I flew into cold and rainy Eugene, Oregon on Tuesday morning, October 9th to attend this year's IndieGamesCon (IGC) being hosted by the lovely folk over at GarageGames. I was picked up from the airport and driven straight to the GarageGames offices by my friend Rich Grillotti from PixelJam (you may remember them from this year's IGF competition). Rich was my chauffer for the four (excuse me, five) days that I was out there, I'm deeply in his debt. My flight from San Francisco to Eugene had been delayed by almost an hour and a half so I was a bit anxious to get to the Garage to attend the special Associates Day gathering, where they were set to reveal their new InstantAction platform. I was afraid I'd be late by I ended up arriving with time to spare, as people were still milling about the offices and snacking on food that was laid out in the large common area. GarageGames is in the middle of a huge expansion right now thanks to the IAC acquisition, so they were in the process of building out their office space into the rest of the building. But it all still had a very homely feel to it - I immediately felt comfy and relaxed as soon as I walked into the door.
They sat down all the associates and press (I think I was the only one - I'm not an associate) and spoke to us about their deal with InterActive Corp (IAC) and the new InstantAction technology, which they then demonstrated, playing Marble Blast Ultra on networked computers set up in the room. They actually had keynotes and lectures on this during the conference itself (which is where I'll elaborate more) but they wanted to give the associates the first outsider glimpse of what was to come. After the brief lectures the gathering broke up and we all slowly migrated over to a local night club called the Starlight Lounge a few blocks away, which GG had rented out for the night. It was a nice club with lots of elbow room, a comfy lounge seating area, a pool table in the back room and a patio outside in the rear (both of which I didn't even realize were there until like halfway through the evening). After eating some food, drinking lively (it was open bar all night, though I don't booze it still helped keep my throat from getting dry and sore from talking so much), talking shop and meeting with lots of cool people, and losing horribly at games of pool to crazy pool shark Brett Seyler, I called it a night to get prepped for the real conference starting the next day.
So speaking if the conference - what exactly is IndieGamesCon? Well it's not your general type of independent game developer's conference, like the Austin IGC or the Toronto IGC - those are both events that focus on the industry in general. IndieGamesCon focuses primarily on GarageGames, with the generous side-helping of people involved in independent games development converging on one spot to swap war stories, ideas and the like. It should also be noted that a lot of these people (practically the majority) also use Torque engine technology. I'm not saying this like it's a bad thing, I just want to make sure you understand exactly what IndieGamesCon is all about. Regardless of the heavy GarageGames slant, it's still a lively gathering of like-minded people involved in the games industry, which still means that anyone can attend, not just Torque users and GG fan boys. This year the conference was held in a huge sound stage at a production studio, with round tables spaced all over the floor, which was nice because you were able to sit and talk with groups of people rather than being next to just two people if the tables were in rows. It was also nice to be in one spot and not have to run around to attend different sessions like at other conferences. To one side they had four long tables set up, three were stocked with PCs (about 6 to a table) for people to upload their games onto for others to play, and the last table had about 8 PCs running Marble Blast Ultra on InstantAction. I got pwned so bad every time I tried to play that game...
Day One - Keynote
The first day of the conference came and Rich and I both drove down to find that they didn't happen to have any breakfast out. Bummer! We ran quick to a local Safeway to grab some sandwiches and made it back before the first keynote started, which was being given by Wideload Games CEO Alex Seropian. Best known for his role in the development of the original Halo game and coming from Bungie to start his own game company, Alex shared a unique view of the independent industry after his experiences in mainstream game development, and again when trying to take his games as an indie to a mainstream publisher. In the case of Stubbs the Zombie, the publisher tried to take the usual run-of-the-mill road saying "well, usually in games you're the guys killing the zombies, not being the zombie. So why can't your game have the player armed with huge weapons killing zombies?" Of course this totally destroyed the original idea behind the game - but what mainstream publisher cares about originality these days? Hence, Seropian concludes that "if you want to kill the zombies, you're probably a publisher. If you want to be a zombie, you're one of us." To him, that's a way to define the independent developer.
Alex also explained why "right now is absolutely the best time to be a developer making games", citing the fact that demand for games is constantly on the rise and our industry is doing nothing but growing larger and reaching more audiences every single year. The Sims, WoW and GTA have all proven that billion-dollar franchises are possible; high-profile studio acquisitions like Rare ($375M) and Harmonix ($250M) show how valuable game studios are becoming. Distribution channels have exploded to the point where "anything with a screen and an input device can play games", such as airline seat back displays. InstantAction, Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, WiiWare and the internet in general all offer alternatives to the traditional retail market. One of the best things about the industry is that the majority of the time developers are receiving money to fund projects while still retaining their Intellectual Property. Alex pointed out that "the only other business I can think of where you can sell something and still own it is prostitution. So we're in good company."
