Science

Indie games counter sequel-driven market

Some independent video game developers are fighting the trend of franchise-based games, focusing instead on innovative gameplay and original concepts.
Indie titles like Castle Crashers, from California-based independent game developer The Behemoth, have been received well by gamers and reviewers for their fresh approach to design and gameplay. ((Courtesy The Behemoth))
Tales from Space: About a Blob, from Toronto-based Drinkbox Studios, allows for both single player and co-op modes and is available on the Playstation Network. ((Courtesy Drinkbox Studios))

"It is really, really hard to come up with solid game concepts and great characters," said John Baez, co-founder of The Behemoth, an independent video game developer based in California.

"So, most companies do what Hollywood does: crank out sequels."

Long-lasting franchises have become the bread and butter of the video game industry; the top ten best-selling games in 2010 were all follow-ups or sequels, according to figures reported by the NPD Group.

Notable titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops; Halo: Reach; and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood — each a continuation of its respective franchise — ranked as some of the best-selling games last year.

But these perennial titles may have reason for concern. Guitar Hero was one of the decade's iconic entertainment brands, but that did not stop Activision from pulling the plug on it earlier this month. In six short years, the sequel-driven franchise moved from a must-own title to an after-thought in a market saturated with similar products.

A glance at annual sales figures might suggest the gaming industry is now all about these big-name franchises, but beneath the surface, smaller, independent developers with original concepts are generating more interest from gamers and investors.

The Behemoth was formed in 2002 around the game Alien Hominid by a small team of recently laid-off developers, including Baez. Fitting the technical mold of other web-hosted games at the time, Alien Hominid was written in Flash as a simple two-dimensional side-scrolling shooter game that pitted players controlling a yellow alien against waves of FBI agents.

It instantly became popular, and when it was later released on consoles like the Xbox and Playstation, the game retained the simplicity of form and appealing hand-drawn animations that made it a hit in its earliest days.

"The success of Alien Hominid showed us that 2D art and gameplay could be resurrected for a new generation of gamers and help build a niche market. This is something the big guys weren't interested in," said Baez.

Baez couldn't accurately say how many copies of Alien Hominid have been sold because the numerous avenues of distribution that The Behemoth uses, but he estimates it to be in the millions.

The success of the game meant that not only had players embraced the return to simplistic indie roots but that Baez and his teammates had created a recognizable brand in Alien Hominid.

The conventional model would dictate that The Behemoth follow up the game with a sequel or spin-off, but despite the obvious benefits of doing so, The Behemoth opted to create an entirely new franchise.

Following Alien Hominid, The Behemoth released Castle Crashers, and it, too, was well received — earning ratings of more than 80 per cent on gamerankings.com, Eurogamer, GameSpot and IGN.

The beat-'em-up game continued in the classic Alien Hominid style, favouring simple cartoon art over 3D realism. It also showed that reusing a successful formula does not have to necessarily mean repeating themes, plots or characters.

"We've always been adventurous and like to experiment with different genres of games ... instead of trying to force fit Alien [Hominid] into a different genre," Baez said.

Potential for success

The majority of indie developers cannot confidently say that just two of their games are played by millions of people. Though smaller companies fight to establish themselves in a competitive market with fresh ideas, some developers have recognized that there is great incentive to expand a series following the success of the initial title.

"You've built up all this technology so the costs are lower, your staff develop a skill set … bringing that onto the next game is just a good business decision," said Graham Smith, chief operating officer of Drinkbox Studios, an independent Toronto-based developer.

"As a result, the return on investments in the first game may not be as big as the return on the second game."

Drinkbox Studios is a relatively new studio run by industry veterans. Its recently released premier title Tales from Space: About a Blob has received encouraging reviews, and Drinkbox Studios said it has already got funding to develop a sequel as well as an unrelated original title.

Jason Doucette and his twin brother, Matthew, have published several award-winning games. ((Xona Games/John Sherlock))

The side-scrolling game gives players control over a blob that can consume objects in its environment and grows accordingly through the progression of the game. It is these innovative gameplay mechanics that have appealed to reviewers and gamers.

"It's always a challenge to come up with a completely new concept, but you do see more innovation in indie projects," said Drinkbox CEO Ryan MacLean. "The upfront investment is lower, so people are more inclined to take a gamble with gameplay."

This appears to be the newly defined role of independent developers, who aim to take advantage of the commitment larger companies have shown to established franchises by distinguishing themselves through originality.

Grass-roots nostalgia

"It's kind of put on the indie guys to come up with new stuff in terms of the gameplay itself," said Matt Doucette, co-founder of Nova Scotia-based Xona Games. "We don't feel pressure ourselves, but that is definitely the expectation."

Doucette and his twin brother, Jason, have published several award-winning games and have garnered recognition for their work in notable gaming publications like IGN and Gamastura.

The brothers decided against finding jobs at large video game corporations in favour of pursuing their personal passions as developers. By forming their own company, they were able to maintain creative control over the entire operation.

"We're huge fans of certain styles of video games that we know large companies are not going to tackle," said Doucette.

"They're kind of retro; they have a nostalgic feel to them, and those are the games we're most in love with…. We're making games that we miss the most in the industry."

Though Xona Games has not yet experienced the level of success enjoyed by The Behemoth, it has excelled in niche digital marketplaces and with specific demographics. Its flagship Decimation series — featuring arcade-style top-down viewed space shooter games — has ranked highly, and often first, in terms of sales in the U.S., Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan within their genre.

Xona Games' upcoming release, Duality ZF, earned top spot in Canada at Dream Build Play 2010, a global developers competition, and is expected to have similar success.

However, limited market visibility within niche markets means Xona will struggle to reach mainstream availability until it catches the attention of a broader audience.

The brothers are currently preparing to pitch their games at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, which kicks off Feb. 28, with the hope of securing more support and exposure for their independent company.

"Financially, it can be very difficult," said Doucette. "Survivability is everything for indie developers…. It's extremely competitive.

"But the potential is there. It's been great for a lot of people to get their foot in the door."

Corrections

  • The story previously stated that Xona Games' Duality ZF had ranked first in sales. This has been corrected to state that it had ranked first in Canada at a developers competition and is an upcoming release.
    Mar 04, 2011 10:00 AM ET

now