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"It's getting harder to be an indie"

Fat Princess developer Chris Millar on the grim realities and excitement of independent development

As a 20-year veteran of the games industry, with time spent at heavyweights like Blizzard and Lionhead, Fun Bits CEO Chris Millar has seen the ups and downs of the business and he's also experienced the joy and fear that goes along with becoming an indie. While there's always been an independent scene on the PC, in some ways Millar was ahead of the curve leading a small team at Titan Studios to develop Fat Princess. As that studio shifted its focus away from consoles, Millar formed Fun Bits to continue working with Sony on Fat Princess DLC. Fun Bits has been around five years now and Fat Princess is still one of the first games to propel the indie movement on consoles. While the indie scene has grown tremendously in recent years, earning an almost sexy cachet, independent development isn't all rainbows and sunshine. Becoming a successful indie can be very challenging.

"The state of independent development is still extremely tough and really challenging," Millar told me while at the DICE Summit earlier this month. "It's exciting when you see titles come out and really hit and try and do something different, but as cell phones are getting as powerful as consoles the quality bar is just going up and up and up. It's getting harder to be an indie, to even be competitive or be noticed - it feels like our industry is pushing super behemoth giant projects like the GTAs and the Destinys and it's almost pushing out the middle man... It's kind of scary because even as an independent developer you have to grow to compete."

Fun Bits started as just three people and now the studio is up to 40 employees. Even that is almost too big for some indies.

"It feels like our industry is pushing super behemoth giant projects like the GTAs and the Destinys and it's almost pushing out the middle man... It's kind of scary because even as an independent developer you have to grow to compete"

"You don't want to get too big," warned Millar. "40 is a big size for us. I like knowing everybody I work with. It reminds me of the time back on Starcraft when everybody knew everybody. It was really cool and it's a different culture when you just know everyone in the studio, you know where everyone's at, you know what's going on in everyone's lives. Everyone has value and has input in what you're doing."

Reminiscent of Rami Ismail's thoughts, Millar voiced concerns about the industry but he also shared how excited he is about the creative potential of games; he's genuinely optimistic about the future of games creation.

"The landscape [has] been tough over the past few years but just being at DICE and talking in meetings it feels like there's an excitement again even from publishers to take on risks again," he said. "They see that the consoles are kind of back and everyone has a big ass TV in their house. TVs are a lot cheaper now. It's fun to sit and relax and enjoy a game, and even looking ahead to where Android and Apple TV and everything is going - whatever box or plug-in you have people are still drawn to the living room, so it's still a viable space. There's a lot of opportunity for developers, which is exciting... so it's a weird excitement and grim at the same time."

As Millar noted, there are definitely opportunities out there for indies, but knowing how to take advantage of them is key. There are two important aspects of that; one is knowing the right people who can help you, and the other is not being afraid to do some work for hire to support your fledgling business.

"It's just making those connections with people who can support larger teams so you can actually survive in this space," Millar said.

You don't necessarily have to partner up with a publisher or another company if you can find the right people to teach you the ropes on some business necessities, Millar stated: "Part of it is finding good people to network with who can actually help you out. Because when you're doing independent development you're not thinking about 'how do I get health benefits for three people?' - simple questions that come up, when you think you can just make a game, there's so much in the minutia of running a company, finding a space [for your studio], getting insurance, and all this other stuff that's a huge headache, that having someone that you can talk to who can help you out with whatever, 'here's how to make your payroll simple,' etc... anything you can do to remove the minutia of the business side of things is good."

"It happens every five to ten years where studios get really large and then they burst after shipping big titles because there's a lot of amazingly creative people there that are not doing what they're passionate about"

With that in mind, the indie community is actually pretty good about sharing information and helping one another out. So don't be afraid to seek help. Millar tries to do his part a few times a month. "I do lunches every couple weeks with new developers who are starting out, and I help them out with some of those questions," he said.

Many indies believe they can survive on a great game idea alone, but Millar cautioned that many developers will have to pay their dues first. At the end of the day you need to make money, unless you're unusually lucky.

"Contracting and bootstrapping is a good way to start too," he noted. "We did a lot of IP development in the beginning as well, in terms of helping other studios develop IP because we had artists available. We were a very virtual studio in the beginning so we could contract artists out and visualize a lot of stuff."

