At the Indie Games Con 2002
by David Michael

For a convention conceived and planned in less than 6 weeks, the first-ever Indie Games Con proved an exciting weekend. Held in the "Banquet Hall" of the Eugene, OR-based Wild Duck Brewery, a space that wouldn't seem out of place if used for a technorave event, the IGC brought together a talented and passionate group of (mostly) men and (a few) women. From the spray-painted logos on the walls, to the bare concrete floor, to the near-lack of heat in certain corners of the space, the IGC was all about raw energy coming together to make something happen.

Indies came from all over the world to attend: from the Philippines, from the United Kingdom, and even from the United States and Canada. Accents were thick and sometimes parodied (inside joke: buh-NAH-nah), but there was a real feeling of camaraderie, and even extended family. While a large portion of the indies were from the Garage Games community, they were far from the only ones there. It was a rainbow spectrum of game developers: programmers, artists, musicians, and more.

The "Show Off" room, with PCs provided by nVidia and a Mac from Apple, was always full of indies playing games created by other indies. Games like "Orbz" from 21-6 (voted best of show), "ThinkTanks" from Bravetree, "Marble Blast" from Garage Games, and "Chain Reaction" from Monster Studios were constantly being played. All of these games demonstrated an impressive production value on top of imaginative game design, showing that it doesn't take a huge budget from a publisher to make a fun game.

The IGC also provided high-quality presentations, with industry veterans like Jeff Tunnell and Randy Dersham, as well as relative newcomers like Justin Mette and Davis Sickmon, sharing their experiences, and their visions of the future. There were some issues with the smaller sessions, since there were few solid walls to go around. Combined with the warehouse feel of the location, the presenters were difficult to hear at times. But the quality of the information presented was worth the slight strain and occassional distraction.

This report covers those presentations and sessions that I attended at the IGC.

Keynote: Birth of the Indie Games Movement
Presenter: Jeff Tunnell

Jeff Tunnell, founder of Garage Games, made the keynote address of the Indie Games Con. He began his presentation by asserting that in the $9.2 billion computer game industry, indies were inevitable. And despite recent problems, game publishers are still making a profit, and the industry as a whole is going to continue to grow. The hit-driven approach of the publishers, a too-heavy emphasis on graphics, and over-cloning are creating more room for indie developers to find a niche than ever before.

Jeff covered the three primary ways of becoming a part of the game industry: as an employee of a publisher, as a developer, and as an indie. The employee approach means being hired by a publisher for in-house projects. There are advantages to this approach, of course, such as a paycheck and employee benefits, but there are downsides as well. The security of full-time employment doesn't often live up to the name (see the recent layoffs in the tech industry), and there is no back end, no royalties. All you get is wages.

Becoming a developer, or working for a development shop, is the next approach. With its upfront advance and back end royalties, it's understandable why many choose to go this route. But there are disadvantages. In order to attract the publisher in the first place, the developer has to hire employees, rent office space, and handle other administrative tasks that increase his overhead. Royalties are seldom paid, and the developer is inevitably underpaid for the effort required to complete each project. Finally, chasing the next contract becomes the order of the day, because without a new contract, there will be no new money and the company is unlikely to survive.

The last approach, becoming an indie, is not the easiest path. But it does have certain advantages. For example, the indie has full control over the games he makes, with no outside publisher dictating changes. The indie can do what he wants, when he wants. Also, the indie owns his own intellectual property.

Jeff defined the indie game developer as one who is self-funded, self-selling, and operating with no publisher funding. Self-funded, since there is virtually no way for the indie to acquire outside funding. Self-selling, because the indie is almost certainly going to have to plan his own marketing and oversee his own sales. Though, it's possible that the indie could negotiate with someone else to handle these.

Now is a very good time to become an indie, Jeff says, for several reasons. First, Internet distribution means the indie can begin selling his game with no money put on the line. Also, the technology available for such things as 3D engines and network layers has become cheaply, and in some cases freely, available. Finally, the Internet makes it possible to connect with other indies, from all over, to create a game that one person alone would find impossible. So-called "virtual teams" are not the easiest to manage, but with the Internet, these type of teams become possible.

