I’m sure you’ve all seen the Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 trailer by now. It looks like Treyarch is taking the semi-grounded conspiracy theory of the original and dialing it up to 11. It actually reminds me a lot of the transition from CoD4 to Modern Warfare 2. More importantly, this marks the eighth annual Call of Duty game Activision has published since 2005. The money keeps pouring in for good ol’ Bobby Kotick and the boys in Santa Monica, but I think the million-dollar question on everyone’s minds is, “How long can it last?” We’re nearly at the end of this console generation, and there haven’t really been any major innovations recently, unless you really want to count Legends of Pegasus’ “real-time terraforming,” which I’m pretty sure you don’t.
I hear a lot of gamers complaining about a lack of new ideas in an industry dead-set on sequels and yearly dev cycles, and I can’t help but think of how much indie games have risen in popularity the last few years. The iPhone has largely overtaken traditional handhelds in the portable gaming market, and the desire for smaller, more instantly gratifying games has grown larger and larger as this console generation has progressed. The disparity between blockbuster titles and indies games is growing wider, both in content and creation. Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Professor Deborah Solomon, of Montgomery College’s Game Development and Simulation Program (if you listen to NPR, you should be familiar with her) and discuss the future of gaming, more specifically indie games. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation:
Brooks: I was wondering if you had any insight as to whether [indie games are] where the gaming industry is going to go, or is it going to continue in the sort of blockbuster direction of the Call of Dutys and Assassin’s Creeds of the world?
Deborah: I think the industry goes in cycles and also goes in multiple directions at the same time, kind of like a game. The games that are coming out of Thatgamecompany, with Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen, they’re all very exciting and interesting kind of art games, but you’re never going to not have the Call of Dutys and the massive Halo blockbuster kind of games as well. But I think it’s interesting with indies that they can be created in a much shorter time frame and for much less money, so indies have more of a flexibility to develop more creative ideas and take something that might be too risky for a big developer, a big publisher to work on.
Brooks: What is exactly is the average budget of an independent game?
Deborah: I think it really varies from zero, you know, people who do it for free and don’t pay themselves anything and don’t make any money, to, well I don’t know what the budget for Minecraft was, but I know it’s made like $50 million and counting. It’s definitely a huge force in both the indie marketplace as indies are taking notice of what they can achieve both financially and creatively even with a very small team and a small time frame, and also what the big developers are looking at like, “Wow, this small company made a huge, huge game.”
Another way that indies are getting funding are through bundling their games, so the Humble Indie Bundle and other bundles that are on Steam where people are getting a collection of games that… may include games that they normally wouldn’t play, but maybe it expands their tastes a little bit as they try these different games that come in the bundle.
I think with indies, funding and financing is a particularly interesting part of what they’re doing, with this kind of bundling strategy but also with sites like Kickstarter where even major companies like Double Fine have raised a huge amount of money… where you can go directly to the consumer, say, “Hey, we want to make this game, and will you give us the money to make it?”
Brooks: A lot of indie developers have limited budgets to work on, and you’re very familiar with the game development process. How exactly do economics fit in to that? How many restrictions do you have there, in terms of what you can do?
Deborah: I think it depends on your platform and the audience you’re going for. So if you’re creating a console game that you need a console kit for, that’s going to be an expensive startup cost. On the other hand, you could get on a console without a console kit like through Xbox Live. So I think with indies, if you don’t have a budget… PC games or mobile games are good way to start. Mobile, especially, is exploding, and startup costs are very small for those platforms.
Brooks: Is this a viable long-term strategy, or are these companies going to get bought up by the big publishers eventually?
Deborah: I think they’re just different parts of the marketplace, and I think when Facebook games came out people really scorned them as being very trivial and boring, and honestly, many of them are mind-numbingly boring and horrible. But there are some interesting games that are coming out of there, there’s games that are affecting not just the marketplace, but the world socially. People can raise funds for children in Uganda, for example; a game called – I think it’s Raise the Village.