The Price of Freedom
Garage Games CEO relates the challenges and promising new tools for indie MMO development
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
In many ways, Josh Williams is independent game development personified. With a boyish college-age demeanor and can-do spirit, nothing about his person betrays the fact that he's a former stock market analyst / market forecast simulation programmer and currently the face of a concern entirely devoted to the success of small-time, limited-to-non-existent budget independent developers all around the world.
Williams, CEO of Garage Games, Inc. gave the keynote address that opened IMGDC 2007 early on April 14. 2007. His company licenses the Torque game engine, a platform that is both very inexpensive to license and has a proven pedigree of games like The Incredible Machine and Marble Mayhem. Torque, because of its robust functionality and miniscule price, is regularly used in undergraduate college programs (e.g. Brown College) to provide students lacking industry saavy with exposure to a feature-filled tool that they must learn "on the fly" as part of the software development process. The Torque game engine is currently used in one MMORPG, the humor-driven Minions of Mirth from Prairie Games.
What comprises an independent game, much less an independent MMO? According to Williams, the issue is simply a matter of who has their say in the development process. "With an independent game, creative control rests with the developer rather than in the hands of a publisher or distribution partner." Williams intimated that too often, money is quite literally the currency of control, and that attempts to fund a development process-intensive game like an MMO can seriously impinge upon a independent developer's ability to realize his or her original vision for a game. Using a distribution platform like Valve Steam is an option, but Williams noted that indies often get disadvantageous terms, surrendering a hefty chunk of the post-launch revenues for money received up front. He went on to delineate the somewhat unpleasant fiscal alternatives: 1) bootstrapping - working from savings accounts and etiolated credit cards to design a game in the developer's spare time, 2) loans - extremely hard to get for a high-risk entrepreneur like a game developer, 3) investors who are willing to pony up money in support of the design (and without a will to push their own ideas), 4) (suggested by the audience) working through a university or educational institution, offering up much of the design process as a teaching tool.
Williams went on to briefly describe the emergent methods of cost control in the independent sector. The usual suspects- outsourcing and utilizing a remote team- made mention, but so did new marketing methods like SEM (search engine marketing) and other ROI (Return on Investment)- based ad buys. Getting a critical mass of players to play a quality online game that doesn't have the PR budget of a top-tier game has forever vexed indie developers, now there are cost-effective, scalable solutions like Google AdSense.
Money is a formidable hurdle for any entreprenuerial developer, but Williams related that many times indie developers are their own biggest hurdle. Developers must be responsible with their dreams and, according to Williams, focus on what 2 to 3 people can build in 6 months. "If you aim for six months, you might see it in a year," Williams joked. He went on to state that indie devs must be willing to make the supreme sacrifice and be ready to scrap an idea that simply can't be done. The most successful developers have a spate of ideas to choose from, according to Williams, and figure out which idea best suits current market conditions.
Josh Williams closed his keynote by promising that the time is ripe for independent game development. The development and marketing tools have simply never been better. "Excuses are dwindling," Williams exhorted, "it's time to get some s*** done."The energy and enthusiasm eminating from conference goers the rest of the day was evidence that his words did not go unheeded.