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GDC China: Nicalis' Rodriguez Talks Indie Realities

Tyrone Rodriguez of Nicalis (Cave Story) gave a GDC China talk on the state of the indie movement, and offered advice gleaned from his career -- including as a former game journalist and doing work-for-hire for publishers.
Tyrone Rodriguez, co-founder of indie publisher/developer Nicalis, delivered a presentation at GDC China in Shanghai on the state of the indie movement, and offered advice gleaned from his career -- including as a former game journalist and doing work-for-hire for publishers. Maintaing quality in indie games is key, says Rodriguez, and indie becoming a movement is important to that. "Developers weren't talking, and weren't helping each other. Particularly with the indie scene, in the West, we're seeing a lot of that... and it's helping indie as a whole." Rodriguez introduced Nicalis by showing its games -- these are all upcoming, and WiiWare targeted. Night Sky, formerly known as Night Game, is an IGF finalist, while Cave Story and La Mulana were both independently released on PC in Japan but are transitioning to paid WiiWare download versions with major upgrades. As a developer, says Rodriguez, "I felt like I was born too late." He wished he could have worked on platforms like the NES -- but that spirit has been reborn in the indie movement. "With this movement, we're able to go back and make 2D games," he says, which appeals to many developers -- La Mulana's original version was designed as an homage to the games of the 8-bit MSX computer system. Rodriguez chalks up the hotness of the indie movement into the West simply: "players want more for less," he says. "You can buy a lot of games for the same money, a lot of variety for the same money," as buying a packaged game for full retail price. Also, the instant gratification of downloadable games is irresistible to gamers. And another key point is that hardcore gamers "really want to see it succeed"; gamers and editors "will be a huge ally for you" when they sense the independent spirit in your products. 
 Picking a platform is tough, admits Rodriguez, and he echoes what you may have heard before: "Developers I have spoken to say that [PSN] is between XBLA and WiiWare," in terms of number of downloads, says Rodriguez. XBLA consumers "are looking for quality, and that's what they're paying for," but the market is supercompetitive and the and bar for quality has been raised almost to a packaged game level. 
 Rodriguez was adamant that you can't underestimate the importance of PR. It's "not about buying ads on Facebook. It's about making phone calls, sending emails, making friends. It's a really easy process because it's fun." PR can be "double-edged sword," however, says Rodriguez. "Fans are going to get used to a certain amount of information." The frequency you update your blog is important -- make sure it's consistent or there will be backlash. Making contact with the gaming media is not to be underestimated. Make the relationships -- "You really, really need to get out there," he says. "The media don't have a lot of time to go through press releases, but they will put up important stuff," so contact them when you have something to say. But make sure you build those relationships, particularly when a show like GDC is coming up where you will be attending and have the opportunity to connect with a large number of members of the media at one time. Says Rodriguez, "If your game doesn't sell well, it's nobody's fault. It's not Apple's fault, it's not Microsoft's fault, it's not Nintendo's fault. It's your fault." Of course, that is, "if you have a really good game." Surprisingly for an indie presentation, Rodriguez stressed the opportunities provided by work-for-hire deals with publishers. "It's painful, it's a lot of legal stuff, and you just want to make games," he says. However, "Contract work will allow you to make games," because your name gets out there, and it earns you money, and if you build a relationship with a publisher, they're more likely to consider your original concept when it comes time for them to solicit proposals. "You want to make a heavy investment in business development," says Rodriguez. When it comes to publishers, "you want to have dinner with them, you want to invite them over to your studio." And though you might be tempted to overpromise, you need to make sure that you "don't mislead the publisher," as "they're going to respect that." Honesty is the best policy in publisher relations, he advises.

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