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Event Wrap Up - IndieGames Conference

Over 300 attendees showed up in Eugene, Oregon for the 2005 Indie Games Conference (IGC) in its latest iteration, “Reinventing Games: Indie Style”, held from October 7-9. The conference is known for learning, networking, celebration, community, game playing, discussion, game development, and, of course, the bar. A primary focus this year was on the rising popularity of casual games.

The annual Indie Games Conference (IGC) has grown notably since its kickoff in 2001, and this year, over 300 attendees showed up in Eugene, Oregon for the latest iteration, “Reinventing Games: Indie Style”, held from October 7-9. The conference is known for learning, networking, celebration, community, game playing, discussion, game development, and, of course, the bar. A primary focus this year was on the rising popularity of casual games.

GarageGames, the indie game publisher and engine creator which has more than doubled in size since 2004, is the main contributor to and organizer of the Indie Games Conference. The company, which has based its business around the indie game concept, emphasizes its origins as a player in the movement through such efforts as working on the Indie Games Conference and the Torque game engine, which has spawned a large community of interconnected independent game developers over the years. However, this connection obviously means a certain amount of Torque and GarageGames-specific evangelism at the conference. But the company is fair in allowing non-Torque developed titles to compete in its awards, and making the majority of the content during IGC itself not directly related to the company's business.

Along with providing keynotes on the changing state of independent game development, the Indie Games Conference organizes several ongoing “tracks.” This year, the Professional Track showcased Chris Crawford's new approach to getting stories into games that he calls the “Erasmatron” in the presentation “Interactive Storytelling.” The Torque Track included numerous presentations with Torque professionals discussing Torque 2D, the upgrades to Torque Engine 1.4, Torque scripting, and the Torque Shader Engine.

The Art Track covered multiple aspects of animation, textures, and lighting. The Business Track included presentations such as “Starting a Game Studio” featuring lawyer and game evangelist Tom Buscaglia who provided an overview of legal issues confronting independent game development companies. The Development Track featured roundtables and open forums on building a game studio, game idea development, and professional game development.


One of many discussions that took place at the IndieGames Conference.

The Indie Games Conference also focuses on the games created by attendees. The Show-Off Center remains open throughout the conference, making games readily available for play and testing up until the Indie Games Conference Player's Choice Awards. Networking opportunities also helped to connect established and aspiring developers and publishers from diverse backgrounds.

Keynote: “The State of the Revolution”

The main IGC keynote focused on several options that are opening up for independent game developers as larger companies refuse to pursue risky ventures. The highest emphasis now is the casual games market, which is an effective path for independent game developers to pursue. Mark Frohnmayer, GarageGames, pointed out that game developers made half a billion dollars in the casual games market in 2004.

Also presenting, Greg Canessa of Microsoft Casual Games identified the ‘Microsoft Gaming Strategy' for independent game developers. On MSN Games, 70% of the players are female and the average user, out of 30 million registered, plays games for around 120 minutes a month. The Windows gaming market is growing 10% annually and earned an estimated at revenue of $4 billion in 2004, which should grow to $9 billion a year by 2009.

According to Canessa, Xbox 360 Live Arcade is very open to publishing independent casual games and will debut titles from GarageGames and past Indie Games Conference participants. Users will have direct access to Xbox 360 Live Arcade through the Xbox 360 dashboard, a design element that Canessa stresses receives support by the entire Microsoft hierarchy. Casual games provide connectivity and community between platforms, and interestingly, it was indicated that Microsoft is developing connectivity between its game platforms. However, Canessa emphasized the emergence of a common identity across platforms such as the PC and Xbox 360, not necessarily cross-platform play.

The speakers noted that the bar on retail game content continues to rise in the games market. Production costs are sky-rocketing, developers have to provide better and more impressive graphical fidelity, and high production values are prerequisites for success in the space. Retailer compression is an ongoing reality due to more competition and less space, trends that caused some genres to disappear from retail altogether, particularly in the case of PC games.

Meanwhile, more people are becoming interested in gaming, including families, women, and non-core demographics. Women comprise 39.6% of secondary users for the Xbox console (IDC, 2005). Digital distribution of games is now increasingly accepted by the masses through PC casual game download portals, content delivery services such as Steam, and soon on Xbox 360 Live Arcade. The development in communities for smaller games is growing rapidly, and, it's claimed, market success in the casual game space can yield innovation. Overall for the casual market, smaller indie developers look for distribution for games in it, while larger developers are still looking for low-cost, lower risk creative outlets.

In fact, as an important part of the keynote, Frohnmayer recounted that past Indie Games Conferences advised independent game developers not to quit their day jobs in past conferences, but that the market has changed, and the warning is fading – perhaps day jobs can now be quit on the path to building successful indie games?

