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Life getting harder for indies

Tom Ohle of upstart publisher Renegade Machine says getting a good game on Steam just isn't enough anymore

The downside of discovering an underserved market is that it tends not to stay underserved for long. The indie boom of recent years has shown that there's a lucrative market out there for smaller and more experimental games, but it has also attracted plenty of competition. That was one of the main reasons Evolve PR head Tom Ohle and Interceptor Entertainment partner Khaled Ibrahimi founded their own indie publisher, Renegade Machine (quickly re-named from its original Rebel Machine moniker under threat of legal action).

"I don't want to say the heyday is over, but there was a time even six months ago where if you made a really good game and got it on Steam, you had some level of a guarantee," Ohle told GamesIndustry International recently. "If you built your game on a smart budget, you could make your money back and sort of make a living off of one successful game. But I think it's a lot harder now, and it's going to get harder for those games to breakthrough. When Steam was Greenlighting a couple games every month, there was a certain luster to being on Steam. Now we're getting 30 games at a time and it's definitely a lot harder to rise above."

"When Steam was Greenlighting a couple games every month, there was a certain luster to being on Steam. Now we're getting 30 games at a time and it's definitely a lot harder to rise above."

Tom Ohle

The end result of all this competition is that a lot of indie developers will find themselves in the same situation they were in before the boom, Ohle said, struggling to get noticed by gamers. That potential crisis is where he saw an opportunity. Ohle has been trying to help small developers get their work noticed for years at Evolve, but he'd seen one key problem crop up repeatedly with new clients.

"We had a lot of indie developers who come to us and they have really good games, but they don't necessarily have a budget to hire an agency or the foresight to start planning campaigns well in advance, trying to build awareness and get some media attention as they build up toward launch," Ohle said, adding, "Ideally, we're looking at six to nine months before launch that you really want to start talking about the game. You can do less, but you're always going to be fighting to capture attention and get people, especially on the media side, to understand what the game's all about and get excited about it."

While Ohle's background is in PR, Renegade Machine will do more than just put together a campaign to get the word out about games. The outfit will also provide QA testing, production assistance, consulting, and help in securing distribution for titles, and developers will be able to enlist their aid for as many or as few of those services as needed. One thing Renegade Machine isn't really in a position to help with--yet, anyway--is capital. They are open to revenue-sharing deals for developers who don't happen to have the money up front, but Ohle recognizes financial limitations as one of the big challenges facing Renegade Machine in the early days.

"Most developers are seeing publishers as a way to get money to finish their games," Ohle said. "For us, we're starting this as an indie developer would. We're really bootstrapping this all and looking to grow the business organically, get some projects under our belt, start earning some revenue and reinvesting that back in the company."

Another hurdle for Renegade Machine comes in the fact that the Venn diagram of indie developers and highly motivated do-it-yourselfers is practically concentric circles. Still, Ohle said not every developer wants to wear every hat, and his company offers assistance in areas they might not be well-versed in.

"I think there are two breeds of indie developers," Ohle said. "There are the ones who say, 'We want to control everything and do everything ourselves, and we're willing to put in the extra time.' And there are others who are just willing to share some of the load. As far as we can tell, there's enough of a market there of developers who are interested and willing to get that sort of help."

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