GDC 09: The Indie Advantage?

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This is Rod Humble.

He should not exist.

By day, he heads the EA Play Label, which includes some of the most profitable game franchises in history (The Sims, most notably). By night, he makes abstract, difficult artgames like The Marriage and Stars Over Half Moon Bay.

Also, when he’s mocked on a podcast by Jim Sterling who claims that his games are so pretentious they seem as if they’ve been made by someone “who wears scarves indoors” and says things like “oh, what a lovely bit of mise en scene,” he will take a picture of himself doing exactly that and then send it to Destructoid.

Yeah. He’s basically the game designer equivalent of Batman.

It was only appropriate, then, that Rod kicked off the Independent Games Summit’s second day with his talk, “The Indie Advantage? A View from Both Sides,” which tackled his own experience as both a truly independent, uncompromising artgame designer and also as the guy in charge of some of EA’s biggest moneymakers.

Hit the jump for a summary of his talk.

“I do represent the face of the great Satan,” Rod self-deprecatingly opened with. He’s spent twenty years in the games business and is the head of EA’s Play label, yet he still makes very personal, often very abstract games in his personal life.

Rod’s advice for how to get successful is the same as how to get rich, conveyed through an old anecote: a boy bought a bushel of apples in town for 25 cents apiece, took them home, shined them all up and sold them at the other end of town for 50 cents apiece. Two weeks later, he inherited four million dollars. 

He pointed out the irony that the games he worked on for years are not necessarily as popular as his artgames, the first of which took only an evening to create. The Marriage elicited so many different responses – Rod mentions that a newspaper claimed, incorrectly, that it was about him cheating on his wife. Rod was going to present a new game, A Perfect Distance, about the internal psyche of an artillery officer who becomes a parent and grows old, but couldn’t because he got sick and didn’t have time. “It is my Ishtar,” he proclaimed. Each of his games have subsequently reached smaller audiences, so his goal with APD is to reach double digits at a maximum.

After acknowledging that Jon Blow called his talk “useless” given how you can’t really tell people how to make games, Rod still gave some simple suggestions: take what’s useful, discard the rest. Play the game your way. The guys who make the really big bucks at studios are really good at playing the corporate game, but Jon Blow got rich on Braid by doing the opposite.

Do it for the right reason: for love of the game, for art, to bring joy to millions, for the glory, because it’s the only thing. Don’t do it for a money. Rod worked at a lumberyard for a few days, and noticed that the hard workers worked twice as long for half the pay as the administrative guys. He hated lifting lumber and during the second day, an older worker tried to console Rod by telling him that if he worked very hard, in five years he could move up to the lumber-cutting machines. Rod decided that “I’d rather be unemployed,” went on the dole, and “got high in Europe and backpack[ed] around in Europe for five years,” which he highly recommends.

Do it for the art: there’s something about being able to express yourself through art and put it out there, he says, that gives him a great deal of delight.

To bring joy to millions: “When a fine game such as The Sims 3 launches – preorders are available now,” it entertains people and makes the world a better place. “There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with making people happy,” Rod states.

Do it for the glory: a controversial stance, but “I believe it’s a perfectly legitimate reason.”

Because it’s the only thing: For Rod, it’s simply the only thing he’s good at. The low entrance barrier for games still exists – you don’t need a degree to get in the industry. If you can make a good game, great. Not that game design classes are useless; “I give a slightly different talk at universities,” Rod mentioned to scattered chuckles.

Don’t do it for the money: “REALLY don’t do it for the money. The odds are really stacked against you…if you wanna blow $50,000, this is a fantastic way to do it.” Rod started a game company with a friend with $200k in the bank, and by the end of it he owed the tax man $100k. Though he doesn’t regret that time he spent, it was still a fantastically quick way to fall into debt.

If you want money, there are easier ways. “First of all,” he suggests,  “all of you are fairly intelligent so crime is a good option…most criminals are incredibly stupid, so crime is always a good one for intelligent people because you probably won’t get caught.” Another good way to make money, according to Rod, is just to buy an assload of stock given the recession – “You can buy Electronic Arts stock, that would be a very good investment, or you can just give it to ME to invest!”– and once the stock goes back up you’ll make your money back.

But money can never send you an email thanking you for changing its life.

Why think about business? Rod suggests that a well-run busness can’t hurt, you may be responsible for others (wife, kids, etc) which necessitates steady income, if you’re really good at handling your business and cutting down on anxiety you’ll be more creative, and you do, occasionally, need to eat.

