Binu Philip steps to the podium. He makes a joke, smiles broadly and begins to speak. He brings up the current platform transition, the rising development costs, higher production values, unfriendly publishing contracts, recruiting shortages.
The audience listens, beginning to wonder not about, "What is the rightful place in the game industry for independents?" but, "Who in their right mind would want to be an independent?"
Then, Philip quotes Lord of the Rings: "Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?!" He wonders aloud if this is the motto for independent studios these days. The audience chuckles. It's true, and it resonates with them.
Philip is president of Edge of Reality, a successful independent developer with a background of ports (such as The Sims) and movie licenses (such as Over the Hedge). He tells his audience, "In order to have a discussion about the future of independent game studios, we must first have a discussion about intellectual property."
I'm sitting in Binu Philip's office, talking IP. Edge of Reality's building sits on the ridge of a hill. It overlooks a river, a landmark bridge and Austin's downtown skyline. Down below us, on the hills heading into the valley, are buildings that house all the great technology companies in town.
Philip is telling me: "The beauty [of being an independent developer] is that you don't have to sell yourself to a publisher, and be part of an organization that has thousands of people under employment, and massive overhead. You can still be part of a relatively small studio and create something ...
"The cool thing about intellectual property is that intellectual property is valuable ... [regardless of] ... how many people worked on it. You can come up with a very valuable game that took 30 people to make."
Edge of Reality's growth is dictated by what it takes to make the best game possible. Philip says, "These enormous teams that you'll see at large publishers are a result of trying to get the game out within a certain financial quarter. And they need all those people to hit a minimum bar of quality.
"That's an equation that's juggled by financial people working with production people," he explains. "And, usually, the financial people will out-muscle the production people into living with a short time schedule and having a million bodies to compensate for it.
"I don't really fear growth, because we've done a lot of growing in the last eight years. We're not new to growth at all. I just don't want to be in a position where we're forced to have 300 people to complete a game in a year. I think that's a recipe for disaster. At the end of the day, you're better off with a smaller group, working over a larger period of time, to get a game of higher quality." Philip adds, "That's what I believe."
An Independent Future
Philip believes independent developers are important to the industry's future. "They have the freedom to do R&D and to try out different forms of gameplay. They're only responsible to themselves; they're not responsible to a greenlight committee until a game is signed with a publisher."
And that's important, because once a greenlight committee is involved, "they're mostly about minimizing risk." And when you're trying to advance a game, truly trying to create something that stands out, you want to be in a position to take as many risks as is necessary to create something "breakthrough."
"That's not to say publishers won't create breakthrough product, I just think it's easier for independent developers to do so," says Philip.
Banking on Reputation
People are attracted to Edge of Reality for a variety of reasons. "They see us as an underdog," Philip explains. "We're not owned by a large publisher. And that's kind of attractive to a lot of people, because we're not going to have nine layers of bureaucracy to deal with. When they have an issue, they can come directly to anyone in management; it'll get ironed out pretty quickly.