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Indie Games Con 2004 - Shovels, Consoles, Coin-Op, and Portals

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.

New opportunities

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.

FlexArcade cabinet with Orbz (21-6)

"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.

Serious Games

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

  New Opportunities
  Old Familiar Issues

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