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The Almighty Buck Entertainment Games

Can Independent Game Developers Survive? 60

Thanks to for their editorial asking whether independent videogame developers can make it in the increasingly cut-throat games business. The article comes after the recent closure of respected UK developers Mucky Foot ('Startopia'), the latest in a long line of recent developer failures, and the author asks: "What's going wrong? Some of these casualties have been victims of mismanagement or poor quality control, but many were properly managed, fiscally sensible and extremely talented companies." The editorial continues: "Companies like EA, Microsoft and Sony don't really need [smaller developers] any more, as large publishers increasingly focus on internal development and suck much of the best talent into themselves. Smaller publishers aren't in a position to take risks on the kind of innovative games that small developers do best." Is the situation really as bleak as this implies?
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Can Independent Game Developers Survive?

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  • Complexity (Score:5, Interesting)

    by L7_ ( 645377 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @04:14PM (#7399590)
    IANAGD, but I think that as games transition to pure 3d modeled worlds (away from side scrollers or 2d sprite based games) thier complexity rises exponentially.

    By complexity, I mean the amount of time making independent code objects to handle each and every interaction that could take place in the world. This involves AI scripting for the mobiles, interaction scripting for the static items and world physics for everything else.

    No longer can people write one set of libraries that will apply to each and every level of a game. I guess what it comes down to is that things can't be re-used as much as in days past: independent developers rely on the fact that people want a fresh outlook on games, not the same rehashed EA clone and it takes a lot more work to create something like that now (without the $$$$$ middleware).
    • Re:Complexity (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ceej ( 185138 )
      That's not really where the development time and money is going. The killer is the increasing complexity of the art assets. The 3D models with their ever-increasing polygon counts and their ever-larger textures. The ever-growing environments. Doing all the content creation to meet the eye-candy demands of modern gamers can take a lot of bodies and budget.
    • Re:Complexity (Score:3, Interesting)

      by quandrum ( 652868 )
      I always wonder why we don't see more content targeted for the GBA? This is the arena of the side-scrollers and the 2d sprites. The handheld itself has an extremely large user base and the games sell for a respectable $30. A 2 or 3 man team of average skill could put out an above average game in 6 months. They could leverage those profits to build home console games.

      If you want to ignore the big publishers, you have to work for your due. There are places where small teams can put out an excellent game. Cer
      • It's because the development hardware costs are very high. Also, Nintendo has a very strict licensing policy, which as far as I know, gives them the right to deny distribution.
      • The problem is getting a publisher to agree to publish your game.

        GBA development is pretty easy - the homebrew community has figured out pretty much every detail of the hardware.

        It really comes down to the fact that the crap that's on the GBA sells well, so few publishers want to take a risk with something original.
    • I don't think it's necessarily the logic or interaction as much as it is the complexity of the content.

      Any decent programmer can write you a set of code that provides consistent behavior for any given number of levels. (Scripting is another matter entirely, but scripting is a relatively trivial task compared to developing a full game engine.)

      Content, on the other hands, is a serious problem. Making things that look good in 3D is an order of magnitude more difficult than making presentable 2D objects. W

    • IANAGD, but I think that as games transition to pure 3d modeled worlds (away from side scrollers or 2d sprite based games) thier complexity rises exponentially.

      You mean, O(e^n) where n is the number of dimensions? That is, a 3d game is 9/4 times as complex as a 2d game?
    • Re:Complexity (Score:2, Informative)

      by idries ( 174087 )
      Well, I am a game developer, and I have to say that I disagree entirely.

      The dramatic rise in the number of small studios going bust (mostly in the UK AFAIK) is nothing todo with technology or QA or Art or any other kind of production problem. Remember that the whole development cycle is a drop in the ocean in terms of total development costs. Most of the cash goes on marketing and manufactuing. The root of the matter is the failing relationship between small studios and their publishers.

      There are really 2
  • I think one way a small company can compete is to off their game up for anyone to play, and adopt a shareware model of distribution, much the same way id did for the original doom. Everyone had access to the first few levels of doom, and soon everyone was hooked and had to have the full version which they bought from id. Of course this would only work if the game as innovative and addictive.

