Longtime listeners will recall that I spent many months this year working on an in-depth analysis of the New York City development scene. The end product focused on advertising and social media opportunities for smaller developers, as well as a look at how individual artists are able to eke out a living in a very crowded market. I haven’t been able to find a publisher yet, but I’m very proud of the results and wanted to share with everyone regardless. I’m working on a personal web site for professional purposes, but this will work in the meantime. At 24 pages, it’ll require some endurance, but any feedback would be very much appreciated.
BIG CITY, TINY GAMES: A look at the future of video game development in New York City
by Justin Hemenway
Originally written July 8th, 2009
In terms of sheer numbers, the New York City video game industry lags behind its west coast competitors. The city employs only 1,200 game makers and marketers, or three percent of American development, while California alone commands 40 percent. However, while the western juggernaut contends with ballooning budgets and staffs, the New York City game community has found that there are benefits to being small.
Video game development can be lucrative, but it is a chancy venture. According to the NPD Group, a consumer and retail market research firm, the U.S. game industry reached a value of $21.33 billion in 2008, 19 percent more than in 2007. Electronic Arts (EA) and other publishers have laid off thousands, but the small New York developers have remained largely insulated from the recession. In a survey conducted by the Center for an Urban Future in May 2008, of the 30 game developers and 55 marketers in the city, only seven employ 50 persons or more. Despite the limited budgets and uncertain player reactions, this may be the cityâ€™s key advantage, an emphasis on artistic or educational value. In the advertising world, agencies are turning to smaller game studios for inspiration.
The cityâ€™s expanding industry means that more students are enrolling in local game development schools, such as the communication design and technology department at the Parsons The New School for Design.
Kan Yang Li, a faculty researcher at Parsons, likes working at Parsons because the program encourages individual creativity. â€œRather than aiming for â€˜hardcoreâ€™ video game design, we introduce the video game as a platform for the artist and designer to express themselves with,â€ he said.
Many game design students in the area have emerged as major producers of â€œcasualâ€ games. Though this moniker can be applied to many genres, the key idea is that they can be played for 10 to 15 minutes at a time, providing instant gratification. Games like the classic â€œTetris,â€ in which a player moves blocks down a well, are often used as templates. Theyâ€™re the kind of games that keep players awake until the early hours of the morning, desperately trying to score just a few more points and bragging rights.
Li feels that the city is well-suited for casual projects. â€œIn my opinion, New York City was never intended to be the next capital for console game design,â€ he said. â€œThis is more of a place for casual game development, where small groups of creative people get together and do stuff.â€
â€œThe audience for these games is older women; those ladies are fanatical,â€ said Nikita Mikros, founder of New York City developer Tiny Mantis. â€œIf youâ€™re spending so many hours in front of the computer screen, can you really call them â€˜casual?â€™â€
Some players even play these â€œcasualâ€ games at a professional level. Kavitha Shah, a law student currently working as an intern in Santa Monica, Calif., began playing puzzle games like â€œBejeweledâ€ as a teenager. â€œI started playing because my mom was really into â€˜Bejeweledâ€™ at the time,â€ Shah said. She never considered herself a competitive player in high school. â€œI would try to beat my own high score,â€ she said.
In college at the University of Texas, Shah saw that her roommates were playing poker online, and decided to try her hand at a video-game-focused web site, SkillJam (which later merged with another site, WorldWinner). To start, she only needed to place a $10 deposit, and soon she was winning about $1 for each victory.
As the months passed by, Shah continued winning, and was eventually invited in 2006 to compete for a $1 million prize in Los Angeles. â€œI thought it was basically a scam,â€ she said. â€œI couldnâ€™t tell that I was that good.â€
She registered a week before the deadline and 72 participants from around the world made it to the final stages of the tournament. â€œThere was all of this added pressureâ€¦there were cameras there now,â€ Shah said.
â€œI think most people were aware of the competition but I think didnâ€™t take it seriously,â€ she said. Still, others had mapped out charts or mathematically devised formulas to win â€“ a much greater time commitment than casual game developers usually expect. â€œI think the appeal is that theyâ€™re easy to learn but difficult to master,â€ she said.
Even without much practice, Shah said that her â€œinstinctually faster reflexesâ€ were enough to claim the top spot and $1 million prize. Since then, however, she doesnâ€™t play as often because she wants to put more effort into her law career. â€œI do think games like â€œBejeweledâ€ are a big stress reliever,â€ she said. â€œIt takes my mind off law school exams, and I like to play at night for my eyes to get tired.â€
These devoted fans have allowed several New York studios to flourish. This includes the Brooklyn-based Freeverse, which makes games for internet browsers, cell phones, Apple products and other platforms. Lydia Heitman, the companyâ€™s director of marketing, said that while larger publishers have avoided New York City, smaller teams still have a wide pool of talent to help out. â€œThe cost of living and rent in New York City is very high, but itâ€™s also the epicenter of the world,â€ she said. â€œSo many ad and creative people are here.â€
Most development at Freeverse is handled â€œin-house,â€ meaning that the companyâ€™s own team of programmers works on the games. However, sometimes outside artists bring in ideas on which theyâ€™d like to expand but are unable to create alone. The most prominent example of this was in 1997, when an artist brought Freeverse its mascot, â€œBurning Monkey,â€ a red-haired chimp with a toothy grin. Since then, the character has been featured in four different games.
