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Indie videogames are going big, some voices from Italy

“it’s not just a game, I’m so closely attached to it and this is my identity. It’s Fez. I’m the guy who makes Fez.”

These are the words of one of the main characters of the Sundance-Festival-acclaimed documentary Indie Game, describing his relationship with his job, or better say, his mission. The two filmmakers (but also authors, producers, distributors), after to rounds of Kickstarter, went through 300 hours of shooting distilling the stoires of some indie videogamers in the effort of having a dream come true: release their game at the risk of sacrificing their money, health and mental balance.

The movie explores joys and sorrows of indie videogames creators, and their world mad of events, competitions, online and offline discussions, around the production of interactive games, developed by one person or by tiny teams without any economical support but with total control on creativity. Even if there’s no strict definition of what “indie” means, the indie scene is expanding since the beginning of the century, fostered by the development of tools allowing to easily create and distribute videogames without the support of any production house.

In the meanwhile in Europe something is happening too. To better understand the situation, I visited the italian event taking place in Milan last october, Playing the game. I wanted to interview some of them from different background and age. I started talking with 10-year-experienced Michele Caletti, aka Fledermaus, Milestone game director since 2003, and creator of game The WasteLand, very vintage and nostalgic at times. Then I met the enterprising team of Benjamin Ficus (http://thebenjaminficusproduction.blogspot.it/) releasing 4 games since 2009 (http://tinyurl.com/byzwr73 ). The last one Doom&Destiny is an immersive roleplay game, received good reviews and is available also on Xbox LIVE Indie Games. Finally meeting the very young team of The Sand Game, a shared dream with a sleek graphic image and a collaborative path to nurture.

Every question I asked them I also sent it to Pittsburgh, where Paolo Pedercini, creator of Molleindustria (http://www.molleindustria.org/) – “Radical games against the tyranny of entertainment” – has been living for a while. Since 2000 he’s been using videogames as a tool to explore some controversial issues of our society, showing them to us from a different perspective. From Queer Power, to Operation: Pedopriest and arriving to the lates Unmanned, his games  have the ability to multiply perspectives and make us experience first hand the complexity of social contexts often overly simplified and flattened by mainstream media. In his games no longer exists black and white. Shades of gray reveal a focused and critical sensibility on reality, allowing him to capture before the other dynamics at stake even in the international scene of the Indie gaming.

Zoe Romano: Small team, low budget and total creative control. Is this the recipe of the indie gaming scene? Or is there more?

Molleindustria: There is that, and there is a certain attitude that functions as collective branding: “indie” is not simply defining the size of the operation but also an appetite for experimentation and creative risk taking. It also points to an international community; you can see the indie gaming “thing” as a loose network of creators in constant dialog, people supporting and inspiring each other.

On an organizational level, low budgets typically translate to an obsessive attention to low “burn rates” (negative cash flow). For a while there has been this idea that in order to start a game company – big or small – you have to have an idea, then find money, get an office, get the equipment, hire employees and so on. Indies typically work from home on projects that rarely involve more than two people. Other collaborators producing music or graphics or some specialized programming may join in later phases, but in order to make a working prototype you don’t really need a big team. The development process is generally iterative, with strong feedback from the community. Indies typically release early and often, creating proofs of concepts during brief game “jams” or as side projects. Sometimes these embryonic experiments become relatively successful and are expanded into larger commercial projects.

Michele Caletti: Well, yes, but  why so many clones of classic games made by independents? Looks like a curse, once free from the industry standards, they just repeat the same clicheé. I’m just being provocative, evidently an indie needs the most important thing, that is having something to say, and willing to express it. Not everybody does so. Like with music, everybody played in a band (ok, almost everybody..) but how many it’s worth to listen?.

Benjamin Ficus: These are undoubtedly all significant elements defining “Indie”, if I must choose one of the most important ones among them, I would say that users mainly appreciate creative control. However, we don’t have to ignore the problem of budget which plays a double role in an Indie product: if on one hand it can limit the game originality (due to a lack of money to invest in technologies and staff); on the other it can push developers into creating something more well-finished by using few tools and into creatively moving around problems.

