Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What does the selling of GarageGames mean to Indie?

I was going to finally post my thoughts on last week's NPD numbers today, but the IAC acquisition of GarageGames being made public pushes me to another topic as Independent Games have been so near to my heart for so long.

There is no question that GarageGames was near the heart of the most recent Indie revolution. The release of Torque seemed to put game-making within the grasp of anyone who desired to do so, while the release of Think Tanks and Marble Blast showed that great games could be made using it.

However, since that initial push, there has been a lot of silence. Of course Torque has been made to help people create XBLA games and was more recently ported to Wii, but GarageGames has only partially succeeded in helping change the way games are made and played.

XBLA is not the future of Torque. The developer experience and game quality requirement puts XBLA beyond the reach of 99.9% of Torque users and would-be users.

So what is next for Torque?

What is not next is the PC downloadable sector. Honestly, I believe GarageGames misstepped in that regard. While they did a great job at helping people make games, they did a horrible job in helping people sell those games. Without a market on the PC, the more savvy developers moved on. Without a market on the PC, current mainstream developers weren't as enticed to quite their day jobs and follow their dream. GarageGames made it easier to make a game, but game developers knew they had to eat, and no market had been created to sell Indie downloadable games.

Consider this question, "where do you buy indie games?"

The 'umm' that probably starts your answer is really the biggest problem that has faced indie games, and it has only grown worse over time. (with apologies to Manifesto)

GarageGames did have a game store, but it was clearly not the key point of the GG site. It was an afterthought, and that made it irrelevant.

I remember at IndieGamesCon in 2005 eating dinner with Jeff Tunnell and Jay Moore and making an impassioned argument for creating a game store. Something like 'Out of the Garage.' My reasoning? There wasn't anywhere to get Indie games on the internet. Casual games were harnessing their market, but indies were still for sale from many spread out sites without any cohesion. That lack of cohesion meant no market, no market meant no money, no money meant the best indie developers moving onto greener pastures.

And move they did. Most of the biggest indie developers moved either to casual games or to console games. The quality of Indie games available on PC decreased, and today, I think we have a situation where, for the 99.9% of indies, there is little possibility of making a go of it.

Josh Williams, in the blog about the IAC purchase stated: "we've never had the resources at hand to fundamentally change the game and carve out new space that'd really help developers be successful."

I agree with the general idea, but disagree with one point. They did have the resources, and in-fact were one of the few companies that could have done something to create an indie games market. I think the GreatGamesExperiment is proof of the resources and ability when the desire is behind it. What GarageGames didn't do was fully appreciate the importance of selling games to their future. They wanted to create the technology and let the developers create the market. That didn't work. 5 Years later there is no Indie marketplace, in fact there is less of a downloadable Indie market than there was when they started.

I think in retrospect the approach would have been something like:
1 - create great technology
2 - create games on that technology
3 - create a great community driven website store to sell the games
4 - release the games on casual portals, and then later steam and gametap to maximize awareness and drive customers back to the game store
5 - publish other people's games on the game store and create great add-ons for the great games that you'd already made
6 - improve the technology
7 - make new games on that technology
8 - repeat 4-7 multiple times

(my assessment is that GG got off to a great start doing 1 and 2, skipped 3, started to do 4 and then changed directions , dabbled with 5, worked on 6, didn't deliver on 7 and was ready to try a different approach by 8)

The move with IAC is all about creating a market for Independent developers. In creating a web-based games console, GG is attacking the heart of the matter. Will it work? That's hard to say. Certainly every indie who is hoping to make a financial go of things should be paying close attention. Potentially GarageGames is doing just what it needs to in order to create a market for Indie developers to sell their wares and make a living on the dream.

Currently for indies wanting to live their dream of making the games they want to and being paid to do it there are few options.

1 - Consoles - (XBLA requires more funding than most indies have, WiiWare is untested waters, PSN requires a personal invitation)
2 - Casual Portals - (This may require changing the game to better fit a market that you aren't familiar with, plus, many indies don't consider themselves indie when they have to take direction [which is a bad approach, but it is a common sentiment])
3 - Create a market for your game from scratch

Those options are pretty bleak. I know of very few businessmen who would dare take on option 3 (and very few indies have succeeded at it). Option 1 requires some experience and typically a lot of financing, but it is certainly a good option for indies, it may be the best one currently available. Option 2 is a low-cost, low-experience option, but it may not allow for development on your own terms.

