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Can indie game creators make money -- or even a difference? Simon Carless sits down with GarageGames Evangelist Jay Moore to discuss the future of indie gaming and the difficulties facing the independent developer.

Simon Carless, Blogger

July 21, 2004

13 Min Read

Like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or Duke Nukem Forever, the idea of the successful, truly independent game developer -- one that bypasses the major game publishers on the way to making a profit and a good living -- seems, well, a little far fetched. You can't really sequester yourself off from the normal grind of milestone-based developer/publisher relationships, go out there with a small team, and hope to produce full-scale videogames that will turn a profit. Or can you?

It's certainly true that, as budgets get ever-larger, individual employees can become an ever-smaller cog in the machine. Therefore, some of those who originally held professional, significant positions in the games industry are considering dropping out of the rat race and looking at the whole game creation problem from a different angle. However, in a world where even relatively well-funded independent developers run into financial problems, what place is there for standalone, self-funded outfits?

Oregon-based GarageGames is not only trying to buck that trend themselves, it's trying to help others buck it as well. The company sells its Torque 3D gaming engine (originally part of the Tribes and Tribes 2 engine that the company founders developed at Sierra/Dynamix) for the relatively inexpensive $100 per "indie" engine license, or $495 per seat for an unlimited commercial license. The company also digitally distributes third-party titles created with its engine (as well as a select amount of non-Torque created games) via the GarageGames website. Games such as Orbz and ThinkTanks, created using the Torque engine by small independent teams, not only look competitive but play well compared to larger-scale commercially produced games.


GarageGames Evangelist Jay Moore

GarageGames also organizes the annual IndieGamesCon to help get the message out to independent game developers, whether they're using the Torque Engine or not. In fact, like competitions such as the Independent Games Festival, GarageGames is one of the few companies espousing the idea that you can be completely independent in your game design and development and still make good quality products that people will want to buy.

In a recent web interview, the co-founder of GarageGames, Jeff Tunnell, commented grandly about the changing nature of game development over the past 15 years: "The standard answer here is that games are much harder to create, have larger budgets and larger teams. I actually call 'bullshit' on the conventional wisdom! Games are easier to create than in any time in history and they will get easier."


GarageGames' engine, Torque, is based on technology that drove Tribes and Tribes 2. Can an advanced, yet inexpensive, engine technology and online distribution spell success for indie developers?

What does that really mean to the games industry, and does your average game developer really have the opportunity to go off and do his own thing and still put food on the table? I spoke to Jay Moore, whose official title is "Evangelist" at GarageGames, about what's going on the indie game development scene, from his company's perspective as both a supplier of technology and an online publisher of non-web-based, PC "indie" games.

Of note, almost everyone at GarageGames was formerly in the games industry as part of Dynamix, long-time creators of classics such as The Incredible Machine and Willy Beamish, as well as more recent titles such as the aforementioned Tribes series. I was curious what prompted these game developers leave the high-paying world of mainstream games and dive into the indie game creation/engine licensing world. Moore had a simple response: lifestyle.

"It really wasn't fun anymore," he explained. "We had suits -- who didn't even play games -- deciding what games would be green-lighted and what features those games should include. But more importantly, making fun games wasn't a priority and the players were only given lip service. Making big money isn't the only reason to make games. We have a passion to create innovative and fun new games and that doesn't happen by doing what is safe and produces the highest sales. We see change happening in how people enjoy games online and how technology will allow those with the creativity to build extremely fun entertainment that isn't a sequel or licensed Hollywood IP."

This may sound a little like standard marketing-speak, but there are some important points buried in there that relate to the "new world" of independent gaming - the technology aspect and the online aspect.

The game industry has seen successful game mods such as Counter-Strike transition into stand-alone products -- they contained innovative gameplay built upon solid, existing technology by developers who were, effectively, independent developers. GarageGames is targeting this demographic with their Torque engine, which provides an inexpensive, easily licensable base for technically proficient indie developers (not just modders) to make games.

Moore explains that "…technology should not dictate who gets to make what games, it should be an enabler of creativity -- not a barrier." In other words, if you don't have to build an engine before you build a game, and the engine is sufficiently generic for the game you're making, the quality of the game suddenly takes a major leap forward, because there's so much decent technology to build specific assets on top of.

As a seller of games online, cutting out the middle man by distributing digitally is a major boon, as Moore notes. "Consumers are big fans of 'try before you buy', and online distribution allows instantaneous gratification. Product lifetime is significantly higher online, and this can be a major benefit for indie developers. It helps them get away from the boom-or-bust, mega-hit-dependent nature of retail shelf distribution. Building community and fan bases online is natural as well. Online is the most intuitive place to come for information, discovering new things and finding other players who like the kinds of games you do."

Conversely, Moore explains there are also "challenges with the online distribution model" -- not particularly surprising. "There is a tactile connection of picking up a box and reading the packaging and buying something very tangible that isn't the same as downloading bits. Size matters in the online space. How many megs your game weighs in at can certainly affect download numbers, but this has less and less of an effect as broadband connectivity increases. The biggest challenge is the quality expectation -- many consumers haven't found the commercial quality of games real high from some of their online experiences."

