Wednesday, March 17, 2010

GDC Inspiration Pt 1 - The Indies

Last week was GDC and a great time to take the pulse of the industry.

The previous year, all the heat was around casual and iPhone. This year the big buzz was the incredible growth of casual/social games, with a certain amount of fear as to a perceived threat of facebook games to the wider medium.

My take is different. I think this was the most inspirational, exciting GDC I have been to. One that represented the diversity of our industry, from the amazingly consistent quality of big budget games last year, to the increasing prominence and growth of the amazing beautiful indie games scene, to the explosion of social games that show that gaming is something for everyone.

I feel that our industry is on the cusp of a major evolutionary step.

In fact Will Wright spoke of this in his ‘secret’ keynote. Describing us as poised at the beginning of our own Cambrian Explosion.

I have a lot of notes from various talks I went to so I'll be breaking them up over a series of posts over the next week or so.

Here is my Indie update from GDC.


I went to the Ron Carmel talk about IndieFund. You can find an excellent writeup of the talk here.

Everything he said was inline with what I had expected the fund to be about, but this is an exciting development for the industry. If they can be successful it may start attracting more capital to our industry. It's also great to see the successful Indies coming together to provide a channel for the next wave. This is one of the most amazing aspects of the Indie scene, there is a sense of togetherness and community that comes from everyone pushing out and trying to make it on there own.

One part of the talk that puzzled me was Ron's claim that Publishers are investing too much into indie games. He says that Braid & World of Goo cost in the $120k to $180K range and that Publisher investments of $500k-$1M were risky and destined to lose money.

I do believe that a lot of Publishers have been burnt with their early experiments in XBLA but I don’t believe it’s related to budget but rather quality of product. Braid would have made money even at $1M dev cost. It sold because it was a great game. To pick 2 other XBLA hits, I don’t believe that Castle Crashers or Shadow Complex could have been developed for $200K and they have been commercial and critical successes.

I believe whether you are developing a $200K game, a $2M game or a $20M game we are living in a time when only best is good enough. Regardless of cost, you need to be best in your class.

It’s possible to develop a great game for $200K, as both Ron & Jonathon Blow have shown, but there are other game experiences that are going to require bigger teams to deliver. The market on XBLA is going to continue to grow and will ultimately support games with bigger budgets.

Moving on, the IGF booth is one of the highlights of GDC for me. Each year the games are getting more and more polished. What’s really clear too, is the rebirth of 2D. It feels like perhaps we’ve explored 3D gaming as much as we can and now we are in this process of rediscovering old gameplay that had been lost a little bit. There are 2 games I want to talk about, very different and yet I believe, there are universal elements that tie them together...


Wow. What a beautiful game. We had looked at the early concept video for this as an inspiration when we were in pre-production on Lucidity. Then no new information came to light but at GDC I got to play it. Check out some footage from the GDC build here. It’s coming on XBLA in the summer and is a Day One purchase for me.

What really blew me away, however, was that it’s been developed over a period of 3 years, with a team of 8-16 people! Wow! I don’t know what the man month costs are like in Denmark but that would run about $2-3M to develop here in the States.

Could this be the most expensive ‘Indie’ game ever?

Joe Danger

Fantastic game. Absolutely polished and just reeks of FUN at every level. Check out the trailer here. Amazing to know this has been developed by 4 people. 3 programmers and one artist. Met Sean Murray and he was a super nice guy. It’s been announced as coming to PSN in the summer.

I think this is going to be huge. It’s like Trials HD, crossed with Sonic, crossed with Little Big Planet, made by Pixar. Sean himself is way more humble about its chances. I really admire what they have done in staying true to their vision and not letting anyone come in and knock them off course.

Both Joe Danger and Limbo were stand-out games for me. They were both amazingly well polished and brilliantly executed. They were also very very different, showcasing the diversity of game experiences that the indie space is delivering.

This got me thinking, what makes a game truly 'Indie'?

  1. Is it Self-Funded? Joe Danger is self-funded. Flower is funded by Sony and wins IGF GOTY.
  2. Is it budget? Limbo clearly has a budget that even Publisher funded XBLA games aren't spending.
  3. Is it the Conceptual Premise? The indie 'feel'? Joe Danger is a nakedly commercial, fun game whereas Limbo reeks of 'indie' emotion and artistry.

I can imagine there will be fierce debates on this to come, much like the 'Are Games Art' debates of previous years.

Joe Danger may not 'fit' the notion of an indie game because of its bright sense of fun and mainstream sensibility, but these guys made a game they WANTED to make and they completely self-funded it. (Interestingly, I've heard that Limbo has benefited from some significant Arts Funding from the Danish Government)

Personally, I subscribe to the belief that Kellee Santiago eloquently vocalized at GDC, that Indie Developers don't have to suffer for their art. Developers need to eat, need to pay mortgages and support families and there is nothing wrong with the support for that coming from a Publisher or private investor.

It is the intrinsic motivation to create an interactive experience that comes from the heart, one that reflects the creators personal passions and voice that, to me, makes a game 'Indie'.

For the Hello Games guys, that's Joe Danger, for PlayDead that's Limbo. I'll be celebrating that diversity with my $$ when both games release.

More GDC updates to come soon!

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