The Sand Game: A very important ingredient missing in this process is passion together with a pinch of “economic humility”, without that you can’t develop a successful game. We also consider a good pre-production step together with different concepts and previews very important.

Zoe Romano: Smartphones and tablets allow bypassing classic gaming platform, creating a sort of long tail of videogame. Are we entering a real golden age of gaming?

Molleindustria: If you check the mobile app sale data, you’ll figure out that there’s no real long tail: the vast majority of mobile apps are not profitable and the only way to succeed is usually to get featured in some prominent space of the digital store and then snowballing up to the top 100 lists. The top 20% game makers split about 97% of the app market, with 80% of developers splitting a mere 3% of the revenues. As far as I know niche markets are not sustainable and it’s almost impossible to discover new titles in the same way you may stumble upon products on eBay, Amazon or Netflix.

This very long, very thin tail definitely works for platform owners like Apple which gets 30% of each sale with no entrepreneurial risk, plus the developer’s yearly subscription and an additional profit from controlling the development tools. The situation is not too different in other non-traditional and indie-inclusive platforms like Steam, Xbox live, PSN or even Facebook, although they are responsible for the commercial success of some bigger indie games.

Digital delivery and independent development go hand in hand, but if we are really entering a Golden Age of gaming, this is happening despite, not because of, the centralized distribution platforms for tablets and smartphones.

Michele Caletti: Looked like so until a couple of years ago, maybe. Today the golden age is fading, and it didn’t last enough. Majors are getting a grip on iOS, and the steady hardware growth in terms of sheer graphics power will make the next generation iPad look like a PS3, or close. So, some serious money will be needed to create quality titles, or.. even smarter ideas. Also, free to play is a powerful but threatening tool: it creates good revenues only with a huge installed base, and only very good titles can earn it. Small independents may be left out of it. I strongly hope this won’t happen, and that the market will rebalance itself in a positive way for small developers.

Benjamin Ficus: I would talk about the golden age of hardware rather then the one of videogames, because through them Google and Apple get a higher value from their hardware products in an extremely economic way. We mustn’t forget that the same players spending 750 Euros for a Smartphone turn their nose up at paying 1 euro for a game.

The Sand Game: From a certain point of view it’s true what you’re saying, because due to the great diffusion of mobile tools – thanks to more affordable prices – which can heavier apps support, videogames market has encompassed also tablets and smartphones. But on the other hand it’s not so true, because we aren’t going to enter in a out-and-out videogames golden age, but we are simply talking about the huge growth of state of the art tablets and smartphones diffusion. Smartphones have indirectly directed developers’ attention to that field, where thousands of people has dealt with the creation of videogames for mobiles. According to me, traditional consoles will never been bypassed by smartphones or tablets, but rather they will become obsolete when new technologies will be available for sale. 

 

Zoe Romano:  Are 1000 fan enough, like in music, to support a team of indie developers in becoming economically sustainable?

Molleindustria: I suspect in gaming the ratio would be closer to 10.000 true fans willing to spend about $10 a year for each developer.

Michele Caletti: Hardly so because.. it never worked even for music! Yes, there are very nice examples of crowdfunding, i think of Amanda Palmer, for example, but you still have to make some serious numbers. Luckily there’s a way to do so, but expect some hard work and a strong identity to succeed.

Benjamin Ficus: One thousand fans are a remarkable goal within the field of independent games, but we aren’t sure that it’s enough. I think that 1.000 fans for each team member will be a much more reasonable number.

The Sand Game: The project we’re undertaking boasts a team made up of many people, thus, from an objective point of view, 1.000 fans won’t be enough. However, 1.000 fans don’t make us economically sustainable, but allow us to develop the project by aiming at a greater quality and by investing in other fields, for example dubbing or screenplay, etc.

Zoe Romano:  How are the majors reacting to these new scenary?

Molleindustria: Majors like Electronic Arts are being bled to death, not by the a bunch of indies and their quirky titles, but by the shift to mobile and social gaming. There are speculations that big budget games will become dinosaurs [http://www.computerandvideogames.com/366637/assassins-creed-3-the-last-of-the-triple-a-dinosaurs/] and the console market as we know it will turn into a kind of hobbyist niche. As we speak, in late 2012, the industry is changing quickly, with companies like Zynga rising and falling overnight, hardware going all over the place and failing hard (Playstation Vita, Wii U) and tectonic shifts like the lockdown of Windows 8 that is already alienating major publishers [http://www.zdnet.com/valve-windows-8-is-a-catastrophe-for-pcs-7000001634/]. So to be honest, I have no idea.