However, it's not likely that you'll be able to just set up your own website, put the game on it, and make out like a bandit. Sales still come from visibility, even in the online arena, as Moore notes.

"I'm not sure any of these teams succeed with self-distribution… For titles we publish, we distribute to consumers on our site, Yahoo!, Shockwave, Real and a host of other distribution channels. As things stand now, this model is much more viable than pure self-distribution."

Thus, a percentage of your sales is still going out to a third party, albeit one that doesn't take the IP for your idea or have any say in how you develop your title. On the other hand, these sites don't give you any money up front, either.

Will there ever be an opportunity for well-distributed "indie gaming" in the Wal-Mart-style retail arena, alongside publishers like Activision Value, which creates very tailored budget titles for the PC? Moore opines: "There are titles that pass what I call the 'duh' factor for selling to casual game players in stores. If consumers intuitively understand the play mechanic, or a game has a gimmick or some popular movie or entertainment property, it has a chance of seeing big sales success in retail value bins. If not, they usually don't sell in the kind of numbers on the shelf that value titles need to. Again, it's Wal-Mart that makes the decision as to whether a game will even get the chance to sell. When we consider distribution, we look at it like this: we've made a game and retail distribution is just another revenue stream that will add to the overall success of a title. It is not the Holy Grail. Many times, labels like Activision Value are looking for what fits their brand portfolio and the 'poundage' of features they can put on the back of a box.' So even 'value' retail titles don't necessarily make sense for indie games, leading back to the online distribution method."

One of the more interesting things that GarageGames does is produce versions of many of its games for Mac and even Linux, in addition to the PC. Moore and his colleagues like the idea of being one of only a few titles, even on a "niche" platform.

"Back in the day, we'd consider any platform with over 100,000 installed base as being worth making games for. I think that Mac OS X is headed toward the twelve million mark, so I think it's about economies of scale for an independent developer. Even Linux is gaining desktop popularity and can be a good revenue stream."

How about consoles, though -- does Moore believe there any chance that "indie gaming" will ever sneak onto those, given the significant costs for development kits and hardware manufacturer approval? Moore laments that "…the current model of console development provides some huge barriers for indie developers. Of course, the current model may not always hold. As console manufacturers warm up to the idea of smaller titles, indies will have more opportunity. The proliferation of powerful handheld gaming devices may offer smaller studios and indies a kind of stepping stone to work with console manufacturers. Certainly, the obstacles to indie game development on consoles can be overcome, but I think it will be awhile before we see major breakthroughs." (Since this interview, Microsoft's casual Xbox Live Arcade service was unveiled, showing some interesting possibilities for indie gaming in terms of downloadable console games.)


The Orbz Multi-player Lobby

Perhaps it's time to raise a red flag over the whole concept of "indie developer". What is one, exactly? Can any kid who's in college without any formal games industry experience be classified as one? What's the range of people who GarageGames see creating games with the Torque engine, or just making indie titles in general? Moore arranges indie developers into a number of classes.

"The veteran game developer working on his own project and keeping a day job, or changing his lifestyle and teaching or consulting while working on their game is very common. Many of these guys are bored with, and in some cases burned out from, working in the game industry. We don't differentiate the industry veteran from those who have been developing enterprise software and are now building games, or from the teenager or college student that has built the skills to code or make great art for games. The end product speaks for itself, and usually separates those that are hobbyists from the commercial quality developers."

As Moore hinted in this statement, quality and experience do matter, even in indie titles. But the bottom line is probably this: if you're looking to break out on your own and become an independent game creator, you need other work lined up, or be prepared to go the starving artist route while you develop your game.

Moore explains that "We have a [IndieGamesCon conference] session we've done called: 'Quit Your Job Fair: How to become a successful indie game developer.' There's a lot of useful information presented there, but I can tell you the Five Golden Rules .The first is: don't quit your day job. Right-size your life so you can make a sustainable living. Make the game scale to a size that you can complete. Innovate and do something that is new. Make the game you're passionate about making."

It's worth underlining that this session is called "Quit Your Job Fair", not "Quit Your Day Job" -- a summary of an earlier version of the talk sums up the paradox of the independent developer well by defining it this way: "You are an indie if you finance your own development." It's as simple as that, and for a developer with mouths to feed who wants to get out of the rat race, it's possible that "indie gaming" is not yet a reliable revenue stream.

So GarageGames hopes to empower independent developers via its low-cost engine and help with distribution, so that indies can create better games to compete in the marketplace. Nobody's denying that the company has financial reasons for doing this, but as it can be seen, independent gaming is not a cash-rich arena. But in the end, what the "Quit Your Job Fair" attitude brings, whether done with GarageGames or independently of the company, is a glimmer of hope for those wanting to do their own game development thing and still make a little money.

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About the Author(s)

Simon Carless

Blogger

Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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