Indie Brew is Vassar’s first independent game design and development organization, offering programmers, writers and designers alike a haven where they can bring their projects to life.
Co-founder and lead programmer Thomas Lum ’17, a double major in computer science and cognitive science, said he came to Vassar to study English and theatre, and that the discovery of his interest in coding was almost incidental.
He reflected on his freshman year, saying that he took CS101 with Associate Professor of Computer Science Jenny Walters per his mother’s request. From that semester on, comp sci clicked with him. Whereas English and theatre allowed him to create, CS gave him the opportunity to flesh out his ideas in a new way.
Lum observed, “CS is really the science of information, how you manipulate it, how you store it and the limits and behavior of it. It’s really just puzzles, except knowing the answers and reasons why lets you build incredible things, from graphic marvels to intelligent machines to tools and systems that everyone can use. It’s world building in its truest sense, and because of that, it’s also fundamentally interdisciplinary. Games are such vitally equal parts math/CS, art, music, design and writing, and no game can stand as great without all of them supporting it. So in a way, having that background in theatre and literature was much more a necessity than a regret, and something I use constantly, rather than abandoned.”
Although Lum had never learned programming before, video games have always been of personal importance to him. He recounted, “Being a second-generation American kid meant being around other kids and families who literally did not speak the same language. But the moment someone put on Super Smash Bros, none of that mattered and my parents would have to pry me away.”
Lum’s first project was a game called “Ada,” which took him two years to complete. He had created the design, programming, music and art for the game himself. During his period of personal development, though, the roots of what would later become Indie Brew began to evolve within Vassar’s web and app development org, VC++. Game enthusiasts had an outlet in the group’s game development section, but Lum felt that his game programming ideas couldn’t subsist as something shoehorning into another club. He decided to establish a separate org himself, with the help of a partner, Ernesto Suarez ’18.
Co-founder, designer and editor of Indie Brew, Suarez described his experiences in designing and writing as “a rocky road.”
“I don’t really have as much of a background for coding or art, and really intensive writing is only used in super involved games that take years to make. So for a while, I didn’t really know what I could do, and honestly I didn’t even think of making games as an option. I always considered myself as a psychologist with a passion for gaming on the side. I never really had anyone to share my passion with…but then I met Tom.”
Lum and Suarez met through a mutual friend last year and clicked right away. Lum characterized Suarez as “an essential catalyst for the birth of Indie Brew because he loves video games, and even though he had zero experience in making them, he wanted to, and he wanted to learn, just as much as I did freshman year.”
Suarez commented, “Making games wasn’t just a dream to [Lum], it was a very achievable reality. Seeing him and the ideas he had really kind of pushed me on to want to actually make games.”
Lum continued, “After hours of whiteboarding ideas and excitedly sharing plans, Indie Brew was born…[The names is a] reminder that we are sort of a ragtag independent group and the imagery of steeping and crafting our ideas from their raw components to something people will enjoy.
“In the spring semester of 2016, Indie Brew was meeting weekly. We had a handful of key goals that we still hold today, and a lot of heart, but I was mistakenly directing the group in the wrong direction.”
Aiming to become a game development team, Indie Brew focused working on one project together. But Lum soon discovered that a single project cannot accommodate so much diversity of opinion and style within this group.
He reflected, “This seemed productive, and every week I could sleep well on the laurels of bureaucracy, knowing we had done all the check boxes for that week and had a blueprint for more checkboxes next week but we were artificially constraining two important things: individual passion and work.”
This year, Indie Brew transitioned into a more “process over product” mindset and promotes an environment of productivity. Members now meet three times a week, collaborating and working through each other’s ideas.
“Myself and Ernie offer guidance and assistance, and there are tutorials on how to start making a game located on our website, but the golden rule of the org is: if you can find use of this group, you are a part of the team.”
Suarez shared that he enjoys bouncing ideas off his friends and helping sketch something up. He called himself “a kind positive reinforcement” for other members of the group. He described, “Our group is small but amazing, and I’ve grown to be good friends with all of them while being able to keep things professional and focused.
“The initial intention when Tom and I made this group was to give people a place to make and talk about video games, but to actually create things, rather than the discussion just trailing off into playing video games.”
As a psychology major, Suarez tries to employ his studies to craft intriguing, attention-grabbing games. He found that despite his relative inexperience with programming, he still contributes valuable insight to the group. His experience is a reminder that students of all backgrounds and expertise can find their niche in the org.
New member Beatrix Jones ’20 affirmed this, saying, “The really cool thing about Indie Brew is being part of a group of such enthusiastic, open-minded people all trying out different ideas and just seeing what works–it’s so much fun!”
Lum concluded, “Some days the org looks like a band brainstorming ideas in the studio as we pitch and draw and deconstruct and build the concepts and mechanics of a game, and other times the org looks like we’re holding a midterm with the way we’re glued to our work. But in both cases, it remains exactly what myself and Ernie had hoped for: a place for people who love games to share their passions and collaborate to make awesome, awesome things.”