Indies from across North America and Europe converged on the Mallard Hall in Eugene, Oregon, to attend the 3rd annual Indie Games Con. With four keynote addresses and over twenty sessions in five "tracks" (business, Torque, Tools, hands-on, and art), the IGC 2004 continued its tradition of raw energy, inspiring interaction and testimonials, and just plain useful information.
This IGC presented a whole slough of new opportunities for indies, but also some of the more traditional issues that have plagued game development for decades.
Indie games continue to grow, with new tools and new opportunities for developers, like, somewhat surprisingly, consoles and arcades.
Xbox Live Arcade and New Shovels for the Garage
"The Xbox is here. The Xbox is indie!" proclaimed Pat Wilson in the opening portion of the Garage Games "dog-and-pony" (DnP) show. IGC perennials Orbz (from 21-6), Marble Blast (from Garage Games), and Think Tanks (from BraveTree) are in various stages of being ported to the Xbox as a part of Xbox Live Arcade. Few developers will argue that independent games on consoles is an incredible development.
Other parts of the DnP included Mark Frohnmayer talking about the Torque Networking Layer and Open Source; Ben Garney demonstrating the soon-to-come Torque RTS demo and "Girl Pack"; Brian Ramage showing off the Torque Shader Engine.
Josh Williams, the newly minted "Director of Third Party Development" at Garage Games, showed the expanding number of ways that third party developers (AKA, not-GG) could monetize their investment in working with Torque. He showed off the new "show" tool, Looking Glass, developed by David Wyland, and the very impressive Torque 2D GameMaker, originally developed by Melv May. Josh also announced "GG Press" a new imprint of a yet-to-be-announced book publisher. GG Press has 3 titles in the works now, and is looking to Torque and other independent developers to write other books.
So what does this have to do with "selling shovels"? In the California Gold Rush of 1849, there were two ways to make money: you could dig for gold, or you could sell shovels. This isn't to imply any criticism of Garage Games. They have made available an amazing collection of tools at prices even the most cash-strapped indie can afford, they act as a publisher with very generous royalties, and they have opened up new ways for indies to see revenue through third-party development.
The impression I have from talking to various GG-ers over the years and this weekend, and can be witnessed in the "TNL demo" Zap, is that they would prefer to be working on games, not tools. However, until more indies complete more games for Garage Games to publish, they'll have to continue to focus on making shinier and easier-to-use shovels.
Did you think it was incredible to hear about an indie game being ported to a console like the Xbox? What about an indie game on an arcade box? Sounds pretty farfetched, but it's a very real opportunity.
Independent games in the arcade are not entirely new. Those of us who have been following the indie game scene over the years will recall Wild Earth, the 2003 Independent Games Festival Game of the Year, becoming a motion-simulation "ride" for zoos, museums, and so on. So not new, but hardly common.
With FlexArcade, though, a new product from TLC Industries, people across the United States might soon be dropping quarter after quarter to play Orbz and Hamsterball, games well known to attendees of the IGC, and other games from independent developers.
"Indie developers are very important to our business model," said James Hills, Marketing Director at TLC Industries. "First, we are all indies here. We think way outside the box, and we like to take risks. And, second, indie and 'casual' games make GREAT coin-op titles. They are usually easy to play, quick to get into and often have great original concepts."
FlexArcade offers a variety of games for a single arcade cabinet. "Instead of buying a $6,000-10,000, even $20,000+ game," James Hills said, "you can buy a cabinet once for less than $5,000 and buy FlexGame Packs to run on top of that." This significantly smaller investment and interchangeable content can increase the demand for new content. "The coin-op industry got into this cycle where games got more and more expensive. So, much like the console market today, the coin-op publishers focused on 'hits', and the amount of original content declined. Along with this, the per-play cost increased to $1, even $5 sometimes!"
