Indies blow off steam in business rant

GDC Austin 2009: Five business-focused developers behind games like 'Splosion Man, Penny Arcade Adventures trade gripes in Independent Games Summit's rant session.


Who Was There: The rant panel was packed, with Twisted Pixel CEO Michael Wilford (The Maw, Splosion Man), Hothead Games director of game technology Joel DeYoung (Penny Arcade Adventures, Deathspank), Semi-Secret Software cofounder Adam Saltsman (Wurdle, Gravity Hook), Flashbang Studios' development director Matthew Wegner, and game designer Daniel Cook (Lost Garden) weighing in with their indie gaming gripes.

What They Talked About: Although he wasn't even originally scheduled to appear at the rant, Cook fired the first shot of the session with a surreal rant about fast-food games, which he defines as something people play, finish, and leave behind. Most games are fast-food games in this industry, Cook said, particularly in the indie industry.

Cook likened players of indie games to D-list celebrity Tom Arnold. Cook said Arnold is very hungry and wants lots of fast-food games. And because it takes too long to make five minutes of gameplay in a consumable game, no single developer can feed Tom Arnold. That's where aggregators come in, Cook said. As the Rosanne Barr in this tortured metaphor, aggregators like EA or Steam take some of the food en route to Tom Arnold and get bigger and bigger.

The problem for indie developers is that these consumable games have a specific life cycle, and one bad game can sink an indie developer when its last successful life cycle ends. When those indie developers stumble, they find themselves going under or needing to be bought out by the larger aggregators (Rosanne, again).

Instead, Cook wants developers to create hobbies and services, titles that keep adding to their coffers after release. In other words, he wants them to be Arnold's Julia Child.

Twisted Pixel CEO Michael Wilford was up next, with a rant titled, "Why I hate hats." He prefaced the rant by saying it's like ragging on his dream job, but he wanted to give the audience a heads-up about some best practices.

When starting a game company, Wilford said indie developers need to wear a lot of different hats, jumping between programming, QA, design, securing distribution for titles, marketing, negotiations, human resources, financial planning, company strategy, Web design, travel agent, and janitor. Wilford underscored the stress and difficulty of switching between those different hats a dozen times a day. For the developers in the audience, he advised them to unload all of those duties that don't directly involve making the game to one person.

Wilford also stressed that developers need to do their due diligence and research who they're going to work with, saying that there were a number of times Twisted Pixel passed on a deal with a supposedly stable company and shortly thereafter saw awful things happen that made them glad to have skipped a business arrangement.

Semi Secret Software's Adam Saltsman was up next, ranting about "The Stress of Opportunity." Saltsman said his company was "do-or-die" for about 30 months before finding some measure of success. That success came in the form of an iPhone game he spent about four hours making that sold 200,000 copies on the App Store.

While he thought that would take a load off his mind, Saltsman said knowing that he had a window of opportunity to not worry about money and just make a great game and capitalize on that sudden success was a tremendous responsibility.

Despite his company's soon-to-change focus on eight-week development cycles, Flashbang development director Matthew Wegner's big complaint wasn't fatigue. Instead, he said developers need to change their mind-set to focus more on the worst-case scenarios. When he started Flashbang, the company had enough funding to stay afloat for a year. For Wegner, the worst-case scenario was that he would spend a year making games with friends, make some games, and learn a few things. He decided even that worst case was more than acceptable and pursued it to a far better situation.

Hothead Games director of technology Joel DeYoung apologized for not being a good ranter, describing himself as a generally positive person. He echoed the rant of Wilford in explaining how problematic it is dealing with all the different tasks involved with getting off the ground, but his biggest peeve was people taking advantage of indie developers who don't know any better.

The state of digital distribution on consoles was also a sore spot for DeYoung, who said it's really immature given that it's been around since 2005. Between long periods of exclusivity and the issue of console manufacturers acting as gatekeepers, DeYoung said console digital distribution isn't as indie-friendly as it should be.

The way games are sold on Live Arcade and PlayStation Network is also problematic for DeYoung. He complained that you can't sell games bundled together, or send a message to players who bought the first episode of a series informing them that the second episode is now available. While he specified that Microsoft is "a good partner of ours," the last point DeYoung raised was the issue of consumer confusion with the rebranding of XNA Community Games as Indie Games.

Quote: "You can take a different path that's not as sexy, but still makes a lot of money."--Cook, on selling indie games outside the domains of the "fast food" companies like third-party console publishers and aggregators.

Takeaway: As much as the independent gaming scene has exploded in recent years, the obstacles facing small-scale developers are still very real.

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