Push Start: How Kansas City creators are making indie games the world won’t fly over

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During Sunday Study Hall events, game makers and players gather to test local creations and give feedback. // Photo by Reb Valentine

To play the games mentioned in this piece and many more, click here.

Charlotte Trible hates the term “flyover,” as in “flyover states.” As in how states like Kansas and Missouri are often described derisively by those who don’t live here.

So it was with great irony that several years ago, Trible and fellow game developer Joe Hanna named their small community of video and tabletop game creators collaborating in Kansas City the “Flyover Indies.”

“In this case, I wanted to embrace it,” she says. “Our group has been kind of under the radar in a lot of ways, so it felt a bit like we’re our own little group of flyover indies. It just seemed to fit, like we were reclaiming that term a little bit. I think it suits us.”

Trible and Hanna founded the group in 2014 as Crossroads Game Lab, after (as Hanna describes it) the two had struggled to make their own video games in the same space together for some time. Without a larger support network, Hanna says, the process was challenging, and the two both wanted help from others, and to provide help to those just getting started.

At first, the group was just a regular Sunday meet-up at Broadway Roasting Company with Trible and Hanna sitting in the same space, working on their own games. But word spread. Eventually, Trible and Hanna had to change the name from Crossroads Game Lab to Flyover Indies. Interested parties kept sending them job applications, thinking they were a game development studio.

Now, in 2020, Flyover Indies hosts two other regular monthly events aside from its weekly “Study Hall” at Broadway Roasting Company, and the group’s Discord [online chat platform] server now has over 100 people. On any given Sunday afternoon, you can find a group of between 10 to 20 artists, heads down over laptops, and assortments of cables in the back of Broadway Roasting Company, rapidly typing lines of code or navigating tiny virtual cars onto ramps or carefully adjusting a stray pixel on a 16-bit battle-knight. In 2018, they hosted an open-to-the-public games showcase where anyone could come and play demos of games made by members of the group. In 2020, they’re doing it again.

“After we did our showcase, one of the things one of the developers said to me was how good it was to see that there were other people close by who were going through the same things they were going through,” Trible says. “Just having that validation that, ‘It’s not just me out here!’ This is kind of a weird hobby to have. Some people play golf, I guess.

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Joe Hanna and Adam Sadiq celebrate after successfully losing a new tabletop game Sadiq is creating—a loss means Sadiq has ideas for how to make it better. // Photo by Reb Valentine

“There are a lot of people who come to us who are very new to at least some aspects of this, whether it’s the first game they’ve ever made, or they’re trying to learn how to program, or how to make a board game. We have people in our group to help answer their questions and teach them and show them, to playtest. It’s hard to get people to test your games!”

For those that may be out of the loop on current gaming trends, or who might not engage with titles more obscure than the latest Call of Duty, it is worth explaining what a renaissance the indie game world is experiencing, and how KC fits into that.

Way back in the advent of games creation, it was fairly common for a single person to program an entire game by themselves. As technology developed, you needed more folks on a team to handle the evolving needs of more complicated art and music and so on. The industry ballooned to the point where most games required between hundreds, if not thousands, of employees and budgets that outspent the largest Hollywood blockbusters. But a fork in the road appeared on the tech side of things. While some people were building these armies of programmers to create photo-realistic worlds, other creators were realizing that they suddenly had the tools to make games that told stories they found interesting. Personal, odd adventures. And that they could do it with only a few people.

The result is that, for the last decade, when you look at lists of the best games of the year, you’ll see bank-breaking productions like the latest Grand Theft Auto side-by-side with a game about farming made by a single person. Sure, there’s a game on that list that easily made a billion dollars, but the players also put it on equal footing to a small British game about being a terrible goose.

It’s akin to what happened in the mid-2000s when home music recording became accessible to everyone. Suddenly, song of the year might be split between an Aerosmith song with a full orchestra and a banger some teenager recorded in his bedroom and put up on MySpace. People adore art that speaks to them, and the production values are no longer the gatekeepers they once were. We’re in the punk rock phase of games.

This revelation has meant that small gaming collectives have been sprouting up around the midwest for years, and young creatives in KC are finding the foothold—not just to life up their own work—but to put us on the map.