In my talk “Toward Independence” [http://www.molleindustria.org/blog/toward-independence-indiecade-2012-microtalk/] I tried describe how corporate entities (seen from far away as a techno-social whole) are restructuring themselves to harness the diffused creativity of independent game makers rather than competing, co-opting their styles, or absorbing them. This trend complicates the status of independence as new form of dependence are emerging.

Michele Caletti: This moment for the majors is quite complex. On one hand, the old-gen/next-gen transition is breaking havoc: I hear that new IPs on old consoles won’t succeed, but then Dishonored shows the opposite, and everybody’s waiting for The Last of Us. On the other, the financial crisis is pushing some bigs on the Humble Bundle way, like THQ. On the iOS and Adroid side, i’m expecting a real growth of the majors: they’ve got plenty of famous franchises to port, and strong marketing structures.

Benjamin Ficus: Depending on the market we can have different reactions: as far as consoles concern majors are still churning excellent products out that, from a quality point of view, are for small teams out of reach, but, however, with a special care gameplay innovative mechanics (wii u, move, kinect); even if they often show that they aren’t able to be original.

On the contrary, as far as mobiles concern, majors are less creative, they hire development teams in order to supply multimedia to their leading brands, if once they created interactive websites, now they promote their products by using economic apps and often (but not always) acceptable form a quality point of view. The main problem is that they aren’t brave enough.

The Sand Game: Majors base on what is more marketable by recovering old ideas because they’re sure to make profit, this is the case for example of a famous fps that in the last chapters has the same solutions by simply changing a little bit its maps and the aesthetic of weapons; however, not all majors have the same approach, some of them are in fact launching on the market new games based on the continuation of the previous one, but by introducing novelties and sharp changes inside them.

Zoe Romano: Beside having a great game concept, what are the other important ingredients to count the the world of indie?

Molleindustria: Participating to the various events, festivals, jams that are essentially defining the “scene” I was just talking about.

Michele Caletti: Like for musicians, you need something to stand out, to emerge. Someone said to Chuck Berry: “You’re good, but you need something to be noticed for”. He invented the famous “Duck Walk”. That’s it, you need something that makes you recognizable, there are so many titles, and if you don’t hit with the first screenshot, the first five seconds od a trailer. You can achieve it with graphics, an innovative gameplay, but you have to stand out.

Benjamin Ficus: Although we’re talking about “games”, competition is cutthroat mainly because of the great number of products, even of high quality, which are launched on the market every day. Advertisement thus plays a very important role, but it’s also an expensive activity (both from an economic and from a time point of view). It’s essential that people talk about your product, but it’s not easy. An excellent product is something concrete to start from, but one need some very useful tricks as for example surprise and intrigue users. It’s quite necessary to create a strong fan community (positive feedback makes good impression and cheer up) and it also helps to get feedback about your own products.

The Sand Game: Our formula to stand out in a Indie scene is to show “what’s behind” through all the pre-production process, better known as art work (animated shorts introducing the story etc…). Then, beyond creating a good game or not, it’s necessary to focus more on the dynamics of the script and devise how to better entertain the video player.

Zoe Romano: How new generations see this scene? is it more like a starting point to enter the fab world of majors, or is it more a lifestyle choice? 

Molleindustria: I’m sure for many young game makers, especially the ones graduating from game-oriented programs mushrooming all over, the label “independent” is more dignifying than “unemployed”. But I think there is the idea that, considering the messy situation of the industry I outlined above, doing your own thing may be the smartest choice career-wise. Most of the indies who had commercial success in the past years are now working on their second or maybe third major project so it’s still too early to see if it’s a sustainable lifestyle.

Michele Caletti: As a “pro” developer i think i can call myself a veteran, after 10 years in the industry, while as an independent, well, I’ve just started to look around, mostly for fun. These two worlds should talk to each other much more, working in a big software house makes you understand roles, jobs, all that’s behind a complex title. You know amazing people with real experience you can learn from. As an indie it’s mostly a self teaching affair, instead.

