GDC Gallery: How The Indie Fund Could Change Game Dev Destiny

By Brandon Boyer

GDC 2010 oldskool_2 9.001.jpg Like UK studio Introversion's indie-rallying clarion call at the 2006 Independent Games Festival, the announcement of an indie-led investment strategy -- simply called the Indie Fund -- could be the next watershed moment for the future of independent gaming. Organized by a consortium of indie devs that've seen breakout success (like World of Goo creators 2D Boy and Braid developer Jon Blow), the fund aims to maintain control of the funding cycle -- keeping it out of the hands of publishers and traditional investors alike -- and keep indies in charge of their own destiny. Opening the 2010 Independent Games Summit, 2D Boy co-founder Ron Carmel took to the stage to explain why the fund was needed, with Braid artist David Hellman illustrating the strange over-complex steamwork behemoth of traditional business models that no longer serve the indies best: the full hi-res gallery continues below.
GDC 2010 oldskool_2 9.002.jpg Adding nuance to the title of his session, Carmel admitted the real problem was more specific: that the real problem was shoe-horning the new world of digitally distributed indie games into the old regime of traditional retail game publishing. GDC 2010 oldskool_2 9.005.jpg As game development has evolved over the past few decades, he explained, traditional software engineering practices have come with it: "waterfall approach" processes that emphasize doing as much pre-production design as possible as early in the process as possible, postponing the actual building. Throughout the 90s, though, agile practices emerged that saw development models being thought of as much more fluid processes, with studies showing that this model isn't just cheaper and better for actually creating software, but maintaining it as well. The indies are currently facing the same situation today in regards to funding new games, said Carmel, as the industry still hasn't recognized the importance of creating a new mechanism that takes the new digitally distributed landscape into full account. GDC 2010 oldskool_2_6.jpg The problems: publishers give too much money for what should be smaller budgets. World of Goo's development costs were in the region of $120,000, Braid's at $180,000: if publishers are giving out $500,000-$1 million (presuming old model additional costs of manufacturing and maintaining inventory, working with retail, marketing), they're taking on too much risk and can never hope to make up that investment. "The machinery for triple-A retail games doesn't scale down," said Carmel -- it becomes inefficient and developers end up becoming tenant farmers. 2D Boy saw this inefficiency in effect first hand when they approached both Valve and Microsoft to distribute World of Goo on both Steam and Games for Windows Live. With Games for Windows, each step of the process had to go through each of the above behemoth's component sectors: they'd talk to a business development agent, which would then move up the chain to managers for approval before being passed to lawyers, more engineers, platform specialists, whereas at Steam, the business was handled by one person. GDC 2010 oldskool_2 9.017.jpg As a result, what took Valve and 2D Boy one day of legal work and four days of technical integration on Steam took two months of contract negotiations and an additional two months of technical work to prepare the game for launch. It's not an entirely fair comparison, Carmel added, with Games for Windows' inherited Xbox Live Arcade and retail business model and their newness on the scene -- Steam's "been around for years" and simply "figured out how to do this efficiently." Live Arcade is not the biggest console distribution platform by accident, he said, "it takes iterations to get things right." GDC 2010 oldskool_2_14.jpg But in this new landscape that's emerged with Steam leading the way to Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, Direct2Drive, Greenhouse, the developer and publisher equation has been upended, said Carmel: indies no longer need the traditional distribution channels publishers once provided, they simply need the funding. And so, Carmel said he and the consortium aimed to do for funding what Steam did for distribution. GDC 2010 oldskool_2 9.021.jpg And they'd do that with the Indie Fund, founded by 2D Boys Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler, Braid's Jon Blow, flOwer designer Kellee Santiago, Capy (Critter Crunch, Clash of Heroes) studio head Nathan Vella, Flashbang (Offroad Velociraptor Safari, Minotaur China Shop) co-founder Matthew Wegner and AppApove (Armadillo Gold Rush) head Aaron Isaksen. Their goals: to make the submission process shorter and more transparent, to make terms of funding deals publicly available ("Developers," said Carmel, "need to know when they're getting good or bad deals"), to maintain Steam's single point of contact and personal relationship, to allow development flexibility and experimentation, and to allow the developer both the full ownership of their intellectual property, and no editorial influence over their game ("If we provide funding, that's a vote of confidence in the team."). When an Indie Fund game ships, Carmel explained, "we recoup our costs first, and then for limited time get a revenue share from that game -- but that revenue share is going to be much smaller than what you'd get with a publisher." The first beneficiaries of the Indie Fund haven't yet been revealed, though Carmel promises we'll hear more soon -- keep checking their website to contact the team directly or to learn more.

Published 11:12 am Wed, Mar 10, 2010

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8 Responses to “GDC Gallery: How The Indie Fund Could Change Game Dev Destiny”

  1. elleomnom says:

    I had classes with Kellee Santiago back in the day when I was a few years behind her in the Interactive program at USC. A lot of my former classmates now run indie development companies and always struggle with financing because the market for indie games is still emerging.

    I’m glad these guys are pushing to streamline the funding process, as there’s definitely a strong future for indie games, especially the ones that think outside the box.

