By Melissa Locker
FORTUNE -- There's no denying that video games are big business. Grand Theft Auto V sold $800 million in one day, helping it hit $1 billion in sales faster than the fastest-grossing video game ever.
But major league hits like GTA are not the only game in town. The advent of online game distribution has meant that game developers no longer need corporate infrastructure to get their games into the hands of players. Freed of the constraints, perceived or otherwise, of working in big business, indie game development has become a hive of creativity, development and, yes, profit.
Take for example Minecraft, the blockbuster block-building game that has been loaded up on PCs and iPads across the globe. What is now a gaming behemoth was hatched by one man, Markus Persson a.k.a. "Notch", who created the game in his free time. What started as a small indie game project, exploded. Minecraft has grossed well over $150 million and sold more than 12.5 million copies on PC, and over 33 million copies across all platforms. Notch quit his day job and founded a studio, Mojang, which now employs over 30 people.
What exactly constitutes an indie game is wildly contested within the gaming community, especially with some of the big corporate players offering indie development or distribution deals. Indie Game Mag has a good overview of the arguments. For our purposes, indie games are those developed without corporate funding or distribution, for example a game like Braid — which garnered a lot of buzz, reviews and awards from the mainstream gaming press — that was created and paid for entirely by developer Jonathan Blow with no corporate influence.
With success stories like that, it's no wonder that big gaming companies are paying close attention to the indie developers. "The indie movement is so exciting to me," Sony Worldwide Studio's President Shuhei Yoshida said recently in an interview on the PlayStation Blog. "It really reminds me of when we were working on the original PlayStation. Back then, PlayStation really expanded the audience for gaming and brought in a lot of new developers. Lots of unique, interesting games came out of nowhere [...] I feel a similar kind of vibe and passion from those indie people today. I'm so excited this time."
Sony is putting their money where their mouth is via the Sony Pub Fund. The Pub Fund gives indie game developers royalties up front so that they can fund their games. In return, Sony (SNE) gets exclusive rights to distribute the game, either fully or for a set period of time. Indie developers who get funds from Sony are still independent and they only work from one game to the next, avoiding any long-term contracts.
Still, some indie developers prefer to go their own way and enjoy the entrepreneurial and creative freedom that comes from working completely separately from the big gaming corporations. While some companies like Double Fine and inXile are funding their ventures through Kickstarter, others like The Fulbright Company work on a shoestring budget, out of their own pocket, to make their vision a reality.
Working out of a basement in Portland, OR, The Fulbright Company created one of the buzziest indie videogames of the year, Gone Home. It's an intense and atmospheric exploration-based game set in an eerily empty house some time in the 1990s. The environment the developers created is a time machine to life in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s complete with Riot Grrl soundtrack. In the game, players are tasked with making their way around the house, trying to piece together what happened. It's nonviolent, interactive and fun to play.
The game came from the mind of Steve Gaynor, who was a senior level designer on BioShock Infinite, but left his job to start an independent studio in Portland, bringing co-founders Johnneman Nordhagen, a programmer, and Karla Zimonja, a "jack of all trades" who collaborated with Gaynor at 2K Marin on the acclaimed Minerva's Den DLC for BioShock 2.
They rented a house together, and set up shop in the basement, where they could focus on what they loved to do most – develop story-driven games. Downsizing was a bit of shock for the developers. "I went from working on Bioshock 2 with 80 or 100 people on it," said Gaynor in a recent interview with Fortune. "When you work on a $400 million game, you learn how to do things right. On Gone Home, we knew that we wanted to do it right the first time. We had to."
To do that, involved months of work and testing all while living and working in the same house. "We had worked together before and trusted each other," Gaynor said. "The real world set up was necessity. But it worked out really well."
"Worked out really well" is, perhaps, an understatement. "We made back our costs in the first 12 hours," Gaynor noted, humbly adding, "Breaking even is a huge, but we made sure to keep our costs and our development budget were really low."
In order to create the game that they wanted, but being mindful of budget restrictions, they had to think outside of the box going so far as to eschew any visible actors in the game. "Gone Home doesn't have any characters," Gaynor said. "We knew that in advance, because we didn't have the artists on board for that, so we had to think 'what can we do with a programmer, designer and artist? On the other hand we weren't sitting there thinking oh I wish we could have characters." While financial considerations may have been the basis for the decision, the absence of characters results in a game that is even more personal for players, truly putting them in the seat of the choose-your-own-adventure action.
