January 22, 2008 11:50 AM | Tim W.
An interview with Russell Carroll, the authoritative figure when it comes to indie games. Also runs GameTunnel, a Marketing Director at Reflexive, and a full-time family man. Recently published another edition of the brilliant compendium which is the GameTunnel's Game of the Year Awards, showcasing the best indie games released every year.
Hi Russ, let's begin with an introduction of yourself, your work, and your involvement in the indie games scene.
I'm Russ Carroll. I started 'in the industry' by working on what we called indie games with my brother about 7 years ago I think. I wasn't very good at helping him, but during that time I played a lot of downloadable games and thought they were desperately needing a place to review them. So I started scheming up a website to review indie games and in December of 2002 GameTunnel was born.
After running GameTunnel for awhile I was offered a job to work with Reflexive and was very excited to take it. That was in February of 2005. I've been at Reflexive ever since, though I continue to run GT as I have time.
Is your brother still involved with the indie games scene?
He's not, but he's doing casual games after having worked in the core industry, he worked on Warhawk for the PS3. He recently did Magician's Handbook (www.bcsoftgames.com). I did some art and sound for him on Break Ball 2, Zero Count, Time Command and Dark Archon.
He's involved in the casual scene, which is either a part of the indie scene or parallel to the indie scene depending on who you talk to.
You recently did an article about the best indie games released last year, posted at GameTunnel (link here). How draining was that? I really can't imagine anyone doing something of that magnitude, especially with a full-time job and family to attend to.
The awards each year are nothing short of a nightmare. I spend all my Saturdays on them, I work all night after coming from work on them and I take paid time off work to do them. The month of December is horribly difficult and I struggle to keep myself together through it all. Honestly, if they hadn't been so well read in the past I wouldn't have kept doing the full awards. Each year as I've finished the awards I've sworn off doing them the following year. However, they have always brought so much traffic that they were a very big part of the financial success of the website, and I felt I was accomplishing my goals for the website in helping indies who are trying to make a business of selling their own games.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the 2007 awards came off to the sound of crickets. Major websites, such as Slashdot, which in the past have given us front page coverage, didn't cover us at all, not even in their games section. Watching stories about rumors and cakes in the shape of a DS showing up on all the major game blog sites while the awards were not covered was initially devastating.
The awards this year didn't justify the amount of time I had to put into them. I don't expect we'll do another full blown awards through GameTunnel. This year I'll probably do a top 10 list, but I can't imagine doing more. GT didn't get the kind of response that justifies anywhere near the amount of time I put into them.
I'm not sure why it wasnt mentioned on the other big sites as well - it's not like the majority had heard about any of the games mentioned in your articles. The developers could do with a couple more sales from your awards articles even.
It's been somewhat depressing, considering how much work they have been, however, it's also been something of a relief. I've had to sign off my December for the last 4 years, and I've always thought it was important to do it for the site and for indie games. I think we've been told we're not relevant this year, and I'm okay with that, though obviously its disappointing as I felt we had a fantastic group of 10 games in the finals that had some amazingly good undiscovered gems. Who knows, maybe the article is still just waiting to be noticed :).
It's in my bookmarks, and I still recommend it to a lot of people. Plus, it's not like the games don't have downloadable demos that others can sample for themselves.
Why it didn't do well is an interesting question. I think there are all sorts of answers, from XBLA filling most people's needs for indie games to the PC market for downloadable games decreasing in size to GameTunnel not covering well enough the part of the market that people are interested in. However, when I see toast that is scraped off to look like Pac-Man making the news on Kotaku and the top indie games of the year not getting a mention it really gives you some perspective about what you are spending your time on, and for me, I think it's likely I spent too much time on my awards this year.
This was the 6th year of awards, so I've got a fairly set path I follow. I made all the same steps, but we saw less than 1/10th of the visitors. It's unfortunate, but it's been a good run.
Is there anything that could happen, which could change your mind to retain the awards in it's current all-encompassing format for the end of 2008? Most likely we'll have more indie games released this year (2008) compared to the last (2007), and GT is the only central hub location we know of (to go for indie games news and reviews).
TIGSource is pretty much a discussion place for developers, and I hadn't done indie games a lot of justice either by writing mostly about freeware stuff.
Certainly there are a lot of things that could happen that would change my mind, and I'll revisit things over the year as I watch my traffic and the internet. I think TIGsource is a great thing for the indie community and based on the coverage of their website, I believe they are closer to what the mainstream press is looking for from indie. I'm not sure that the reviews that GT has done are all that key to indie. It's a long debate on my side, as to whether it's the site that seems to be losing steam or the marketplace for indie games or the PC game market in general. I have a feeling it is all of the above, but I'm not sure I know how to combat it, and it seems that my current approach has run its course.
It's been a rough month, but I think it's been something of a rough year and coming to grips with what it all means. The decrease in readers of the round-up on GT over 2 years was particularly frustrating. When I ended it, it was a struggle to get it done and to get anyone to read it. In the end, that's a sign of it being time to try something else. I'm frustrated by it to some degree, but my analyst self is somewhat fascinated by watching all the numbers and trying to determine what, if anything, could change the course.
