(The original interview is in German.)
Andreas Podgurski is not only indie developer, but also administrator of the distribution platform Little Indie. I discussed with him about his platform, the German indie scene and how indies are recognized.
Jana Reinhardt: In 2010 you presented Jade:DS on the German amateur game developer meeting - the Devmania. And 2011 you showed up Little Indie together with Andreas Heldt. Tell me how it came that you have launched the first German indie distribution platform.
Andreas Podgurski: Well, LI and Jade:DS are basically the same, with Jade:DS being the general technical foundation. Together with the distribution cloud services this includes a complete CMS. Due to this, in the middle of last year Z-Software approached me in order to build an indie portal based on Jade:DS. Unfortunately, Z-Software had to withdraw from the project, because they needed their resources for a larger assignment project. We agreed that I would continue Little Indie on my own responsibility. Of course, this went hand in hand with a few conceptual changes, so we were able to resume normal operation by Christmas and since then have brought nearly a dozen new games to the platform.
Jana: How exactly does it work to get new games to the platform? Do the developers approach you or are you looking for developers?
Andreas: Both. I continuously comb through the net in search of promising projects and pursue active acquisition this way. But Little Indie became well known enough so that requests drop in regularly. In the end both balance each other at the releases.
The process itself depends strongly on what functionality the developer wants to use. Simple, DRM-free games are just sent to me, together with some screenshots and additional information, and then converted into the required form by me.
However, if the developer wants to use the cloud and/or DRM capabilities, he would get access to our SDK and create a customized version. Here the developer usually creates the package themselves, where we support very closely and take over if necessary and – if needed – do parts of the work.
Jana: And what's next for you? What are your goals? What should the general orientation of the platform look like, and how should it set itself apart from the "competition"?
Andreas: Right now our catalogue of games is growing fairly well, so I'm very satisfied. Unfortunately, very few took advantage of the possibilities of the platform, which I hope to be able to change a bit. At the moment we support a few titles which for some parts are exclusively developed for Jade:DS and later will be marketed and sold on Little Indie.
Nevertheless Little Indie also offers some unique features, like a support system where developers can directly help their customers. Our voucher system combined with some marketing actions already served us well and we will gradually unlock more features. The focus for this year lies on the customer-to-customer communication, e.g. by providing a built-in chat functionality in the client, and more generally multi-player capabilities.
Products can also be presented much more individually than on most other platforms. We can unlock additional content not only on the purchase, but also couple it to the game progress. Ultimately, it is possible to analyse the content of entire cloud storage on the product pages.
Jana: Okay, these are primarily technical details. Will the platform be aligned to a certain kind of games? Or should they have a specific price range, a limit?
Andreas: The focus is, at least in terms of our own productions, clearly on the multiplayer experience. With our platform we are able to link the players very closely together, and what would be more obvious than to use that in the games? Otherwise we are very open, because all features are strictly optional.
In the price range we are not set, with prices between 2 to 20 EUR we already have a wide spectrum. Basically I'd like to see something again in the scope of higher prices, because due to the decline of prices on mobile platforms the appreciation for games decreased significantly.
Jana: That's more often than not a problem indie games have. I frequently hear phrases like "Great game, but I would like it more if it were free." Or that indie games in general should always be available for cheap prices. You would not be a friend of bundles then, would you?
Andreas: At least I see this very critical. One can not deny that the Humble Indie Bundle for everyone involved is a success and due to the high sales quantity it provides high sales figures for the developers. That's usually the case when someone introduces an innovative market process to the world. The success has also brought many imitators on the scene and they unfortunately primarily only break prices. The sales numbers are so small in contrast that the involved developers can rarely be happy with them.
I think that a price range of 6.50 to 25 EUR for indie games actually would be appropriate. Especially because with the limited marketing resources of a indie team you can achieve a finite number of customers only. With the small price expected nowadays you'd have to generate a multiple amount of attention. Only few are able to do that.
Jana: At the moment you alone decide which games get on Little Indie. What criteria do you have and what is important to you regarding the games on LI, or what would you prefer if you had the full repertory at your hands?
Andreas: The primary criterion is some kind of originality. Of course, the perfection of the game's technical level is important but I think this is clear by itself. Even Jade:DS and Little Indie themselves are independent projects, which means we have no external financier or established media partners. Therefore, I am also happy when small and original titles, which may not necessarily appear lucrative, come to the platform.
I personally would like to have more games that are using the advanced features of Jade:DS, particular achievements, rankings, or the cloud storage. Also, I'd sometimes wish that the developers would be more responsive to the needs of the players.
Jana: What are these needs exactly? And why are achievements and rankings so important to you?
Andreas: Well, many developers, especially the lone fighters, first of all want to do their thing. This is something I respect very much, but on a regular basis you can see its negative impact on sales. This relates to playability and accessibility, but also the production value as such.
I consider achievements and rankings to be important for several reasons. First, they create an additional motivation level in addition to the core gameplay. This increases the positive gaming experience and the likelihood that people are talking about the game. Furthermore achievements make the game's possibilities more transparent. Finally both connect the players and thus contribute to the creation of a community.
