Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Erin Hoffman's Inside Job
Inside Job: Go Indie, Young Man

Erin Hoffman | 4 Jan 2008 21:00
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Among the "non-innovation" priorities or potential misfortunes are:

  1. Your game doesn't fit a publisher's slot. This kills most game ideas before they ever so much as reach pre-production. In a given year, an individual publisher, guided by market trends, which in turn guide its board, develops a set of "slots" ("we need an action RPG," "FPSes are back," "get us a platformer for boys 8-12") for which they seek games. Naturally, there is no slot for something that's never been done, unless a publisher is specifically seeking to engage in the risk-taking move of innovating - which many publishers now claim to be pursuing, but by the sheer economics of the system, for a slim minority of their projects in a given year or more.
  2. Your game fits a publisher's slot, but won't draw enough of an audience on its own. The response to this, if the idea makes it through the initial gauntlet (which might be around 1-in-10 odds if you're good), is generally to slap a license on the product, which will inevitably alter your design. The good news is this usually happens before production starts. But sometimes it doesn't.
  3. The game publisher has secured marketing data that indicates players want "A," "B" and "C," but not "D," "E" or "F." The problem is their marketing data is at least six months old, meaning it may be somewhere from six months to even a year or more out of date, but even maximally current data will cause a publisher to be inclined to chase a proven curve rather than establishing a new one.
  4. A game publishing executive (or producer or director) thinks your game needs "X," "Y" and "Z" but doesn't need "A," "B" and "C," all of which were integral to your original design.
  5. Your schedule won't allow you to hit the holiday rush. Time to cut features!
  6. You're developing for some form of PlayStation.
  7. Another game in your studio's current roster fell victim to one of the Misfortunes and requires that top talent be diverted to triage.
  8. Marketing decides that your heroine isn't sexy enough, your hero isn't identifiable to age group "X" or your plucky comic relief character isn't resonating with focus groups.

I could go on, but I'm starting to depress myself. You don't have to take it from me; the odds against innovation in commercial game development are legion. And while independent games don't defeat all or even necessarily most of these, they possess a critical edge when it comes to innovation.

Sunshine and Rainbows
So that's the good news, but it isn't the entire story. About a year and a half ago I talked to a small collection of independent developers at the now-dormant Toronto Independent Games Conference about quality of life issues. At the time, only a couple of them knew who I was, and I'd asked them to keep mum about it; hearing yourself discussed in the third person is a very surreal Tom Sawyer experience that I recommend everyone tries at least once.

That discussion was interesting in itself for its demographics - in a convention composed primarily of independent game creators and those interested in them, I found the usual ratio of about 12:1 male-to-female present at the conference; but in the quality of life session, female attendance was a solid 20 percent. It also emphasized not just the importance of independent games' role in the greater game industry ecosystem, but of quality of life issues in their own indie microcosm.

Independent games very much run like time capsules, hearkening back to the early days of the Amiga or Commodore 64 when a four-person team was extravagant and an actual budget non-critical. Like the rare mutations they are, independent games are born and die in rapid sequence, the delicate mayflies in an industry that can be brutal as the Cretaceous.

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