Independent developers are, by definition, forced to go it alone. The range of difficulties these developers may encounter, from securing office space to getting games to market, often require expertise and experience in areas that are unfamiliar to many fledgling game designers. Developers have been faced with the option of either struggling through on pure trial and error, or ceding creative control to a large company in return for the necessary publishing infrastructure. Joystick Labs, announced today, intends to fill the considerable gulf between these approaches.
Yesterday, I spoke with Juan Benito, co-founder and creative director of Joystick Labs, about his new company’s mission to support independent designers at every level of the development process. Along with co-founders Glen Caplan, Justyn Kasierski, and Lawrence Steffann, Juan’s vision is to make Joystick Labs “the first of a kind seed stage game company incubator” that helps developers realize their vision. “Essentially,” Juan told me yesterday, “what we do is provide teams who have a great idea about the next great videogame, and perhaps are not sure how to go about setting up their own studio, their own company.”
Applicants can apply today to become part of Joystick Labs’ first 12-week session, which starts September 7. Intended to support a few small teams of two-to-five developers, Joystick Labs will support its candidates with a stipend, software, hardware, office space and the legal and financial documents required to start a business. At the end of the session, the graduates will leave the program with their own discrete company and complete creative control of their properties. In return, Joystick Labs will take a small minority stake in the new company.
So what are the selection criteria? Juan’s staying very open minded and not limiting Joystick Labs’ focus. “We want to be able to capture an as wide as possible pool of applicants at this point,” he says. “Really, the team just needs to demonstrate that they have a solid idea of the game that they want to make.” In addition to assessing the potential of the game design, Joystick Labs will be “evaluating the technical and artistic experiences of the applicants themselves.”
While the games are obviously important, Joystick Labs looks beyond just the strength of the demo or concept. “We will be collecting developers that can not only demonstrate creativity to a high degree,” says Juan, “but also have an entrepreneurial spirit. We really want to select applicants that really want to have their own studio, because either they work in the industry and they feel they have this great idea that they need to act on, or maybe they’ve been making things in their spare time and they want to take it to a more professional level.”
He expects business and marketing may be the biggest hurdles for many of these applicants. Most independent game designers already have the technical abilities and creative vision required for success, but the abilities to conceive and code a game need to be supplemented with the solid business practices and marketing strategies required to create successful and sustainable companies. “That’s something we absolutely feel we can help game developers out with,” says Juan.
Given the session length, Joystick Labs plans to focus on platforms that allow for meaningful achievements within just a few months. That means focusing on mobile platforms like the iPad, iPhone or Android, or on more casual environments like Facebook or Xbox Live Arcade. “It’s quite possible to make something pretty cool for the mobile platform, as well as Facebook in that period of time,” explains Juan. The company will even consider taking on middleware or social applications that show particular promise but aren’t necessarily entertainment focused. Thankfully, the support doesn’t stop at the end of the 12-week program. Joystick Labs’ commitment to its graduates’ success extends far beyond graduation, which makes sense if Joystick Labs’ only potential for profit here is in the continued success of its graduates.
Once the developers are ready to release a project, Joystick Labs is prepared to help with distribution. Applications developed for the iOS will find their way to the market via the app store. “If we get PC-based games that are going to be developed natively for that platform,” says Juan, “then we’ll look at distribution networks such as Steam and the others that really allow them have the broadest reach in terms of getting the games out there to the market but without going through the traditional retail channel.” The emphasis here is clearly on distributing games online and avoiding the traditional brick-and-mortar retail experience.
Joystick Labs’ mission is a reaction against the excessive investments of time and money required of most publishers. “That’s somewhat of a risky model,” says Juan. He’s reassured by the encouraging rates of growth for “cheaper, smaller, more social and more casual” games, particularly those of Zynga on Facebook. “We’re a bit more focused on those,” he says, “because that’s where we see the biggest growth opportunities as well as a development scope that is in line with what you can do with a small team in a matter of months.”
The new company is currently planning to support between four to six teams depending on the size and scope of the individual projects. Applications are currently being accepted for the first session starting in September. You can submit your application and follow the progress of the program at joysticklabs.com.