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Games Entertainment

Can Independent Game Developers Survive? 214

Zanthor writes "Online Gaming - Comments and News has an interesting interview with Scott Miller and Larry Dunlap (Imperial Wars) about their up-and-coming game. While the concept has been around since the old Play By Mail games, their web-based client and world-class art pose the question: Can a small start up group compete with the big name publishers for the Multi-Player money?" EA employs how many people?
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Can Independent Game Developers Survive?

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  • by happyhippy ( 526970 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:02PM (#5107654)
    and not by how big you are.
    • So how does a small startup, not big enough to get recognized by Nintendo, publish on a popular handheld platform with a decent game-style input device?

    • by Drakula ( 222725 ) <tolliver&ieee,org> on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:57PM (#5107878) Homepage Journal
      It helps to be big. If you don't have the cash for marketing it can be very tough to get your game out there. That is the whole reason game developers connect with publishers in the first place, the money for ads.

    • It's just that when you're a big company, you can afford to hire all those expensive artists to make the game look good, or hire that extra programmer to fix collision detection or add in some other gameplay feature. Or what about compatibility testing? That takes time and money the smaller players will have difficulty with.
    • iD software only has 17 employees, and only 2 work on the engine. that's almost small enough to be "independent", and look at them.
      • by Archie Steel ( 539670 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @04:37PM (#5109126)
        True, but they had early successes that made them a ton of money. Back in the days of Wolfenstein 3D and Commander Keen, competition wasn't as brutal as it is today.

        These days id can afford to only have 17 employees because they only release one game every two years and a half or so. Like Blizzard, they can afford to work on a game for as long as they need to because they've got this cash reserve from previous hits. There are very few companies who can afford that - most need to churn out a steady flow of games in order to survive. That usually means larger teams.
      • You should remember that id's titles are published by Activision, which does have the dollars to market their top titles. So, id isn't really all that independent after all. Independent game developers are those that basically only have the resources required to make the game, not promote, distribute, market it in any way.
    • It is very expensive to make a modern game with great art, huge levels, original music, etc...

      The big companies have the money to pay everyone to work on the game. The lone guy in his basement just doesn't have the resources to make games that have a lot of art, music, etc... The small group can still make certain games that are not quite so captital intensive to create, but it is then hard to market the thing even if you do ever finish it. The sequel to Stars! is languishing because the developers can't get any backing to finish it and they had a somewhat successful game under their belts already. Its a tough business these days.

  • Yes. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:05PM (#5107665)
    By outsourcing animation, sound and music, and concentrating on programming. That's what Bungie did (didn't save them from themselves though). There's just too much to do in a modern game for a small startup to cope with, unless they're really smart like Relic software and manage to make something which has high quality graphics/sound without much effort.
  • I defenetly think that this game can make it and compete. Snood survived with little or no advertizing and beceame a phenomonon. I defenetly think that this game can beat the big guys if it is unique and different from all the other drek that is handed out by the big developers.

    I, for one, would pay for, and play this game if it is good. All it takes is a little work by the developers to make the game good, and then a lot of showing the game to the masses
    • Snood doesn't count (Score:2, Informative)

      by yerricde ( 125198 )

      Snood survived with little or no advertizing and beceame a phenomonon.

      Snood was a port of an arcade game called "Puzzle Bobble" aka "Bust-A-Move". It rode on the advertising of BAM.

  • Virgin markets (Score:5, Interesting)

    by niker ( 593109 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:07PM (#5107672)
    > Can a small start up group compete with the big name publishers for the Multi-Player money?

    you'd be surprised, at least in the brazilian and portuguese market. It's pretty virgin in the game developing sector, and publishers are keeping an eye out for almost all projects made by "amateurs" in the industry. check:

    http://www.truedimensions .net

    TD is under construction :\
  • by Sonny Yatsen ( 603655 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:08PM (#5107679) Journal
    Remember Richard Garriot AKA Lord British? He used to sell his Akalabeth game with a plastic baggie and Xeroxed manuals. If the game is good enough, someone will buy it, no matter how bad the presentation.
    • Check your facts (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Note the year. Yes, it's 2003. Games have become a lot more complex than they were in 1980. In 2003 game production is an extremely costly process, not unlike movie production. You need a whole team of programmers and artists, not to mention sales, marketing, distribution, and who knows what else. To say that an independent developer can compete on this level is simply insane.
      • Yes, it is 2003, and I agree that selling games in a plastic baggy would probably not work anymore, you're right. But the thing that you are incorrect about is that all games must be extremely costly to produce and sell; this is incorrect. Perhaps all of the games that you are thinking of, such as Halo, GTA 3, or Final Fantasy could only be done with massive teams and large amounts of people, but that does not exclude anyone from making smaller, less ambitious games that will still sell a few copies. Someone mentioned Bungie Software, who before joining Microsoft both developed and published its own games. One of their more successful titles, Myth: The Fallen Lords was produced by a total of seven or eight people on its team. It sold well in respect to Bungie's standards, which was only a few hundred thousand copies, and made them enough money to continue developing games. Many people at Bungie predicted (and accurately, I believe) that Halo would never have become the game that it was, nor would it have sold nearly as many copies, had Bungie continued outside Microsoft and released the game for PC's. It certainly would have been successful in _their_ eyes, but because it lacked the backing of a large publisher, could never have reached the magnitude of the best-selling games on the PC. So while I think it is possible to develop games independently, it takes lots of talent, knowledge of the markets and your product's niche, and a little luck to have a chance at being successful.
    • Remember the times? My recollection from Apple II+ //e days is that a baggie, a sheet or two of paper, and a 5.25" floppy with paper sleeve was common. "Successful" game companies literally were run out of garages. Then around '83 or so there was so much cash from outside investors, similar to recent "internet" investing frenzy, it started to become necessary to have full color boxes and full page full color ads. If you didn't do so, distributors and stores wouldn't touch you regardless of the quality of the game. And of course with all the expensive boxes and ads computer games stopped making the profits they used to. Few companies survived the times and those that did were not necessarily the best game designers and developers.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:09PM (#5107684)
    Introversion [introversion.co.uk] ended up quite successful with their simple hacking sim "Uplink".