In 2004, the mainstream media began paying attention to the problem of unreasonable work practices in the industry when an EA programmerâ€™s fiancÃ©e posted an anonymous blog entry. The posting, which has since become popularly known as â€œEA Spouse,â€ detailed excessively late hours and unpaid overtime. A class action suit was filed against EA in April 2006, forcing the company to pay $14.9 million to cover unpaid overtime.
Because Freeverseâ€™s games are comparatively simple and there are no investors to placate, the â€œcrunch timesâ€ usually associated with the industry are less frequent. â€œWe do have some rush jobs late at night if a game is coming out very soon, but mostly reasonable hours,â€ Heitman said. Justin Ficarrotta, a Freeverse programmer, said that he preferred the low-pressure atmosphere to the big studio system. â€œAs far as larger companies, I’ve been there before, and it’s just not my thing,â€ he said.
Another casual games developer, Arkadium Games, is quickly expanding, currently employing 53 people, up from 27 the year before. The company mainly develops Flash games for other web sites. Flash software is the same browser-based technology that plays video files on YouTube. Flash games can range from obnoxious banner ads on web sites to fully-realized epic adventures akin to console games.
Arkadiumâ€™s specialty is creating game â€œengines,â€ a simple coding framework â€“ basically, the foundation for a single or multiple games. Because these engines are customizable, theyâ€™re attractive to other publishers. Art work, basic rules and sound effects can all be swapped out to fit the clientâ€™s need.
â€œThis isnâ€™t creatively stifling,â€ said Tina Shih, Arkadiumâ€™s marketing director. â€œThere are guidelines to stick with, but our teams put their own spin on (games).â€
She used an unfinished tennis game as an example. While players would hit the ball with digital rackets, Arkadium programmers could devise a unique set of physics to change the behavior of the ball. (In video games, physical properties are assigned to each in-game option, so that a ball might curve more if hit at a specific angle.) â€œThe game learns how the person plays, so if theyâ€™re missing a lot, the computer may make the ball travel slower,â€ she said. This means less virtual broken rackets for easily frustrated players.
Though Arkadium and Freeverse have their own unique intellectual properties, their specialty is â€œadvergaming,â€ in which games are developed around brands. Depending on the client, a project can be completed in as little as two weeks or as long as several months.
â€œWeâ€™ll sometimes get calls asking for games to be turned around in a couple of days,â€ Shih said. She said that some clients have been turned away because the scope of the games theyâ€™re seeking is impossible to create in such a short time span.
Given enough notice however, Arkadium has created games that go beyond simple Mahjong and Solitaire copycats. Earlier this year, one of the teams completed a game for the History Channel. The game was to be launched alongside the premiere of the television show â€œWarriors.â€ â€œThe show is about warrior tribes throughout history,â€ Shih said. In the game, players travel across the globe, brutally fighting combatants from numerous civilizations while learning about their tactics in the process.
Though Shih was unwilling to share sales figures, she said that an elaborate project like the History Channel game could cost $2 million to $5 million to create. But for a client who simply wants to apply its logo to a Solitaire game, the cost is ranges from $5,000 to $10,000. â€œAdvertisers will sometimes want to save money by buying games in bulk,â€ she said.
In most instances, clients will usually allow the developers to take charge. They may have specific ideas that they would like to implement or points theyâ€™d like to get across about their product, but they realize that game developers are more capable when it comes to the actual design.
Working within the confines of a license could in some instances be inspirational. For instance, Ficarrotta found that he could take a property like the Paramount film â€œTop Gunâ€ and combine it with jetfighter games from his youth, like â€œAfterburnerâ€ and â€œSpace Harrier.â€
â€œBeing in a smaller company allows me to be much more creative with my game designs, and allows for much more of my personal style to come through in the finished product,â€ Ficarrotta said.
At the moment, the Flash and iPhone games that Arkadium and Freeverse are working on are attractive to advertisers, but they are not the only models available. According to Michelle Nelson, an associate professor in the advertising department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sports games on major consoles often feature in-game billboards and banners for real products. They function similarly to advertisements in real sports broadcasts.