Independents have an amazing will to emerge, and push for their titles as strong as they can. The downside of being a pro is that a “game” can easily turn into a mere “product”, while as an indie the risk is to make all the possible mistakes before getting it right on your own. Passing from one side to the other is not so common, probably. Independents are proudly so, and appreciate full control over their work. Working for a big software house, instead, means being listed for a AAA title, maybe for a little role, but a great thing nonetheless.

Benjamin Ficus: We don’t consider majors neither as a target to aim at, nor as a model to avoid. Our nickname “Indie” comes from the absence of a successful publisher, but not for this we are looking for this kind of role. Modern tools allow us to quite easily create and publicize our games and for now we want to take this road alone, even only to give greater room to our creativity, without having to answer to an intransigent boss. However, for out of this world payment we’re willing to sell our soul to the majors.

The Sand Game: We consider the Indie scene as an opportunity to show our skills and be satisfied when our creation is appreciated.

Zoe Romano: What kind of input are crowdfunding platforms bringing in this context?

Molleindustria: Crowfunding is working ridiculously well for games. As we know, you need an established reputation to run a successful Kickstarter campaign so it’s not really opening doors to new creators, rather, it’s allowing known people to break free of their publishers. Following the example of Double Fine, which collected an unprecedented amount of money [http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/doublefine/double-fine-adventure] to bring back a niche genre, dozens of game industry veterans are trying to crowdfound remakes of their old games.

More in general, I think systems like Kickstarter are destined to have a considerable impact in our attention economy. Crowfunding flips the traditional production – marketing relationship. You have to promote your product before making it. On one hand, this is great because you don’t have to look for capitalists in search of financial gain and you reduce the risk of producing things that have no demand. On the other hand, it means that all the promotion for wanted or unwanted, possible or impossible products, has to happen ahead of time. As I see my twitter feed and mailbox filling with Kickstarter-related information, I wonder whether or not this model can really be generalized and scale to the point of challenging financial powers.

Michele Caletti: Crowdfunding is powerful, and if you don’t succeed, it’s simple: you didn’t impress. Lately some famous faces are being spotted on Kickstarter, people who may not even need it. But it’s a flag of independency, and a way to strongly establish a connection with your audience. The Waste Land on Kickstarter? Why not, I really appreciate that, unlike digital delivery systems, it’s stimulating the creation of wild limited editions with goodies, gadgets.. It’s a rediscover of the physical aspect of owing a copy of a game, to collect it.

Benjamin Ficus: Since we’ve never tested them and we don’t know anybody who did it, we don’t have a particular opinion about crowdfunding. However, something impressed us: people talk a lot about it, but (maybe because we ignore something) nobody is benefitting from it except for the same crowdfunding bodies. Maybe if we had much more information and security, we could think to trust these platforms, anyway, we’re operating by using self founded now.

The Sand Game: I would say they’re very important because beyond investing money on your project, they enable you to let your brand know and to spread your product to a wider community of video-players or not. Now we’ve some crowdfound platforms in mind, we’re only waiting for perfectly wrapping our product in order to publicize it and make it competitive.

Zoe Romano: Freeware or Shareware? What’s the favorite approach of indies?

Molleindustria: Freeware is still very common among the most underground/DIY game makers – see this blog http://www.freeindiegam.es/ – together with online gaming partially supported by advertising. Apparently, the only way to make a living on smartphones is through in-game sales, a model that some indies are unfortunately adopting.

The most successful approach for commercial developers is definitely the “pay what you want” model pioneered by Radiohead. In gaming it has be popularized by the Humble Indie Bundle initiative. A “bundle” is a limited time offer of a selection of games (sometimes curated around a theme, company or genre) coupled with a fundraiser benefiting some selected charities. The games are typically high-quality DRM-free and available for PC, Mac and Linux (Mac and Linux users tend to pay way more than PC users).

Through a slick interface a purchaser can decide how much to pay and how the sum will be distributed between developers and charities. It’s an ingenious model because it’s more convenient than piracy and it exerts a certain moral pressure on the purchaser: the creators themselves are willing to potentially give all their revenues to the Red Cross or the Electronic Frontier Foundation, how can you cheap gamer decide to pay $0?

