2014-01-22

Co.Labs

Where Is Indie Gaming Going?

As the video game platform wars linger on, indie developers get left taking enormous gambles.



Nearly 100 people laughed and cheered as they watched an anthropomorphized coconut run across the projector screen, evading meats and cheeses on the attack. The game is called Organic Panic, and it was on display early last year at a meeting of independent video game developers called the New York City Video Games Forum.

Damon and Anatole Branch, the brothers who made the game, explained to the audience that they’ve been developing Organic Panic for five years.

"What’s your target platform destination for the game now?" a bystander asked.

"Right, well..." Anatole Branch said.

"That’s a good question," said another guy.

"I sat in a tiny office for five years and made this," the developer confessed. "What I really should have done is just got a PC and transformed it a long time ago, and I didn’t."

Today, the Branch brothers have limited options. When they started building their game five years ago, it made sense to develop it for the Xbox. Now many indie developers have ditched consoles like the Xbox in favor of mobile devices like the iPhone.

If they publish Organic Panic on Xbox Live Arcade—a service that allows Xbox players to purchase and download games through the console—it will be available to 40 million subscribers. They could also release the game for the PC and Mac through Steam, Valve's popular digital download service, which has nearly 60 million active users. However, there is no guarantee that either service will agree to distribute the game. And if one does, the process can take months—it requires thorough vetting of the project’s source code and aesthetics.

Apple’s App Store, on the other hand, only requires that a game be submitted to Apple for approval. Nearly all submitted games are approved and the process rarely takes more than a few weeks. Once on the App Store, games are available to 200 million people—twice as many as Xbox Live Arcade and Steam combined.

The Start Of The Avalanche

The success of Angry Birds, which sold 30 million copies in its 2010 release, caused a surge of interest in indie game development. Brad Hargreaves, cofounder of General Assembly and organizer of the NYC Game Forum events, said the group has grown steadily over the past five years. (The number of RSVPs on the group’s meetup.com page shows average monthly attendance nearly doubling since 2009.)

These days, nearly all of the games demonstrated at the forum events are made for mobile devices. In the mobile realm, an individual or group with the requisite skills in programming, art, and music needs only to buy software that costs $20 to $100 to start working on a game. Along with the large market and low startup costs, though, comes an overwhelming amount of competition. A game put out in February 2013, for example, would be just one of nearly 4,000 games released in the App Store that month.

One of those games was called Worm Run. Soon after the Branches finished their demonstration of Organic Panic, Hargreaves introduced a developer named Michael Christatos. Along with a partner, Christatos had released Worm Run to the App Store in early 2013. He was there to offer a sort of retrospective about releasing the game.

Then, on the screen, a giant worm with orange fur and sharp teeth began chasing a spaceman through a rocky cavern. The spaceman, Zeke Tallahassee, glided over ice and jumped over lava lakes. Flames shot out from the bottom of his rocket boots as he jumped up the side of a high cliff.

Christatos explained the objective of Worm Run to the audience while his friend played it on the large screen. "Whoa!" The audience erupted. The worm had caught up with Tallahassee and swallowed him. The word CONSUMED appeared in large letters on the screen. People laughed and applauded.

The App Store's Vanishing Millions

Sitting in their office a few days after they’d released Worm Run, Christatos and his partner, Andy Wallace, were already discussing their next game: Hermit Crab in Space. The two of them had founded Golden Ruby Games a year earlier.

The company is run out of a room in Christatos’ father’s office in the Empire State Building. The room is only about the size of two supply closets combined, but it has a big window that overlooks downtown Manhattan. Christatos and Wallace can make games in about six months. The first game they released in the past year was called Destroy All Color—Worm Run was the second.

With Worm Run, Christatos and Wallace had done everything right: produced a compelling game, hired a PR firm, got a good review on a popular gaming website called Kotaku, and landed on the App Store’s New and Noteworthy section. Even with all of that, though, only 1,000 copies of the game were sold at 99 cents apiece on the first day.

But by then, they’d already begun work on Hermit Crab in Space. They’d recently participated in GameJam, a 24-hour hackathon where developers sit at computers and develop a game from scratch. The challenge at this particular event was to make a game for the PlayStation Vita, Sony’s mobile gaming device. Christatos and Wallace won the GameJam by coming up with Hermit Crab in Space on the spot, and now they had to finish it before the finals. They’d be presenting the finished product at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where one finalist would be chosen for a publishing deal with Sony. In their office, Christatos and Wallace said they only had about three weeks to finish Hermit Crab.

"Andy is the reason we can work so fast," Christatos said. Wallace does most of the coding, and Christatos focuses more on game design and running the business.

"I tend to brainstorm in code," Wallace said.

Winning the Sony competition at the Game Developers Conference would mean they’d get a free pass to E3, the biggest video game conference of the year, complete with hotel, airfare, and a booth to show off their game. The winner would also have the option of publishing the game with Sony, in which case the company would provide free marketing and PR.

Despite their looming deadline and the recent release of Worm Run, Christatos and Wallace, sitting at a table in their office, kept moving the conversation back to the general experience of gaming. For instance, they talked at length about controls and how the action of playing a game is changing along with the platform.