However there are still some challenges facing us as developers. The cost of making games is constantly rising, as is the time involved for developing them and the size of the teams that are working on them. There are many more specialized positions nowadays, which also helps to increase team size. Complicated hardware makes games costlier to develop. The manpower involved is directly associated with the cost and risk of a project, meaning the investment goes into the team, which makes a lot of publishers nervous about loosening the purse strings. The market is very hit-driven (I point I've heard mentioned at other lectures), competitive and it's hard to predict success. There's also the fact that a lot of things are out of our control, such as hardware, manufacturers and the rise and ebb of the retail market.
So what's Wideload's way of developing games and beating the market? Alex shared with us his company's Commandments:
#1 - Thou shalt establish your creative direction (be original)
#2 - Be no one's beeotch (be independent)
#3 - Own thine IP (think long-term)
#4 - Keep thine overhead low (small burn rate)
It's important that you be original. Wideload commonly designs 100 games per year. Obviously they don't produce 100 games a year, but they design constantly in search of their next title. Every few months they have little design parties where they get together to share ideas, or break into teams to compete. Then maybe they spend a day or two prototyping. One of the first things they do no matter what is make sure to establish their IP before seeking out any funding. Holding on to your IP creates a long-term investment that can be used to increase your company's value, so creating it and maintaining it is very important. Wideload maintains a small team of less than 20 developers to keep their overhead low, while partnering with external developers to increase production. They've built their team culture to incorporate these remote developers into their team environment, extending to them tools like Perforce and engine tech. They usually end up licensing their game technology, as their focus is on the IP, not the engine creation. In their experience working with partners, they've found it creates easy-to-predict overhead, as it's a fixed cost, and easy to compartmentalize pipelines.
In closing Alex stated that if anyone had asked him two years ago whether starting up one's own company was possible, he would have said "doubt it" - now however his response would be "Absolutely"
(additional source - Shacknews)
Day One - Lectures
Andy Yang, the General Manager of GG Networks, is one of the key players behind InstantAction.com, coming over to the Garage after they came under IAC's wing. Throughout the process of developing InstantAction, Andy has been the IAC contact, having years of experience in the web space through IAC and lending his perspective and knowledge to the development of the platform. He's learned just as much about game development from GarageGames as they've learned from him regarding the idea of an online platform. The previous day at the associates gathering he made a point to tell everyone how IAC recognized their lack of knowledge in the games industry, which is part of why their deal with GarageGames isn't a scary as many people believe, as GG still retains a large amount of freedom regarding their industry-related decisions. But I digress - more on this when I talk about Josh's keynote given Day Two.
So what is InstantAction? Josh Williams sums it up in a blog entry:
"InstantAction is a new place to play games. We're working on games here at GG and we're working with great indie studios of all kinds, from some of the biggest names in the industry to total unknowns with great ideas and the ability to get them done. We're building a bunch of great new games that focus squarely on being fun. They'll all be playable in the browser, and they'll be rich, core-oriented, and often multiplayer games. Effectively, we are building a web-based console... and just like a console, we'll have a wide variety of games and will be working with lots of developers and eventually perhaps even other publishers to create games for it."
So what does this really mean? Well obviously independent developers now have a new platform to target their games, one that's been created to appeal to an already existing market - the online space. Being able to play games in a web browser makes them immediately accessible to billions of people around the world. It's important though to remember that this is practically, like Josh said, a platform (a web-based console) - which means people are not downloading these games to play standalone on their computer and you have to log on to InstantAction.com in order to play titles you own.
All that said, the obvious questions start to arise. How do you pay for the games? What technology do they have to be developed in? How are the games downloaded and stored on the computer? What kind of browser is needed? How do I get my awesome MMORPGTSFPS on it????
Well I can offer an easy answer to the last one, which is you can't - so go back to your day job if you have one or grow a brain stem and make something more reasonable. Fortunately the others are pretty easy too. Pricing models for the games will vary, with some games being offered for free initially, with priced add-ons and downloadable content; some will be paid for upon initial download; others may follow a subscription model. All that is in the hands of the developer, although GarageGames will also recommend what it feels would be best for the title. InstantAction games can be developed using virtually any tech out there, from Torque (obviously) to Unreal to Flash. Games can be chunked for download so that initially a user downloads (for example) an interface and first level, and while their playing the game the rest of the content streams through in the background. In case someone wishes to remove a game from their computer, an interface will be provided to let users track the games they own for such a purpose and more. GarageGames is working with both Microsoft and the Mozilla foundation to target the most popular browsers, additional support would be forthcoming from the initial launch.
