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  • Ask the Experts: Console vs. PC Development

    - Jill Duffy
  •  Dear Experts,
    What options does a young indie developer have of getting his games onto any consoles? What options are there for getting the game onto the console having to do with hardware and software? What kinds of licenses are required?

    Basically, I'm looking for knowledge and resources about hardware, software, and programming options for indie developers, as well as information about developing for different consoles. I'm interested in information ranging from a small time hobbyist, designing only for himself, to a larger indie company looking to turn a profit.

    Is there any way for a single person with the time and skill to put a game on a console or is the hobbyist limited to computer games?

    Thank you for your time and your help,
    Console Dreamer

    Dear Dreamer,
    As an independent game developer, there's nothing to stop you from releasing a game on PC or console or both -- except money. The cost of development for PC is generally lower than developing a game for console. When I say "cost," I mean money, time, human resources, and technological resources. To make a marketable game for modern consoles just generally costs more than one for PC. And there seem to be more tenable niche markets among PC game players than among console players, making it easier to access those markets and produce a profitable game.

    There was a panel discussion at the Game Career Seminar (held at the 2008 Game Developers Conference in February in San Francisco) that answered many of the questions you're asking, Dreamer. On the panel were three indie game-makers: one has been successful, one is struggling to finish a game and find a publisher for it, and one used to work for an indie company that has since gone under. Let me tell you a little about each of them.

    Developer number one is Andy Schatz, who started Pocketwatch Games a few years ago and released Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa to a decent amount of success. The game sold more than enough copies for Schatz to turn a little profit. He's currently working on getting his second title out. Developer number two, Charles Nicolson, is part of a tiny company called Power of Two Games -- it's just him and his friend Noel Llopis. They don't have a finished product yet, but their goal is to release the game for consoles. Developer number three, Tom Plunket was part of a small indie start-up company that went under before it ever got a game out the door. All three of them worked in the corporate game industry prior to going indie, so they all have professional game development experience.

    Schatz, the panelist who has been moderately successful,  says he found a publisher and had a deal before he even had a prototype. "The game that I was making was intentionally very marketable," he says, calling it "essentially a downloadable, casual version of Zoo Tycoon." What made the game marketable was the clearly defined audience: PC game-playing children and families.

    The publisher recognized the game's viability in the marketplace and could estimate with some certainty the minimum amount of return it would see from game sales. When a publisher has a clear and reasonable ROI in its future, it's in a good position to give the developer some money upfront. The publisher (and developer) can then set the game's budget to be a certain percentage lower than the expected returns. That's how games make money. It's a fundamental rule of business: You have to balance how much money you can make -- not how many units you can sell -- against your operating costs.

    Schatz says making a viable game comes down to customers and technology, and figuring out the growth markets that exist therein. "Do something new with a minimal amount of effort because you're leveraging the technology in a new way," he says. Schatz's own example is that he's using the level editor in the Torque engine and putting its tools in front of the player for the first time. They player uses these tools, which are prettied up for the game, to change the ecosystem of the game world. This game feature is new, but it wasn't technologically (or financially) ground breaking. Still, it's enough to turn some heads.

    You don't need any special license to make a game for PC, whether sold on disc or downloadable. However, console developers have to be approved or certified by the company that owns the console. Only approved developers (and a handful of students and journalists) get access to the development kits that are needed to make a finished and playable game for each console. This is a hurdle for all new game development companies, not just indies.

    Nicolson, who is still working on getting out a console game, mentioned what it's like to try and get certified to develop for Microsoft and Sony. As an indie, he says, during the Xbox days Microsoft was known for being very open and working with a variety of developers, whereas Sony had a "stonewall" reputation. But now in the age of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, "we're seeing a complete reversal," he says. "Microsoft won't even talk to us now without a fully playable level," but Sony is open to meeting with the company. "There are a lot of reasons now to be on Sony," Nicoloson says. For example, "Havok is free if you're a PS3 developer."

    Another option for indie game-makers is of course Xbox Live Arcade and Steam, in addition to the newly announced Xbox Live Community Games program and XNA Creators Club.

    However, says Tom Plunket, Xbox Live is "saturated," and not worth competing on. The problem, he says, with popular channels for digital distribution is that they give developers a way to get their games into the hands of players, but they don't offer a way to make money.

    For indies, so much of the strategy of game development comes down to money. What tools can you afford? How long can you afford to wait before seeing funding? Who's on your payroll? Again, it's a matter of balancing your estimated return against what you can afford to spend now.

    What many profitable indie developers do is create small-scale games for niche markets -- as Schatz and Wadjet Eye did with the Blackwell series -- estimating how many copies will definitely sell and then budgeting around that number. A friend of Schatz's, for example, created a rodeo game a few years ago. Because being a rodeo enthusiast is such a niche group, there are hardly any video games for that market. Schatz says his friend sold only a few copies at first, but the game continued to sell over many years, and even today, a few copies are purchased every so often. It's a tortoise-beats-the-hare kind of triumph with long-term payoffs.

    Schatz recommends that indie developers with an eye on making it in the console space consider developing for the Nintendo Wii. "There are so many Wiis out there and not enough games for it," Schatz says. "I spoke with Nintendo about my second title, and I think they've relaxed this some, but if [the game being pitched] wasn't something specifically [made to use the Wiimote], they were really snobby about it. You really had to utilize everything. But I think they've relaxed this some." He says the Wii dev kits run at about $2,000 apiece.

    Nicolson believes that PC game development is actually more difficult than console because it's like the "wild west." "PC is much harder because there are so many portals out there," he says.

    Some other recommendations the panelists had for start-up indies were to keep overhead costs low, from payroll to office furniture, but to recognize other investments that are worthwhile, such as hiring a lawyer and paying for a server. Schatz says he spends $20 per month for a server service called Nicolson also says, "Don't pay for any of your software. There are free versions for everything."

    I hope that's helped you understand a little bit about the differences between developing for console versus PC as an indie game-maker, Dreamer. Good luck!

    Jill Duffy is editor of and writes the biweekly Ask the Experts column for the site. If you have a well formed question to ask about getting into the game industry that you'd like to see answered in this column, email it to theexperts(at)

    Please note: does not endorse specifically schools or programs for game development, so don't ask.


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