"Buttons are supposed to be tactile things," said Christatos, "and that’s what’s great about them. When you play Xbox or you play PlayStation, you know where those buttons are. You’ve memorized where the triangle is; you’ve memorized where the X button is."

His point was that touchscreen games like Worm Run—made for iPhones and iPads—don’t have the benefit of external controllers. Although Christatos and Wallace grew up playing on consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation, they’ve fully immersed themselves in the mobile frontier. They think critically, and perhaps even philosophically, about the future of gaming and how to translate the games of their youth to a new medium. Where some game developers attempt to mimic traditional controls on the touchscreen with graphical buttons, Christatos and Wallace try to make their games more intuitive. In Worm Run, for example, to make Zeke Tallahassee run, you swipe your finger over him, pushing him in the direction you want him to go.

"When you’re taking up screen real estate with your thumbs," Christatos said, "you’re covering a good 20% of the screen with your body. It’s just kind of like, well, why did you even put buttons there?"

Wallace nodded along as Christatos spoke. It was what you might expect a pair of indie filmmakers talking about movies to sound like. The next day, they’d be releasing an update to Worm Run to fix a few small bugs, then continue work on their Sony game.

Where Will Indie Gaming Go From Here?

The NYC Games Forum meetup where Christatos gave his retrospective talk was four weeks later. By then, Andy Wallace was at the Game Developers Conference and had already presented Hermit Crab in Space. After talking about Worm Run at the forum, Christatos announced that they had won the competition. Golden Ruby would be going to E3, and they’d eventually publish their new game with Sony.

As people mingled at the end of the event, one game developer was offering some constructive criticism to Anatole Branch about Organic Panic.

"I think it’s like Angry Birds but more granular," he said. He also said he didn’t think the carrot should be able to do a dirt attack unless it’s on the ground.

Branch nodded apologetically.

After all of the presentations, the event organizer asked everyone to text a code to him to vote on their favorite game of the night. Organic Panic won by a landslide.

Organic Panic was built in a small bedroom in Damon Branch’s apartment in Brooklyn, two blocks from the Barclays Center. The brothers call their company Last Limb Games. Anatole mainly handles the art and graphics of the project, while Damon handles the rest. As we talked at his desk, Anatole flipped through some images. There were bits and pieces of Organic Pan there, pencil sketches, rendered pictures of 3-D models. The Branches outsource some of the work, like concept art and the cartoonish landscapes they use as background graphics.

"We have concept artists, but unfortunately we can’t afford to keep people," Anatole said. "Hopefully when we get the Kickstarter."

The Branch brothers were, at the time, planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign to gather enough funds to finish the game. But they admitted that they don’t have much of an aptitude for marketing and social media. (At the NYC Gaming meetup, Anatole had said "We have no experience with social media. We have no experience with kind of getting it known. At this stage 100 people, 130 people, have looked at the website.")

The Branches have been building their own video games since they were pre-teens, growing up in southwest London. They can model 3-D graphics, write code to simulate real-world physics, and synchronize the audio they record to coincide with character movements. Damon said there are currently about a million lines of code behind Organic Panic.

Still, the realm of new media remains somewhat obscure to the Branches. After Damon fired up the game for some testing, Anatole said they should shoot some video for their Kickstarter page. He found an iPhone, held it upright, and started filming. Then he asked if he should turn it sideways for the widescreen effect.

On the screen, hotdogs wearing jetpacks flew around chaotically. Oliver sat on Damon’s lap and cheered when a character like the coconut made it through a level. Eventually, the brothers began talking about mobile gaming and Angry Birds. They pointed out that games like it had existed before but hadn’t made it. Perhaps it was the aesthetics or the atmosphere of Angry Birds that made it succeed where others had failed, they said. They considered whether the same could happen with Organic Panic—what if they were the ones to get it wrong?

"Someone might come along in two years and do one that just goes mental, and we’ll just be smashing our heads against the wall," Damon said.

"No!" Anatole yelled. "Let’s get rid of the British attitude and get more of an American attitude. We are going to make this happen, Damon! We are going to make it happen, we’re going to do everything we can to make it happen."

"Well it has to be in the back of your mind, to do everything to make it happen," Damon said.

"Of course, we have to be realistic. And we know marketing is 80% of it," Anatole said.

"No, it’s not 80% of it when I’ve done five years of programming while looking after a kid, and then you’re going to do a few weeks of marketing and say it’s 80% of it," Damon said, laughing hard.

"It’s 80% of the importance of selling a game," Anatole said.

"Yeah, well, some think like that. It certainly isn’t going to resonate without some marketing," Damon said.

"You can have a crap game, and much better marketing, and do a lot better than a really good game with poor marketing," Anatole said.

"Well that’s a crazy generalization, I’m not going to comment on that," Damon said.

The brothers continued talking for a while, going from laughing to yelling and back to laughing again. The Branches talked about how long it would take to repurpose the game for Steam, and how long for the iPhone. They debated how much money they should try to raise on Kickstarter. They wondered whether they would still be considered indie if they found a publisher for Organic Panic. As they talked and talked, their game’s theme music played in the background.

In the summer of 2013, the Branches launched their Kickstarter campaign. By Aug. 8, they raised more than $40,000 to put toward finishing the game.

[Image: Flickr user Antonio Foncubierta]






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