Heather Chaplin learns how amateur game makers are finding their way into the mainstream.
The financial world has gone to hell. Housing prices are crumbling and the credit crisis makes the word "crisis" sound like a euphemism. It's too bad you can't invest in depression or unemployment because they're the only areas making gains after 20 years of optimism and growth. In other words, this is no time for pipe dreams of making the indie game that will change the medium forever - if only you had the contacts to get it distributed. Wait on that for a couple of years, common wisdom says - we're too busy stuffing our mattresses to play your game.
Oddly, however, at just this moment in time hundreds of amateur and independent game makers are seeing their road in. And the change that's too big for them to ignore, tanked economy or not, comes from big-name companies Microsoft and Apple. These gatekeepers are giving away their software tools - the tools that allow developers to make games on the companies' proprietary systems - for free as downloads, and then they're offering the games (and, in Apple's case, other kinds of applications) for sale in their own online stores, with the makers getting the bulk of the profit. Imagine if studios started giving away film equipment and theater owners started making their screens available for anyone who made a movie.
Okay, what is going on exactly? Well, this past spring, Apple opened its iPhone Developer Program, which meant that anyone could download Apple's software development kits (software to help developers code, check for bugs, and take advantage of all the features of the hardware) to create applications and games for the iPhone and the iPod Touch. Make your game, pay a $99 membership fee to the iPhone Developer Program, and sell your game on Apple's Web site, in iTunes and on the iPhone itself. In just two months this fall, amateur Steve Demeter earned $250,000 with a puzzle game called Trism that he developed himself and Apple sold for $5 a pop.
The iPhone is one thing; however, the three major game consoles are another. Traditionally getting a game on one of the consoles - today, the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360 and the Wii - meant spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in development and, perhaps even more of a deterrent, getting past the executives who green-lit games and who are not generally known for their love of taking risks on unusual projects. This most recent generation of consoles has been a big step forward for indie game makers because they all have downloadable services, which means the companies need lots of smaller games to fill their channels. But now Microsoft has taken it a step further. It used to be that getting a coveted spot on one of their downloadable services meant slogging through game competitions and crossing your fingers and hoping and praying that your game would be chosen. …