Especially the indie scene praises itself – often rightly – for bringing original game themes to the test. I wish the essence of the issue, especially the gameplay, would get a little variation. In addition to direct play through I would like to see challenges and modified mechanisms. Especially on consoles you will find such things very often. I can get more familiar to the idea of the game and keep at it, especially when I'm stuck at the main campaign of the game.
Many developers react very negatively because they fear the extra effort. But to be honest, what can be produced cheaper than using existing assets and tools in order to build short, self-contained variations of the already existing content? This can be achieved with relatively little effort.
In the indie sector necessary polishing is missing very often unfortunately. Among developers and fans this might be tolerated, but in order to reach broader consumer groups polishing is a must!
Jana: Again, regarding achievements. It's true! For us, this is actually not about the effort, but about the fact that achievements are forced upon many games in my opinion, and present no additional value to the core game.
Is this the reason why you as a developer were eager to develop a platform that supports such features, as opposed to making a game?
Andreas: Achievements must be implemented carefully too; there is sometimes uninspired tinkering with them even in large projects. While you're at achievements, do it correct and appropriate.
I must confess that I've actually seen achievements as a matter of course when I planned Jade: DS in this direction. However, the project rather was done due the fact that we were keen to develop an adventure series in episodic format. Over time, the platform has spun off at some time and then pushed the game project aside. But we are now working on a new game again, but it will be a reference for many also new features in the system.
Jana: When I wrote my thesis in 2010 about indie games and the German scene, my prevalent impression of the scene was: "We wanted to make a game, but an engine came out at the end." For a long time all I saw were many amazing engines and Gothic clones. What's your view on this?
Andreas: That's certainly a common effect, but I would not see that as the concept of the indie scene. It has always been like this, and usually the reason is that the developers are more technically oriented and underestimate the creative and organizational complexity of a game project. You have to decide whether you want to develop an engine or a game. Both are rarely possible. This also happened to us: At some point we had to decide whether we want to work on adventure games or an online distribution platform.
I also believe you must clearly distinguish between amateur teams and real indie developers in this case.
Jana: And what exactly is the difference to you? What makes an indie? What is typically "indie"?
Andreas: Independent in the first place means that projects do not require external financing and foreign regulation. The size of the team or the project is irrelevant, because George Lucas is an independent film maker, too.
Typical indie means to me that the issue is approached with a higher readiness to assume risk, because you do not need to answer to a third party content-wise. You carry the risk yourself and are therefore fully responsible for the result.
Unfortunately, it is often forgotten that the game is nevertheless still made for the player and not for the developer. You observe that about many indie titles and it astonishes that exactly these developers complain about the lack of sales at the end of the day.
Jana: Okay, that's probably the impression many folks have of "indie": Small, crappy games which sometimes are "artsy fartsy" in some ways. Therefore, several developers don't want to be called "indie" because they strive for a strong professionalism.
Why did you eventually decide for an indie platform, whose name even is "Little Indie"?
Andreas: Little Indie was launched by Z-Software, and originally they were a pure service costumer for me. I therefore had no influence on the naming choice. While I was involved in the discussion, there were other name suggestions I also liked. In the end it became Little Indie and I have gladly continued this brand after the departure of Z-Software.
Jade:DS as our core product goes far beyond Little Indie and was also designed to provide an independent home for individual titles. It would be possible to have other portal providers on the platform, e.g. publishers.
As I said before, I define "indie" as "independent teams" only, so that does not imply lack of quality by any means.
Indie is also a necessity for us, because negotiations with publishers are expensive and time consuming. We can negotiate on equal terms with indie developers and work together as partners.
Jana: What is special about the German scene, what do you think it excels in?
Andreas: Speaking of the pure indie scene, it mainly is pretty small and people are sometimes reluctant to identify themselves with it. Germans generally are more risk averse and therefore many see the existence of their indie team only as an entry into the job-based development for publishers.
But I believe many indies are not aware of what they would give up with this step. It also seems that the expectations of German teams are often very ambitious – foreign teams estimate the potential of their titles much more realistic.
Jana: Your platform actually is a good step forward for the scene. What should be done to make "indie" more attractive in Germany and to promote the scene?
Andreas: I think the teams should be more willing to cooperate. It's hard for one team alone to get on the players' radar.
The exchange of resources on a give-and-take basis would benefit much, too. You really have to get away from always having your sights set above – the relevant things usually happen on your left and right.
Of course targeting a public funding also can't hurt, but as long as projects are promoted regardless of their sales opportunities and as long it seems to be more important to sound good in a politicians laudation, this probably will remain illusionary.
Jana: That's the view of the platform administrator, but you're an indie, too. How is your work received? How seriously do people take you in the business? How easy or difficult is marketing for example?
Andreas: The platform is generally perceived with a mixture of scepticism and interest, but I'm used to this. In 2001, I held a lecture in front of the entire industry in Frankfurt, where I outlined a game service provider, i.e. online selling combined with value-added services. At that time I was belittled. Today most people know that online marketing is the future, but as a small supplier we naturally don't have it easy to generate the necessary attention.
However, the largest reservations generally are regarding the PC as a platform.
Jana: Thanks for your insights!