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Monaco And SpyParty, On The Road To PAX

August 20, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

If you've followed the recent surge in the popularity of indie game development, you've certainly noticed the increasingly frequent festivals and competitions like the Independent Games Festival and IndieCade, the number of blogs and amount of press devoted to indie games, and the rise of what we are calling "AAA Indie Games" -- games like Braid, Castle Crashers, World of Goo, and more recently Limbo, Trials HD, and others that share the same combination of polish, attention to detail, and design focus, not to mention significant critical and commercial success.

You also may have noticed a related trend: indie game developers are purchasing booths at consumer-facing conventions, like San Diego Comic-Con and the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX).

These booths cost thousands of dollars, even before factoring in travel and outfitting the booth with furniture, HDTVs, and computers, so how do indies justify the expense?

Well, to be honest, we're not actually sure yet, but we're going to find out in two weeks, and in the meantime we're going to discuss -- from a development perspective -- how and why we decided to take the risk and what we hope to achieve.

We are Andy Schatz, creator of Monaco, the Excellence in Design and Seamus McNally Grand Prize winner of the 2010 Independent Games Festival, and Chris Hecker, creator of SpyParty, and together we bought a 10 by 20-foot booth at PAX next month in Seattle.

Given that neither of us has been to PAX, and this is our first time running a booth at a trade show, we basically have no idea what's going to happen.

PR and Marketing

Both Monaco and SpyParty are shooting for the aforementioned AAA Indie Game stratum, and as a developer trying to make AAA Indie games, you could do worse than to crib the marketing and PR plans of The Behemoth, creators of Alien Hominid and Castle Crashers.

Regardless of what you think of their games, it is inarguable that they are the masters of indie game PR, marketing, and "customer relationship management". One could write volumes analyzing how The Behemoth does marketing and PR for their games and company, but for the purposes of this article, one thing they have done since 2002 is get a booth at Comic-Con, and then later at PAX.

Unlike the GDC and E3, Comic-Con and PAX are open to the public, and are primarily for consumers to interact with game companies directly. These shows do absolutely huge numbers, with 70,000 attendees at PAX, and over 100,000 at Comic-Con. They're both dwarfed by GamesCom in Germany (going on this week, in fact), which has something like 250,000 gamers descend on it.


SpyParty

The idea of building a direct face-to-face connection with gamers is very appealing for indie developers. Most indie game fans who visit your blog or Facebook page or follow you on Twitter will be able to read about your game online, both on your sites and in any press coverage you get, and they can talk to other fans about it in forums, but it's rare that fans can get hands-on play time with a game before it's released.

With the more traditional establishment model of game development and sales, giving fans this early access is less important than it is for indies, because the marketing spending is heavily weighted towards the end of the development cycle. You make the game, and then you spend a lot of money marketing the game right before and during the game release, so that someone who is made aware of your game by this marketing expense can actually give you money immediately.

With indie games, often there is no marketing budget at all, and so you can't buy wide awareness of your game in a short period of time. Word-of-mouth and grassroots marketing become incredibly important, and these types of marketing take nurturing and need time to grow, and it seems that every little bit helps.

Naturally, it's great to have a journalist play your game and like it, and then post on his or her site. Press coverage is highly leveraged. But having a gamer come play your game, fall in love, and then tell anyone who will listen about "this awesome game I played" is a different flavor of coverage, and it's hard to quantify how valuable it is. Study after study shows word-of-mouth as the top influencer in purchasing decisions, so it seems likely to be quite valuable.

Another important aspect of having real live gamers touch your game is it gives you a reality check against your assumptions about how your game is perceived. It's one thing to hold a playtest with your friends or colleagues. It's another to have thousands of gamers stream through your booth, pick up the controller, and in a few seconds decide to play or go to the next shiny thing 10 feet on. We expect to learn a lot from watching people play, and will probably be coding furiously each night fixing issues discovered during the day.


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Comments


Mark DeLoura
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This is awesome info guys, thanks for sharing it! I hope you'll do a follow-up piece on how it went after the show is over.



One of the things I've done when setting up booths in the past to make things cheaper is to buy some of the equipment locally, instead of renting it from the AV guys or paying shipping and union cart-in costs. Seriously, it's cheaper to flat-out buy the stuff sometimes, and Costco or Fry's are great for this. I've heard some people return their equipment after the conference, claiming that it is faulty. I don't endorse this approach :) Local friends can also be very helpful... they'll probably be at PAX the whole time anyway, they don't really need their 50" home TV during the conf, right?



I'm bummed to hear you guys aren't going to pursue creating any merchandise for the event. Perhaps you could have a way for people to register their interest while you're at the conf, and then set up a CafePress site or something afterward? How cool would it be to have an early-edition Monaco or SpyParty T-shirt? Count me in!

nathan vella
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Great article dudes! Helpful information across the board, and it's great to see PAX providing you guys the chance to save costs.

