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Why Game Industry Talent Is Going Indie


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Feral developers: why game industry talent is going indie

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Andrew Hume was a game developer working on Sega Soccer Slam for smallish developer Black Box Studio, and he loved it—for a while.

"Life in a small independent studio was pretty much perfect," he told me. "I was working with happy and talented industry veterans." Hume knew he was green, but he enjoyed the work and how much he was learning. He whistled on the way to the office. "That ended, though," he said.

Black Box was enjoying success and at that point had over 100 employees. The studio seemed on the cusp of great things and the major publishers took notice. EA purchased the company. "The culture was not destroyed overnight, but the place went from a frat house to an obvious place of cold business," Hume said. Many people left the company and new employees were brought over from EA. Hume felt like "a cog in the machine" and grew so disillusioned by the job he quit suddenly one day, without anything to fall back on.

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Sega Soccer Slam was a title from Black Box Games, which was later purchased by EA

After working on another digital project and then running out of money, he had to find more work, so he returned to the world of small developers. He was eventually hired at Radical Entertainment. "It was a large but independent company with talented industry vets, free food, beer on tap... I was happy again," he said.

Two weeks later, Vivendi Universal purchased Radical, but its culture remained intact. Hume had braced for impact and was ready to leave, but he gradually relaxed and once again enjoyed his new home.

A few years later, Activision merged with Vivendi Universal. "Things did change this time," Hume said. He had been working on Scarface 2 for two years and was happy with the work. "Scarface 2 was shaping up to be awesome, the team was behind it, we were all feeling like this was going to be the best game we ever made," he said. Activision killed the project.

Hume began working with Richard Clifford at Radical on another big-name game—they both declined to say which one—and after a year of hard work, that project was cancelled as well.

"Having years of your life flushed because of a graph projection and watching 60 of your friends get laid off can destroy the magic feeling," Clifford said. He and Hume both left Radical to create MinMax games and have just released their first game, Space Pirates and Zombies.

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Space Pirates and Zombies is a top-down, space action game with heavy RPG elements.

MinMax Games

People go into the business of making video games because they're passionate. Hours are long, competition is fierce, and pay can be low. Still, if you work hard enough, one day you can get a job working for one of your favorite companies making your favorite games. Or at least that's the dream.

But increasingly, the thought of working for yet another studio has become stifling for many professional developers. The gaming industry used to rely on developers learning to create games on their own before they would get hired, but the situation is now reversed: developers increasingly spend a few years inside studios and publishers to gain experience, then drop out of the system to make their own independent games.

The main reason is simple: big-name games have never offered less job security, and with the rise of digital distribution, devs who want to sate their hunger for something more than just another wargame have viable ways to sell their own dream projects.

Why "successful" developers burn out

Audrey Leprince is in charge of operations at the Game Bakers, an independent developer of mobile games. She has extensive experience in the video game industry, most notably as the producer of Tom Clancy's Endwar. She speaks highly of that project, including the experience she gained working on a team with so many nationalities.

"Working for a major publisher can be rewarding, very quickly: you get to work on known IPs, you have job security, you get a good paycheck every month, you have the business card with the big name on it to show off to your friends," she told me.

That environment has major downsides, too. "You don't really know how much you will be listened to or if your ideas will be taken into account, how much freedom you'll have in your work, or if you'll end up crunching on a B project after the perfect project you joined for gets cancelled," she said.

That's how Eric Thoa, who is in charge of the creative content for the Game Bakers, decided to leave Ubisoft. "I would love to say 'I just wanted to live my dreams and that gave me the guts to leave behind my career with a major publisher,'" he said. "Well, that's actually the truth, but also the game I was working on got cancelled after two years of development. That was the nudge I needed."

It was no small move for Thoa, as he had spent the years between 2005 and 2009 traveling the world to work on different projects for Ubisoft's varied studios and shipping a number of games. A large publisher gave him the skills needed to do his job well, even as it gave him the motivation to leave the company.

The Game Bakers is currently working on Squids, which they describe as Angry Birds meets Worms, with RPG elements. "For the universe, Audrey and I share a passion for cephalopods of all sorts, and that was a perfect match with the controls I had in mind," Thoa said.

This is the joy of independent development: a shared love of cephalopods is a viable jumping-off point for a new project.

