The concept of an independent game company is complex. There are basement Flash game indies, Xbox Live Arcade and PC downloadable indies, and larger-level independent companies like Epic Games. Chris Taylor of Gas Powered Games and Mike Capps of Epic discussed what it’s like to be on the middle-to-larger end of the independent game company scale.
“We’ve been independent for 12 years this May,” said Taylor, whose company is best known for its ambitious PC RTS and RPG games. “There’s a real fine line. I guess it’s a big line between indie development on the iPhone and [what we do]. Mike’s doing bigtime independent stuff, and we’re doing medium independent stuff.”
“It’s getting harder and harder to be independent, especially at our size,” Capps agreed. “Knowing what you know well is important. It’s all about picking a battle. For us it’s about tech and making a good game, and knowing what we don’t do well.”
For Epic, Microsoft has been a great partner, Capps says, because “somebody’s got to put up a billboard in Hong Kong, and it’s not going to be me.”
The big concern as a larger indie is how quickly you lose that independent spirit due to financial concerns, Taylor says.
“We [as an industry] kind of fell into a rut these past 10 to 15 years, in that even though we were independent, we were so dependent on these publishers that we were basically outsourcing studios. That’s not being independent," said Taylor.
"You can call yourself that," but that’s all it is, he chided. "It’s been really unfortunate for a lot of independent developers who are basically beholden to the traditional publisher model."
"Once you get on that cycle it’s hard to get off," Capps agreed. "It’s like, ‘Oh, your independent IP is great, but why don’t you do this license for us at the same time?’”
“Talking about freedom, you take on a lot of risk, so my children will probably not go to college because of Demigod,” Taylor half-joked.
“We’re doing something completely different with Kings & Castles," he said, referring to the company's just-announced fantasy RTS game.
"There’s a fear of doing those mid-sized games that are brand new," he explained. "It’s a scary proposition. So what we’re doing is talking about the game a month into development, taking it and turning it into a menu of opportunities for bankers, investors, publishers, distributors, and take on a very low-risk slice of the pie.”
Gas Powered Games is selling distribution rights in different regions to recoup costs and fund the game’s development. He says this model is a semi-traditional one, “but it’s been done by the publisher transparent to us,” he says, not by the developer itself.
“We walk a very fine line because we can’t say bad things about anyone, but our customer walks into Best Buy or Fry’s, and they don’t know we’re an independent company. They think we’re huge,” observed Taylor on his company’s indie status. “We went three years without upgrading our hardware because we couldn’t make it a priority to pay for that.”
Capps agreed. “There are some really difficult financial situations in this industry,” he said. “You can make a game like [Chair Entertainment's] Shadow Complex, be a 10- to 12-man team for a year, get to be a best-selling game on [Xbox Live Arcade], and then still have money be tight.”