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Interview: Chris Taylor, The Independent Farmer

Interview: Chris Taylor, The Independent Farmer

February 25, 2010 | By Kris Graft

February 25, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

[Between feeding chickens and making games, Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor has been talking to Gamasutra about the "go ask mom and dad" relationship between independent game studios and major publishers.]

Chris Taylor has a farm. It's not a big farm, but on that farm he has chickens and a horse that he tends to daily. The animals rely on him for food, shelter, and for a few lucky chickens, cuddling - sometimes. The animals are completely domesticated and dependent on handouts.

In some ways, they're a lot like so-called "independent" game studios.

With over two decades in the game industry, Taylor has seen a lot. As creative director and co-founder of independent Redmond, WA-based Gas Powered Games, home of titles like Dungeon Siege, Demigod and Supreme Commander, he has experienced the hardship and toil along with the success.

Now, in the midst of a new project, Taylor wants to remind himself what it means to be independent: to have control of his destiny - to fetch his own chicken feed. He asks, "If you have the freedom that you wouldn't have if you were an internal studio or culture, then why not take advantage of that?" It's a question that he's apparently been asking himself.

"We [independent studios] don't have to go to a committee or a group of executives or people that are going to run a competitive analysis or a market study. I can go from my gut," he says, "which is 22 years in the business, believe it or not, since May 1988, and I can decide if I want to make something. And I can just go ahead and make it."

Taylor says that independent studios often don't leverage their independence in creative or business areas as much as they could, or should. His own GPG has been guilty of under-utilizing the ability to do essentially whatever the hell it wants.

"What we often see, especially being an independent these last 20 years, is that we'd keep our concepts quiet, we wouldn't tell anyone, we'd go out and talk to the publishers, and that might mean 10 or 20 publishers at best, and they decide whether they like the concept or not," he says.

If no publishers bite, then there's no funding, and then there's the common mindset for a studio that it's best just to ditch the idea it was working on. "So even though we were an independent studio, or the industry was full of independent studios, there was still this 'go ask mom and dad' mentality to it, which to me doesn't really sound independent," Taylor says.

When mom and dad said "no" to 2007's original Supreme Commander, GPG found itself in a position where it could have either given up or soldiered on. Before THQ decided to publish the game, another publisher dropped the title while it was in development.

Taylor and GPG decided to take its fate into its own hands. "We went and got a magazine cover. We moved ahead and said 'We're making this game.'" says Taylor. That August 2005 PC Gamer magazine cover -- which declared that the creator of Total Annihilation was returning to change the face of the real-time strategy genre once again -- created new energy around Supreme Commander. THQ picked it up.

Taylor is following his own advice with Chris Taylor's Kings and Castles, which the studio announced just prior to the upcoming release of this March's Supreme Commander 2. He's not keeping Kings and Castles a secret. It's still very early in development, there are no publishing or distribution deals as of yet, but it's already out there. GPG last week launched a video blog that will be updated weekly that gives fans a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Kings and Castles.

The video racked up 20,500 hits in its first day-and-a-half. "That says to me, wow, the world really cares ... which means we need to continue," says Taylor. A video blog can grab attention from not only fans, but also business partners. And, Taylor says, it's fun to make vlogs. "This business is hard, there's resistance pushing you back, and you have to bring that storm and go forward. How do you do that? You capture human energy."

Although there are important pieces to the puzzle missing, GPG knows where it wants to go with Kings and Castles. It's targeted at PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for digital distribution, and will sell at brick-and-mortar retail and online retail for a global release.

But the studio is still planning on how it will reach those objectives. GPG is considering possible distribution and publishing partners for worldwide territories, as well as attracting funding partners. Make no mistake - being independent also means finding business partners on your own, and GPG hasn't forgotten that.

It's all part of Taylor's renewed mindset on the idea of independence, the realization that in many ways, independent studios should embrace their ability to take calculated risks instead of playing it "safe" all the time, because in reality, safety is a bit of a myth anyway.

"We've always been kind of been like that [independent-minded], but it's always been kind of halfway. We decided ourselves that we'd make Dungeon Siege, we decided to make Supreme Commander, we did Demigod. We've always been like this," explains Taylor.

But halfway isn't enough. Maximizing the ability to make one's own decisions can be the difference between being the farmer and being the livestock. "Independent developers have the ability to maneuver. Think of us as the little ship that gets to maneuver around the big ships. If we don't exercise that ability to maneuver, then we're just giving up on a major strength."

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