New doors opening online for B.C. game developers

Every week Techvibes will be republishing an article from Business in Vancouver newspaper.

This article was originally published in issue #1021 – May 19-25, 2009.

The advent of new video game platforms and increased direct access to consumers is rewriting the rules in a developer-publisher relationship that has historically been the primary, if not only, model for creating video games.

And while B.C. video game developers still recognize the value of forging strong ties with publishers, many are publishing their own games to create secondary and short-term revenue streams.

This was evident last week at the Vancouver International Partnering Forum (VIPF), part of Vancouver Digital Week, where developers, publishers and a host of other companies from the video game industry gathered.

Developers were at the event to pitch new ideas to publishers, but an equal cross-section of developers were promoting titles that they are marketing independently.

“The beauty of the self-published model is that you make your own decisions,” said Brenda Bailey, COO of Vancouver’s Deep Fried Entertainment Inc. “You don’t have to rely on someone else’s relationships, timelines, expertise or ineptitude.”

Deep Fried was shopping around a demo game, hoping to pique the interest of Capcom Entertainment Inc., Electronic Arts Inc., Paramount Pictures and other major labels.

Deep Fried is also putting the final touches on a new title, inspired by Japanese game shows, it is releasing independently through Nintendo’s WiiWare store in August.

WiiWare is among a number of new online portals – others include Sony’s PlayStation Store and Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace – where developers can market their own titles, and where gamers can download games directly to game consoles.

Such online marketplaces are undermining the role of the publisher: video games that are distributed digitally don’t require the slick packaging, promotion, sales channels and other resources required to sell games in retail outlets.

But risks and limitations come attached to self-published downloadable games.

While publishers can provide steady revenue to studios, months can pass before developers see any revenue from titles they self-publish, forcing them to accept all the risk at the front-end of a project.

Downloadable games also have lower memory, which limits their speed and narrative and the fidelity of their design and sound.

But because they’re technically less-complex productions, downloadable games can be put together in months, not years.

Bailey noted that developing downloadable games is an ideal way for studios to fill in the downtime between full-feature projects and an alternative to layoffs.

Many publishers are still involved in developing and marketing downloadable games, including Capcom, which has published 14 titles through online marketplaces.

Adam Boyse, Capcom’s director of production, said publishers have the resources that can make the difference between a good downloadable game and a great downloadable game.

“A small team of eight guys can’t afford to bring in a crew of 20 focus testers every week to tweak the experience,” said Boyse.

In addition to new technologies, new lifestyle expectations are also changing the relationship between publishers and developers.

“The mentality is different – [publishers] really have to treat [developers] like peers,” said Boyse.

“For so long everyone always saw these companies as a bunch of yahoo kids that can handle working until 5 a.m.”

Local game developer Klei Entertainment Inc. learned last January that there are still risks attached to the publisher-developer model when its publisher, Humanature Studios, suddenly closed its doors, orphaning Klei’s title Sugar Rush.

Klei continues to seek a publisher for that title.

It was at VIPF to promote its third-party, or outsourced, services, which provide an additional revenue stream for Klei and feed development of its titles.

As well, Klei is developing its latest title, Shank, which it’s self-publishing.

Jeff Agala, Klei’s creative director, said that with the success of independent hits such as Braid and Penny Arcade Adventures, which was developed by Vancouver’s Hothead Games Inc., publishers are allowing developers more creative control in game development.

“[Publishers] are taking those risks to trust the smaller companies to make their games,” said Agala.

During a panel session at the Game Developers Conference last week, Tarrnie Williams, general manager of Vancouver’s Relic Entertainment Inc., said the accessibility and variety of games on online marketplaces is drawing new demographics to video games.

“There’s a whole lot of games that need to be made,” said Williams. “People don’t just want shooters, RPGs [role playing games] and driving games.”