By Ichiro Lambe, president, Dejobaan Games LLC
It's not unusual to hear stories of big successes on the part of small development teams. Two-person teams will sell millions of units of a quirky title, as was the case for Super Meat Boy and World of Goo. But those are the success stories; other independent developers struggle with the challenges of being small. Those who set up shop in the Boston area, though, can become part of a supportive community that will help get them over the hurdles and into success stories of their own.
Rags-to-riches stories about game development weren't common during the 1990s. For the most part, game developers had to partner with large publishers to sell their creations through brick and mortar stores. But the high up-front costs, low margins, and limited shelf space meant that publishers preferred to go with blockbuster material rather than unknown games.
Fast-forward a decade, and always-online PCs, smartphones, and tablets have significantly replaced retail when it comes to bringing games to the masses. Large distributors like Apple, Microsoft, and Sony began opening up digital platforms to small studios and small games in the last decade. Online stores such as Steam and the Apple App Store cropped up. We went from hundreds of thousands of eyeballs looking at our games on odd websites to tens of millions via worldwide portals.
Some gamers, too, started to look past the glitzy graphics of big-budget, "AAA" games created by 200-person companies, and began to discover the pleasures of unconventional titles created by teams of a half dozen or less. Audiences in 1993 might have rejected a title such as Proteus for being crude, but in 2013, it wins awards for its artistry.
The industry has also developed better development tools, making it easier for small studios to create compelling games and to publish on desktop PCs and mobile devices. (The Boston Unity Group exists to promote and discuss one such tool called Unity, for instance.)
That makes this a Golden Age of indie game development. And inspired by stories of success, hobbyists have started making games in record numbers. Experienced members of large studios are leaving to start out on their own. In Boston, alone, former employees of Harmonix, 38 Studios, and Irrational have broken out to form companies like Moonshot, Eerie Canal, and Subatomic, to name a few. In fact, there are a dozen indie studios that reside right in Kendall Square, including 82 Apps, Disco Pixel, The Tap Lab, and even ourselves.
We’ve got a strong local community, but we’re only one such community in a worldwide market that’s getting crowded. Greater numbers and a rising quality bar are making it difficult for us to be seen. There are now nearly two thousand titles on the desktop-centric Steam platform, of which a thousand are considered indie games. On the mobile side, there are more than a million games for the iPhone and iPad, up from the low tens of thousands in 2008 and 2009.
Developers need to step it up to remain in business. I think that one key is for us to collaborate with each other like crazy. By joining forces, two studios create bigger, better games for the obvious reasons: more brainpower; more person-hours. But just as authors co-writing a novel can weave a story that neither one could have created on his or her own (think Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman with Good Omens), indie teams with different talents will create games that arise from the chemistry of teams working together.
We've done it ourselves. In collaboration with fellow Boston-area studio Owlchemy Labs, we brought our award-winning BASE jumping title to iOS (and won the number 10 spot on Metacritic's best iOS titles of 2012 as a result).
Small studios also often share detailed knowledge on sales figures or behind-the-scenes strategy that larger companies wouldn't; it's one of our community's strengths. At the Indie Game Collective in Kendall, we invite members of the local game development scene – from hobbyists to entrepreneurs – to visit us for help refining their games and pitches.
Such collaboration casts a bright light on the future, although the limits of success are hard to predict. Will console alternatives such as the Gamestick, Project Shield, and Ouya create new markets, where vastly-better-funded (albeit different) OnLive didn't? Will the advent of new technologies like Google Glass or low-cost 3D printers provide new ways to create games like we've never seen?
I'm hopeful that the dozens of the area's tiny studios will flourish over the next few years. While game development's becoming brutally competitive, we feel lucky to be in Boston.
The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. MassDiGI, based at Becker College, is a statewide center for academic cooperation, entrepreneurship, and economic development across the local games ecosystem. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.
The author is solely responsible for the content.