Independent Games Take Flight

LOS ANGELES -- Not all attention-drawing games are produced or distributed by the big, marquee developers. IndieCade, an organization dedicated to showcasing and promoting independent gamemakers, offers evidence with its display of independent games at the E for All Expo here this weekend. This event comes just one week before IndieCade's first juried games festival in Bellevue, Washington, where dozens of independents will show their stuff.

Sam Roberts, director of IndieCade's games festival, says the event is designed to raise the profile of independent game developers, in the same way that film festivals or music festivals can for other creative artists. The festival will be judged by game designers, game reviewers, and educators.

"Our mission is to support independent game developers and their games, and bring the games to an audience that may be interested in them, but unaware of them," Roberts explains.

Example for Indies

But will independent games follow a path as their creative cousins in music? "The biggest things that have helped independent music reach past the record companies and reach audiences directly are independent radio and digital distribution, [both] through the Internet," Roberts says. "There's no need to make a physical piece of media; you can put your music up on a MySpace page, and there's no barrier to putting your content out there. Services that are comparable, like cdbaby.com, don't need anything, either, so there's no barrier to entry" and to getting music out there.

However, "just being able to sell your music on the Internet won't get you there on its own. Music awareness is developed through Internet radio, MySpace pages, and through social networking. That's how people hear about music," Roberts adds. And in that regard, the situation parallels that of independent games. "Anyone in the game space can sell their content on the Internet, but unless you're on a major casual games portal, or through one of the major consoles' download services," independently produced games just aren't visible to public at large.

The ability to hear about independent games is starting to catch up to the ability to distribute them. Sites like aggregator Jayisgames.com, tigsource.com, and social networking site kongregate.com are helping to get the word out. But there's still no real dedicated sales channel for independent game makers; many of these sites just point to independent game makers' own sites, where the game may be available for download free or for a fee.

Independent developer Lars A. Doucet has had some success financing his game, Super Energy Apocalypse, about America's energy policies (and zombies), using embedded Flash ads from Mochi. Because ads are part of the game, Doucet doesn't even mind when his game is copied illegally because it's being spread around, ads included.

"It's nice to have some kind of income from this, as opposed to working on it for just blood and sweat," says Doucet, who used to work for a traditional game developer.

Hardware Adds a Challenge

Selling online is a bigger challenge for Eddo Stern, whose two-player Darkgame, based around sensory deprivation, involves use of a headset that "allows the player to feel where the other entities are in the game, so blind people can play too." He expects to be able to sell the headpiece and game bundled for US$30, for both the Xbox and PCs.

All three console-makers are enabling smaller firms and individuals--as well as the big names--to produce and distribute games for their systems more easily, Stern says. He takes that as the vendors' recognition that people want games outside the normal fighting and shooting or sci-fi games.

"To sell any type of product, you need a store," Roberts says. "Independent games have not been in a position to create demand. We're not seeing aggregators that specifically serve the indie community. And that's because the audience is not that large--yet." In other words, few users classify themselves as "indie" or alternative game fans, as you'd hear among music and film aficionados.

Stern suggests the parallel to indie music is not a complete one: "It's not that easy to make a game," says the Dark Game designer. "It requires a lot of different skill sets."

But the indie developers are becoming more visible; others expected at IndieCade include Off-Road Velociraptor Safari by Flashbang Studios; Room: The Main Building by Hand Made Games of Korea; Bumper Stars by Large Animal Games; and Jo Jo's Fashion Show by Gamet.ab.

A Mobile Assist

The wildcard that could help change indie games' visibility: The explosive growth of mobile gaming. Apple's iTunes App store currently makes it easy for indie game makers to distribute their creations. (Google's Android platform will likely do the same when it launches later this month.)

Roberts agrees. "The iTunes App Store will become an aggregator for gaming content. The iPhone is too good a platform for that not to happen. And just because of the economics, it's going to be smaller companies. Portable platforms have had more indie style content [for years]. But portable platforms have never had installed bases as large as now--10 million for Nintendo DS, and iPhone/iPod Touch will be there, too. That creates a large audience for these products."

Big name gaming isn't going to go away anytime soon: That's how the mainstream gaming content will be funded and marketed. However, as game makers become more savvy--and audiences become more aware of alternatives to the big-ticket items, you may yet see more game makers aggressively marketing and promoting their own content, much like musicians do today.

"Film and music are reliant on indie artists injecting new ideas, new content, and new artists. Games aren't there--yet, not on the scale of independent music and independent film. But, you'll see large developers becoming more reliant and accepting of these ecosystems. As gaming becomes more respectable, there are people willing to try out more games, ones that move outside [the usual] boundaries. And as audiences becomes more aware, we will develop an audience that's looking for independent games."

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