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A look at barriers to entry in the game industry.

BY GRAHAM LEGGAT

A scene from Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath, published by Electronic Arts.

The annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) was held in San Francisco in March. It’s the industry’s get-together for itself — as opposed to E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, held in Los Angeles in May, which is its extravagant coming-out party for the media and the world at large. Since its inception in 1998 the GDC has been home to the Independent Games Festival (IGF), an event that is something like the gaming world’s version of the Sundance Film Festival. Founded to encourage independent game developers and showcase the best of their work, like Sundance it has also built some well-regarded careers along the way. (Interestingly, the industry also now has its own equivalent to Slamdance, the BAWLS Guarana Big C indie game competition, which was staged for the first time this year — a little too obviously — at Slamdance in Park City.)

The IGF doesn’t make a big deal of the comparison to Sundance, and it’s not untrue in general terms, but in reality the Sundance it resembles is not the buyers’-club extravaganza of the last 10 years but Park City before sex, lies and videotape and the American independent film boom. I don’t mean by this that the IGF is innocent, earnest and regional, like the early Sundance. I mean that it’s small and mousey and completely overshadowed by established mainstream product — and furthermore that its participants have, for the most part, but a slim chance of making an impact on the industry or the marketplace, and an even slimmer one of capturing a significant share of the public’s attention.

That doesn’t mean that IGF ’05–participant Alien Hominid can’t go from being a 2-D hit on Behemoth’s Web site to a cult console title; or that Activision didn’t tap former IGF entrant Vicarious Visions to port Spider-Man 2 to the Nintendo DS at launch. Nor does it mean that Big C winner Revolved won’t suck countless man-hours out of bored white-collar workers; or that New York City’s gameLab didn’t score three hits in the past year with online games Diner Dash, Subway Scramble and Fate: The Carnivàle Game — the latter a much-visited adjunct to HBO’s Manichean serial melodrama. But these modest indie game success stories are the exceptions. Overall, it must be said, the structural, technological and financial barriers to entry for independents are, in the vernacular: Extremely. Freaking. High.

I had a recent conversation about the plight of the indie game developer with Lorne Lanning, co-founder and creative director of Oddworld Inhabitants, since 1994 one of the industry’s most successful independent developers and maker of best-selling titles Abe’s Oddysee (1996), Abe’s Exxoddus (1998), Munch’s Oddysee (2001) and the new and well-received nutbag shooter Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath (2005). As a result of sticking resolutely to their creative guns, Lanning and partner Sherry McKenna have had to scale a number of these barriers hand over hand, and even now — from what most would consider a dizzying height, with numerous awards and millions in annual revenues and a studio film deal virtually in hand — they are still at times forced to do so.

A little background: In the early ’90s Lanning and McKenna were in the upper ranks at leading Hollywood CGI production house Rhythm & Hues, when Lanning figured that 3-D computer graphics, still then in rudimentary form, would be “the medium of the 21st century,” and persuaded McKenna to come along for the ride. In 1994 they put together several million in financing from wealthy investors and established Oddworld Inhabitants. Over the next several years, while making its first three games, the company was bought by GT Interactive, which was bought by Infogrames, which became Atari. Each set of owners had their own particular needs and demands. So it was with great satisfaction that in 2004, after years of trying, Lanning and McKenna bought Oddworld Inhabitants back and became, finally, wholly financially independent.

That was the good news.

Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath.

The bad news: around this same time Microsoft, which was planning to publish Oddworld Inhabitants’ next game, Stranger’s Wrath, began to have second thoughts and put the game into turnaround. But then mega-publisher Electronic Arts (EA) picked up the rights, provided finishing funds and announced it would publish Stranger’s Wrath as a multiplatform title, giving Oddworld Inhabitants a wider potential audience than it had ever had before. But when the conversion of what had started life as an Xbox exclusive proved too difficult to port to the Playstation2, EA made radical cuts in the marketing and advertising of the newly released game — a questionable tactic that embittered Lanning and threatened to smother the newborn in its crib. Happily, that didn’t happen. Stranger’s Wrath is a critics’ darling and, though not a blockbuster seller, is doing just fine. Oddworld’s relationship with EA, however, is pretty much history.

