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The Wright Stuff: When indie developers met the iPhone

A match made in heaven
The Wright Stuff: When indie developers met the iPhone

It sounds like it should be great fun to spend your days working for a game developer.

"What do you do?" "

I make games."

It seems so much better than "I work in a bank".

But game development is often a thankless task. The problem is console games are massive projects that can take years to make but have only a few weeks to recoup the tens of millions spent on them.

As is often said, game development is a hits business, which means most games lose money. Only a very small number make money, but they make a lot.

This state of affairs hasn't been helped by the way console manufacturers control access to their platforms. Since Nintendo launched the N64 with its Dream Team of developers, access to development has been restricted and development costs have escalated.

Of course, the theory is that by only allowing a small number of big publishers and developers in, you ensure the best possible games are made, and everyone is happy.

The problem, however, is that this is simply not the case. By restricting supply, you limit creativity. This allows goliaths like EA to dominate the market, releasing yearly re-runs of licensed products in a production-line manner that neither delivers creativity or evolves the medium.

No one can argue Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2009 isn't a great looking product, but it's hardly a great progress from 2008, which in turn wasn't much different to 2007, etc.

Indie development is the exact opposite. It shifts control away from the console manufacturers and publishers and puts it back in the hands of the creatives. Give them a platform that's easy to develop for, simple to publish on and with a user base hungry for interesting games and you change everything.

In this way, the iPhone is nothing short of a revolution. It's the first truly open console, whereby anyone with a Mac and $99 can build and sell a game or app with minimal interference from the platform owner.

If you follow game industry logic through, it should be a complete disaster. We should be awash with rubbish, just like the Atari 2600 was at the start of the 1980s. We should be seeing poor quality games sold at stupid prices and driven by licenses.

The App Store isn't like that, though. Yes, there are a lot of games and getting your game noticed is a challenge, but it's as much of a challenge for EA as for a one man developer.

By making a game's position in the top 100 be based both on sales and peer reviews, and letting the community rate and comment on the game, the App Store gives the power back to the people who matter - the people who are buying your game.

There are some problems of course.

Games can be poorly tested and version 1.0s often require version 1.0.1s. The range of games is bewildering. It's a jungle, but like the jungle, it's exciting too. It would be better if Apple provided some simple tools to improve discovery and recommendation, but as a starting point the App Store is so much better than anything available from anyone else.

You know why? It's because the iPhone is the first platform aimed at the indie developer. It allows us to make small creative games and sell them to a user base hungry for something new.

And you know what? It's a massive success. Let's hope the console and handset manufacturers and operators are listening.

After 12 years in the games industry, the last eight as head of production at I-play, Chris Wright has finally escaped. He now runs his own consultancy focusing on casual games. He can be contacted at chris [at] or follow him on Twitter.

All opinions expressed are the author's own.