    It's a fun little game that started out as the guy's pet project, but ended up taking off and has sold many many copies since.

    Heck I ended up buying a few copies for Xmas presents this year, and most of my friends agreed it was quite enjoyable. Runs on both Windows and Linux.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:12PM (#5107692)
    As somebody who's been in the industry for 9+ years, I'm going to tell you that you'd better have something so out of the water good (like, Doom, for instance) or noone is going to bother without the massive flood of marketing that the idio-trons have come to count on. I've seen GREAT games made by large companies flounder, due to not enough marketing. And conversely, I've seen sub-par drivel sell millions because of a marketing blitz.
    Independant games can be "successful", in the same way that independant movies are. The majority of them are seen by a few, who love them. But only 1 in a few hundred make any money at all (like Blair Witch or My...Greek Wedding). It's not the fault of the movie (or the game), it's just the average lazy consumer DEPENDS on the magic box to tell him what to buy, wear, watch, etc. Without the voices from the wonderful box, the average person just does not have the gumption to go out and LOOK for whatever it is that they really want. They take the best of what is offered them. Truly sad, but very true.

    • by KDan ( 90353 )
      So maybe someone should start a central resource for independent games, where small developers can advertise their cool stuff, and then everyone concentrate on marketting that resource?

      • They already have??

      • Doesn't help. Real marketing costs money. The best a free independent organization could manage would be a website. Well, there are thousands of websites out there dedicated to games, some of them discuss good freeware or shareware or open source or independent games. However, nothing is going to make tens of millions of consumers visit any of these web sites to inform their purchases. They already exist, but they are a drop in the bucket compared to corporate advertising. Shelf space in major retail chains is also critical for commercial success for nearly all games, and that isn't easy for independent developers to negotiate.
        • You're a fool if you believe that marketing changes anything in the long run. What about reviews? What about word-of-mouth? I think you'll find far more people rely on these things than some ad they saw to enforce their decisions, and in a market like this, a game can be a hit before the marketing dept. has time to throw out some ads. Take Battlefield 1942. From what I've seen, it's gained huge popularity soley by word-of-mouth.
      • I really wonder what the distribution curve is like for how many games someone buys in a year. In other words, what percentage of the game industry revenue comes from someone who buys 1 game a year versus someone who buys 10+ games a year.

        If the 10+ games a year money is significant, then it seems like a subscription-based system could make some serious money. Game-of-the-month club. How much would you pay for a subscription to that, if the games were decent? Hmmm...

      • So maybe someone should start a central resource for independent games, where small developers can advertise their cool stuff, and then everyone concentrate on marketting that resource?




    • > Truly sad, but very true.

      But would they, could they in a house?
      Would they, could they with a mouse?

      Okay... I've got nothing. Taking off karma bonus.
    • So what about the gaming websites like bluesnews, ign, gamespot/spy? Or does the term "payola" extend from the music industry to the gaming industry?
      • Most of them are clean, but that doesn't mean that you automaticly can develope any sort of following through them. The readers there are looking for information on particular games, and generally aren't looking for new things.

        In addition, when on these sights, your game is side by side with pro titles. It is difficult to stand out, as people there are going to give games a visual once-over at best.

        Now, this isn't to say that it is impossible, just that there is a limit to what these sites can do. They can start buzz well, but you have to be buzz worthy in the first place relative to everything else on the page.
    • Those failed GREAT games you mentioned. . .

      Did they fail because they didn't get ordered by the stores/distributors, or did they fail because after making it to the display racks they did not sell enough copies?

      That is, would Joe Average have had a chance to have seen copies during a visit to the local computer store? I've always been curiuos about this. I wonder if there are great works which never even had a chance to compete in the light of day. Is this the case?

      Just curious. A list of "failed great" titles would be cool. The chance that there are hidden bits of gold glittering out there someplace is enticing!

      -Fantastic Lad

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:12PM (#5107693)
    I hope the gaming community keeps independance from the bigger gaming companies.

    All music is controlled by the bigger companies and look at that as the failed model. I wouldn't want this for games either.

    In the US already we have games which follow on from the success of others, advancing little but offering the tried and tested routine. (Like some movies an music)

    If we keep some of these smaller publishers then it might raise the bar of game playing and game design.

    In Europe some smaller gaming publisher see games as an art and not the same way as EA or Infogrammes. Thus their motives are different and allows them to take greater risk in their creation of games,instead of playing it safe, just creating sequels or clones and maximizing profits as much as possible.

  • My Experiences (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NeoMoose ( 626691 ) <neomoose@@@despammed...com> on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:17PM (#5107714) Homepage Journal
    I was part of an independant game studio for awhile, but funds ran out and we were done before we ever released our first project. It really is EXTREMELY rough for those of us indie companies to get by. Especially with the fierce competition that has spouted up over the last years.

    The only real indie-type game that has even somewhat made it has been Serious Sam and Gore. And that isn't much. Serious Sam is certainly great but Gore left a bad aftertaste in my mouth.
  • by SHEENmaster ( 581283 ) <travis AT utk DOT edu> on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:17PM (#5107715) Homepage Journal
    but the OS X market is virgin enough for the picking.

    You have tons of users to a relatively new OS missing featured and games from before while unwilling to leave the new features. Make games for them if you need money, but don't quit your dayjob first.
    • I know of what you speak. My friends and I made a game and we did it for the mac. Our thinking is that the mac was a starved market so we sould get some notice. There are a couple of things to watch out for when you are a small group like us.

      1. There is a chance you have a day job, like us. It took us 5 years from start to finish and the mac was more saturated with games by that time. Not to mention our technology was sub par. Therefor go for something simple like a puzzle but still be very innovative.

