Gaming Goes Indie
By Drew McLachlan
Thirty years ago, if you wanted to create a video game, you started by clearing space in your garage. You had to make some room — for a couple Apple II’s, a BBC Microcomputer (if you were lucky), or a Tandy TRS-80 (if you weren’t). You also needed a guy who could turn a six-colour, 280×192 resolution sprite into a convincing minotaur, another guy who could force the occasional beep-bip-beep out of a one-bit audio digitizer, and a 30-pound textbook on 6502, the programming language powering the Apple II, Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator series.
Since then, the video game industry’s garage band mentality has been shaved and scrubbed clean. Like Hollywood blockbusters, AAA games (pronounced “Triple A,” the industry’s term for flagship titles) are becoming increasingly expensive spectacles, and need to attract a mainstream, worldwide audience just to break even. Rockstar’s latest entry in the Grand Theft Auto series, for example, cost the studio an estimated $265 million and garnered $800 million in sales on the first day of release. And, although most development was handled in Edinburgh, the company employed talent from all eight of its studios worldwide.
If you want to create a video game in 2013, you have to start out, not in your garage, but by getting a computer science or design degree, or maybe by finding a “spot in the trenches,” testing bugs for one of the big publishers.
Some game creators, however, are choosing to eschew the industrialization of their craft. Among them is developer Raphael Van Lierop, founder of Hinterland Games, based in tiny Cumberland, BC on Vancouver Island. He’s part of a burgeoning indie movement that is producing a wider variety of games, such as Hinterland’s debut title, The Long Dark. “A lot of our gameplay and our content is not really mainstream at all,” says the bushy-bearded Von Lierop, “We wouldn’t be able to walk into Activision or Take-Two or Microsoft with a project like this and get green lit. The marketing department might look at it and say ‘it’s just not going to sell a million units because it’s quite niche.’”
Indie gaming got its first big boost in 2003 with the advent of Steam, a digital marketplace for PC games that lets developers bypass retailers, distributors, and manufacturers and deliver games directly to the consumer. The crowd-funding site Kickstarter, in turn, became the go-to platform for upstarts who either can’t or don’t want to hand their rights over to a publisher in exchange for money. In 2012, renowned designer Tim Schafer passed up a publishing deal in order to pursue his “dream project,” which he decided to finance on Kickstarter. Schafer far exceeded his initial goal of $400,000, managing to raise $3,336,371 in 33 days, which he decided to use to make the game bigger. (Ironically, the project still ran into money problems the following year.)
Since then, a few other projects have found similar success, but most indie games are built on a smaller scale. And that suits Van Lierop just fine. “The Long Dark isn’t a blockbuster game. It’s not going to appeal to publishers who are looking for the next Call of Duty. The fact that it has a strong Canadian aspect or that it’s a simulation-focused gameplay experience [requiring planning and strategy], means that it’s definitely not as accessible as, say, a linear shooter would be.”
Born in Quebec City, Van Lierop spent the first 13 years of his career at Relic Entertainment in Vancouver, producing and directing big-budget action franchises like Warhammer 40,000 and Company of Heroes. After finishing his latest game, Space Marine, Van Lierop took a step back to look at his career. He had been working on AAA games for over a dozen years, and his passion for them was waning. Like many of his colleagues in the gaming industry, Van Lierop decided to take a risk and “go indie.”
“I knew that there was nothing out here in terms of development communities to draw on, so Hinterland was really founded around the premise that there had to be experienced developers like myself who were looking for something different, who had been established in the AAA space, but wanted to break out and create games that felt more personal and more creative and to take some risks that aren’t really possible when you’re working on a really big franchise.
“If you look at [these franchises], they’re really constraining in terms of what you can do, creatively speaking. It sort of all came together in desiring to be more independent and to get away from the mainstream games industry and outside the city, and all that kind of stuff rolled up into Hinterland and The Long Dark itself.”