Andy also demonstrated the community aspect of InstantAction, where a persistent account is maintained on their servers that follows you through all of your game plays. Games you download will be stored in your catalog for easy access when you login. You interact with other people through chat rooms and in-game chat - voice wasn't demoed but it wouldn't be unexpected to see it at some point. You have the ability to form "parties", which are groups of other users (usually harvested from your Friends list) that remain together from game to game. So if you're playing Marble Blast Ultra together and decide to hop over to a game of Cyclomite (Wideload's IA title) when the party leader changes games, everyone else in the party comes along for the ride. So, similar in some ways to Live Arcade's sessions. Another IA community tool is the ability to contact a friend, send an email link, or copy and paste a link into a chat window and invite other people in to play. Finally, while no official word was announced and because Andy goofed slightly and overstated a few things, it's pretty sure they'll be including some sort or Achievement system similar to that found on Live Arcade, as well as other as yet unannounced cool stuff.
So when is all this expected to land in consumer's laps? Well right now the launch date is set for Q1 of 2008 and the beta test is already gearing up to get under way. If you're interested, head on over now to InstantAction.com to drop your email address and sign up.
The Future of Torque Technology
Clark Fagot (pronounced fa-goh, lest there be any *ahem* confusion), GG's Director of Engine Development, gave a talk about where Torque technology is headed in the not-too-distant future. Obviously one of the biggest things that are hindering GarageGames these days is that fact that is has so many different engines, all with their own code bases and none of them fully compatible with one another. There's the Torque Game Engine (TGE), Torque Game Builder (TGB), TourqueX and the TorqueX Builder (TXB), and the Torque Game Engine Advanced (TGEA). It's literally running the GG guys ragged to keep all the engines on their feet with bug fixes and point releases. Wouldn't it be simpler just to have one uniform engine that can do it all? Well they do, and it's aptly named Juggernaut.
But hold on, Juggernaut isn't what you're going to get to play around with. Right now Juggernaut, while in use for some in-house projects and a small select group of external developers, is still a proof of concept model that the GG folk are constantly reiterating upon. Right now the major strengths of the engine involve 2D shaders, a combined 2D/3D renderer, a uniform platform and far less duplication across the code base. Other changes that have been worked on in Juggernaut include a complete reorganization of the directory tree, which means more separation between the application and the engine (a good thing, if you haven't guessed). A project generator handles the task of generating project files for use across multiple IDEs. They've successfully imported the graphics engine from TGEA, with a fall-back option included for fixed-function callback code. The sound layer uses Direct Sound in addition to OpenAL, however they are looking to eventually transition fully over to FMOD. An improved window manager and platform code allows for multiple windows to enable the development of better tools.
So where is all this leading? Obviously there's no official date yet but hopefully sometime in 2008 we'll hear about the official release for Torque 2. Yea I know, Juggernaut sounds cooler than Torque 2 but generally code names are always cooler than the released product. Torque 2 is essentially an iterative refactor of Juggernaut, with the following goals:
- Minimize system dependencies
- Modular, pluggable systems
- More 3rd party systems
- Strict engine and application separation
- Stable core over additional features
- Ability to use as much or as little of the engine as you want
More technical details poured forth from Clark, who at this point was afraid he had lost the attention of over half the audience - I was sitting up front so I couldn't see if anyone was nodding off but I doubt too many people were disinterested about the future of Torque. In brief, the graphics layer will be handling state blocks and constant buffers as they prep for DirectX 10, they also plan to implement OGL shaders. A data-driven rendering system means no more hard-coded lighting or sort orders. Collada will be supported. Upgrades to the built-in rendering systems including terrain, three space, decals, foliage and water effects. A flexible network model enabling Peer-to-peer and client-server models, using the Torque Network Layer to allow encrypted connections, tunneling and anti denial of service. 3rd party plugins will be available for physics, with network-enabled support built in using Bullet for collisions. Multi-threading will be considered for tasks like physics, loading and media. Vector fonts and vector GUI rendering (oooohhhhh) for better multi-resolution support with help from the Anti-grain Geometry library. Low-level refactoring to include a string class, volume system and resource manager. Other scripting languages (like Mono) will be able to be plugged in, and of course they're still planning for Torque 2 to be multi-platform and support Windows, Mac, Linux and 360.