With their first venture under their belt, Fulbright Company is looking to what's next. As with any startup, money is still a consideration. "The big question going forward is how much do we have to make our next game? " Gaynor asked rhetorically. "There are always money problems, but the next project will have new problems."
There's little doubt that the corporate gaming world will be watching.
The iPhone's October upswing came before any news of a China Mobile deal.
FORTUNE -- Amid almost daily signs that a distribution deal between Apple (AAPL) and China Mobile (CHL) is imminent comes the attached chart from Hong Kong-based Counterpoint Research. It shows that even without the formal endorsement of the world's largest carrier, Apple's share of Chinese smartphone sales in October had surged to 12%.
From Counterpoint's report:
Apple's smartphone marketshare climbed to MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Dec 12, 2013 10:37 AM ET
Out of the 13% of ChangeWave members who plan to buy a tablet, 72% plan to buy an iPad.
FORTUNE -- 'Tis the season to buy a tablet -- preferably an iPad -- according to a 451 Research ChangeWave report obtained by Fortune. Among the findings of a November survey of 2,480 ChangeWave members:13% planed to buy a tablet within the next 90 days, more than double the level three months ago and comparable MORE Philip Elmer-DeWitt - Dec 12, 2013 8:20 AM ET
In six hours Thursday, the visitor counter on this website grew by more than 14,500.
FORTUNE -- Some time before midnight in New York (1 p.m. Beijing), China Mobile's (CHL) Beijing reservation website switched to attached image, strongly suggesting that the world's largest mobile carrier -- with more than 750 million subscribers -- was getting ready to offer Apple's (AAPL) iPhone 5S for sale.
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In four years, Kabam went from San Francisco startup to major global player. (Must have been something in the dumplings.)
FORTUNE -- Kabam, the San Francisco mobile gaming company, has all the wrong things going for it.
Its 33-year-old founder and CEO, Kevin Chou, is neither an arrogant new college graduate nor a high-profile former big-company executive. The company's core customers are gamers, not housewives, giving Kabam a certain dog-bites-man quality about MOREAdam Lashinsky, Sr. Editor at Large - Dec 12, 2013 6:20 AM ET
The former Guns N' Roses guitarist's new game takes the "useless" skill of Guitar Hero and turns it into a way to learn guitar.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Saul Hudson is better known to millions of rock fans as Slash. And to a younger generation of gamers, the former Guns N' Roses lead guitarist is known for his work on Activision's (ATVI) Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock back in 2009 and MOREDec 12, 2013 5:00 AM ET
Yahoo admits that its Mail service was (and will be) unavailable for some people for 40 hours. Unacceptable? Sure. By how much, though?
FORTUNE -- Is it unacceptable for your e-mail to be inaccessible for one minute? How about 40? What about an hour? Forty hours?
That's about the time that Yahoo (YHOO) expects some of its Mail customers to be without access to the service after a hardware problem in one of MOREAndrew Nusca - Dec 11, 2013 5:29 PM ET
If Microsoft ends up giving away its mobile operating systems, it will be playing catch-up with Google's dominant Android OS.
FORTUNE -- Microsoft (MSFT) is reportedly considering a radical shift in its mobile strategy: offering its operating systems free to manufacturers of mobile devices.
The Verge, quoting unnamed sources "familiar with Microsoft's plans" reported Wednesday that the company might trade in the revenues it gets from licensing Windows Phone and Windows RT by MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Dec 11, 2013 3:26 PM ET
The NBA unveiled a new statistics and video page so detailed that it will only interest hardcore fans. So, why invest in such flashy tech? Because it's the future.
FORTUNE -- Just before Thanksgiving, executives from the enterprise technology company SAP (SAP) and the National Basketball Association stood in a suite at Madison Square Garden and excitedly told members of the media about the league's new technology offering for fans.
The product MOREDaniel Roberts - Dec 11, 2013 12:35 PM ET
Viral hit app QuizUp wasn't always flying so high. Two years ago, its founder was nearly bankrupt.
By Eli Epstein
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The studio launched its smash iPhone trivia hit QuizUp on November 7, and quickly attracted 3.5 million registered users. Since that launch, QuizUp has bobbed in and out of the No. 1 spot in the MOREDec 11, 2013 9:15 AM ET
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