bit-tech.net

So, You Call Yourself Indie?

William Wallace: "Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!"

And the Scottish Army goes wild.

Stirring stuff, but although people talk a lot about independence and freedom, when it comes down to it they make remarkably little effort to actually defend it. I was chatting to some of my old co-workers from a big games studio today about independence, and what it means and takes, to start your own games company. There can be no doubt that many developers are very attracted to the idea.

Industry forums like 'TheChaosEngine' are stuffed with angry rants (behind closed forum doors) about how working for company X sucks, and how producer Y is an idiot. Everyone in the games industry complains about it all the time.

So you might think, that when those same people spring forth from the shackles of working for The Man to do their own thing, that they daub their faces in blue warpaint and adopt a Mel-Gibsonesque defence of their new found and much cherished freedom from The Man, right? Wrong.

"the majority of them maintain a thin veneer of independence by technically working for themselves, but the true spirit of independence dies pretty quick."

In fact, in my experience, they hurl themselves enthusiastically into the arms of The Man like lemmings on amphetamines. Granted, the majority of them maintain a thin veneer of independence by technically working for themselves, but the true spirit of independence dies pretty quick. How? Mainly in the choice of what kind of games are made, and how they are sold.

In the long distant past, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and used CRT monitors, you sold independently made games by putting up a website, signing up with a payment provider (who handles orders and deals with credit cards, and takes roughly nine percent), and submitting your game to the hundreds of 'download sites' such as download.com.

These sites would then let people rate the game or would review it themselves and have featured games and top ten charts. The download sites sold adverts to capitalise on the pretty decent web traffic, but the game developer still hosted the actual files. Some people made some good money, and the indie game movement was started.

This was real independence, and people took full advantage. Some people made RPGs, others puzzle games, others shoot 'em ups, RTS and even the odd FPS game. Everything seemed to go well, with developers getting the proceeds of their work, and making games they wanted to make.

"If William Wallace had been a typical indie game developer, he would be sat in his bedroom, woad warpaint gradually fading, coding "Summer BBQ Dash Mystery IX""

Then the download sites realised that so many devs depended on them for exposure they could start charging for reviews, then for placement on the site at all. And this is the sad bit.

The devs, showing their true business skills and warrior mettle said "Sure, OK!"

The relationship between the two parties had been balanced until then. The devs made products people wanted, the portals organised the devs offerings and presented them to the customers, whilst gaining web traffic from the huge catalogue of games. The problem was that once the catalogue was big enough, the portals decided they could start charging the devs admission. This was bad, but it was going to get worse.

Back to top

Cliff Harris

The portals then started restricting what games they listed, and started selling the games direct themselves, effectively becoming combined download-sites and payment providers.

In some ways, devs liked this. It was less hassle. They didn't need to deal with the payment people and pay the download site now – it was just one company. Besides, the portal let you keep 75 percent of the money. That's less than the 91 percent, but hey, it's a living.

And then the portals started up 'membership schemes' where nobody bought the games any more, they bought game 'credits' and got a free game each month. Then they started squeezing the royalties down to 50 percent, then lower and lower still. And to make absolutely sure there was no danger that the devs would ever claw back to a position where they didn't need the portals, they insisted that every game they sold had the developer's website link removed from it, and replaced with the portal's logo.

The developer got a royalty cheque 90 days after the end of the following month (if they were lucky), and that was that. As far as the consumer knew, the portal made the game.

"It just saddens me that all the people with any aggressive business sense work for them and don't run indie games companies to retain some balance"

And yet there were still some pesky, irritating indie developers that had not adjusted to 'the new way'. They would not only sell their games direct to gamers in order to keep the money, but they started selling each other's games through affiliate systems on commission. This was the developers helping each others exposure, and its how I sell some of the games on my own site.

Portals got in on this act too, starting up their own affiliate system where they let anyone start up a games download site, and provided all their developers content to them in return for a cut. So, rather than the developer suffering from one middleman, there was now two. This was clever. Why have dealings with 14 different indie developers when you can just deal with one big, uber middle-man?

I don't think the portals are evil by the way, they are shrewd business people just making a living. Good for them. It just saddens me that all the people with any aggressive business sense work for them and don't run indie games companies to retain some balance.

This is just the financial side of it. I haven't even mentioned design. Some portals now see themselves as "Hidden Object" portals or "Dash game" portals, where they ONLY sell clones of a specific game. Yay, innovation! Yay, freedom!

If William Wallace had been a typical indie game developer, he would be sat in his bedroom, woad warpaint gradually fading, coding "Summer BBQ Dash Mystery IX" for a five percent cut of the sales.

Game developers should stay in their day job for the man, or be truly independent. This middle-path is just embarrassing to watch.

Cliff Harris used to work at Elixir and Lionhead Studios where he worked on both Evil Genius and The Movies before becoming an independent developer. Did you like those games or do you want to offer your thoughts on this column? Do so in the forums.