Day One - Roundtables
Partnerships with GarageGames
At this roundtable I sat down with a group of people gathered around Brett Seyler, GG's VP of Corporate Strategy & Partnerships, and Eric Fritz, GG's Marketing Manager, to discuss ways in which developers can work with GarageGames. While the conversation diverged at some times into publishing with the Garage, talking about things like metrics to offer developers on sales, landing pages for each game in the Garage store, name and email information on customers purchasing a 3rd party developer's game from the store, etc - the main focus was on partnering with GarageGames.
Several ways that you can do this. One way is to create an add-on pack, also known as a content pack. Brett says these are very popular items. GarageGames likes content packs so much in fact that it was one of the reasons they bought out a small development house that is well-known for its content packs (BraveTree) a few years ago. Another way to partner with GG is to offer up support for Torque, which means core improvements to the engine, like the RTS Starter Kit, which actually revamps some of the code base to turn TGE into more of a strategy engine than an FPS engine. If you're someone who has had a lot of experience dealing with Torque and you've also had previous teaching or lecturing experience, then you may consider getting involved with the Torque Bootcamp program, which pays up to $1K for a one day session that you teach, travel expenses included. If you're an educator looking to license Torque technology, they have special licenses for educational use or small team training. One final way is to create a tool for a Torque engine, like the Overlord management system or the Torsion IDE.
The "Other" Indie Technologies
At this table, we all basically gathered around Ben Garney, GG's Torque Technologies Director, to throw out opinions on other tools out there on the market for use by indie developers. This pretty much means low-cost engines (up to a few thousand dollars) and free, licensed tools.
One of the first to be mentioned was Flash, which was cited for its nice limited graphical requirements, an open-source action script runtime, and action script 3 itself. Obviously there are performance limits to Flash, but that in itself can be a plus, as it limits you in scope to something that's usually more manageable. The built-in IDE isn't all that good either, but there isn't a 3rd party one with a debugger. Other popular mentions were the RAD game tools (Granny, Miles, Bink, etc), though one strike against them was the lack of indie licenses (Miles, for example, costs $3K) and FMOD, which is an awesome sound library that's way better than Direct Sound. While FMOD is also $3K and doesn't have an indie license either, it does have a hobbyist/shareware license.
Some less popular (in the group) but also notable mentions were the OGRE and Unity engines. OGRE was noted to be a wonderful graphics engine, but someone mentioned that it has no game toolset. Unity wasn't widely experienced either in the group, although one person said it was less frustrating than Torque and gave him a much faster development time. Ben's take on it was that it had a lot of cool little stuff, but not a lot of big stuff. Everyone also agreed that it still had a lot of bugs, which was hopefully solved somewhat with the version 2.0 release.
As time ran down, people just started throwing out general suggestions for areas of development. Links won't be included here but you can Google them easily enough
- Blitz3D/Blitz Basic
- Dark Basic
- Crystal Space
- Open SceneGraph
Day Two - Keynote
Day two came around and this time Rich and I came prepared with bagels and drinks in hand. Of course this time they had muffins placed out when we got there. Go figure right? ? They were huge muffins too - I ate one just out of principle. So Josh Williams, GarageGames' CEO and CTO, took the podium first after a brief introduction given by Mark Frohnmayer, one of the company founders. Josh spoke about his beginnings with the company, being in college at the time when he noticed Jeff Tunnell's interview on GameSpy and realized there was a cool company in Eugene worth checking into. He'd always wanted to be in the games industry, at the time he was studying mathematical finance (and probably bored out of his skull - I dunno sounds boring to me), and so as he says he "stalked" GarageGames, constantly looking for a way in. When he heard they would be open to anyone who offered to write documentation, Josh jumped at the chance and emailed them saying "I want to write documents!" (or something close to that affect). And so his career began with the Garage. He was promoted to CEO at 25 two years ago and is now in charge of overseeing GarageGames' strategy, which greatly involves the IAC acquisition of GG.
It's understandable that many people thought of GG as selling out to a larger corporation - giving up their identity, going against their mandate, and so on and so forth. Josh is working hard to assure developers that none of this is even close to true and in fact the IAC deal has brought GG closer than ever to achieving the goals set forth by its original founders, which was to make game development accessible to the masses. While I could go on to describe the details, I don't really feel the need to paraphrase, and that's what I would mainly be doing from Josh's blog, since I don't have copious notes on the talk. So I direct you to his blog entry on IAC over at GarageGames.com. Additional coverage on the IAC topic (and InstantAction too) can be found in a GameDaily Biz interview with Josh. In addition, long-time indie developer Russel Carroll also offers up his views over at his blog. So divert your eyes from GDnet for a few minutes and study up.