Sounds great for arcade owners, but how does this help indies? Because, as James told me, "new games only cost operators a few hundred dollars, they [operators] can take risks. And so can we." FlexArcade has shown a willingness to experiment with games that might otherwise have never been seen in an arcade.
A new opportunity for indies that has come into prominence over the past 12 months is "serious games", especially training simulations based on game engines. In the session "Simulation, Training & Higher Education", representatives from Horsetooth Technologies talked about their vision of offering training (in Torque) to companies and institutions that wanted to use Torque for their serious games contracts.
According to Roger Parmenter of Horsetooth Technologies, more and more companies are looking to use stable game engines, such as Torque, to build training simulations for government, military, and education purposes. Such established game engines offer a platform that provides real-time rendering, real-world physics modelling (to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the engine), and an established content pipeline. These features significantly reduce the cost of creating such "games". Where Horsetooth Technologies sees an opportunity is in training these contractors and sub-contractors in using Torque.
Tom Buscaglia, of the Web page gameattorney.com had a couple of sessions about the legal aspects of creating a game development company, but also spent time over the weekend drumming up interest in the Synnergy Summit that he and others plan to hold in Orlando, Florida, early next year. To Tom, serious games represent a big opportunity for independent developers. While landing Department of Defense contracts might be out of the reach of small developer shops, getting a slice of the revenue pie as a sub-contractor, he contends, seems very feasible.
To my eye, there is also an opportunity in pursuing opportunities at the city and state level. Every state in the United States, and every province in Canada, and every country in Europe, and more, all have history, arts, and industries that they want to promote, and may be willing to provide funding for games that provide that promotion. Local developers would have a definite edge in landing that kind of contract work. Such contracts might allow an indie to develop in-house technology and intellectual property that could be useful in more traditional games.
In short, serious games represent an opportunity that all indies should at least consider.
Old Familiar Issues
Along with these new opportunities, though, there were the predictable issues that have plagued game developers and small business owners since the beginning of time.
"...at least you still get royalties."
What gathering of game developers would be complete without publisher apologists and bitter developers? This time-honored tradition has now found it's way to the IGC. Next year, who knows? Maybe we'll have booth bunnies.
In the "State of the Industry" panel, representatives from PopCap, Oberon, TryMedia Systems, Sprout Games, and PlayFirst complained about the phrase "casual games", repeatedly equated "casual games" with "indie games", and seemed to think that this market they now dominated had been invented by them as recently as 2001. Ah, hubris.
On a more positive, less flamebait-ed note, several panelists talked about how downloadable games had become a part of the overall game market. Gabe Zicherman of TryMedia said that digital distribution had grown to 10% of the PC game market, and discussed how brick-and-mortar stores and game genres were "bad search engines" that the portals were supplanting. Wallace Poulter talked about the lull in the video game market place, in the time before the next generation of consoles was launched, a lull that should give a boost to PC gaming.
John Welch, formerly of Shockwave and now from PlayFirst, spoke of a "new interest" in casual games now that it has been proven that women aged 30 and up can and will buy games. On the other hand, Dave Nixon, who attended IGC last year as a representative of Real Arcade and represented Oberon this year, pointed out, "there are developers that are no longer able to keep up."
Brian Fiete of PopCap insisted that it was still possible to "top PopCap" by trying new things and inventing new genres. James Gwertzman of Sprout Games agreed, saying, "the quality bar is not yet so high that it couldn't be hit" by a small, dedicated team.
The panelists also offered advice to the developers in the audience. Wallace Poulter told developers to focus on the gameplay before spending a lot of time and effort on the art. James Gwertzman suggested reducing the scope of planned projects to a feasible level, to think about how you use technology, and polish and refine your game. In the same vein, Brian Fiete said that a lot of developers released their games prematurely. John Welch stated that developers should consider from the beginning where and why players would buy their game, while Dave Nixon focused on the first experience of the player, and how you have only 3-5 minutes to hook the player. Gabe Zicherman's advice was for developers to focus on the core of their passions and interests to make a breakthrough.