  • When there are 1500 pound gorillas like Microsoft and Sony, the goal is not to compete with them but find untapped markets. It isn't so much getting a slice of the pie, but making a whole new pie. Eventually, the gorrilla will eath the new pie, but, with some luck, enough time will have elapsed to give the small company some real revenue (hopefully enough to say "to hell with this" and retire).
  • by PainKilleR-CE ( 597083 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @04:53PM (#7399974)
    "Companies like EA, Microsoft and Sony don't really need [smaller developers] any more, as large publishers increasingly focus on internal development and suck much of the best talent into themselves. Smaller publishers aren't in a position to take risks on the kind of innovative games that small developers do best." Is the situation really as bleak as this implies?

    This situation might be as bleak as implied, if not for the fact that it's just incorrect. Microsoft, for example, owns, through which they run most of their PC multiplayer titles, and yet the majority of the content on that site comes from small developers who pump out shareware Java/Flash titles, many of which have become extremely popular (think PopCap Games).

    Additionally, many small developers have come up through the mod communities in more complex game types, such as FPS games, where a handful of developers were picked up from various mod groups for Quake and Half-Life, either in new development houses or by companies like id and Valve (and Valve themselves formed a lot of the talent to develop Half-Life from mod developers).

    It's a matter of knowing what a small team is capable of and finding practical methods of distributing and marketing your product. Many larger developers and publishers have tried many things to encourage and help this (again, Valve and id with their respective mod communities), while others pretty much strike off on their own (GarageGames).
  • Nothing new here... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Doctor Cat ( 676482 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @04:54PM (#7399982) Homepage
    The "independent developer" niche has always been crammed full of companies with short half-lives. If you want to "play the game" of trying to make A titles, or even B titles, with publisher funding, publisher distribution and marketing, and basically dancing like a puppet on the end of the publisher's strings, it's HARD to keep the cash flow to stay alive year in and year out, and very few developers build up the kind of warchest or royalty stream that will let them weather a project cancellation, abysmal sales of a title, or a six month drought between finishing one project and finally getting a contract to do the next game. So you see little companies come and go in the 3rd party development scene all the time.

    That said, there are a few well managed ones and/or developers with big enough hits that they can stay around a long time - Stormfront Studios is still in business I believe, and id Software isn't going anywhere any time soon. Some of the more successful developers deliberately decide to be absorbed into a big company, too, like Blizzard or Westwood - and didn't Valve do that also?

    The other route is to keep expenses tiny, always, and just keep making games until they pry the keyboard and mouse out of your cold, dead, fingers. The fellow that did the Dink Smallwood games is still at it, at the Independent Games Festival I saw his teenage lawnmower game. I've been running my own Dragon's Eye Productions for over 10 years now, and doing better than ever. PopCap Games is doing really great (and their games are tons of fun, so they deserve it), and there's too many shareware, freeware, flash and java games and game sites to even mention. Yes, a lot of them suck, but there's some good ones too. There's a lot of interesting looking games at [] for one. I still hope that Garage Games [] will thrive, too - they're doing original game development using the Tribes 2 3D engine (which they made, at their last company). I don't think the development houses are dying any time soon - just some specific individual ones, which has happened pretty much every year, often with little fanfare.

  • by American AC in Paris ( 230456 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @05:04PM (#7400123) Homepage
    What makes this question different from the "Can Mom-And-Pop stores survive in the face of Wal-Mart" question?

    Yeah, a lot of independents die out. More often than not, these independents try to fight toe-to-toe with EA, Microsoft, etc. This is how you lose; you can't use the same tactics as the 800-pound gorilla, or you'll get crushed.

    What you can do, though, is take advantage of being a small developer. You can produce edgier stuff. You can try crazy new things. You don't have four levels of management to clear things with. You may not hit as hard as they do, but you can act with far greater flexibility and alacrity than a big game house can.

    If you've got a Wal-Mart to compete with, you can't expect to survive a price war. They're geared for that kind of thing, and they will beat you every single time. You can, however, expect to blow them out of the water with excellent customer service or specialized services. Similarly, you can't out-'big' EA. You've gotta take a different approach. For all it's fearsome size, there's plenty that a small, independent firm can do better than a giant like EA.

  • but was then bought by Activision. It's a real shame to because I looks as if we won't get a Linux client now for Call of Duty. Please post here [] that we need a Linux client for this game.
  • Startopia still is a kickass game, I bought it when it was released and enjoy it to this day (it received barely a word of advertising and slipped off into obscurity).. If you see this game in the bargan bucket, buy it its fantastic (Humourous, sci-fi parodys, Hitchhikers references and hilarious things like the little-known karmagasms of happyness the Sirens take).
  • Can Independent Game Developers Survive? ... Of course as long as the libraries, dev tools, and OS/platform isn't tied up in expensive proprietary pay per stuff. The little guy, or groups of them, can always make a "" or game-mod type project.

