Withstanding the Collapse of the Middle
February 14, 2012 Page 3 of 3
No doubt about it, times are rough for independent developers. While no simple strategy works, especially with the current turbulence, one word continually kept popping up from developers.
"[Studios] have to be able to diversify," O'Leary said.
If it's true that focusing on a single platform or only on traditional boxed games will no longer work for independent studios, what should they do? All options must be explored, according to O'Leary, who noted n-Space looks outside the box and self-funds projects today.
Beck absolutely agreed, stating that "Diversification is really how WayForward has insulated itself and survived. Would it surprise you to know that in some circles [WayForward is] known as the leader in the field of EEG biofeedback games?" he asked. "I'm not kidding. No really, I'm not kidding."
"WayForward is also a leader in kids' educational content. Bet you didn't know that. We have probably done more educational content over a longer period of time than any other independent in the industry."
O'Leary also said specialization could be an option, albeit a risky one.
"[Studios] have to be super focused on making one game of one type for one platform and be the absolute best in the world at that," he said.
Collier believed specialization with an established franchise could work and would have helped Bizarre as a second party.
"In retrospect, I think Bizarre would have benefited from being put to work exclusively specializing on a core established racing franchise rather than a new IP," said Collier. The studio was shuttered after its first title for Activision, Blur, failed to find an audience.
But for many, that's not the best strategy, according to Chico. He reinforced agility and diversification. A team that is agile can bounce back and search for the next patch of blue ocean, he added.
O'Leary attributed his versatile team for n-Space's quick rebound, which happened within a week. He said it helped tremendously to have great personnel and to be in the right place at the right time.
And once back up and running, n-Space started to diversify immediately. While the studio continues to develop quality titles for Nintendo platforms -- like Square Enix's upcoming Heroes of Ruin and Atari's Rollercoaster Tycoon for 3DS -- it's also working on two Kinect titles and within the Facebook and iOS spaces.
O'Leary said these developments are on top of two recent releases, which are smaller-scale, noncore gamer titles: Jaws: Ultimate Predator for 3DS and Jillian Michaels Fitness Adventure for Kinect.
"Both [games] were done with new partners and released under our imprint Checkpoint Games, a newly-formed brand exclusively for these kinds of business opportunities," O'Leary explained. "We've even supported the simulation and training industries some this year filling in the nooks and crannies of our development capacity to create additional profit, stability and opportunity."
Not only did n-Space rebound through diversification, but the studio continued to move forward with this strategy in hand. O'Leary noted co-funded and self-funded games also are important to the company's future, though "nothing has clicked just yet."
With the state of flux of the gaming industry, it's a wonder whether the middle market and independent game studios will survive. While n-Space and WayForward continue on, many others face a difficult road. Recently, Silicon Knights and Team Bondi have endured major staff losses and closed up shop, respectively.
But the ever-changing creature of the industry, as Chico called it, also acts as hope for the middle market and independent studios. Boccieri shared the same hope.
"I would argue, however, that there is probably a new way for development investment that would lead back to mid-tier development agreements whilst mitigating risk," he said.
Chico added that along with new markets and middle grounds, it's important to look at history, too. PC was king, declared dead in the early 2000s and now arguably reigns supreme with Facebook and free-to-play games, he said.
In the meantime, the ability to diversify will play a major role for all independent studios, as well as second-party studios, as the landscape continues to shift.
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