Jeff concluded by presenting his "Five Easy Steps" to become an indie:

  1. Find development partners.
  2. Keep it small.
  3. Invent.
  4. Publish/Market/Sell.
  5. Create portfolios of evergreen products.

The Publisher Option
Presenters: Steve Letsom, John Folliard, Dan Duncalf

This panel presented the option of pursuing a publisher. Why use a publisher? According to Dan Duncalf, a publisher was the only way they could achieve a 1 million-unit selling game. To sell at that level requires a significant marketing effort, and only a publisher has pockets deep enough to fund such an effort. Also, Dan's company wanted to make a name for themselves, to build equity in their company name, which they could do by piggybacking on the publisher's promotion of their game. And, finally, the publisher would fund the development of their game engine, which could be used in future games.

Other discussion centered on making milestones as the key to keeping your publisher happy (and those advance payments coming). There was some talk of game agents, what they do for the developer and how to best use them.

Remote Team Management
Presenters: Dave Myers, Justin Mette

Justin and Dave used a tag-team approach to present what they've learned about remote team management in their efforts to build their company, 21-6. Since a team is almost necessary to create a game today, and since it's unlikely that the indie is going to have a central office, it's important that indies learn how to manage their teams from afar.

The first step of team management is building the team. The indie should present himself, or his company, as professionally as possible. This is especially true if he doesn't have a track record of completed games. When looking for team members, the indie should post where he expects to find team members, but he shouldn't assume that such a passive approach will be enough. He needs to find people that interest him, and email them. Even if those people aren't interested, there's a good chance they know someone who is. The indie needs to know not only if the person can do what the project needs, but if the person meshes or "clicks" with the indie and/or the rest of the team.

It's important for the indie to thoroughly interview all prospective team members. Don't just rely on instant messaging or email. Call the person up and talk to him. Or, if it's possible, meet him face-to-face. It's also important to be very clear about expections during these opening stages. What does the indie expect of this team member? And what does the team member expect? There is no such thing as being too clear on these issues. Being vague now can lead to serious problems later. And don't shirk the legal aspects. You don't need a lawyer for everything, but you do need some form of agreement that outlines all responsibilities and expectations for all parties involved.

With the team created, the presentation moved onto actually managing the team. There are several communication problems that must be overcome for a team to be successful: isolation, lack of vision, and lack of motivation. With no central office, isolation becomes a serious issue. People working alone can easily fall out of the loop. Lack of vision results from the indie not getting through to the team in a way that expresses the vision of the project. Where is the project going? What kind of project is it? Lack of motivation derives from the previous too, especially isolation, as the team member sees no visible progress and loses steam. These problems can occur in any team environment, of course, but are particularly significant in a virtual team.

Communication is the key to managing a remote team successfully. Don't rely solely on email and instant messaging. Accept the cost of phone calls as a necessary expense of doing business. Schedule and hold regular project and team meetings. These meetings will almost certainly be held via text chat, but they help foster a sense of familiarity and openness. Keep all of the team members up-to-date with project status emails. As part of organizing the project, and empowering the team, the indie should communicate as much information as possible to the team members. From design documents to project milestones, the indie should make sure that every team member knows what's going on in the project. Also, team members should be encouraged to communicate with each other.

Publishers View of Developers
Presenter: Randy Dersham

Randy Dersham, formerly of Electronic Arts, presented the publisher's view of the love-hate relationship between publishers and developers. Publishers are often in competition with developers because the publishers have their own in-house teams developing games. But the outside game developer is still necessary for the publisher to "fill in the holes" of its SKU plan for the upcoming quarters. The publisher, with its SKU plan, has very specific projects in mind when it goes looking for a developer.

The publisher's primary concern, outside of fulfilling its SKU plan, is to take as little risk as possible. The goal of every contract is to minimize the risk the publisher faces. With that risk averse attitude, the publisher insists on having as much control over the developer as it can. This control is exercised through in-house producers. Finally, the publisher wants every outside project to have future potential, a franchise so to speak, whether in sequels or spinoffs. A game which doesn't show this kind of potential isn't interesting to a publisher. Similarly, the publisher wants a game with a strong, "emotional" demo. Without a strong demo, the publisher's sales force doesn't have confidence in the game and lowers sales projects.