    A lot of bigger game companies play marketing games with thier products and don't value supporting and fostering creative talented teams and giving them some decision power in the creation process.

    To them it is sbout control, psycographic marketing, and

  • There are two things that small developers lack to make the gaming rennasaince days come back.

    Let's assume their spouce can feed them for the 3-4 years it takes to actually code a decent games. Let's even assume they gang together and form tiny companies.

    One problem is the enourmous amounts of artistic property needed to raise a modern-looking game.
    Individual developers (or tiny dev groups/companies) don't have anywhere near the amount needed. Getting it isn't cheap, and getting competitive stuff is hard
    • Hm - you've missed how things have evolved recently:

      1. BUYING a modern working 3D engine SDK costs between 300K to around a million, depending on engine. Wrapping it costs a few developer years.

      Torque. Crystal Space 3D. There's more of 'em to. Personally, I licensed Torque. It cost me a whopping $100 for the license and souce code. If (and only if) the game starts to hit big (in excess of $500k in business for the company, or the publisher I deal with) then I have to move to the 'commercial' licens

      • Torque. Crystal Space 3D. There's more of 'em to. Personally, I licensed Torque. It cost me a whopping $100 for the license and souce code. If (and only if) the game starts to hit big (in excess of $500k in business for the company, or the publisher I deal with) then I have to move to the 'commercial' license - which is $10k. still pretty good.

        I notice this is an "if", call us when your game makes the 500,000 in gross. 500k/10 people/1 year is only 50k per year for one year. I am grossly unimpressed and
    • 15 year old graphics, you mean like the Sims? Yeah that lousy "2D" program didn't sell well at all. ;)

      Where the hell do you think the "founders" of the original game companies got their start? In college? A lot were indy. Go figure.

      What is the most "fab" game on the Internet right now? Lemme check...ah...CS? Made by Valve right? No, a small group of "Indy" developers! Just cause it started out a modern-looking, "freeware" mod to HL doesn't count it out. There are other ways to do contribute new

      • >> What is the most "fab" game on the Internet right now? Lemme check...ah...CS? Made by Valve right? No, a small group of "Indy" developers!

        Valve got their salaries at the time from a corporation known as "Sierra Online". And when a corp pays your salary, guess who makes decisions.
        It's a rarity that a corp will make the right ones for us gamers when better ones for its pocket that throw us gamers in the dirt are available.

        >> Most games on the market today and in the near future are mostly hyp
        • >>Can a mod community make a mod better (or more unique) than the game they're modding? Can they put together an actual _game_?

          Desert Combat and EOD vs BF1942.

          Zy-El mod vs. Diablo 2

          A lot of NWN Persistant world servers vs. NWN

          CS, DOD, FA vs HL

          A bunch of good UT2003 mods vs UT2003

          Action Quake2 vs Quake 2

          Tac Ops, Strike Force vs. UT

          And a whole lot of others......

  • by crombie ( 128709 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @05:43PM (#7400599)

    I work for Irrational Games [], developers of System Shock 2 and Freedom Force. We are currently working on a number of titles including Freedom Force vs. the Third Reich and Tribes: Vengeance, and have an office in Boston (USA) and Canberra (Australia).

    We've grown and prospered over 5 years, and all of us look forward to making great games that people enjoy. We also enjoy the freedom of making decisions that affect what the game will be, rather than being told how we should make the game.

    In addition, I am a judge for the Independent Games Festival [], where 112 independent teams of game developers have submitted their independent games that they have funded and developed on their own to be judged and presented at GDC 2004.

    While there is a lot of recent setbacks for independent developers, especially in the UK, the people who want to make their voices heard independently will continue to do so, reguardless of their financial situation. Independent games will continue to be made, and those voices will continue to be heard.

    • Irrational! You guys are some of my favorite developers - I loved System Shock 2 and Freedom Force, and can't wait for your next games. I just wish both of those games had sold better for you...I simply could not understand how System Shock, one of the most revered games of all time, could get a sequel that's just as good as the original, and it NOT become the best-selling game of the year.

