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Opinion: Recession, The Beginning Of An Era

Opinion: Recession, The Beginning Of An Era Exclusive

March 4, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

[Despite the obvious worries of the economic climate, might it not also provide opportunities for innovation? In this opinion piece, originally published in the February 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, EIC Brandon Sheffield proposes striking out upon the road less traveled.]

On the surface, things don't look too hot for our industry right now. I was speaking with a friend recently about the current economic climate, saying that developers are losing their jobs across the globe, more studios are closing, and fewer seem to want to hire.

I was being a bit of a doomsday prophet, but my friend suggested that this is actually a time of great opportunity, and thinking about it carefully, I may agree with him.

Hopeful Possibilities For Indies?

There are a lot of talented people out of work in a lot of major metropolitan areas. If you're the type of person who can motivate them to get together, this seems like a prime opportunity for new studios, new indies, and new ideas about the shape of the industry.

If you've always dreamed of implementing the Hollywood model, bringing the right person to the right project and then moving on, this is a good time for it.

If you want to invoke the spirit of the bedroom programmer now that tools are getting to where that's actually viable without being a hardcore programmer/artist/designer hybrid, this is a good time for it. If you want to venture out and create your own IP, or revisit a lost genre, this is a good time for it.

It might not be the best time to create a multi-million dollar epic, unless you're one of the big publishers -- but even then it's a bit riskier than usual.

Games In A Recession

Games aren't going to go away during this recession. During the Great Depression, the legend goes that entertainment was the major industry that flourished. Books, movies, and condoms were among the best selling “non-essential” products.

These all facilitated escapism from the poverty around them, without weighty consequences. While we're not quite at the depression level, games are an effective and appealing method of escapism in the best of times, and in times of trouble are even more enticing.

Of course it's rather difficult to do any of this if you haven't got a little bit of a nest egg to tide you over until you can release a game, or at least get funding.

Some have said that the venture capital money has all dried up, but I don't think it's necessarily gone. Rather I think it's being hidden, Great Depression-style, under the proverbial mattresses.

Games are still a good industry. People don't want to stop playing video games -- but they might want to start paying less for them. If you can convince people with money that a smaller investment in a fledgling company making smaller games is a wise one, then you may be in business.

The Beginning Of An Era?

It's very possible that this recession could usher in the next age of the indie. Smaller, less expensive games made by smaller, more agile teams seem like a very logical step, now that the industry structure is better able to support it, with no less than three venues on which to distribute content as a small team.

These are downloadable console, direct to consumer PC downloads via Steam-like services, portals, or direct sale, and iPhone and potentially DSi downloads. Consumers have shown that they're willing to buy games like Castle Crashers in droves.

Indie developers have asked me on more than one occasion how to promote their products to the press without a big budget, or without a budget at all. It can seem daunting, but actually it's quite simple.

Promoting Your Productions

What works for me, and for many other members of the press I've spoken to about the issue, is targeted personal emails. It doesn't cost anything more than time.

Target the bigger blogs first, reading to see who writes about indies and in what context. See what they like and don't like, and choose a writer to contact.

Send them an email explaining who you are, where you're coming from, what your game is about, and what you're trying to achieve. If you've got some nice production art to show, a snappy title, a YouTube video, or a playable demo, so much the better.

Don't treat your game like it's the next big thing, or the most awesome Tower Defense clone ever, even if it may be. Be straightforward, humble, and realistic, and people will pay attention if your game seems interesting.

I'm hopeful that this recession will bring about a bit of an industry shakeup. It's up to the folks networking at this coming GDC and similar events. I would urge you to not think along the same old lines as before and simply join an existing studio, or create a new traditionally structured team.

This is a great time to experiment and try out new ideas, if you're the type who has them. If it doesn't work out, at least you won't have been idle by the time you have to take your next job in the trenches!

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