Getting back to the first question, what does the IAC acquisition of GG mean?
It means they will still help with option 1, and they are going to work on creating a here-to-fore non-existent option 4...

...which sounds just like what was said 5 years ago when GG was formed!
However, the big difference now is that GG may have the finances and experience to make it happen.

As I've watched the indie revolution of 5 years ago slip away into dreams of what might have been, I'm hopeful that this new approach will create the indie market that the last one missed.

15 comments:

Tim said...

As one of the older GG employees, I have to say this is pretty much the best coverage of the deal I've read. You really hit the heart of the matter I believe. Great article.

-Tim Aste

Russell Carroll said...

Thanks for the warm comments. I appreciate you passing by.

CERDIP said...

>>...which sounds just like what was said 5 years ago when GG was formed!

And of course, you meant to say 8 years ago, right? :-)


- Ken Finney

John said...

Russell or someone from GG - I'm an angel investor reviewing a "Tween" (age 8-13) boys focused virtual world. Think ClubPenguin, Barbiedoll.com etc but for boys and their interests which you can imagine. Themed games will be part of the world and socializing aspects. One concern is that once boys hit 11 or so, the consoles and their rich graphic games are a big part of a their lives (EAsports etc) vs girls. Even excellent flash based browser games fall far short when compared to their console time and this will impact success of the social world.

Question is what level of comfort do you have that the concept of a "console in a browser" and P2P can deliver a "reasonable" equivalent to consoles? Assumes its an avg home PC with todays specs. Thx

- John Gorman

Edward said...

There's another option, that a few of those early indies have followed: Make games for other people aka contract work.

Its paid our bills for a couple years now, built us an office, and given us some breathing room to (occasionally) build our own titles while increasing our depth of experience.

Otherwise, I'll echo the "spot on" comments.

Russell Carroll said...

> And of course, you meant to say 8 years ago, right? :-)

Yeah, I may be off on that. GG was formed in 2000 I believe, and Torque was released in 2002? Those were the dates I was working off of in my memory, but it may have been that the first significant press Torque received was in 2002.

Russell Carroll said...

> Question is what level of comfort do you have that the concept of a "console in a browser" and P2P can deliver a "reasonable" equivalent to consoles?

Great Question. I would expect GG's answer is a very high level of comfort ;). I'm intrigued and definitely take the 'pay attention so you aren't left behind' mentality. What they are proposing is going to be very difficult. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be any value in it. Difficult things are hard to succeed in, but the payoff is often quite large when success happens. I'm hopeful that they will succeed, but also realistic and realize there is a lot of hard work between then and now that may block the path.

Jeff Tunnell said...

Actually, this post is way off base in many respects. I take huge exception to your casual statement that the GG Game Store was an after thought. It was a part of the plan from Day One, and, in fact, a prototype was shown at the first IGC. I met you at the first IGC. For you to claim that you are somehow the reason that we tried to sell games is a huge overstatement.

We did sell a lot of games in the game store. Marble Blast has sold over 10,000 copies from our store, and many others are in the 1,000's of sales. However, it was not enough. We could not get enough good games to keep the stream alive. In retrospect, our standards may have been too high.

For the past year or so, we have purposely put less emphasis on the GG Game Store as we worked on new initiatives.

Lastly, to say that it is not important for Indies to have access to XBox360 or Wii shows a fundamental lack of understanding about how indies can make a living making games.

Sorry for sounding so negative on this reply, but I seriously disagree with most of yoru analysis.

-Jeff Tunnell, GarageGames

Russell Carroll said...

Jeff it sounds like the points I made weren't understood.

I didn't claim to be behind you selling games, GG did long before we ever spoke about it, so that wouldn't make any sense. My statement was that I thought much more emphasis should have been put on selling games. I suggested a separate site to be created just to sell games. Selling games was not the primary goal of the GG site, it was for making games. It did sell some games, but as you mentioned, not enough. I believed a site with selling games as a primary goal was needed for the games to really sell. It wasn't the primary purpose for a visit to GG, and for the games to sell they needed a site where selling games was the primary purpose.

