Heart of Darkness

The Calm Before the Storm…

When I was a kid I’d spend my summers going to the beach with one of my brothers to spend the day body surfing. I recall one afternoon being way out in the water with my brother at Sydney’s Cronulla beach. There were these massive swells creating these brutal waves that if you could catch them would take you gliding in all the way to the sandy shore. If you didn’t, it would still take you to the shore but by dragging you along the bottom requiring you to hold your breath the entire time. Since you had to catch them quite a distance away from the shore, this meant for quite some time.

We had swam out to a point just beyond where the swell would form white peaks and break into a wave. There was this almost calming rhythm to it as the swell slowly took you several meters from the bottom to the top, and as it passed, back down to the bottom again. The sky behind us as if we looked back to the beach was blue and sunny. The sky ahead of us was dark with an approaching storm however with only barely a hint of cloud – it was just an angry black. If you were busy trying to catch waves or just trying to keep your head down so as not to be caught up in one crashing about you and getting dragged to shore. Then you may not have seen that storm coming and been in a position to do anything about it. It would catch you unaware.

I kind of feel that way when I think of the whole indie game development scene right now. I feel that there is this storm on the horizon, something looming there that isn’t quite understood yet but there’s enough “evidence” to get your instincts buzzing. Something that doesn’t have a name yet, that will come afterwards and will probably be something byte-sized like GFC that everyone will bat around so as to appear like experts. However, it will be a number of factors that will end up affecting the indie game development scene – app industry if you prefer – as it was not just the GFC that was a factor in the past but the emergence of digital distribution.

I know what you’re thinking, that you’ve heard this doom-saying before, that it is ridiculous since things are going so well for indies. Hell, just about everyone and their dog has jumped onto the bandwagon, except, the wagon’s wheels may just be about to drop off. You see NOTHING lasts forever, and as some will gladly say, these things are awfully cyclical – history repeats itself and forms perceivable “trends,” mostly only clearly seen on afterthought. And I’d say that the worst of it generally comes when you are most complacent, most assured of your place in the world and of your own invincibility.

That this is your time, your right, your arrogant destiny.

A Black Heart…

Speaking of arrogance part of what has sparked my need to write this is the mess surrounding Team Bondi and LA Noire – and the apparent Moloch at the centre of it. It’s been moderately covered by media, however, not to an extent that has occurred in the past like with EA. Or at least that is the impression I get, especially from the local Australian industry. You kind of have to wonder why that is exactly. Why everyone was so passionate about these things in the past and yet now no one really wants to hear about it – seemingly even the IGDA who have tried to champion such issues in the past.

I think it may have to do with “indies” being the motivation and driver of such movements in the past. However now EVERYONE is an indie, whatever “indie” means nowadays – to decry the practice of one is to decry the practice of all. If you look at definitions across the board no matter what industry, it generally means:

“A project / product developed without the means of mainstream financing – publishers and/or large companies.”

I’m assuming that the last bit means venture capital firms primarily but not limited to just them. Regardless I think an element to the definition is missing, that the projects and products developed are original IPs or based on IP you hold, in order to fit the indie definition. At least that is my take on what it means to be an indie game developer. Still without this addendum, the definition highlights something about current “indies” in that if you look at those who refer to themselves by that label, measure them by the definition of it, then they aren’t actually indies at all. As their projects are funded by publishers or other “mainstream” sources of funding.

The current development climate, market, has lead to “indies” becoming the norm of development, however, things have rapidly evolved. The market no longer wants simple and basic apps to download, consumers have come to expect more in way of complexity and sophistication of experience. This means more in the way of budgetary requirements to develop such concepts and greater quality control. Honestly, try creating one of those horrid apps from when the iPhone first came onto the scene and see how well it does. You won’t be charging US $10 or even $5 dollars for it, more like 99c if you charge anything at all. And with it being for free, and only then, will you see a substantial number of downloads. As now the market is saturated with titles for discerning consumers to chose from. Some developed by large studios and even publishers who can fund the marketing campaigns, or have the brand appeal, to cut through all that competition.

So what is an indie to do exactly facing this dilemma?

Well it’s a tough one for all those indies used to creating simple low-budget games. They’ve never had to do anything more complex and sophisticated. They just don’t have the experience, even those developers who left paying game development jobs to start their own little indie studios may not of had that “experience” if they’ve only ever worked on work-for-hire projects. So what to do? Well the most obvious answer is to get in bed with a publisher, and have them bare the burden of such additional risks. Why you now have “indies” that no longer fit the definition of one, as you are no longer an indie by doing so.

What started out as a freedom cry from publisher control and the yearning to create original titles of your own can quickly become a churning work-for-hire hell due to doing so. But hey, perhaps I’m just being an alarmist, especially, as everyone wants to do well from their business; doesn’t it make good business sense to do the odd work-for-hire gig?

If you think the answer is a clear-cut yes, then you have forgotten the past. If you think that this is why other developers have done well and were able to do original IP, then you are blind to the real reason why indies have had success and were able to find success. Digital distribution and the advent of the plethora of viable digital marketplaces to promote and sell your games (apps). Without this, none of the rest would have been possible no matter what claims various individuals and organisations make in it being anything other.