      Anyway, thanks for a great sequel. Thanks for breaking the "all superhero games either suck or get cancelled" curse
  • by innowayelite ( 721833 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @06:15PM (#7400958)
    I think an untapped market that has yet to be fully realized is the pro-gamer market. Not "professional gamers" -- a term that can apply to any person who has spent enough hours in front of a cathode ray tube -- but programmer gamers. A game in which a player can program the behavior of say, a robot, within certain constraints and then play online against other robot-programmers may well be the next big thing as "dumbed-down" and "kiddie" titles saturate the market. There are many (such as myself) who desire massive depth and interaction with the games, and this would be an idea that would satisfy this. In addition, objects in a world could be programmed. In the Elder Scrolls games, enchanted items are the precursor of programmable objects; they give the player constraints to work within, and the player tries to get the most bang for their buck. Taking this concept farther would be an exciting thing to see explored. And if marketed right, it could sell.
  • by presearch ( 214913 ) * on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @06:21PM (#7401010)
    My partner and I run a small game house, TQworld [].
    We publish only one title, the offbeat (and often misunderstood) 3D game 'tranquility'.

    Next January will mark our third year. Granted, our game didn't have the 'hit' impact that we
    had hoped for when we were in development, but we've enjoyed a steady growth
    in players. We're still in the black, mainly due to keeping expenses low and by not having
    profits siphoned off by publishers, distributors and investors.

    Another reason why we're still around is due to the design work within the game and it's
    support system during the development phase. Because we use a client server model
    for tranquility, we never have had any problem with piracy. We also offer so much of the
    game for free that there hasn't been a big incentive for players to circumvent our system.
    We keep scoring and game progress on our servers but all game play resides on the user's
    machine. If they want to give out account information to others it's fine with us, it only affects
    the user's score. We also only distribute the game online. We've tried working with publishers
    but because of our unique un-cheatable commerce model, publishers can't run the show.
    That seems to turn them off so we've never been able to find a publisher that can deal with us.

    We also aren't greedy when it comes to profit. We give away lots of free accounts. Why not?
    It's just a miniscule load on the servers and it's well worth it just to make somebody happy
    to play our game. We also haven't been greedy when it comes to updates. Once somebody
    pays for the game, they can run it on as many machines as they want. We've got a version
    for Windows, OSX and Mac OS9 and they can run any or all of them. We also never charge
    for updates. Somebody told me once that you should worry about the customers you have,
    not the ones you don't that aren't paying you. We liked that approach and so we've ended
    up using that commerce model. Granted, it's not the money maker model that Apple or
    Microsoft uses, but when you sell a game called tranquility we want to keep our customers
    as stress free as possible. Like the Golden rule, we treat them like we would like to be treated.

    Another part of the game (that people never see) is the support structure that we built in at the
    same time as the game itself. The servers let us know who's buying, who's playing, where
    they are at in the game, what kind of hardware, who's visiting the web site and who is asking
    for support. It's tied in with the game itself so once we brought everything up a few years ago,
    it's almost self-supporting. This means that we can be responsive to users that need assistance,
    we can quickly see the result of special promotions or potential compatibility problems with
    new releases or new OS releases on the platforms we support, without having to hire a staff to
    keep our customers happy. Although this was experimental and somewhat radical at the time,
    because we were not beholden to investors and shareholders at the time, we could take whatever
    steps were necessary at the time to build things the right way. It took 1 year for two developers
    to build both the game and the support system and we released it when it was ready and hit the
    ground running on day one.

    Finally there's the game itself. Yeah, we know it's weird []
    and certainly not for everyone, but that's a large part of it's charm.

    tranquility started out as a simple demo game that I wrote for the SGI boxes, especially the
    Indigo ten years ago. I would get fan mail every so often asking for updates etc. so we knew
    we had something interesting to use as a foundation. After kicking around ideas, when Apple
    announced plans for OS X, it looked like there was a consistent enough target to write for, with
    an eclectic enough audience that might enjoy the alternative experience that tra
    • Hey, I just wanted to mention that this is awesome news. I enjoyed tranquility greatly, was hoping it would be ported to another system, and am very excited to just discover that it's made it's return. I encourage everyone to check out this amazing experience.

      P.S. I have a plug [] to make for my game too.

  • The technical demands for mobile gaming are significantly less. That's were there's room for independant developers. Other than that, they should negotiate contracts whereby if the publishers pull out the developers still get paid for their time. Before now I've refused to sign a contract where the other party thought that they would be able to pull out at any time without having to pay me a cent. They were surprised that I rejected a "standard" contract, but they still re-wrote it.
  • A few posters have mentioned that it's just too difficult to write a game as an independent developer. It's definitely difficult, but not *too* difficult.

