An independent game industry

Something rather exciting happened today, and to an industry i'm rather fond of. Double Fine, headed by Tim Schafer, creator of many beloved but (recently) financially tragic games put up a kickstarter project asking for $400,000 to develop a classic point and click adventure game. The reason such a high profile developer decided to go to the gamers for funding? there are probably two main reasons.

  1. Tim Schafer has not had the best luck with his past few games sales wise. They've been extremely well received and the gamers that actually played the games loved them, he makes brilliant games. Sadly, they don't always have that mainstream appeal that the publishers want.
  2. Given the above, how could he try and pitch a point and click adventure game to a publisher? He knows there is a demand as he is likely always getting requests for new point and click adventure games, but how can he try and get a publisher to serve such a market?
Thankfully, this has been a complete success. His kickstarter page went all across the internet helped by gamers and the journalists that typically adore his games and Double Fine has smashed their $400k target by, at the time of writing, $600,000. Yes, It has reached over $1m in just over 24 hours. That is a massive vote of confidence for the independent games industry, and is probably something that the publishers will be paying close attention to, because this is yet another boost for the trend in the games industry towards independent game development. (Read more below)

Platforms like Steam and iOS have been at the forefront of this new trend, allowing game developers to release their games relatively easily on to a marketplace with a user base of hundreds of millions (iOS) and tens of millions on Steam, and that's ignoring the hundreds of millions of Android devices out there too! The barrier to the games industry has dropped considerably for a few reasons (another list!):

  1. Mobile gaming has gone mainstream. Smartphones are extremely cable devices which have been given easy to access SDKs by their manufacturers, development kits that don't require specialist equipment and aren't wrapped in a license fee costing thousands.
  2. Neutral game delivery systems such as Steam. Valve is an independent developer, they aren't pushing an agenda set by a large publisher, they know what it is to be an independent game developer, and have developed Steam to be open to other developers, regardless of their status. They have even attempted to force their users to buy and play independent games, for example, in their Portal 2 ARG, they asked gamers to buy certain games and unlock achievements to get Portal 2 released faster, they were all independent games.
  3. Casual gaming. As much as we like to complain about how our games are getting a little too casual, it has probably been pretty good for the entire industry. It has not only pulled in a massive number of new audiences, but it has created new platforms for independent game developers to take advantage of, such as Facebook, which pull in unsuspecting non-gamers in with their flash games. It's often a slippery slope from there on, even if that slope only ends in smartphone games or Wii party games.
  4. Indie developers taking on larger budgets on risky games. Independent developers have been able to snap up bigger investment for their projects, their games have taken on a higher profile in the media, and gamers have been taking notice, not only of individual games, but of independent developers in general. Then there is games like Minecraft, a game funded during it's development by allowing gamers to buy the game in different stages for discounted prices up to the games release.
Then we can look outside of the games industry, the world is looking for new ways to reinvigorate the economy, encourage new businesses and are growing increasingly tired of the large corporations. Projects like Kickstater are brilliant for this, allowing people to pledge money to projects they are interested in with reward of the project founder's choosing. Because getting funding on a project from organisations that don't necessarily know about the industry or product category you are trying to get into is something I can't imagine is easy.

It's a simple concept, get people who are interested in it to make the project happen. This is exactly what has happened with Double Fine, and it is incredibly exciting for the games industry. It gives the entire industry confidence in such an approach and helps signal to the larger corporations about what the market wants, which brings me on to my next point.

But before that, I should mention. Double Fine is wrapped up in decades of great reputation and experience, this kickstarter approach likely will not be as successful for other small development companies, perhaps forcing them to take a slightly different approach, part funding by Kickstarter? Who knows.

The last remaining barrier

Games consoles are the largest games platforms by most measurements, and despite some effort, they are the platforms holding the industry back on fully embracing the independent games movement. The PC has always been a fantastic platform for independent development, but with Steam and other competing services offering ways to put the games directly in front of consumers (and encouraging they support them, as mentioned in 2) it is only getting better. Then again, as I mentioned with the smartphone business, easy accessibility has given independent developers a huge boost.

Accessibility. That is what they have, and what consoles do not. The games consoles have massively expensive development kits, costing thousands and on top of that, requiring expensive license fees to publish the games on their platform. Out of the big three (Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft), Microsoft have put in the most effort into helping out indie development, and they are in the best position to do so. They create their own brilliant development tools in Visual Studio and are a company that specialises in making software.

Their XNA system is great, for what it is, and I hardly fault them on how they deliver the development kit, what I do fault them on is despite initial excitement, they have periodically retreated from the space, making it harder for the indie games to be seen by the users. There are also considerable restrictions on the games themselves, they cannot be priced more than a few pounds or so.

Put them in the same league as the main Xbox Live arcade, let the developers produce games that cost just as much, let them have the same size limits and have a user rated system that pushes games around based on user feedback and sales. This conflicts with the current system, in which big publishers can dictate who's games are seen first, and who's games get the most attention. Microsoft and Sony have done a decent job at helping independent developers in that they will support a team with aid to get their games on their store, but it is still through the same prohibitive process and you can only get such treatment if you can get noticed. All three console manufacturers need to take on method smartphones are taking, the market has spoken, it likes this model, it is good for the industry in many ways, for gamers and for the developers.

I fear Sony and Nintendo are not as eager to go this route, however. They had the perfect opportunity to make their handheld systems relevant in today's smartphone dominated world, with an easy to access development kit, and it could still come, but they don't appear to be showing any signs of adopting this strategy.

It is an incredible opportunity that I hope is being looked into, seriously. The mass amount of games available via such systems and the revenue cut platform holderes typically take from these games can provide a fair amount of revenue for the platform holders, just ask Apple..