The Punk Culver City Video Game Collective Making Games In A Weird Warehouse
The video game market brings in more each year than Hollywood, the music industry, and streaming services. But it's not all blockbusters like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Call of Duty — indie developers are quietly making quirky, DIY games in the shadow of the major studios.
Glitch City is a collective of indie game artists and developers in Culver City.
"No one's making money from this," co-founder Ben Esposito said. "Like, this is just people trying to help other people make interesting art. And so, if you're cool with the DIY, if you're cool with the empty, weird warehouse, then you belong here."
Their small industrial space off Robertson Boulevard feels like a garage-meets-dorm-room — complete with a string of Christmas lights draped overhead. They've described themselves as somewhere between an art collective and a game collective, with a punk aesthetic. Esposito started Glitch City in 2013, along with Ben Vance.
"We're not just trying to clone other games, or make games at any cost. We're all trying to challenge the medium in a different way, or to take a different approach," Vance said.
Another founding member was Eric, who prefers not to give his last name.
"I was just working at coffee shops a lot," Eric said, "and that was my main way of staying sane and keeping on task. But you don't have to work at a coffee shop alone. So it really just took me asking both the Bens, basically: 'Let's just work at a coffee shop.'"
That led to Strawberry Jam, the precursor to Glitch City. Today, Glitch City has a fluid group of about 24 citizens. But it isn't a video game company. Everyone here is making their own games, and many of them — like Rachel Sala — make their living as contract artists for other clients.
"People are like, 'Hey, I need a logo,' or 'I need some animation,' or 'I need someone to skin this mini-game for me,'" Sala said. "That's how I get most of my work."
Brendon Chung used to work for a major game studio. Now he runs his own indie company out of the space.
"Part of the benefit of Glitch City is that, like, doing your own project is very hard," Chung said. "I have holes in my knowledge, and I could look to my right and say, 'Hey, take a look at this. What would you think of this?' Everyone just understands where every project is, and we all can chip in and give feedback on how everyone else is doing. There's something kind of magical there."
People aren't just developing games here. Candy Emberley is a composer. She described her work as she wrote music for a battle, her hands hovering over a small MIDI keyboard.
"We have all these different kinds of monsters, and you can have what's essentially a boss fight with any of them. And the hope is that it will all be recorded live at the end," Emberley said.
That is, if they can get the funding — always a question with indie games.
Rather than corporate meetings, Glitch City does "family dinners."
"It's a meeting, but more informal than a group meeting," Eric explained. "If it was a true meeting, it would just be chaos having 20 people try to do some input towards that."
Eric also often helps make a giant dinner with Sala.
"So there's a bunch of food, and a bunch of sharing of what's going on in the space," Vance said.
The games coming out of Glitch City are as diverse and quirky as its residents. Esposito made a game called Donut County.
"It's a game where you play as a hole in the ground," he said. "You start really small, and you move it under stuff to make it fall in, and every time you eat something it gets a little bit bigger. So it's a game about scale, and destruction, and what happens to a place over time as you start to erase the things from it."
Eric's currently working on a seafaring exploration game called Oft Horizon.
"I've been working on it for many, many years, but not continuously, and not full-time," Eric said. "It's about exploring a world that changes over time."
Last year, Chung released Quadrilateral Cowboy.
"You play as one of three ladies who are starting a start-up company where companies hire you to hack other companies," Chung explained. "So you're like guns-for-hire, basically, but instead of guns you have computers. And it's set in this alternate 1980s universe, and everything's very clunky, everything's very analog."
Vance is in the midst of developing a deep-space exploration virtual reality experience called Irrational Exuberance.
"It's kind of like an experiment in ripping you out of your current reality and just throwing you out into deep space as yourself, and trying to make that sort of tangible," Vance said.
The first game Sala ever shipped was Frog Fractions, a comedy game that "has nothing to do with math," she said. "You won't learn anything if you play it. It's about the joy of discovery and the spirit of exploration. You do literally play as a frog, but you go into space, become president of Bug Mars, and... silly things happen overall."
These are clearly all slightly idiosyncratic labors of love. I asked Sala if it was an exciting time to be an indie game developer — or a scary one.
"It's scary because there's a lot riding on it," she said. "There's always pressure to perform well and do well, and I think a lot of us here at this point are pretty far along in our careers, and we want to keep making successful games. And there's a lot of creativity out there, there's a lot of wild ideas. Almost every day there's some game that comes out, and I'm like, Oh, I wish I thought of that!"
But being a citizen of Glitch City means you don't have to face it all alone.
"It's really hard making creative work," Vance said, "especially in a vacuum when you don't have anything to bounce your ideas off of. Staying motivated is one of the biggest things, and having a space for that, and people to connect with, talk to, and even just commiserate with — you know, 'What problems are you dealing with? Oh yeah... that one.'"