3.25.2006

I Am Indie: New Frontiers

I Am Indie: New Frontiers
By: Karl Castaneda

The more I got into writing about games, the more I've pondered on what interactive entertainment journalism should be, and as such, I've made my thoughts tangible with various editorials and rants, as you've all seen from time to time. While my opinion on the subject has become more refined since I've started my trek, the goal has remained the same: to take the medium and do all I can to raise the standard. I'm not nearly there yet, but through perseverance, I hope to one day claim victory. What I've learned through research on this piece is that independent game developers have the same goal, only instead of wanting to change journalism with Op-Eds, they're looking to alter games as a whole with innovative design.

Before starting this project, I'm a little embarrassed to say that I wasn't too open-minded when it came to non-corporate studios. I pictured small, six-man garage teams working on flash-based titles on Newgrounds. While this may be true of some groups out there, when it comes to the niche' at large, it's a lot more organized and focused than I (or any of you, in all likelihood) had realized. Unfortunately, these guys are all but ignored when placed next to the likes of Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft.

Take this past week, for example: the Game Developers Conference was in full effect, with keynote addresses by all of the console competitors. And with such bombs being dropped as Sega Genesis games on the Revolution and a gorgeous teaser of a PS3 Ratchet & Clank, who of us out there cared to remember that this week also played host to the Independent Games Festival, which rewards and honors titles that have achieved excellence without the help of a six-figure budget or in-your-face marketing. This year had some great entries, like the follow-up to last year's Alien Hominid, Dad N' Me. But of course, you're not too likely to see it on IGN or 1Up's front page.

That's not to say that there aren't Cinderella stories, though. While Dad N' Me isn't garnering too much mainstream coverage, the Behemoth's Alien Hominid did go from popular flash game to a full-fledged console release, which is quite the achievement. And who could forget Geometry Wars, the small-time game turned phenomenon on Xbox Live Arcade. It's certainly refreshing to see a simple title get such enormous support. One can only hope that this practice continues.

Luckily, in Asia, indie developers have a much better reception and chance to make it big. Look at the creators of Pokemon, Game Freak. When Satoshi Tajiri created a small studio to make his first game, Quincy, he had the chance to get it published worldwide, which probably led to his being noticed by Nintendo and his success with the Pocket Monsters. And then there's HAL Laboratory, initially working on games for calculators, creating hits like Super Smash Bros. and the Kirby series. And when you take into context the hundreds of independent, web-based MMO's that are digitally distributed every year in countries like Korea and Taiwan, it's not too difficult to see that the East is a lot more indie-friendly.

So what's a North American newcomer to do? Well, as I talked about before, Xbox Live is looking to be a great place to show off fresh content, and with the possibility of Nintendo allowing smaller games to be downloaded off of their Virtual Console, the future looks bright, if a little uncertain. If anything, there's always the ever-growing PC field, but no one can deny that its crowded marketplace isn't the ideal place to set yourself apart.

In the end, I'm just glad I've spent the time to suck up their culture, finding out anything I can about the process of indie design. In fact, I was so enamored with the industry, I decided to go out and find a developer. I had the immense luck to speak with Will McAffee of NeuroToxin on the good, the bad, and the bureaucracy. What have I found? Well, I'm proud to showcase the results here for you. What follows is the second part of "I Am Indie;" the main attraction...

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Gaming Vision: To start out, please state your name and role at NeuroToxin.

Will McAfee: I am Will McAfee, programming lead / security.

Gaming Vision: How did NeuroToxin get started? What were some of the core ideals on which the company was founded?

Will McAfee: We started as a small group of three teenage hackers in a basement, to be entirely honest. From the beginning, the main idea was to tackle the technical hurdles nobody else wanted to risk failure in tackling, to ignore what's trendy and make games that are fun. That group of three hackers grew up, started selling some of their stuff, and gradually we got a building in Northport, New York. Only one of the original three is still working here, though.

Gaming Vision: Speaking from a more general standpoint, how do you break into the industry as an indie developer?

Will McAfee: We didn't, really. From the beginning we have been entirely self-sufficient, making our own CD's, writing our own update programs, running our own website. In a way, we have kept ourselves from having to reach another, larger company's standards and thus maintained the independence we now enjoy.

Gaming Vision: Before a studio can release its first game and get the ball rolling, how would you keep your studio afloat? Would everyone just work on a volunteer basis? Are there any alternative means of funding?

Will McAfee: The way we handle payment and such is that each person on a project works for free, until the game is released. At the release, each member of the team gets an even chunk of the profits, thus encouraging even the simplest debugging programmer to do their best and work as a team to create a better, and thus more lucrative end product. We also do some defense work on the side.

Gaming Vision: Can you elaborate on the defense work? What's involved with such a venture?

Will McAfee: There is not much I am allowed to say anything other than "You don't need to know." on, but we mainly do the software end of things, working with larger defense contractors who work on the hardware end of things. For example, there was a problem with a certain VTOL jet's maneuvering in vertical mode. So, we adjusted the software that decides what direction to point which nozzle with how much force.

Gaming Vision: Whenever the average gamer thinks of an independent developer, they usually think of a small group of people, ranging from only a few programmers to a dozen or so. In your experience, how large is the average team? Is there such a thing as a gigantic independent developer?

Will McAfee: We intentionally try to stay small, opting for a few excellent programmers instead of floor-fulls of mediocre coders. These small groups are like any other small group able to exchange ideas more freely, to work with each other more smoothly, and are free of the strangling bureaucracy of larger companies.

