• Dave@Waterlane Studios

Vision vs Profit. (Indie Dev’)

The other day I started to play a game called ‘The Witness’. I’d heard of it before and could remember a few screenshots – a simple puzzle based game I thought, made by a small indie team. As much as I’m drawn towards full blown AAA titles, I’ve found myself over the years being drawn more and more to smaller games. If I’m honest it’s partly due to the time on my hands – big games take a lot of time to play and often being open ended, they seem to go on until fatigue sets in. Not so with indie titles. Smaller games usually can be completed quite quickly and provide a complete ‘beginning to end’ experience. A great way to ‘take a break’.

What amazes me at times though are how some games shine… suddenly you’re confronted with a new world, richly designed and full of intrigue. That’s what hit me with ‘The Witness’. I’ve literally only had one play of it. But I had to stop part way into my play and just marvel at it. What a simply beautifully crafted world I was looking at and the puzzles were thought provoking. It oozed creativity and care. Yes, care. It was clear to me that this was a labour of love.

After putting down the controller I decided to do a quick look into who made the game and what else they had made. Like finding a good film, book or art piece, I’d always recommend finding out the director, author or artist… you never know what other masterpieces lay waiting to be discovered. Suddenly I felt very sober. The search told me that ‘The Witness’ was the product of Jonathan Blow and a very small team. It took 7 years to complete and cost around $800,000… let me repeat that. SEVEN YEARS – for a small indie’ puzzle game. Suddenly I could relate more to what I had been playing and why it had grabbed me. This was ‘special’ – a cheap computer game on one hand and a beautiful collaborative work of art on the other.

I often find it sad how ‘games’ have been side-lined as a medium. Whilst culture may at times include them in an exhibition, they never have the established feeling given to other forms (please don’t get me started on ‘what is art’). Games tend to be collaborative in nature, closer to film than a book. Even so, it took my breath away to stop and think about the effort needed to produce the game I had just played. For someone to have a vision and drive it through year after year, when I’m sure there must have been times when ‘the voice in the head’ said “Stop”.

The games industry (and now VR) is full of unfinished projects. Lord knows I’ve a stack of them on my hard drive alone (lol). But that’s the one thing about this industry – it’s fickle.

My first real look behind the curtain at how projects can come and go, assuming my memory is correct, was way ‘back in the day’. When working for the developer/publisher ‘Acclaim’, there was a big project underway – a ‘wild west’ based AAA project. However, after almost a years’ worth of development, the marketing division surveyed ‘the public’ and found out that ‘Americans’ were not wanting to be reminded of their history. Apparently, cowboys were no longer in fashion (looking back it’s curious to ponder which demographics may have been polled…). Due to this ‘revelation’ the game was cancelled. A year’s worth of development was thrown away as the project was predicted likely not to make a profit… … Some time after ‘Red Dead Redemption’ was released by Rockstar and the rest is history. Westerns were all the rage once again.

Some might believe this example was the fault of the marketing, but it wasn’t. It’s a problem between vision and profit. When bills have to be paid, ambitious projects often get replaced with sequels and titles with a perceived wider appeal. It’s one thing to complain about a how a company wastes money, but it’s another to put your own money on the table and risk losing it (even more so if that money is what you use to pay your own bills). Although it isn’t always money that is directly to blame, I’ve seen numerous studios come and go, from small developers to the large. Even successful games have not kept studios afloat [I’m reminded of Team Bondi and L.A.Noire.]. Indeed, it’s a curse of the video game industry the there seems to be little security. Developers often drift between studios, not from ambition but for survival.

The VR industry is mirroring this, but at an even faster pace. Initially there were a handful of leading headsets; the Oculus Rift, Vive, Playstation VR and Google Cardboard. These brought an explosion of developers. Many finding new creative possibilities, but also those seeing VR as a get rich scheme. This has led to a wide range of experiences and, sadly, many of low quality. As the industry has slowly matured, we’ve seen the market change. VR is on a steady course, but not the explosion many were hoping for. With that, developers have been hit with funding cuts. Many have simple found the area to rough and dropped out.

Being aware of how the industry was since day one, I’ve worked hard NOT to release quick, poorly made experiences. Also, from having a long history of development, it’s been clear to me that most of the tools have not been designed for VR – i.e. Game Engines used for VR have many ‘first person shooter’ templates – perhaps a key reason for so many poorly made F.P.S. games…

From the beginning I wanted to make experiences rather than games. These two things may overlap, but share different focus. A game is to entertain where an experience tends to be less adrenaline fuelled. Engagement is key, but the methods this is done come from different design. Standing still in VR is often as amazing as racing in a game.

Understanding these differences and how the industry is likely to develop (based upon 25 years+ experience) led me to creating Waterlane Studios. I am not fighting competition (though it exists) and as much as is possible, move at my own pace. I believe the phrase is ‘sustainable development’. Hopefully this will lead to me creating ‘something different’… Which brings me back to my respect for ‘The Witness’ game. Not only can I have respect for the team who made it, I can relate.

There’s a definition that a successful business makes a profit. Personally, I prefer another phrase, which I heard some time ago. “If making money is all a business does, then it’s not a very good business”. My aim, is to make that a reality – a Virtual Reality.

© 2019 by Waterlane Studios Limited