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Archive                           February 2009


FEATURE

Champaign-urbana's independent game developers remain hopeful


By Justin Hemenway
CIB freelance writer
Published: Feb. 2009

In the computer game "Blind Guy Versus Zombies," players follow sound waves generated by air conditioners, scurrying rats and other audio cues as a makeshift sonar, enabling them to avoid an army of the undead.

Up until just a few years ago, this outlandish concept, imagined by student group SigGraph at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, might never have seen the light of day.

Until recently, independent game developers essentially had two choices - work with huge, billion-dollar publishers or toil away in relative obscurity working on passion projects. However, innovations in online distribution - particularly Steam, the video game equivalent of iTunes - have opened up the independent video game development scene. Meanwhile, games on Apple's iPhone are also becoming increasingly affordable to produce.

Though the odds are still stacked against smaller teams, bustling Internet and mobile audiences offer designers a glimmer of hope.

Not everyone in SigGraph, a group within the U of I's Association for Computing Machinery, was able to maintain this positive outlook. "We're currently at eight to 10 people, depending on who shows up for meetings," said Craig Grupp, a U of I senior and lead designer on the project. He said it's been a challenge making sure everyone stays motivated to make progress on the game during the school year.

Grupp has seen student projects fall apart before. Last year, his team worked on a game in which players built complex, Rube Goldberg machines to perform simple tasks like turning on a toaster. However, the project never made it past the lengthy conceptual stage because the team could not adequately program gravity into the game."None of us had enough experience to delve into the hundreds of lines of code," he said.

Despite these dilemmas, Grupp wishes to remain an independent developer after graduation.

While the "Blind Guy" video game is still in the preliminary coding stages, U of I's other student video game team, Gamebuilders, just put the finishing touches on "Quantum S." The game asks players to guide a cartoon character through a series of mazes. There is a time-travel hook - players can record the actions of duplicate characters to help them solve puzzles - yet the controls of "Quantum S" are very simple.

This finished game was recently submitted to the annual Independent Game Festival (IGF) in San Francisco. Winning entries receive both funding and attention from publishers, but this route is a long shot.

"IGF is really competitive. Only 10 games are chosen from the 200 national entries," said Cameron Kikoen, a U of I junior and chair of Gamebuilders.

Even with such slim chances at IGF, Kikoen said that the "climate toward independent gaming is getting better" because of Steam. Should Gamebuilders' game do well at IGF, it could eventually find its way onto Microsoft's Xbox 360 or Sony's PlayStation 3, both of which also have download services.

Fred Fettinger and Mike Mullan tried to succeed through this festival just a few years ago, when they started CornerSuite Studios. The two dabbled in game development until Fettinger received his U of I master's degree in computer science in 2004. That's when CornerSuite became a full time job.

The two developers brought in a supporting crew and began work on their first and only game, "Remnants of the Stars." Fettinger proposed a space flight simulation because most major developers had abandoned the genre by that time. "I really enjoyed playing space [simulations] like 'Wing Commander' and the 'Star Wars' X-wing games while I was growing up," he said. The former was the inspiration for "Remnants."

Almost a year later, the game began to take shape. CornerSuite looked at some publishers and brought a partial demonstration to the national Game Developers Conference, but nobody was willing to release the game.

Without a financial backer, Fettinger and Mullan couldn't afford to support their team. Adobe Photoshop and other artistic software cost thousands, and their limited funds meant that no one could be compensated. "The real currency was just slices of the company pie," Fettinger said.

Fettinger said that while "Remnants" may have had a better chance of finding an audience today through Steam, he has no plans to leave his current job at Motorola in Libertyville.

While some area independent video game developers have struggled to be financially successful, at least one has made quite a mark on the industry. Champaign-based video game developer Volition Inc. started out small and independent until August 2000, when it was acquired by California-based publisher THQ.

In its early days, Volition was comprised of only eight to 10 people, but it slowly grew as general manager and founder Mike Kulas' "FreeSpace" games earned the company greater recognition. To get money, he solicited his games to multiple publishers at a time, showing off basic prototypes to generate interest.

Kulas said he recognized that "some complain about the lack of innovation and constant sequels," but said that music-based games like "Guitar Hero" show that even big studios occasionally take risks.

Although Kulas now needs to take the concerns of his parent company into consideration, he sees this as a potential advantage as well.

"This is a global industry and I'm fine with marketing preventing us from making adverse sales choices," he said, citing a name of a character that had to be changed because it was a slight obscenity in England. But he emphasized that the majority of development decisions are still handled internally.

According to Kulas, it would be incredibly difficult for an independent developer today to follow the same track as Volition because of the soaring costs. "When we made 'FreeSpace,' it cost about $400,000," he said. "Today, our games could cost 100 times that."

Kulas said that independent developers would have a much easier time working with alternative platforms like the iPod or cell phones because the games tend to have simpler graphics and require less manpower. Developers can also sell their simpler games online through Steam without dealing with marketing and manufacturing.

"I'm sure you'll see successful startups here," he said.

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