Good enough to ship

I once spoke to someone who had an incredibly unsexy job working on a game that was simply pushed out with no marketing budget. When I told him that copies of the game went out to press days after it was released to retail, he made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat. The game was wonderful, but it was given zero chance of success from the publisher. This was a guy who was making little money working on a game he believe in and loved, only to see it die an ugly death because someone didn't think it made financial sense to support. He was also drinking heavily, his eyes wet with anger and frustration as we talked about what had happened.

It's a story I've heard repeatedly when talking to game developers: studios get swallowed, games get canned, you're moved from a game you love to working on a licensed project and all your enthusiasm for your job is sapped away. I've heard horror stories about project leads who say that their games don't need to be fun, just "good enough to ship" in order to to meet a movie's release date or the launch of a children's television show.

The press talks to happy project leads and marketing people when a publisher wants to hype a new game, but when you meet someone who simply works on games in a bar at a show like E3 or the Game Developers Conference, you begin to see what it can be like for the rank and file.

When you're trying to attract passionate, creative professionals to create games, this whole approach becomes a liability. "Even the best of the best AAA studios are not safe these days. A lot of games get cancelled now, or don't make the expected income," Hume explained. "When this happens, 100 or so friends are shown the door, despite how much they have done in the past. I won't mention any specific titles here, but you read about it happening every other week or so."

That's not to say there aren't good studios out there, or people in the business who know the value of their developers. But there's a reason we write about these places like they're news.

Unlimited creativity

Sheldon Pacotti was the principal writer for the original Deus Ex, and he also worked on America's Army: Rise of a Soldier. He's now hard at work creating his own game, Cell: emergence.

"Big-budget games, which can be thrilling creatively thanks to high production values backing up your ideas, are often constrained by pre-existing IP, pre-existing tech, genre, and a heavy bias toward creating known, market-proven experiences," Pacotti said when I asked why he was working outside of the studio system. "In any creative field, the magic moment is when you're dreaming up something brand new, an experience which does happen on big projects but which happens more often—and almost by definition—in the indie space."

Cell: Emeregence

I've been exchanging e-mails with Pacotti over the last few months, and it's easy to hear the enthusiasm when he describes the latest build of Cell: emergence. It's also clear that this idea would be hard, if not impossible, to sell to an established publisher. Here's what Pacotti said when I asked him to describe his game:

Cell: emergence
is an action arcade game built on top of a deep simulation. Most games employ visuals to add realism to their game mechanics;
Cell
instead drives game mechanics deep into the visualization itself. In fact, every speck of color (i.e. voxel) in Cell has game-state and interactivity. It's an experimental title that attempts to see how far this approach to game design might be taken.

For small developers, one key to crafting their vision is the emergence of inexpensive and easy-to-use tools for game creation. "It's getting easier to generate content and code... XNA is a milestone in this area as well," Pacotti said. "Paired with the IntelliSense in Visual Studio, you barely have to know anything to write code these days. Compared to poring over paper manuals, as I did in the '80s, today you just have to type a period and you see a list of available methods."

"Inside I'm still a 13-year-old kid discovering the wondrous world inside the computer... I love the mad scientist aspect of game design, where you're confronting something brand new emerging from code," he added. "That was the feeling that got me into games when the new stuff was color, sound, and sprites on the TI-99, and I've been enjoying that feeling again now that games are a freeform pastime for me."

And big studios tend not to fund "mad scientists."

Hard to sell

Jonathan Chey is the co-founder of Irrational Games and has worked on Thief, System Shock 2, and Bioshock, among others. His latest project is Card Hunter, a virtual board game being developed by Blue Manchu games, a company that Chey is funding with his own money. Why didn't he ask an established studio to create and market the game?

"I honestly don't think I'm a good enough salesman to sell this idea, either to an investor or a manager," he told Ars. "It requires a leap of faith that would be pretty hard for someone who is responsible for someone else's money to take. So, no I don't think it could have been done any other way, at least not by me."

He may be envious about the bigger budgets and teams of experts that you get when you're developing inside the system, but to get that money, he would have to abandon autonomy. "I'm not a rebellious type of person, but I've always hated hierarchy. I don't really like imposing it on other people, and I'm not really very open to having it imposed on me," he said. "It's perhaps not a very rational thing, but I just like doing my own thing. That's why my favorite jobs have been in academia and as an entrepreneur."

