Saturday, February 18, 2006

Response to Jeff Tunnell's blog about XBLA

I just read Jeff Tunnell's blog and it got me thinking. As soon as someone sees even a modest success, why is it that we are drawn to then emulate that success rather than trying to carve out our own?

I suppose it is human nature, to try and copy clear successes, but if you think about it, unless you are really an early-runner in any race, it is very hard to make your mark. It's simply common sense that the first in any field tends to become synonymous with that field.

For instance, right now there are plenty of casual game "clones" and clearly the driver behind all of these clones is simply to emulate the success of the game in question. Now I'm not against this idea, because at least you are producing something you know is of quality. But if we all slipped into this method of making games, where would the "next bit thing" that everyone wants to clone actually come from?

I guess that is the fundamental issue with commercial development now. There simply isn't room for the risk of creating the next big game mechanic that will develop clones. Ok, it might be an accidental thing that some modern games DO push forward a particular genre (I'm thinking of the medal of honor/Call of duty style FPS gameplay pushing forward FPS game production values for instance).

But if we're going to be clear about it, the only real competitive advantage your average indie developer has is the ability to experiment.

So where do my games fit into this concept? Well, I guess I've not been eating my own food here, in that I'm primarily working on a dogfighting based flight sim and on a casual tennis game, both of which have already been done to some extent. Now I'm not suggesting my games are clones, because they simply aren't. They also raise the bar in terms of indie developed quality and experience (or will). So maybe I'm being too hard on myself, because that little innovation of really polishing the games will be enough to set them apart from what's out there now.

So the other thing that Jeff's blog brings to mind is that basically the bigger publishers are going to push out indies by simply pumping money into the channel. This is quite a common thing in business, its called a "loss leader" and essentially means you sell for either no profit or in some cases even for a loss in order to secure market share, or in order to secure standing with potential customers some time down the line.

Of course there is no way we are going to compete with EA in terms of budget. But does this mean that XBLA is essentially dead to indies? HELL NO!

Of course, as Jeff rightly says, the quality bar is going to go higher and higher. But then it naturally moves that way anyway. Nothing new there.

This does mean that basically if you're very heavy with programmers on your team and haven't got many artists, you better address that balance quickly. I think the biggest barrier for many teams is simply acquiring enough good quality artwork for their products to look professional. This is especially galling considering that there are many thousands of highly talented artists in schools and colleges and universities around the world. Being able to hook up with talented artists and being able to drill into them the right work ethic and expectations is a very tall order.

Part of the problem is that both sides have unrealistic expectations. For instance, how many young artists are giving quotes for 50 dollars an hour because that's what a skilled artist charges, without acknowledging that they are 1) not that skilled and 2) nobody can afford to then pay them. On the flipside, programmers are often used to working for nothing, so they expect artists to do the same, only for the artists, they are getting burnt so often with projects that go nowhere and never having a return on their efforts.

I've got high hopes that Jeff might be able to actually effect some change in this direction. I know he has some plans in this area and I'm hoping he actually has a plan that might work :) If anyone can it has to be Jeff.

For my own point of view, I've given up hopes of finding my ideal art-partner and have instead just resigned myself to paying for the art I need. But that does raise the spectre of profit making in that currently sales of many indie games simply would not deliver enough return to cover artists costs given the sales volume and the costs of art.

However all is not lost. Recently I've been speaking to different people and whilst I'll be paying for my art requirements for the foreseeable future, there is some hope that I've found some people I can work with on projects going forward. Hopefully we'll get to a stage where I can provide some more information in this direction.

So to sum up my feelings on Jeff's post:

It was inevitably going to happen if the channel was going to be in any way profitable. But we should never be scared of competition. It just means we have to work harder and smarter than the other guys.

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