Outerlight and Indie Development

Just finished reading an excellent interview with independent game developer Outerlight’s co-founder, Chris Peck. It tells the exciting, then sad story of an indie development team struggling to keep their head above water while maintaining their creative core and staying true to the reasons they got into game development to begin with.

An excerpt from the article explains what’s wrong with the traditional publisher-financed model of development (the way games have been funded since forever):

The traditional publishing model is awful for developers, it’s their gilded cage. It requires costly pitching, to emissaries of publishers, who return to corporate rooms & badly pitch the idea to large groups who need consensus to act, and typically take 6 months to close any deal they offer. Publishers are motivated by greed, but restrained by fear of risk, and thus seek sure deals, licenses and sequels, which makes pitching innovation almost pointless. Should you get a deal, the usual is 20 percent royalties, but after the retailer takes their share of 50 percent, you are getting 20 percent of the 50 percent left (so 10 percent of retail price). That doesn’t sound too bad, until you realise that the developer is the one that actually pays for the development, the publisher has just advanced the developer their share of the royalties to pay for making the game.

What I find interesting about the revelations inside the article (which are in fact nothing new to long-time observers of the industry) is that where the industry has traditionally failed the developer, it’s also now starting to fail the publisher. The model which once served the publisher is now destroying the very development environment in which they live. It’s evolved “gaming” into an ever-tightening spiral of sequels and safe bets while starving the sort of independent creative ability which might help it to get on top of emerging trends like online, social, mobile, digital distribution, episodic and trans-media.

When developers can no longer survive in the poisoned environment they are absorbed (which just prolongs the inevitable) or they evolve (moving into emerging marketings like those listed above). Here’s hoping Outerlight’s people are able to evolve into a new and more compatible space – they’ve certainly proven they’ve got the creativity and smarts, too bad the system failed them.

Truth is, we’ll all be better off when the dinosaurs finally die out. Just be wary of being crushed under them as they fall over.

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