      2. Marketing is king. We went through a publisher and people like them who have to make numbers for the quarter quickly get discouraged and pull marketing when the game is not doing well. I certainly don't blame them for that.

      If you are curious to see the game I am talking about it is Atlas [freeverse.com].

      I am in the midst of making a new game on my own though I was not a programmer for the old one. I am going to try to use what I learned old one. I am still going to outsource art and sound but I am going to keep it simple for myself. Then I am going to be as creative and hard working as I can be to market the crap out of it and even possibly attempt to distribute it myself. Right now I am stuck on the programming part as I don't have much experience and I am trying to use Crystal Space [sourceforge.net] for an engine but the learning curve is getting me. I hope this project does not drag out too far because of that.
    • I would hardly call the OS X market virgin anymore. If you look at the games most played [gameranger.com] on GameRanger (by far the biggest online gaming service for Macs), all of them besides Rogue Spear have OS X native versions. While there aren't as many games from big publishers on OS X, there is still a very hefty number. The games on that list are all ports of games made by big companies. Very few small companies have been able to put out fun, exciting, original titles. One notable exception is Ambrosia [ambrosiasw.com] who puts out, among other things, the classic Escape Velocity series. Other Mac games from small, independent developers that I can think of that gained moderate notoriety are Airburst and Netfungus.

      The common theme of these games is that they focus on the gameplay while using relatively simple looking graphics. It's unrealistic to expect a small company to put out a modern FPS given the complexity that such a project requires. However, a game with simple and fun gameplay can do well even if it doesn't have all the latest bells and whistles to wow the user superficially.
  • by gl4ss ( 559668 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:17PM (#5107718) Homepage Journal
    www.llamasof.co.uk [llamasoft.co.uk].

    jeff minter was ultra cool at the alternative partys btw.. he even threw a special version of gridrunner++ to everyone who were there(no not actual physical discs/medium but download..)!

    anyways.. he hinted that something 'big' is coming on 23rd day.. and this is on-topic on can indep. survive...
  • by Bushipunk ( 149985 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:18PM (#5107723) Homepage
    In some respects, indie developers can have a better chance as startups, since in theory their overhead is lower. The games industry is a lot like the movie industry, in that the big budget titles, even if they're very popular, can often end up not making a lot of money.

    Of course, there's always the need to define 'indie,' a problem that applies to games as much as music or movies. Just being small doesn't make you independent; if you've got a relationship with a publisher or larger company, that makes a big difference, even if your company/studio is only a handful of people.

    Whether a truly 'indie' developer can survive depends a lot on the market they're going after. If they're doing a niche product, especially something a little retro, they've got a chance to make it on the quality of their product (or sometimes even lack of competition, although that's rare). If they embrace an alternative business model instead of vainly trying to get shelf space, they've got a shot. If, on the other hand, they want to actually compete with major developers and big publishers, they rarely stand much of a chance.

    At least that's what I've seen. There are exceptions. There are a lot of ways to approach the games industry, for those with the will to do so.

    • In some respects, indie developers can have a better chance as startups, since in theory their overhead is lower. The games industry is a lot like the movie industry, in that the big budget titles, even if they're very popular, can often end up not making a lot of money.
      Often times, big budget titles that don't make a lot of money domestically when they're first released, more than make up for this in overseas sales as well as the rental/sell-through market (VHS/DVD).

      The question is, what are the analogous revenue streams for games? I think it's going to be rental gaming. To this end, check out Yahoo!'s new game rental service [yahoo.com] for "second-run" games.
  • Independant games are flourishing. (look at http://rpgtoolkit.com)

    Really, anyone can break in as long as they find a good niche. Naturally, if an independent churns out a quake clone it's not necissarily gonna be picked up by fans everywhere.

    But think of your favorite games -- weren't they unique in some way?
  • by ImperfectTommy ( 137724 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:21PM (#5107733)
    The problem for independent game developers comes down to this: game creation is a massively labor intensive process, requiring more cash than most can acquire. Worse, many game developers are young and inexperienced making schedules and budgets neigh-impossible to control. When small start-ups begin to hiccup on the development, the end usually isn't far off.

    My guess is if Imperial Wars is to last, it'll be picked up by a major publisher. It's interesting to note, the entertainment software market is narrowing down to 2 main publishers, EA and Microsoft, making the market less friendly towards independents hoping for publishing deals.
    • What about Activision, who publishes id Software's games? Between EA and Microsoft, which company do you predict will swallow Activision?

      • Both EA and Microsoft like to acquire independent developers like Westwood and Digital Anvil, not other publishers. This is because publishers need great content and shelf space to sell great content. If a competing publisher goes out of business, neither EA nor Micrsoft minds -- it's less competition for shelf space they want to own. Sometimes, after a publisher sinks, another publisher may swoop in to purchase rights to old games for a song. There's no compelling reason for one publisher to buy another. You'd buy a great game regardless what publisher's name is on the box. Video gamers are loyal to great games, not publishers.

        That said, Activision is doing okay. They aren't going away anytime soon.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I haven't been following it lately, but last time I looked they had 20 employees.

    They seem to be doing alright.
    • ...id's got John-to-the-C...and he's a pretty smart mother f*cker. He's a programmer who actually knows what he's doing, where there's a lot of no-counts out there who THINK they know how to program. Newbies keep cranking out code that has already been written by someone else, and as Bjarne Stroustrup always says, don't re-invent the f*cking wheel.
  • by Taco Cowboy ( 5327 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:38PM (#5107795) Journal

    Independent Game Developers are developers of softwares.

    And the term "softwares" does include things like MOVIES, MUSIC, WEB CONTENTS, ONLINE BOOKS, and, yes, computer softwares.

    We all know how powerful is the Hollywood behemoths, right ?

    But if we pay enough attention, we will see that there are still a large group of movie producers who prefer to work OUTSIDE of Hollywood's control and/or influences.

