March 24, 2009

The Keynote

Rod Humble was once a manual labourer in the lumber yards of Britain, until a supervisor told him that if he kept at it and did a good enough job, then maybe one day he would get to work on the machines. On that day, he quit. In the following years, Rod Humble became the head of Electronic Arts' Play label, supervising franchises like The Sims and Harry Potter; the developer of art games The Marriage and Stars over Half-Moon Bay; and a man whose hometown newspaper, inferring an erroneous fact from The Marriage, printed that he was cheating on his wife.

Humble spoke at the Independent Games Summit earlier today about his perspective and lessons learned working in two commercially disparate areas of game development. When Humble ran his presentation by Jonathan Blow, the Braid designer said his talk was useless. Humble conceded it was a fair point -- his career is already so unique and unlikely that he couldn't and didn't offer much specific and practical advice. The session may have been underwhelming for indie developers who came looking for hard data about business models and team dynamics; instead, Humble spoke generally about "the indie advantage": having the creative freedom of individualism and staying true to one's dreams. He made sure to mention that if anyone in the audience thought he was full of it, that they could do better, make a better game -- then go ahead, go your own way. Much of the territory Humble covered in his 30-minute talk was encapsulated in the three-minute Fleetwood Mac hit of 1977, Go Your Own Way.

Indies, argued Humble, should be trying to carve out their own niche. As he noted, the science fiction and fantasy sections in a hypothetical video game bookstore are overflowing. The Marriage was an entry in the rarely-tackled romance genre -- which, Humble pointed out, appeals primarily to women, who fortuitously are the majority audience on the PC.

The subject matter might have contributed to The Marriage's relative popularity, but as the game is a free download, Humble clearly didn't get into indie games for the money -- and neither, he stressed, should you. He hoped that the audience were all in it for the right reasons: that they simply want to make games. How can I ever change things that I feel?

Humble endorsed another motivation as perfectly valid: you make games because you want to bring joy to others. The world is rough, he said, and there's nothing wrong with making people happy. Humble used the words "bringing joy to millions", which is true for sure in the case of The Sims, but probably less so for the indie games being made by everyone in that room.  If I could, maybe I'd give you my world. How can I, when you won't take it from me?

Be prepared to fail, because indie development ''is a great way to lose money." Most times the failure won't even stop at massive personal debt -- one day your series of commercially-overlooked critical darlings might veer horribly off course.  Maybe the critics hate it, maybe the message boards hate it, maybe your friends hate it, maybe your ideas aren't good anymore, maybe people say your talk is useless. Humble's favourite game designers -- Miyamoto, Molyneux, Wright -- had all at one point been written off by the industry but refused to stop making games. Humble, then, had only one piece of advice: Move on. 

The takeaway:

You can go your own way
Go your own way
You can call it
Another lonely day
You can go your own way
Go your own way

Repeat chorus

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