Saturday, July 9, 2005

The brave new world of Indie console games

I had a dream about next generation consoles revolutionizing indie game development.
In this dream, the indie game development community was fragmented and suffering. A gleaming savior with tens of millions of eager customers appeared on the horizon. He spoke in a booming voice "Bring me your games, both small and weary. I will distribute them and you will finally be able to feed your family. You will rise and rule the world!"

He ends with a bizarre and disturbing cry:"Developers, developers, developers!" It was Steve Ballmer from Microsoft! My eyes darted furtively from side to side. What was this madness? I'm independent. I don't do deals with the Man!

But my belly was growling from the hunger pains. Too many late nights and not enough pocket change to buy sustaining Cool Ranch Doritos had taken their toll. My precious game in hand, I approached the world's largest software company and became an official Xbox Live developer.

The state of the Indie scene drove me to do it
The current indie gaming scene is doing better than I expected but is still a piss poor way of making a living. The reasons are plentiful and have less to do with games and more to do with distribution and marketing. Specifically:
  • Customers don't know about the existence of many indie efforts.
  • When they do hear rumors, there is no easy way of getting the title.
The Web as a Stealth Market
Now, I can see some folks saying "Wait! We have the Internet. It is our mother, our savior! With the miracle of Google you can find anything. With the marvel of HTTP, you can download files directly from the developer to your hard drive. Woot!"

This is a naive vision of how a consumer market works. The Web is a highly fragmented market that requires users to forage through a forest of nearly invisible information sources. I continually discover wonderfully informative websites that had been lurking just below my radar for years. Most information on the web exists in stealth mode. If you aren't looking carefully, you'll never even know it exists.

This naturally poses a problem for the indie game developer. Sure, they can put up a website, but it won't get much traffic. There are few spots of indie press, but their traffic isn't so hot either.

Fuzzy consumer behavior
Another fun problem is that the way consumers gain knowledge about new products is often not well suited actually finding those products on the Web . If I type a specific product name into Google, I can get some great results. For example, type in Gas Powered Games "Supreme Commander" and that title immediately appears 4 out of the top 5 hits.

Unfortunately, very few people learn about games this way. Suppose a friend in a bar mentions to you that Supreme Commander, the sequel to Total Annihilation is out. This is what you remember:"There's this game that is the sequel to a RTS I played a few years ago where you mined metal"

Google becomes nearly useless. I'd give the persistent searcher a 5% chance of finding the title if this was the only information they had. A game store on the other hand is perfect. You can ask and you can browse the existing titles. There's a 95% chance you'll find what you are looking for.
On top of this, many gamers go into a game store simply looking to see what is new. The little fragment of information about Supreme Commander is often enough to pique their interest. When they see the box, they buy it in the spur of the moment. The concept of a game store as an established, communal gathering point does not exist for independent game titles.

These factors slow the adoption of indie games dramatically. Indie games are lost in a dark sea with no market beacon bright enough to draw in the customers they so richly deserve.

Next generation consoles are the Indie Savior
What we need is a well known media outlet that promotes a wide selection of new titles. The infrastructure necessary is being built right now by some of the largest game companies on the face of the planet.
  • Microsoft Live: The Marketplace feature will have a built in e-commerce system that can take micropayments. You'll be able to download data and perhaps whole games onto your hard drive
  • Nintendo: There will exist a system for purchasing smaller game titles and downloading them to memory cards. Initially this will be older Nintendo titles, but the possibility is there for 3rd party titles.
  • Sony: Sony is the least well defined of any online effort. We know that they will have internet enabled console, but there is no evidence of any effort to build a marketplace.
This is great!
These have all the hallmark features that indie game developers have been screaming about for years. The coming generation of consoles finally creates a viable, mainstream, digital game distribution channel. Look at all the goodies it contains:
  • Easy access to the customer. A console gamer flicks on their machine and they can start buying your titles. No searching, no fragmented information sources. All the games are right there, at your finger tips.
  • Efficient distribution system. An Internet-based delivery mean no incremental cost for each unit sold. Inventory cost is meaningless and profit margins are 8 to 10x higher than on games sold through traditional channels.
  • Promotional opportunities: Pay enough money to Microsoft and you could be the featured download of the day.
  • Long shelf life: The terror of retail stocking fees need not apply. Your game can be available to gamers for years. The newest buzz word, The Long Tail, makes it's presence felt.
But it still sucks.
Face it. Console publishers will screw this opportunity up royally. When you have gotten used to running a walled garden, it is a major cultural change to open your borders and let a bunch of lunatic developers have a go at your customer base. Let's look at standard console business practices that will lock independent developers out of this new and potentially vibrant distribution channel.
  • Expensive Development Kits: If you want to develop, it will cost you 10 to 15k. Some will cost you 30k. For many developers this will be a hard pill to swallow.
  • Long QA: The QA processes for console titles are expensive and time consuming compared to that of PC development. You can't just build and release. You need to build, test for 2 months and then release. This kills traditional rapid iterative design, episodic content, and other fast moving development strategies.
  • Tight authorization filter: This is probably the biggest barrier. Every game that appears on the console is approved by the publisher. If there are too many FPS in the current lineup, the console manufacturer can reject your title simply because it is a FPS. If smaller games are authorized using the same metrics, creativity will be squelched. Many good titles will be squashed early in development by the well entrenched control freaks. Remember, it is always safer to say no than it is to take a risk on a questionable title.
  • Lack of tools: Console development is technically quite difficult. There are few established next generation engines and they tend to cost a good amount of change (350k + 3% of your revenue is a hard price to pay if you are a smaller shop). Simply gaining the technical expertise to develop a game for the console becomes a major barrier.
  • Lack of Marketing: Historically, the console manufacturers have little to do with the marketing of 3rd party titles. That is the job of publishers. But when you own the point of purchase, you control the major means of reaching the customer. If console manufacturers do not build promotional options into their console stores, customers still won't know what to look for.
Each of these are natural and long standing realities of console game development. They exist for good reasons and the inclination of an established console developer is to shrug and say "Deal with it."