Regular attendees of Flyover Indies events say that even though for the most part, everyone is working on their own, individual project, the ability to work in the same space as other people making similar things is an enormous boon. One semi-regular attendee, Ryan Nicoletti, lives and works an hour away in Warrensburg, making it difficult for him to attend all events. But he says that even just having the online group chat available for feedback is extremely helpful.

Flyover Indies is more than video games. Trible and Hanna say they wanted to make sure the group was open to game making of all kinds, and that philosophy stuck. So while the group’s Study Halls at Broadway Roasting Company are mostly marked by a detail of laptops lined up across the coffee shop’s back tables, piles of dice, poster board, and colorful paper squares are occasionally tossed in among the technology. Lately, the pile of pieces has belonged to Adam Sadiq, a creator who has successfully crowdfunded one game (That’s a Wrap!, a game about filmmaking) and is currently working on a follow-up.

For Sadiq, Flyover Indies has been instrumental in helping his games exist in the first place. While video games can be digitally tested by people anywhere, tabletop games require in-person players to work out all the kinks. Sadiq says that in order to be successful, he needed both the local community and digital communities to provide information and valuable feedback on his process and goals.

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A fraction of the games available at Pawn and Pint // Photo by Reb Valentine

He isn’t the only local tabletop game maker who has benefitted from both the ease of Kickstarter and the convenience of local communities. Andrew Tippin is another local creator who has successfully funded his game, Fleets of Fortune. He credits local tabletop communities such as those at board game cafe Pawn and Pint, fellow local game makers, and the ease of crowdfunding.

“Kickstarter with the catalyst,” he says. “Exploding Kittens [another successful Kickstarter tabletop game] came out, my wife and I played it, and I thought, ‘I can do this.’ Of course, I had other prototype games before this, but I played a lot of games [at Pawn and Pint] and got a lot of inspiration on mixing and matching mechanics and putting them together.”

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Game pieces from Fleets of Fortune. // Photo by Reb Valentine

The game makers in Kansas City fall into two categories: those who make games as a hobby alongside a different (though often adjacent) career and those who are part- or full-time creators, but rely on remote freelance and contract work with studios elsewhere. For now, Kansas City is mostly devoid of full-time, working game companies where aspiring developers can build their skills.

But there is one exception: Bad Rhino Games.

Bad Rhino Games was established in 2015 by studio lead Ryan Manning, who had been working in the city doing a mixture of contract work for the military developing training simulations, and as a remote artist for video game studios. After 12 years, he says he hit a plateau and wanted to start his own company. It seemed like a good time for it—Google had recently selected Kansas City as the first city to receive its Fiber internet service, and the metro as a whole was beginning to develop new mechanisms to help out small, tech start-ups.

But since then, Manning says that the movement he expected to happen in tech was never quite realized, at least not in a way that helps the people who are trying to make games.

“We won Google Fiber, [the city] diversified a little bit, then stopped,” he says. “Right now we’re extremely myopic. It’s just, ‘Can you make an app? Can you sell it to Amazon or Alibaba? And can you exit in 12 months?’ That’s great for people who want to do that. It’s lucrative, it’s awesome. But game development doesn’t fit that model.”

According to Manning, Kansas City has had an influx of tech-savvy people show up for tech jobs over the last decade who have nowhere else to go or grow outside of the niches they were hired for. As a result, he says he’s now seeing the beginnings of an exodus to other cities with more diverse tech scenes.

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Game development in progress at a Flyover Indies Study Hall event. // Photo by Reb Valentine.

That’s part of why Bad Rhino Games, which now consists of 17 people, is entirely distributed remotely. Manning acknowledges that Kansas City has plenty of budding and growing independent game talent, but by nature of having only his studio, there’s little in the way of full-time game making experience. That means the pool of mid- and senior-level talent with game development chops is non-existent, and unless either more studios begin to crop up or larger companies begin to invest in initiatives that use game development skills, the situation will remain the way it is.

However, Manning is hopeful. Even over just the last few months, he says he’s begun to see movement, and while there’s no tangible change yet, he says he knows, “without a shadow of a doubt, that game companies can be successful here.”

