Today I attended the annual DIG conference. DIG stands for Digital, Interactive & Gaming, and is essentially a large conference in London, Ontario that brings together the interactive, game, and digital media companies for both networking and educational/informative sessions.
Although this year’s DIG conference was a bit smaller than last year, there were more industry professionals present, and far more meaningful conversation! Instead of the regular “hello….what do you do….let’s exchange business cards” stuff that normally goes on at these conferences, I got plenty of time to actually have in-depth discussions with dozens of different app and game developers on what was working for them, what challenges they’ve had, as well as their views on the industry and the future. I’ve never enjoyed a conference more.
Perhaps this amazing networking was provoked by the keynote presentation, which was by far the best keynote presentation I’ve ever attended. The keynote was given by Don Daglow, a 40-year veteran and pioneer of the game industry from San Francisco who has worked for companies such as EA, Broderbund, and Mattel (on Intellivision games). His presentation (The Insider’s Guide to Going Indie) was a magical mix of entertainment, education, and motivation heavily related to the independent (indie) game industry. Here are some key things that I took away from Don’s keynote:
In the past 40 years, there has been radical improvements in graphic quality within video games year after year. However, with the realistic graphics available in AAA game titles today, there is little room for major improvement. As a result, graphics are no longer a game developer’s ticket to big sales. Instead, other features such as gameplay, storyline and social interactivity will likely be key features that make a video game competitive in the marketplace in the future.
Being an indie game developer is somewhat like being Indiana Jones - it’s exciting, but they’re constantly in trouble. In order to survive, you must do several things, including controlling costs (keep costs such as office space to a minimum and don’t use personal guarantees with creditors), keeping a cash reserve for when it is needed, expecting and reacting to change quickly (change always happens faster than we expect), and thinking like a real marketer (rather than thinking like a game developer who “thinks” they understand how to market their game).
Game companies must think 5 years ahead all the time. Build franchises, not products, and make sure that you don’t fall into the trap where you do a successful game….and then when sales decline, you realize you don’t have the cash to make the next game…
Indie game development is mentally consuming. Don’t let the intense focus of a project consume your personal life (family is more important).
Indie game development involves taking risks. Don’t be afraid to take these risks…. just understand how to control them properly, and don’t gamble with money you can’t afford to lose!
Don’s keynote gives excellent advice for indie game studios. Keep in mind that the indie game developer scene didn’t exist 10 years ago - instead, you needed a big publisher company to bring a game to market - the publisher funded the development, marketed the game prior to release, checked legal requirements, manufactured the game media, distributed the game to retail stores, and so on. However, with the recent rise of Internet-based distribution (console and mobile games on app stores, PC games on Steam, etc.), game developers have the ability to create a game and bring it to market without spending a fortune or having a publisher. And, of course, the indie game scene is booming right now.
However, in Ontario, many indie game companies don’t last longer than a few years. Although there are a variety of different reasons for this, one large reason is that many of these companies were created to use up grant/startup money, and they fail to look at long term goals and revenue streams. Instead, they just hope for the best rather than aggressively plan to succeed (traditionally, the Canadian dream was to win the lottery so that everything worked out OK ;-)
Those indie game companies that do succeed, usually adhere to Don’s advice.