Why console manufacturers should care
I'm going to argue that independent developers are valuable additions to a console's arsenal of marketing tools. They may not be the primary drivers of success, but the games they bring can dramatically accelerate the adoption of a console. The indie game development community is worth actively pursuing.
  • The quantity argument: New systems have only a few games and the console with the most titles is often seen as the safe choice by the consumer. I've talked to many Playstation owners who claim that the reason they purchased is because they knew they would have a good choice of titles. By rapidly building a library of smaller games at launch, a console can claim variety and quantity.
  • The non-traditional gamer argument: Smaller games have historically been appealing to non-traditional gamers who have time constraints that are much more limited than the hardcore gamer. Smaller developers, who are ideally suited to the creation of casual games, can unlock this vast and potentially valuable market.
  • The innovation argument: A thousand hungry developers who are targeting niche audiences are more likely to create the seed of a successful new genre. The current system of large, risk adverse teams won't cut it. It is worth fostering the development of the next GTA for your console.
What console manufacturers can do to kick start the Indie Console Market
Console manufacturers need to recognize the opportunity represented by independent developers and take concrete action to secure their support. The steps are straight forward, but they cost money and require a rethinking of how console games are created.
  • Reduce the cost of development kits
    Reduce the cost of console development kits to the $5000 range. It is still expensive, but in the realm of a serious developer. If you need to subsidize these kits in order to get the price down, do so.
  • Invest in tools that create safe sandboxes
    Pay Macromedia to port Flash to your console. Even better, port a 3D tool like Anark Studio to your console. The benefits are massive.

    By having an artist friendly robust tool, you no longer need advanced engine programmers to get the job done. This means teams focused on creativity and content, not technical wizardry.

    By having a mature tool with a well defined asset pipeline, you increase productivity. Your quick prototype can be evolved into a polished game in a low risk fashion.

    By having a standard playback engine, you build a sandbox for small game to live within. This dramatically reduces QA requirements. Ultimately, a tool like Anark Studio could reduce the cost of independent game development on a console by a factor of 10 and knock the QA costs in half.
  • Build a beta test area into your marketplace
    Let the customers volunteer to be guinea pigs for new games that are not yet completed. The console manufacturer gains quality control over the final releases since they can see how beta users respond. The developer gains an open area for new experimental titles.
  • Build a comprehensive marketing system for new titles
    Create a method of advertising new titles to customers. This can be an online editorial magazine, a catalog with user ratings, a series of console-based websites, or something as crass as banner ads. You can potentially have paid ads, but be sure to reserve a portion of the marketing bandwidth for breakout titles that may not have the marketing budget to compete with the big boys.

    When I turn on my next generation console, I want to be informed about the next Nintendogs indie-developed genre-buster. Then I want to click a button and buy the damn thing.

Conclusion
If this dream comes to pass, it will still not be a perfect world. The console manufacturers will still have substantial control over smaller developers. Big publishers will still get the best deals and AAA titles will still garner the vast majority of the revenue and publicity.

But that is okay. We would have a vibrant and growing market place for independent games that is far more viable than anything that exists today. Indie developers would be able to compete based on the quality of their games, not the depth of their wallets. With lower distribution and development risks, innovation would blossom.

Most importantly, there would be a few more developers on the streets who could splurge on a well deserved meal of Doritos and Dew. In the end, it is all about the lips smacking taste of indie success.

take care
Danc.