In the question and answer section, a developer asked how the online portals were different from the retail publishers. Several panelists had commented on the differences between the retail publishers and themselves. Except that it seemed, to this developer, that there were no significant differences. Over the past two years, "the portals" have grown in prominence, audience, and influence. In several cases, the portals have acquired developers, as in the high-profile acquisition of GameHouse by Real Arcade. Developer royalties have been shrinking to levels reminiscent of--and sometimes identical to--those in the retail industry. The differences are becoming very hard to spot, and none of the panelists had much to offer in terms of differentiation.
A quick search on Google turned up this definition of "opportunity cost": "Opportunity cost is value of the best alternative given up when making a choice. There is an opportunity cost to every choice." In other words, an opportunity cost is what you don't get because you chose to do something else. For example, if you decide to port your finished game to a console, you gain the potential of a new platform and new market, but new projects will almost certainly be slowed or stalled completely.
Indie developers are often lone developers or small teams. Working on more than one project at a time is problematic at best, impossible at worst. Resource allocation is one of the most important decisions a business can make. Choose wrong, and unless you have some amount of savings you haven't invested yet, and you might find yourself having to consider closing the doors of your new business.
Time after time, indie developers have to choose between taking on more contract work, making changes to their game to be "compatible" with a portal's/publisher's payment system (which often means removing all or most developer information), maintaining their already released games, and starting new game projects. When the bills need to be paid, the task with the most immediate revenue stream almost always takes precedence--even if it's not the best decision for the long term.
You want more specifics? Ask Dave Myers or Justin Mette of 21-6. Ask Davis Sickmon of Midnight Ryder. Ask Garage Games. Ask just about any indie that's been making games, or trying to, for over a year.
Opportunity cost analysis might be a good session topic for the next IGC.
New Games are Slow in Coming
Jeff Tunnell, CEO of Garage Games, flatly stated that Garage Games "needs more games from the community." "We haven't seen the number of games we expected," he said in his keynote address on Sunday. "Only incremental improvements or nothing shipping."
If you've attended all three IGC's, you've seen Marble Blast, Orbz, and Think Tanks, in various incarnations, every year. This isn't to criticize Garage Games, 21-6, or BraveTree--those are all great games, and getting better--only to point out that, like Jeff said, more indies need to complete more games.
Notable among the new games shown at IGC this year were Zap, from Garage Games, Little Soldiers, a collaboration between squarecircleco, Dan MacDonald, and Phelios, Derelict, by Laughing Dragon Games, and dRacer by BraveTree. Super DX Ball, from BlitWise Productions, is due to come out soon.
So new games are coming. But I agree with Jeff, even as I contribute to the problem with at least one game of my own in limbo: New independent games have been slow in coming.
Will this change? It's hard to say. Better tools will help, and streamlined content pipelines. Ultimately, though, it's up to the indies themselves. After all, indies like Id Software (remember them?) were building games in an era when DOS command prompts was considered the state of the art.
Independent games continue to grow and see new opportunities. Growth almost always includes growing pains, and indies aren't immune. Two years ago, independent games showing up on any game console or in an arcade would have seemed an impossible dream. Now it's nearly a reality. Two years ago, the various portal sites were just getting started. Now they've grown to multi-million-dollar-per-year enterprises, providing access to markets and familiar problems. New games are being released, though many games are taking (much) longer than expected.
Time is in short supply, funding is rare, and good team members are hard to find.
All of that, and there's still nothing I'd rather do than be an indie.
About the Author
David "RM" Michael would steal Jay Moore's self-granted title of "Evangelist"--except for some really bad childhood memories (you decide if he means about Jay or evangelists). David is the author of "Indie Game Development Survival Guide" (Charles River Media; ISBN:1584502142), co-owner of Samu Games, and the designer/developer of "The Journal", personal journaling software for Windows.
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