On the negative side, the publisher is not interested in a team which has a history of missed milestones or costs overruns. Also, the publisher doesn't want the developer's team to change in mid-project. They don't want to see the developer's key personnel being moved from their project to another project.

Publishers consider a number of questions about prospective developers. What kind of developer are they? What game credits do they have? What kind of work history have they demonstrated? What was their last project? And how successful was it? Who are the developer's key employees? What is the developer's core technology? And so on.

The most powerful words the publisher can hear about any developer are: Proven successful. The developer needs to accumulate as many pieces and projects as possible where they have been "proven successful." This is all part of the publisher's risk management.

A developer can attract a publisher's interest by having "name" employees with proven industry track records. Also, if the developer has a key technology that solves a publisher's current problem. Similarly, if the developer owns a license that the publisher is interested in (though this has become harder to do in recent years). A history of a specialty that meets the publisher's needs is another way. Publishers prefer specialists to generalists. The number one source of new developer contracts, however, is when the developer can meet a deadline that the publisher can't.

In summary, publishers are risk averse, and look to "proven successful" developers to help them avoid that risk.

PR for Indies
Presenters: Jay Moore, James Hills

Even with the best gameplay in the world, if no one ever hears about the game, then any game will fail. Thus, marketing the game is very important, even for indies. PR is an important part of marketing anything.

The basis of public relations (PR) is a continuing "story" about a product, in this case an indie game, that provides exposure for the product. The first lesson of PR for the indie is to get out of his own head, into the heads of his players--and into the minds and agenda of the media for whom he is creating the story. The focus of the PR should be appropriate to the intended audience. Focus on what the game is. Look for a surprise, an interesting twist. And, if possible, give the story a human interest angle. PR should be persistant and constant--and consistent. The basic message of the PR story should not change over time. If the story changes, the message gets confused and lost.

The gamer press is hungry for something that is not yet another story about one of the top 50 games that have been predicted and previewed for the last couple of years. This provides an edge for indies working on relatively unknown games. On the other hand, getting access to the producers and decision makers of media outlets can be a real challenge for indies.

The indie must tell his story well. He should never send out any press material without proofing it first. If sending a demo to a media outlet, he should follow it up with a phone call and offer to lead the press person through the demo. This makes sure that all the good points of the game, the ones the indie definitely wants considered, are seen in the most positive light. And if there are any problems with the demo, the indie can steer the person around them or through them.

Online news sites are the easiest venues, but they also have the shortest shelf-life. Word-of-mouth is extraordinarily important for indies, but is generated slowly, requiring time to build up. As Jay Moore put it (several times), each of these is "just one more bullet." There is no silver bullet, no one thing that will guarantee that a game is successful. Rather, the indie must be continually working on marketing his game.

MMO Games: Fortune or Folly?
Presenter: Kelly Asay

Whether a Massively Multi-player Online (MMO) game is "fortune or folly?" depends on who you ask, why you want to make an MMO game in the first place, and your understanding of what you know you don't know.

"Fortune or folly?" is a matter of perspective. If you ask Sony or Microsoft, then then answer is simple. They have enormous resources available and they can enter the potentially profitable MMO arena and make it work. If they didn't make the attempt, that would be a mistake. But if you, as an indie, enter the MMO game market attempting to compete directly with a company like Sony or Microsoft, then the answer is definitely "Folly."

As an indie, you should analyze the market carefully, looking for a niche you can dominate. The market isn't saturated if you do your research and avoid the areas where the big companies have already taken over. Look for alliances with other companies, for access to resources as well as possible new avenues of revenue. Indies must be willing to use the tools available.

Rather than decide to create a multi-player game by default, because it's the hip thing at the moment, ask yourself, "Is my game really a multi-player game?" Multi-player games are played for one of three reasons: combat, competition, or community. If none of those fits your game, then maybe you should focus on single-player instead.

The economics of MMO games are interesting. While only a relatively few subscribers are necessary to generate a good revenue stream, expenses account for nearly 65% of revenue. The number one obstacle to finding an audience of subscribers is reaching them with your marketing.

How serious are you about making an MMO game? If you have the guts, do your homework and take the risk.

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Date this article was posted to 11/11/2002
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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