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This piece was published in December 1999 in Game Developer Magazine.

Gaming Needs an Indy Label

Yesterday, I went to see Kristin Hersh live at the Knitting Factory. The club was packed. Hersh releases on 4AD--an independent label. It's not owned by Sony or Time Warner or BMG. Hersh doesn't get the kind of promo that major-label artists do--but she has more control over what gets released. Hersh is never going to chart--but she makes enough to live quite well, and reaches an audience of enthusiasts.

Tonight, I'm going down to the Angelika with my sweetie. It's New York's primary venue for independent films. The movies they show are never going to appear at your local Odeon or Sony theater; they'll be lucky to reach 500 screens in the States. But there are enough theaters like the Angelika to support a whole market for independent films--films that will never gross like a Hollywood blockbuster, but reach an audience of enthusiasts, and earn enough to let many people live quite well.

At times, the music and movie industries look dull and played out and repetitive. You get the same damn formulas over and over, the same artists, the same directors. But that never lasts, and for one single reason: There's a venue for independent work. Indy labels and indy film companies experiment, at lower budgets, with the offbeat and original. And sometimes, they hit a nerve, build an audience, and ultimately rejuvenate the field. It happens over and over in the music business, and you can see it happening in film with The Blair Witch Project today.

Right now, the game industry looks dull and played out and repetitive. We get the same damn formulas over and over again. Yet another shooter. Yet another RTS game. Yet another racer.

A title as original or offbeat as SimCity or Balance of Power or M.U.L.E.--hell, or Frogger--could not get funded today.

Gaming needs a venue for independent work.

Two years ago, Miller Freeman did the industry a service by launching the Independent Games Festival. It's a place for 'garage' developers to showcase product, get exposure, and maybe land a publisher. That's great, but it's not enough--because they're dealing with the same publishers as everyone else, EA and Interplay and GT. The majors will fund the tried and true, another shooter or RTS or racer. They'll happily exploit low-budget newbies who develop something that fits into slots they know how to sell--but they're not going to experiment with something new, something offbeat, something that will probably fail but just might rejuvenate the field.

The problem? There's no way to distribute an independent game. Yes, with a little effort, you can land a meeting with the buyer for CompUSA or Electronic Boutique or Software Etc., but they're not going to buy your game without the high-budget graphic glitz they expect from the majors and six figures in placement bucks and a commitment to a major marketing campaign. The typical mall software outlet still only has 40 facings for computer games, and there are 1500+ entertainment titles published annually, and anything that doesn't fit the mold isn't going to get exposure.

Indy films work because there's a separate, parallel distribution channel to the one for conventional film. Indy music works because there are a million record stores that cater to a million different tastes and a million small clubs where you can play to build an audience.

We've got nothing similar. We've got to build it.

How? As recently as 1991, a typical computer game cost around $250,000 to develop. Graphics and sound have improved a lot since then, but computer games haven't gotten any better as games. You don't need $1.5 million in development funding to develop a first-rate game; you can do it on $250-400,000. You just can't get shelf-space for a low-budget game.

But--at that level, you don't need 100,000 unit sales. You can make money if you can get rid of 20,000 copies. And how tough can that be? Hell, man, twelve years ago, I sold more than 20,000 copies of a wonky little paper game called Paranoia through a wonky little distribution chain cobbled together out of specialty hobby game stores and comic shops. I doubt I had 500 points of sale in North America.

It can be done.

Some people are trying; Firaxis will be selling Sid Meier's Antietam direct to consumers--no retail distribution. Michael Berlyn is bravely struggling to keep the text adventure alive through direct sales (Cascade publishing, deceased since I wrote this).

But we need more. We need a company committed to publishing truly original, offbeat, cool product and building the channel for its distribution--instead of shovelling the same old crap to the same old stores.

Gaming needs an indy label. For the sake of its own health, to act as basic R&D for the entire field, to find new gaming styles that can attract a large audience. Because development costs continue to spiral upward faster than unit sales and we have to find a way to break that iron cycle. But most important, because I'm tired of the same old same old and want to play something really cool and new.

Don't you?

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Copyright © 1999-2000 by Greg Costikyan.