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PAX: Indie Developers On 'How To Fix The Game Biz'

Gamasutra was at the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle over the weekend to hear indie developers from Telltale, The Behemoth and Hothead Games discuss 'How the Industry is Busted, and What's Being Done to Fix It' - lots of details inside!
As part of the third annual Penny Arcade Expo, which took place from August 25-27 in Bellevue, Washington at the Meydenbauer Center, three representatives from the video game industry, including Steve Bocska, joint CEO of Hothead Games, Kevin Bruner, CTO of Telltale Games, and John Baez, co-founder of The Behemoth, gathered on a panel to discuss the future of the video game industry. The panel, titled 'How the Industry is Busted, and What's Being Done to Fix It' and moderated by DigiPen's Chris Erhardt, addressed the concerns of the three executives on industry practices, particularly game distribution, a concept that has been embraced differently by each of the three companies represented. Same Ol' Thing? Bruner began the panel by commenting that he feels the chief problem with the industry is redundancy, noting that companies tend to “make the same big huge game over, and over, and over again.” He added: “Basically, if you can't say it's like Grand Theft Auto or it's like a shooter, it's really hard to get your game off the ground these days, and I think that's the biggest problem.” Baez countered this a bit, however, stating that the industry is “really may be not broken, it's just evolving.” He then added: “But I think what has a lot to do with why it may appear to be broken is because its still dominated by retail, and still dominated by large publishers.” Looking to the PC game biz specifically, the panelists were asked if the market, which, according to recent NPD Group data saw a decline in sales by 11 percent from the prior year to just over $1 billion (though interestingly, this number climbs to $1.4 billion if sales of downloadable content is included), will continue to be viable in the near future. Digital Download Delight! Bocsta, whose company was recently announced to be the developers of the first official Penny Arcade PC game, stated that: “[The PC retail model] probably isn't something that long term is going to be viable.” He continued: “There's certainly an emotional aspect to the purchase process, wanting to go into a store and physically examine the good that you are about to buy. I think years ago I would have said that will never go away, and there will always be this human need to touch the thing that you are about to buy. But I think that it might actually be able to go away completely. Looking at iTunes...I'm perfectly happy with that experience now.” Regarding the potential benefits of the episodic content and digital distribution models, Bocsta further noted that “...by breaking [games] up into smaller bits of content, we can dish this stuff out, and people can enjoy it at the pace that they'd like to, and also at the costs that they'd like to.” Impulse Level Critical However, one thing that that was noted about the shift from the retail market model to that of digital distribution was that the concept of the in-store “impulse buy” was lost. Asking how the panelists planned on addressing this, Bruner noted that: “We don't do it well,” adding that in adopting an online distribution model, companies tend to “develop a previously unrecognized appreciation for some of the things [retail] publishers bring to the table that you could really use when trying to publish your own games.” Telltale, which published a set of games based on Jeff Smith's popular Bone comic over its website, plans to release as its first “monthly game” via digital distribution with Sam & Max in the fall over the Telltale website and the GameTap all you can eat download service. Shifting the focus to specific genres, specifically sports titles such as those published annually by Electronic Arts, the panel was asked to comment on if this tendency to publish a new title in a given franchise each and every year was detrimental to the industry. “You're really targeting a specific [video game] player,” responded Baez, “and he wants his roster every year, so you're leaving a ton of money on the table if you don't update your game every year. Of course, big companies aren't going to invest a whole lot of money in going beyond updating the rosters.” Conclusion The panel was concluded with a lengthy question and answer period with the audience, of which the most interesting inquiry came regarding the marketing focus on promoting a game's visual fidelity and photorealism rather than its intrinsic value in terms of fun. Responding to this, Bocsta recalled a recent comment from industry icon Nolan Bushnell who expressed confusion at developers' ongoing “quest for photorealism.” “Somebody's going to get there first, and then once they do, you can't say 'hey, my photorealism is better than yours',” Bocsta commented. “[Game developers] are all going to be there, and the race is over.” This sentiment was echoed by the other panelists, who expressed that going forward, a tendency to create titles like Katamari Damacy and others that portray an unique sense of style in a game is going to be more important than achieving an accurate representation of the real world.

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