The Money Factor

Seems that money is on people’s minds lately.

Jay at The Rampant Coyote recently published an article on The Escapist about mainstream developers going indie. It’s a good read that involves a number of interesting folks from around the indie scene, including Steven Peeler from Soldak Entertainment, Steve Taylor from NinjaBee, and one of my Torque heroes, Andy Schatz of Pocketwatch Games, among others. The article nicely summarizes many of the issues driving and confronting indie game developers — creative freedom, independence, marketing and publicity, piracy, and distribution. Of course, underlying most of these issues is the money factor. It is, of course, the focus of the main question (“Why give up a steady paycheck in order to labor in relative obscurity?”), and from the article you get a good appreciation of how money impacts so many different aspects of development on the indie side. One particular insight, made by Taylor, is that the reality of maintaining a business often overshadows the dream of creative freedom:

“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, do you really have the resources to achieve your ultimate creative vision?”

Nevertheless, for most it’s still about the freedom to succeed or fail on their own terms.

How much does it cost to make an indie game? It’s one of those questions (along with “How much can you make on an indie game?”) that always seems to be on the minds of indie wannabees. Jonathan Blow, the developer of one impressive indie game that appears headed toward big success (Braid), hinted at his development cost in the Wall Street Journal online. Although it may not be reflective of the game’s total costs, he estimated his own personal investment to be around $180,000 over the three years of development.

It’s interesting to see that number, and I wonder what kind of responses it might produce. My own personal reaction is that it’s a pretty big number — not the millions that most big studios budget for their games, of course, but that’s a lot of coin for an individual to pony up for their big chance. Still, it certainly looks like the money was well spent — I want to play it for the awesome stylish 2D visuals more than anything else — and Blow stands to make a good return on that investment, having received excellent reviews (including “highest rated XBLA game ever”). It’s aso already the 10th highest rated Xbox 360 game of all time — and that includes many of those AAA high-budget games like GTA4 and Bioshock — and sales appear to be very good so far, with 28,500 units sold, making it the second-fastest selling XBLA game in its debut week. As Blow says, “an indie game made by a very small team can compete with giant games that had huge budgets at their disposal.”

As for profitability, Blow has been quiet so far, stating it would have to sell “a lot more than it has so far.” But as with many indie developers, he knows it has to keep selling in order to afford making the next game.

With Vespers, I’ve invested only a small fraction of what Blow invested, but up until now I thought even that was an extraordinary amount. In the world of game development, $180,000 is small change, but my eyes grow big when I think of all the progress I could make with that kind of investment. Then again, I’m not targeting the potentially large market of XBLA, and on top of that, I’m not even sure yet if selling it is the best approach, so the expected return is still very questionable. But then again, I didn’t initiate this project to make money; I’m not a full-time indie developer, so I don’t need a certain number of sales to stay in business. I don’t have to make money off of it, although it would be helpful in order to potentially finance a future project.

Along those lines is a blog discussion that started a little while ago with another article in the same issue of The Escapist by Anna Anthropy, on “The Rise of the Videogame Zinesters.” I hadn’t previously heard of the term “zinester”, which in the context of videogame developers refers to individual non-professionals who make creative, artistically risky games and give them away for free simply to make their voices heard. As she says:

“These are people for whom game development is not a primary profession; whose background is not in computer science or 3-D modeling; who build games in their spare time out of a curiosity and love for the medium and a desire to make the games that no one else will. Hobbyist game developers, self-published authors. Videogame zinesters.”

Interactive fiction is the prime example used in the article, specifically Victor Gijsbers’s piece The Baron. In response, on his blog, Gijsbers makes the observation that not having to earn money is important, but that “people could still actually make money out of their games, and that wouldn’t hurt their artistic value.” But perhaps more importantly, mirroring Taylor’s comment above:

“It’s just that when you know you have to earn at least X with this game (or otherwise your company will go bankrupt, or you yourself will not be able to pay the rent) that art must be compromised and that it may seem a much better idea to make a game about shooting space aliens than about the moral options left to someone who recognises the monstrous within himself.”

But as Gijsbers notes, it also brings up the issue of money as validation within the gaming culture, and the pervasive idea that free games are not worth the effort, that a game can only be taken seriously once it is for sale, as indicated by the comments for the Escapist article. Although I think that’s a fair summation of the culture, there are certainly games, like Galatea, The Baron, and Façade, that prove that this is not altogether true. Yet this cultural perspective persists.

In “Money and Ambition”, Emily Short adds her compelling thoughts on the subject, commenting on “that curious phenomenon that some players want the games they play to be commercial.” The reasons for this have to do with things like perceived value and invested resources, but Short also notes a less-discussed reason: the perceived contract between player and game designer, and that some players “want to know that the game’s creators are making a living by their efforts, as a sign of good faith.” Compounding this, at least for interactive fiction games, is the lack of enough insightful game reviews to give new high-quality games the reception they deserve. As a result, as Short observes:

“In the absence of money, or even a guarantee of reviews — without either the market forces or the critical cadre — it can be difficult to maintain serious ambitions in creating a freeware project. Especially a large one.”

I can tell you that what Short says extends beyond the boundary of freeware game development, and I think her words ring true for many indie developers, myself included, particularly in describing so perfectly (elsewhere):

“…the sense that I had long since passed every conceivable *sane* reason to be doing what I was doing. The creeping fear that what I was doing could not possibly be worth the time and energy I was putting into it. The sense of being reduced, as a person, to a single purpose, since normal hobbies and enjoyments and work had all been set aside.”

I can certainly relate to that, but I can only imagine how it feels for the individuals in Jay’s article, the ones who gave up the steady paycheck for a shot at making it as an indie developer pushing the boundaries of game design. But I guess it’s all about pushing boundaries, I suppose. New creative territories. Making your voice heard, like the zinesters, whether it’s purely for expressive purposes or for earning a living.

Fascinating, though, the way money is so pervasive and influential in gaming, even when discussing freeware.

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