Thus, after 10 tough years of forging trails in a pioneering new medium, Oddworld Inhabitants is at a new beginning. It is an autonomous, private, independent-minded, self-owned company with no contractual obligations to any publisher or game platform. It has a hard-won independence not unlike that of Rick Linklater, for example, who over the past 15 years has made films within and outside the studios but throughout has steered his own course. In fact, the ups and downs of Oddworld’s corporate history are similar to the tribulations of several independent filmmakers. It would be wrong, however to think of indies in the game industry as being in the same boat as their counterparts in the film world.

I read Lanning a quote from the article “Dance Class” (Filmmaker, Winter ’05), about filmmakers in this year’s Sundance Film Festival, in which writer-director Richard Shepard (The Matador) raises the war cry of the independent filmmaker. “So I was broke again, and pissed, and I just wrote a movie for myself,” he says. “A movie that was outrageous and would never get bought. I was prepared to make it on my own. Raise a hundred grand or so, borrow a digital camera and film it in Mexico.”

It’s a strong and inspirational passage, an anthemic refrain in which are joined the ancestral voices of Kevin Smith and Steven Soderbergh and all those who have come after them, while faintly in the distance an El Mariachi band plays. Lanning appreciated the spirit. Then he took it apart.

“First,” he said, “you can’t make a console game with a small crew working for no money. And console games, not computer games, are what are driving the industry. To make a console game that will succeed at retail you need 40, 50 people or more, and some of them — the coders especially, the people who program the games — will get top dollar. You need people with very specific, very developed skills.

“Second, a film shoot might last six or eight weeks. But the development cycle for a game is at least a year, closer to 18 months, even two years. And that’s a time when everyone’s working at full throttle.

“You need equipment. A lot of it. High-end machines. Development stations. That doesn’t come cheap. And before you can get the game on one of the major platforms you need a licensing agreement with a console manufacturer, who also gets concept approval on the game. Those licensing fees are the way the manufacturers — Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft — make their money. It’s not from selling the hardware — they lose billions on their game systems. It’s from the cut they get on every game sold on their system [currently around $5–$7 per $45] [the early ’90s] a AAA game cost $300,000 to 700,000. In the 32-bit era [the mid-’90s] it cost $3–$5 million. On the current machines it costs, on average, about $5–$12 million. And on the next next-generation consoles [due within the next 18 months] it will cost about $15–$20 million. Since most video games fail, since most of them don’t make money, in the future there will be fewer original stories and gameS, fewer creative risks. You will see an independent collapse.”

And, he added, there’s no great benefit to making a game in Mexico.

At the moment the most accessible opportunistic outlet for independent gamemakers, notes Lanning, is the Web. (And, to a lesser degree, cell phones.) Filmmakers seduced and abandoned by spurious utopian visions of the Web as an indie distribution and exhibition nirvana will be understandably suspicious of, and perhaps nauseated by, this idea. But in fact the Web is a far better match with and conduit for games than films — for several reasons, including the facts that games thf fl tild the same extent that films are; and that the Web and games are, unlike film, interactive mediums.

There are already in action a number of proven online models, notably downloadable casual games, modding communities and subscription services such as persistent-world MMO-RPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games, like Everquest or Final Fantasy Online) and Valve Software’s Steam, which offers pay-for-play versions of leading PC franchise Half-Life 2. (And more than a few unproven models, including the dubious The Matrix Online, launched in late March.) As broadband penetration spreads, these forms will only become more prevalent. But for now the idea that the Web will spawn a revolution in independent game production and distribution is as unworkable as when, in the late ’90s, AtomFilms was imagined to be the next big thing in the film economy.

Making an independent film is far from easy, but a huge amount of trail has been broken over the last 15 years, as magazines like this demonstrate. Making an independent game, however, is still in large part an isolated practice mired in thankless obscurity.

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