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Card Hunter certainly bucks trends. It's a free-to-play game that runs in a Web browser and harkens back to a time when role-playing was king. "We had this idea of not being ashamed about the fact that our game is a turn-based card and board game but instead really selling that and being proud of it," Chey said, describing the visual conceit of a virtual board game that literally looks like a board game. "And those kind of came together somehow in a flash to this concept—that we'd conceive the game visually as an actual board game that looked like the way people used to play fantasy miniatures. The image of the game we had went right back to the original Chainmail rules, for those that are old enough to remember them, little miniatures moving around on a grid-based map."

If you're a publisher and you read those words and see that image, you're going to run screaming the other way. But the crazy thing is, we've had many e-mails asking us to cover Card Hunter, and people I talk to in the board gaming community anticipate the game. There's at least a real audience here, whatever its size may be, and it has a shot at profitability due to changes that have affected the gaming industry.

"I've been thinking about this game for the last couple of years and, during that time, a lot of things have been coming together very quickly that make it now seem a much more reasonable plan than it was before," Chey said about the decision to spend so much time and energy creating the game today. "The advent of successful indie developers, the rise of micro-transactions, the maturation of Web services and technologies, and the growth in all kinds of alternative distribution models are all things that are opening up the space for games like this."

Chey's team is filled with distinguished industry professionals: Ben Lee was art director of the brilliant Freedom Force, Dorian Hart designed System Shock, and Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield is contributing to the game's design. Since the project is entirely self-funded, no one outside the project can push for product placement or cancel the game at the last moment—well, unless the money runs out. Having all the control also means you carry all the risk.

Risky business

It sounds so simple, so perfect, but indie development can be significantly more challenging than working for a big-game studio. For one thing, you're now responsible for doing everything: taking care of payroll, making sure you have lunch, or looking after your legal concerns once the game is released.

"It's a huge amount of work and you're taking risks on a personal level," Leprince said. "If you can't stand the idea of not knowing how much money (if any) you are going to make in three months' time, then this career path is probably not for you."

The gaming landscape is filled with the ruin of independent developers who ran out money, but that doesn't dissuade the indies. "Sure, some more security would be nice, but there is nowhere for that security to come from," Hume said. "Your reputation for making good games and being able to bring them to market is the only security you have. Aside from that, we're free to do as we please as log as we can float the bills."

And where does the money come from? Credit cards get abused, friends get hit up for money, and in some cases cash comes from investors or from the government. As the embedded video below shows, the most expensive thing you give up is time; creating any game requires mountains of it. When you work at a developer or publisher, you get paid for that time and your salary lets you eat even if the game gets cancelled. When you leave that system, money often doesn't arrive until you finish the project, and then only if you can convince gamers to part with their money.

Forty-eight hours in the life of an indie developer. Crunch time doesn't end just because you're your own boss

We'll follow the games mentioned here, many of which look promising, but the people we spoke to for this story haven't earned anything yet except creative freedom and ownership of their products. Success, and the ability to develop a second game, may or may not come.

In fact, the stakes for a game are much higher for indies than they are for larger studios. The projects are more personal, and can lead to tremendous sacrifices. "We set out to make an epic old-school space shooter that wouldn’t take us any longer than 6 months. We were so crazy back then. It has taken 2 years and counting," Hume said. Then his money ran out, but the team was too far along abandon the project. Besides, they were already in love with the game.

"Space Pirates and Zombies began to be funded out of home equity and then things got serious. It had to succeed or we lost everything, but for it to succeed, we had to make it better, which made it take longer, so it had to be better..." Hume explained. "It was very frightening, and we are only about 40 percent of the way out of the hole we dug ourselves, but we think we will make it."

Not a happy ending, but a promising middle

Despite the risks, indie development has now become so attractive to industry veterans that there's a real movement toward dropping out of the system to pursue dream games. Those dreams may lead to spectacular failures. Still, creating something you're proud of and failing at it can provide a real measure of satisfaction, more than pouring years of your life into a good game only to have it cancelled for arbitrary reasons. And if you hit the jackpot, you own the game you created and will be rewarded for your time and energy.

Every week, my inbox is filled with people talking about the studios they used to work for and the games they're creating now that they've gone independent. EA's greatest talent-poaching threat isn't Activision; now that some of the most interesting and most successful games are being created in the wild, expect more people to abandon corporate security to create the games they want.

"We are doing all of this to work on games that really fit our values, for more creative freedom, for the flexibility to spend time with our families," Leprince said. "It's not about working less, it's about working in a way that resonates better with what we want in life."

Artigo longo mas vale a pena.

Edited by Lancer
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