However, game players resist this style of marketing, especially if the brands depicted seem out of place. In an ethnographic look at the popular technology web site Slashdot, Nelson said that the general response was that â€œwe play to get away from ads.â€
â€œStudies have shown that how much you like a game directly affects your perception of the product,â€ Nelson said. â€œIf itâ€™s a good game, youâ€™ll like the product, but if itâ€™s not, you may think it is crap.â€
â€œAdvertisers like video games because they can reach a particular demographic not reading traditional media,â€ she said. Nelson discussed a recent advergame posted online for the breakfast cereal Froot Loops. The sponsor concluded that kids were more likely to pick it up at the grocery store if they spent time playing the game.
Stephen Baer, a managing partner at The Game Agency, said that he â€œtells (advertisers) to work with multiple means of distribution.â€ In other words, it cannot only be about Flash games online. â€œBecause weâ€™re a small company, weâ€™re able to be mobile, to stay nimble,â€ he said.
â€œHaving a huge payroll can be both a benefit and burden at the same time,â€ he said. Bureaucracy sometimes gets in the way of new ideas. His company of eight employees is able to produce games for cell phones and other devices, as well as boxed products that can be distributed through retailers.
Baer had originally worked in marketing at Atari in New York, focusing on the racing game â€œTest Drive Unlimitedâ€ before starting his own company. While roadside signs fit well into that gameâ€™s world, the context ultimately determines the appropriateness of the advertisement.
â€œIt wouldnâ€™t make much sense to have advertisements in a role playing game with dungeons and dragons,â€ Baer said. The browser games made in New York attract clients because â€œthese brands donâ€™t see themselves appropriate for the Madden (football series).â€
Even within the realm browser-based Flash games, Baer said that there are a few subcategories. Some are posted directly on web pages, while others can be copied and pasted on blogs. However, the next big movement seems to be social network games. Considering how invested Facebook users are in status updates and photo tagging, it seems only natural that game developers would want join the Web 2.0 craze.
Many New York City developers, including Mikrosâ€™ Tiny Mantis and Large Animal Games, already have software available on Facebook. Players can invite their friends to join them online, and in some instances, can also swap items. Besides game development, these sites also offer free publicity for upcoming projects.
â€œWeâ€™re shamelessly self-promoting all the time,â€ Mikros said. He also said that his team and others have a large presence in the New York chapter of the IGDA, and theyâ€™re able to cross-promote each otherâ€™s games by redirecting Twitter followers.
According to David Geudelekian, a producer at Atariâ€™s New York headquarters, games on Facebook and Twitter have incredible potential because theyâ€™re so easy to spread by word of mouth. â€œIndependent developers can distribute their games without having to buy ads from traditional retail channels,â€ he said. Such channels include discount department stores like Walmart, as well as the popular specialty shop Gamestop. Geudelekian said that Atari had recent success putting more emphasis on Facebook ads for its new â€œGhostbustersâ€ video game than it did on the traditional print media.
For Atari, that may mean just additional profits. â€œYouâ€™d think it would cut down on costs, but game companies may just keep the additional money for themselves,â€ Geudelekian said. However, for smaller developers, these extra dollars saved in the marketing department can go a long way for future projects.
While New York Cityâ€™s strength may lie in casual and artistic endeavors, it remains unclear if any other large publishers besides Rockstar and Atari will relocate here. In the Center for an Urban Future study released last year, 58 percent of the game developers polled said they believed that there was â€œconsiderable potentialâ€ to grow a large game industry in the city. (37 percent said there was â€œsome potential,â€ while none polled said there was â€œno potential.â€)
However, none of the sources interviewed expect big publishers to flock to the city anytime soon, including journalist Matt Hawkins. He has been covering New York game design for publications like Gamasutra and Nickelodeon Magazine since 2002, but before that, he worked at Ubisoftâ€™s now defunct New York studio. Ubisoft, a French publisher, is a huge global developer that rivals EA in sales and the number of games it releases annually. However, Hawkins said that a decade ago, the publisherâ€™s biggest successes were budget titles.
â€œThe late nineties were a period of expansion,â€ Hawkins said. â€œThey basically opened the New York division for bragging rights.â€ However, when the New York studio showed promise, Ubisoft decided that it would prefer having the team moved to Montreal. â€œI could either uproot myself and go to the â€˜Great White Northâ€™ or stay behind and do something different,â€ Hawkins said.
After Ubisoft left the city, Hawkins and some of his peers that stayed behind decided to try to replicate the big publisher experience. The result was Gameloft, another lucrative development team with humble beginnings. â€œThe whole thing was a mess at the time,â€ Hawkins said. â€œNobody knew what it was supposed to be.â€ He left the company in the final days of the dotcom bubble. â€œWhen I joined Gameloft, we had 40 employees, but when I left, we were at 15,â€ Hawkins said. It would not be until the company turned its attention to cell phone development that it would find financial stability.
â€œBig companies just donâ€™t work well in New York,â€ Hawkins said. He said the asking fee for â€œyoung raw talentâ€ is much higher because it needs to be.
Producer David Geudelekian at Atari said that besides the high cost of New York City, â€œthe west is very insulated at the moment.â€ He said that there is an implicit connection to Hollywood, in that big studio sequels are usually encouraged over new ideas.