“I’m seeing some forward progress, even though it’s like looking at a track, realizing you have a mile to go, and you’ve only taken three steps,” he adds, “But those steps are in the right direction. There are a few companies I know of—I can’t say who they are—that are Kansas City-based and building capabilities within their companies to support game development, or using game technology for game development-specific stuff. They’re not just small companies. They’re well-vested here, so I know they’re not going to build a thing and leave. It’s encouraging, but we still have a long way to go.”

“Some of the other indies who are being more vocal here are helping to drive the professional front of that. It’s something to reinforce, especially to businesses … and I think they’re starting to gather that this is something to be taken more seriously.”

At the forefront of that vocal drive is Kansas City’s own chapter of the Independent Game Developers Association, or IGDA, for which Manning is the treasurer. Its chair, Clover Ross, is one of the city’s few full-time developers, though she still has to supplement it with a part-time, non-gaming job. Ross returned to Kansas City after graduating college in 2019, and immediately wanted to get involved in whatever was happening around game development.

Like Manning, Ross found a lot of people who were excited about making games and who were willing to help improve the scene, but few who were able to step up and lead. So she volunteered to be the chair of the city’s (then-new) chapter of the IGDA and lead the charge to putting Kansas City game development on the map. Ross is optimistic, and thinks the key to success lies in the existing local tech scene sitting up and taking notice.

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Ryan Nicoletti, Charlotte Trible, (back) Jake LaCombe, Joe Hanna, and Quinn George (front) try each other’s games and share feedback at a recent Devs & Drinks event at Strange Days Brewing Co. // Photo by Reb Valentine

“An investor might look at this and think, ‘What is the interest? What can I gain from this?’ Well, the medical field is already using Unity [an engine primarily used for developing video games] for medicinal or therapeutic reasons. And when other industries start paying attention to the skills and technologies used in gaming, they can start using them in their industries. That’s one of the ways other businesses can start getting involved.”

The business and tech scene aren’t the only areas harboring optimism for a future professional game development scene in and around Kansas City. About an hour’s drive away, the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg has been training up the next generation of professional game developers through its bachelor’s degree in computer science, which includes a game development option as one of four specialties students can choose from.

Right now, the program has around 40 students, according to assistant professor Dr. Dabin Ding. Aside from its benefits as a way to vary the kinds of programming and software development experience the program’s students can get, Ding thinks the game development option has been a positive for the university, helping it draw new computer science majors.

“It’s a selling point to attract students,” he says. “And even if you’re not in this major, you can take some development classes. I see a lot of students who started designing a game when they were in high school or middle school, so they had created a lot of elements already before they started here. Most students [in the program] are really enthusiastic about learning how to create games. Whenever I teach the class, compared to some of my other [non-game development] classes, I find I don’t need to emphasize attendance or finishing homework as much—they’re all excited to do it and interested in it.”

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Students at University of Central Missouri can earn a bachelor’s degree in computer science, which includes game development as an option. // Photo by Reb Valentine.

Outside of class periods, the program is growing in other ways thanks to student efforts. One student named Calvin Plank, who had been regularly attending the Flyover Indies meet-ups an hour away, decided they wanted the community feeling of those meet-ups a bit closer to class. Earlier this year, they started a Game Design Club at UCM, and after only a few meetings it appears to have the makings of success. Around 50 students are already involved across the club’s two meetings each week, and its members are planning their first game jam (a one-to-two day event where everyone makes a game from start to finish in a limited period of time) in March.

For the students in the program and the members of the club, Plank’s vision of a collaborative community environment for game making is already panning out. Father-son pair Judd and Andrew McNeil, for example, were drawn to UCM’s game making program despite already finishing and currently working on (respectively) degrees elsewhere. Both share a love of games and a desire to make more of the kinds of games they want to see in the world, but prior to the program felt they were working in a bit of a vacuum due to a lack of other developers in the area.

Judd McNeil in particular is unphased by the perceived isolation of game creators in the middle of the US, far from Silicon Valley or game development hubs like San Francisco, though he’s grateful for UCM’s program in helping break up the solitude.

