October 12, 2007 8:02 AM | Simon Carless
One interesting thing about the rise of 'indie games', whatever that phrase happens to mean this week, is that it's often compared to the independent film movement.
But really - what do most people in the game biz know about how indie filmmakers fund and distribute their titles, and how small companies make money out of independent/niche films?
It's an interesting comparison, which is why I was delighted to find an extremely honest interview with niche horror/import DVD label Synapse over at Variety's 'Kaiju Shakedown' Asian film weblog.
Now, obviously, the movie biz still distributes to physical retail, and the game business is shifting a lot faster to digital distribution, which changes things up majorly, but Synapse' Don May Jr. has an interesting perspective on what's happening in a lot of creative markets - an explosion of choice. He comments of his firm: "I started in this business right at the beginning of DVDs, I had all my connections and we were able to get our foot in the door better than we’re able to now. Now everyone on the block is trying to start their own company and they’re failing miserably. They’re in business for a year or two, putting out one or two discs a year and then going to their day jobs in the meantime. But I’m doing it every day."
May particularly notes: "I don’t think it’s going to get any better for us little guys. I think it’s going to get worse. At any moment Synapse could go out of business if the fans and the buyers stop supporting us. Look at how many little DVD companies have gone out of business. You’re selling 20 – 30% of what you were selling five years ago. Production costs haven’t gone down that much, to make a DVD today costs about the same as six years ago. The studios are coming in with a million titles that are more important that our titles to the big stores."
So what's going on here for indie/niche films, and how does it compare to indie games? Well, it's pretty horrendously complicated, and rapidly increasing choice is also a factor. But it's clear that the move to digital distribution for games (still very much a work in progress!) is freeing up any fixed upfront costs of printing and distributing the media - something the DVD biz is having tremendous issues with. Which is great for indie games, since a lot of the problems that Don is having relate to shelf space and how to get his media into the hands of fans.
But on the other hand, does this mean that carefully 'curated' niche labels (which Synapse is, in some ways - albeit with some explicit content thrown in to confuse things) will fall to the wayside in the digital world, to get replaced by large aggregation conglomerates, like the RealArcades of this world?
Possibly, and possibly not - but the question of how you bring attention to the niches online is an interesting and tricky one. There's still a place for curation and craft experts to bring together enough of an offering that satisfies a particular niche, in film as in games. So here's hoping that Synapse keeps it up.
[Oh, and a bonus quote from the excellent interview, since the distribution issues for DVDs are fascinating: "We’re distributed by Ryko, which is distributed by Warners so everything is hands off for us. We go and visit the buyers every now and then at places like Borders, and we have a sales team, but it’s hard these days. Five years ago everything we put out was on the shelves. Nowadays it’s pretty much just Borders. Sometimes the big box stores don’t put in their orders right away, they look at our stuff and think, “Meh, we’ll probably bring this in down the road.” Maybe a week or two after street date, if there’s buzz, they’ll throw in a few units."
So interestingly, Most of our sales are online. You’ve got specialty stores like Amoeba and Kim’s but the days of us being in these chains is over. Tower is gone, and they were a big supporter. Places like Suncoast and Musicland are gone. It’s hard to go to Best Buy and drop HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN in front of the buyer from Minneapolis and say, “You guys should bring this in!” They need to bring in 15,000 copies of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 3 and so they might buy 1500 units of your disc and 3 months later return 1200."]