In other discussions, independent developers reflected on the current state of game development and the indie movement. Jeff Tunnell of GarageGames particularly credits Microsoft's support and Xbox 360 Live Arcade for new directions, whereas that company's Jay Moore sees a major transition in the simulation and ‘Serious Games' providing indie developer opportunities for corporate training, military training, and university curriculum. He also noted that the North America arcade game space is a massive market that indie developers are serving, because larger companies are too expensive for arcade cabinets to afford. He is enthusiastic, because a broad diversity of people are pursuing their passion. Andy Schatz, Pocketwatch, points out that recent surveys identify “game designer” as the second top dream job in the United States , a development that establishes the influence of game developers on new generations.

Full Session: ‘Mac OS X Game Development'

The Apple Mac is allegedly one of the forgotten markets for indie and niche gaming to reach, and Ryan C. Gordon of icculus.org spoke forthrightly on the matter at IGC, indicating that he believes that independent game developers need to recognize the potential strength in developing games for the Mac OS X. iPods and iTunes promotions have increased Apple's popularity and drawn in a wide market. By targeting Mac users, Gordon, suggests, developers can reach an under-tapped audience in a vibrant market with an aggressive update cycle. In addition, developers have less competition for similar products on the Mac, and can tap into loyal, educated customers with an affinity for buying products online.

Rich Hernandez of Apple was also present, commenting on the success story of GarageGames' Marble Blast for OS X. The game is shipped with the Mac OS, and in fact, all three hardware games on Mac OS X are independent games. He also noted that, on Macs, attach rates are much higher for casual games (4%-8% click through to buy ratio). Online distribution promotes game downloads through GarageGames, Game House, Oberon, AOL, and the newly developing official Mac OS X Downloads. In addition to downloads, Apple has 125 (and growing) retail store locations worldwide, where casual games are peers of AAA titles. Even independent games have a long shelf life, because Apple stores do not have a bargain bin, Hernandez suggested.


Professional Track Highlight: “Game Production on Xbox 360”

Why should independent developers publish games on Xbox 360 Live Arcade? Katie Stone of Microsoft, spoke on this subject at IGC, promising a frictionless distribution with no cogs involved and no minimum purchase quantities. She pointed on that there is a direct channel to reach connected Xbox 360 consumers via the dashboard, which supports much lower development cost and quicker time to publishing.

Stone went on to detail some specifics on Xbox 360 Live Arcade. In order to publish a game on the service, the developer must create a full game experience that can be digitally distributed in a relatively small file size (a target of less than 50MB for faster broadband speeds in North America , and sub-25MB goals for international). It must be playable without physical media or other dependencies. The game also needs a free trial version, with limited but entertaining gameplay to qualify.

Adaptation is essential to creating a successful game, Stone suggested, indicating the Xbox 360 developers should consider the ten-foot sitting range gameplay experience versus the typical PC two-foot experience. In addition, designers must keep in mind the affects of TV displays on fonts and colors - for example, reds are more saturated. The controls and navigation, in game controls, menu and UI elements cannot be text heavy, it was argued, and also noted was the need to remember the audience when programming difficulty and game progression modifications.


A presentation at the 2005 IndieGames Conference.

In addition, potential developers need to consider multiplayer gameplay, which includes smaller populations on Xbox Live, local multiplayer, and co-op. Finally, there needs to be some consideration localization and geo-political concerns. For example, German games cannot have red blood, and Asian games do not allow characters with four fingers, due to cultural background issues. Most importantly, the Microsoft representatives indicated that users should create a trial experience appropriate to the Xbox Live experience, which implies time trial or limited functionality.

Stone went on to detail specifics about Xbox Live 360's Marketplace with relative to casual/indie downloadable games. Apparently, by accessing the trial experience, users can directly buy the game when the trial is up, then continue the game from the point they previously stopped. In addition, developers must create additional downloadable content for the Marketplace, such as levels and maps, characters, Gamer Pictures (two per game), and themes (one per game). They must also decide how the game will divide up the Gamer Score, since every title has 200 points to award to a player. In addition, each game features 12 Achievements, requiring developers to design the Achievements and the way players receive them – these will all appear on the player's main Xbox Live profile.

Business Track Highlight: “The One Billion Dollar Indie Opportunity”

In this business track lecture, Benjamin Bradley of GarageGames tried to identify 12 key areas that larger game development companies are unwilling to target, due to the risks involved. Although independent game developers are often restricted in their ability to wine and dine, advertise, and fund games, there are moves that indie developers can make to not only survive, but thrive, he argued. The particular areas he picked were:


- Casual Downloadables: Independent game developers made $675 million last year through casual downloadable portals in 2004. It is essential to be in every portal, even the smallest, Bradley suggested, and the market is predicted to quadruple in cash flow by 2006.

- Niche Markets: Target online audiences and non-gaming sites accounted for $200 million in revenue this year, according to Bradley's calculations. He suggested that you must define your game to define your market, and should also consider using shelf space available in unique retail stores, including record stores.

- Coin-Op: $200 million goes to arcade cabinet developers a year, and arcade cabinets are desperate to get new games, especially those that are suitable for Western markets.

