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At the Indie Games Con 2002

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.

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