    They are known as "independents".

    Yes, the game industry is very competitive right now. The lifespans of game titles are in usually weeks, not months or years, like it used to.

    But hey, in the world of movies, lifespan are in weeks too, and there is no lack of independent producers/directors keep churning out movies according to their own liking.

    Yep, most of the products suck. But once in a while, we do have some real gems.

    As the world of the movies never count out the "indies", we, in the software world shouldn't count out our own "indies" too.

    It's the indies who work in garages or basements who often come out with ingenious notion of how things are done.

    In the gaming world, we have largely two genre of games - Shoot-em-ups and race-and-flips.

    Well ... methinks its time for some new ways to entice players to get involve in REAL gameplay.

    And perhaps this time, it'd be the indies who'd come up with it.

  • by obsidianpreacher ( 316585 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:38PM (#5107796)
    I'm surprised that no one here has mentioned some biggy indie developments. Granted, they are not necessarily full-fledged games within and of themselves, but the modding community does have the ability to crank out some great games, including the ability to make and/or break a game.

    For instance, Half-Life. OK, it's a great game, good storyline, sold pretty decently. Then comes the Counter-Strike mod for it (created by an indie developer). Suddenly H/L explodes, and is still selling thousands of copies per year (don't forget that it came out many many years ago). From here, the CS team has since been "merged" into VALVe Software, and a new game (Counter-Strike: Condition Zero) is the result.

    Other great examples of this are the original Team Fortress for QuakeWorld and Action Quake for both Quake I and Quake II. (Action Quake actually partially inspired Counter-Strike).

    Independent developers are rampant in the RPG and War Simulation genres. Simple Google searches can reveal a surprising amount of good games out there, including ones that are sold on a per-download basis (thus eliminating the publisher altogether). Granted, they may not be making a tremendous amount of money, but almost no indie in any form of entertainment will make a lot of money ... that's just the way our current (crappy) system is set up.

    For a more corporate aspect, I would recommend taking a look at GoD Games [godgames.com], which started out as a collection of developers joining together to form their own publishing group. (Publishing is where the actual game is made/broken. If you don't have a publisher, your game, however good it is, will not go very far) It's since been phenomenally successful.

    I see no reason that indie developers can't stay together and functioning in the big world of mega-hits like EA's (well, Maxis') The Sims. The form of entertainment is simply too broad for the big wheels to cover everything.
    • I'm surprised that no one here has mentioned some biggy indie developments.

      The biggies, though, are the rare exceptions. For every 10,000 indie game developers that don't make a dime, there's one Counter-Strike. And CS piggybacked off of an extremely popular game, so it's fairly different from custom-built indie games.
  • An on-line mmporg called Planetarion set up by a 5-person company called 5th Season in Norway has gone throught this cylcle already.

    The game is/was based around hourly 'turns' running 24/7, and it is entirely html based, there is no client software beyond your browser. It has run for a few years now, and peaked at over 180,000 accounts when it was funded entirely by banner adverts, when the big advertising crash forced it to go 'pay to play' id dropped to around 10,000 people paying about $6-10 for a 3 month 'round'

    Eventually, last November, they ran out of money and abandoned a round part way through. Possibly this was because the community of players didn't approve of recent changes to game design, or possibly because the game required too much on-line time to be successful in - strong alliances would expect a 12-hour on-line time per day from their members. The game has been take over by another company, Jolt, who plan a re-launch early this year.

    I was very active in [Titans], the Legion [Vts], and originally in Yi-He Quan [YHQ], and had a lot of fun in the game, but I'm probably not playing the new round because to do well, you need to check your planet every 3-4 hours continually for 3 months.
  • I mean, really, what's so damn hard about producing a nice box and manual? The cost of entry to writing documentation is zero, after all, and the cost of printing it is, while certainly greater than the cost of writing the CD, not high on a per-unit basis.

    And if you really can't afford to do either of these things, try to partner with an established marketing company that can. Cut them in for a % - probably a fat %. Make sure you can get out the next time you produce a game, because for game #2, you'll have money in your pocket to produce (or hire to have produced) these things on your own, and your established rep will give you more market share.
    • There's a game that tried this. It's called Jumpgate [jossh.com]. They partnered with 3DO. 3DO screwed them by putting nearly 0 marketing into it and assuming all rights to the game.

      Then Netdevil [netdevil.com] bought the game back from 3DO and are running it themselves, quite profitablby I might add.
    • Ok...so how are you going to get thos boxes on store shelves? There's a whole logistical process behind that, as well as a sales pitch/network to figure out. That's a whole lot of time and effort, on top of the schedule you have to keep to just to make the game. It's just not that simple.
  • by Midnight Ryder ( 116189 ) <<moc.redyrthgindim> <ta> <redyrdim>> on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:46PM (#5107832) Homepage

    A lot of independant game developers survive just fine. Depending on the game style you work with, a single person can do all the work - surviving then is a lot easier than a 40 person team. Most of my games have been single player [midnightryder.com] puzzle games [midnightryder.com] *. I have a day job, and do my game programming at night - it's trivial for my game company to 'survive' in that environment.

    But when you get into monsters that require a team like Trajectory Zone (under development - have [garagegames.com] some [garagegames.com] sample [garagegames.com] screen [singleflame.com] shots [singleflame.com]), then things change a lot. As a single person development team, it's easy to make all the choices, do the job, and not have to worry as much about timelines, depending on someone getting thier job done (or, just as important - you getting your job done on time.) And that's just doing it 'part-time' - IE, keeping a day job, and working on games at night. Try and do it full time, and it gets even more complicated - where's the next infusion of cash come from? Or more importantly, where's lunch come from?

    That's not to say it's so complicated that people aren't doing it as Indies - they are. Heck, after Trajectory Zone ships, I'll finally move to full time game development instead of part-part time. (Funny words actually - "part-time" doesn't describe living, breathing, eating, and dreaming game development in all your "spare time.")

