What is every game developer’s dream? Well,
assuming they’re not just in it for the money, most people would like to work
for a developer small and independent enough for their own voice to count, and
where they can work on games they enjoy playing. And amazingly, some developers
manage to carve out a niche for themselves that allows just this. An
inspiration to everyone hoping to make games without signing up for indentured corporate
servitude, these are the specialist developers.
Perhaps the most famous specialist developer is Dallas-based id software, the creators of Doom and Quake, who built a market for themselves from their early shareware, and now make highly popular and relatively successful game titles, as well as licensing their software technology to other developers. They employ roughly thirty people, and it’s a safe bet their staff enjoy playing first person shooters.
On a smaller scale, the Japanese developer
Nippon Ichi (“Japan One” or "Japan's Best") have carved out a tiny but stable niche market making
high quality, low budget, turn-based strategy games for the PS2. These games
sell in relatively modest numbers, but they cost so little to make that it is a
profitable enterprise – and code reuse from one game to the next is doubtless
an added benefit. Fans of the Nippon Ichi games are extremely loyal – several
members of International Hobo’s staff have been known to vanish for long
stretches of time while playing Disgaea and its siblings.
We’re always pleased to have the
opportunity to work with specialist developers, and I’m honoured to count the
Although Supersonic have made some other
games, their speciality is multiplayer top-down racers. The demise of the
traditional top-down perspective in gaming hasn’t stopped them, as they went
ahead and developed a camera system that works in 3D but plays like a
top down racer. These games allow for the friendly competitive fun of a game
like Mario Kart but without resorting to an eye-straining split screen
format. With simple, accessible controls and a readily understandable challenge
(stay ahead!) Supersonic’s racing games command a loyal following among gamers,
as well as appealing to a wider casual market thanks to their accessibility.
Supersonic have created a number of games in this niche – including the aforementioned Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament, Micro Machines Military, Supersonic Racers, Circuit Breakers, and Mashed (which we had the pleasure of working on in a small capacity). I was always disappointed that Supersonic lost access to Hasbro’s Micro Machines license, so it was a cause of some delight when I learned that Codemasters had gone with Supersonic for Micro Machines V4, which is the current multiplayer game of choice in our office.
Clearly, the guys at Supersonic, headed up
by industry veterans Peter and Andrew Williamson, love making this kind of game
– and this is what gives a specialist developer their strength. When a game
developer works on a different title every few years, it may stave off boredom,
but it doesn’t allow the team to refine their game-making skills. Focussing on
a particular style of game has huge advantages in terms of letting the team
adapt to a specific development scenario – like an animal adapted to its
ecological niche, a specialist development team knows the pitfalls and
shortcuts of their own form, and this allows them to make better games. By
‘better’ I of course mean ‘more fun for the game’s target audience’.
It should be understood that the many multiplayer racing games Supersonic have made are all distinctly different. Specialist development is not about making exactly the same game over and over again, as with a sports franchise for instance, but rather about honing one’s skill in a distinct area. (The same can be seen with Nippon Ichi’s turn-based strategy games; all similar in some ways, yet quite unique in others). The subtle differences from one game to the next are what give each its unique identity.
Remembering that Micro Machines is a
Hasbro license, Supersonic’s software credits have been quite dependent upon
licensed projects. Independent games companies have to make ends meet, and it
is a fact of the market that there is more money for developing licensed games
than for original product. New game developers should not be afraid or ashamed
of taking money that’s on the table to get started or to make ends meet. If
this licensed money wasn’t there, many companies – my own included – would not
have been able to survive. And remember, a licensed game can still be a great
game, as Supersonic has amply demonstrated.
Anyone hoping to start their own professional specialist developer should bear the following suggestions in mind:
- Find a niche you like – there’s no point setting up a specialist developer in a genre you don’t enjoy. Make sure your choosing a specialisation that you will continue to love for many years.
- Don’t compete unnecessarily – don’t attempt to carve out a niche where the market is already well served… You aren’t going to be able to take on mega-brand names directly (Gran Turismo, for instance), and you have little hope of unseating an already populated niche.
- Make licenses work – you need money to run a company, and licenses are safer investments for publishers. Micro Machines and LEGO Star Wars demonstrate that licenses can help make great games under the right circumstances. But make sure your licenses fit the genre niche you have chosen.
- Reuse your code base – you’ll have to update your software as new game systems come and go, but you need to minimise your development costs however you can. There are few better ways than planning for code reuse.
- Don’t grow too fast – if you are lucky enough to enjoy some success, don’t be fooled into suddenly doubling in size and chasing more money. Successful games are rarely followed by games of equal success (except with rare franchise hits) – if you try and grow too fast, you may bankrupt yourself.
- Have fun with it! That’s the best reason to plan on becoming a specialist developer in the first place, after all.
To anyone hoping to give specialist development a try, I wish you the best of luck! The games industry can’t have too many successful independent developers and I hope that your future company prospers in its niche – and that you have fun doing it!
The opening image is Follow Your Dream by Lorraine Huber, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I'll take the image down if asked.