This establishes a different relationship with the customer, creators get less profit per copy but more volume. The model has been so popular that it has been successfully applied to music and ebook bundles as well. By acting like this you can establish a different relationship with potential clients: creators get less profit for each copy sold, but at the same time they sell more copies. This pattern has become so popular that it has been adopted even in the music and ebook sectors…

Michele Caletti: I repeat, this business model is at a turning point, in my opinion. Freemium needs a huge installed base to make some profit. Regrettably, this somehow false freeness is killing the market, negating actual value, beyond price. If a game is free, another one priced fifty cents can be defined “costly”! The real critical resource is going to be time, and monetary value on games, on some channels has lost any meaning. Time to play is limited, instead.

Benjamin Ficus: I’ve no idea, both systems surely have their ultimate field to be applied: freeware is good for amateurs who have other incomes, but for an office advertising revenues are often unimportant and thus, it’s wiser to choose a much conservative shareware model which gives you a concrete economic upturn even if you sell very little copies. In this context a freeware approach makes sense only if it deals with experimenting new platforms or making viral advertising.

The Sand Game: Shareware is good for small teams, because work time is middle-long and week hours can be many; I consider the economic reward as a counter of popularity and of the game appreciativeness, beyond the fact that it could be a good reason for keeping on developing others.

Zoe Romano: And in Italy, what’s going on?

Molleindustria: I think you should ask this question to the Santa Ragione guys (http://www.santaragione.com/)

Michele Caletti: Hard to believe, but there’s life in Italy! We’re way back UK and Germany, or even France or nordic countries. Unluckily it all boils down to a lack of instruction. Something’s moving, but videogames aren’t perceived as “art”, nor as a proper industry.

Benjamin Ficus: I’ve the feeling that abroad, not only in the USA, developing videogames is an out-and-out job, consequently, it’s easier to find partners and people able to work in this sector. In Italy there’s still too skepticism and even people working in this field are reluctant towards others. There’s little communication and maybe a kind of – all-Italian – worry to be stolen from our own ideas and thus one prefers to work alone. In this sector where it’s very difficult to emerge and “survive” and where the competence needed encompasses various fields, partnership is essential. Maybe we need a deeper awareness and competence. It’s obvious that it’s better to share an idea with running the risk of be stolen from it, rather than one hidden in the drawer till its death..

The Sand Game: The number of citizens in the USA is fourfold bigger than ours and this can help their indie-videogames world to spread wider, therefore the offered and “sold” realities can be higher; anyway, even if they’re a lot of people and their ideas aren’t good, it follows that nothing changes and that at this point better fewer but better.

Zoe Romano: 2Dboy, Osmos, which creators are you suggesting to follow?

Molleindustria: The easiest way is to keep an eye on the Independent Game Festival and Indiecade.

Michele Caletti: I didn’t even know them, I had to google search them both! It’s another nice thing of the indie scene, it’s so wide that there’s no absolute reference point. A personal one , for example, is Nifflas, who makes really amazing games all on his own, I mean graphics, music, programming.

Benjamin Ficus: Francesco: It’s hard for me to say a name of a source of inspiration. Maybe it’s easier to find a goal to aim at, which, in my opinion, is to amuse, entertain and captivate players. I recall the games of my childhood and also the hundreds of hours spent steeped in amazing adventures, heroic missions and challenges with friends, thus I hope to be able to recreate those memories in my public, on condition that they will pay for my game. On the contrary, I wish web pirates bad luck.

Matteo: I don’t have particular idols or examples to follow, but I particularly appreciate modern gaming pioneers such as Westwood, Blizzard, Infogrames and IdSoftware. I respect whoever hold gameplay as cornerstone of development, above all in a period in which it was objectively easier to sell a poor quality product to inexperienced users by simply wrapping it with a captivating package.

The Sand Game: Our inspiring personalities are among the most common majors’ games. With reference point I mean comparison like for example: “Let’s see how they solved this problem”, in this way we can understand the perspective of how reflect on what we’re doing by separately dealing with the solution found by the latter. For example, we are inspired by a videogame like Dishonored.

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