    I always like readin' about games like Imperial Wars - nice to see someone doing' it. When I spoke at Indie Games Con 2002 [indiegamescon.com] my co-speaker was a full time Indie developer. Really cool to spend some time talkin' to someone who was doin' it full time, and find out how they managed to pull of what they have done so far. David Michael [samugames.com] wasn't the only person there doing it full time, of course - there were others too, and talkin' to them ended up giving me a lot of insight. If you are really seriously interested in Indie game development, hit the next Indie Game Con - there's a lot to be learned there.

    Oh, and for those interested - here's a transcript of the speach [midnightryder.com]. It's got a lot of interesting stuff in it - oddly enough, the title of the speach is "Can I Make Money As An Indie Game Developer?" - very appropriate to this particular /. thread :-)

    Another place to go look around at when it comes to Indie Game Development - Garage Games [garagegames.com] lots of people there working towards Indie game releases at the moment, and some people who have already completed thier current projects and moving to the next game. Look in the business section and the general sections for some really good discussion on the subject (note - just like anywhere else, gotta sift a bit to find the good stuff from the crud.)

    (*Yes, some shameless self-promotion there. Sorry, it's totally nessisary :-)

  • Clan Lord (Score:2, Interesting)

    by rackniraz ( 593103 )
    This game [deltatao.com] by Delta Tao got it's start in 1997 as an MMORPG and has been going strong ever since. It's catering to more of a niche and underrated market of course, the Macintosh platform, but they were able to create a highly addictive, playable game that was able to establish a real sense of community. It's something larger companies like Blizzard and Sony aren't capable of due to the fact that they can't possibly listen to all of their customers and customize the game to suit the individual's taste.

    I definitely agree with the previous poster that the Macintosh platform is an untapped market. If you've millions of users with hundreds of choices, you're less likely to succeed, even if your game is awesome. There will always be something better. If you're working on a platform with less users, still millions, but with maybe 2 or 3 choices, you're far more likely to make money.
  • by Dave_21-6 ( 635736 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @12:49PM (#5107842) Homepage
    The fact is that most (and I mean 99.9999%) of indie game studios will never have the money or muscle to compete with the big published games. So why try? Why not take a different approach? Why not simply try to produce a few smaller titles and incrementally build up enough of a revenue stream that you can pay your bills? Sell them ESD, but always be on the lookout for partners that will (a) allow you to keep your IP and (b) can get you in front of an increasingly-larger audience (like OEM deals, bargain box retail opportunities, and magazine cover disks).

    This is what our studio is attempting to do, and though it's too early to tell how successful we'll be, we believe it's the best route to a self-sufficient indie studio. Successes like Popcap [popcap.com] and GameHouse [gamehouse.com] are inspiring, and give one roadmap to being self-sufficient. Another good example is Small Rockets [smallrockets.com].

    In our case we are working very closely with GarageGames [garagegames.com] as our primary publisher/distributor. Between their help teaching us how to handle PR and marketing, their willingness to give advice on how to be successful, and our own attempts at networking, we think we will be a successful indie in the not-too-distant future. A good example of such cooperation was last week's MacWorld in San Francisco, where we helped run an arcade station for GG showing their title Marble Blast [garagegames.com] and our title Orbz [garagegames.com] (small, shameless plug). By joining them in SF for a few days, we were rewarded by making several contacts for future game development work and possible OEM deals.

    This is how indies can "compete" with the big publishers.

    Dave Myers

    21-6 Productions, Inc. [21-6.com]

    • Go Orbz! Go Garage Games! :)

      The big guys are looking at moving towards more and more online distribution (witness Valve's Steam). As people get used to that idea, it can only help indie developers and publishers of indie games.

      So I totally agree with your post; however, I'd like to add something.

      Studios are going to continue to be hit-driven, perhaps more even than they are today, as the non-hits get weeded out in the struggle for shelf space at WalMart. There's no business sense in EA going for a 50,000-seller-- but plenty of money to be made for a smaller business.

      Indies can serve two markets far better than the big publishers, and the big publishers won't even want to compete. First, they can target niches-- a submarine simulation will not sell a million copies, it won't be a franchise, and it won't support a company with a large international publishing structure to support. Second, indie developers can take risks with gameplay ideas. EA has to evolve gameplay-- anything too new, like Battlezone, and you'll only get the hardcore gaming audience. But jaded gamers grown sick of sequels and spinoffs and franchises will be more than willing to plunk down $15 for a small-time game that does some new things, even if it still has rough edges.

      I think Orbz fits into that second part. It's not a mega-production-value, 60-person-team game with cinematics and kooky NPCs. It won't be on WalMart's shelf next to Ratchet and Clank. It's a great example of what indie games can bring that big publishers can't.

      As a fairly jaded gamer, I really do hope indie game development grows substantially over the next several years. It'll bring a lot more creativity to an industry that's increasingly learned to play it safe.

      (BTW, congrats on Orbz-- it's a lot of fun!)
  • by windi ( 231689 )
    Yes. If the game the small company offers is good, why shouldn't they be able to compete.

    Most big companies aren't evil and *gasp* even allow competition.
    • Some factors that count against them --

      - The market's desire for eye candy and polish. Art costs money. Even if an artist is absolutely DRIVEN by the desire to create and doesn't really care about money -- a common contention on Slashdot -- he's still got to eat and pay rent. "Craft" and "FreeCiv" haven't exactly dethroned Blizzard's *craft or MicroProse/Firaxis's Civ* games yet, and part of the reason is that they're a hell of a lot less polished.

      - Man-hours do count. Every piece of software could be improved, be it in interface, in stability, or what-not. Bigger houses can devote more programmers and more testers.

      - The costs of marketing and distribution. It's harder to break into retail if you're unknown. Production and shipping costs may be higher, proportionally, for smaller runs.

