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Plugged In

Gaming’s new war: Independents threaten major publishers

Plugged In

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A fight's brewing.

Activision and EA aren't going away anytime soon, but the never ending clash of the video game publishing titans has opened the door for
a newer, more nimble type of competitor.

Their names -- Zeptolab, Mojang, LimaSky -- certainly don't demand attention like the major console publishers. But their products are as
familiar to the gaming world as many titles from the big guns. And, in some
circles, they're perhaps even better known.

The three companies are respectively responsible for Cut the
Rope, Minecraft and DoodleJump, huge titles made by small companies that are
stealing playtime away from traditional games. In today's video game market,
where companies fight as much for people's time as for their dollars, they've
completely changed the playing field.

Financially, at least, there's still no comparison between
the two. While Call of Duty: Black Ops set industry sales records in its
first few months
of availability, Minecraft was available for free during
its alpha phase.

It still doesn't have a publisher and has never spent a dime
on marketing, but that hasn't stopped word of mouth from making Minecraft a legitimate
hit.  The game has been played by 1.8 million paying customers, generating a hefty $33 million.  It's won loads of awards, and is even being used as a teaching tool.

Lima Sky's Doodle Jump, meanwhile, has amassed over 5
million sales and has become a big enough part of the pop culture to strike a
marketing deal with Universal Studios (which in February replaced the game's
titular character with E.B., the computer-generated star of its recently
released film "Hop").

"To have Doodle Jump involved with the launch of a major
motion picture demonstrates how influential apps have become in just a few
short years," said Igor Pusenjak, president and founder of Lima Sky. And while
fellow iOS hit Cut the Rope has yet to see a big screen treatment, it's already
surpassed 3 million purchases.

Unfortunately, the success of these smaller publishers -- and others like them -- has ruffled some feathers.

Nintendo president Satoru Iwata derided the pricing philosophies of this generation of developers at this year's Game Developer Conference, noting that these significantly cheaper games could ultimately put the industry at risk.

"Until now, there has always been the ability to make a living [making games]," he said. "Will that still be the case moving forward?"

It's something of an uneasy co-existence between independent
developers and major publishers these days. And both sides are trying to figure
out how to share the wealth.

Nintendo's GDC keynote didn't earn it a lot of friends, nor did subsequent comments from president Reggie Fils-Aime saying "We are not looking to do business today with the garage developer. In our view, that's not a business we want to pursue."

Ironically, Nintendo is working with several indie developers on its Wiiware store. It may not want so-called garage developers to do very well, but if a group has an office, they're generally welcomed with open arms, regardless of staff size.

Other major publishers have generally kept quiet, but behind
the scenes there's plenty of partnering going on.

"Overall, big companies are doing interesting stuff
with smaller amounts of staff or partnering with outside companies," says
Simon Carless, chairman emeritus of the Independent Games Festival and
executive vice president of the GDC shows. "EA Partners has signed a
number of 'indie' titles and some companies like Valve are finding that the
best way to partner with indie companies is actually to help distribution."

Those sorts of collaborations not only act as a way for big
publishers to keep tabs on nimble new companies, they let them reap some of the
rewards without sweating the overhead. After all, people working out of their
home or in a small office can make a game a lot cheaper than the
professional-rate staffs that create today's AAA games.

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