The Indie Multiplayer Game Developers Conference has a special place in our (Ron and my hearts) because, although we’d been talking about starting a blog for a long time, the first IMGDC conference, held two years ago in Minneapolis, gave us the impetus to actually kick this blog off. This conference also holds a special place for me since it is the one event that fuses my two passions: multiplayer games and indie games. It’s quite a feat to pull of a conference like this in an economic downturn, and in true indie style Jonathan Stevens, IMGDC’s founder, averted disaster and managed to pull the conference together in Las Vegas against particularly daunting odds.
Ron and I decided to split the loot on this one, so I’m going to start with a summary of the first and second day keynotes, and talk about a few themes that emerged during the three days.
Jessica Mulligan kicked things off with a wonderfully practical historical overview that succinctly outlined the “indie life cycle” as comprising this basic pattern:
• Change happens
• Indies innovate, creating new markets that didn’t exist before
• Financial success ensues (sometimes after a few false starts)
• Big guys come in and push indies out, either acquiring or imitating them with bigger budgets; indies can no longer compete
Changes broke down into three main categories:
• Client platform
• Delivery framework
• Business model
One example of the latter included things like the transition from “rent by the hour” Internet access to monthly subscription fees, combined with better client machines and faster bandwidth, which paved the way for games like Meridian 59 and Ultima Online.
After following this pattern through several generations, Jessica posited that it is possible the part of the cycle that involved the demise of indies might be avoidable in the current climate. With online distributions, new business models, and a growing audience, it’s possible that indies can flourish in this new environment, largely because they are stealth and agile, as compared to the over-bloated majors with their hefty budgets and high-risk business models. I’m inclined to agree, and I liked her optimistic message.
Brian Green’s keynote kicked off day two. Brian is kind of the indie MMOG poster boy, known for reviving the defunct Meridian 59, which predated Ultima Online as the first graphical MMOG. Brian’s focus was “What is Indie?” I always have a hard time with this question because, as he put it, it’s sort of like pornography, “I can’t describe it but I know it when I see it.” The hazard that I am always wary of is people ordaining themselves as the arbiters of indie, to the exclusion of everyone else. In the discussion, I touted the IndieCade mandate of making indie as inclusive as possible. The most interesting part of this talk was the discussion afterward, and I think the take-away is that we have a big problem with the press: The mainstream game press is under the sway of its advertisers and tends to either ignore indie games or give them bad reviews. Some data I recently encountered showed an interesting phenomenon: game review ratings correlate to game sales in hardcore categories, but game review ratings are almost always completely inverse to actual sales when it comes to non-hardcore games. This suggests to me that indie MMOGs, but even more broadly, indie games overall, are in need of a new press paradigm. We need to bring game reviewing to a higher level, where the system is not just in place to support the status quo, but to really identify quality games and take the emphasis off production value and put it back on gameplay and creativity.
The last day closed out with a session by my co-blogger Ron Meiners, Matthew Anderson and Nick Fortugno. This was a highly informative panel that segued into a lively discussion/roundtable about community design and management. Nick gave some great examples from his new casual MMO, CampFu, which was particularly intriguing to me as it’s a co-op game. CampFu is a good example of something I had been talking about earlier in the week in my presentation of Habbo Hotel, which is the idea of making a neutral world that contains a lot of smaller games, which is sort of how CampFu is structured. This is a nice extensible type of system to which you can incrementally add games, and allows for a more streamlined production process than the design-and-build-a-complete-world-in-two-to-three-years model. CampFu game seems to be a work in progress, but this is one thing about smaller-scale, indie games is that they have that flexibility to be responsive and modified to suit players’ play styles, etc. In the conversation that happened after their panel, I pointed out that indies are also in a unique position to have a much closer relationship with their constituents due to their smaller scale.
There were a number of other threads and themes that ran through the three days. One thing that kept getting battered around was the whole WoW-wannabe syndrome. There was a tendency among some to revert to the old conventional game industry “wisdom” that you have to make stuff that follows a certain pattern to reach a broad market. Others, liked myself, argued that indies can do quite well by focusing on a niche and taking some risks; as Jessica said, the job of indies is to create new markets. Lars Kroll Kristensen, currently of Unity, formerly of Runestone, makers of Seed, gave a great talk on Saturday where he talked about how to profit from innovation. He made the point that being innovative was not necessarily mutually exclusive with being successful. There is this myth that you have to sell out to make money. But, as Brian Green’s keynote the first year (posted here) demonstrated, indies can be successful by different standards. If you have a small team then you don’t really need that many players to be an economic success, as a number of those present reinforced this with their own success stories. I think it’s an exciting time because we are at a point where there is a lot of room to grow, expand and innovate, and it was a lot of fun spending three days with a small group of passionate designers reflecting on how to do that.