Indie developers no longer on the outside at gaming expos

Associated PressMarch 27, 2014 

Games Indie Attention

A gamer played Thralled in the Ouya booth at the Game Developers Conference 2014 in San Francisco.

JEFF CHIU — AP

SAN FRANCISCO — They do it inside their hotel rooms. Or in front of everyone across a cavernous convention hall. They even try it out on street corners. In almost every spot imaginable at last week's Game Developers Conference, there were indie game makers touting their latest creations in the hope of becoming the next Minecraft or Gone Home.

The biggest challenge facing the growing number of independent video game creators — those risk-taking tinkerers who self-publish their own quirky titles — isn't making, distributing or even financing their creative visions. It's persuading people to buy their games.

"There's just something about human interaction," said Chris McQuinn, a designer at Toronto-based indie developer DrinkBox Studios. "The ultimate goal is to meet someone who might champion your game — a fan who will go off and tell their friends about it. There's no more powerful message about a game than when it comes from a fan."

McQuinn attributed much of the success of DrinkBox's zany Mexican-themed platformer Guacamelee! to the gamers whom the studio befriended at various gatherings, including GDC and the fan-focused Penny Arcade Expo. It's one of several grass-roots tactics that indie game makers are employing to stir up hype.

The majority of developers at GDC, the largest annual gathering of the gaming industry in the United States outside of the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, now classify themselves as indie. In a poll conducted by GDC organizers of 2,600 attendees at last year's show, 64 percent said they were self-publishing their current projects.

Advancements including crowd-funding, easier-to-use development tools and digital distribution services have made way for a swarm of indie creators crafting content mostly for PCs and mobile devices. However, there are only so many flowers to pollenate. For every hit like Journey, there are dozens of games that don't get any buzz.

Despite the rise of self-publishing, most indies lack the marketing budgets and promotional prowess that Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard and other big-time publishers use to hype such expensive-to-produce titles as Titanfall and Call of Duty. Instead, indies typically rely on word of mouth to persuade gamers to download.

Over the past five years, it has worked in many cases — and the industry at large has taken notice.

"Making sure that a game can get discovered is the new challenge in game development," said Chris Charla, director at ID@Xbox, a program that Microsoft recently launched to attract developers to independently publish games for its Xbox One console. "We've already solved a lot of problems in terms of creating games and distributing games."

After making it easier to fashion games for their latest hardware, the industry's three major console makers — Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo — sought to draw indie developers to this year's GDC with dedicated talks and events. The message is clear: They don't want indies only on PCs and smartphones.

Nintendo Co. and Sony Corp. angled for indie developers' attention by hosting talks and dedicating significant square footage to indies at their GDC booths inside the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Microsoft Corp. showcased the 25 inaugural games from ID@Xbox at an off-site loft space. DrinkBox's Guacamelee! was among the titles on display.

"One of the things we're really proud of at Xbox One is that all of the games are sold in the same marketplace," Charla said. "Any of the games in this room are going to be in the same place as Titanfall on the Xbox games store. We've also got things like Upload Studio and Twitch streaming, which are really viral ways of discovering games."

Ultimately, an indie's success comes down to the same question for all forms of entertainment: Is it any good?

"It's tough," said Jun Iwasaki, president of Puzzle & Dragons publisher GungHo Online Entertainment America Inc., who was meeting with prospective developers at the nearby Game Connection conference. "The most important thing is the first 10 minutes of a game. If I want to keep playing, those are the games I want to work on."

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