NZ game industry: Indie game development is bad for your health

Indie game studio Tuna and publisher Adult Swim Games at the NZGDA conference

Independent game developers work alone or in small groups; they fund their own development and usually retain the intellectual property when their game is published

According to sister publication PC World the most successful indie game is Minecraft by Markus Persson, it has sold over five million units since its official release, and its popularity is similar to a AAA title games (those produced by large studios).

Indie game developer's view

Alex Amstel, a UK developer, opened the New Zealand Game Developers Association conference on Saturday with a keynote presentation on Indie game development. He called it “Living the dream and enduring the nightmare”, with a subtitle “It’s tough being Indie”.

His speech was studded with gems such as “you can have the best plans but they can go so horribly wrong”, and “It’s really bad for your health making indie games.”

Amstel has been involved in games development for over ten years and has worked on brands such as Family Guy. He is CEO of Tuna Studio, which once employed more than 20 people before he downsized and made the switch to indie games. He wants to create games that are an expression of his personal view, and not his client’s demands.

In 2007 he met Napier-based developer Anthony Flack and they began collaborating on Cletus Clay, a homage to the 1980s stop-animation. The game has yet to be published (it was picked up by Microsoft Game Studio, but subsequently dumped in 2010). However it has enjoyed some success - in 2009 Cletus Clay was nominated for an Independent Games Festival award, which meant that Amstel and Flack could show the game at a US event which attracts influential publishers and media.

At the IGF they met the creators of Eufloria, which has since been published and been successful on multiple platforms. For example, the iPad version has sold over 42,000 copies at $4.99 each since its release in February this year.

Amstel had the following tips for indie game developers:

  • Show off your work (even when its still in development).
  • Enter competitions (you make important contacts).
  • Collaborate with others (Amstel met Flack on the web).
  • Get a specialist industry lawyer (this tip came up a number of times throughout the conference, even if you have to go offshore you need a lawyer that understands the nuances of the gaming industry).
  • Engage with your audience (your fans are the greatest advocates of your game and they can be a lively community that deserves your attention).

Amstel says that development takes longer than you expect it too, and indie gamers should look after themselves as striking a work/life balance can be difficult, especially if you are “crunching” (that is working almost non-stop) to meet a publisher’s deadline.

Game publisher’s view

Amstel opened the conference and Jeff Olsen vice president of games publisher Adult Swim (what one industry insider referred to as an “enlightened” publisher) closed it. Adult Swim also has a TV network in the US, producing programmes such as Robot Chicken.

But Olsen says they like to keep the games separate to the television shows, eschewing “advergames” (those based on a movie or TV show). This is because a bad game can damage a good TV brand. Also, the market for television is up to 20 million viewers as opposed to the gaming audience, which Olsen says is up to 200 million - so if a game is any good it will sell regardless of whether it is attached to a TV brand.

Adult Swim’s target market is males 18-34 years old, and their biggest gaming hit to date is Robot Unicorn Attack. It took one developer, one month and $25,000 to make and has around 300 million players. It was the 50th game that Adult Swim published and it was the one that hit pay dirt (Olsen pointed out that Angry Birds was the 51st game for Rovio Mobile studio).

Olsen says that if Adult Swim funds the making of the game, they will retain the intellectual property and the company publishes around 30 games a year. It promotes new games using traditional television advertising campaigns but Olsen says “organic traffic is more important”.

* This is part of a series of articles that Computerworld has run based on the Game Developers Conference on May 19.

See also Govt support for development increasing, Microsoft pitches new Windows mobile store to developers, Insights from local studios

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Tags Cletus ClayRobot Unicorn AttackTunaAdult SwimEufloria

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