Innovation & Design

Roar of the Indy


The company was founded by several ex -- Dynamix/Sierra folks -- known for such titles as Starsiege, Tribes and Stellar 7 -- who were sick of "pleasing the suits". Garage Games has been helping independent developers hone their skills, providing them tools and bringing their projects to market. Some higher profile recent successes have included getting Mutant Storm Reloaded and Marble Blast placed on Xbox Live Arcade.

"Analysts were deciding what was fun. The amount of pressure and stress to make these games was not fun any more," says Moore. "Our motto is 'projects we want to work on with people we want to work with' and that's what we're all about. It's the lifestyle decision we made to be indies. It wasn't about the money. We want to make sustainable livings, but we're not here trying to make hits. If one of those happens, it could change the chemistry of the market space but it's not what we're dependent on to be successful."

Building the Indy Scene

"We looked at the barriers to entry for having a vibrant indy space," says Moore. "We've seen music and movies, but it just wasn't happening for games. There were a couple of factors holding things back.

"First was technology. People needed inexpensive tools [to make games]. If every guitar cost a half million dollars, there wouldn't be many indy bands. So we knew we needed to democratize the technology by licensing the technology we built at Sierra for 20 years and got the Tribes engine out and eventually we got full ownership of it, which eventually became the Torque game engine."

With tool set in-hand, the fellows at Garage Games set about finding an audience and creating a community. The group now claims it has 45,000 developers working with the Torque engine on tons of projects. Some of these guys don't really have a game in them per say. Sometimes it's people messing around with the AI, or playing with the renderer or just having another toy to use in Linux.

"[Torque] is not open source, it's still licensed from us, but you get the source when you buy the license. It's what we call available source," explains Moore. "We did open source one small piece of it, which was our network code, just to see what people would do with it. It kind of went over their heads, but we did get a few projects back from it and a lot of people got exposed who will now have it come out in a variety of AAA titles. NC Soft has a major release in April for example that will use it."

The Importance of Education

"Slowly but surely we have 150 schools now teaching with Torque, whether it's for serious game for simulation or visualization or training or actually working on hard research. Some of the schools are teaching people how to make good games through game design programs. The important thing is, they're working in the tool chain like as if they were working in Photoshop. It wouldn't be the same if they were working in Renderware and they'd have to get permission from EA. We're the only [tools] you could actually go out and buy when you're learning."

So what does it cost for the license? Well, for most people, it's $100 for the whole shebang. With the 'indy license', if you make less than $250,000 a year, you can make as many games as you want, publish with anyone you want and with no royalties, for that $100. "You've got the source, good luck with that," says Moore.

Power in Numbers

"So we have this group of people that are coming together solving shared design problems. Being able to have this creative space where they can find their games and figure out how to scope their project, get it from point A to point B and how to keep it small enough that it could actually get done is an incredibly valuable resource," says Moore.

"We just had our fourth indy games convention in Eugene where we set up 50 machines, including some Xbox 360s for people to bring their stuff and show off their prototypes or betas. We have ballots and awards. In the past it's always been won by multiplayer games (because Torque still has the best net code around) but this year we had a single player game win because it was so well polished. It was an interesting transition where we saw a lot of innovative and interesting gameplay, some of it not even done with our technology.

"There was a game called Facade, which was interactive AI storytelling. You go into this couple's living room and they're in the middle of a fight and they're about to break up. You have to reconcile them. Interesting stuff."

Out in the Fringe

"So there's some really, "fringe" stuff [happening in the community], but it's interesting to play, it's fun but you're not going to see anybody risk big budgets on them, and yet, Microsoft was our largest sponsor," says Moore. Microsoft said that it was looking to sponsor some innovation and they knew it wasn't going to come from the mainstream guys. It's going to happen in places like this where they can get the Sundance effect."

So when will other publishers pick up on this opportunity? "They've been trying but the economies of scale just aren't functional for their business model. There are some smaller publishers like Playfirst and Oberon, and they're bringing some money to the table."

Being Non-evil

"One of our core principles is that the author of the content is the owner of the IP. As a publisher, we want to be a non-evil publisher, which we don't think exists out there today," says Moore. "We've seen all the contracts and we know what they're made of. Any contract we put into play we have to feel good as a developer signing, not just a publisher."

So then where does Garage Games fit? What exactly is its position in the value chain?

"We provide the technology and we provide business counseling when they get approached by larger publishers. And that's been getting more and more formalized over time as more competitors come in and are looking at the talent that we're building," Moore explains. "We're not trying to be proprietary. There's no first rights or first looks. They don't have to publish with us. We want to be the best opportunity, but we have about 50 teams that we're investing in, teaching them how to design their games, how to polish and how to finish. We've resisted trying to do full production on it, because at that point, it raises the question of 'whose IP is it?'"

So while it's largely the contribution of sweat equity, cash is occasionally laid out on some projects. "We do sometimes write some checks to get some art done or other bits. We'll facilitate but those hard costs will come back off the top when we get done. We're not going to take an equity position in their company and it's not like we're going to own their IP.

"This acquisition hungry industry continues to cannibalize itself. It eats its young, its creatives. There really isn't any soul left in a lot of the games out there. Whether they're sequels or Hollywood IP, there really isn't any creativity going into these games. This is partly because of the schedules that they have to get done on and the feature lists that they have to hit. Basically, we recognize that these are the forces of the market. These are the economic factors. We say that we want to change the game. Online distribution is one of the solutions."

If it's going to be nimble, the company has to be small to keep fixed costs low, so as to maintain it's non-evilness. Last year, the company was eight people. It has grown in the past twelve months to 28. "We're doubling very rapidly. Of the 45,000 people in our community, we're bringing some of the best of breed internal."

Being the Best Publishing Opportunity

"For the most part, we'd like to be the best publishing partner for the 50 or so projects we incubate. If they get another deal, we're willing to do the farm team work in order to get this vibrant community going.

"The success of these guys is what it's all about. If they can create good creative stuff, and we help them get discovered or picked up, we feel great that there's some vibrancy happening.

"In one case, had we not been here to help PomPom make it the next so many months, we wouldn't see Mutant Storm Reloaded showing up on Live Arcade. In another case, to launch a title with a console [with Marble Blast] took Microsoft getting what we're about. It's a real step forward for [indies] to be on the front edge, instead of trailing on the console space. There's a lot of those back stories happening and it helps create the necessary infrastructure in which you can have a vibrant industry.

"We're still growing from a billion dollar opportunity today because we're tapping into economic potential that isn't profitable enough to catch the eye of larger publishers."

Funding

Right now about 75% of Garage Games' revenue comes from the licensing revenue of development tools. In addition to the $100 license, if you're using it for commercial purposes, it's $500 per programmer seat if you're building a game and don't qualify for an indy license. An Xbox 360 license for a full game would be $25,000 while the tools are still in beta. When it's out of beta it will be $50,000 per title. Xbox Live Arcade use is $10,000.

"We're seeing a lot of revenues off of our tool chain, but we're not $1m a hit plus back-end royalties like a lot of our competitors," says Moore. "We just think we can take a much more democratized approach with pricing that makes sense to the value structure that's being offered."

Competition?

"We haven't had [competition] any yet. You can look at open source stuff, and it's like five or six years behind us. You can look at a few of the other small engines, but they're really just little renderers, not full animation systems. Our terrain right now on our next generation engine offers a 200 kilometer visual distance. Our water is 50 kilometer with full shaderized textures. But we're putting the building blocks together to build what we feel will be necessary to build next generation games. We've got a Wiki where people will give resources back and become a single point of documentation. We have a series of books that's just been announced with GT Press A.K. Peterson."


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