My take? Well from talking to Josh and being around the Garage offices and seeing everyone's enthusiasm first-hand, it's hard to deny that GG made a sound decision in accepting IAC's offer. The fact that a huge media corporation was able to gel so well with a studio in an industry they aren't actively involved in and share the same vision on a technology platform (InstantAction) is a pretty rare thing. IAC's putting a lot of power in the hands of GarageGames and I feel independent developers will be able to reap the benefits. Of course, time will ultimately tell but I do feel encouraged rather than disappointed with GarageGame's decision.
Day Two - Roundtable
While it was billed on the schedule as "Pitching Your Game for Funding and Publishing" to be ran by GarageGame's Producer Joshua Dallman, the session ended up being hosted by Randy Dersham, InstantAction's Producer, who talked to us more in depth about getting your game up on the platform. This was probably a last-minute decision, but I think it was a good one, because there were still some unanswered questions from the area of publication.
So what is GarageGames looking for in InstantAction games? The first thing is differentiation - what's the hook? What's the main thing that makes your game different for the dozens upon dozens (soon to be hundreds upon hundreds) of games Randy has already seen? Do have the money and resources available to finish the game? If not will it take a large chunk of change? If you have a big budget with a small scope, that's not good - and neither is a small budget with a big scope. Can you really make the game happen? You will be pitching your team as well as the game. If GG thinks you won't be able to execute on the game, that's a no deal situation. If you're uncomfortable sharing so much information about your game and company status to get the proper exposure for consideration, GG is more than willing to go the NDA route. Or you can just trust Randy not to take your concept to the folks at the Garage and start working on a game based on it. Randy seemed pretty trustworthy in my eyes, but NDA's are probably still a good idea.
The IA contract is a boiler-plate contract with most parts pre-written, and the ability to include and toss out parts you need and don't need. Will GarageGames fund your game for you? Possibly. They do have a fund to draw from when it comes to lending grants to developers to complete their games. This means you could get up to 30% or 40% upon the deal, with the remainder paid upon milestone deliveries. Royalty rates run from 20%-50%, with payments starting as soon as the game is made available for purchase, which means you start earning money right away. The royalty rate varies based on several factors, such as the size of the grant GG gave you to help float your title and whether you choose to keep your game exclusive to the InstantAction platform. Long-term gameplay value is highly sought-after for IA titles, as the community will be persistent and GG wants to keep people playing. Adding upgrades, rewards and downloadable content is also a way to negotiate your contract for a higher royalty rate on your next title.
One issue important to developers is IP and GG's control over your game. While you completely retain your IP, GG does assume some control over your game. There are some instances where they will direct your game in ways to better suit the IA platform, and they also reserve the right to kill a project at any time, so make sure you make it clear in the contract what sort of creative control you would like to maintain so GarageGames knows when a project has strayed too far for their liking. If they feel your game needs to be upgraded in some way, they can do so on their own, however they will not do it without your permission.
I haven't been able to make it to past IGCs, but I had a great time at this one. The weather did actually clear up later in the week, though it was cold and rainy most of the time. Apparently that's just the usual weather there this time of year. All the people I met where great, and the Garage folk were awesome. I hung out around their offices Thursday and Friday evenings and they somehow managed to put up with me taking over their sofa, plugging into their wifi, and stealing their food (those muffins were yummy). I was about to graduate to taking over a workstation, but Andy and Mark finished playing Marble Blast on IA before I could hop in. Drats.
Some other as yet unmentioned events included the Wii Tennis Tourny that was held after sessions completed on the first day. I didn't participate because I knew I sucked having hardly ever played before and didn't feel like dragging some poor sod down with me. I watched though since they had it up on the huge projection screen. Good job Fritz and Dylan on snagging the title. After that was the Indie Garage Band Jam - where Jeff Tunnell and his his band The Procrastinators set up next to the stage and started jamming. You can check out videos of them rocking out over at UStream TV. Other developers who could play joined in on the jam as well. Day Two closed with the Player's Choice Awards, where attendees voted for their best choice of the myriad of games that were uploaded to the PCs available off to the side. Congrats to Gondolier of Love, which snagged first place. I watched people playing it, notably Tom Buscaglia Sr (the Game Attorney) - if you do bad enough the people in the gondola jump off the side into the water. That was pretty hilarious.
GarageGames also offered up boot camps for TorqueX and TGB to IGC attendees. These boot camps usually go for $300 - $400 dollars, so it was quite a steal. I sat in on the TorqueX one and would have missed the TGB one had my flight not been cancelled, forcing me to fly out the following evening instead. Fortune smiled upon me I guess. If you want more information on the program, you can find it here.
Looking forward to IGC '08!