My comments on XBLA and Wii don't state that it is not good to have access to the consoles. I'm trying to figure out what part of anything I wrote could possibly suggest that. To quote myself: "Option 1 [which is about getting on the consoles] requires some experience and typically a lot of financing, but it is certainly a good option for indies, it may be the best one currently available."

"Fundamental lack of understanding?" Come on Jeff, that's playground.

I think maybe my post was skimmed a little due to its length ;). [it was pretty long!] Your analysis of what it says disagrees with the source I think :).

I think my blog agrees with your thoughts pretty well from your comments.

Joshua said...

Hi Russ, Josh at GarageGames here. I've spent the last year managing the game store and wanted to clarify a few points from my perspective.

You said: "I believe GarageGames misstepped... While they did a great job at helping people make games, they did a horrible job in helping people sell those games. GarageGames made it easier to make a game... and no market had been created to sell Indie downloadable games."

The GG game store has been there from the beginning, but having a store does not equal having a market. It's true that GG set the bar pretty high for publishing, but that was an intentional strategic move to help build a market around a critical mass of high quality indie games, not to keep indies out.

I feel like you're putting the blame squarely on us, because it's not the indies' fault so it must be ours, right? Well, wrong. There's a third person involved in this drama, and that's the consumer. Without consumers there is no market.

Manifesto Games took a stab at the "no market" problem, taking the long-tail approach and thereby not having as high a quality bar as we had, giving them a near-immediate critical mass of decent quality indie games. And over a year later what's the verdict? Costik had to start a spin-off site, called PlayThisThing.com, because Manifesto Games quote "hasn't turned out as well as we had hoped." Anecdotal reports from indie developers selling on their site confirm this -- no sales. So who's at fault there for there being no market, the indie, Manifesto, or the consumers not buying the games?

GarageGames is not abandoning the traditional game store model. But we are trying to revolutionize the way indies can succeed through the entirely new market paradigm of the new InstantAction portal we're working on. The market exists, it just hasn't been successfully tapped yet. We expect to do just that.

You said: "Casual games were harnessing their market, but indies were still for sale from many spread out sites without any cohesion. That lack of cohesion meant no market..."

You're making two big incorrect assumptions here.

First, you're assuming that indies share a trait with casual games and that's that they WANT to be cohesed. Many don't, that's why they're indie. Approach them with a publishing offer and a surprising percentage will tell you to bugger off (or ignore you outright). Reasons range from being a hobbyist and not wanting to get involved in the business side, not needing or wanting to make a profit from their game (a huge segment of indie games are freeware, which by nature of being freely distributed means there is never a publisher), not wanting indirect or implied control over their work, developers whose games are personal to them, games that are art, and more. These are not oddballs, these are the same games you review on GameTunnel every month. Offer them publishing and a surprising number of them have no interest even if they sell the game on their personal site. You assume that they WANT to be aggregated. Many don't!

Second, you assume that the lack of aggregation is the reason for no market. Well, there sits Manifesto, who is an aggregator, and where is the market. The medium is the message right? We're changing the medium in order to change the message. We feel that's what will finally reach the market that everyone knows exists but nobody has really fully successfully tapped yet.

You said: "The quality of Indie games available on PC decreased"

I have only my instincts to back me up, but I have to call BS on this. Every year the quality of games submitted to the Indie Games Festival gets better, and finalists are overwhelmingly for the PC. There are always exceptions, but there is no trend of exodus from the PC platform for greener pastures. Through accessible tools such Torque, more developers are flocking to the open PC platform than ever before.

You said: "What GarageGames didn't do was fully appreciate the importance of selling games to their future."

As someone who's spent time as both a community member and a GG employee, I can say from both perspectives that GG's vision from the beginning held great respect towards the importance of selling games. Many games took off and sold very well, but we always wanted to see them do even better. We could have continued treading against the current and fighting the current system, but it's broken, and we're seeking to change that with the revolutionary new InstantAction platform. This new platform is not something that can be thought of and designed out of nothing; ideas like this don't come from a vacuum. They come from a history of trying things and learning from your findings. InstantAction is the natural conclusion to all the other steps we have taken thus far; there could have been no shortcut to it and it could have come about no other way.

You said: "in fact there is less of a downloadable Indie market than there was when they started."

Again though I have nothing to back this up, I have to call BS on this one as well. What are you considering the indie market -- strictly games with an indie aesthetic? Or games made by indies? Because there are more indie games than ever before, and I point specifically to the casual space as one area where it's exploded.