Tim Carter
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Should game developers be spending their time marketing? Shouldn't they be on to their next game, and leave the marketing to a marketing specialist?

ron carmel
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@tim: numberOfPeopleWhoBuyYourGame(t) = numberOfPeopleWhoKnowAboutIt(t0) * awesomenessFactor(t-t0).

t is the total time you put into the game.

t0 is the time you put into making sure people know about your game.

the only trick is to figure out the value of t0 that maximizes numberOfPeopleWhoBuyYourGame(t). and i assure you that t0>0 :)

Keith Nemitz
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I'm thoroughly jealous! I once did the A.P.E. show in SF, and it was really fun showing my comic book theater game, getting feedback, in 2006. Much simpler setup and expense, but more of a niche crowd too. And at the time, comic book fans weren't used to seeing games at these shows.

Tim Carter
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@ron: You're missing the point. I didn't make a comment against marketing. I questioned whether it's a wise expense of time for game developers to be doing marketing when they could get marketing people to do marketing.

ron carmel
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@tim: got it, i misunderstood, but i also think hiring a marketing person for an indie project is a terrible idea. i'd hire jeff rosen and john graham (of wolfire) in a heartbeat for this type of thing, but traditional marketing people wouldn't know where to begin if you told them "hey, market this game, your budget is zero, go!"



if you know of someone who has had a good experience with hiring a PR/marketing person or firm to promote an indie game, i'd love to hear about it.

Tim Carter
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I guess I am just trying to point out the pitfall of wanting to totally control absolutely all of your own IP. You become chained to it. I turns you into a company manager instead of a game developer.



The "marketing person", basically, is a publisher of some sort. Or an agent. (That was a little test if people could figure that out.) Or some entity that takes care of the business side while the developer develops games. Like a game producer. (Shameless plug.)



My view is that the best way to make this industry go forward is not some scenario where all game developers own 100% of their IP - and thus are chained down having to manage it - but where they decide to learn business and negotiating skills and contract sale of an IP for good terms. In the end, developers want compensation and creative control.

ron carmel
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i don't see the point of having a hypothetical discussion about this nuts and bolts topic. either PR/marketing can be effectively outsourced by indies or it can't. i know many indies that did this stuff in-house very effectively (the behemoth, wolfire, team meat, polytron, and the list goes on). i don't know of a single developer who successfully outsourced this aspect of their business. then again, i don't know of any unsuccessful attempts either, i just don't think there's any demand for those services within the indie scene.



regarding the IP issue, i don't want to comment on that without knowing what you mean by "go forward", but i do want to point out that with the exception of colin northway (fantastic contraption) i don't know of a single developer who gave up control of their IP and feels good about it.

Jonathan Blow
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You might want to ask some successful indies, like Ron or the Behemoth guys or any other success story of the past few years, whether they feel "chained down" by "having to manage" their own IP.



I think you will find very few who feel that way. (I can think of exactly one, and he might have changed his mind in the past couple of years). In the meantime, I think you will find very many who have given away their IP in deals, and regret that utterly.

Tim Carter
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"I think you will find very many who have given away their IP in deals, and regret that utterly. "



That's probably because they didn't negotiate creative control, or rights reversals, or gross residuals (including for ancillary revenues), or a number of other things. Because game designers don't get those things, or don't get personal agents, or get their personal names front-and-centre in front of the audience (the gamers), or whatever.

Jonathan Blow
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Also, Tim, you are sort of assuming that the natural outcome of someone learning business and negotiating skills is that they then will sell their IP for some kind of good terms. In my experience it is exactly the opposite (those with business and negotiating skills keep their IP, and negotiate good deals leveraging that IP).



This is very weird, anyway, since the status quo is that it's extremely rare for any developer taking funding to get to keep their IP, and most developers need funding in order to make games for the controlled distribution channels. So you are advocating an elimination of the few exceptions to the status quo? Or what? I am not sure exactly...

Tim Carter
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Yes, you're right Jonathon. But the way the developers function - as companies in an operations-based ecosystem rather than as creative individuals in a project-based, art-patronage ecosystem - is why they kind of miss out.



Anyway, most filmmakers sell their IP, and seem to know how to cut pretty good deals.



I might also add that all game developers sell their IP anyway. To their own development studio - which, if it wants to make games with any kind of *substantial budget*, usually must sell majority ownership to some investor somewhere (if not a publisher then some other entity, unless the developer is personally wealthy already). So in the current operations-based paradigm, the only difference between an indie and an EA is really scale.



Anyway, at the end of the day what matters isn't owning an IP; what matters is making a good IP that sells and being compensated for it (both for credit and money) and having creative control. Creative control usually comes from establishing ones own name as a creator. Making a *good* IP can often require you to rapid-fire out a bunch of them. But if you are left managing an older IP, you can't move on to the next one as quickly.



Go look at the roster of a successful filmmaker on IMDB as an example of how many IPs you can make when you sell it and move on, sell it and move on, sell it and move on... For that matter, go look at the works of any successful painter or sculptor or artist. They too sell and move on, sell and move on. And yet, even after they have sold it, they can retain creative control. Because they understand such high-order concepts as moral right, and so forth. There is a famous case here in Canada of a sculpture of a flock of geese sold to a mall in downtown Toronto. The mall managers decided to festoon the geese with Christmas decorations one Holiday Season, but the artist - Michael Snow - took them to court, arguing he did not sell his work of art to be degraded in that way. He won the case.



