Damian Sommer vs The Independent Games Festival Award

“I think I may have a panic attack,” says Damian Sommer over Twitter. A small group of Sommer's family and friends connected through the Internet seemingly held their breath together.

Sommer had been nominated for an Independant Games Festival Award at the annual Games Development Conference in San Francisco. The nomination is for a game he made with artist Emily Carroll called, The Yawhg. The IGF Award is a mark of success and greater things to come in the future. Though it gets little attention from most gamers, the award is an milestone among the international game developement community.

Sommer and Carroll had some tough competition. The Yawhg was against hit releases such as Papers Please, DEVICE 6, and The Stanley Parable, the last of which was developed in part by Sommer's friend Davey Wreden.

It is no wonder that Sommer has become a well known figure in Toronto’s video game development scene. He is well spoken, but is skeptical that his answers are worth anything. His modesty combined with a certain confidence in character make Sommer easy to get along with. It's clear that Sommer is comfortable, even proud, with who he is and what he does.

I first met Damian Sommer in November of 2013 at the annual Toronto games festival called ‘Gamercamp’, where developers and gamers alike would congregate to talk about game development and appreciate each other’s work. The festival strikes a fine balance between a focus on industry networking and attractions for consumers. Sommer was there to promote a card game he designed with Dominique “Dom2D” Ferland called Without Question. The game is of many projects Sommer is constantly working on, where players place rules on each other, such as, "You cannot laugh."

“I'm currently working on card games, video games—actually video games. Oh god, oh god,” says Sommer back at Gamercamp. He appeared somewhat overwhelmed by the thought of having so many projects on the go at the same time.

The Yawhg was of these projects. He started working on it back in January of 2012 with Emily Carroll, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. But the work process was so casual that Sommer estimates to have put to months of real work into the game. The would communicate using a system of notes left in a online Dropbox folder, leaving pieces of the game for the other to find and use.

“I didn’t want to write email. So I would instead name [a folder]: ‘Emily this is an example of what you need to do’. That was the name of the folder. And then she would write back with another folder: ‘Okay Sommer here it is’,” says Sommer. “And so we would batter back and forth through the names of files and folders. That sounds like it would be hectic but it wasn’t and we just both knew what we needed to do and we never needed to talk about it. It was nice, it was really easy.”

The Yawhg wasn’t supposed to be the success that it was. It was a side project, originally released on the end of May 2013 and then rereleased on Steam February 27, 2014. But it was nominated for the Independent Games Festival Awards for ‘Excellence in Audio’ and ‘Excellence in Narrative’ and given out during the Games Developer Conference in San Francisco on March 19. The nomination meant a free ticket to the conference, which normally costs upwards of $1500 for an all access pass. But attendance means the opportunity to meet the biggest names in the industry, and see people who until then only existed through social media. For Sommer, getting the nomination is not the best part of GDC, it is meeting the people who go there.

“I talk to a lot of developers all over the world on Twitter. And a good chunk of them are going to be there. So it’s gonna be good to meet them, finally. And same goes for seeing friends, old friends who would come here [to Toronto] and I met them and I made friends with them. It’d be to see them again. That’s a lot of what GDC is.” says Sommer.

The network of indie developers is is held tightly together over Twitter. Those interactions hold firm when the friendship crosses over into the real world.

“Like Davey Wreden from Stanley Parable. He slept over at our house for several days,” says Sommer. “So yeah, we’re in direct competition with him for multiple categories. So there’s that. I mean, I still think we have a shot, but I also wouldn’t be upset if he won.”

Sommer attributes much of his success to the community back home in Toronto. The independent scene has a particular culture surrounding it, especially in Toronto. Generally speaking Montreal and Vancouver have had the spotlight when it comes to game studios. But in Toronto, a surplus of talent and a deficit of studios caused many people to seek their own ways of getting their dream game development job. Events like GamerCamp and organizations such as the Hand Eye Society in Toronto bring people together to form a community. It’s reminiscent of the startup culture of Silicon Valley, but with less drive to make a profit and more to express ideas.

Jaime Woo, the festival director at Gamercamp spoke to me last November about the community in Toronto and it’s significance.

“You know, I think that there’s this idea that when you are trying to accomplish something that the way to do it is to seem staunchly autonomous. And we get a lot of stories of solo geniuses, you know, who kind of figure it out by themselves in these sort of meteoric rises,” says Woo, “And what we know though, the stories we hear, are that people are supported and inspired and really require other people around them who provide advice, or who provide encouragement, or provide reality checks.”

Sommer takes full advantage of that support. Sommer’s place in Toronto’s vibrant indie game development scene is well established.

“In every single aspect it helps. There’s a network of people so you have friends to talk to about things,” says Sommer. “My friend Alex was also instrumental in the development. because he had already released a game on Steam. And we kind grew together in the scene. I went to him a lot for like ‘How do I do this thing? What did you do when this situation came up?’”

Being part of such a community tends to be all consuming. Eating, breathing, and living video games is assumed in this industry. The people Sommer surrounds himself are consistent with this.

“It’s for advice. It’s also basically my only social life, socializing with video game people and my family. They’ve kinda become my friends now. If it wasn’t for them, I’d definitely have some shitty job somewhere,” says Sommer.

The Yawhg did not win the awards it was nominated for, which went to the games ‘DEVICE 6’ for excellence in audio and ‘Papers, Please’ for excellence in narrative. From San Franscico, Sommer expressed the roller coaster of emotions through his Twitter account.

Sommer has come a long way in a short amount of time. But he still has a ways to go. Sommer says GDC inspired him. It’s moments like these that keep people in an industry with little job security. Sheer passion exhumes from Sommer in the way the gets excited about new ideas and experiences. People who have found the thing in life they were made for are few and far between, especially at Damian’s .

The renewed passion has motivated Damian to revisit an old project of his. The Clown Who Wanted Everything is a failed project of Sommer’s, of his many could-have-beens. His future success has never been guaranteed, but that isn’t what keeps him going.

We talked about his interaction with fans and how he gauged the success of his work. Sommer doesn’t measure is success in monetary gain. It isn’t about buying a nice house and an expensive car. Damian is fuelled on community. In a half serious tone, he says when people on the internet start creating pornographic fan art based on his work, colloquially referred to as ‘rule 34’, he will have made it.

“I wish there was more fan art,” says Sommer, “I know I’ve become truly successful when rule 34 [porn] of my game has been created. That’s my measure of success. I hope I’ve accrued enough people that somebody out there would have done that.”

Alexander Boer