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

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.

State of the Industry panel: Brian Fiete (PopCap), James Gwertzman (Sprout Games), Dave Nixon (Oberon), John Welch (PlayFirst), Gabe Zicherman (TryMedia), and Wallace Poulter (Infinium Labs)

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.

Opportunity Costs

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."

Jeff Tunnel, giving his keynote address (picture courtesy of Dan MacDonald)

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.

Little Soldiers (squarecircleco, Dan MacDonald, and Phelios)

Derelict (Laughing Dragon Games)

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.

Phil Carlisle doing...well...you decide...

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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