With mobile, Steam, Kickstarter, and even the upcoming consoles from Sony and Microsoft, independent developers are getting more attention than ever before. If you ask independent dev Demiurge Studios, which just released Marvel Puzzle Quest on mobile, this is clearly the age of the indies and it's here to stay.
"There is absolutely an indie renaissance - a permanent renaissance, I think. It's truly wonderful that people can make a living doing something that before had to remain a hobby," Albert Reed, CEO & Co-Founder of Demiurge told GamesIndustry International.
While some in the business believe that this spotlight on independent development means that publishers are becoming unnecessary, Reed doesn't see it that way at all.
"As with any success, others are going to try to make the pie bigger and then grab a slice of their own. 'Publishing' is still an essential part of the game business; there will always be value in expertly managing the channel and dealing with the technicalities of releasing a game. Indies either have to do it themselves or find a partner to do it for them and I think many indies are opting to roll-their-own because they don't see value in what publishers bring to the table. That's partly because many publishers don't bring value and partly because those that do add value aren't great at communicating it. It's frustrating for me to see incredibly talented game-makers having to spend their time on PR, marketing and first-party issues rather than making great content. Someone is bound to fill the void sooner or later," he said.
Demiurge is one of numerous devs that has been attracted to the world of mobile. The company has worked on several big brands in the console space, including Rock Band, Borderlands, Mass Effect, and BioShock, but what makes mobile games so appealing is that it gets devs out of a "ship-and-pray" mentality.
"The opportunity to bring products to customers quickly and begin improving them based on feedback is immensely rewarding. We can bring more innovative, creatively ambitious designs to market on mobile because we're able to iterate live with our customers. The old way of 'ship and pray' development was not only economically inefficient but it didn't produce the best-possible games. We can't wait until Game as a Service development becomes a reality on consoles," Reed said.
For many traditional console/PC devs, making a switch to mobile can be jarring, but Demiurge seems to be adapting well. "Mobile gamers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and they're seeking out more rich experiences. In many ways, we don't need to change our development to suit those customers - they're coming to us. Marvel Puzzle Quest brings the same deep experience of the original and that's clearly resonating with players," Reed noted. "Probably the most surprisingly difficult change is getting comfortable with allowing players be part of the sausage-making process. In the console world, we were forced to make a Perfect Thing because we only got to ship once. Now [that] we're focused on 'Launch' rather than 'Ship' we can be agile, take risks and respond quickly to our players."
"Innovation can happen when you can put the product in the hands of customers before you've spent the $50MM"
Marvel Puzzle Quest is free-to-play (F2P), but Reed cautioned that despite F2P's prevalence it isn't the answer for every title on the mobile market. "The success for F2P is driving up marketing costs, which makes it nearly impossible for games at the $0.99 price point to get users in the door. That said, I don't think paid games are going away. F2P isn't right for all genres because not all genres lend themselves to the broad-appeal and long-term retention that makes the economics of F2P work. There will always be a market for great single-player, story-driven games like BioShock and it wouldn't make economic sense for that game to be F2P rather than $60," he commented.
While Demiurge has been focusing its attention on mobile in recent years, the company isn't about to tie itself to one platform. Consoles can be a lucrative market still for many devs.
"At Demiurge, we're content creators and want to put our games on every platform on which they can succeed. We're proud to be in the ID@Xbox program because we believe next-gen platforms are going to let us have the same value-building persistent customer relationships that we enjoy on mobile. Marvel Puzzle Quest was built on the same technology that shipped Shoot Many Robots to XBLA and PSN because we want to keep our options open for the future," Reed said.
That future, contrary to comments made recently by former Epic design director Cliff Bleszinski, may not be defined by products like Steam Box or Oculus Rift. In fact, it won't be any one piece of hardware that will define gaming, Reed said.
"I've known Cliff for a long time, but I have to disagree. I don't think the hardware platform is going to define where innovation happens. Innovation can happen when you can put the product in the hands of customers before you've spent the $50MM - with the next generation of hardware, that has little to do with 'console' and a lot to do with the business models that content creators employ," Reed remarked.
"What strangles innovation in AAA is that ship-and-pray development requires a more conservative approach. That's totally fine - I buy Call of Duty every single year because I want to enjoy a tight, refined multiplayer FPS and biggest production-value single-player experience."