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  • The Indie Scene

    - Albert T. Ferrer
  •  With the complexity and cost of contemporary game development, it's easy to assume that making games in a basement is a thing of the past. Yet thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of industry veterans looking to start their own game companies and a new appreciation for games on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, there has been a revival of "bedroom" or "garage" game developers, working in cities like Vancouver and Los Angeles, where a growing community of truly independent developers can thrive.

    One of the causes of this trend is that major developers such as Electronic Arts are investing in the talent of the surrounding community, producing experienced employees who have been through the rigors of game development cycles. In Vancouver for example, this fostering of talent has seemingly spawned numerous independent game companies who promote a different kind of company philosophy that stresses the importance of the employee's voice, creative freedom, and work-life balance.

    For these new developers, starting out in a small space (much like a bedroom or garage) is a necessary part of the process.

    Designated Indies
    Nik Palmer, CTO of Action Pants Games, a small game studio that does have the backing of a publisher, defines independent game developers as companies that "can pick and chose which games project to make, how to finance that game project, and how and when that project will be developed."

    Most so-called indie developers say financial independence and self-funding play major roles in defining their independence, including Nick Waanders of Slick Entertainment. "A truly independent studio," Waanders says, "is a studio that doesn't depend on external financing. Only then are you truly free to do whatever you want and create the riskiest projects known to man." He adds that while many rely on publisher funding, "there are a lot of studios that don't let this money issue hamper their ideas and ideals."

    Not all independent studios are characterized by whether they are financially independent, or whether they operate out of a garage. Many can afford to take up residence in wealthy parts of town, with oftentimes custom loft-like office interiors, creating a comfortable laid back environment. Being indie doesn't always mean basement. It's also a culture and a mindset.

    The Culture of an Independent Studio
    Simon Andrews is CEO of Action Pants, whose 19,000 square-foot studio located in Vancouver's Yaletown district is far from a basement setting. He says giving employees an environment where they can have a voice is an important part of the studio's indie culture.

    "The decision to become an independent developer stemmed from the desire to form a studio culture where creative games could be made differently. The emphasis was to give our team a hands-on environment where every team member has a voice and therefore a vested interest," Andrews says.

    He also recognizes the benefit of coming from a larger developer, having been both senior development director and senior producer at EA, where he helped to establish EA's "street brand."

    "Time spent at a larger company provided the experience and confidence to launch our vision," he says. "We can't speak for all independent studios, but the resulting independence of Action Pants' founders was born out of the vision to create a truly unique studio culture."

    Evidence of Action Pants' workplace strategy can be seen in the praises of the local media. The Vancouver studio, currently employing fewer than 100 in staff, has been ranked one of the Best Companies to work for in British Columbia by BC Business magazine. It was also named one of the province's Top 40 Employers of 2008.

    The smaller and friendlier atmosphere many independent developers boast is often seen as fitting for industry veterans who have grown tired of the corporate-sized work experience. Smaller companies seem to be doing all the right things that their larger counterparts can't or don't. Overall communication is improved between teammates, and the sense of accomplishment is greater

    "One of the major differences is being able to voice your opinions without any type of political punishment," says Jo'Sun Fu of Threewave Software. "Although you may not be able to [green light] all pitched projects, the amount of flaming hoops you need to jump through for executives to see it is substantially less."

    Fu adds that there are many things about a smaller company that can benefit the employee. "Working at a smaller studio is generally much more enjoyable in so many areas -- morale, ownership, and networking are just some of the examples. Knowing everyone's name has value."

    Sizing Up
    Yet how small is "small," and at what point is it too big? For independent developers in hotbed cities, size is often a critical part of studio culture. It's a selling point.

    Daniel Swadling and Jesse Joudrey, CEO and CTO, respectively, of A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. currently have around 20 people in their company, and they don't ever plan on growing more than double in size. Their outlook is to cap the company roster before it hits 50, a mark that they feel surpassing would make the company too "corporate."

    "The goal is to keep the team small and hands-on but with enough people to meet the demands of production," says Andrews of Action Pants.

    Whether working with the minimal number of people, or tightly knit teams of 10, or in a group of 50, sustaining the independent studio feel remains a challenge when meeting the needs of production. To large-scale development studios, 50 people can easily make up the quality assurance department alone. And the rest of the development team can exceed 100 on a single title.

    But an independent studio is not defined solely by the number of employees under its roof. Like independent films, independent video games can afford to take more creative risks than games budgeted for mass consumer sale.

    Ivan Tung, founder of Little Boy Games -- whose first title is a hybrid beat-based puzzle game -- had several years of game programming experience as a software engineer at a major developer prior to forming his own company. The transition actually helped him flex his creative muscles. "The experience that I got working in the game industry certainly enabled me to make the decision to start the company. Definitely part of the reason was a creative one. I do consider myself somewhat creative, and I like to explore my ideas in whatever I'm doing."

    Little Boy's first title reflects that commitment to creativity, targeting fans of the puzzle game genre as well as gamers who enjoy rhythm games like Elite Beat Agents. It is, in a sense, ideal for the Xbox Live Arcade portfolio, which seems flooded by games in the shooter genre.


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