    The USC program, though relatively new, has been very successful in that regard, with highly experimental games like flOw and Cloud, and social issues games like Darfur is Dying, all winning heaps of awards and bringing legitimacy to game education. Academia finally acknowledging the game industry will definitely help small/student developers bring attention and funding to their work, especially if it doesn’t seem immediately commercial.

    USC does a fantastic job of showcasing student work, putting most completed games & demos online at http://interactive.usc.edu/projects/games/ for free and giving a lot of support to thesis projects. One thesis, actually, The Misadventures of Mr. P.B. Winterbottom, is on Live Arcade right now.

    /end USC pimping :)

  2. Hyouko says:

    This is pretty excellent news. I’m hoping to strike off on my own as an indy dev one day, and the existence of the Indie Fund means I might not have to bankroll everything out of my own pocket.

    (For the record: WPI’s Interactive Media and Game Development program grad here; we don’t have as many break-out hits as USC yet, but I’m hoping that will change, and the program itself was pretty darned good.)

  3. empress says:

    Being painfully aware of the biased clique of people involved I fear this is simply another platform for the those involved to achieve further exposure and income while picking and choosing developers they like.

  4. phillryu says:

    I think this idea is great overall, and agree there seems to be something of a vacuum in the funding area for indie games, that are relatively inexpensive but time intensive, and always a huge starting risk for the creators. And it’s awesome that we now have enough distribution channels in place where this is a totally feasible, and even attractive model vs. going with a giant publisher/retail. Plus, Ron Carmel and the other guys not only strike me as great game developers, but good people all around as well.

    Also it’s cool to hear his perspectives on the many smaller, online distribution options now available. We helped 2D Boy push World of Goo to tens of thousands of Mac users last year through the MacHeist 3 bundle. We are niche, but all of this, Steam, WiiWare, sales direct through their site, etc. etc. adds up, and it really has come to the point where it makes total sense to go digital distribution only for smaller/cheaper/indie games. (Vs. having only the option of retail for reaching any large/mainstream audience, and thus being stuck with things like an inflated price tag, etc.)

    One niggling question I have though is what happens if an Indie Fund game doesn’t recoup costs? The post kinda implies that they take everything until the costs are recouped, then the developer starts seeing large checks. I wonder if they count the indie developers’ time spent and living expenses while working ‘full time’ on the project through release as a part of the game’s costs.

    @empress I can see what you mean by calling them a clique, but if we’re going to name this clique it’s a ‘good indie games’ clique. I can only see this being a good thing for gamers in the end. It’s not like some game project this group might pass on due to personal tastes would’ve easily gotten funding elsewhere anyways.

    • Anonymous says:

      Quote:@empress I can see what you mean by calling them a clique, but if we’re going to name this clique it’s a ‘good indie games’ clique. I can only see this being a good thing for gamers in the end. It’s not like some game project this group might pass on due to personal tastes would’ve easily gotten funding elsewhere anyways.

      This is entirely subjective. Said games have been given a leg up by indie love in certain clique based communities. None of them are ambitious or complex. Many are easy to develop and some survive on retro love alone. This does not begin to include many ambitious highly technical ‘indie’ games that are ignored.

    • seaso says:

      @ phillryu
      Sorry, this is a second t e s t to reply again in PIMShell.

  5. seaso says:

    Sorry, this is a reply posted in PIMShell.

    —- @ phillryu —-
    || I think this idea is great overall, and agree there seems to be something of a vacuum in the funding area for indie games, that are relatively inexpensive but time intensive, and always a huge starting risk for the creators. And it’s awesome that we now have enough distribution channels in place where this is a totally feasible, and even attractive model vs. going with a giant publisher/retail. Plus, Ron Carmel and the other guys not only strike me as great game developers, but good people all around as well.
    || Also it’s cool to hear his perspectives on the many smaller, online distribution options now available. We helped 2D Boy push World of Goo to tens of thousands of Mac users last year through the MacHeist 3 bundle. We are niche, but all of this, Steam, WiiWare, sales direct through their site, etc. etc. adds up, and it really has come to the point where it makes total sense to go digital distribution only for smaller/cheaper/indie games. (Vs. having only the option of retail for reaching any large/mainstream audience, and thus being stuck with things like an inflated price tag, etc.)
    || One niggling question I have though is what happens if an Indie Fund game doesn’t recoup costs? The post kinda implies that they take everything until the costs are recouped, then the developer starts seeing large checks. I wonder if they count the indie developers’ time spent and living expenses while working ‘full time’ on the project through release as a part of the game’s costs.
    || @empress I can see what you mean by calling them a clique, but if we’re going to name this clique it’s a ‘good indie games’ clique. I can only see this being a good thing for gamers in the end. It’s not like some game project this group might pass on due to personal tastes would’ve easily gotten funding elsewhere anyways.

