Binu Philip steps to the podium. He makes a joke, smiles broadly and begins to speak. He brings up the current platform transition, the rising development costs, higher production values, unfriendly publishing contracts, recruiting shortages.
The audience listens, beginning to wonder not about, “What is the rightful place in the game industry for independents?” but, “Who in their right mind would want to be an independent?”
Then, Philip quotes Lord of the Rings: “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?!” He wonders aloud if this is the motto for independent studios these days. The audience chuckles. It’s true, and it resonates with them.
Philip is president of Edge of Reality, a successful independent developer with a background of ports (such as The Sims) and movie licenses (such as Over the Hedge). He tells his audience, “In order to have a discussion about the future of independent game studios, we must first have a discussion about intellectual property.”
I’m sitting in Binu Philip’s office, talking IP. Edge of Reality’s building sits on the ridge of a hill. It overlooks a river, a landmark bridge and Austin’s downtown skyline. Down below us, on the hills heading into the valley, are buildings that house all the great technology companies in town.
Philip is telling me: “The beauty [of being an independent developer] is that you don’t have to sell yourself to a publisher, and be part of an organization that has thousands of people under employment, and massive overhead. You can still be part of a relatively small studio and create something …
“The cool thing about intellectual property is that intellectual property is valuable … [regardless of] … how many people worked on it. You can come up with a very valuable game that took 30 people to make.”
Edge of Reality’s growth is dictated by what it takes to make the best game possible. Philip says, “These enormous teams that you’ll see at large publishers are a result of trying to get the game out within a certain financial quarter. And they need all those people to hit a minimum bar of quality.
“That’s an equation that’s juggled by financial people working with production people,” he explains. “And, usually, the financial people will out-muscle the production people into living with a short time schedule and having a million bodies to compensate for it.
“I don’t really fear growth, because we’ve done a lot of growing in the last eight years. We’re not new to growth at all. I just don’t want to be in a position where we’re forced to have 300 people to complete a game in a year. I think that’s a recipe for disaster. At the end of the day, you’re better off with a smaller group, working over a larger period of time, to get a game of higher quality.” Philip adds, “That’s what I believe.”
An Independent Future
Philip believes independent developers are important to the industry’s future. “They have the freedom to do R&D and to try out different forms of gameplay. They’re only responsible to themselves; they’re not responsible to a greenlight committee until a game is signed with a publisher.”
And that’s important, because once a greenlight committee is involved, “they’re mostly about minimizing risk.” And when you’re trying to advance a game, truly trying to create something that stands out, you want to be in a position to take as many risks as is necessary to create something “breakthrough.”
“That’s not to say publishers won’t create breakthrough product, I just think it’s easier for independent developers to do so,” says Philip.
Banking on Reputation
People are attracted to Edge of Reality for a variety of reasons. “They see us as an underdog,” Philip explains. “We’re not owned by a large publisher. And that’s kind of attractive to a lot of people, because we’re not going to have nine layers of bureaucracy to deal with. When they have an issue, they can come directly to anyone in management; it’ll get ironed out pretty quickly.
“They know that we have a reputation for shipping titles,” Philip adds, “and that we have commercial success with our titles. There’s some stability attached to that. Someone can come here and be part of creating something new.
“The thing that all game developers have in common is that we all want to be part of something successful. A game takes two or three years to make. You’ve only got so many of those in your career. Maybe 10. It’s very important when you invest that kind of time.”
The New IP
Thus, Edge of Reality is working on new intellectual property. “We’ve had this goal for five or six years now,” says Philip. “That one day we want to be in a position where we can take a risk on a new IP.”
And the company has been working up to this point, earning royalties from previous ports and licensed titles. “We want to be in a financial position where we can take this risk. And if it’s a failure, it won’t sink the company.
“It takes a while to earn that right,” Philip says. “It’s been a goal of ours, that we’ve stated within the company, just not as loud as it’s been for the last two or three years. And for the last two or three years, we’ve been telling people as we’ve been talking to them about potentially joining the company, that we are in the process of doing this.
“And this process just takes forever. Even the planning stages – before any work is done. It took months to get a concept we all agreed to. We’re two years into working on our next-gen tools and technology; a year (and change) into the actual game.”
A Smart Gamble
“We try not to take a risk where we’re betting the future of the company on any one thing,” Philip says. “It’s still an important and expensive bet, but [the bet] won’t fold us. It’ll be a learning step, to help make the next one better.
“That was one of the factors of us starting now. Not only could we afford to take the bet, we could afford to lose the bet. That said, we’re very determined to win the bet. Our ultimate goal is not to become a subsidiary of a large publisher.”
Which raises the question: What’s so unappealing about mega-corporations? “There’s a couple big things. One of them is control. And the other is we want to make an impact. At a big company, they’re going succeed or fail regardless of what you do. It’s nice to make a difference. It’s more rewarding if you succeed because of your hard work.
“Thinking about companies that we’d like to emulate in the long run,” Philip says. “One that comes to mind is Pixar, before Pixar sold to Disney. They have a long track record of creating original properties, and it’s much deeper than any videogame company.”
For an independent developer, there’s more at stake than making Wall Street happy. It’s about making a product you’re happy with, that you know will resonate with the audience, and will sell. As Philip concludes, this is what is at stake: “Leaving a mark in the videogame industry. It’s coming from a point of inspiration, instead of following a corporate mandate.”
Developers love to complain, so they’ll always complain about how it’s impossible to develop independently these days. As Philip says, “The fact is, you can do it if you’re willing to pay your dues, and if you have the right processes, and the right resources in place to do so. That doesn’t necessarily mean having to sell your company to a venture capitalist to pursue your dreams.”
N. Evan Van Zelfden expects great things for the future of games. Games are the greatest art form to date, he asserts. This is why he plays games, writes about them, and continues to work in the industry of games.