On Conventions
The Role of the Indie Market

Specialist Developers

Lorraineghuberfollowyourdream 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. 

Idlogo 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.

Nippon_ichi_logo_1 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. 

Supersonic We’re always pleased to have the opportunity to work with specialist developers, and I’m honoured to count the UK’s most famous specialist developer, Supersonic Software, as one of International Hobo’s clients. We’ve been playing and loving Supersonic’s games for many years – in fact, I bought a Sega Megadrive (Genesis in the US) and four controllers solely so we could play Micro Machines 2: Turbo Tournament on it. It’s one of my wife’s favourite games.

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. 

Mashed3_1 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.

Mm4 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.


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I can see True Vacuum having the niche of developing first generation drama games. My plans for expansion involve R&D into a second generation engine once we've established a market. I think that sort of lateral expansion is worth the risk, because a second generation engine would be open up the market dramatically. We're hoping to follow ID's pattern of success, but I'd be happy to make 30K a year, honestly.

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