â€œThe advantage of New York is that you have so much diverse talent,â€ Geudelekian said, referring not just to programmers, but artists, writers and musicians as well. He hypothesized that these New Yorkers generate more â€œleftfield ideasâ€ that are innovative but less marketable.
However, Geudelekian said that Atari does not completely ignore small developers. He cited â€œN+,â€ an Atari published game that started as freeware project from Toronto-based Metanet Software. Enough game players demand these new experiences to justify the occasional risk.
Samantha Christian, a game player from White Plains, NY, said that she quickly grows tired of the repetitive sequels. Unlike Shah, Christian has spent countless hours seeking the latest and greatest for the major consoles, but she frequently ventures outside of mainstream gaming. â€œBig name companies usually push out the same crap over and over again without even bothering to make high quality or inventive games,â€ she said. â€œIndependent game designers and companies keep those bastards on their toes.â€
Christian is not satisfied with the variety of casual games either. â€œThere are so many â€˜Bejeweledâ€™ copy cats, so many Diner Dash copy cats, and so on,â€ she said.
As a major publisher, Atari is constantly in search of new properties to win over game players like Christian. Atari has only a few internal teams working on games. Most of Geudelekianâ€™s job is to find new games already in development from young studios. Atari lends its support when a developer is falling behind on a project or needs additional manpower in the homestretch. Though most of Atariâ€™s projects are on the west coast, these freelancing gigs will often bring in New York talent.
Guedelekian said that Atari also relies on local programmers for â€œFlash games, non-console web stuff and promotional purposes.â€
As the independent game scene in New York expands, many developers seek better publishing or distribution deals for better profits. Until last month, New York based Manifesto Games, Inc. was a beacon for these smaller developers because the site took a much smaller share of each sale, thus encouraging independent developers to use their services. But two weeks ago, founder Greg Costikyan announced that the site is closing because of lack of profit.
â€œI know Greg personally, but I didnâ€™t realize it shut down until he posted the news on Facebook,â€ said Nikita Mikros. He said that Manifesto was willing to support â€œmore experimental stuff,â€ in which the goal is to make players think about the world around them rather than the next level. â€œMaybe the market is just not ready for that yet,â€ he said.
In the meantime, educational games may offer refuge to some city developers. Though these games have never been huge money makers, non-profit funding and increased interest from public school teachers are motivating some young programmers to look twice at the prospect.
David Langendoen, former head of Scholasticâ€™s â€œNew Mediaâ€ division, said that educational development offered a welcome reprieve from the â€œcorporate racket.â€ Before he joined the publisher, he spent his teenage years reviewing video games for a â€œcheats and hintsâ€ magazine. Since then, he had continued playing as an adult.
In 1998, Langendoen met with Spencer Grey, a creative director for the show â€œSesame Streetâ€ with programming experience. â€œWhen we first started, I wanted to make â€˜gameâ€™ games, but given our background and contacts, education games made more sense.â€ Shortly afterward, the two founded Electric Fun Stuff.
Their first project, â€œThe 39 Clues,â€ was a collaboration with Scholastic. â€œThe 39 Cluesâ€ series was comprised of books, collectible trading cards and an online video game, with the hope that enthusiasm for one media would raise interest in the others.
â€œThe problem was that each discipline had a different idea for the license,â€ Langendoen said. Though a framework and ground rules for the story were established early on, the book editors had greater control of the project. â€œA lot of game design ideas were vetoed by the editors,â€ he said. â€œIt created some real tense moments.â€
However, â€œThe 39 Cluesâ€ was financially successful, allowing Electric Fun Stuff to move on. Having learned many lessons from the first game, Langendoen and Grey were able to impress clients such as the Corporation of Public Broadcasting and the Princeton Review. Currently, the team is testing out â€œMission America,â€ which attempts to transport players to key points in American history.
Langendoen said that while city teachers are eager to give feedback, the game publishers are usually responsible for collecting field data. â€œWe often have to beg to see the results,â€ he said. On occasion though, Electric Fun Stuff members are allowed to see firsthand how children are reacting to their work.
Teacher reactions are also important, as Langendoen refers to them as the â€œgatekeepersâ€ to the computers. â€œTheyâ€™re always polite, but you can always tell if thereâ€™s a genuine feeling,â€ he said. Some schools are more accepting of educational games than others, but Langendoen predicts that this is primarily a generational issue.
Carlos Hernandez, an assistant professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), believes that educational software for public schools is just the beginning. He works on grant-funded projects to explore the effectiveness of â€œseriousâ€ games, which are intended to do more than entertain.
He is also writing dialogue for the historically accurate game â€œMeriwether,â€ which will allow players to experience Lewis and Clarkâ€™s trek to the Pacific coast. As a professor, Hernandez said that he found simply lecturing to his students to be ineffective. â€œThe generation now is impatient with the lecture scenario â€“ they want instant and continual feedback,â€ he said.
