Going Indie: "I'm more scared of staying in AAA right now"
New studio founders who've ditched the AAA console space talk about their experiences and strategies as they've become indies
There are more platforms for game developers to target today than ever before. With the rise of smartphones, tablets and digital distribution on the PC, and new business models like crowd funding and free-to-play, developers are feeling empowered - so much so that many have decided to leave the aging AAA console space to strike out on their own. The indie scene has been booming lately, but deciding to go indie is only the first step. The pitfalls - and joys - of doing your own thing are many.
In advance of the inaugural GDC Next, taking place November 5-7 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, GamesIndustry International caught up with several developers who've recently left AAA to go indie. In this special roundtable, Thor Alexander (Lucky Puppy), Damian Isla (Moonshot Games), Borut Pfeifer (Plush Apocalypse Productions) and Robert Zubek (SomaSim Games) all weigh in on the experience of going indie. These veteran devs will continue the discussion in a panel at GDC Next, where they intend to share advice about adapting to the quickly evolving games market and what challenges and opportunities the industry will hold in the future for indies.
Q: What scared you most and what excited you most about transitioning from AAA to indie?
Borut Pfeifer: The main thing that's scary for me is that undercurrent of stress that comes from not knowing when your next paycheck is coming in. You might be doing fine money wise, but just not knowing the future always adds a layer of stress to everything you do. The most exciting thing is just being captain of your own fate. After seeing project after project being canceled while I was at EA, I was confident if I was in charge I couldn't screw up my career any worse than they were.
Damian Isla: I agree with Borut, about the “captain of my own fate” being the most exciting thing. Specifically, I love being in charge of creative decisions -- being free to pursue an idea that is maybe a bit idiosyncratic (telepathic noir art thief?) and not having to be creatively overly safe from the beginning. I think if I had to convince money-people that making Third Eye Crime was a good idea before the game and its look and its gameplay existed -- before it existed as an almost-complete product in other words -- then it would never have gotten made.
What is most scary? Honestly, embarrassment is really scary. I fear coming out with the game and having people think -- wow, he spent two years on that? He must really suck.
Thor Alexander: I'm more scared of staying in AAA right now, with the big question marks hanging over the console market, than anything about going indie. The indie game market is the most open and exciting that games have been since at least the shareware days of the early nineties, if not ever.
Q: What have been some of your most important learnings in making this switch from AAA to indie?
Thor Alexander: Time to fun is paramount. Especially with regard to mobile games. The user's commitment to your product is much lower than with AAA games. You have to knock down as many barriers to entry as possible and get them to the fun as fast as possible. They have many other options competing for their leisure time and they will abandon your game in the first few seconds if you don't grab and hold their attention.
Borut Pfeifer: In terms of stuff learned in AAA development applying to indie development, scoping and all manner of production best-practices. It's ironic too, because at different studios you aren't always able to scope and implement the processes you might like. You try to convince everyone involved, but with a smaller group of people, it's easier to get everyone onboard using those best practices.
"Most publishers won't commit a specific amount to market your game when signing a contract but are happy to take a specific percentage of your profits, so most of them are utterly useless"
Robert Zubek: There's also an attention to detail and polish that's part of the AAA culture, which makes the games stand out, and developers come to expect it, but it's expensive. When you switch to indie, you have to become very honest about the cost and benefit calculus of everything you do. If I want some specific improvement that will make the game better, what will it cost me, and will the players care, since it's not a AAA title anymore? It's a delicate balance.
Damian Isla: Something I'm still learning is indie game promotion -- it's still shocking to me that _I_ am in charge of making sure that people know about the game and want to play it. When you're working in a big studio you, as the developer, are obviously not the one drumming up press and community excitement. Doing so takes an utterly completely totally different skill set from making the game -- and yet a skill set that is no less skillful, no less rigorous (in its own way) and requires no less discipline and strategy than doing the actual development.
Q: With the rise of Kickstarter, self-publishing and digital distribution, there's an argument to be made that publishers aren't needed, but many devs fail to properly market games or manage their business. What's your take?
Damian Isla: Yeah, again, many devs I think underestimate how much effort promotion actually is. It's easily a full-and-a-half-time job as you get close to ship. And Kickstarter doesn't help that of course -- you still have to sell the game to the Kickstarter community, and you still have to put in a huge amount of effort into preparing your pitch and maintaining your community. I guess an interesting difference is that you're doing more pitching up-front -- maybe that itself helps in that it keeps you in “sales mode” for the duration of the project, which is probably healthy.
Borut Pfeifer: Most businesses of all stripes fail. There is a great opportunity for boutique publishers to help small devs bring their games to market, it's just that right now most of them don't actually provide much value to a small dev. With open marketplaces, the big challenge isn't access, it's getting the word out about your game. Most publishers won't commit a specific amount to market your game when signing a contract but are happy to take a specific percentage of your profits, so most of them are utterly useless. Hopefully that will change as more people see the opportunity in this publishing space.
Thor Alexander: Apple and Google are your publisher now. The legacy publishers no longer add enough value to justify the share of revenue that they are asking for. It's not like they are masters at internet marketing.
Q: Launching a new studio can't be an easy thing. What's the process been like and what advice would you have for other AAA devs who want to go indie and start their own studios?
Thor Alexander: Grab 2-3 friends with the right attitude and skill set and get going. Focus on just one platform at first. Build something as small as possible so you can get it to market fast and learn what your users like and don't like. Patch in new features as you go. After you find success, then you can port to other platforms and markets.
Damian Isla: You will probably get a reasonable amount of press just for announcing your existence. What I would suggest is to keep the press-train rolling with a nearly-simultaneous announce of your first project. We have a bad habit at Moonshot of making an announcement and then going silent for months. Part of that is not having a dedicated community/online person. Part of it is a lack of discipline. We should do better. When the hype-train starts to roll, keep it rolling!
Robert Zubek: Decide on the basic tenets of your game early on -- design, monetization, platforms, and distribution -- and then stick to them. In the process of building your startup, you will come across many pieces of advice that will make you question every single one of those decisions. And what's worse, they will all be very reasonable and well argued, but they will all contradict each other. So don't let them sway you too easily -- always question your assumptions, but also be okay with an uncomfortably high amount of uncertainty.
Borut Pfeifer: Yeah, the more you have planned out the better. Understand your resource limitations, figure what platforms you can hit in what order, come up with what might be newsworthy to show at different points in development. And while like Rob said, you'll get tons of bad advice, those plans may need to change so it's good to periodically review them -- just don't spin your wheels constantly rethinking them either.
In general, throughout that, bootstrapping is crucial. Every single dollar you spend on your game, you have to be sure is absolutely necessary to succeed. Being able to market your game and yourself as well, is a tough thing to learn coming from AAA, and the only way to learn is to pay attention to what others have done, and keep trying.
Q: Do you feel the AAA space has been stifling creativity? Is the fear of risk drowning out real innovation?
Borut Pfeifer: I think there's actually some interesting stuff going on in AAA games. Sure, the more money that's involved, the more the fear of risk sets in. But the creativity is still there even if it's a little stifled. I find indie games can also suffer from a problem of lack of creativity, from my perspective -- whenever you only draw from a handful of inspirations, the result is going to be lackluster. So indie games may seem more creative, but I kind of suspect this is a by-product of scale -- there are a lot more indie games, because they're cheaper to make, but possibly the same percentage are really being innovative (whatever your definition of that word is).
"Tablets are going to be where it is at for this next generation of games. They have the right form factor and impressive processing power for both 2d and 3d games."
Damian Isla: No. I have never been one of those people that sees AAA as creatively stagnant. Of course you're not going to see $100 million art games. AAA takes massive, massive investment -- of course, the people who lay down that money are going to want some assurances that they're going to get it back. But I would argue that if you placed the $100 million games next to the $100 million movies, that the games would fare pretty well.
As for the fear of drowning out “real innovation”, I think you only have to look around and see products like the Oculus Rift, Minecraft, Zombies Run!, Journey, Spaceteam -- and I could go on and on -- to know that innovation is alive and well. (Now whether or not those innovators are paid appropriately for their efforts, that's a another question, and I don't know the answer to it).
Thor Alexander: Innovation requires the ability to try and fail at things before you find the magic. I think indie is the place to innovate. You can do it faster, cheaper and without all of the BS that comes from working on a big team with a big budget in AAA games. If you have a cool idea just bang it out and see what happens. Worst case it doesn't work and you have to pull it from your game and replace it with something else. Fail fast and learn from your mistakes. If you are too afraid of what people will think when you fail, then you are not cut out to be an innovator. Find something less novel to spend your energies working toward.
Q: What platforms are most attractive to you? Which platforms are the friendliest for indies and why?
Borut Pfeifer: PC, because the audience is hungry for innovative games and you don't have as many creative restrictions. Even without the ability to get on Steam, if your game stands out and you can promote yourself well, the path to success is easier in my mind.
Robert Zubek: I'm pretty excited about the potential of tablets as a gaming platform. It's a great form factor for strategy and simulation games, ones you can play in short sessions and at your own pace, which appeals to me both as a player and as a developer. But I wouldn't call tablets indie-friendly just yet. Game discovery is a huge problem, and there's no gaming enthusiast community comparable to the PC audience.
Thor Alexander: Rob beat me to it. Tablets are going to be where it is at for this next generation of games. They have the right form factor and impressive processing power for both 2d and 3d games. I also really like what Oculus is doing with the Rift.
Q: Consoles haven't been the best place for indies, but the new consoles - PS4 in particular - looks to be changing that. Is the playing field leveling out between AAA and indies on consoles?
Damian Isla: Really early to tell! I think history shows that new platforms are friendliest to the first products on them, and then as the rest of the bandwagon arrives, it starts, once again, to come down to your own ability to promote your stuff amidst the overwhelming glut of stuff. Will they level the playing field with AAA? No, absolutely not, because the big factor - money - will not ever be equal. But I for one, am happy that now there will be a couple of obvious platforms available should we ever want to go back to designing a “living room” game.
Thor Alexander: I'm very skeptical of how much success this next generation of consoles will have. Play habits of users have shifted to a more accessible, digital, mobile and free-to-play experience. The experience of driving to Best Buy to buy a shiny disk that you take home, unwrap and wait to finish installing before you can play feels very dated. Also it is hard to ignore the massive and rapidly growing install base of smartphones and tablets. It dwarfs anything we have ever seen in consoles. I hope I'm wrong because I love console games… but I don't think I am wrong. We'll all know soon enough.
Borut Pfeifer: We'll never have $100 million marketing budgets, so the playing field will never be “level” as such. But in terms of access, with Sony's choice of the x86 architecture and commitment to straightforward self-publishing guidelines, we have a much easier path to get on console. On the other hand, while Microsoft has their similar ID@Xbox program, I'm pretty skeptical of their ability to execute at the same level. So that means really one major console is accessible (since I suspect Wii U and Ouya ultimately will have much smaller player bases).
More about the panel...
Robert Zubek, Founder, SomaSim
Robert is a game developer and co-founder at SomaSim in San Francisco, CA. Previously, he was a principal software engineer at Zynga, where he was the founding engineer on CityVille and a software architect on FarmVille 2, two of the company's large-scale social games. Prior to Zynga, he developed online game infrastructure at Three Rings Design and console games at Electronic Arts/Maxis. Dr. Zubek also did research in artificial intelligence and robotics before entering the industry.
Borut Pfeifer, Owner, Plush Apocalypse Productions
Borut Pfeifer is an independent game designer and programmer with over 13 years of experience making games. Most recently, he was the lead engineer and a designer on the cross-platform, award-winning strategy game Skulls of the Shogun. He has also worked at companies like Radical Entertainment, Sony Online Entertainment and Electronic Arts. At EA he was lead AI programmer on a game in development with Steven Spielberg. His other published credits include Scarface: The World Is Yours (on Playstation 2, Xbox and PC) and Untold Legends: Dark Kingdom (a launch title for the Playstation 3). Borut has written a wide variety of game development articles on programming, design, and business and he has also taught technical game design at the Vancouver Film School.
Damian Isla, President, Moonshot Games
Damian has been working on and writing about game technology for over a decade. He is president and co-founder of Moonshot Games, purveyors of fun and innovative mobile gaming fare. Before Moonshot, Damian was AI and gameplay engineering lead at Bungie Studios, where he was responsible for the AI for the mega-hit, first-person shooters Halo 2 and Halo 3. A leading expert in the field of artificial intelligence for games, Damian has spoken on games, AI and character technology at the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI), the AI and Interactive Digital Entertainment Conference (AIIDE), Siggraph, and is a frequent speaker at the Game Developers Conference (GDC).
Thor Alexander, Founder & CEO, Lucky Puppy
Thor Alexander is the founder and CEO of Lucky Puppy, a mobile gaming startup based in Los Angeles, California. Thor was an early executive at Zynga, where he helped scale up the business from a scrappy startup to the largest tech IPO since Google. Prior to Zynga, he helped launch the pioneering social game startup MetaPlace, which was bought by Disney as part of the Playdom acquisition. Thor learned the ropes of video game development as a programmer, designer and producer at EA, Westwood and Origin.