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Four AAA veterans share their transition to independence

Four AAA veterans share their transition to independence

November 5, 2013 | By Kris Ligman

In the midst of a rapidly changing industry and prevailing narratives of bootstrapped success stories, the pull of independent development is frequently a seductive one. However, going indie is fraught with challenges, as many who have made the switch can tell you.

At GDC Next this morning, four of those developers -- Lucky Puppy's Damon Pidhajecky (Dino Dancer), Moonshot Games' Damian Isla (Third Eye Crime), Plush Apocalypse's Borut Pfeifer (Skulls of the Shogun) and SomaSim's Robert Zubek (1849) -- shared their teams' experiences moving from a triple-A environment to embracing the flexibility and challenges a small studio faces.

Making the leap to indie

Serving as moderator for the panel, Lucky Puppy's Damon Pidhajecky asked the other developers what challenges they had encountered in moving from triple-A to independent development.

"Asking 'how did you know it was the right time?' presumes that it was the right time," Moonshot's Damian Isla answered frankly. "The right time [for us] probably would've been two to three years before we came out."

Isla, whose past studio credits include Bungie's Halo franchise, noted that his team had come in at the end of a wave for Xbox Live Arcade, around 2010, when funding and publishing opportunities had started to dry up.

"For a period the clouds opened and sun shown through the clouds and XBLA looked like it was going to be a golden opportunity," said Isla. "We hit the funding search right as support for XBLA was withering away."

Several on the panel listed self-promotion skills as among independent development's unseen hurdles. Skulls of the Shogun's Borut Pfeifer, who has spoken candidly in the past about the game's exclusivity deal with Microsoft, expressed frustration in getting the support his team needed within Microsoft's many and overlapping divisions. Pfeifer estimated that about 15 to 20 percent of the game's expenses had ultimately gone into promotion.

On the other hand, said Isla, "If you're doing it all yourself, the marketing spend is all time, not money. You really need to know what you're doing if you're spending marketing dollars on ad space. It's moreso [about] pounding the pavement, going to conferences, talking to journalists, building relationships."

Picking a platform

"Focus on the audience for your game and go where they are," Pfeifer advised the GDC Next audience, "rather than try to figure out where the next big thing is going to be."

Burned by an experience agreeing to an exclusivity deal that kept Skulls of the Shogun limited to Windows 8 platforms, Pfeifer said the team had tried hedging its bets and hoping that Windows 8 would take off, rather than pushing for platforms with a better install base. To date, Pfeifer said Skulls of the Shogun has sold best on Windows phones, a market he would not have anticipated.

Isla and Zubek shared similar stories of determining their platform from the design of the games.

"It was clear from the very beginning that [Third Eye Crime] needed a touch interface," said Isla. "We're not particularly market-driven."

"Deciding the platform was quite natural," agreed Zubek, who founded his studio after a tenure at Zynga and, before that, Electronic Arts. "[However,] discovery is hard. How will players find our game in the app store? The gaming community on the PC side is not reflected on the tablet side. Even though we believe the audience is there and the platform makes sense it can be difficult."


Isla dismissed the idea that there was anything inherently good or ill about premium, free-to-play, or other business models.

"All these models are now mature enough that people understand what the design implications are; how we need to talk to players," said Isla. "The one thing you absolutely have to know from the very inception of the game is how you're going to sell it."

On this order, Isla said that Moonshot "tried not to go too far outside of our areas of experience" when figuring the monetization model for Third Eye Crime. However, Zubek said his team experienced other hurdles trying to match -- for instance -- a free-to-play model with their game's design.

"There are a lot of great benefits to free-to-play, but they come with constraints," said Zubek. Because his studio's upcoming title, 1849, could not easily be broken out into disparate systems, he said, free-to-play monetization made no sense.

"How do you chop up a systems-based game into little a la carte bits that you can sell?" he questioned. "The market [for free-to-play] is potentially very large, you can fragment your audience into different price brackets, and a free version can improve the reach of your game. [But] Free-to-play is buttressed by several different design choices, and if you don't follow them, you're hurting yourself."

"It's not about whether a model is inherently abusive, it's whether you the developer are abusive with it," said Pfeifer. Free-to-play, as well as premium and subscription models, could all make sense across several platforms.

"The elephant in the room"

At one point, moderator Pidhajecky broke out discussion into "the elephant in the room": the issue of obtaining funding as an independent developer.

"The easiest and best way to get funding is to not get funding," Pfeifer said adamantly, adding that crowdfunding avenues such as Kickstarter "only favor certain kinds of games," leaving other genres or models by the wayside.

"Don't take money unless you need to," Isla concurred, agreeing that weekend and free time development beat out getting mired in a messy publisher relationship or worse. However, he added a caveat: "Fund it yourself or fund it with no-strings-attached funding -- a relative giving you money [for example]. Kickstarter is about as 'unstringed' as you can get."

Pfeifer interjected, disagreeing: "It's more work to manage a Kickstarter community than to manage a publisher relationship."

"Any time you work with a publisher you expose yourself to the internal politics of that publisher," Isla countered. He suggested that developers, rather than pursuing a publishing deal, seek out a distribution and promotion partner. "PR needs to be done as excellently as any other part of the job, and if you're not able to do that job well, find someone who can."

To self-publish or not to self-publish

While Isla and Pfeifer both shared negative experiences working with publishers, none of the panel came down steadfastly on one side or the other when it came to going for a publisher or self-publishing.

Pfeifer suggested that, in the case of dealing with a publisher, try to negotiate away from flat exclusivity and angle instead for a sliding scale contract -- one where duration of exclusivity was determined on sales.

Isla advised that developers dealing with publishers "be as completely specific as possible" in the contract terms, especially when it came to deliverables -- trailers, reaching out to press, and so forth. "The more specifics you can get into the contract, the safer you are."

Even if a developer opts to go through a publisher or distribution partner for promotion, however, Pfeifer cautioned that "it doesn't stop you from needing to learn how to market."

"You can't defer that responsibility even if you can hopefully defer the work," said Pfeifer.

Great games on a scrappy team

"Being indie and having a small team comes with a degree of nimbleness," Zubek acknowledged. "They do it because they believe in the game, they want to make this, and they want to make this work no matter what."

"The downside," said Pfeifer, "is you will want to innovate too much."

Isla agreed, adding that building out a budget brought with it a certain amount of risk-aversion. "The larger the budget the more conservative everyone has to be" to keep a project on-task, he said.

On the flip side, Zubek said a small team was able to be "ruthless" in paring down a project to its essentials.

Looking ahead

Closing off the panel, Pidhajecky asked his panelists where they thought the industry would be in five years' time.

"You look at the numbers and yes, the number of indies is going up, but it can't go on forever," said Zubek. "We will get a cottage industry where a lot of people work on small projects, and they find their niche and their audiences."

"I'm a big believer in the microconsole demographic," added Pfeifer, saying that consoles such as the Ouya targeted a market not being attended to by either triple-A or tablet development.

Isla, meanwhile, pointed to the increased market for -- and price points on -- tablets as a sign that developing for the platform could soon bifurcate into creating a "true," premium tablet version of games saleable at a higher price for a game with a cheaper, lower-end version for smartphone customers.

"It's a healthy trend," he maintained.

Isla also foresaw a specific industry future in which service providers such as Comcast built a microconsole like the Ouya into its set top boxes.

"That's how I see indies getting into the living room," he said. "More than Ouya or Steam Machines."

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