Hernandez argues that even an ancient arcade game like â€œSpace Invadersâ€ can force players to constantly form new strategies and learn patterns. â€œA student couldâ€™ve been tested 4,000 times playing â€˜Space Invadersâ€™ versus four times in one semester,â€ he said.
Though Hernandez is disappointed that â€œthere hasnâ€™t been greater convergence between commercial games and education,â€ a notable exception is â€œAmericaâ€™s Army,â€ a game created officially for promotional and training purposes by the U.S. Army. The freeware game controls like other computer shooting games but is designed to replicate real life combat conditions.
The local Games for Change (usually abbreviated to G4C) organization is another bastion for serious games. G4C is a non-profit group that raises awareness of games that focus on political, social, environmental and other world issues. Though the organization does not fund the developers directly, it does put them in touch with likeminded foundations that can. Suzanne Seggerman, co-founder and president of G4C, said that it was almost a video game equivalent to the film industryâ€™s Sundance Institute.
At the end of May, G4C held its 6th Annual Games for Change Festival, in which developers, academics, journalists and any others came together to share ideas. When the festival began in 2004, the show was closed to the public and only featured 40 participants. Since then, Seggerman said that it â€œhas nearly doubled in size every year.â€ There were over 400 participants this year.
One of the festivalâ€™s most successful games has been â€œDarfur is Dying.â€ The game was developed by graduate students from the University of Southern California. Their idea had been met with skepticism, but New York Cityâ€™s MTVu television network offered to fund the project at a meeting during the 2006 G4C Festival.
The game requires players to run across a vast wasteland with janjaweed militants in close pursuit. Though players can successfully bring back water to their village, maintaining the virtual refugee camp becomes increasingly difficult. Another game, â€œHush,â€ requires players to remain hidden from Hutu soldiers during the Rwandan Genocide. In order to keep a motherâ€™s baby silent, the player must sing a lullaby by hitting the correct computer keys.
Because G4C games often address grim subject matter, Seggerman compares the serious game movement to documentary filmmaking. â€œFinding a way to portray a crisis is always going to be an issue,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s a difficult balance to make sure itâ€™s not too upsetting to the viewer.â€
Seggerman said that G4C relies on viral marketing and online communities to help spread the word. â€œThese games are still getting a lot of press right now because the media still likes the new angle,â€ she said. However, she said that serious games need to do more than just surprise people if they are to remain in the spotlight much longer.
According to Eric Zimmerman, widespread use of these serious games may be a possibility in the near future. As the founder of Gamelab, the studio behind the $35 million casual game series â€œDiner Dash,â€ heâ€™s arguably the best known independent game creator in the city. During his keynote address at the Connecticut Film Festival, he predicted that society is entering the â€œLudic Century,â€ in which societies will use games to actually solve complex problems.
Zimmermanâ€™s hypothesizes that information has become so sprawling and complicated, current problem solving systems are no longer sufficient. During his theoretical lecture, he had the audience play games in which colored Post-It notes were traded across the room, so that each corner of room would have a uniform color. He used this sorting game to show how players engage in multiple processes at once.
â€œBefore, we had pre-digital ways of making sense of complexity,â€ Zimmerman said. â€œLinear thinking no longer works.â€ He believes that even problems as complex as global poverty and climate change, each with countless variables, will be more easily understood through games. â€œThe Ludic age will bring a new kind of literacy,â€ he said.
Seggerman is similarly optimistic. â€œEven Bono is making a game. The idea is really starting to take,â€ she said. At about 40 years old, the industry is â€œstill in its infancy,â€ according to Seggerman. G4C Is considerably younger still, at only 10 years, so the serious games movement will continue to expand.
Similarly, New York has attracted a number of art house game developers, such as Jason Rohrer, who created â€œPassageâ€ in 2007 for the Montreal International Games Festival. â€œI was trying to make something evocative,â€ he said. â€œI designed these characters so that they look like my wife and me, but theyâ€™re abstract enough that anybody could see himself in them.â€
An aging married couple, an endless corridor, and no clear â€œpointâ€ or objective â€“ to the unfamiliar passerby itâ€™s not even clear if â€œPassageâ€ could be considered a game at all. Players control this husband and wife for only about five minutes, when their fleeting lives come to an end. There is no sense of victory or points to collect. Though the gameâ€™s big, chunky pixels would seemingly look more at home on an ancient Atari 2600 game console than a top-of-the-line computer, this is unfamiliar game territory.