You sure paint a pretty bleak picture.. though I think it might have something to do with the surge in the popularity of Flash games.
Yeah, Flash games have become very popular. Indie I think is still viable through the downloadable parts of the consoles, and if they cross-over well enough in the casual markets. Some indie games, like hard core strategy and RPG fill a niche that isn't filled otherwise, so they will continue to do well I believe. Indie as a general broad term I believe is going through some growing pains. It's good to see the IGF growing in size and popularity as I think it is a very important part of indie's continued success.
GameTunnel has been around for ages - if memory serves me correctly it should be the first site which specifically caters to indie games besides the Underdogs. Do you recall any other sites about indie games which predates GameTunnel?
I'm not familiar with many that specifically stated that they were covering indie games. DIYgames started just a touch before GT and other shareware review sites like LockerGnome were certainly around long before GT, but indie wasn't the moniker of the day, I like to believe that between GT and GarageGames and the IGF, that moniker became much more commonly used. When we started, Indiegamer was called shareware gamer and honestly, other than the IGF, I don't think anyone was using the term Independent.
The games are what really inspired me to make the website. I was playing great games from tucows, download.com and win32. I wanted to see them appreciated. I saw people trying to sell games and not having a market to sell them to. I figured I could help get the word out and make a business at doing it.
What do you do at Reflexive? And is there any inside scoop that you could share with us?
At Reflexive my official title is Director of Marketing, though like most people in a small game company, I do a little of this and that. I'm involved with getting word out about Reflexive, but it's not something that I spend all my time on. I work with improving Reflexive Arcade and am especially interested in making the affiliate program better. Currently I'm working on what will become our Mac side of the arcade. As well I've been working on a game for the last 10 months. It is a game that I designed. The programming and art is being done by a great company. The sound and music is being done here. I'm real excited about it and can't say enough about the people working on it. It's casual in nature, but matches a lot of my desires to make something that is fun and makes people smile.
I'm also helping with our publishing considerations. Reflexive hasn't published many games in the past, Crimsonland being just one of 3 games. We're now looking at it again and have been carefully considering games. We like to be very involved in publishing and want games that are Reflexive quality.
All in all I'm involved with a lot of different aspects of the business, and have enjoyed the wide range of duties, it gives me a lot of chances to think about casual games and who plays them. I should mention that I also work to get indie games into Reflexive's catalog. I, of course, love indie games, and I contact a developer or two each month about their games. That is why we've got games such as Mexican Motor Mafia, Zombie Smashers X2 and others in our catalog. It's been fun to see other websites pick up games after we've carried them, like Cute Knight. I think it's maybe that last little thing I've been able to do to try and help the games find more fans :).
Is there a rough release date for this project of yours?
My project is due out early April if all goes well. We are hoping to have a closed beta in the middle of February. It's been a long and fun journey, seeing something you dream up come to life is fascinating. Balancing things out to try and make it enjoyable and entertaining is nerve wracking at times and exciting at other times as you think you've hit on break-throughs.
Any word on Crimsonland 2? The development blog hasn't been updated in over half a year.
Crimsonland 2 has been under development for a long time, I honestly hope it will be released, but have no idea when it might come. The fact that the developer has done so many casual games in the interim I think says a lot about the reality of making money in indie games.
Is there any info that you can share with us in regards to your secret project? will you be releasing any previews, screenshots, or designing a web site for it, like some of the other high-profile Reflexive games?
I've been keeping the project secret due to the fact that it's a casual game and I worried that someone might copy the idea and beat us to market. Some games I think require more secrecy than others. I am hoping that we'll post the website for the game around Feb 14th, the same day that we go to closed beta. I'm not sure I should even hint at anything about the game before that date :).
Any other websites owned by you, besides GameTunnel?
Sure I 'run' a few other websites. My tropical fish website was my first website. I started it in 1999 and at one point it was one of the largest fish websites on the internet. Running GT required me to spend a lot of time away from it and it has shrunk, but I'm still proud of it (www.fishinthe.net). I have a rss scraper called Indie Informer (www.indieinformer.com) that I use to keep up on things and I did the visuals for my brother's website (www.bcsoftgames.com). As well, www.reflexive-inc.com is kept up by me.
I use Indie Informer often.
Yeah? I like it, I read it nearly daily, but apparently only about 30 people on the planet read it with me. Which is fine, I made it for me and figured if somone else enjoyed it that would be great.
I also have a blog that I try to post on each week at vgbm.blogger.com.
What are some of the best games on Reflexive at the moment, any recommendations? Hottest sellers?
The best sellers on Reflexive are pretty typical of the rest of the casual industry. However, since we started by selling Ricochet and have done some less casual games like Wik, our audience tends to have a higher likelihood of buying a game like 'The Dark Legions' than the average audience. In fact Risk 2 was our number 2 seller for 2007. I think that is pretty significant. Ricochet Infinity was number 3. We sell the normal casual sellers like hidden object, match 3, click management and the like quite well. We've also done particularly well with the Last Day of Work games (Virtual Villagers, Fish Tycoon).