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VIGS: Wideload's Seropian On Indie Survival

Speaking at his keynote of the Vancouver International Game Summit, Wideload Games' Alex Seropian (Stubbs the Zombie) warned his audience that "internal development models just won’t work for independent developers anymore," and offered advice on h
Alexander Seropian, who started out as the founder of Bungie Studios (Halo) and left Microsoft to found Wideload Games (Stubbs the Zombie), keynoted the Vancouver International Game Summit in Vancouver, British Columbia from May 3-4, 2007. Seropian’s talk on “The Once and Future Game Developer” began with his overarching viewpoint on independent game development in current game industry. “The business of game development has changed," said Seropian. "The do-it-yourself, internal development model has become so bloated and risky that only giant publishers can afford it and they’re only willing to on a slam-dunk franchise." "Innovation and originality are the driving forces behind the game developer model of the future," he continued. "It’s not outsourcing, it’s not a core-team model. It’s a new producer-driven culture that’s creatively focused, scalable, and replicable.” “These days, it seems hard to do original stuff. A lot of publishers I talk to put ‘original’ in the ‘risk’ category,” Seropian elaborated. When he was first pitching Stubbs the Zombie, he described the game to a publisher as “a zombie game where you play the zombie.” The publisher responded that they’d look it over with the marketing team and get back to him, and when they did, they said the idea would be great — but with the player as a hero killing a bunch of zombies. “There is a lot of opportunity in the video game business to be original and creative. At the same time, trying to achieve that goal is risky to the people who are going to invest to achieve those goals,” he continued. The root cause of the risk, Seropian believes, is the “man power involved” in development. Even so, risks are numerous in game industry. From the market, which is hit driven, very competitive, highly subjective, and the cost of entry is high, to the development side, which requires completely new hardware platforms every 5-7 years, new engine and other technology requirements every 12-18 months, and continuous development cycles every 24 months. On the upside, Seropian asserts, demand for game content and game developers is huge and growing. Grand Theft Auto and Halo have sold over 10 million copies each, while Rare, Red Octane and Harmonix were each acquired for sums in the triple digit millions. “Our industry is somewhat unique in that interested parties will fund projects without acquiring a company’s stock,” said Seropian. In any business, long term value and enormous multiples are a result of ownership, and for game developers that means owning intellectual property. Seropian argues that internal development models just won’t work for independent developers anymore, and that development has to be under the umbrella of a big company that can afford it. At Wideload, the core team is made up of 19 people. The technical work is outsourced to contractors that the company creates long-term relationships with. They provide their “partners” (a term Seropian prefers) with the technology and training they need to complete projects, hoping for the contractors to work on future projects as well. This allows the core team to focus primarily on the IP side of game development. The risk may be going up in game industry, Seropian comments, and developers are facing barriers to innovate, but he believes that as the game industry continues to grow, small companies will get smarter while big companies get bigger.

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