“There’s no geography to creating a game,” he says. “As long as you’ve got access to the internet, you can publish it anywhere. The whole concept of having Silicon Valley or Texas be a center of game development is going to go away, because someone in a hut in the middle of nowhere is going to be able to upload a game. Where you’re located doesn’t matter anymore.”

Of the game developers we spoke to, most shared Judd McNeil’s sentiment of geography being beside the point. A few, however, felt that while they were happy to have gotten their start here, they may eventually need to look elsewhere. One example is Quinn George, who specifically got into games to make more titles that include LGBTQ+ people and themes—such as their current project, a visual novel called Aspen that stars a non-binary protagonist. While George values the Flyover Indies community, they aren’t sure if there’s a future in Kansas City for their work.

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Broadway Roasting Co. hosts Flyover Indies every Sunday from 12-5 p.m. // Photo by Reb Valentine.

“It’s not a matter of feeling that this would be a bad town for game development in the future,” they say. “I’d just like to experience other places that would fit my niche a bit more.”

Most of the members of Flyover Indies and the other Kansas City game making communities are hopeful. One example of that hope is Overhook Games, a local five-person studio making a game called Hills and Hollows that was honored at St. Louis’s PixelPop convention last year as a PixelPop Select. Overhook isn’t a full-time studio just yet, but designer Allison Vansickle is optimistic about its future prospects amid the ongoing growth of Kansas City’s tech scene.

While Vansickle wants to eventually see initiatives like tax breaks for new game studios and better game creation spaces for groups like Flyover Indies, she thinks the culture and smaller size (relative to west coast tech hubs) of Kansas City is perfect for what she and Overhook want to do.

“I get really bad burnout when I go to events in other cities, because you get there and there’s just this big, supportive community,” she says. “Even going to St. Louis or the Game Developers Conference [in San Francisco] was just crazy, being surrounded by that many game devs. Here we have a group, but it’s not nearly as big as a lot of other places.”

“Kansas City itself is growing, and I think there’s room for more studios that can make it.”

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Jake LaCombe shows off his recent holiday game creation, Sneaky St. Nick, at a recent IGDA meeting. // Photo by Sarah Prewitt

Jake LaCombe is another developer who feels he’s a perfect fit for Kansas City’s growing development scene. LaCombe says that after working for a big tech company for six years, his experience there sold him on remaining an independent creator in a city much smaller than LA.

“I’m pretty happy with the jobs I have here, and it’s nice doing this as a hobby and building my skills,” he says. “And Los Angeles? It’s so crowded there. Here, in Kansas City, you have space to live, space to breathe, and it’s a good city.”

He adds that it’s not just the local tech start-ups, cheap living, and local communities that have him optimistic about games here—the city already has a thriving community of game lovers and game players, as well. He lists local groups and event holders such as KCGameOn and GGKC, as well as local hang-out spots such as TapCade, UpDown, and Pawn and Pint.

“We do have a lot of gaming communities, and then you combine that with our tech sector—it’s not gaming related, but we do have a lot of programming and stuff. So we have two of the three, now we just need developers of games.”

Trible, too, is happy to continue growing the community she and Hanna started.

“I think to do this as a career I would need to move,” she says. “But I realized I really like Kansas City. It’s not what I expected as a kid, because I grew up here, but I don’t want to leave. So the idea of taking a job at a AAA or AA game company somewhere else just sounds terrible to me, especially with some of the crunch I hear about and other issues in the industry.

“I want more games to come out of Kansas City. Just to be able to show that you don’t have to go away to do this stuff. You can do this here. I want people to look at the developers in Kansas City and say, ‘I can do that too.’”

Flyover Indies Events

Study Hall: Every Sunday from 12-5 p.m. in the back of Broadway Roasting Co. Work on a game or project in the same space as other creators in a relaxed, supportive environment.

Devs & Drinks: Third Wednesday of every month from 6-9 p.m. at Strange Days Brewing Co. A social event for local game makers to hang out, chat, meet others, and play games.

Ludology Club: First Saturday of every month, 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. at Blip Roasters on Troost Ave. Discuss game design and share resources with other game creators. Plus, new game design topics every session.

For KC indie games to play and gaming spots to visit, click here.

Categories: Culture