Small but Incomplete
Small-studio developers are changing the world - but without the expertise of publishing, is this sector sustainable?
When we get around to writing the histories of the games business, the half-decade that we're in right now will probably be defined by three key events. One of them is the slowing of the graphics arms-race, as diminishing returns start to seriously bite the console platform holders. Another is the end of physical media - likely to be with us for another console generation, but already in its death bed, ravaged by the rise of digital distribution and the promise, or threat, of streaming services.
The final event in this hypothetical history is the extraordinary exodus which is taking place, slowly but surely, of talented development staff - who are abandoning traditional large-scale development in surprisingly large numbers to try their luck at the lower-risk, smaller-scale possibilities offered by Facebook, iOS and their ilk.
Can this utopian vision of an entire swathe of the industry made up of small-studio or self-employed developers working on highly creative, low-budget projects actually work on a commercial level?
There has always been a lifecycle in the games business not dissimilar to that of stars, whereby new companies would be formed by an accumulation of talent, burn brightly for a period of time - a short time if they failed to get a major hit, a longer time if they managed to produce a string of blockbusters - and ultimately collapse, shedding their talented staff in the process. Those staff would then form the raw material for new studios that would spring up from the ashes of the old company.
This process still exists, and works perfectly well - but in recent years, something has changed. When old companies go bust, as they continue to do with about the same regularity they always have, the new companies that appear from the ashes are different.
Developers who have watched one firm go under thanks to the extraordinary risks involved in high-budget game development aren't opting to dance the same dance once more. Instead, they're creating smaller, more independent studios, focusing their efforts on social and mobile gaming - hoping to have a product out the door in months rather than years, funded perhaps by their own small business loans rather than the wallet of a publisher who'll want the blood of your firstborn in return.
That this process is taking place is undeniable. What it'll do to the shape of the industry in the long term, however, is a tougher question. As console gaming stagnates but development budgets keep rising, it's easy to see why creatives are keen to parachute themselves out of that environment - and the success of games like Minecraft and Angry Birds, whose creators were honoured at this week's Develop Industry Excellence Awards in Brighton, provides plenty of impetus to chase the small-studio dream.
Obviously, not all of these studios are sustainable - indie development is lower risk because it involves less capital, not because it has a higher chance of success than a console game. Plenty of indie games, probably a majority, will completely fail to make a living for their creators, and plenty of new indie game studios will go bust - although given the low running costs they'll be operating with, the implosions are likely to be unspectacular and not particularly destructive.
However, looking away from the individual studios, the question must be - is the trend itself sustainable? Can this utopian vision of an entire swathe of the industry made up of small-studio or self-employed developers working on highly creative, low-budget projects actually work on a commercial level?
There are definitely huge barriers in the way. One of the most obvious is marketing, an aspect of launching a game which, in the sphere of AAA releases, has come to consume as much if not more of the overall budget than development itself. You can't sell a game to people who don't know about it, and while there are plenty of word-of-mouth viral successes out there, they're the exception, not the rule. They're going to become even more exceptional in future, too, because as the amount of content on services like Steam and the App Store booms, discovery becomes an increasingly tough process to streamline for your potential users.
Beyond marketing, there are plenty of competencies which can't be waved away simply by making grand proclamations about living in a post-publisher world. Budgets have to be controlled, accounts filed, license holders negotiated with and employment contracts drawn up - and on top of that, even on a relatively small project like an iOS game, there's an important place for good project management. It's boring stuff compared to the thrill of creation, sure, but you can't simply wave it away.
As un-sexy and not-fun as it may be, the pioneering, exciting small studios are going to have to be joined by services companies that replace all the boring stuff that publishers used to do
Many of the early gold rush of studios are likely to be brought low by some of those factors - in fact, some of them already have been. A small number started off with their heads screwed on over these issues from the outset, quite a few more have been forced to learn fast - and a few are still getting lucky. There are still occasions when I speak to relatively successful small studios and discover that their approach to something like accounting or employment law is to put it all in a drawer and hope it never becomes a problem. So far, they're lucky. Tomorrow, they might not be.
All of this constitutes a major barrier to the sustainability of the small-studio sector - but it need not be an insurmountable barrier, because within these problems lie the seeds of their own solutions. Indeed, within that solution may lie an answer to another question that's been asked often of late - what happens now to the mid-level publishers who are trapped between AAA budgets escalating beyond affordability, and low-cost games whose developers seemingly no longer require a publisher?
The answer, I believe, is that we're about to see the rise of a new type of games company - not entirely novel, but certainly about to come into its own. Rather than a publisher, what is required by the small-studio sector is something more like an agency - a body that sells a service to them, providing marketing, PR, financial, HR and project management expertise, along with great networking possibilities. The upfront can't be high, if it exists at all; the money in the deal would flow as a percentage of a game's turnover, as it does with literary agents, for example.
For small developers, it's easy to see how this would be attractive - and those stubborn enough to believe that they can do all of those things by themselves will come around to the idea quickly enough, after a couple of game launches threaten their bank accounts and their sanity. For publishing staff, though, wouldn't this be a step down from their previous position of power? Certainly, that's true - but since distribution channels have been blown wide open and the barriers to entry have collapsed, publishers can no longer act as gatekeepers. What choice have they but to find a new way to package up and make available the expertise they house?
In short, then - yes, I believe that the small-studio market is absolutely a sustainable, long-term part of the games industry. Indeed, I believe that in time we will come to look upon the years between the decline of the bedroom coders and the rise of the iOS studios as being something of a wilderness for gaming - a peculiar time in which only large corporations could afford to create anything. But for this to happen, we're missing a piece of the puzzle. As un-sexy and not-fun as it may be, the pioneering, exciting small studios are going to have to be joined by services companies that replace all the boring stuff that publishers used to do - before together they can really set out to change the shape of the industry as a whole.