The Long Dark follows a stranded bush pilot as he attempts to survive a techno-apocalypse in the Northern wilderness. Van Lierop says he is excited to put his own spin on the stampede of post-apocalypse media, which typically centre on American city slickers. He also notes how living and working in rustic Cumberland (pop. 3,398) has had a huge impact on the project.
“The game is about living through a post-disaster experience in the northern wilderness, so living here in the Comox Valley definitely puts you on the fringe. A few minutes away from my studio, I can walk onto the logging roads and hiking trails that wind through the mountains — it can’t not influence the atmosphere and look of the game.
“The island was a big inspiration early on. I really wanted to explore that whole post-disaster set up but from the point-of-view of a wilderness survival simulation, and thinking about what it would be like. For me, there are a lot of interesting themes tied up in that, and also it’s a great way to differentiate from the other games out there dealing with similar subject matter.”
Across the Strait of Georgia in Vancouver, the indie scene is thriving despite, or perhaps because of, theshutdowns of several large studios such as Rockstar Vancouver, Popcap Vancouver, and Quicklime Games. That left a lot of developers looking for someplace to put their creative energies. Aside from frequent community meet-ups and “game jams,” in which several small teams build a game around a given theme in the span of, typically, just two-to-four days, many have gone on to found highly successful independent studios. Klei Entertainment has received acclaim from the international gaming press for their recent titles Mark of the Ninja and Don’t Starve. Community manager Corey Rollins came to Klei from Electronic Arts (EA), where he worked in “quality assurance” — basically looking for bugs in the game. He’s happy to have moved on.
“With any large company, not just EA, the more people you get in there, especially with different people doing the hiring, the more likely it is that you’re going to get people who disagree or just don’t get along,” says Rollins. “I didn’t have an unpleasant experience at EA, I just felt that from my point of view, in an entry-level position, it was a lot more corporately structured. I couldn’t just walk up to the producer of the game and start throwing around ideas or game designer things. There’s a very rigid corporate structure and hierarchy that you need to stick to.”
Overlooking BC Place and False Creek, Klei’s fifth-floor office in Yaletown typically houses 30-40 employees. While it’s a far cry from the original setup — four friends working out of a basement — a feeling of proximity still permeates the office.
“It’s much more open than a AAA studio,” says Rollins. “My monitor is back-to-back with the CEO of the company, Jamie Cheng, and we have open discussions. Everyone is on the same page. We run our company very flat so everybody feels that they can be heard, and have an equal chance to contribute to the game.”
Regardless of the success of Klei and other studios in Vancouver, like Big Sandwich (recently acquired by Z2Live) and Ironclad Games, the city’s game creators face uncertainty. Developers are not unionized, and relocations to other cities are common, as owners chase better financial conditions. Many, including local developer Nik Palmer, point to the highly competitive tax credits offered in Ontario and Quebec as the chief reason for Vancouver’s downsizing. In 2012, Palmer told BC Business that “there’s obviously a financial incentive somewhere else and there’s a movement of skill sets to somewhere else. You want to be where the skill set is, and that used to be in Vancouver.”
Rollins thinks the problem lies elsewhere. “[British Columbia] could be more competitive with the tax credit issue,” he admits, “but I don’t think that going par with the place that has the lowest tax credit for a particular medium is the answer. The answer is the stuff that has been going on right now in terms of people unifying in the Lower Mainland. You have to look at your games and what you’re doing — you can’t expect a tax credit to fix things that are totally in your control and within your company and the games you’re publishing.”
For Van Lierop, success isn’t measured just in tax credits and Kickstarter dollars earned anyway. It’s also about taking advantage of the most valuable commodity indie gaming has to offer — namely, independence.
“If you look at it from a pure profitability standpoint, you’re going to set up shop in Quebec or Ontario because you’re going to get a lot more tax breaks and stuff like that,” he says. “But we’re not like that. We’re a small studio and we don’t benefit from [tax breaks] anyway. So for me it was about setting up a studio where I want to live, in the part of Canada I feel passionate about. I really consider BC to be home and so much of the game and studio identity is based around being on the island. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”