How independent video game developers won a place at the top table

Changes in technology have made it easier for tiny outfits to create their games – and to give those games a good shot at global success

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 December, 2015, 8:00am

Jesse Rapczak left his job helping design the HoloLens headset, one of the most ambitious Microsoft projects in decades, to fill what he thought was an obvious gap: the lack of a great dinosaur video game. A year later, his bet has clearly paid off.

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Rapczak’s team – five people working in the Seattle area, a few dozen more working as far afield as Egypt – created Ark: Survival Evolved. It has sold more than 2.4 million copies.

The crazy part? It’s not finished. “It took a lot of people by surprise,” Rapczak says. “Us included.”

Welcome to the new world of game design, where a pocket-size office full of coders, artists and a good idea can produce a hit in a few months.

During the holiday season’s surge in video-game sales, blockbuster titles produced by big studios, some at a cost of more than US$100 million, topped the charts. These games included the likes of Electronic Arts’ Fifa , Activision’s Call of Duty and Microsoft’s latest Halo sci-fi shooter.

But with the help of increasingly sophisticated game-building software and easier access to distribution tools, independent studios are playing a more prominent role in the business.

The number of publishers creating games for Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox platforms last year was up 49 per cent from a year earlier, according to EEDAR, a video-game market research company in California. Steam, a computer-game distribution platform owned by Valve, saw a 62 per cent increase in its own game tally, EEDAR estimates.

The Seattle area has been a focus of the video-game industry for decades. Nintendo’s North American unit and Microsoft are neighbours, the anchor tenants of a community also home to big studios such as Valve, Big Fish and PopCap. A host of smaller studios are clustered in a few Seattle neighbourhoods, along with a small but growing network of virtual reality companies.

Like the broader software industry, video-game making has its roots in small groups of (mostly) men who got together to pursue an idea and build something interesting. The industry swung toward big business by the late 1990s. Big-name publishers held the keys to the expensive process of stamping CDs or DVDs and lining up relationships with bricks and mortar retailers. Video-game console makers Sega, Nintendo, Sony and later Microsoft exercised tight control over their domains.

The internet helped change that. Widespread adoption of broadband meant games could be more easily downloaded, rather than accessed from a physical disc bought from a store. Increasingly sophisticated game engines – software-programming tools that give developers a head start on building digital worlds – brought developers’ costs down.

“That took a lot of the work out of building the basics,” says Dave Hagewood, founder of San Diego game developer Psyonix. “You could focus on the game play, not inventing new technologies.”

The big guys started to take notice of the growing constituency of smaller developers.

Adam Boyes, a vice-president with Sony who courts game developers, says the company’s policies towards independent studios a decade ago were “prehistoric”. Faxes and credit checks were requirements to get onto the console. So was sponsorship from a major publisher. Sony decided to change that. “We wanted to make sure that all those things that intimidated small teams were out of the way,” Boyes says.

As the company was preparing to launch the Play­Station 4 console, executives made a symbolic decision that reflected the growing importance of independent studios. They decided to share their plans for the console with independent developers at the same time as the major studios. Groups of about a dozen developers were shepherded into hotel rooms around the US for briefings. Their feedback was passed on to the company’s Japanese headquarters to help inform the console’s design.

Other game-console companies were heading in a similar direction, but some independent developers say PlayStation’s relatively early efforts won them some loyalty.

Part of the pay off: Psyonix, enticed by some early Sony indie-friendly policies, stuck with PlayStation (as well as the PC platform) when it released Rocket League last July.

In the game, teams of rocket-powered cars compete to push a giant soccer ball through a set of goal posts. Reviewers and gamers found Rocket League, unusual concept as it was, fun and addictive. It has gone on to sell millions of copies.

Under the old, publisher-as-gatekeeper model, Hagewood says, the game might not exist.

“It’s not a simulation, it’s not a shooter, it’s not a racing game,” he says. “Publishers have to be very risk-averse. If your game is coming through, and it doesn’t fit those models, it’s very difficult for them to take a bet on it.”

That’s not to say it’s an easy road for independent developers. Cutting through the noise to reach customers scattered across mobile games, consoles, PCs and web browsers is becoming an expensive, make-or-break challenge.

“Video-gaming is expanding in so many different directions,” says Patrick Walker, a vice-president with EEDAR, the research firm. There are more independent games than ever, but also “a higher percentage of independent games that are not hitting success”.

Undead Labs, an independent studio of about 50 employees in Seattle, ran into that this summer.

The studio’s 2013 debut, zombie survival game State of Decay, hit the market while the genre was hot in popular culture – TV drama The Walking Dead was just starting to smash ratings records, for instance.

But when Undead’s second production, a multiplayer, Pokemon-like pocket-monster battle game called Moonrise, was released this year for PC and Apple’s iOS, it flopped, and Undead will shut the game’s servers at the end of the year.

“If it’s not pulling people into the game experience, then you’re not going to make money,” says Ted Woolsey, who joined Undead from Microsoft in June to manage the studio’s business side. “There’s a science behind it that’s pretty hard and cold. You learn some hard lessons that way.”

Now, Woolsey says, Undead is plugging away on an unannounced game.

State of Decay was a great hit out of the box,” he says. “We know as a studio we have to step up our game. The next one has got to be much, much more polished.”

Rapczak’s Studio Wildcard is still riding its first wave. A long-time video-game artist and director, Rapczak left Microsoft at the end of 2014. He ultimately assembled a team of about 50 people, some based in a two-room rented office in a Seattle-area office park, others working remotely elsewhere in the US and abroad.

The genre of open world games such as Grand Theft Auto or Undead’s State of Decay, where players pilot their character through a world without the tight control imposed by a linear story, was taking off. An untapped corner, Studio Wildcard thought, was dinosaurs.

Ark: Survival Evolved puts the player in the shoes of a man or woman dropped alone on a massive island populated by dinosaurs. Survival is the priority, with players building a shelter, and ultimately acquiring weapons and tools to tame and feed dinosaurs – not necessarily historically accurate ones. This is a game, after all, not a palaeontology simulation. “We’re definitely not based in science,” Rapczak says. “King Kong ape? Sure. Dragons? Sure.”

The team set its sights on a November 2015 deadline, before a more aggressive one emerged: Jurassic World was set for a June release. The team raced to cobble together a viable game, beating the movie by a week. A raw version of Ark: Survival Evolved was released for PC on June 2 through Steam’s Early Access, a programme that lets developers sell in-development games before they are finished.

The game’s success took care of the problem of funding work to complete the game, and other versions. Rapczak says the game’s full release for PC this year will be accompanied by versions for PlayStation and Xbox.

Big studios “wouldn’t have given us any money”, Rapczak says. “The reason we did this independently is it’s too crazy.”

Tribune News Service