Opinion: Dreamcast Remains Ideal Indie Dev Proving Ground
"About five years ago, I was at a game show that I was helping to host and I got handed a demo disc for the Dreamcast. I had a Dreamcast at the time, but I only had a handful of games for it. Looking at this disc, it was supposed to be a demo disc full of what independent developers were working on for the console in their spare time or for fun. I thanked the person that I got the disc from and then put it aside; figuring that my time would be much better spent playing the games that I had already purchased for the Dreamcast. What could a bunch of independent developers do with the console anyway?
A few weeks later I got a call from one of my friends who proceeded to ask me if I had taken a good look at the demo disc. Not understanding what he was getting at, I asked him why I should bother with it. He told me that the demos on it would blow me away, and it was obvious that the developers had really invested a lot of time into these demos and they were totally worth playing.
I took out the disc later that night and placed it into my Dreamcast, still skeptical that the games would be anything more than basic arcade game rip offs that could be done on the Atari 2600. What I found changed my perceptions of what independent developers were. Today, my company, GOAT Store Publishing has released four independent games for the Dreamcast and we have plans for up to 20 more over the next two years. How did we get to this point, and why do I think that independent development has worked out to be such a good thing on the Dreamcast?
The first question that I think can be answered is why independent development works on the Dreamcast. There are three main things that play in the Dreamcastís favor for this. The first is that the system has a reputation for being an innovative, hardcore gamers system. While the system had a bunch of pretty standard games, it also received some bold experiments such as Seaman, Samba de Amigo, Shenmue and Jet Grind Radio. Gamers also were treated to games that appealed to the arcade style in a way that hasnít been seen yet. While the system was a commercial failure, there is still a strong following of people who go back to it to play the unique and fun games that came out for it... which makes the console perfect to try new innovative ideas on, as the user base who most enjoys those games has stuck with their Dreamcasts still.
The Dreamcast was also legally reverse engineered. This was a huge bonus, as it meant that the legal work of figuring out how to release small run independent games had already been done, and the development environment that had been made was sufficiently robust to handle all sorts of development projects.
Finally, the Dreamcast had a backdoor which allows cheap, standard media to be played in it. All of the GOAT Store Publishing releases have been done on CDs, as Dreamcasts will boot directly off them. This allows our pressing prices to remain low, which means that we can pass on a lower price point to customers and get a higher return for developers.
The first project that GOAT Store Publishing took on was a head-to-head dancing game by the name of Feet of Fury. Feet of Fury was programmed by Cryptic Allusion, the group that just so happened to also create most of the development environment for the Dreamcast. The release of Feet of Fury created a lot of things Ė it showed the development community that we could handle a high quality release with complete production values and a pretty decent distribution network. It was also released at the height of the DDR craze, and while it was a game which stood on its own unique merits, the fact that the world wanted more dancing games helped it sell a lot of units.
Since the release of Feet of Fury, we have released three other games Ė Inhabitants, Maqiupai and Cool Herders. Now, we are working with a bunch of developers and have a ton of new things which we are hoping to see to completion over the next few years.
While the Dreamcast market is very limited, one of the best reasons to work on the console is to help prove concepts in a very cheap setting. For instance, Cool Herders, which we released last December, is a game that is patterned after Bomberman, however instead of trying to blow up the other players, they are trying to gather sheep. The person with the most sheep at the end of the level wins. During the development of this title, it was unknown what gamers would think of this gameplay twist, and if the game would be able to stand on its own. Having a final project is like a proof of concept, and some companies have been looking into bringing Cool Herders onto other consoles.
Dreamcast development is also a great way for new development teams to learn how to take a full project all the way to completion. Many of the groups that we have worked with are publishing their first titles through us, and then are planning on taking other concepts to other businesses. Being able to prove that the team can make a realistic time estimate, manage that deadline and bring a game that canít be patched to completion is a great way to get ready for taking on bigger and bigger projects.
The publishing concept that we have done has worked so far because of these benefits, and also because we try to take as much of a hands-off, no-risk approach to development as possible. GOAT Store Publishing helps during the creation process by commenting on features and making suggestions, but we try to allow the developer to make the final choice on all of the main parts of the game.
Another thing that we feel is very important is that we are as hands off as possible with the ownership of the game. Our contract specifically states that we only get rights to publish the Dreamcast version of the game, and we at no time have any further rights than that. This gives the developer the option to shop the game for other platforms from the moment it goes to the presses. If for whatever reason the developer wants us to stop selling the game, we have an out built into the contract so the developer can ask us to stop selling their game if they buy the remaining inventory off of us for a very low wholesale price.
While developers are not going to be able to make a ton of money off any Dreamcast releases, it is still possible to sell over 1000 copies of a released game, which means that the developer can still get a significant return on investment. With our publishing model, GOAT Store Publishing assumes all of the risk that the publishing undertakes, and we pay the developer a set amount per title sold from the first game sold. This again helps small studios get started as there is no risk to them, and the potential reward is enticing.
Unfortunately, the days of profitable Dreamcast publishing are probably going to be coming to a close soon. The Dreamcast has been discontinued in the US for about five years now, and other consoles have stepped up to try to allow developers to create games in the same niche that we are publishing in. The Xbox Live Arcade allows developers to create small games and publish them for very low money, and the Wii Virtual Console and the PS3 have announced similar strategies. So far, the Xbox Live Arcade hasnít been used to its full potential, but as the competition with the next gen systems heats up, fun and unique games are going to be an important part of their online arsenal.
I doubt that there will ever be another situation that even resembles the current Dreamcast one. New consoles have not been legally hacked to support independent releases without modifying the console, and proprietary formats like UMD and DS cards ensure that developers will not be able to create their own products for release onto retail versions of the systems.
Until it becomes impossible to do so however, Iím going to enjoy working with independent developers to bring some unique games to the Dreamcast."
[Apart from co-owning the online retro retail GOAT Store, LLC and being head GOAT Store Publishing, Dan Loosen is a central funding figure behind the yearly Midwest Gaming Classic.]