June 23, 2008

Console Makers Improve Distribution Of Independent Games

Video game maker James Silva, a former restaurant dishwasher who lives in Utica, N.Y., is among a growing number of independents working to distribute their video games to Internet-connected consoles. 

As a kid, Silva felt destined to be a video game designer, drawing pictures of new levels for games such as Nintendo's "Mario" and "Zelda", and thinking up new ideas for future games. 

But until recently, realizing his dream had been a challenge. In recent years the industry had consolidated to include only a handful of big players that employ large teams of in-house programmers. And along with having good ideas and being talented designers, game developers required a distribution deal to get their work on popular consoles like Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox or Sony Corp.'s PlayStation.

But now that Sony Corp., Microsoft and Nintendo Co. have opened up digital distribution channels to their consoles, independents such as Silva are helping the game box makers meet demand for titles beyond typical big-name titles. The arrangement carries a low financial risk, and allows console makers to spot promising talent and ideas. It also enhances the number of exclusive titles for each machine.

"They understand market dynamics, how platforms work. They see how indies can get in there and disrupt things," Corey Bridges, an early Netscape veteran and co-founder of Multiverse Network Inc., said during an interview with the Associated Press. The company makes a platform for developing virtual online worlds.

The increase of digital distribution coincides with the consolidation among video game publishers. Developing a hit franchise like "Grand Theft Auto" requires millions of dollars and can take many years. With such a heavy investment, firms are often hesitant to gamble on new games, relying instead on established sequels and franchises.

Silva became a poster child for Microsoft's developer tool, XNA Game Studio, this year. After winning Microsoft's "Dream-Build-Play" contest last year, his action game "Dishwasher: Dead Samurai" will be published on Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade network later this year. The game features a dishwasher who operates in a gloomy, zombie-filled underworld, shedding plenty of cartoon blood in the process.

But developing a successful video game is still a huge undertaking.  Indeed, Silva has been working on "Dishwasher" for more than a year.

"A lot of kids that set out to make games try to make a rival 'Halo,' rival 'Warcraft,' something really ambitious, not realizing that those games are made by hundreds of people," Silva told the Associated Press.

"It's not an era where one person can go out and make the next 'Halo.'"

In 2006, Microsoft was the first console maker to offer a version of its professional development tools for people without a programming background, although it still requires some programming skills.

While XNA Game Studio is free, developers must pay $99 a year (or $49 for four months) to join Microsoft's Creators Club and have their work reviewed by peers before it can be published.   If a game passes the test, it will be available to Xbox 360 users later this year.  

Microsoft said that since its launch, XNA Game Studio has been downloaded a million times, although there is no way to tell how many games have been created.  

The software "takes care of the ugly, cumbersome stuff" developers need to do to make games, Silva said.

But while XNA Game Studio is helping game designers, it's still centered on guiding independent developers through the company's publishing channel.

"They have seen the barbarians at the gate and they are trying to channel them through the right gate," Bridges said.

Sony does not offer a comparable light version of its development tools, but the company has made space for independent developers to create games for its PS3 console at its Santa Monica, CA studio.  The titles are available through the console's online community, PlayStation Network.

For its part, Nintendo opened its popular Wii system to independent developers with WiiWare in May.

"These days a lot of games at retailers are big budget games that can't have simple graphics," Sam Kennedy, editorial director at gaming Web site 1UP.com, told the Associated Press.

"But gamers are still looking for that. They can't spend $50 or $60 on (such) a game but they'll download it for $5."

Rusty Buchert, a senior producer at Sony's Santa Monica studio, told the AP that in some ways digital distribution is turning the clock back 13 to 15 years in game development.  It is allowing the console makers to open doors for more innovation and risk without "burning down the company," he said.

Sony, he added, is seeing benefits from its relationships with independent game developers as it gains insight into new approaches to game design development.

"They get more freedom compared with (developing) a bigger game. There is not as much money at risk and as such they get a lot more freedom, and this freedom helps makes games better," Buchert said.

Nintendo says WiiWare is to the Wii as indie films are to Hollywood. 

In an Associated Press interview earlier this year, legendary game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, who developed Nintendo's "Mario" and "Zelda", said video game producers have become more conservative over the years.

"What I'd like to see is ... those companies give their young designers the creative freedom to create the new and unique ideas of this generation," he said.

Bridges believes digital distribution will eventually spell the demise of video game software publishers, which will no longer be required.

"It's a lot easier pushing bits than pushing atoms," he said.