The project is a stark departure from the violent, big-budget fare typically lining the shelves of video game retailers. And though the simplistic aesthetics and controls donâ€™t bring in big money, game auteurs like Rohrer have been able to carve a niche in New York City. For many years, the dominant west coast mentality was that bigger is always better, and that game players want more powerful technology rather than new ideas, but the growing development community in New York eschews this assumption
According to Rohrer, one of his peers, Jonathan Blow, spent approximately $180,000 of his own money making the game â€œBraid.â€ Though he was unsure of all of Blowâ€™s required expenses, Rohrer said that he only worked with one artist over a three-year period. â€œThroughout the history of the industry, many teams have worked out of the garage,â€ Rohrer said, citing the founders of â€œid,â€ most famous for the otherworldly shooter series â€œDoom,â€ as another example. Rohrer himself is currently isolated from the major publishers, working in Potsdam.
However, if these expenses were typical, the barrier to entry would be too great for most prospective programmers. Part of the reason why â€œBraidâ€ was an exception was because it features intricate, hand-drawn characters and landscapes. Comparatively, Rohrerâ€™s games are much more visually simplistic, often featuring colorful, geometric shapes and pixilated imagery. The book â€œUnderstanding Comics: The Invisible Art,â€ by Scott McCloud, was a key inspiration for Rohrer.
â€œCartooning is more powerful and gripping than realism,â€ he said. â€œWhen drawings are very specific, you donâ€™t identify with some other guy.â€ Rohrer said that the style of his games â€œPassageâ€ and â€œBetweenâ€ were impressionistic compared to modern three-dimensional games.
This also allows for a much faster turnaround time. â€œPassageâ€ was completed in just a few days for the festival, but his other projects have rarely required more than a few weeks of work. For other one-man New York developers, creating games can be a much more laborious task.
Dave Gilbert, founder of Wadjet Eye Games only produces about one game a year. His program of choice, Adventure Game Studio, is free and readily available, but his games contain considerably more text than Rohrerâ€™s.
For instance, his first game, â€œShivah,â€ named after a Jewish mourning ritual, tells the tale of a disillusioned rabbi who receives a large inheritance from a murdered member of his congregation. The player must determine if the money is cursed.
Like other games in the genre, â€œShivahâ€ is more concerned with narrative than simply traveling from point A to point B. By clicking on items surrounding the rabbi, players solve puzzles so that he can get to the next room and interrogate any shady residents in his path. â€œArmedâ€ with a Yiddish dictionary in the playerâ€™s inventory, the rabbi solves the mystery through words rather than swordplay or gun fights.
Shivah is stylistically reminiscent of 1940s film noir. â€œI made the game as a way to get my mind off of things after the (World Trade Center) towers fell,â€ Gilbert said. He also found inspiration while teaching overseas in South Korea. â€œIt was the first time in my life that I was alone in my â€˜Jewishness,â€™â€ he said.
An early version of â€œShivahâ€ earned Gilbert acclaim in 2006 within the New York chapter of the Independent Game Developer Association (IGDA), prompting him to work on a â€œdeluxeâ€ version that would feature voice acting and sharper graphics. â€œFor those two months, I made almost no money,â€ Gilbert said, adding that money making was not his goal. He hired some local artists to help, as well as a composer who specialized in video game scores. For the character voices, he set up a recording studio in his sweltering apartment and invited professional voice actors to act out his script.
â€œI was running such a small shop,â€ he said, â€œthat I had to rely on my reputation as a freeware developer.â€ However, since gaining more experience over the past several years, the low overhead has allowed Gilbert to remain solvent.
Selling their games can often be the greatest hurdle. Recently, Rohrer has been selling his game â€œPrimroseâ€ via Appleâ€™s iTunes online store, which allows users to directly download games to their iPhones and iPods. â€œItâ€™s something thatâ€™s worth doing,â€ said Rohrer. â€œIt brings in about $800 a month on average, so it hasnâ€™t turned my life around financially.â€ Other games, such as his aforementioned â€œPassage,â€ have been uploaded to iTunes Applications Store and are available for 99 cents each.
Luckily, Rohrer has also received some funding from patron Jeff Roberts, who supports small developers at $1,000 a month for up to two years.
These avenues still pose financial risks. Even in a healthier economy, Rohrer said that independent game developers face an uphill battle. Traditionally, teams of programmers, artists, and producers work for a publisher, which in turn pays licensing fees to hardware manufacturers. When the publisher is taken out of the equation, the small game development team has to bear the financial burden itself.
Though Gilbert has found a way to balance game development and business, others use consulting firms to handle publisher arrangements and distribution, including Bitwreck Consulting. Founder and CEO Andrew Friedman encourages developers to â€œdefine repeatable steps, making things less ad-hoc.â€ What this means is figuring out what methods work the first time around, so that those same methods can be applied to the next game.
â€œWe will step in as temporary executive management positions for companies both large and small,â€ Friedman said. Though he does assign assistance to west coast developers, his work is â€œskewed heavily towards smaller companies.â€ Payment terms vary.
Occasionally, consultants accept payments over long periods of time, but Friedman said these â€œare not straight royalty deals.â€ Consultants also tend to avoid hourly rates.