      For a niche market, like turn-based strongly historical, detailed wargames then certain considerations may go away. For instance, wargamers, usually being an older and less twitchy audience, don't seem to demand FMV intros or voice-overs. However, the RTS crowd may differ in its tastes...
      • "Deer Hunter" did very well.

        Strange but true.

        Anyway, independents should just leverage the Internet. Charge a few bucks. Use Paypal or some other online payment service like Kagi http://www2.kagi.com/ or whatever you like.

        I don't expect most small teams to be able to create lots of movie quality visuals and audio (you can do some but not lots). Start small, don't quit your day job. Do _fun_ and/or _cool_ simple games.

        You'd be surprised how many people just want to sit down and play immediately, not learn the keys, what weapon to use, the map etc.

        There are probably just as many people playing games like minesweeper, freecell, and that gem matching game (can't remember what it's called - not my genre ;) ), than those playing CS. There are TONS of people in the Yahoo games channels (and other online games channels).

        It's difficult to be cutting edge because usually by the time you finish your game the edge has moved. And what's the point?

        It's still gameplay - millions of people aren't playing CS or Starcraft for the visuals.

        They're still playing the same old maps too!

        If in 50 years they are still playing Starcraft/CS, maybe it'll become Tetrified(my term :) ) - e.g. like handheld tetris gamesets or like backgammon/chess sets.
  • I did a:

    wget -rl5 http://www.imperialwars.com/
    grep -l "inux" `find` 2> /dev/null
    grep -l "INUX" `find` 2> /dev/null

    And not a word! :(
  • by Zanthor ( 12084 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @01:05PM (#5107897) Homepage
    I'm happy! I'm happy! I'm happy! I'm happy!

    My site's on /. and still functioning!

  • Indie Games (Score:4, Informative)

    by ryno ( 117754 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @01:06PM (#5107904) Homepage
    I have been working for four years at an indie development shop (~5 employees). We make war games (www.ezgame.com). About half-way through the development of our first game, we found out that a big publisher was making a game with the same setting and general approach to gameplay as ours. We did finish our game (and eventually got published), but it was very difficult to compete. It is important that your game has features that are different than those found in mainstream games. If two companies are trying to implement a game with the same set of features the bigger budget is much more likely to win out.

    One good thing about working at a small shop, though, is that your costs are much lower so you don't have to make nearly as much money to break even.

    Small indie developers generally don't want to stay indie. Usually, you will try and make a prototype for a game, then land a publisher to fund the rest of development (which kind of takes you out of the 'indie' category). If you weren't able to find a publisher, that might be a bad sign for your game.

  • by droleary ( 47999 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @01:15PM (#5107958) Homepage
    One problem with online games (a lot of online things these days) is that they usually demand and involved registration process before you can do anything worthwhile. I honestly don't have the inclination to register like that for every game that comes out just to find out it sucks (or, less likely, doesn't suck). Snowcrash had generic avatars, and Slashdot has ACs. Regardless of how much you favor or disfavor the idea, I know I wouldn't have spent much time on Slashdot at all if I didn't initially have a voice as an AC.
  • by rcs1000 ( 462363 ) <`rcs1000' `at' `gmail.com'> on Saturday January 18, 2003 @01:20PM (#5107992)
    ...but the way that the entire video game industry works right now.

    This is the model: you have a few (maybe 15 with $200m+ sales) publishers, and you have maybe 2,000 independent developers. (There are also in-house development teams, like Core Design, but we're going to ignore them.)

    The independent developers come up with a game idea. But because these firms are (usually) hideously under-capitalised they then need to go flog their idea to a publisher. The publisher then agrees to fund development of the game - subject to milestones - and and negotiates a pitiful royalty rate, which the developer will never (unless they are exremely lucky) see.

    In addition, the publisher usually gets all IP such as brand names. (So, when MegaHunterKiller II is developed, there is no gurantee that the original developer will be asked to make it. A classic example of this is StarFox on the SNES which was originally developed by Argonaut...)

    Oh yes; the publisher can usually pull the plug on the game at any time, leaving the developer high and dry.

    Because advances usually only barely cover the cost of developing the game (and not all the inevitable overheads of running a business), the independent developers lead a nasty hand-to-mouth existence.

    Oh yes, and because the publishers are usually publicly quoted companies that need to make quarterly sales and earnings "numbers" they like to rush games out before they are finished so they can keep their shareholders happy. (Never mind whether that's best for the developer, the publisher or the gameplayer longer-term... lets think of the stock options.) For an example of a stupidly rushed out game, think Turok; ahhh what three months more development could have done to that game...

    No wonder developers want to find another way to finance and get their games to market.

    Self-publishing is one option, but this doesn't solve the problem of finance.

    What I would like to see (as a finance person, closely involved with the video game industry) is a number of private equity houses that finance games independent of publishers. Then, developers could complete (or nearly complete) games before they sold them onto publishers.

    These private equity houses would manage a portfolio of projects, and so wouldn't worry too much about whether a game came out on March 31, or April 20.

    Anyway, just my 2c
    • And you can't actually flog an "idea". Unless you want to work on exactly what the big guys want you to work on it is very tough to get a publisher to pick you up.
    • You're absolutely right about how the traditional indie gets things going

      Follow the money trail though and you'll see how the system perpetuates it:

      $ 49.95 retail title subtract the $ 20.00+ retailer profit (or simply assume that the distributor paid 1/2 face value or less -- how else can they deep discount titles?)
      which means they paid distributor somewhere between $8-15 subtract the "COGS" or Cost of Goods Sold (ie the CD, jewel case, box art, manual et al), with an average weighing in around $3, and that leaves the publisher and developer to split about $8

      don't forget to subtract that advance they gave you, and of course the 'reserve' they hold to handle all the returns the store is going to push back if the game doesn't sell -- oh yeah, and the fact that they hold the money for nearly 90+ days.....and the 'comps' the store gets to sell essentially free for full face value, otherwise known as the 'grease' factor...

      this isn't even specific to Software, its the exact same game that the music industry is doing to artists all the time

      For every title you see on that precious retail shelf-space, there are a dozen that didn't make it there

      the salvation? internet connected consoles -- get ready and start focusing your efforts here....
  • The short answer is No. These days, money is everything.

