Many would consider it a dream job: playing video games all day long in search of the Next Big Thing. But Brian Kingsley, a 10-year veteran game developer for megapublishers, became disenchanted with his career after seeing great game after great game passed over because the sales executives couldn't attach a brand to the creations.
No recognizable logo? No way to turn it into a cereal or plush toy? No game.
So Kingsley quit, started his own company and aligned himself with the CMP Game Group and the Independent Games Festival (think: Sundance for geeks) in hopes of rebooting the long-established system. Last year, his Wayzata, Minn.-based Moondance Games released "IG: Independent Games," a compilation of PC games created by independent developers, many of whom were IGF winners.
In the '90s, indie studio Miramax forged onto big screens. Today, Moondance hopes to do the same on store shelves. It's been nearly 10 years since indie films swept the Oscars and changed the Hollywood landscape. Indie games, however, remain a decidedly niche and small-time affair. Who's ready to play?
Indie games aren't commonplace outside of the World Wide Web. Despite that, Moondance successfully wooed Best Buy to stock "IG: Independent Games" on their shelves beginning last fall. The disc features such casual games as the engineering sim "Bridge Construction Set" and the popular robot battle game "Dark Horizons Lore Invasion."
"Our strategy is to have games for all kinds of gamers: traditional gamers, family gamers and now independent gamers," says Chris Koller, merchandising director for video games at Best Buy.
"I think it's a very good idea to publish indie games as more than online downloads," says Mikko Mattila, the 29-year-old Finnish programmer behind MadMonkey.net. "There already are several very good games that have been released without a big publisher, for example 'King of the Dragon Pass,' that have succeeded quite well and that I think is one of the best games I have ever played."
That cult role-playing game for PCs and Macs has been successfully sold off-line for years. Same goes for "Marble Blast Ultra," the rare example of an indie game that's available on a console.
Koller notes it's too early to tell if "IG: Independent Games" will pave the way for other indie compilations in the future, but he says Best Buy will keep selling indie games -- or almost any type of game, for that matter -- as long as gamers are buying 'em. (He also says he hasn't played "IG: Independent Games.")
Kingsley says the video game industry is lopsided, insisting that creativity is in the hands of developers while publishers are "pretty much packaged goods people." Why the disconnect?
Accordingly to Kingsley, this is how it works in the mainstream: Megapublishers contract with a developer to make a title of the publisher's choosing. That might be a game based on a movie or a sequel to an already successful title.
The megapublisher will call the shots (less sex! more explosions!) and pay the developers an advance. The game's production is typically centered on the release date, which is usually pegged to impending holiday shopping sprees.
But this is how it works on the indie circuit: On-their-own developers, many like Kingsley that have abandoned megapublishers, back their personal creations. They work on their own dime and time. There's no big boss or shareholders. And there's no release date because the majority of indie games are published online.
"It's their money. It's their idea," says Kingsley. "They're not answering to anybody. They don't need to show it to somebody at the end of the day and see if they should keep moving in this direction."
Forget about branding and release dates. Do gamers find these pared-down games, you know, fun?
Reviews are mostly positive. While the simplicity of the games featured on "IG: Independent Games" is seemingly nostalgic, Kingsley insists that's not the motive. He says indie games are focused on game play innovation rather than flashy graphics or complicated plots.
"You don't have to have bombs exploding in the air every seven minutes to be intrigued," he reasons.
But you might need those fireworks to blow out of stores. Moondance hasn't seen profit yet. On Amazon.com, "IG: Independent Games" is nearing the 9,000 mark on the computer and video games sales ranking. And, possibly worst of all says Kingsley, you can't get the disc at Wal-Mart.