Activision And The Indies: How Does This Contest Work?

The gaming megacorporation's indie competition was met by skepticism -- even cynicism -- from some corners, so Gamasutra sits down with Activision development SVP Laird Malamed to find out the real deal.

Two things that don't necessarily seem to go together: Activision and the indie community. One is viewed as the epitome of corporate game making; the other, a haven for free spirits and pure creativity.

It was a surprise, then, when Activision announced its indie game competition. And sure enough, indie developers were skeptical about the company's intentions, and have dug into its rules and speculated about the company's intent across the web.

Laird Malamed, senior vice president of development at Activision, is the "unofficial champion" of the competition within the company.

Aware of developers' skepticism, he explains the competition to Gamasutra in this interview -- which addresses the corporation's intent with the contest, and what's in store for those developers who eventually win.

This includes issues such as who owns the rights to games which are entered into the competition, why such a huge corporation is taking an interest in indies, and why the contest doesn't allow games that have previously been publicly revealed to enter, among other hot-button issues.  

Why is it important for a big company like Activision to get into indie games?

Laird Malamed: We launched the indie game competition at Activision for two reasons.

One, it's a celebration of our own roots; Activision was founded by people who worked at places like Atari back in the late '70s and early '80s. One of the driving factors for that formation was the game makers were not getting the recognition from the big companies that the time. They were seeing their games sell phenomenally well, but they were not getting known, not participating in that success. From the very beginning, Activision was based on celebrating the game makers as creative and artistic people.

The second reason, which ties back into that, is that for a lot of the great games that have come out over the last few years, a lot of the talent started out making their own games. I would not put myself into the category of "great talent", but what did I do when I learned to program? I made games. That got me passionate about making them and led to having a really cool career.

We want to foster that continued spirit of game making, and one of the ways to do that is to provide some money for the prize winners, that they can support their game, they can make a game with it, they can supplement money they already have and make a bigger game. They can use it however they feel fit.

So we really do it for two reasons: our history is in celebrating game makers, and being driven by game makers; and that we see that there is a ton of talent that develops every day, and is putting games out on a whole bunch of different platforms.

You've said you're the "unofficial champion" of this. How did you get involved in the indie competition?

LM: Absolutely. I am the unofficial champion of this and other things like it. I had a strong streak of feeling responsible, [giving] back to the community, via the game community, or -- I just got back from Gardena, which is South-Central L.A., speaking to a teen group, about 15 kids, in high-risk areas. They've gotten into this entertainment film program for the summer, and they wanted to know about video games. The people organizing it are friends of mine, and they asked me to come down and tell them a bit about video games.

And those activities, speaking at high schools, are a nurturing phase for me personally, that I really enjoy, and that goes all the way to game makers. I was a thesis advisor this past year for USC, for one of the graduate students, her external advisor, and she has just gone off to take a job at Microsoft, so I'm pretty excited about that.

This is just the next rung, from a corporate point of view, of what we can do. Let's try to get the word out, that game makers come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they just need a little push.

...My background is in a variety of things. I owe my uncle a great service; he took me, when I was 10, back in 1977, to play games on his mainframe at his bank. There was the classic Adventure and Netrek, which was obviously Star Trek-type stuff. There was no screen, it was a Teletype machine; you'd type into a keyboard and it would type out what you did in response, and I was hooked.

I clamored my parents for an Apple II computer, and they were like, "Well, if you learn to program, more than just playing games on it, then we'll get you the computer." I'm basically a self-taught programmer, and that led to an engineering undergraduate degree, then film school. I was in the film industry for a number of years before coming to Activision to get back to my roots, what had excited me. I've been here for about 15 and a half years now.

How has the response been to the competition so far? How many entries have you seen? Are there any notable indie names that have entered?

LM: We're really not giving out where we are on the entry stuff and actually, with the way we're running the contest, most of this will be transparent to us until the final phase, so that it remains independent -- so people's submissions don't come through Activision.

They'll go through the judging panel, and only the finalists will come through us; [the judges] recommend a final group, from which the winners will be selected. That protects people's ideas, so if they don't win the prize, they can do whatever they want with it, and all that stuff remains their property.

On the response overall, when I've talked to independent game makers at E3 and things like that, people have been very positive, and very surprised by it, to be honest. Going back to your original question, they ask, "Why is Activision doing this?" and I tell them, "It's to support the community." The response has been very positive with the people I've talked directly to.

Who makes up the judging pool?

LM: The judging panel is a small panel that consists of people from the press, independent game makers -- there's nobody from Activision on the panel -- and probably people in the game education industry as well, so that we'll have a broad sense.

The criteria for getting through the phases is the [game's] general idea. Is a big portion of the game being seen as a good idea, for the concept that's submitted? Is it an artistic game? Design, innovation -- how does that feel? Is it a copycat of another game or does it feel like something new and fresh?

And then, two pieces around the presentation. A small piece -- how well do they present their ideas? And is there an execution plan? Is there a team behind this? Did someone think, "Well, I'm going to need an animator, because this is an animation-heavy game"? We wanted to get a sample from the judges that would be able to look at those different criteria.

Do the people from different professions collectively have the final word on the finalists and winners of this? Or is it an Activision corporate decision?

LM: [The judges] submit the finalist list to us, we're still figuring out exactly how many that is, probably a small, small number, and then we'll pick the grand prize winner and the runner-up winner. Activision will pick from the finalists, with a small group that I will be part of, with a few other people here who are passionate about this.

It's also just for the U.S., at least for this year.

LM: Yeah, for this round. There are a lot of different laws around competitions and things like that, so we launched it just in the United States, and you must be at least 18 years old at the time of entry. Those are the rules we had to abide by to open this to the whole country.