- Advergaming: Creating games filled with advertisements can be a good way to fund other games, but there are other options in advergaming as well. Companies look for games that they can place their brand in. Although the games tend to be small and circulated online or for free in cereal boxes (in the case of Nabisco), independent developers have an opportunity to earn money and keep the IP for their game.

- OEM Bundles: Games that are integrated into bundles with operating systems such as Apple have hit the jackpot. Other products, such as joysticks and controllers, also look for games to include in purchase bundles to give customers an extra buying incentive. Linux also capitalizes on bundling opportunities, and although it does not pay as much, it provides exposure for your game studio.

- Serious Games: Often identified as games for training or simulation, many major studios are have not yet entered the world of Serious Games, according to Bradley. The government and military are pursuing game development for training simulations and often offer contracted work.

- Handheld: Game developers will have to learn another engine to transfer their game smoothly, but the need for handheld games makes it worth the effort.

- Last-Gen Console Games: Developers often forget that they can still make new releases for consoles such as PlayStation 1. Games are usually sold at close to current rental price, but reach international audiences that are bridging the digital divide and still need last-gen games.

- Value Channel: Bradley suggests that indie developers should consider locations including the Staples bargain bin. Since it is typically seen as the graveyard of games, there is less competition for shelf space. The key is to have your game seen and available to an audience that may not be able to acquire the latest, more expensive games.

- Contract Work: Developers need to pay the bills. Even if hesitant to take contract work, developers should negotiate and take work in their field to build experience. Use resources such as the Guru website for small, simple work with a time limit, Bradley suggests.

- Platform Diversity: Windows has a 1%-2% click-through-to-buy ratio for games, whereas Mac has a 4%-8% rate, according to some statistics. Meanwhile, Linux has a business portal to buy games directly – Bradley argued that indie developers should perhaps consider multiple platforms for more saturation of the market.

- Overseas: Hit up every country and localize where possible. Overseas markets are not only exposed to downloadable games, but want boxed products. Recent changes in China 's laws restrict LAN centers exclusively to using casual games without player killing. Games must implement time limits in reaction to the overwhelming use of games by Chinese citizens. The government provided portals with money to acquire casual and online games, but China is struggling to find casual games and an engine to build them. Bradley recommends that developers step into a void that has been created in the international gaming market.

Overall, Bradley suggested that he believes that independent developers need to focus on paying attention to the international marketing, making an effort to maintain networking to build a resource base of contacts, and spending less time polishing code. Most importantly, independent developers better love what they do, or it's pointless to expect to make a profit.

Player's Choice Awards and Featured Games

Each year, the Indie Games Conference hosts a contest for Player's Choice Awards related to the Show-Off Center and time dedicated to gameplay. The 2005 nominations included 3D Language, Blockland, E.R.V., Facade, Flash Bios, Illumina, Oust, Realm Wars, Robots Smackdown, Shelled, Trash, TubeTwist, Twin Distress, and Wildlife Tycoon.


Many conference-goers were on hand to experience the many indie games showcased at the Show-Off Center.

Overall, Realm Wars received Best Multiplayer, with Monster Island coming up second as a player's choice write-in. TubeTwist achieved Best Single Player, while Robots Smackdown received second. Most Innovative went to Facade. Wildlife Tycoon placed second in Most Innovative and Best Overall. TubeTwist, after three years at the Show-Off Center, placed first in Best Overall. Awarded games of past years have attracted publishers, and three awarded titles from the 2004 IGC Player's Choice Awards can be played on Xbox 360 Live Arcade.

Featured Xbox 360 Live Arcade titles (all of which are using GarageGames' Torque game engine, incidentally) included MarbleBlast (GarageGames), a family-friendly, non-violent marble game, ThinkTanks (GarageGames), a shooter targeted at casual family gameplay that discovered a niche market, and Orbz (21-6 Productions), a decompression game in which players hit stars with an orb.

Several established games were available in the Show-Off Center. Rocket Bowl (Large Animal Games), a bowling game with terrain and bowling balls that have rockets and points earned in competitions, was created as a casual game with sophisticated immersive gameplay. Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa (Pocketwatch Games) represents an innovative change to current tycoon game options, since it focuses primarily on eleven interdependent animals and eco-system development. Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games describes his game as unique in the casual games market, since the game includes poems between each phase and explores interesting concepts like evolution.

Elsewhere, Joseph Villard of MVP Online took a traditional approach to a golf game in Golden Fairway, but integrates the concept of the advergame, since the company's primary role remains in advertising. Independent developers just getting a start and looking for feedback on their games utilized the Show-Off Center as well. Determinance (Mode 7 Games) combines a first-person shooter with free-form sword fighting, featuring drum fading music and unique cloth simulation. Shelled! (Red Thumb Games) is a 3D casual game with turtle tank combat, featuring fun graphics, easy controls, and free online play.

Overall, the IndieGamesCon was well worth a visit, and provided plenty of interesting feedback for any independent game developer, whether they happen to work with GarageGames and used the Torque engine, or whether they're simply plowing their own furrow.



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