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Interview: Why IndieCity Is More Than Just An Indies-Only Steam

IndieCity is an upcoming digital distribution platform exclusively for indie developers. Gamasutra talks to co-founder Chris Swan about his ambitions, the service's 85 percent dev share, and why Steam is not seen as competition.

Mike Rose, Blogger

July 28, 2011

7 Min Read

With indie game development constantly on the uprise, it's hardly surprising to see interest in the sector rapidly increasing, from Steam's love of indies to the success of the Humble Indie Bundles. IndieCity is an upcoming digital distribution platform that is set to be exclusively for indie developers. A beta for the site and downloadable client will be launching in the next few weeks, with an invite system in place. Chris Swan, one of IndieCity's co-founders, told Gamasutra that the idea for the UK-based, Blitz Games Studios-funded company sprang from his team's love for indie games. "There isn't a single one-stop destination that covers enough of the indie gaming scene in our opinion," he explained. "We all found that we were browsing numerous blogs and forums to try and stay on top of the scene, and knew that IndieCity could do better than that." His experience with the current digital distribution channels also pushed him to consider what a dedicated indie channel could do for the ever-evolving scene. Swan was originally the business development director with the Blitz 1UP initiative, and found that indies were being overlooked more often than not. "While the Blitz 1UP program provided a lot of services to developers, it distributed through the standard channels (i.e. Steam, Direct2Drive, Stardock Impulse, BigFish Games etc), and the overall sales were disappointing," he said. "All too often these great indie games were either not getting approved, or were given the thumbs up but very quickly disappeared from the front page of the sites and were then tucked away somewhere on an indie shelf." "We wanted to do something that really celebrated the diversity and creativity that indie games have to offer, and ignore the generic mainstream behemoths." Of course, in order to attract interest, IndieCity will have to offer independent developers an equal or better deal to those offered by all its competitors. This is an area in which Swan is most excited. "There are several [advantages to IndieCity]," explained Swan, "but the most important one is that only IndieCity will have customers that are there 100 percent to play indie games, so the ratio of page views to trial/purchase should be high." A user's browsing experience will also be toned specifically to their needs. "We'll be making extensive use of a recommendation engine to give every gamer their own personal homepage," he told us. "This should allow every indie game to be match-made with its 'niche' of gamers that are into that particular style of game, be it steampunk RPG, high-art games, retro, you name it." A huge notable difference between IndieCity and the big digital distributors is its "very lightweight" approval process. As long as a game is approved as being 'indie' by the IndieCity community, it will be allowed on-board. Not only that, but IndieCity will also feature a special area called 'The Underground', where "absolutely anything goes," according to Swan, "It's a great test-bed for developers. I think this area could be particularly interesting: you could create a one-level test-game and sell it for $0.99," he explained. "If people seem to like it you could decide to continue making it into a full game. We've started calling this the pay-to-finish model, which has obviously been proven to be successful for [Minecraft creator] Notch, but it's similar to other devs who sell early beta builds etc." However, although Swan is happy to list the differences that IndieCity provides compared to other platforms, he's quick to note that it isn't looking to compete with anyone, especially the behemoth that is Steam. "The more we've worked on the differentiators for IndieCity, the more we've realized that we aren't even competing with Steam," he noted. "Steam is there for all of the major titles, and it does an awesome job on that front." "But we simply aren't going after that space. Instead we're going for all of the weird and wonderful games out there and are aiming to appeal to gamers who want to see just what video games are capable of." "No doubt we will have promotions too, but we don't want to encourage mass-deductions just to give a game major visibility. Again that's something that the recommendation engine will solve by giving everyone their own personal page," he argued. Some may be pleasantly surprised -- yet quietly wary -- of the 85 percent revenue share that IndieCity is offering devs. Gamasutra asked Swan how his team plans to maintain the site with such a small take of the money made, to which he replied, "By keeping our overheads as low as possible!" "We've got a lean team of six people working on the site at the moment, and while we will definitely scale up, it won't be to huge numbers," he explained. "By not being the gate keepers we have almost zero overhead for the approval process, so that's a big savings." "Plus we're using the cloud for the site hosting, so we only scale up the servers when the demand is high - which should mean that more games are being purchased when that happens. On top of that we also have a download client which, with the user's consent, can allow peer to peer sharing." He continued, "If people opt into this we can save on lots of bandwidth and will reward those people with discount points. On top of that these gamers can then go a step further and choose for IndieCity to use its recommendation engine to automatically download and install new games and demos for them." "So you could leave the client running overnight and get up in the morning to find a new batch of games pre-installed that are relevant to your interests, and you only have to click 'play' to start enjoying them!" Swan was also quick to note his indie roots, confessing, "we aren't actually doing this as a get-rich-quick scheme. We're all passionate indie gamers that just want this site to exist, and in fact if things go brilliantly well for us we'll aim to reduce our revenue share even lower." The team says that only 'indie' games can be added to the IndieCity database. Of course, the definition of indie is rather sketchy, and usually changes from person to person, sometimes dramatically. Swan and his team have been researching the best fit for what 'indie' is, and will be implementing it for the site. "We held a survey a few months back asking our community to vote on a load of games and say which ones were indie," he explained. "It was fascinating to see the results, and the large grey areas over what people considered was indie. Some people thought that a team had to be of a certain small size to be indie, others decided it was whether they had funding or not, and there were lots of other views too." The team found that, to answer the question of what is 'indie', it's simply a case of looking at it from the opposite angle. "What we found was there was quite a clear opinion on what was not indie, and that works well for us. We'd rather err on the side of caution, so the approach we'll be taking is that if a majority of people say that a game is not indie then it won't be approved," he noted. Of course, everyone has their own personal opinion of what 'indie' is, and Swan is no different. "I think an indie game is one that is created without an unseen guiding hand. It's the purity of the game making process that is indie in my mind." IndieCity will be launching as a beta in the next few weeks, and will initially be looking to attract PC indie games, with Mac and Linux to follow.

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