Gaming Vision: What do you think is the biggest misconception concerning being an indie developer?

Will McAfee: That we are all a bunch of nerds in a basement, really. While we started that way, that was only a beginning.

Gaming Vision: If there's any advantage one would have working for a company like NeuroToxin compared to working at a mainstream developer like Retro Studios, what would it be?

Will McAfee: More creative freedom, mostly. You see, projects at larger companies have to go through the wheels and gears of endless red tape to even get considered, every officer and undersecretary wants to put their stamp of approval on the slightest change to say, a physics engine. Here, there is direct access to the higher-ups, and there is no one individual who overlords everything. There is no dedicated administration, thus cutting out most of the bureaucracy. There is an order to things, don't get me wrong, but with being the three team leads (programming, art, creative) and well, everyone else it's pretty loose.

Gaming Vision: In the advent of successful games like Geometry Wars on Xbox Live Arcade, do you think the public is looking at independent games more than in the past?

Will McAfee: Yes, and I would hope so. In my opinion and experience, most if not all of the real progress is made at the smaller, independent level, and the larger companies will gradually "invent" this "new" idea into the mainstream as they see it working for others.

Gaming Vision: So you're saying that most innovative game mechanics are thought of first in the independent ring and then eventually fall onto the desk of mainstream studios?

Will McAfee: Yes.

Gaming Vision: Do you see indie studios gaining more opportunities in this coming generation? What console looks like it'll be the hotbed of independent development, if any?

Will McAfee: Yes, but only in the way of small, puzzle-like games you would find in Xbox Live Arcade, for example. I wish it were different, but console makers tend to cast an unfriendly eye towards independents because of their size.

Gaming Vision: So the only console you see independent game studios capitalizing on is the Xbox 360, then?

Will McAfee: Unfortunately, yes. And most likely not even directly, what tends to happen is that an independent will make a java-based game, and end up with it being run on everything with an on switch, many times with little or no payment.

Gaming Vision: I think you might be in luck, though. At GDC this week, Nintendo Wi-Fi's Takao Ohara talked about having smaller games distributed on the Revolution's Virtual Console. Of course, Nintendo hasn't always been the best friend of indie gaming.

Will McAfee: The statements I am about to make represent only my opinion, and not that of NeuroToxin. Don't get me started on Nintendo. They are known to gamers as friendly, almost child-like in action and mood, but on the business and development side, it's almost a Jekyll and Hyde difference. NOA has their hearts in the right place, but the big guys in Japan are incredibly unfriendly towards any developer that is not currently raking in the millions. There is a reason there is almost never good third party support for their consoles, they won't let anyone near them.

Gaming Vision: And that brings us to our next topic, although not specifically Nintendo. About how hard is it to get a development kit? Once you cross into the realm of console development, what sacrifices have to be made?

Will McAfee: When you are an independent developer, a console maker will tend to act like they own you, like they have blessed you with their hardware and grovel in thanks. I apologize if I have seemed mostly negative during this interview, but the kind of attitude we get from larger companies and sometimes the gaming community in general is very frustrating. We used to have a 360 dev-kit, but Microsoft kept breathing down our neck, trying to impose changes to our very administrative structure to fit the Microsoft mold, we almost suffered a Bungie until we packed up our dev-kit, uninstalled the dev-kit software from all our computers and shipped the thing back to them with a post-it note that read "We prefer to work smarter, not harder."

Gaming Vision: What do you think of digital distribution? It's starting to gather support, such as Turner's GameTap service and Valve's Steam program; do you think it'll ever become the standard with console games, and if so, how would this change indie development, if at all?

Will McAfee: We have been working on our own form of this, NeuroNet. I think it's a great thing, eliminating the costs of packaging and shipping, and allowing developers to publish their own games. This is also the reason we have been watching the Phantom closely, and built our own devkit according to the specifications publicly available. Eliminating the cost of publishing and the red tape involved will likely allow independent developers a much easier time getting their product out to gamers.

Gaming Vision: Yeah, the Phantom seems to be a big step up; it's a shame there's so much negative publicity geared at it. Do you think it'll take Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft publishing one of their big holiday games in digital format to shift the console industry into this plan?

Will McAfee: I don't think that will happen as much as dedicated consoles like the Phantom and others which will propel the industry into this form of distribution.

Gaming Vision: Looking back on what you've accomplished so far, do you have the same outlook on development as when you started? What's changed, if anything?

Will McAfee: When I came here, I was expecting a garage band like structure, a need for income. I was wrong, I thought of the game industry as the large players, with many weaker companies scrambling around beneath them to run with the big dogs, or so to speak. Eventually I came to realize that we are almost like a separate industry, not mice at the feet of the EA's of the world like I had previously thought.

Gaming Vision: Finally, what are your thoughts on the future (your career and the indie games industry in general)?

Will McAffee: We are slowly getting more recognized as time goes by, but I don't see a sudden embracing of the independent games industry in the near future, at least. You see, people will always favor the gigantic over the small, regardless of wether the gigantic is just spitting out the same old just, stuff every year and slapping a new year on the cover.

Gaming Vision: And on that unfortunate note, this interview comes to a close. Thanks a bunch for volunteering your efforts. It's been a blast.

Will McAfee: Anytime.

And that’s it, ladies and gentlemen; I hope you’ve learned something. I know I sure have.

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