Indie developers cling to creative control

The one thing shared by those who call themselves indie is an insistence on maintaining control over their creations. In Canada, the music, film, and book industries include independent producers like Arts & Crafts, Maple Pictures, and Coach House Books. The same is also true of the video-game sector, where Canadians are big news.

A game called N won the audience award at the Independent Games Festival (in competition with submissions from around the world) in 2005. Created by Toronto developers Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard, it's a low-tech freeware game in which players are a stick-figure ninja trying to navigate tricky obstacle courses. In March, at the 2007 edition of the IGF, Jonathan Mak took home a bucketful of awards for his game Everyday Shooter. Picking up the awards for design innovation and excellence in audio netted Mak US$5,000, and winning the top GameTap indie award meant that Mak took an additional US$10,000 cheque home to Toronto and landed a distribution deal with the on-line game company.

The 24-year-old Mak, who holds a computer-science degree from the University of Toronto, joked that the best part of winning the awards is that he'll be able to pay rent for a while. "That the game has won an award means that you have bargaining power with publishers who can bring your game to different platforms," he said on the phone from his home.

As long as they don't want to inject Britney Spears into his game, which he describes as "an album of shoot-'em-ups" because it combines a guitar-rock soundtrack with game play inspired by a variety of shooting games. "Someone offered [suggested] that," Mak said, incredulous. Needless to say, he didn't accept the offer. He did, however, agree to an offer from Sony to license the game for the PlayStation Network, Sony's downloadable-game service. It will be released later this summer.

Developers Burns and Sheppard told the Straight in a phone interview that working with publishers and distributors can be difficult. Their N has been licensed by Atari for the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, and is currently being programmed for Xbox Live. "We fought a huge battle with Microsoft in order to get them to agree to keep N's graphics the way they are," Sheppard said.

All three developers are happy to get the chance to increase the audience for their games, but not at the expense of the integrity of their creations. "Part of me wants the game to be in as many people's hands as possible," Mak admitted, "because I think it's cool when people play your game. If I can get away with it, without doing something horrendous, then I would do that."

Mak created Everyday Shooter entirely on his own, from design to programming to music, and it's a freedom he relishes. "I like to create from the inside out. There's something in me, and I want to put that out there."

Burns said he and Sheppard don't really want to make games; they want to play them. "And they don't exist, so we have to make them. If someone else could make the game we're currently working on, that would be great."