You said: "Potentially GarageGames is doing just what it needs to in order to create a market for Indie developers to sell their wares and make a living on the dream."

And I do agree with your conclusion, just not some of your foregoing ones that lead to this. In the end of course it's not the history that's important, it's how much we can help game developers realize their dreams of finding their market and "making their fortune." Our eye is on that ball as it has been this whole time.

Josh

Joshua said...

Note: The above comment was from Josh Dallman, GG producer, not Josh Williams, GG CEO. Sorry for any confusion. -- Josh D.

Michael said...

"We could have continued treading against the current and fighting the current system, but it's broken, and we're seeking to change that with the revolutionary new InstantAction platform."

Revolutionary? Didn't we already go down this path with WildTangent Webdriver? I sure thought so.

John Gorman, yes. Follow up with me different channel.

Phil Carlisle said...

I think that overall Russell is right.

The mere act of putting a shopping site together does nothing to drive sales of that site.

What I think was missing, was unique branding and marketing aimed at attracting visitors to the site. So for instance, you now have InstantAction.com, but what would have stopped that from being there from the get-go?

I'm assuming you'll be using some of the capital to actually go out and advertize InstantAction.com and get to more people, again, thats kind of what russell is saying.

Using manifesto as an example is kind of silly, I could equally point to RealArcade and say "here's a successful version". There may be different products, but the fundamentals of a game sales portal are the same. Manifesto clearly doesnt do something that Real DOES do. Either it doesnt offer compelling products, or it doesnt reach the same number of customers, or doesnt service those customers, or or or.. My point being that clearly downloadable PC games DO sell, so the fundamental idea works, you simply cant prove a case with one test unless the test is "does manifesto sell enough games".

I'm with Russell, in that I do hope that IA works out and provides indies with a really strong sales place. It is definitely required if more indies are going to create a long term business out of doing original games.

Of course the biggest hurdle that GG and IA now have to jump over, is that of finding and attracting the market. It will take more than just putting up a website, it'll take advertising, targetted products, all of that nasty business stuff.

Its interesting Josh talked about indies NOT wanting to aggregate, I can certainly understand that. But then there probably quite a few good developers who are working on "casual" products because they can make a living from it, who would switch to more original titles if they could make the same ROI.

Its not so much a case of "if you build it, they will come", its a case of "if you build it and it works and they know about it, they will come".

James Barnette said...

I think for one thing , and before I get flamed hear me out. In order to have a market you have to have a product that people want to buy. I don't want to hurt feelings but Most of the game that have been made with torque are pittiful when compared to a equivilant product from the store shelves. A think a lot of this has to due wtih the fact that the torque Art pipeline has been so completely rediculas until recenently "It is better but still sucks". You cannot have these indie games looking the way they do an expect them to sell. The art side of games with almost what the user interacts with it is what they see, not the code. the TGE art pipeline was completely ignored for almost 5 years. In the last year constructor finally has come out. and L3DT can be used to make terrain. this should have been done years ago. This is mainly because GG has such a ADD attitude. They are not focused on making game they are spread out of 50 tiniy project with no coherant vision. If anyone calles them on it they start ranting and raving like lunatics. "zepp" If when sahder technology had been embraced immediately and the engines hab been kept unified and focused in stead of the efforts being divided. I think that wew would be looking at an engine that would compete with the Unreal 3 Engine today. All in all there is plenty of blame to go around. All in all I think for to long GG has been run by guys that were successful back int he day at making games and GG was a hobby for them. I don't think that they had progressed and kept current with the industry. I hope there are large personel changes and new people that understand these things are placed in positions to make these desicions. Unfortunatly it seems that there is some rediculas new web focus now. Hope that TGEA is not abaondond due to this but I am going to start looking at backup alternatives.

Epic while having more money has about the same number of people working for them and they manage to make the unreal 3 engine and Gears of war at the same time. It can be done GG you just have to focus.

elenora123 said...

very interesting i so much love what i see in this site,and i will like to be member of the site.
Love your site. Is there anything I can do to help YOU? I have been telling my friends to visit your site. Thanks to you, the information was unavailable. Now I am getting action. I can. Just let me know. Blessings and good wishes to all of you!! You are doing a tremendous service!
Barbara
knightsbridge business sales