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Indie publishing styles: The 'Hey, kid, take a ride on my bus' tactic


The week after E3's blockbuster bombardment from high-profile, mainstream publishers seems like a proper time to step back, take a breath and remember that for many indie developers, getting a game made has nothing to do with fog machines, loud on-stage demos or awkward celebrity banter.

Sometimes, indie publishing involves standing on a shady street corner in San Francisco until a bus pulls up and offers you a beer and a ride.

At least, that's how it worked out for Chris Pavia, a developer who recently quit his mainstream industry job to create indie titles under his own studio, Cube Roots. Pavia's first game, a puzzle RPG called Dungeon Hearts, got picked up by Devolver Digital during its Pitch Fork Parker project at GDC earlier this year.

Pitch Fork Parker had indie developers vie for a spot on Devolver Digital's bus, where they would ride around for a while and try to sell their indie games to the publisher. Pavia earned a spot on the bus with Dungeon Hearts' cohesive art style and character designs alone, and in the month before GDC he hired an animator, had his musician tweak the audio and spent all his time refining every detail he could in the first few minutes of the game.

Gallery: Dungeon Hearts | 4 Photos

"My secret to game development is that there's no problem that can't be solved by throwing more particle effects at it," Pavia told Joystiq. "By the end of the month it felt like a finished game, if you played just the first few minutes."

Once he got to GDC, Pavia passed around his iPad to other indie developers for a round of playtesting, and he received so much feedback that he skipped GDC the day before his meeting with Devolver to add as much as he could.

"The indie community is very open and approachable so I had no problem getting people to try it out, and in some cases I had trouble getting them to stop," Pavia said. "Having Terry Cavanagh and Rami Ismail play the game was one of the highlights of the conference for me."

Pavia described the day of his meeting as a heart-pounding experience, and not just because of the pitch:

"Eventually I found myself standing on a corner in one of the more seedy parts of downtown San Francisco," Pavia recounted. "I guess there were issues with parking the bus near the convention center so they changed the pickup spot at the last minute. I figured if I got shot and/or mugged I could at least get the sympathy vote.

"My heart was pounding when I got on the bus -- partly because I survived the wait -- but it didn't take long for that to subside. The Tecate certainly helped but so did the atmosphere; everyone was very friendly and casual. I got the impression that this was a bunch of guys who'd been in the industry before there was much of a 'corporate culture' and weren't interested in being like that. I was excited that they were more interested in hearing about the game and my influences instead of monetization strategies and revenue shares.

"I demoed the game for a bit, then handed the iPad off to them to play while they inquired about what kind of support I was looking for. We stopped at the top of a hill overlooking the city to take in the view for a bit, then headed back to the convention center."

As smooth as it sounds like his meeting went, Pavia said he didn't expect to hear back from Devolver so soon, if at all. He was a one-man team with spotty contract help, working a job outside the industry to support himself and his occasional hires, and he assumed there were bigger studios pitching titles to outshine his "little puzzle game."

"There was an art jam at a nearby Denny's I was on my way to when I got the call. I thought it was going to be a courtesy 'thank you for your time' call, so it didn't register for a bit that they were telling me they were going to publish my game," Pavia said.

Indie publishing styles The 'Hey, kid, take a ride on my bus' tactic"I had recently left my job as a game designer at a large studio so that I could work on my own projects without it being a conflict of interest or the company owning the rights to everything I created. I had to get a job outside the industry to pay bills and the people who were working with me, so I had been doubting my decision. After getting the call though, my doubts were replaced with excitement and motivation."

Dungeon Hearts is currently in production for PC, Mac and iPad, with the potential of hitting Android and smaller-touchscreen devices in the future. Devolver is letting Pavia "drive the bus" on his original game vision, mostly providing marketing and financial support, and leaving the development to Cube Roots alone.

As for indie publishing strategies involving fewer wheels, Pavia has a bit of insight from his own experience with Devolver, and from his previous, mainstream work.

"Since Dungeon Hearts is my first indie game I'm certainly not an authority on the best way to get a publishing deal, but having worked at a publisher I can tell you that they are always looking at what's out there," he said. "I think the key to getting noticed is to have both inspired gameplay and a polished visual aesthetic. You'd be surprised how many games have only one or the other."

You'd also be surprised how many games get picked up over a round of beers in a mobile meeting room, we think. Cheers.

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