Develop 2009

So, since I was just a stones-throw (okay, two and a quarter hours by train) from Brighton, I took advantage of Develop this year. I’ll cover the interesting talks in a subsequent post, but for now some thoughts from the conference itself.

My boss at Microsoft was kind enough to let me go through them for a pass, which allowed somewhat cheaper rates, at the cost of having all of my independent developer peers see my badge and run screaming from the representative of the big-bad-evil corporation. They were mostly tempted back with sweet and soothing words, but I did have to spam business cards as far and wide as possible to reinforce my credentials as a similarly small and indie business.

Sadly the last train back from Brighton was too early to partake in the kind of party networking that goes on after conference hours, but since I’m a total lightweight, that’s probably a good thing. Less potential business partners scared away by Professor Drunk and all of his loud and firmly held opinions on the failings of the industry.

That said, I was pleased to find kindred spirits amongst those I talked to in the early evenings – conferences are always a good way to gauge the general sentiment of the industry, and get a view from your peers untainted by media bias. Of that, the main themes I took away this year were: a) boxed retail games are not a good place to be, b) digital distribution of smaller titles is the only way to go, but is sadly lacking in many respects, and c) the funding gap between the retail behemoths and the self-funded indies is ever-widening, and still a barren wasteland.

Most of those are things I’ve been saying for a while now, but I’m glad to hear that it’s not just us, and these are industry wide issues. There is much optimism, and cause for hope. But the market we operate in is still settling, and no-one has any sure wisdom. What has become clear is that Nintendo’s strategy (or lack thereof) with WiiWare has condemned a promising opportunity for indies into something of a dead end.

While it’s cheaper to develop for the Wii, it’s still not ultra-cheap; the massive install base is very much skewed towards non-traditional customers who are unlikely to hunt out WiiWare and the Wii Shop in the same way that a traditional gamer would; the Wii Shop itself suffers from all of the terrible navigation issues that I’ve complained about before. The simple fact is that it’s an effort to buy things through WiiWare, and the only way we could tempt all those Wii-Fit to part with their cash is if it were suggested to them as part of using the system. Of course, I realise that we could reach them with targetted marketing, but let’s be frank, if we had the money to do targetted marketing we wouldn’t be in this position.

What we’d like, as indies, is a marketplace with customers actively searching for goods; where the quality of our titles is the differentiating factor, and the cost to bring games to market is as close to the cost of producing the titles. When you’re as small as your average independent, cost to get to market is key. Let’s imagine a title that costs £150K to develop. If we pitch it at a platform which requires £500K of advertising or other costs to get it to market, it doesn’t matter that would return £800K. Sure, that’s a decent return, but we don’t have £650K to put in. We’ve probably got the £150K, if not in cash then at least in sweat equity. But there’s not a queue of financiers out there willing to front the additional costs to get to market.

Although on this note I was chatting to Chris Swan of Blitz, without even realising who he was. And I must give much kudos to Blitz for being one of the few players prepared to put their money where their mouth is, and work with small independents.

So I’m both heartened and disheartened by my time at Develop. Heartened by the young and successful independents who I had the pleasure of meeting and drinking with, but disheartened that there are no platforms (or platform holders) with the vision to foster a market where smaller independents can operate

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