Gilbert admits that the online debut of â€œShivahâ€ was not ideal. â€œYou canâ€™t have it out there for free,â€ he said. After Shivah, Gilbert released â€œThe Blackwell Legacyâ€ trilogy. During this period, he spent more time marketing the game. â€œThere will be days when Iâ€™m doing nothing but emailing contractors, or putting together (promotional) game play videos,â€ he said. He also â€œpushed the game to every review web siteâ€ to raise publicity.
With Gilbertâ€™s latest game, â€œEmerald City Confidential,â€ he has a contract with PlayFirst, an online gaming portal that collects a number of online games on one site. The site takes a small percentage of his profits, but it frees Gilbert to spend more time on new projects.
Though Gilbert is pleased with the current partnership, he is concerned about other online portal services, such as Big Fish Games, in which games are offered at a flat rate. Big Fish and others donâ€™t penalize members for canceling their accounts, which means that independently developed video games are being sold at a fraction of their suggested value. â€œPeople still expect big things, but they donâ€™t want to pay for it,â€ said Gilbert.
He also said that piracy has cut into sales at all levels. â€œItâ€™s stupid to deny piracy isnâ€™t out there,â€ Gilbert said. â€œAs soon as my games come out, theyâ€™re immediately up on the torrent (file sharing} sites.â€
A free version of Erin Robinsonâ€™s â€œNanobotsâ€ was warmly received last year by the web site GameSetWatch and others, but Robinson felt that the package didnâ€™t have enough content to warrant selling it. However, Gilbert said that he thought the game was â€œcompletely sellableâ€ and told her that he would be willing to publish the game if she could expand upon the basic concept.
â€œI might have jumped the gun a little,â€ said Gilbert. â€œMy royalty checks have been getting smaller after the first month (following the â€˜Emerald Cityâ€™ release), and meanwhile, Erin quit her job and is struggling.â€
Despite Gilbertâ€™s reservations, Robinson has no regrets. â€œI just thought if Iâ€™m going to do this, I better go all out,â€ she said. â€œThatâ€™s part of being â€˜indie,â€™ I guess.â€
In addition to financial backing from Gilbert, Robinson is also digging into her personal savings. Her parents and an anonymous patron have also loaned her some money so that she can complete the â€œNanobotsâ€ project, though she hopes to be able to support herself someday.
Despite frustrations on the development side, there are still avid fans who scour the internet searching for the latest independent games. For Philip Jong, editor-in-chief of the web site â€œAdventure Classic Gaming,â€ adventure games like Gilbertâ€™s â€œShivahâ€ offer more cerebral thrills than retail games.
â€œWhile I am also a fan of other game genres, I am more attracted to the intellectual payoffs and the narrative potential that adventure games can deliver,â€ Jong said.
Jong encourages fans to submit adventure game reviews. This grassroots movement currently has over 110 regular contributors. He has no regular writing staff. â€œBoth our writers and our editors work on a rotating schedule, so that no single contributor will feel overwhelmed by the added responsibility,â€ Jong said.
He also suggested that while New York City developers may have difficulty reaching domestic markets, there are still fans in Europe. Low budget games have largely been relegated to computers because they would seem out of place on high-end home consoles, but Jong said he was hopeful that â€œthe essence of what makes the genre so appealing will always live on in one form or another.â€
Gilbert and Robinson are trying to reach a wider audience by making puzzles easier to understand. â€œIâ€™ve asked Dave if I should dumb a level down, and he said that I should give hints instead,â€ Robinson said.
Gilbertâ€™s â€œEmerald City Confidentialâ€ has also been tailored to the mass market. He said that the game has been â€œcasual-ified.â€ Players are constantly given rewards to keep them hooked.
Jason Rohrer, the mind behind â€œPassage,â€ said that he has done freelance work for Electronic Arts because he cannot afford to support his family on artistic projects alone. The huge publisher sought his help for a collaborative project with Steven Spielberg because Rohrer had been praised for his contemplative style of games. However, after consulting with the EA team and returning to home, he learned that all of the staff members with whom he worked had been laid off. â€œI got paid, it was a good experience, but that game may never see the light of day,â€ he said.
â€œThe industry isnâ€™t exactly on a hiring splurge right now,â€ he said. With his patronage set to run out soon and earnings from the EA project drying up, Rohrer said that he is now branching into interactive advertising.
As Gilbert, Rohrer and others encourage players to explore and create, difficult questions arise. Can independent developers control their own products? How parents do monitor what their children are playing? Because most Facebook (and Flash browser) games are distributed for free, itâ€™s very simple for younger players to add their favorites, without any kind of age restrictions.
Richard Hanley is the graduate program director of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. He recently attended the â€œNew Media Frontiersâ€ panel at the 2009 Connecticut Film Festival to discuss the future of the independent game movement. He sees social networking sites as a tremendous boon to the independent and casual game markets, but also as a source of looming controversy.