    Two examples come to mind. (1) The Combat Mission series and (2) Norm Koger games.

    The Combat Mission games have been hailed as the best wargames ever developed, and even some of the best PC games developed period. It's a truly amazing achievement, considering that Combat Mission was started in a garage by two or three guys, and that the only place to g

    • The Combat Mission games have been hailed as the best wargames ever developed, and even some of the best PC games developed period. It's a truly amazing achievement, considering that Combat Mission was started in a garage by two or three guys, and that the only place to get it was online. BigTime Software and have done a wonderful job with the CM series. While it isn't the best selling video game of all time it gets great reviews and has a wonderful community following. CMBO and CMBB sold w
  • To make up your own tricks. The problem is that so many developers try to simply "build off another idea" that it all looks the same after the first few dozen. We still have Quake 3, Unreal Tournament, UT2k3, Half-Life/Counter-Strike, and the -free- America's Army running the FPS show. We got Warcraft 3, C&C:Generals, and Age of Mythology running the RTS genre. And theres Microsoft's Flight Simulator 2004 serving the extremely niche group of Simulator fans.

    If small time developers wanna break into the

  • Apparently, this is a pretty regular cycle in the games industry. What happens is that the big fish get tired of dealing with small developers because they are out of their control and if they fold your investment is wasted and maybe they won't be on time and so on. So they focus more on internal development and their own teams. Then after awhile, someone notices "hey we're spending a lot of money paying salaries and benefits and keeping staff that we aren't always using," and so they start laying people of
  • IO Interactive. Hitman: Over 600,000 units sold. Hitman 2: Over 2 million units sold. 'Nuff said.
  • The big issues people addressed are that most big games are dumbing down games in an effort to cater to the masses and compensating by way of boosting the graphics. I agree this has been the trend since the emergence of 3d and it has come at the expense of gameplay. I remember the leap between Kings Quest IV to V and despite the awesome graphics, shuddering at the new mouse/icon driven interface.

    Gamers in general (and developers) I think focus on building what they think is "fun" rather than counterbalan
  • Yeah it's bad for small developers - especially for console game development. For PC developers, I believe there's always a chance, because entry development is very cheap. Within this past year, I've seen way too many game developers close their studios, including the one I (used) to work for - they went ka-plink too.

    The problem is that games are "Big Business" now. Really big business. In the old days, people went into the industry because they either liked playing games, or liked making them. Now that t

  • Perhaps we need to take into account the changing definition of 'success.' These days, a successful game has millions of copies sold. But think back to the days when independent gamewriters were the norm: what was successful then? Certainly not millions of sales... perhaps thousands. How many copies of Sierra's most popular adventures games were sold, do you think? Or Wolfenstein 3D? Or the original Warcraft?

    But with massive corporation behind games nowadays with their huge marketing budgets and dis
  • Despite what it looks like, the independents that survive are the ones most ahead of the game(no pun intended).

    Like in any industry, it's the small developers that will take the biggest risks. Simultaneously, they also get the biggest rewards, perhaps not financially but from an "advancement in development" standpoint. The games have to attack with new ideas and excellent design; they do not have a mature strategy or infrastructure to back up anything less.

    It's interesting to note that all the big compani
  • Quote:


    Is the situation really as bleak as this [article] implies?

    It is.

    Being myself a small-time game developer (programmer), we're having a big trouble here to find a publisher and finally publish the game - lots of requirements, most of them asking to change the whole idea of the game - how it will look like, the plot and gameplay. Usually, making the game worse with these changes.

    Publishers don't want to take risks of releasing the game they don't know what impact it'll do, while there aren't any s

  • Whatever happened to them? Why did they close? PS - They made System Shock 1 & 2
  • I think it should be mentioned that this (very short) opinion piece is focusing on Indy game developers in the UK. The title of the Slash story leaves that out.

    I'm sure things are somewhat different in the US or other parts of the world. What I couldn't tell you is exactly how they're different. However, there are enough cultural and economic variations between countries for me to say that there is some differences.

    What would be truly interesting to see is how the Indy development approach differs f

  • Check out Spiderweb Software [] for a prime example. They (or more approporiately, he) caters to a small, hardcore niche of old-school RPGers, listens to them, and gives them what they want and abstains from what they don't want. An excellent business model for a small scale developer; give people what they are paying you for and improve yourself on their feedback. And any RPG fan would be a damned fool not to download the Geneforge 2 demo.

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