Friday, August 8, 2008

Braid & Indie 'Escape Velocity'

[OK. Last Braid post for a while, I promise.]

I checked out the Metacritic score as of this morning, and it's weighing in at 92, which makes it the top rated XBLA title, and the #10 ranked title of all time, just nudging ahead of Mass Effect, a multi-million dollar title from a large team. Braid cost under a quarter million.

[Update: A few people picked up on this post, and the WSJ one saying Jon invested $180k of his own money into Braid, as concrete evidence of the development cost of the game. I should clarify: Although I had some involvement with Jon, I have no idea what it cost to make the title. That's his business, and up to him whether to disclose. Secondly, my *estimate*, having given it some thought, are that its much higher in total. Likely more like $300k-$400k. Jon's $180, plus an unspecified amount borrowed, but let's assume it's a significant amount, plus the costs that MS covered as advances on royalties for localizations, ratings, etc. Jon talks about some of these here. Anyhow, if you look at it as a $400k dev cost, that's still about 40k unit break-even. More if you consider the tax issue that Jon mentions. And let's not forget that 'break even' isn't the goal, or at least it shouldn't be.]

Now Metacritic is useless in many ways (e.g. there are interweb thoughts on MC scores of Wii not being indicators of sales; or MC scores being too harsh on XBLA titles, etc), but it's still followed closely by console manufacturers and publishers as an indication of what does well and what to aim for.

Which means that people are going to be looking at Braid and trying to emulate it/follow it. This is not unlike how Geowars inspired a publisher/platform vendor thirst for small two-stick shooters (e.g. I courted Everyday Shooter for some time as a more 'arty'/indie title, but Sony wanted the title far more than I did. There are a ton of other examples, both good and bad).

I think there'll be a few misguided publisher/developer/console companies that look at Braid's success and say "we need painterly-rendered platformers with time mechanics!", but I think they'll be small in number. They'll also be wrong in pursuing those as root causes of Braid's success.

What I think is shining through, and what I think the majority of the industry *will* get, is that Braid's success comes from the delivery of a game containing an undiluted form of its creator's passion and vision. Which is, IMHO, what the overused "Indie" moniker is really all about. It's not about small teams, small budgets, or "wackiness". It's about artists taking the vision in their minds eye, and wringing it out in blood, sweat and code.

And if you think about what might happen if the companies in the industry actually take that to heart, well, that's interesting.

If it were to mean a willingness to fund, pubisher or otherwise support titles, while acknowledging that their success will come from completely relinquishing control to those with the original vision, well, that'd be good for 'indie' games now wouldn't it? It would mean 'escape velocity' for indie games, where the metaphor refers to the gravitational pull of the mainstream and the dollars that fund it.

Of course, at some point, those converations within those companies will start to include words like "risk aversion", "focus group", "market trends", etc, and then it'll be hard to stay hands-off, but one can always dream.


Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

This would be great news indeed! I'm currently working on a student project (4 man team for 13 months now) with the hopes of making into a big-name Indie contest in march so that it might get the attention of someone who wants to share funding money with us. Good thing there's a student category, because all these professional indie titles are dramatically changing the landscaping (ie. awesome games like braid and schizoid).

Now, being a student project has afforded us quite a lot of liberties in development. We can spend too long refactoring and miss a class milestone at the expense of lower grade. The teachers are less involved with micro-managing the teams and focus more on giving experienced feedback (at least the better ones IMHO). What I've been realizing is that this is a luxury that will probably not stay a reality when I go to do this for real (ie making a business go in debt instead of using my student loans).

What you tagged as the heart of the indie game scene - when passion and vision drive the project and not risk studies or market trends it will more likely succeed - can be found deeply embedded in the environment of student projects. I wanted to let you know to keep an eye on that space because I believe it will help drive in your argument to the companies making important decisions (I'm biased of course)

I want to learn more about how the developer/publisher relationship works in regards to the various funding options a small independent company has. What you said about publishers having a much better line-of-sight hit the nail on the head.

So my first thoughts are: If I can score a microsoft contract that will fund me with $350k, but only get a 35% royalty plus their testing, localization, etc. fees, it might need to sell almost 200k units to start seeing money come into the company. And then we can't sell the game on any other platform I believe. This doesn't really sound like independence to me.

Second thoughts are: Small Business Loans to fund the development. I'm coming right out of programmer school so with the right friend I could get through the business aspects of it. There are enough options to selling the game on the PC without any enormous hurdles, but how do you bring in a title you've paid for to XBLA or PSN? Where do I look to learn this?

Digital Distribution can be the liberator that brings around the second coming of the garage developer, but not if it's controlled the same way shelf space is at GameStop. Especially if us eager new comers keep walking blindly into it.