Sunday, August 10, 2008
NinjaBee's Steve Taylor On Indie Game Development
I have interviewed Steve Taylor before, but in this case I wanted to ask him directly about the joys and frustrations of indie game development as opposed to traditional mainstream game development. This interview was originally done to gather information for the article, "Going Rogue," for The Escapist.
Steve's company, Wahoo Studios (AKA NinjaBee), is a little unusual in that it combines self-funded "indie" titles with contract work from publishers. Their independently produced titles include the space tycoon game Outpost Kaloki, the XBox 360 version Outpost Kaloki X, the tactics game Band of Bugs, Cloning Clyde, and the upcoming A Kingdom for Keflings. Steve was also my boss for a little over a year, but the restraining order he placed on me has expired since then, so I was able to ask him these questions:
Rampant Coyote: Okay, keeping it simple. What rocks about indie game development? Why would anyone choose to do this?
Steve Taylor: Fundamentally, creative control! The ability to do something off the beaten path, and do it your own way. The ability to succeed and fail on your own merit and nobody else's.
Rampant Coyote: Cool. So... what sucks about indie game development?
Steve Taylor: What sucks is that everything I said in my first answer is not exactly true. If you want to reach a large audience with your game, the concept of complete creative freedom with Indie games is a myth. Portals and other distributions services impose their own rules and limitations. Supposedly-indie-friendly distribution options like Steam and Instant Action still have subjective gatekeepers, and they're the ones who decide if your game is good enough and if it's even the kind of game they're looking for. And if you want your game to make money, you have to consider what will sell, and this means adapting your pure creative vision to match the real world. Besides all of that, do you really have the resources to achieve your ultimate creative vision? There's just no such thing as complete creative control for the developer, in practical terms.
Rampant Coyote: As you crossed over to the dark side - indie game development - what surprises did you encounter?
Steve Taylor: Initially, since we had no idea what we were doing, we expected that making a good game would naturally lead to instant riches and glory. The surprise was that getting involved with portals and getting the word out there about your game is not as simple as it looks.
Rampant Coyote: Since you continue to work on contract titles, have your indie efforts colored interaction or relationship with publishers?
Steve Taylor: Our indie experiences have affected our work with publishers in two really interesting ways that I've been thinking a lot about lately:
Having successfully funded and released some games on our own, we've gotten some attention that we wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Some potential clients have recognized our ability to do high quality work in the downloadable game space, and this has led to a lot of discussion about work-for-hire projects and in a few cases has meant actual contracts. With our company partly dependent on contract jobs, we live under the constant stress of trying to line up that next gig, and having people come to us because of what we've done on our own is a pretty big win.
We assumed this would mean our potential partners would trust us to make something great on our own terms. After all, that's why they hired us, right? Unfortunately, contract work seems to be business as usual. When somebody else pays for the game, they expect to design it and control its creation, regardless of the circumstances that brought you together. This sometimes makes contract work a bit more painful than it has been in the past.
Rampant Coyote: What other differences have you noticed between indie and traditional mainstream contract work?
Steve Taylor: The thing is, I still believe traditional work for hire is valid and rewarding and has some major upsides. Sure, the taste we got of doing things our own way makes contract work feel a little more like slave labor. But with a contract project for a big publisher, there are resources we'd never have otherwise, marketing effort we'd never be able to muster up, and contributions from a ton of talented individuals outside our dev team. In the end there's the potential for a much better product than we could do on our own. And the experience educates us, improves our skills and tech, and builds our reputation. If only we could somehow have all of that *and* get to pick what color hair our characters have, life would be sweet.