Page last updated at 11:59 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

Return of the British bedroom game designers

By David Jenkins

Screengrab from Time Gentlemen please
Indie games often explore themes disregarded by bigger publishers

In between the lavish feasts of multi-million dollar blockbuster games such as Call of Duty and Mass Effect 2, an old British cottage industry has found itself on the comeback trail producing a more modest diet of "homegrown" games.

These low-budget titles - like many of the video arcade classics of the 80s - are more likely to be produced by a one man team operating out of a bedroom than a high-tech development lab.

And as their popularity returns, whole networks of websites dedicated specifically to downloading and discussing them have appeared.

"At the start of 2009, we were receiving around five to six e-mails a day from developers asking us to feature their game on the site," said Mike Rose, editor of website IndieGames. "By the end of the year, it was more like 15 to 20 a day."

"While [big] publishers are restricting developers and asking them to churn out sure-fire money-makers - usually sequels to best-sellers - indie developers have the total freedom to explore every avenue their programming heart desires," he said.

Kudos Screengrab
Kudos 2 is a "real-life" simulation game

Cliff Harris, of one-man company Positech Games, was 11-years old when he first learned to program on the Sinclair ZX81 in the early 80s.

His first serious attempts to turn making games into a career followed an entirely traditional path, with tenures at top studios such as Lionhead and Maxis. Recently though he has returned to making games by himself.

"I got totally fed up with the way that big games were made, the bureaucracy and the inefficiency of it all," he said.

Start-up costs were relatively small, with Harris putting the budget of his last game at around £10,000, or £50,000 with salary. This compares to £3m -7m for a Wii game to anything up to £30 million for an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 title.

Sales are much lower for indie games with a success measured in the thousands rather than millions. But with such low budgets average sales of around a thousand copies per title can still turn a tidy profit.

I haven't spent a dime on advertising as yet - it's all word of mouth or through the gaming media
Dan Marshall

"What I do keeps me fed and warm. I'm not sure I get to lead the most extravagant lifestyle, or how my earnings compare to people working in the mainstream games industry," admits Dan Marshall of Zombie Cow Studios.

"But I get to spend all day every day doing what I love, and there's no real price to be put on that."

One of the biggest indie hits of recent years was Jonathan Blow's Braid, a deconstruction of classic games such as Super Mario combined with a neo-surrealist plot and imagery. It was released for PC and sold 55,000 units in its first week - worth around £530,000.

Although any indie developer would welcome such revenues there's less desire to compete with retail companies in other areas.

"I'd maybe like to expand a little bit, hire a full time coder to help out and definitely a full time artist. I wouldn't want to be running a big corporate thing under any circumstances," admitted Mr Harris.

'Exciting times'

A key appeal, for those that both make and play independent games, is the complete lack of restrictions on the content.

"Games are like novels or movies," said Mr Harris. "They should be a focused creative vision, not a third quarter revenue generating opportunity in synch with a movie release."

Ben There, Dan That (Zombie Cow Games)
Ben There, Dan That has a distinctive brand of British humour

His own games include political strategy game Democracy and the new sci-fi strategy management game Gratuitous Space Battles. None of which has any close analogue on the high street.

Mr Marshall also focuses on areas neglected by the high street. His most popular games are graphic adventures Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentleman, Please. This breed of dialogue-heavy puzzle game has become all but extinct in the retail world, due to their lack of action, but still thrives in the indie subculture.

Such intolerance for following market trends is entirely in keeping with the old bedroom programmer ethos, where features were implemented at the whim of the designer not the marketing department.

"The indie kids are doing an amazing job of keeping that spirit alive," said Mr Marshall.

However, one problem that unites all bedroom programmers is simply getting their games noticed, with little money to spend on advertising and limited coverage from the games media.

"I haven't spent a dime on advertising as yet - it's all word of mouth or through the gaming media," said Mr Marshall.

But that is changing. Industry giants such as Microsoft and Apple have already turned homemade games into a pre-packaged commodity via download services such as Xbox Live Arcade and the iPhone App Store, where developers can sell their wares to the mass market.

"I think the lines are getting blurred as everyone starts to inch towards digital distribution. Once people download their games by default….smaller independent games will be on a more-even footing," said Mr Marshall.

"It's a very exciting time, and hopefully this trend will continue in years to come."

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