  6. hdon says:

    Another day, another bit of advertising-flavored journalism. In this case, however, it’s also a very effective piece, for jaded though I may be I am more interested in Steam after reading, and the Indie Fund sounds very tantalizing. However!-as a completely unknown and self-proclaimed indie game developer, I think this Indie Fund and the discussion of how the industry can accommodate the indie crowd is bit more nuanced than the “Indies and Publishers” slides have made of things seem. Let’s start with a very fundamental question..

    What’s defines indie gaming? I won’t tell you what it is, because there are probably at least some points we disagree on, but I’ll try to be as permissible as I can without letting go of all sense of distinction. Let’s agree that “indie gaming” isn’t the most commercially successful category of gaming product out there. This isn’t arbitrary or elitist. We just wouldn’t be calling it “indie” — we wouldn’t be calling it anything at all — if not to differentiate it from something. That something is the mainstream: there will always be that which targets a very broad audience, and one of the secondary audiences will always be a little more clever, subtle, and a little something *new*

    The criticism levied against the relationship between so-called “traditional” publishers and indie game developers is that tradition follows a playbook that is ineffective for indie games. This playbook isn’t arbitrary, it’s the result of decades of Darwinian selection, and it serves its purpose well, albeit often tastelessly: The greatest contiguous swath of gamer personality out there in the ether likes lots of things in their games. They like lots of items and slots and places and action, and they like to see it all in every combination you can put together, sometimes two or three times. This is converse to indie gaming, which is usually filled with more new ideas, and fewer but more diverse implementations of all the ideas the game has to offer.

    This means mainstream game development spends more time in content creation and less time in technology creation, which is pretty much the exact opposite for indies. Pursuit of perfection may be subject to a logarithmic tapering off of improvement over time, but for a long while shoring up the weakest link in a product log(TECHNOLOGY) x log(CONTENT) pays off more than adding more to your strong point. Carmel might be attributing this to “traditional software engineering practices” but I think you’ll find it’s common to a lot of industries. Now there are always those who have been sold a shrink-wrapped faux-indie product with a longer attention span and a two-dimensional concept of “new”, but I think everyone else probably refers to roughly the same crowd within IndustryFoo if they’ve ever uttered something like “IndieFoo.” This isn’t a coincidence, we know what indie is: Experimental artists never stop tweaking their instruments even up to the very last minute, and I think a little of what indie is exists because not everyone possesses the same sense for fun vs. repetition. The indie developer can have a rich and subtle dialogue with the player, and by that I don’t mean the story. A tendancy toward iterative revision as opposed to the “waterfall approach” is natural and is far from being specific to the indie game scene in particular.

    This odd habit of constantly revising your foundation is necessary for the indie scene to exist! Our variety of clever, innovative games tend to be pretty organic, and our answer to “What comes next?” is much less of “What fits inside our box?” and more a process of tapping into something innate and intuitive that requires really seeing and feeling what it’s like to play what comes before. This really isn’t very complex or counterintuitive: The more unusual something is to be, the more experimentation is likely to be needed.

    I’ll come back to this later. No segue. No apology.

    Allow me to make a very brave claim: A lot of people are being sold games with an indie sticker applied on its way off the conveyer belt.

    In a way it’s as much our blessing as it is our curse to have fewer resources. Where a group of people with a $10M art budget go with the look and texture of their game is probably always different from where a group of people with a $10K art budget go, and that alone tends to give us many distinct new appearances that most mainstream games won’t touch. I mean how many mainstream games have you seen at this point that feel like you can practically see the price tags on all the store-bought models and sound effects?

    Carmel thinks the budget is a big issue with indie gaming, and I as I already stated I believe necessarily indie gaming as a culture is going to make less money, but I don’t think the amount of money is actually what counts. The amount of money a game costs to make is going to be directly related to the form and structure of the organization that makes the game happen. You can’t put a whole team of content producers on hold while a feature redesign in the game engine is reconsidered, but a smaller teams and fewer investors makes such moves more conceivable: Small teams and individuals — real *independent* game developers — can work on many multiple concurrenct projects, and need not fret nearly as much over spending time on pure experimentation without hope to directly recoup resources. Indie developers can tear up the carpet to match the lamps, or remodel the floorplan to fit a grand piano. When you start adding money to this formula, you start to lose that freedom.

    Carmel says that at his new venture there is no editorial process, but also, “If we provide funding, that’s a vote of confidence in the team.” If you ask me this belies the true reality of indie gaming. This is institutional assistance, and it will struggle hard to stay really indie. There are always going to be high-tech low-content games born from thousands of unpaid hours of musing and experimentation by intelligent creative individuals with ADD that can never make up their true costs because the audience is too small. This is and always will be what indie is, with a few flukes here and there, but too much financial help is going to attract much more stable people with much more stable playbooks for creating games.

    I think the Indie Fund will probably result in a lot of great new products being created that wouldn’t otherwise have ever made it, but expect the target to drift. Just as in film and music, we’re eventually going to start seeing more mainstream games with one or two twists to break free of convention, or an obscure and accute sense of style inspired by purer indie product, and fewer of the abrupt, brilliant, almost manic experiences that many of us will always truly love, and are often produced by individuals who usually can’t sit still enough to be a safe investment.

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