Unsticking the joystick

Indie financing one way to help boost gaming creativity

Is there a cure for sequelitis in the vidgame biz?

The major game distribbers may be satisfied with the performance of the latest installments of their big franchises, but game developers are growing antsy, eagerly looking for a way to create more innovative games and original titles.

One way to do that may be independent financing that would give vidgames the equivalent of an indie film world.

Game production is largely funded by publishers like Electronic Arts, VU Games and THQ. But top talent is starting to seek outside dollars to create fresh properties.

“The money is out there,” says Jason Rubin, co-prexy of Sony-based Naughty Dog. “It’s just a matter of convincing investors that games are just as good of an investment as films or television shows.”

Former Capcom North America chief Bill Gardner is one of a group of execs looking to start an “indie” game world, which would seek outside financing for games, rather than force creators to rely upon a distributor’s development and production dollars.

His new company, O3 Entertainment, is already providing distribution and marketing support to games created by companies that aren’t owned by or have deals with major distributors.

New company Myelin Media, headed by longtime game financier Gene Mauro, is using funds from an unspecified wealthy investor for a similar model.

In Hollywood, management-production firm Union Entertainment is repping game creators and will provide startup funding to sell concepts simultaneously to game distributors and film studios.

The existence of such outlets is helping give some developers room to strike out on their own.

Alex Seropian, who founded Bungie Studios, the maker of Microsoft’s Xbox hit “Halo” and its upcoming sequel, has also gone the indie route, forming Wideload Games. Its titles will be funded by outside financing. Games will be created first, then taken to a major publisher for distribution. The idea is that the creator will hold on to a bigger slice of the eventual revenues from the game.

Not that top publisher-distributors are happy about the trend: All of them have been acquiring or signing first-look deals with developers at a near-frantic pace for the past few years, eager to keep both talent and costs under control.

“The trend has been to internalize an increasingly large share of development,” says John Batter, VP of EA’s new Los Angeles studio. “It gives us more control over quality and predictability of release dates.”

With its space for 1,000 employees, EA’s studio in Playa Vista symbolizes not only the need for increased room within distributors for creative talent, but the growing competition for them. That’s because the skills necessary to design a game cross over more and more with other media — like the special effects and animation industries.

The good news is that consumers are devoting more time to videogames as an alternative form of entertainment to TV or film; the bad news is that they’re demanding more innovative content. The challenge now for vidgame makers is how much to emulate Hollywood’s solutions and how much to develop their own.

“In some ways this industry is even more conservative than Hollywood because we can’t do an inexpensive pitch, so publishers clutch onto their blue chips,” says J. Allard, VP for Microsoft’s Xbox division.

“The system needs to support more freedom so we have just as much room for the next ‘Clerks’ as we do for the next ‘Star Wars’ sequel.”