And we announced the total prize money, which we decided to break into two phases, so people would have adequate time to put together their ideas. We'll look at the rule set at the second phase that will follow, and will announce that when this phase is done.

As a disclaimer, I was content director on IGF last year, which is associated with Gamasutra, so I have some insight about what some indie developers' concerns are about Activision. We'll see if we can address just a couple of those.

These guys have a mindset -- they're cautious of big corporations and associating themselves with them.

LM: Yeah, so am I!

What would you have to say to those guys who have reservations, and doubt Activision's motives for running this contest?

LM: Yeah, I think there's been some confusion about this, and I've personally answered some questions about it when I was hanging out at the indie games area at E3 and talking to some students.

Regarding the ownership of the ideas, everything that is submitted is owned by the person who submitted it, and we take no final ownership of the ideas, the concept, even if they win. The only time ownership comes into question is if we decide to publish the game, and there's no requirement that anyone make a game that we would publish.

Someone might make something for a platform that we don't participate on, and they may win the contest -- because they had a really great idea, it's really well-presented, well-thought through, and we may say, "Here's your prize money, good luck, and we look forward to playing it when you're done."

In other cases, it might be like, "Oh, this is a fantastic idea. We'd like to make a publishing deal with you." At that point, there is a separate negotiation regarding ownership, and that just becomes a standard developer and publisher interaction.

So there really is no downside to submitting. If you don't win, we probably haven't even seen your submission, so you don't have to worry about that, and if you do win, well, you'll get to talk to us, and maybe we'll publish the game.

We do have the first right to publish the game, so if we don't make a deal but someone else comes along and you say, "Hey, I have a deal with publisher X," we have a chance to say, "Well, we can match those terms," and we do get to publish. Again, that's all subject to negotiations after the contest; nothing is built into the contest about that.

There's also a stipulation that the game could not have been made public, which disqualifies a decent amount of games -- ones that have been in competitions like IGF, or in GameStop's Indie Game Challenge. Why is that? Why can't the game be made public first?

LM: Because we were only requiring a game concept and design of about 10 pages, and videos and stuff like that were optional. We didn't want to make the competition full of people who had already basically finished a game.

We really wanted to inspire people to do new stuff, so it made more of a level footing for people who had wanted to submit new ideas; ideas they hadn't taken to festivals yet. That was the idea behind it. We really were trying to inspire people to make games, as compared to judging what has already been made -- which are some of those other competitions.

You'll be accepting submissions that are just videos and documentation, so it's very, very early on in the development of the game. How does the submission process progress from there? Can a game win just from being a video?

LM: Yeah, a game can win from, technically, being just a 10 page concept document. The reason for that is we see the prize as the genesis of going forward to make that game, so it really gave us a "leveling the playing field" piece.

A lot of people have access to tools because they're in school, or have been doing iPhone development, or something like that. And then there are a lot of budding people in different professions, or game players, who have different ideas but don't have access to those tools. We really want to look at the game design ideas -- the game concepts on their own merits -- and not make this be "Who can do the best presentation?"

That said, presentation is important. But I mean this from the point of view of, this doesn't have to be professionally produced. We're looking for people to just produce the best they can.

There is one clause that has made some people nervous that says, "In order to be a finalist, entrant must sign certain submission documentation [including] "acknowledgement of Sponsor's development of game concepts that may be similar to entrant's submission."

Your imagination can go crazy with a line like that -- people may think, "What? Is Activision going to take my game idea?" Some people are worried about that.

LM: Yeah, absolutely, and I understand people's concerns, but the reality is that we may have a lot of those ideas, especially if they are for console games, maybe cooking around in our R&D departments.

So really, what signing that says, is that you acknowledge that, through coincidence, people come up with similar ideas. I think this is where people who don't have to work on this stuff all day long realize that similarities in ideas happen all the time, but an idea has a lot of specifics that are very, very clearly from a source.

That acknowledgement is only an acknowledgement. If they felt that something was improperly done by us, they would have recourses to pursue remedy.

All I can say from being here 15-and-a-half years, which I hope says something about the quality of the company -- that I've been given a good career and had the opportunity to do a lot of cool stuff -- we don't tend to do a lot of improper things. We tend to be very, very cautious about our ethics and how we behave, and that's the most I can provide to someone to reassure them.

And the total prize amount is large, how did you guys come to that? You guys have $500,000 that you're going to give, right?

LM: $500,000 over the different rounds, yes. That is what Bobby Kotick decided and announced. That's how much he decided he wanted to put back into the independent games area with this prize. We didn't take a survey!

That's the reaction from a lot of people as well! They're like, "What are you doing!?" But hopefully it raises awareness, too, that these games do cost money. Even for an independent person making a game by themselves, if they spend a year on that, they are still feeding themselves, or their families, or working other jobs. If this can help them concentrate, or get some other resources, or "Gosh, I don't really understand art, I'm going to hire an artist" -- that's what it's there for.

...I served on a panel for the Cooney Center, which is part of Sesame Street. We judged educational games, that we announced at E3, and the winning prize was $50,000, and I have rarely seen a more happy individual.

We didn't get to meet him until he came to do his final presentation -- he didn't win because of him. He won because of his project. There, the rules allowed people to submit something that was already out, and the winning project was Project: Noah, and it really does change people.

We hope that, because commercial games have so much of a higher barrier for quality level and for content, that our prize will allow people to compete on equal footing with those making games today.

What's the next step in this year's competition? I know the end of the month is the end of the first round.

LM: We're really getting back out there and encouraging people to submit their ideas. Judging will happen after September, and we'll announce the winners in the fall. Based on reviewing the rules and all those sorts of things, we will announce the next wave.

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