    If you dont have the expierence, you wont get the BIG name games (and money). If you dont have the big name games, you wont sell enough (aside from a FEW exceptions which stem from old titles). Youll need to sell a lot to make a decent profit/survive

    It takes time. EA have lots and lots of money, lots of employees, lots of links(with owner of names), and because of the money, they have the big lisceneces.

    Therefore they generate more money.

    So, NO, a small startup cannot compete with the big names.

    Of course, small developer and large publisher arent the same things anyway...
  • Starsphere [starsphere.net] is a webbased mmorpg that is 100% free that has been running for ages and has a huge player base and community!

    Clearly independant developers can survive!

  • A good place to see dozens of independent game publishers succeeding is www.shrapnelgames.com where you can find good stuff like Runesword (a sharware RPG now gone commercial) and Space Empires (a shareware 4X game also gone commercial). Both are products of small 1 or 2 person developers and both are making a profit. The author of Space Empires has quit his 'day job' and gone to full time work on his game. There are thriving communites for both games on the message boards, as well. These are only the two most successful of Shrapnel Games titles.
  • the older, side scrolling or text-based games were so much more fun and playable than almost all of the "progressive" newer 3-D rendered games? I like a lot of the 3-D games, but in a way, I miss the old side-scroller games. For instance, I have yet to find a 3-D first-person game where the difficulty of the game wasn't tied directly to the fact that I'm plopped into a 3-D world without stereoscopic or peripheral vision, thus making the "hard parts" simply the inability to perceive and then control the situation. (In real life, it doesn't take 5 seconds to look to the side or turn around.)

    It's too bad that many of the game companies (and many of us) have been convinced that if a game isn't using the most advanced and expensive technology, it can't be good. Yet we long for the olden days of "Blaster Master", "Super Metroid", or even "Combat."

    I applaud those who are working to build foundational tools for Linux games. We need the renderers, photoshops, modelers, etc., so we can focus on game design.

  • I'm surprised nobody's mentioned Chris Sawyer [chrissawyer.com], developer of Rollercoaster Tycoon, only one of the best-selling games of the last few years. (He also wrote Transport Tycoon, of course.)

    He's still basically an independent developer. It's mostly just him and his graphics guy. He has an agency handling the business end of things, and of course Infogrames does the publishing, but as far as the actual game development and programming is concerned it's still a largely independent effort.

    I'm not sure, but it could also explain why RCT had such a low price when it was released.
  • If you just want to write small games for the bargain bin (e.g. "Desert Rats", "Rock Manager", "Bejewelled") I think you can survive. If you mean "Can indie game developers survive going head to head with Id and Epic?", probably not. It'd take a REALLY great game.

    But remember, at one point Id, Epic, and all of those companies started out as Indie game developers.

  • A lot of success for independents has come from focusing on a single product and releasing it for FREE. If it lasted, it would go PAY later.

    However, another way this works is through the developer making contacts with other developers through the process. A developer also gains a lot of valuable experience that helps him or her in future endeavors. Experienced developers teamed up together CAN compete with the big companies!

    To see what I am talking about, read this:

    ARC Attack, Retrieve, Capture. When it was client-side (meaning server passed on packets without verifying client data), it was fast and fun. It was independent for a while, then joined a couple of networks including TEN.NET (Total Entertainment Network).

    TEN.NET became pogo.com, a web-only service so downloadable games had to go. ARC was made server-side (and slower) and licensed for WON.NET, Flipside, and SIERRA--companies that bought it each other out one way or the other.

    Then, we have UniBall (uniball-central.com) created by a guy named "C:\". He made both the graphics and wrote the code. Oh, incidentally, he made all of the graphics for ARC. He hasn't worked on UB since 2000ish. The game is up through donations and admin contributions.

    Finally, we have Pop Cap (popcap.com), makers of those java games you see on MSN's ZONE, YAHOO!, and everywhere else. You can even buy stand-alone versions for Windows and PalmOS.

    What does this have to do with anything? You see, Pop Cap, in a way a monopoly on java games, wouldn't have existed without ARC and UniBall.

    A game designer from Pogo.com (which licensed ARC when it was TEN.NET), an engineer from WON.NET (which licensed ARC), plus two other guys who had to do something with ARC when it was on WON.NET, and ARC's graphic designer and UB creator C:\, all make up Pop Cap Games.

    You see, just make some free stuff to get noticed and to team up with others you meet along the way!

    Also, enter your games into the Independent Games Festival. They award thousands of dollars to winners in different categories, now for the fifth year in a row.

    You can see a bunch of entrants, representing many independent games, at their list of entries.
    http://www.indiegames.com/2003entrants.s html
  • by glenrm ( 640773 )
    I do a couple of things to survive...
    • I don't shoot for the moon
    • I search for like minded people to work with
    • I give the project plenty of development time

    Seems to work for me and my company. Check us out at Zenfar [zenfar.com] and Dynamic Adventures Inc. [dynamicadventures.com].
  • First ask yourself what you mean: Can indie developers compete with established developers for publishers' mindshare and money, or can they compete with the big publishers for the consumers' mindshare and money?

    Intuitively, one would think that the former is easier, but empirically it's becoming apparent that the reverse is true. Numerous games are becoming successful while waiting to find a publisher, and some are deciding to self-publish as a result.

