"What does it mean to be indie?" Freeplay Festival celebrates 15 years

Freeplay Festival celebrates fifteen years of championing independent video games and challenging the status quo this year at a time when everyone could be considered indie.
Apr 30, 2019

Listen to our extended interview with Chad Toprak below:

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of Freeplay Festival, which celebrates Australian and international independent video games, and aims to foster an environment of critique and discussion around games practice.

Freeplay was founded in 2004 by Katherine Neil and Marcus Westbury at a time when Australia was home to a number of high-profile studios, such as 2K Australia, Krome, Melbourne House, Team Bondi, Blue Tongue and Pandemic just to name a few.

Chad Toprak, Festival Director (Supplied: Freeplay Festival)

Chad Toprak is the Festival Director of Freeplay, a role he’s held since 2017, and he says that the festival aims to create a healthier and more collaborative environment to make games, and that the festival was founded at time when the local industry was very different.

“At the time a lot of studios were siloed off and quite in competition with one another so there was not much an interaction going on between these studios, the industry both locally and internationally wasn’t at its healthiest”

“Katherine Neil who was I think working for Melbourne House, thought it’d be great to have a space away from our bosses just to get together and share some of the problems we are facing and see if we can help build and construct a more healthier and ethical and sustainable community of games practitioners.”

Since then the industry in Australia has shifted significantly, with all the studios named above closing as a result of changing economic conditions that meant making games in Australia at the previous scale and volume far less viable.

While much of the talent remains in Australia, independent studios and smaller teams now make up much of 900 or so full time employed game developers.

Freeplay x Hovergarden: The Night Market Party (Supplied: Freeplay Festival)

“Freeplay exists as a response to and a critique of the status quo, and provides an alternative space to the mainstream, so a lot of what Freeplay does is on these fringes and alternative things that happen in games that would otherwise not have a place to exist or to be celebrated.”

“You look at 2011, 2012, 2013 when independent games really started to boom and then we look at where independent games are now and it’s kind of become the mainstream, we live in an age where practically everyone is now indie and as a festival we have to ask the hard question ‘WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE INDIE?’,” said Toprak

Toprak says that he thinks that there has been some misconception around what Freeplay is trying to achieve by setting itself aside from the mainstream.

“I feel like historically Freeplay has suffered from being slightly antagonised by the more established side of the industry kind of perceived as perhaps anti-industry, where as in my eyes it’s never quite been anti-industry it’s just been critical of it which I think is super important to foster a healthy and sustainable and ethical industry.”

“Criticism can often be perceived as an attack or something whereas in my eyes that’s never been the case.”

The Freeplay Conference (Supplied: Freeplay Festival)

Part of building that connection and conversation with industry is the Freeplay conference which features keynote speakers Hannah Nicklin and Richard Lemarchand as well as developers and industry members from Australia and the world.

The industry also comes together to select nominees and winners for the Freeplay Awards across nine categories and awarded on the final night of the event.

2018 Freeplay Award winners (Supplied: Freeplay Festival)

The festival celebrates it’s fifteenth year this year, and while some might look on at Victoria and Melbourne where it is held and feel frustration that their own city doesn’t have an equivalent event, Toprak says that Freeplay is the example that shows it’s possible to create a space of your own.

“If you feel like something doesn’t exist in your city, you can realise that you can actually make it happen yourself if you really want it to. That can be quite powerful suddenly realising that, you don’t need to be given permission to start something, you can just DIY it.”

Freeplay Festival is held in Melbourne May 7-12, tickets are available here: Freeplay Festival 2019 Tickets