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SXSW 2009: Being Indie and Successful in the Video Game Industry

Kevin Kelly

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There's a wealth of indie-related gaming panels and goings on at SXSW this year, ranging from the previous "Games By The People, For The People" panel, the GameSalad folks, and the retro-cool Get Outta My Face arcade cabinet. Heck, there's even a company that wants to bring back Hypercard stack games. So we went back for more indie gaming panel goodness, just because we could.

This was a panel by the game developers this time, rather than the people who run the companies ... so what did we learn? A lot of the same from the previous panel. Sadly Jonathan Blow couldn't make it, and was replaced by the above inflatable doll with the Freddie Mercury mug. Although covering his absence nicely were panelists Kellee Santiago from thatgamecompany, John Baez of The Behemoth, Ron Carmel of 2D BOY, and Joel DeYoung from Hothead Games who moderated. Check out the highlights after the break.

While the indie games model might be attractive to many for the fun factor, John Baez remarked that the best part about it was "Not being told what to do." He also brought up film finance as a model for indie games, likening indie games to indie movies. Kellee Santiago pointed out that it's important for indie companies to be financially independent, pointing out that her own company has a deal with Sony, but they don't rely on Sony for their entire revenue stream.

Additionally, Baez and Ron Carmel both pointed out that it's fairly hard work designing games, and Santiago agreed, "If it was easy, everyone would be doing it!" Although sometimes these days, it feels like everyone is doing it. Both Baez and Carmel talked about the long hours they tend to work, even though they are both their own bosses. Everyone also agreed that it's important to keep a small, lean team if you want to be able to still function as indie.

Some companies understand the value in this, but it's also a dangerous concept for larger organizations. When a small team realizes they're able to create something good that gets published by an enormous company like EA, they could leave and strike out on their own. EA itself had developed Henry Hatsworth at their Tiburon studios, but their fledgling Casual Entertainment division closed after a little less than a year.

Ron Carmel stood out as one of the most interesting people on the panel, since we're catching him right on the tail end of the World of Goo success, and he remarked that being indie really means putting an emphasis on design over finance. "In larger companies, they look at features they can cut in order to get a game to ship on time, vs. smaller companies who look at the game they want to make, and what features they decide have to be in it, and then they decide when their shipping date would be.

He'd previously been working at Electronic Arts making small web games, and working off of a design document that allowed for creative steering of "about 1 degree in each direction." Once the technical issues were solved, it was a boring process to work on the rest of the game. Which is entirely different from his experience of working at 2D BOY where they don't work off of a document, and could decide to completely change the game just a few weeks before it shipped.

Carmel also had an interesting comment about DRM, "You know, with DRM you're not really preventing piracy, it doesn't work. We all know that, but for some reason some of us don't internalize that concept." Since they didn't have a publisher or a large team they needed to discuss it with, they released their game without any DRM. "The video game public is used to playing their games online, so unlike the music industry and the movie industry, those users are more willing to approach digital distribution, including paying the publisher directly, and I think that will drive indie games."

In conclusion, there wasn't a lot of nuts and bolts advice about how to just hit the ground running and "bang" be successful and indie, but Baez and Carmel both told one student at the Q&A who had been approached by an agent to be extremely wary, and to consider working without one. Their best advice was to find yourself a really good lawyer.

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