Unfortunately early entrants enjoyed lower expectations in way of quality which meant they could do so without requiring a large development budget and resources. You could do this all on your lonesome, for instance, literally in your garage. Now for the most part you can’t. Don’t get me wrong, there are still pockets and new opportunities will come around, however, the digital-app genie is out of the bag and is no longer novel. iFart 9.0 simply won’t cut it, especially, as platforms and markets like Apple’s Appstore have tightened quality controls on what apps they wish to allow. Even with Android, they’re still the best watering hole oasis for app developers to drink from and have a chance of their apps doing well. Unfortunately they know this all too well and can pick and chose from the developers courting their digital market and have gone to the trouble of erecting a fence and gate around what was once thought of as an open free utopia.

And the available engines and tools that are free or can be licensed at low cost in order to expedite your development, don’t make any of this easier. As what they provide you they provide everyone else. You still need to work hard to create a point of difference and not just do what is “cheap” development wise – and pretty graphics and shallow interactivity generally won’t cut it as just about anyone with some technical skill using these engines and tools can do the same.

With things becoming so much harder, even for the established independent studios. Then indies are going to look at such sources of funding, including publishers, as viable options. The other option for developers is to broaden their range of products and services. And one of the best seen from a traditional software business perspective is technology commercialisation. Middleware. Something that I’ve seen raised (in-directly) recently but not really discussed.

I know this seems unlikely, with the R&D Tax Credit and all currently making a fuss as a means for indies to (but not really) “fund” their original IP titles – at least for the Australian locals. All dependent upon the developer and title of course; with it being the larger independent studios finding this of most benefit I suspect. I think it has perhaps been made out to be something it is not by those who have a decidedly narrow “business” point-of-view of the industry – it really does seem “to good to be true.” If you look at the activities that have been excluded in the past, I think this will tell you more about how useful (limited) this could be for indies than some of the other material that is currently available – that is until what “activities” are eligible are made nice and clear.

Regardless, I think that no matter what the industry tries to do – both local and global – change is ahead for it. It seems that something has gotta give as it has grown to a point that I don’t think it’s growth is entirely sustainable anymore and we’re seeing evidence of this with various acquisitions and consolidations – “indies” becoming independent (third-party) or publisher (first- or second-party) owned studios. That, and we seem to have come full circle as an industry and are now heading back to where we began, and where we began, wasn’t entirely a healthy place to begin with.

Things have or are heading back to business-as-usual…

The Perfect Wave…

Floating and being carried up and down by that ocean swell, with that dark and foreboding sky in front of me, I decided it was time to take a chance. So I started to make my way back, stopping briefly, to gauge which one of the peaking swells behind me I was going to attempt to catch. Quite a risk in that they were larger than the kind that most body-surfers would attempt to catch; catch the wrong one and the ocean would punish you for it. That’s when I spotted it, the one for me.

I started to swim hard in order to get the timing just right so that the wave would form and carry me as the white-peak crashed down upon itself. To my surprise, rather than finding myself being bounced and dragged violently along the sandy bottom. I instead found that I was gliding along the water surface back to the shore. That was the last summer I dedicated to body-surfing as I had caught my perfect wave, and every wave after it, had been a pale imitation. I didn’t see the point in doing so, but rather, began looking for other perfect waves to catch instead.

The thing with perfect waves, or, the perfect storms that create them. Is that though they can be times of great turmoil and chaotic change, they can also be times of great opportunity, and even, liberation. They can be quite exciting periods of growth to be a part of, if you are ready to get your hands dirty.

That all said, I don’t know when the next long-winded blog of mine will be, or, whether this one has shed any light for you – I can be rather cryptic at times. All I know is that I’ve got a wave to catch, it’s going to require a lot of hard work, but, it should be an exhilarating ride. Perhaps even liberating

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2 thoughts on “Heart of Darkness”

  1. It seems that Team Bondi aren’t the only ones getting flak — and rightly so — for their development practices. It appears that Gameloft Auckland are also getting called out on how they manage and use their staff, with Juniors and crunch of 100-120 hours being the norm.

    However, I wonder whether it will be the same claim that project management is all to blame when the problem is much deeper than that. I think this is an industry problem that no matter how much project management is injected into the development system to hold it accountable, it just won’t go away. In Team Bondi’s case, design was a fault here, and poor leadership in not realising this.

    Having been in a position where I had to work 100+ hours on a high-profile title. I can tell you that at the heart of it was a leader who had been forced out of the design role a number of times but failed to let go of the design reigns. This failure to realise that they were the problem because they were incompetent in design not even understanding the fundamentals. Nearly lead to the project being sunk.

    Though it didn’t come to that, it did however lead to my abrupt departure from the studio when management failed to see that things really needed to change — every time we took two steps forward, we would all get dragged back one due to the selfish and arrogant actions of this individual who seemed to think that everyone owed him for the opportunity to work on his half-baked title.

    I suppose with the title being put back on track, they had managed to convince themselves it was really all their own doing and that the newly found success they had was justification for how they ran their project and business. And at the very least, an indication that I was no longer necessary.

    Why I feel no pity for Team Bondi and the Moloch at the heart of it, as a Moloch will never learn and any success they find they feel is justification for the way they conduct themselves and treat others. The price is never too high to pay as far as they are concerned.

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