So, there are other ways to protect yourself. If you understand business and IP law.

Adam Bishop
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You're stretching the word "sell" beyond its reasonable usage. Let's say John Smith and Jane Doe make a game. It's called Action Game and they put it out under the name Exciting Software. Exciting Software consists entirely of John and Jane. In this case, the IP hasn't been "sold" to anyone; the idea that John and Jane could sell the game to themselves is nonsensical. John and Jane, the people who made the game, still own 100% of the IP.



I'm also not clear on why you assume that developers all want to work with a "substantial budget". According to indie-fund.com "World of Goo cost $120k to develop. Braid cost $180k." Both games seem to have done pretty well for themselves (and, consequently, the small teams that worked on them).



It does, in fact, matter to a lot of people to own their IP. You constantly reference the film industry, but you completely ignore other industries where IP ownership is quite common. Recording artists who own their IP tend to do much better than artists who sign them away to labels, and authors typically maintain ownership of their IP as well.



The truth is that even if your suggestions were correct - and so far you've provided no evidence that they are - to many people there are more important things than just cashing out. Many people invest considerable portions of themselves into their creative work, and to just sign that work away to someone else - even under what you might consider to be good conditions - is a betrayal of the creative process. It also all but assures that large companies will remain in control of the arts, and many people get into indie development precisely because they want to break away from large companies

Tim Carter
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If you wanted to make a game with a $10 million budget, John and Jane would need to vest IP into Company X. That is the only way Investor A could provide the $10 million. In exchange for said investment, Investor A would need a very large piece of ownership of Company X.



And your suggestion that assigning IP is a "betrayal of the creative process" is laughable at best. It flies in the face of centuries of art. Michaelangelo did not own the IP of the Sistine Chapel. He was commissioned to create it. Was the Sistine Chapel a betrayal of the creative process?

Adam Bishop
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Tim, could you please provide even one example of a small indie developer operating on a budget even close to $10 million? I get the feeling you're not even talking about the same thing as everyone else here.

Tim Carter
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Exactly Adam. That's my whole point.



How does an individual game designer - or say a one to three person core team - get a $10 million budget for their project?



You can't do it the "indie route".



You can't do it the traditional big-studio triple-A route.



So let's look outside the box of the game industry and see how it has been done in other creative industries?



(Film is one such industry.)



But the first sacred cow you have to let go of is the notion that the development studio you make is what is important. What is more important is to establish your name as an individual creator, beyond the confines of any company - studio, publisher or whatever.

Adam Bishop
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No Tim, what is important is what the people working on the project decide is important. Some people *like* working in small teams, with small budgets, having full control over what they're doing. Some people like having close contact with the people who play their games, and that means things like going to conventions yourself to talk to them.



Is that the best way to make the most possible money? Maybe, maybe not, but that's a topic for another day. The point is that people make games for a wide variety of reasons, and for many people the trade-offs of working on smaller projects are well worth it. They're not making small indie games because that's all the money they could get ahold of, they're doing it because they find it more rewarding than the alternatives.

Tim Carter
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Sorry for trying to make your life easier.



You obviously have all the answers already.

Leroy Frederick
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Great stuff, I hope good things happen for you guys at PAX (and any other indies too). I like the term AAA Indie too, interesting, that's definitely where I hitting at with my latest effort.



As far as IP is concerned I can definitely say almost 99.9% it is wise to KEEP IT at all costs, you only have to look at all the AAA studio failures and shut-downs due to lack of IP and minuscule royalty payouts, I think it's even more important for an indie since their not usually on a salary also.

Jason Bakker
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After exhibiting Shadow Field at Freeplay this year, I can definitely confirm that showing off your game at a conference/festival is a fantastic way for indies to gain a heap of feedback and QA testing. We came away after a couple of days with pages of notes that I don't think we'd have been able to gain otherwise, at least without spending a bunch more time and money.



If possible, try to make sure you watch a range of people play your game (and to get their feedback), from hardcore gamers to people who haven't played a game since Pacman - you get value from all points on the spectrum, and a surprising amount of valuable feedback from people who aren't necessarily your target audience.



Good luck guys!

james sadler
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Having worked a booth at Siggraph this year, I can attest to the loss of voice very quickly. Conventions get loud and struggling to speak over people clearly gets tiring. By the end of the second day I was sucking on cough drops to sooth my throat, and by the end of the third day I could barely talk at all. Didn't help that the software I was there to support was very highly received so we were pretty swamped most of the time.



I've been thinking about taking my studio's game project to PAX next year, as that is when it should be in a more playable state, so I am very interested to see how goes for you guys. Costs are prohibitive to many. Good tip about using a rent-a-center. I wanted to use some large format displays for our Siggraph booth but didn't even think about a rent-a-center.


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