The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: The Path to Indie Game Design

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

It’s no secret that I have one of the best jobs in the world. It’s a job that involves a lot of imagining and speculating on an uncertain future. As a professor in a program dedicated to digital media, I’m in a field that didn’t exist even a few decades back. When I’m not writing about Pokemon and digital culture, I’m working with students who are imagining their own contributions to popular culture. We’re used to seeing amazing trends come out of film schools and MFA programs, and ideas that take off in those venues can shape the next big thing on our radar. Now we’re watching to see if some of the same benefits can come out of indie game experiments in game design schools as technology for development is starting to become more accessible and affordable and digital distribution is allowing even the most niche of games to seek out their particular audience.

The Escapist has a great recent video speculating on some of the things that institutionalized game design education could bring of value to the future of the industry: you can watch it here. One of the points highlighted was the ability of students to pursue projects that are not only unprofitable but aren’t even intended to be such: there’s a creative freedom at the beginning of a career that can be lost as big budgets and investors become part of the picture.

I recently had the fun of judging the first annual (we hope) Indie Game Design Competition run by Digital Entertainment Network, a student organization at the University of Baltimore. A number of teams entered with a range of fascinating projects, including the judge’s choice MAwCims Arena, which is already playable on Kongregate.

This is just one contest at one university, of course, and this is the season for such contests, as the academic school year draws to an end. Top student games show up at venues like the Student Showcase at IGF and there are of course legends of student games that have been bought up by major companies and gone on to glory. But there’s more to learn from student indie gaming than just the commercial side of things, and many of these student projects form the backbone of quirky and free interactive content that makes its way around the ‘net.

I asked one of the students involved, Alex Morrow, to offer his thoughts on the process of student indie game design in light of this larger conversation. A screenshot from his game’s demo appears above.

Alex Morrow on Indie Game Design and “Dream State

Innovative, original game design has certainly become increasingly more of a challenge as the gaming industry ages. Many present day triple-A titles are amalgamations of previously used and successful game designs. For example, popular genres like First Person Shooters and Role-Playing Games all have a very core set of elements, mechanics and controls. New games strive to implement successful aspects of preceding titles to experience the same success. With that being said, there are also very unique, original game ideas that can and have been equally as successful; games such as “Angry Birds” or “Little Big Planet”.

As University of Baltimore students, a partner and myself have entered the University’s Indie Game contest. As part of the rules for the contest, the games we submit must follow 3 themes: dreams, time and moral ambiguity. We are free to choose whatever software, programming language, and game genre we please.  So our challenge is to make a unique, compelling game while seamlessly integrating successful elements of design – and to win the contest, of course!

We began with the idea of combining elements of popular genres to come up with something that seemed new and interesting. The game that we have come up with is called “Dream State”. You’re dreams are running rampant and need to be stopped before they begin to distort reality. The player takes control of an empty entity called a “form”. With this form, the player can enter a variety of dungeons to combat the creatures that inhabit their dreams. Upon defeating these creatures, the player can control them using their empty “form”. Different creatures have different strengths, weaknesses and abilities to help players traverse the depths of the dream worlds. As the player defeats and collects more creatures, they can shift between them – keeping 4 active “forms” at all times.

Dream State will implement a turn-based combat system when battling creatures encountered in a dungeon. The player will have to use strategy to defeat their foes, as each creature has its own particular strengths and weaknesses. Battles will take place on a grid from which, each turn, the player can choose to move or attack. Various skills and abilities have different range levels, and some grids may have obstacles or multiple enemies to worry about to increase difficulty.

While the player is in a dungeon, they will come across items called “Time Dust”. Essentially “Time Dust” is what will help quell the encroaching dream world from spilling into reality.  As the player collects Time Dust they can use it for a variety of other things such as granting more time within the particular dungeon. Dungeons have time limits and the player will be removed from the dungeon when time is up. They can earn more time within a dungeon by collected more Time Dust to add to the clock. Players can also use Time Dust to purchase new skills for their collected creatures.

We used our skill-tree to integrate the “moral ambiguity” theme into our game design. Essentially, creatures fall within 3 categories of “type”: “Dream” creatures, “Lucid” creatures and “Nightmare” creatures. Dream creatures are the quintessential good guys while Nightmare creatures are the darker, more evil entities. Lucid creatures fall in between and are more melee and physical-attack oriented. We have set up our skill tree so that players have access to all types of skills (Dream, Nightmare, Lucid skills), however to learn a skill that’s not within a creature’s native skill-set, the player must use extra time dust. We think the flexibility of this skill system will allow for greater customization of characters while preserving balance.

We were also hoping to add a multiplayer aspect to Dream State. We wanted players to be able to enter battles with each other. Player vs. player battles would follow the same format as dungeon battles – turn-based. However, these battles would yield extra reward. Upon entering battles against other players you can bet your stores of Time Dust as winnings for the battle. This way, players can opt on their preference for gameplay as both routes allow for character progression.

The project blog is at:, and the demo will be available there. An earlier playable game by our team is at: