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Going Solo

Former Microsoft and Maxis developer Chris Hecker on lone development and the GDC

Chris Hecker has been working in the games business for about 15 years, having first made the transition following a trip to what was then known as the Computer Games Developer Conference - CGDC. More recently he worked at Maxis on Spore, before going solo on his own title - SpyParty.

Here he talks about the challenges of lone development, why he left Maxis in the first place, and explains in some detail the process of putting the GDC event together from the perspective of an advisory board member.

GamesIndustry.biz So it's been an interesting past year for you - having been laid off at Maxis, you're now running your own indie development project... how did all that come about?
Chris Hecker

Yeah, I was laid off in September last year. We did Spore, and I was on that for six years - I was involved with the creature animation, the editor, the skin - everything that helped bring the game to life.

But then after Spore shift, the process that had taken six years had been relatively painful - I'd have done a few things differently on the game design front - so I was going to leave in order to make my own game, SpyParty. That was going to be in January, so I told them I wasn't going to work on another big project with them and as a result I was just doing small stuff, basically patches.

They don't generate any money, however, and EA is a publicly-traded company, so to have expensive staff working on stuff that's not bringing in any money... so I totally understand the reasoning, and it wasn't a surprise when I got laid off, but that then moved up my time frame by about four months.

I got a little bit of severance, so I scrambled to get a website up about my game - for an indie game it's really important to get everyone in the press aware of it, and I knew that when I left there'd be press attention, so we got it going immediately.

So I've just been working on SpyParty for the past few months - it's what I'd call a 'triple-A indie' project, that's what I hope it'll be. In the past couple of years there's been this emergence of this mid-range of games, with Braid, Castle Crashers, World of Goo, Flower... games like that that are indie and small - $15 - but they're completely polished.

These games aren't trying to be uber-games - they're not trying to be GTA IV or Spore, which are huge - these games are really laser-focused on one particular mechanic, or small set of mechanics, and then just polished. I hope to do that with SpyParty - it's a couple of years out, but that's the goal.

GamesIndustry.biz So how are you going to fund a two-year development cycle, even though it's just you in your garage?
Chris Hecker

Well, there are a bunch of different ways that'll hopefully work. I've cut my expenses massively... so there's that, and I have some savings from working in the mainstream industry for the past 15 years. Then in order to take it to the polish level that I want, that I think it deserves, I'll probably have to get some funding - whether that's friends and family angel stuff, or a publishing deal.

But the problem there is that I need to have total creative control to do the thing I want to do - I have a very clear aesthetic that I'm going for, it's very experimental, but I've already got a prototype that's looking interesting. But I need to not be forced to ship it at any given time.

So it's very unlikely that I'd be able to get a publishing contract that would give me the leverage I needed - but it doesn't actually cost that much to live, even here in California. I could maybe do it on just a few hundred thousand dollars - if I were willing to burn all my savings down I could fund myself, or get some friends and family to loan me some.

We'll see - the good thing about nowadays when it comes to financing is that there are proven good games of this size that have been profitable. Before I joined Maxis I was working on an indie game for a long time and never finished it, but back then there was shareware on the PC, but no real console model - no way to monetise it.

Since Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, and to some extent WiiWare and Steam, there's now a $15 business model. You can be somewhat confident that if you do a good job, you can earn your money back, whereas before even if you made a great game, it wasn't clear that there were sufficient channels to do it.

I think it's awesome, and it helps a lot of people in the industry, because you get a lot more innovation that way.

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