Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Mar. 28th
It is 11AM and thunderheads are gathering outside Austin, shadowing the hordes of conventioneers that stream in for South By Southwest. An old college friend, actor turned game developer Zeb L. West, has brought me miles away from the heart of SXSW to the nicest, if plainest, looking strip mall in the city.
Zeb is playing the role of fixer on my quest to understand the Austin independent game scene for an NPR piece. To that end he’s arraigned a meeting with a few of the guys from the indie studio Stoic. They, like Zeb, used to work for one of the largest studios in Austin: BioWare, makers of Star Wars: The Old Republic.
The meet is set for the back of the flagship store for Game Over, a retro-game chain in Texas. More well organized than any GameStop, the store exists somewhere outside of linear time. Perfectly preserved Atari 2600 and ColecoVision consoles sit side-by-side with Nintendo GameCubes. Master Chief action figures and the fabled black Tengen NES carts rest on the shelves. The memory of a more innocent era of video games, all available for purchase.
I’m expecting the founders of Stoic to show up to talk about the history of video games in Austin, why they jumped ship from a “AAA” studio like BioWare, and what makes the city so agreeable to game developers. What I get is a lot more. The three founders bring with them two other members of the studio.
Collectively this bunch has spent decades in the multibillion dollar games industry, only to turn their back on that to forge their own path in a fickle marketplace.
“We spent years working on this large, AAA title,” said John Watson, technical director of Stoic and one of the founders. “When you’re working on a game like that it’s more like working in a factory than making a game. Everybody’s got their little piece to do.”
For a half-decade Watson and Stoic cofounders Alex Thomas and Arnie Jorgensen worked together on the massively multiplayer online role playing game Star Wars game. Designed from the ground up to be a commercial juggernaut, SWTOR wasn’t the commercial success the publisher wanted. Talking with the Stoic founders it is easy to tell that chasing money for its own sake got stale.
Not long after the launch of SWTOR, Watson and company left BioWare to begin work on their own vision of what a modern video game RPG could be.
“To me the idea of an indie game is a game that’s made for its own sake,” said Watson. “To express a particular idea or aesthetic, and that’s what it’s for. The other considerations like profitability or market appeal are irrelevant.”
They’ve been hard at work since developing The Banner Saga, a game that marries the look of rotoscope animation with mythic Viking tales.
Originally the trio planned on using their own money to finance the game, yet the emergence of crowdfunding as a viable alternative to publisher cash led Stoic to try their hand at Kickstarter. The success of other developers emboldened them to ask for $100,000. The final tally was $723,886.
Yet crowdfunding money comes with its own cost.
“Instead of working with a publisher who has say over what you’re doing to make the most profit,” said Thomas, the creative director of the studio, “we have 20,000 supporters who each also have a say about what they think the game’s going to be.”
Thomas takes what those supporters say seriously.
“This is something that we didn’t predict whatsoever,” said Thomas. “I spend a good 80% of my time with community stuff. Which is just far and away more than we ever thought we’d be doing. That’s because once you do have that Kickstarter thing going your marketing is on wheels. It’s going and you have to keep it going, you just can’t go radio silent all of a sudden.”
For Thomas this community management is on top of the writing, art and design work that he originally planned on. Passions that brought him to Austin’s game scene in the first place.
Programmer Jeff Uriarte works with the Stoic team to bring The Banner Saga to life. He got his start at the legendary Austin game studio Origin, the PC game house that developed the generation defining gamesUltima and Wing Commander.
“That’s what drew a lot of game development here, and from there a lot of smaller studios spun off,” said Uriarte. “Those in turn have grown into larger studios and it’s a cycle that keeps recurring over and over. Right now we’re in a stage where we have a lot of indie studios popping up.”
The games business has become as cyclical as the movie business. Big studios like Origin die and the talent goes to smaller houses. Games like SWTOR increase their staff to make a pre-planned release date and then a wave of layoffs hit. Nor are these the only way that the games business is increasingly like the film one.
“The Texas Film Commission,” said Jorgensen, the studio’s art director, “are really active at trying to keep people in Texas.”
Incentives that were once used to lure film production to Austin are now being used to keep game production there. Combined that with a lower cost of living than other tech-heavy cities, and Austin becomes an ideal place for independent game developers to hang their hat.
The presence of the big studios also means that indie developers can supplement their income with freelance work. Thomas points out that no AAA game is being made solely with full time employees.
“A lot of indies support themselves by working freelance,” added Watson. “You don’t need a corporate, full time salary job to survive. If you choose to consume less and be more frugal, you can just work part time freelancing and work on your indie project in the rest of your time. There’s lot’s of work to be done.”
Stoic has their work cut out for them. They continue to move forward with the single player campaign for The Banner Saga game. Recently they released a multiplayer game that features the combat system they have been developing. The Banner Saga: Factions is currently available on the Steam platform. It is a change in the way that games are released, one that initially confused some of their community.
This appears to be the way forward for indies. Open development processes that let the players get caught up in the creation of the games almost as much as the makers. Without all the sleepless nights.