Few people possess the sort of insight into indie game development that industry veteran Jason Della Rocca does. Having headed the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) for nine years, he's been involved with independent game development long before it went indie”.
Della Rocca's Execution Labs now funds and mentors indie start-ups, and he is the first games industry representative on the ICT (information and communications technology) advisory board of Canada's foreign and trade ministry. It is this advisory role that brought Della Rocca to India recently, where he attended various investor conferences, visited game studios, and spoke at two local chapter meetings of the NASSCOM Gaming Forum.
In between this tight scheduled, however, he managed to squeeze in some time for us. We spoke with Della Rocca at length about the growth of indie game development, the challenges facing the Indian industry, the right approach to seeking investment, and the dos and don'ts of pitching to investors.
You've been involved with independent game development for the longest time, and it must be heartening to see the indie community flourish the way it has. Can you talk a bit about how the industry developed during your tenure at the IGDA and since then as well?
Indie” is a more recent label. Certainly there were indies back then; they just didn't call themselves that. I think part of it has to do with the lowering of the barrier to entry. There was a point when if you wanted to make a game, it was a console game, and you needed 100 people and $10 million – it just wasn't approachable. Before broadband internet took off, even on PC, which was an open platform, there was no path to market. So a combination of broadband internet as well as digital platforms like Facebook, iOS, etc enabled developers to find a market on their own and circumvent the traditional gatekeepers and publishers.
I don't recall when the label indie” really became a thing, but certainly back in the day there was a sense of being an independent studio, meaning not a part of the publisher regime. It's a bit blurry to me.
Do you think that going independent has also become more necessary for creators now because publishers didn't dictate the development and design of games as much back then or that the games weren't developed based on what would be more marketable?
I'm not sure that's the case. If you go way back to the Atari 2600 days, maybe there the marketing wasn't involved; it was just the crazy programmers that came up with wild stuff. Since that point – we're talking twenty-plus years – games have, to a certain extent, been driven by marketing and companies like EA, Ubisoft and Activision had to sell product into retail channels like Walmart and Best Buy. They had to think about what they can sell to the buyer, so I think that was always part of the equation.
Now you get a different kind of thing, where analysts for free-to-play games are looking at metrics and driving the design in certain directions. So even if you're indie, you may not have a marketing boss, but now you're at the mercy of the data to a certain extent to help massage the game to make it economically viable. So it's really hard to be completely indie – the artsy indie - where you have this creative vision without any regard for market or audience. Jason Rohrer does stuff like that, and many others, like Anna Anthropy. These games are more about self-expression without necessarily intent for it to be economically viable.
Would this explosion of independent games have been possible had it not been for digital distribution?
Digital distribution was one of the major things that unlocked it all. It reduced the cost of goods. As soon as you have to put it on a disc, the disc in a box, the box on a truck, and then to the warehouse, and stuff like that, the cost barrier just goes through the roof. So it really is thanks to digital distribution and the lowering of cost of goods.
In parallel, you now have faster hardware, so you don't need specialised severs to crunch 3D graphics. The tools of development become way more powerful, software like Unity and Flash become free and much more accessible, so the means to create stuff is open to many more people. Then you've got universities that are generating students that know game design and programming. So you train up game developers, you give them inexpensive tools that are more accessible and hardware that's more powerful than ever before, and now they have a digital channel to go straight to the consumer. That doesn't guarantee success, but it means that there's a flood of real independents.
There are two common, confliction notions about gaming in India that have so far prevented the market from growing as much as it could have. One is that gaming is for kids and so isn't worth spending on, and the other is that games are too violent so they should be avoided. What is your view on this and how can this mindset be changed?
It's more of a social and cultural issue, but it's also a generational issue. The older generation doesn't understand or appreciate the popular culture, pastimes or interests of the younger generation. So we just have to wait for the older generation to die off, and that won't be an issue anymore. More seriously though, we're starting to see that shift in other parts of the world, where with the diversification of games and games being playable across all sorts of devices, you do have older people playing Candy Crush or other kinds of games. So the idea of games being these foreign, unknown, scary objects starts to diminish.
I think the whole violence debate is getting tired at this point. Yes, games like GTA and Call of Duty are huge sellers, but if you look at the entirety of games, on aggregate, they (violent games) only represent about 15%, so the ones that are way more predominant are the other genres, like sports, puzzle and causal games. It's much more diverse, but it's Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto that get all the media attention, so the perception is that that's what games are – hookers, war and mafia. Yes, those two are popular, but they're just a piece of the overall puzzle.
The NASSCOM Gaming Forum represents the interests of the game development industry in India, but the country doesn't really have an organisation that looks at gaming beyond development – consumer engagement, retail and distribution, regulations, etc. Would that hold the industry back?
There are lots of pieces and lots of moving gears, and the fact that NASSCOM has a gaming forum, has chapter events, and hosts a games conference in Pune is super valuable to have. The reality is there are many different needs at different levels, so even in more mature markets like Canada or the US, you have different kinds of entities in different roles.
For example, in Canada, we have the IGDA and several local chapters in major cities. The IGDA's focus is only on the individuals – designers, artists, programmers. Then, there's a provincial trade association, whose members are the companies – EA, Ubisoft, etc, and they're primarily dealing with the business interests within that region and working with the local governments. You additionally have a national federation of all the provincial bodies – the Canadian Interactive Alliance, which coordinates national-level initiatives and gets those provincial bodies working together. So they all have their roles; an IGDA local chapter can't handle national-level initiatives.
Now, if those entities did not exist, would the games industry in Canada still be doing great? Yes, but to a certain extent those entities and relationships help to optimise and accelerate the process. So it's definitely nice to have, and if they work well, it really helps advance the sector and the industry. That said, in no wa