Things you should worry less about:

Believe it or not, your publisher doesn’t hate you. Probably.” In general, publishers consider you a commodity, and that’s pretty much it. “They don’t give a damn about the creativity” apart from the occasional stupid edicts they issue to get the game back on track, which you can deal with on a case-by-case basis.

NDA’s: “There’s an inverse proportion to how cool the game is versus how insistent someone is on me…signing NDA’s.”

Lawyers: “Read your contracts, but don’t bother fighting that hard…the legal system in the west is generally based on who has the most money.” So don’t sweat it, because you simply won’t win and publishers will have no qualms about throwing your creativity away.

Message boards: He loves communities like NeoGAF, but they’re not a good indicator of sales – community-loved games can still tank in the mainstream. They’re specialized boards that aren’t representative of everything.

Peers: Don’t worry about your peers maybe-possibly slandering you.

This week’s top ten: Don’t make a game based on what’s popular right this second. “You need to know better than that,” he says.

Getting on the top ten: You should be aiming for your own mental model. Don’t aim for hitting the top ten and end up getting disappointed when you don’t, because it doesn’t really matter.

Technology: “It’s not that exciting for me as a game designer.” A lot of games try to make their selling points on technology, which doesn’t really work – the boxes of tech-driven games pointlessly highlight the  “new cel-shading turbo nutter,” Rod snickered.

Things that should worry you more:

Sales guesses: “Probably the most important number.” Realistically, how many units could your game sell? It’s important not to lie to yourself because your publishers will rely on that. Ask other developers for numbers, which they will happily provide offline.

Don’t spend more than 30% of your budget on R&D. On average, the R&D should represent less than 20% of the entire budget. “You can cut costs,” Rod suggests for those developers who might put too much cash into this initial phase.

Marketing should be from 10-20% of revenue as a decent range. When you see “big hits” like Madden they do spend more than 20%, but on average 10-20 is a worthwhile metric.

Your bloody schedule.” You should be flagging yourself constantly to get back on track and, again, don’t be afraid to cut stuff.

What do you do when you’re overrun? Know when to quit. “If you’re in debt to a bank for a million dollars, you’re in trouble; if you’re in debt to a bank for fifty million dollars, the bank is in trouble. So if you’re gonna go into debt, go big.”

Moving onto the indie advantage, Rod showed screenshots from Today I Die, Braid, and Primrose by Daniel Benmergui, Jon Blow, and Jason Rohrer, respectively. Indies have more creative control, can put the risk on themselves rather than asking publishers to take those risks for them, and can pick your battles. Creatively, indies can disregard or not choose focus groups – something Rod can’t do in his dayjob because he’s responsible for pleasing millions of people.

It’s a wide open world, Rod says. “If you walk into a bookstore, mentally place all the games you’ve ever played in that bookstore by category.” You’ll find that they begin to cluster around action, or sci-fi, or whatever, while the rest of the store is totally wide open. “You can just pick a section and fill it in.” Rod mentioned that romance books are one of the largest genres in all of fiction, but we have almost no romance games. If Eastern Europeans make a WWII shooter – “which is fine; I love WWII shooters, I love shooting people” – Russian designers will still have an American GI as a hero instead of something that’s actually personal and honest to the guys making a lot of these games.

Rod was informed that he was pretty much out of time, so he sped through the last stuff:

Craft comes in all forms. Don’t be afraid to make a licensed game or a casual game about bunnies; they’re not any less artistic or relevant than anything else.

Don’t be afraid to prototype – Henry Hatsworth came out of a prototype (to scattered applause).

Genres don’t exist: “You don’t have to make a freaking genre game. That’s all in your head.” You can be original, Rod stresses.

You can change the world (Shakespeare) or make it a better place to live in (Spike Milligan, the Beatles).

You WILL fail. What should you do if you fail in every single way? Take the criticism, and move on. Molyneux, Miyamoto, and Will Wright have all fallen flat on their faces but they got back up.

Dealing with success – “an even worse problem” that requires you to think about your own arrogance, your subsequent games could typecast you as “the RTS guy” or the platformer guy or whathaveyou. You’ve gotta worry about things you say being taken out of context, and being a one-hit wonder.

What if you succeed and have a long career? “My advice is that your personal integrity, your work, and your colleagues and friends” are, or should be, “what it was all about.”

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Anthony Burch
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