He pointed to his old employer Blizzard, which took its time in becoming the super studio it is today. "Blizzard took ten years to kind of hit their stride with the Warcraft and Starcraft series... In the beginning even Blizzard took on Battle Chess and Mahjong and they did some learning [software] and they took a bunch of port work, taking stuff from the Genesis to the SNES and they did a lot of licensed titles. Even their Lost Vikings games were titles that Interplay owned. But none of them were like 'hey we really want to make X.'

"I was there at that time and I look back at that and I think about how a lot of companies say 'I'm going to do my own thing and launch my one game and have a hit success.' That is kind of like winning the lottery right now, just with the amount of apps out there, and I think you have to have a realistic approach. You have to think I want to work on great games but if we have to bring in additional income to get there, that's not a bad thing. It means we're still advancing, we're still growing the company which allows us to hire another artist who's amazing or another programmer who wants to join us," Millar continued.

Ultimately, it may be more realistic for a developer to take it slow and build up some capital before pursuing a passion project. "If you're rich enough you can just do whatever you want, and if you're young enough you can say I don't need money to live, I've got a roommate situation. But if you're in the middle and you have family and you want to do something new, you might have to take on other projects sometimes to get there. And take it slow," Millar advised.

Don't take that to mean that you shouldn't follow your dream, though. If anything, you shouldn't stop believing in that neat idea you have, unless you've exhausted your options. "If you have an idea that you really believe in, believe in it until no one does. Escape Plan, I really believed in that game. It was supposed to be a PSN title and it didn't happen. And then Sony came back and they believed in it and so did I," Millar said.

And if you ever feel like you're getting a raw deal if you're trying to partner with someone, don't be afraid to walk away. "Always just trust your gut... Sometimes you may not get the deal that you want but sometimes it's better to feel good about what you're doing, and I think that's key because you're going to be doing it everyday and you're going to be working a lot of late nights and weekends and stuff so you have to love what you're doing. So don't sell yourself short," he continued.

Being independent isn't always about being a fresh face either. As we've seen with former Battlefield developer David Goldfarb, it's becoming common for talent to leave big companies in favor of becoming indie.

"It's our cycle of our industry and it happens every five to ten years where studios get really large and then they burst after shipping big titles because there's a lot of amazingly creative people there that are not doing what they're passionate about. They are getting so segmented and so part of a bigger machine that they want to go out there and be creative and feel everyone on the team has a voice again... So we're actually seeing a big resurgence of independent developers," Millar noted.

As for his own studio, Millar continues to work with and think highly of Sony. But he's also open to exploring the larger installed bases of phones and tablets at some point. The most important thing to him, however, is working with people who emphasize creativity and quality, and he said that's chief among the reasons that his studio's titles have been on Sony platforms to this point.

Fat Princess Adventures now in development

"They just really understand games, they are people who've been in the trenches, even Shuhei Yoshida has been there from the PS1 days, building the brand, focusing on quality and placing bets on different style games, and I love that," Millar enthused. "It kind of reminds me of the Sega days when the focus was on just great games and Sony found success with that, with the Journey team, with Fat Princess, etc. There's so many opportunities to do something different, as opposed to 'this is successful, let's jump on that, let's copy what they're doing' and that was what a lot of publisher conversations we've had were like compared to Sony which would ask 'what are you guys going to do that's going to stand out?' And they push us a lot... it's good to be in development with a team that brings out the best in your team."

For the current project, Fat Princess Adventures (slated for later this year), Millar kindly asked the fans to be patient. He's promising that Fat Princess fans will eventually be satisfied even if what they've seen so far is a different direction for the game. "This is growing a franchise for Sony. We have a long-term vision. There's a very loud community that's saying this is not the game we're expecting but I'd just ask them to be patient. We've been working on Fat Princess for many years and we're not going to stop here. We're listening to them and we understand, and eventually we're going to make everyone happy," he stressed.

Regardless of the direction Adventures takes, one thing you can count on for the title is that it'll be accessible, a trait that Fat Princess and Escape Plan share. "Approachability is key, and that was engrained from the early days of Blizzard where our receptionist was playing and had to be able to get through the first five or six levels of Starcraft," Millar explained. "Even though you're learning, you should still be having fun, you shouldn't have your ass handed to you."

He added that in general for the industry to continue growing, developers should keep approachability in mind. "It's an interesting time because now we have so many different interfaces and if people don't know what to do and don't enjoy learning [how to play] they will just put it down. Or they just close it out and delete the app," he said.

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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