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Epic’s Indie Interests

Veteran studio turns its eye to the little guy.

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Unreal Engine 4

Veteran studio turns its eye to the little guy.

Epic Games knows it needs to be courting independent developers. Not that long ago, the Unreal game engine was the go-to for countless AAA studios, and powered Epic’s own hugely successful Gears of War franchise. Now those studios are increasingly turning elsewhere, many of them simply creating or buying up their own engines, and even Gears of War has been sold on.

At Epic’s ‘Post-GDC Briefing’, the company is wearing its new strategies on its sleeve. Both a chance for them to speak directly to an audience of indie devs, and for those devs to network and make new connections, the event carries a strong theme of independence and casting aside the traditional business structure of games. The discussion panel of industry insiders, including [email protected]’s Agostino Simonetta, Deco Digital’s Joe Brammer and Ninja Theory’s Dominic Matthews, is buzzing as they talk about the world of new opportunities in smaller-scale development. Following an announcement at GDC, the Unreal engine is now free, opening its use up to any studio, regardless of scale or budget; “Now there’s nothing stopping you from making an amazing game,” enthuses Brammer, whose own game Pneuma: Breath of Life was developed on UE4 and released earlier this year.

The audience, many of them aspiring or up-and-coming developers, listen eagerly as the panel paints a picture of an industry more accessible than ever. “Just go out and talk to people, just be brave,” says Simonetta – self-publishing and self-promotion are, he explains, more possible than ever before, for those bold enough to take on the challenge. Even for those who don’t handle their game’s business and marketing sides themselves, AAA publishers no longer hold all the cards; Simonetta points to Devolver Digital as one of a new breed of smaller, digital publishers, without the baggage and risk-aversion of companies like Ubisoft and EA.

Ninja Theory, traditionally a big-budget studio, is taking a different strategy for its latest game Hellblade, Dominic Matthews explains. “We’re too small to compete in the AAA market as it is now,” he says. “The choice is we either go really big, or try something new, and we decided to try something new.” He calls it ‘independent AAA’ – the studio is publishing the game itself, and despite pitching it as a fully AAA gaming experience, Hellblade’s team consists of only 12 people.

“Now is the time to do this,” says Matthews. “We can self-publish digitally. We don’t have to put our games on discs and put them in boxes anymore.”

One technique they’re using is open development. The panel talks excitedly about the possibilities of making the development process transparent to consumers, thereby building a relationship with fans without the need for a huge marketing budget. “If you aren’t good at press releases and stuff like that, just be open,” says Joe Brammer, pointing to the success of Nuclear Throne developers Vlambeer.

“We’re sharing everything, the good and the bad, because we want to open this up to other developers,” adds Matthews. That’s another big theme of the event – the indie development community working together, helping each other out, rather than competing. There’s a strong sense of rejecting the colder attitudes of big publishers and embracing something friendlier and more optimistic.

With companies like Epic shifting their focus to it, small-scale development is only going to become more significant over the next few years. If the community can maintain and grow the sense of cooperation, openness and self-determination seen at events like these, it’s going to mean great things to come for gaming.

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Robin Valentine is a freelancer with a bottomless love of video games, horror movies and sandwiches. He's got a winning smile and a song in his heart - you'd like him I bet.