â€œWeâ€™ve already seen musicians using MySpace and now Twitter to promote their music, without the need for an intermediary,â€ Hanley said. â€œHow are you going to tell a user not to do something?â€
Though there is no state monitor of online distributed video games, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board is located in the city. This organization rates games on store shelves across the nation, but most games sold online are outside the ESRBâ€™s jurisdiction.
â€œThe ESRBâ€™s is a voluntary system, so itâ€™s really up to game creators to choose to have their games rated, and many do,â€ said Eliot Mizrachi, the assistant director of communications at the ESRB. Exceptions usually include games sold on consoles like the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3.
The ESRB is a non-profit group that obtains funding through fees it collects for rating games. This is potentially the biggest hurdle in getting independent developers to sign on, though Mizrachi said that the organization tries to accommodate them by offering a â€œhighly discounted rate.â€ For instance, the developer of a cell phone game that costs less than $250,000 to make will receive an 80 percent discount. Even so, some developers remain reluctant.
â€œ(Many independently developed games) use a system of self-applied ratings with community-sourced verification that encompasses the type of information typically provided by ESRB ratings,â€ Mizrachi said. He believes that theyâ€™ll comply with the ESRB standards once these games become â€œcommercially viable,â€ or no longer freeware.
At the same time, the ESRB does try to educate parents about online video games and user-generated content. (The latter refers to levels, characters and other elements that players make themselves and share online.) â€œâ€¦The ESRB partnered with the PTA in 2008 to distribute booklets to 26,000 PTAs nationwide,â€ Mizrachi said.
Richard Hanley believes that some kind of stricter regulation for independent games is on the way. â€œSo much has flown under the radar,â€ he said. â€œBut eventually, it will be as regulated as the independent film industry.â€ Online distributed movies are changing that paradigm as well. From user-created YouTube videos to documentaries appearing on major web sites like Hulu, it would be impossible for the Motion Picture Association of America and other self-regulatory organizations to keep up with all of it. This is also the case with video games.
â€œIndependent games are constantly emerging from the ether,â€ Hanley said. â€œThere are so many low profile games being released simultaneously.â€
According to Hanley, the ESRB was not designed to cover this sector of the industry. â€œ(The ESRB) was intended for traditional distribution methods,â€ he said. â€œIt was intended to thwart government regulation.â€
Even before the industry reached this turning point, New York City officials and parent groups protested against the extreme violence found in popular, adult series like â€œGrand Theft Autoâ€ and â€œHalo.â€ In 2004, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) New York members issued a list of the â€œ10 Worst Violent Video Games,â€ as well as a strong condemnation of retailers that sold â€œMatureâ€ rated games to minors. More recently, the game â€œGrand Theft Auto IVâ€ earned the scorn of city mayor Michael Bloomberg because it was set in a virtual recreation of New York City.
However, despite all of the negative press surrounding mainstream video games, members of the ICCR are unsure of how to monitor independent video games. Cathy Rowan, a corporate responsibility consultant, said that ICCR is aware that â€œdiscs are going to be a thing of the past soon enough.â€ However, she also said that presently, her group is â€œmore concerned with game retailers than publishers.â€
It should be noted that while the ESRB may not regulate online, casual games, developers are still very cautious when it comes to any project targeting children. Arkadium, one of several New York teams working on childrenâ€™s software, does allow strangers to play online with each other, but communication is strictly limited to a set list of greetings. This is the case for Arkadiumâ€™s â€œU.B. Funkeys,â€ based on a line of toys from Mattel, Inc. However, while there are numerous online games aimed at a younger audience, it isnâ€™t always easy for parents to keep their children from venturing elsewhere.
Meanwhile, another New York City ICCR member, Claire Regan, said that she would like to see games used constructively. â€œThereâ€™s growing concern about online games,â€ she said. In regards to other areas of the industry that go unregulated, she said that â€œlarge scale tournamentsâ€ bring in sponsorship, with â€œlots of money involved.â€ Instead, she would like to see games move away from virtual violence.
But for now, the bigger issue remains how to expand the industry in the city. When the Center for an Urban Future released its study last year, one of its proposed solutions to attract developers was to seek more tax breaks from legislators. Hawkins said that appeals for such breaks have been submitted, but he doesnâ€™t expect much to come out of it. â€œSo many of the developers here are old fogies,â€ writer Matthew Hawkins said. â€œTheyâ€™re so used to fighting tooth and nail.â€
And perhaps it is this mentality that continues to drive game developers in the city forward. As Nikita Mikros of Tiny Mantis put it, â€œWeâ€™re like the â€˜Bad News Bears of gaming.â€ The sales might not rival the huge publishers along the west coast, but Mikros and his peers are resolved to make the games that they want to make.
â€œMaybe itâ€™s because weâ€™re like cockroaches,â€ he said. â€œWeâ€™re so stripped down to the point where I ask, â€˜What more can they do to us?â€™â€