It's been a difficult stretch for the AAA game industry, with Electronic Arts, Activision, and Disney all making cuts this month alone. As unwelcome as that news might be, Klei Games founder Jamie Cheng told GamesIndustry International that there's an upside to such moves. The head of the studio behind Shank, Mark of the Ninja, and the upcoming Don't Starve attributed the recent boom in the independent development scene in part to years of struggles at big publishers.
"With all the changes and layoffs, we're seeing so many new studios come up that are doing these games without the crutch of hundreds of millions of dollars of marketing...I think for sure that the layoffs are fuelling way more development in the small, independent space," Cheng said, noting that he prefers "independent" to "indie" as the latter term carries more potentially inaccurate connotations.
However, Cheng added the sudden surge in available talent isn't exclusively beneficial to companies like Klei.
"I enjoy having the large AAA around because they were hiring and training tons of people, and I can't do that."
"I enjoy having the large AAA around because they were hiring and training tons of people, and I can't do that," Cheng said. "We have 30 people and that seems like a lot in the independent space. I can't go out and train a lot of people in development, and that's what they were doing."
If that trend keeps up it could cause problems for small developers in the future. Cheng said it would be most felt when looking for engineers and artists, who would be relying on similar skills whether they were working in the mainstream market or the independent scene. He suggested it would be less of a problem for designers, as the job is very different at a studio like Klei from what it would be at a larger operation.
That assessment is reflected in the evolution of Klei's institutional expertise. Prior to founding Klei in 2005, Cheng was an AI programmer at THQ's Relic Entertainment. With his engineering background, Cheng said Klei's efforts were always solid on that front. The company found and hired skilled artists soon thereafter, but took a bit longer to hone its design skills.
"I feel like last year was when we kinda figured out how to make a game," Cheng said. "We've been bumbling along and every year we've done something and we get better...We finally have a process that I think works."
"As these new kinds of distribution methods come out, we just have to keep in mind what the player feels like."
In some ways, the process has always worked. Cheng said every game the company has released has been profitable, and every one of them continues to make money. It's not like Shank is single-handedly keeping the lights on, but the added cash flow is helpful.
As for the future, Cheng expects the independent game scene to continue benefiting from the maturation of digital distribution. Though it has been a disruptive innovation in the game industry, digital distribution has experienced a gradual evolution, from near-irrelevance when Klei started up to near-ubiquity now.
"The idea of direct-to-consumer digital distribution has been around, but it keeps getting better," Klei said. "And as it gets good enough, you're going to overtake the retail stuff. And that's what's started to happen."
When asked about the potential threats he's worried about for the future, Cheng said he's interested to see what happens with price points for games. He's also curious about the ramifications of the current trends toward preorders and alpha funding.
"What we've tried to do is set a really good example with Don't Starve," Cheng said. "We're saying, 'Look, we're going to do an early access beta, but that beta all along the way is going to be really solid. It's not going to constantly crash on you; it's going to be a solid game throughout and we're going to be responsive on the thing that you bought.' As these new kinds of distribution methods come out, we just have to keep in mind what the player feels like."
This is one in a series of GamesIndustry International interviews with independent developers on the changing role of indies in the industry landscape.