of an oddity: a game where a team of three on either side tries to move an energy ball to their opponents portal while trying to avoid getting vaporized by their opponent's auras. It sounds confusing, but it's actually fairly intuitive when you pick it up, and it can become pretty intense as you frantically block your opponent while trying to make an end run around to the goal. Basically, Supergiant Games has created a fantasy sports game. This could be a lot of fun as a competitive couch game.
- Yooka-Laylee: I already mentioned that Yooka-Laylee as one of the most popular games of the show, but it bears mentioning again as a spiritual successor to Rare's platformers. Featuring a whimsical art style reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie and its ilk, Yooka-Laylee stars a bat that rolls around on a chameleon in a 3D world. It would be right at home on the N64, save that it's in HD and looks positively lovely. I'm not a huge fan of Rare's old platformers (sorry), but Yooka-Laylee definitely had my attention.
- Moblets: When I heard "Harvest Moon meets Pokemon," I knew had to check out this quirky little game by Rebecca Cordingley. It's an isometric adventure in which you collect a flock of Moblets, then set them on opposing trainers. As you might expect, the Moblets vary quite a bit, though many of them look like vegetables, and you can earn them by defeating them in battle and offering them friendfruit that you farm up. The premise is cute, and the art is simply fantastic. With Stardew Valley being such a hit, Moblets seems like a no-brainer. Keep it mind.
- Hollow Knight: Okay, as you can probably tell, I'm a sucker for high-quality art and really good platforming. True, Hollow Knight is yet another Metroidvania, but its gorgeous visuals really set it apart. Like the much-hyped Cuphead, Hollow Knight is a throwback to the days of classic animation, its lovely art aided by a massive world to explore. Happily, it plays every bit as well as it looks; and if possible, it's even prettier in person. It should be out on Steam in the next couple months, with a Wii U release to follow.
As I headed out, I couldn't help shaking my head and marveling at how far indies have come in just the four years since Day of the Devs first launched. Indies are more sophisticated than ever, and games like Yooka-Laylee are slaking the thirst for classic experiences and looking great doing it. The flipside is that good games are getting buried in the continued avalanche of new releases, which makes standing out imperative. Own its own, Day of the Devs isn't quite enough to get developers noticed; but it's a fun local event, and a great opportunity for fans to meet the people who make the games they play. I look forward to being back next year.