Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

IP Rights – Why Are They Are Important to Indie Game Developers? Part 3

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 14, 2012

Okay, part three of my ramblings (I’m stressed out in a foreign country trying to post between 12-hour days, so forgive me) about IP. In this one I try to finally answer the question… “WTF?” Or, rather, “Why?”

Let’s dispense with the lightning-in-a-bottle examples like Minecraft for a minute. Your average indie, making a game like, say… Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, while fully deserving of selling a million copies (heh), probably ain’t. They don’t have the budgets to throw at marketing to make their game a household name. The world is not going to beat a path to their door trying to get a license for that lucrative franchise. Nobody’s offering them millions to sell plushies of your characters, and Michael Bay isn’t soliciting any struggling indies for the movie rights to their platform-puzzler. You can offer to sell your ‘soul’ – your entire IP lock, stock, and barrel – and may find there’s no buyers. Nobody cares.

So why the freak does it matter? What’s so great about being all indie and stuff? If nobody else cares about this stuff – at least not enough to write you a check – why should you?

Here are my two big reasons:

#1 – Retaining your IP Rights brings opportunities – and means not having to ask permission to take advantage of them (or not).

#2 – Your IP rights provide a way for other people to make you money.

The first one is probably more meaningful if you’ve worked on the other side a bit. If you’ve ever had to be really careful to avoid infringing on the rights of the owners, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Or when you are offered opportunities and all you can do is “pass that information along.” Or whatever.

Now, most of the time, people think of the “big” opportunities. Movie and comic book deals, your face on a box of Wheaties, invitations to speak at Comicon, stuff like that. I suppose that’s all possible. But I’ve been kinda fascinated by some smaller things.

Participating in promotions. Or creating your own. Making a webcomic about your characters. Making a sequel. Making an expansion. Changing your pricing, or your entire method of distribution. Giving it away for free. Giving away the source code for free. Using the name of your game to sell another one. Creating a remake. Distributing it through a new partner. Selling the whole thing so you can work on something else. It’s your call, for good or bad. Yeah, it may not feel like much when the whole enterprise is barely treading water (or worse), but you are the guy (or gal) who can call the shots or pull the plug.

Here are some personal examples. Let me tell you about Void War. I’m really not planning on a sequel, though it or a related product has crossed my mind a few times. It’s not exactly a lucrative franchise. Oh, it sells the occasional copy or two, for which I’m quite grateful, and I’m personally quite proud of it (and found myself sucked into playing it again for the first time in a long while a few months ago, and having a lot of fun with it). But no, it’s not exactly a revenue-generator. So what use is it to me?

Well, let’s see: I used it to establish some credibility for Rampant Games while I was developing Frayed Knights. For good reason, it’s tough to draw much attention to yourself as an indie if you have never released a game – for the simple reason that 95% of first-time indies never actually release their first game. I’ve used it to bring attention to the website, and this blog, selling other folk’s games as an affiliate. I had a bunch of little opportunities – some of which I took, some of which I didn’t –  that never really took off, but they could have. I mean, I have copies of a CD-ROM containing Void War that shipped with pairs of shoes, for crying out loud. Yeah, shoes. Gamer shoes. No, I don’t know, but I’m not a shoe expert.

The point is – while the game has never brought in anything resembling a real income, being “the Void War guy” opened a few doors for me, and made me a lot of contacts that I’d not have had otherwise. In the past, working for game studios, those calls got forwarded to somebody else.

Yeah, I know, these stories would be a lot cooler if they ended with me being some bazillionaire indie who gets invited to speak at game dev conferences to offer motivation and stuff. No, I’m still a struggling little indie who’s doing a little bit better now than he was a few years ago, but I’m no rags-to-riches story. Maybe someday I can point to something like that and say, “Oh, hey, look, here’s where this stuff happened that wasn’t awesome, but it put me on the path to success.” Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t, I’m not there yet.

But what I can say is these experiences – being the guy with the rights and the freedom to make decisions with them – exposed me to a lot of opportunities that I had no idea even existed.

Okay – about #2 – the right to have other people make you money. If you are like me, the first thing you think of is people lining up to pay you cash for licenses to make movies or action figures for your game, or offering to make a sequel and giving you a big, fat royalty. Yeah, technically that could happen. But usually it’s a bit smaller than that.

Let’s talk ports. Someone offers (or you manage to convince them) to port your game to the Android for you. You agree on …. I dunno… let’s say splitting the revenue 50/50. Your game has sold enough to make it worth their time. It’s not entirely “free money” or anything, but it could be a significant revenue increase for very little extra work on your part. Somebody else makes you money. For your partner’s part, they’ve taken a known entity (your game with sales that Didn’t Suck), applied their known skillset, and cranked out a revenue-generator of their own. Win/win, right?

And then there’s affiliate sales, like I do at RampantGames.com.  These old-school style affiliate programs don’t, as a rule, generate a ton of sales. But I love ’em from both sides of the equation. Affiliates have added to Frayed Knights‘ sales for me (getting their cut, of course), and I try to do the same for other developers (sometimes not doing much, but in some cases moving over a hundred units).

Again – these are little ideas. And they are far from exhaustive. None are slam-dunk, retire-early things. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with indies taking some contract work or (I hope!) even working a day job to balance things out to trade off “potential” for some positive values in the bank account.  I look at what Zeboyd Games is doing now, after the success of Cthulhu Saves the World and Breath of Death VII, about to release the next Penny Arcade RPG – working with somebody else’s indie property. It looks like a great opportunity for both parties. It’s all good.

One of my favorite articles I ever read about being an indie was by “Joe Indie,” called “Write Yourself a Mini-Van.” The indie world has changed a bit since the article was written, but the basic principles remain. Little base-hits all add up, and if you keep at it, you may get some home runs in there, too.

Having control over your games – even if it’s only to sell ’em off the rights later after you are sick of ’em – gives you options, opportunities, and yes, responsibilities. But for too many years, the only guys who had access to that were the big publishers, the giant middlemen. The digital age has made it possible for the little guys to take advantage of the little – to – medium sized opportunities that would have gotten ignored before. Yes, there are big opportunities and big success potential too. And while success may not always be measured in millions of dollars per year or millions of copies sold, I do believe that success is out there for the folks willing to keep at it.

At least I hope so. I plan to at least go down trying.

Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: Read the First Comment