    Two that come to mind from the MMOG world are Furcadia [furcadia.com] and A Tale in the Desert [egenesis.com].
  • I used to love my Play by email (PBEM) Scrabble game! It was a such a great program (built-in dictionary, etc)! Then it went out of business or something and my program which I paid for was now useless. Are there any good PBEM scrabble games out there still? They're great work distractions that aren't really disctractions at all! 1 minute ever hour or so. You honestly cant play like warcraft cuz a) you'd get fired and b) it takes an hour or so of continuous time, but PBEM games rule! I google'd and found some, but all of the seem to be chess games or RPG's - anyone know a reliable board-game one like scrabble?
  • Is he a case for "indies can survive" or "indies can't survive?" He continues to churn out software [3000ad.com] that doesn't appear to sell well or get great reviews. Of course, some will say that the Derek Smart online game [werewolves.org] is the real winner...

    Besides, does a game developer have to produce huge titles to be considered a game developer? Look at Popcap [popcap.com]. They produce small games that are highly addictive. They appear to be quite successful...their games are probably played more than the larger games.
  • I've got a PS2 and a bunch of Linux boxes.

    If you want to sell me a game for my PC, it had better run natively in Linux, or No Sale.

    While I may be in the minority now, I suspect more like me are coming fast behind me....

  • by Junks Jerzey ( 54586 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @04:28PM (#5109070)
    Follow linuxgames.com and count how many Tron light cycles games and remakes of Breakout, Tetris, and Boulder Dash, et al, get posted. The mistake indie developers make is thinking that because they can't compete with the big guys, they have to take refuge in old 8-bit games and knock-offs of other titles. In the indie music scene this would never fly. You get somewhere as an independent musician by doing your own thing, and eventually you may get noticed. But indie game developers, by and large, lack vision. That's more of a challenge than a criticism.
  • As an example of successful indy development, check out Laser Squad Nemesis by the people behind X-Com.

    Simultaneous, turn-based, tactical joy.

  • 5 suggestions (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jbolden ( 176878 ) on Saturday January 18, 2003 @05:34PM (#5109391) Homepage
    It seems to be gamesystem and PC games are pretty highly competitive. The quality of games being produced is frankly excellent and in such an environment its going to be hard to make a break through.

    1) All the above is not true of cellphones and PDA games. Here the quality tends to be quite low and the technology is getting better rapidly. More importantly, the big companies aren't playing in this market it is wide open for independents to do quite well in this space. Also development times will be much much lower so in the same time you could put out 1 PC game you could put out 20 cellphone games. If you gave 10 away you could build the rep to sell the others...

    2) If you are going to go for PCs what about minority interest games. Sports, roleplaying, war simulations... are pretty well covered. What about surgical simulators (like flight simulator but doing surgery instead), or an eletronics simulator where you can build radios... Or anything else that were you'd be the only product on the market.

    3) Release first for a small OS. Linux. BSD, Solaris... are all starved for a good games. Release on this kind of OS (as freeware don't try and sell) and you can build a great reputation then sell the PC version. Since they are all X11 based you could hit all pretty much in one shot.

    4) Create addons for other games. Extension packs sell pretty well and take far less time. Why not "The Sims African version" which gives you African style houses, all sorts of different stuff you can get different types of jobs.... Again reasonable development effort for a small team and a high likelyhood of success (dedicated game X fans are a much easier target market than gamers in general).

    5) Create new versions of games that were succesful years ago and that nothing like them exists today. For example there were a ton of good puzzle games that became popular in the age of EGA/VGA graphics that don't exist today and wouldn't be hard to create windows versions of.

  • You do realize that many of the most popular games today were written by small software houses. Some of them became big, and some of them just got snapped up by other companies, but some of them retain their individuality. They make games, they take some creative and a great deal of directive input from whatever company distributes their game, and they form a working relationship with a distributor. Many many game houses work this way.
  • by Sj0 ( 472011 )
    I guess you don't know this, but a little game called DOOM was made by an independant. Today is no different. This legend that it ABSOLUTELY takes MILLIONS of dollars to create a game worth playing is disproven by all the counterstrike players around the globe, and further disproven by every shocking success coming out of some guys basement. Perhaps in the thick of the industry it's hard to fathom a few extremely dedicated people making something worth playing, but trust me -- every derivitive, hackeyed game you've played this year came from an innovative independant company.
    • > I guess you don't know this, but a little
      > game called DOOM was made by an independant.

      That was 10 years ago, and before it was a multi-billion dollar industry appeared.

      The chances of an indie getting those sales and noteriety again are slim/none.

      > disproven by all the counterstrike players

      Only a half truth -- you have to buy a commercial title to be able to play that mod. While I agree there's a niche for indies in the mod area... I don't think the first-line titles such as HalfLife are under any threat.
      • The counterstrike point is they're still playing the same old game. Heck they're still playing the same old maps the last I checked :).

        AFAIK it didn't even get its start from having great visuals etc.

        So independent game developers can survive, just don't fool yourself thinking you have to do million dollar budget stuff. You don't have to do USD39.95 fancy box stuff too.

        I doubt Deer Hunter cost millions to make. I don't know why it was a hit either. Go figure.

        I figure do it as a hobby, sell and distribute it online (there are people who will do it for a low cut - www.kagi.com, I'm sure there are others look around). If you charge a reasonable price for a nice game, people do actually pay.

        Most people aren't like the RIAA/MPAA.

  • One great example is A Tale In The Desert [ataleinthedesert.com], a MMOG by a small independent company, eGenesis. With only two full-time programmers and only a few part-time artists and other interns, over the course of four years they've created what looks like it will be one of the best multiplayer games around. It's immersive, highly developed and complex and looks fantastic - but most of all, someone has taken a good idea and turned it into a game that's genuinely a lot of fun to play and a world home to inhabitants who are proud to be its citizens.

    ATITD had thousands of players over three beta periods, with several communities and fansites [atitd.net] already up and running, and they're now planning to publish and release it themselves. I think this game is going to be the first test of whether independent developers can survive in a scene that's more full of multi million dollar, hollywood-scale games than ever before.

  • Strange Adventures in Infinite Space [digital-eel.com] was produced by a two-man team, and they're able to use what they make on SAIS to fund their next game.... which you're really going to dig.

A hacker does for love what others would not do for money.